Ah, the off season – where teams release their camp as Christmas videos (yup, looking at you Orica Greenedge but kudos for being all self deprecating about the bus under the gantry) , all the mucky versions of cycling are in full swing and the odd story filters through about winter training programmes and team selection for what still seem far off races . The cycling advent calendar is stuffed full of the kind of goodies we all enjoy. And it’s only 37 sleeps til the Tour Down Under…
But this December is full of incident backstage – Johan Bruyneel‘s arbitration hearing in London is set for December 16-20, the new head boy at the UCI, Brian Cookson, is staging a World Tour symposium and Michele Acquarone has just been officially sacked as Giro director by RCS. Cycling karma, baby – what goes around keeps on coming around.
And December 2013, it seems, is another trip on the merry-go-round as cycling faces up to its past and gropes its way towards a sometimes uncertain future.
First up, Bruyneel – the man who’s writing a book about his time in cycling called ‘Pokerface’, who has declared he’s done with cycling (and we all thought cycling was done with you, Johan) and remains defiant that he and Armstrong are not ‘devils’ as the press are so keen to depict them. On this he has a point – for too long cycling has reacted to its numerous doping scandals by donning its rhinestone suit and warbling about one bad apple not spoiling the whole bunch, girl. The last high profile doping scandal, the Festina Affair – that ironically enabled the whole Armstrong debacle – exposed the depth of teamwide doping in the sport. Piling irony on irony like a fixie riding hipster, the ONCE team was widely fingered in the Festina hearings – the team run by Manolo Saiz (the Puerto Affair) and starring Johan Bruyneel aka ‘the Hog’ (for his propensity for ingesting performance enhancers, allegedly). But nothing came out of Festina except a ‘Tour of Redemption’ won by Lance Armstrong and the carousel whirled merrily once again.
Bruyneel has a chance to spill his guts/seek redemption/stick another two fingers up at the sport (delete as applicable) before USADA. The best case scenario is that he’ll use the opportunity to expose the wrongdoings of the ‘Teflon Don’ of cycling, Hein Verbruggen. Worst case he’ll claim he did nothing wrong which, in the context of the doping landscape of the 90s is not far from the truth. Everything will depend on whether Bruyneel has any love for the sport that gave him everything – or from which he stole everything. Again, delete as applicable. As Christophe Bassons commented on his meeting with Lance Armstrong – currently on his Mea Culpa Tour – ‘it’s difficult to fall from a great height and the key to prevention, for me, is situated there.’ Betsy Andreu, writing on Crankpunk, was less sympathetic calling Armstrong’s new found contrition “nothing more than a charade to back up his call for a version of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that will exonerate him.”
Both Boss & Hog are united in their belief that the right man is now leading the UCI. Armstrong simply tweeted ‘Hallelujah’ whilst Bruyneel has given a more guarded welcome telling RTL “I think that Brian Cookson is definitely the right man in the right place, but I don’t think that major changes in the system or the structure are going to happen overnight.”
Glossing over the nature of both men’s relationship with the ex-head honchos at the UCI – McQuaid and his one-time puppetmaster Verbruggen – their voices were only two in the widespread chorus of approval that greeted Cookson’s election back in September. The Briton has been making all the right noises since then – women’s cycling, check; truth and reconciliation, check – but it’s the economic viability of the sport that has been exercising him and the World Tour stakeholders this December. Hence the return of our old friend – revenue sharing from TV rights.
In a nutshell, race promoters own them and teams (and the UCI) want them. There are arguments both for and against this coming to pass – the bottom line may be that there just isn’t that much money in cycling. But where to look for a better business model? The biggest noises are made about the US franchise model but how exactly does that measure up to a sport that’s free to view and where there is no ‘arena’ only the open road? Jonathan Vaughters backs a ‘closed system’ franchise model where the teams control their own branding and have the stability of being granted a long term licence to compete in the top races (can you say stultifyingly boring?) As Gerard Vroomen says, maybe the solution is much, much easier – maybe management simply needs to communicate to their riders the importance of image and sponsorship to paying their wages? Perhaps too few teams are penetrating the talent bubble and reminding riders of their responsibilities in the real world?
Meanwhile there’s talk of salary caps to keep team expenditure under control – has no one in cycling heard of the Bosman ruling? – and the French are busy looking at a BSkyB style sponsorship body for their own national ‘superteam’ with added women (Sky take note, please). Meanwhile, the sport is still waiting for the ‘new’ business model to emerge but those pesky TV rights are still firmly at the centre of collective thinking – they were high on the agenda at the World Tour seminar staged in Chantilly at the beginning of December amidst rumours that Cookson has been in talks with BSkyB (can you say ‘conflict of interest?’ Imagine the uproar if this was McQuaid selling TV rights to RTE…)
One man who was keen on an historic TV rights share deal was Michele Acquarone, the now ex-head of the Giro d’Italia. A deal was reportedly close in November 2012 – “I prefer to eat a smaller slice of a bigger cake. We need to understand how the cake can become bigger for everyone,” he said at the time – but with his suspension and now sacking by parent company RCS, that won’t come to pass for 2013 as he’d hoped. Acquarone is an interesting personality – with a background in marketing for RCS before stepping up as the shortest serving race director in the Giro’s history, he had grand plans to globalise the Italian race to achieve parity with the Tour de France’s worldwide brand. Hence the Giro branded Gran Fondo mass participation rides in the US and the 2014 race start in Belfast.
Acquarone’s bold plans have come to nothing, foundering on the rocks of accusations of theft – there’s a reported 13 million euro hole in RCS’s finances and he’s been fired. Acquarone says he’s been scapegoated and that the continuing investigation will completely exonerate him. In many ways we’ve been here before with the likes of Armstrong, lying his one big lie and continuing to deny, deny, deny even in the teeth of mounting evidence. But there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered by RCS not least their continued association with Inter Milan who are once again embroiled in a match fixing scandal. Acquarone has described the situation as ‘Kafkaesque’. If A does indeed equal K then he can expect the labyrinthine processes of Italian justice to ensnare him for some time yet. Those wheels grind slow – the ‘sulphurous’ Dr Ferrari is still caught up in an investigation into corruption and money laundering that may yet bring the whole pack of cards tumbling around everyone’s ears – including Bruyneel’s.
What’s certain is that, like Alistair Campbell at a spin class, the crazy carousel that is the none too fragrant world of cycling won’t stop turning for a while yet. Cycling karma may yet sort the good guys from the bad guys – just don’t hold your breath.