As Tour Comes into Focus in France, AVV Takes Another Giro Donne in Italy; Controversy in the AIGCP; Saudi Money Keeps on Flowing, Basketball's New CBA, and Netflix Season 2
● AVV Takes Giro Donne
● Updates and Questions From the Tour
● Controversy Inside the AIGCP?
● Will Threads Be the New Cycling Twitter?
● Even More Sports Money from the Saudis?
● Basketball’s New CBA
Not all of the pro cycling world’s attention has been focused on France; the women’s Giro Donne just wrapped up in Italy – and it was not without a few surprises. While Annemiek van Vleuten demonstrated predictable peak form in dominating the race with three stage wins and a four minute buffer over Juliet Labous and Gaia Realini, the race itself was fraught with organizational perils. Stage 1 was called off due to extreme weather, despite many riders having completed the short time trial at full gas earlier in the day. And Stage 3’s finish was neutralized at the 1-kilometer-to-go point, due to safety concerns with the run-in to the finish. Although many riders were critical of the organization’s shortcomings, the root cause was due to inadequate funding – a challenge which continues to plague the women’s sport despite renewed investment and media focus. Nonetheless, the racing was spirited and highlighted a mix of up-and-coming talents pitted against veteran riders tuning up for the Tour de France Femmes later this month. For van Vleuten, the wins took her to over 100 career victories, and the reigning world champion has swept the honors at all of the big three (Giro, Tour, Vuelta) since last season. One hopes that pressure from the UCI, the riders’ associations, sponsors, and – most importantly – fans, will lead to more investment and smarter planning in this race, which is a cornerstone of the women’s calendar.
The opening nine days of the Tour have featured a balanced and exciting mix of GC and sprint stages. Defending champion Jonas Vingegaard sits 17 seconds in front of his main rival Tadej Pogačar as the race enters its first rest day. While many pundits wrote off Pogačar following stage 5 – where Vingegaard dropped him on the steepest sections of the Marie Blanque – the two-time champion has since returned to his usual world-beating form, besting Vingegaard on the last two key summit finishes. Those same pundits, along with the betting markets, are now largely declaring him the favorite to defeat Vingegaard for his third career Tour victory. However, the idea that one rider should be the favorite seems somewhat absurd in this particular case; for evidence, we only need to look at the recent Giro d’Italia, where Ineos controlled the race and held the lead with Geraint Thomas, only to lose it on the final day of GC racing.
While the GC stages have served up an interesting back-and-forth battle between these top two contenders – who are clearly head and shoulders above the rest – the flat sprint stages have mainly been processions for Jasper Philipsen, who already has three stage wins. However, the big story was Mark Cavendish crashing out of the race with a broken collarbone after a seemingly innocuous touch of wheels on stage 8, apparently ending his quest for a record-breaking 35th career Tour de France stage win. This may be the last time we ever see the 38-year-old sprinting legend, though Astana team director Alexander Vinokourov has apparently already indicated that he will offer Cav a spot on the team again next year. It’s far too soon for Cavendish to make a call on this, but his absence will dent the must-watch status of the remaining sprint stages, and leave the race’s overall narrative poorer as a result.
Outside of Philipsen’s dominant sprint victories, one of the subplots of the Tour de France bunch finishes has been the perceived inconsistency in application of the UCI sprint deviation rules. Philipsen arguably deviated from his line to block rivals from passing on both stages 3 and 7, but after consideration by race officials, he was not punished. Meanwhile, his lead-out man, Mathieu van der Poel, was relegated after bumping Biniam Girmay off his line to make room for Philipsen in the final meters of stage 4. While it may appear that the race jury is inconsistently applying the rules, the ambiguous language of the rule – which states “riders shall be strictly forbidden to deviate from the lane they selected when launching into the sprint and, in so doing, endangering others” – means the race jury is essentially right no matter what decision they make. Unless Philipsen overtly rides a rival into the barriers or causes them to be severely injured, it’s not clear what constitutes “endangering.” We had this same debate following the horrific Groenewegen-Jakobsen crash a couple years ago, where skeptics suggested that these rules were only adhered to if and when a rider actually was injured.
Keep up with The Outer Line feature articles during the Tour on the new VELO website – as (1) we discuss how to boost the popularity of the Tour in the United States, here and here, and as (2) we unravel and explain some of complex or curious decisions and tactics in the race so far, here and here.
It may have gone unnoticed by most U.S.-based Tour de France viewers – who are likely watching the race on NBC/s Peacock – but Team EF boss, Jonathan Vaughters, has been joining the GCN/Eurosport channel as a commentator. Vaughters' input has provided quality insights and perspective, but it seems dubious to have the boss of a team competing in the event also be commenting on the event; one has to question whether Vaughters can provide objective analysis of a race in which he clearly has a specific bias. While he can provide some interesting perspectives on bike racing – and perhaps bring a few more eyeballs to GNC’s coverage – it seems obligatory that the viewing audience be made aware of this inherent conflict of interest. The situation is akin to having Kansas City coach Andy Reid doing live commentary at a Super Bowl where the Chiefs are playing. The fact that this situation has received virtually no comment in the media underlines the distance between cycling and other modern sports.
Reports emerged this week of controversy inside the AIGCP – the association of cycling teams – regarding the management and direction of the group. A letter sent to President Richard Plugge, who is also the owner and boss of the Jumbo-Visma team, was signed by thirteen different WorldTour and ProTeams, and demanded a change in the decision-making structure of the organization. The letter also suggested an external review and the hiring of an independent executive, with no relationship to any team in the sport, to manage the group. There was no indication of any more specific concerns. Plugge is one of the most successful and respected managers in the sport; AIGCP executive director Javier Barrio has been around the sport for years, and was previously coordinator of the WorldTour for the UCI. It’s unfortunate to see the teams squabbling with each other, rather than acting as a unified voice to defend their interests vis-à-vis the UCI and the race organizers. Plugge himself seemed saddened by the division and lack of support from some of the teams.
With nearly 100 million downloads in the first four days, the new Threads by Instagram app has become one of the fastest growing apps ever. Threads was launched by Meta as an alternative to the fast-declining Twitter, and immediately cycling brands, media platforms, athletes and teams started accounts on the platform. The Tour de France, Trek, the UCI, EF Pro Cycling and Team Ineos each acquired tens of thousands of followers within a couple days of starting accounts. Given how quickly the cycling world has embraced Threads, it’s possible that “bike twitter” may move en masse over to the new app over the next year or so. Threads is not yet available in Europe due to regulatory compliance issues still being finalized, but the explosive growth of the app is worth paying attention to.
It is likely that sports will see even more big money moves from Saudi Arabia and other sovereign state funds in the next few years. The upcoming launch of a sports-dedicated investment arm gives new credence to rumors that the Saudi investment group is eyeing other global sports; the fund is looking to increase its value from $650 billion to at least $1 trillion – and sports are a key feature for its growth. Sports enterprises and associated media rights have been some of the fastest growing and most successful investment segments, and while Saudi involvement has been the most visible due to sportswashing concerns, it is by no means the only sovereign fund in the game. Qatar’s Investment Authority recently took a stake in the Washington Wizards NBA franchise, and Norway’s fund (the world’s largest at nearly $1.4 trillion) actually has a similar investment profile to the PIF, including stakes in Liberty Media and Madison Square Garden Sports. However, the sheer scale of PIF’s sports portfolio and ambitions and the meteoric valuations and strategic importance of sports businesses indicates that such investments will accelerate. One question is – will pro cycling see investment by such economic power plays in the future, too? Given that state-run entities are now among some of the lasting sponsors in the sport, it seems a reasonable question to ask.
Regarding the Qatar stake in the Wizards, opened by a recent change in NBA policies permitting such direct investments in franchises, the NBA recently announced a newly signed seven-year labor deal with the National Basketball Players Association — memorialized in a 676-page document — that will impose major changes on how the sport operates. Most importantly, the agreement creates a new second-level luxury tax to penalize excessive spending by the richer clubs, and allows players broader investment latitude, including wagering platforms. The scale and depth of the agreement contrasts with so-called Joint Agreement – pro cycling’s anemic equivalent of a players agreement, which runs to eleven pages and was last refreshed six years ago.
A prominent feature of the NBA's new bargaining agreement is an adjustment to drug testing policies, aligning it with other sports enterprises like the UFC which no longer penalize athletes for cannabis use. This ongoing trend has seen multiple professional leagues and enterprises chart alternatives to the traditional WADA anti-doping path, focusing more on athlete health and wellness, rather than strict and often arbitrary definitions of competitive fairness. Even though its top competitive tier shares many characteristics with other franchise sports, pro cycling has yet to broach the subject of determining its own definitions of sporting integrity. WADA might have been a direct result of cycling's doping meltdown in 1998, but as more sports look towards renegotiating their adherence to its black and white policies – or as alternative agencies like VADA make inroads – pro cycling might want to add that to its next negotiations between the teams and riders.
Season 2 of the Netflix series Tour de France: Unchained has been greenlit. Crews are in place and already shooting with eight teams at this year’s Tour. Another year of the series, which brought pro cycling to a mainstream audience, will be a welcome development. It was rumored that much of the series would focus on sprint legend Mark Cavendish and his quest to beat Eddy Merckx’s all-time record for Tour de France wins. Cavendish’s unfortunate withdrawal from the race will probably put a dent in Netflix’s plans, although there will undoubtedly still be an interesting, if unhappy, story to tell. The word is that UAE has again declined to participate in the series, which seems unfortunate. As the world’s best and perhaps most charismatic cyclist, Tadej Pogačar could offer the sport a huge chance to sell itself to the world.