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Commentary: Professional cycling is a ship that needs a captain

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Jun. 4, 2013
Three major professional sports provide road maps for cycling leaders to realize change. Illustrations: Mike Reisel


Editor’s note: The following excerpt first appeared in the February 2013 issue of Velo magazine as one pillar in our five-point plan to save cycling. We run it here, in its entirety, on the day British Cycling’s Brian Cookson announced he would pursue election as the new UCI president.

Christian Vande Velde once called pro cycling “the biggest amateur sport in the world.” Though established in the late 1800s, cycling has never matured into a stable, well-managed business like the leagues that run professional soccer, tennis, baseball, or Formula ı. Samuel Abt, the American journalist who covered 31 editions of the Tour de France for The New York Times and International Herald Tribune, put the sport’s chronic lack of leadership and organizational sophistication in these terms: “It’s back in the medieval times.”

Today, while floundering in the wake of another titanic doping affair, the sport is even more desperate for a firm hand at the tiller. Over the past six months, UCI president Pat McQuaid and his predecessor, Hein Verbruggen, have been on the receiving end of no-confidence votes from national governing bodies, sponsors, team managers, riders, and from a joint manifesto printed by five European newspapers. With the next UCI election slated for September 2013, and an independent commission expected to release its findings in June, it seems unlikely that either man will continue to steer the ship moving forward.

While the recent Change Cycling Now meeting in London may be a promising attempt to bring together riders, race organizers, and team owners to negotiate an equitable future, no single leader has emerged to guide the sport into an enlightened adulthood. CCN’s nomination of Greg LeMond for interim UCI president was problematic on several fronts, including LeMond’s reluctance — “I’m not here because I want to be president, but I would do what I had to do and my goal would be to help the group” — as well as procedures the UCI has in
place to elect its president (see page 32).

Three sports that are well managed, profitable, and popular — Formula ı, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR — were willed into maturity by the appearance of powerful leaders. The stories of each of these men offer lessons in what qualities an effective leader would need to guide pro cycling into a more stable future, whether as an individual or as the head of a committee.

Fueled by France

The seeds of NASCAR were planted in the 1920s when Prohibition-era moonshine runners raced their jalopies over twisting Appalachian roads and damp Florida beaches. When the first formal stock car races began in the mid-1930s, a Daytona Beach mechanic named Bill France began entering his cars in events. While fan interest in stock car racing boomed after World War II, race promoters were shady, collecting entry fees, often absconding before the race took place.

In 1947, looking to end these grimy proceedings, France organized a meeting in Daytona Beach with racers, mechanics, and drivers. That gathering led to the creation of NASCAR, an organizing body that formalized the racing circuit and rules. France grew NASCAR into a family-owned business that generates some $3 billion in annual revenue and is the second-most watched U.S. sports television property after the NFL.

Where NASCAR differs from pro cycling is that Bill France was able to organize the sport at its earliest stage, before any business or governing bodies (like ASO and the UCI) had developed deep roots. And unlike cycling, which grew organically in multiple international locations beginning in the late 1800s, NASCAR began as a regional sport in the southeastern United States. Lack of entrenched interests and geographic simplicity eased France’s organizing task.

Yet France offers lessons in that he saw an opportunity in the midst of crisis. The systematic mistrust and corruption laid bare in cycling today was also dividing stock car racing in 1947. Both fans and racers alike were hungry for a cleaner, more understandable playing field. France seized that opportunity, built the first NASCAR track, created a logical series of races that culminated in a champion, and nurtured and marketed the sport into something that, like the Tour in France, is now integral to the culture and identity of the United States. Furthermore, when France held that first organizing conference in a Daytona Beach hotel, he showed his understanding of the importance of meeting face-to-face with the stakeholders in his sport. Sitting down at a table to craft solutions is an area in which pro cycling’s leadership has never excelled.

Formula for success

At the same time that Bill France was professionalizing backwoods stock car racing, the French Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) was formalizing the rules for Grand Prix motor racing in Europe. During the 1940s and 1950s, Formula ı teams, like many cycling teams today, were largely supported by wealthy benefactors. However, this financial structure, which relied on the support of the aficionado, put the sport on unstable footing and made it unattractive to stability-seeking corporate sponsors.

The teams (called constructors in Fı parlance) lived a tenuous hand-to-mouth existence, much like today’s pro cycling teams. At the time, the sport also centered on one race that mattered: the Monaco Grand Prix.

In the 1970s, realizing that Fı could not grow if it only circled the single sun of Monaco, and seeing vast growth potential in a sport packaged for TV, a team owner named Bernie Ecclestone challenged the Fı power structure.

A signal showdown at the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix changed everything. Ecclestone, representing the team owners (the Formula One Constructor’s Association, or FICA), demanded that the Monaco race organizers and FIA allow 26 cars to race instead of the mandated 16. The organizers said ‘no,’ even locking the teams’ cars in an underground garage until FICA dropped its demand. But the constructors stuck with Ecclestone. Eventually, the organizers relented and the race started with 26 cars. Ecclestone showed the undeniable strength of solidarity, and forever shifted the Fı balance of power away from a single incestuous event and governing body. He led the sport to its position today as an enterprise forecasted to generate $3 billion in annual revenue by 2016, up from some $2 billion today.

Ecclestone offers cycling a crucial lesson: to be a true leader, one needs to realize a future far beyond what the power players of the day can envision. An English upstart who did not take no for an answer, Ecclestone also understood the power of bargaining. Rather than just asking for the teams’ blessing as their leader, he gave them something in return: he assumed the enormous financial burden of shipping hundreds of tons of cars and equipment to tracks around the world in exchange for their commitment to his guidance.

As Ecclestone biographer Terry Lovell wrote, the team owners were delighted to have someone take on the headache of negotiating with the FIA and race organizers. “Ecclestone was a businessman first and a racer second. Cutting deals was not a burden to him, more the very elixir of life,” Lovell wrote.

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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