Discover more from THE OUTER LINE - AIRmail Newsletter
Giro Controversies Start Early On; An Exciting Vuelta Femenina; Women's Sports and TV Rights; Safety in Gravel Racing; UCI to Allow Russian Athletes
● Controversies Bubble Up As Giro Kicks Off
● AVV Prevails At Exciting Vuelta Femenina
● FIFA Women’s World Cup TV Rights Raise Questions
● Safety in Gravel Races
● UCI Will Allow Russian Athletes
● Spring Classics Viewership Figures
The Giro d’Italia kicked off this weekend, with a 19.6-kilometer-long opening time trial along the Adriatic coast. The youngest member of cycling’s Big Six, 23-year-old Remco Evenepoel, laid down an early marker by blitzing the course with a mind-blowing 58 km/hr average speed over the flat sections and winning the stage with a staggering 22-second gap over runner-up, Italian time trial champion two-time World Champion Filippo Ganna. Evenepoel also put 43 seconds into his main GC rival, and reigning Olympic time trial champion, Primož Roglič. This dominant performance laid bare just how much advances in aerodynamic technology have increased time trial average speeds – and just how many resources teams now have to dedicate in order to make their riders competitive in this critical event. While the result appeared to set up Evenepoel as the early favorite, the Giro is notoriously tricky and unpredictable, and it would be premature to make any assumptions about the race outcome at this point.
The Giro is always a beautiful race, but controversies are already bubbling to the surface for event organizer RCS Sport. For example, while race director Mauro Vegni has designed yet another back-loaded course with a brutal final last week and a half of racing, the actual course of at least two stages is still in doubt. The stage 13 foray into Switzerland for a summit finish at Crans-Montana is reportedly in danger of being canceled due to the road still being covered in snow. Meanwhile, the stage 20 uphill time trial – which could be critical in terms of the final GC classification – is now in doubt due to growing team complaints that the full route is not passable in cars. (The original RCS plan was to have each team provide spare bikes by carrying them over their shoulders on the back of motorcycles, similar to 2008’s mountain TT at Plan de Corones). It seems inexcusable that such concerns or uncertainties should emerge at such a late date, with the race already underway. In terms of the first problem, it is well-known that many of the high Italian passes are still snowbound at this time of the year; this should be taken into account either in terms of the timing of the event or the planned stage routes. In terms of the second problem, the actual route maps were planned and publicized months ago, and so a controversy or uncertain outcome at this late date must surely be very disconcerting for the Giro organizers.
And, in another highly embarrassing situation, the young American Brandon McNulty, who was awarded the King of the Mountains jersey following stage 1, was stripped of the designation prior to stage 2 when it was revealed that there were timing errors on the first day. The jersey was then handed to Tao Geoghegan Hart instead. It goes without saying that the misallocation of a leader’s jersey due to a simple error like race timing, should never happen in an event that considers itself one of the sport’s most important races.
While the men were starting their battle for the pink jersey (and fighting out cycling's most underrated "gravel" event in Northern France - the TroBro Leon), the Women's WorldTour was in full flight at the first multi-stage edition of La Vuelta Femenina. Inspired by the Madrid Challenge test event during the prior men's Vuelta a Espana, the seven-stage race became progressively mountainous in its second half, culminating with the above-category final climb on the final stage to the Lagos de Covadonga glacial park. Demi Vollering and her SD Worx team seemed poised to dominate the race after their recent Ardennes Week successes (and Vollering's triptych of Classic wins), despite Jumbo-Visma making a strong start with a win in the stage 1 team time trial and Marianne Vos sprinting to victory in stages 3 and 4. Vollering stamped her authority on the race with a win in stage 5, potentially giving her the edge for the final two mountain stages. However, Annemiek van Vleuten's improved form – and an untimely nature break by the SD Worx team just prior to a crosswind-prone area of the race geography – threw everyone a curve on stage 6.
Van Vleuten and her Movistar team were at the front of the variable-wind induced race split ahead of Vollering and pressed a further attack with Italian Gaia Realini, who outlasted the World Champion in a thrilling two-up sprint. Vollering was forced on the offensive in the final stage and detonated the race with a brilliant, glory-or-death attack that dropped van Vleuten. In the end, Vollering could only take back just over a minute of her deficit, as van Vleuten heroically defended her red jersey to win the overall by nine seconds. There were a lot of questions after the racing was over, such as the unspoken rule of not attacking a crashed rival or attacking during a nature break – all the usual banter back and forth about what is and isn’t fair in the war that is bike racing. But there are also emerging answers – about what happens when fans demand better racing and more broadcast availability for women's events, and about what happens when race organizers and teams invest proportionally to meet that demand incrementally. The race could be a snapshot to what the WWT might look like in the future as the sport continues to develop talent, fan outreach, and investor interest.
In that light, recent public statements by FIFA concerning the European "Big 5" country media rights valuations for the upcoming Women's World Cup have many thinking that the next ceiling in women's sports is made of gold – not glass. FIFA has laid down the law in calling the initial offers from England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain "very disappointing." The women's cup will likely attract up to 60% of the global viewership of the men's tournament (almost at parity in some markets locally), and FIFA boss Infantino says that the Big 5 broadcasters are way short in their initial offerings. The simple math would indicate that FIFA is seeking, at a minimum, $10 to $20 million per nation for the rights – which will underwrite the $152 million prize pool for the tournament. Could the success of the women’s World Cup rub off on women’s elite cycling? The cross-pollination of interest in women's sports and the momentum of investment and interest – as we saw on full display throughout April's Classics and the Vuelta Femenina – could be boosted by another record-breaking FIFA tourney.
On the other hand, it is also possible that FIFA boss Infantino may be getting ahead of himself. While he is understandably expecting broadcasters to pay a lot more for the privilege of televising this summer’s events in Australia and New Zealand, he is now threatening a blackout of the events in certain markets, if the broadcasters don’t pony up what Infantino deems to be an acceptable offer. As SportsPro Media hypothesized, “Infantino may be bluffing and hope that public opinion will convince broadcasters to cough up.” However, if he actually carried through with a blackout, it would clearly be a major setback for all parties – particularly at a time when one of FIFA’s main objectives has been to build the women’s side of the sport.
While the UCI this week formally reiterated its condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and restated its commitment to political neutrality, it also confirmed that it would allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in international cycling events. The UCI’s position continues in lockstep with that of the IOC – but for many observers, its position seems increasingly at odds with the former objectives. Many international sports federations have placed an outright ban on the participation of Russian athletes, but the UCI (and other federations) continues to walk a fine line – trying to appease both sides in this controversy. It points to various (but largely irrelevant) sanctions like a ban on national Russian or Russian-registered teams, UCI events in Russia, Russian bids to host UCI World Cup events, or the display of the Russian flag, as evidence of its tough stance. But for many, only an outright ban sends an appropriately tough message to Putin and his colleagues in the Kremlin.
Last week’s fatal collision at the Rasputitsa gravel event between a participant and a truck highlighted the danger of holding bike races on open roads. Unrestricted road access is a commonplace practice for organized centuries and gran fondo rides but is also the norm for U.S. gravel races. The slow rolling nature of gravel events become problematic when loosely spread and often crowded groups of enthusiast riders and competitors need open space to maneuver, and leaving the roads completely open will inevitably lead to more accidents if not replaced with safer protocols that separate ever-increasing fields of participants from automotive traffic. Gravel events have grown up from tiny, grassroots rides among friends to huge events with thousands of registrants and fast pro fields. While gravel racing has evolved and matured, the sport’s approach to safety has not. It is time for events to take a more proactive approach and explore potential protocols like rolling and single lane closures that can be applied to improve road safety across the board, before safety becomes an obstacle that potential registrants and future competitors aren’t willing to risk.
Now that the 2023 Classics season is in the history books, our colleague Professor Daam van Reeth, has done a quick analysis of the European TV viewership data for the 10 biggest early-season men’s events. In the Flanders area of Belgium, the TV audience was up by 9%, and was the highest viewership in ten years. In Wallonia, figures were up by 6%, and were the highest since 2017. Elsewhere, however, the picture was not so bright. The TV audience was down by 10% in Italy, and by over 20 percent in Spain. Indeed, even in the Netherlands, viewership on the public channel was down slightly. In spite of the spectacular racing by the “Big Six” early in the season, it does not seem to have generated increased audience interest in cycling hotbeds like Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.