Giro Gets Crazy; How Many Riders Have COVID? UCI Outburst Over Helicopters; Sports Salaries; Sustainability Update
● As Evenepoel Exits, Things Get Crazy at the Giro
● How Much of the Peloton Has COVID?
● UCI Outburst Over Helicopter Rides
● Pro Cycling Salaries vs. Other Sports
● Sustainability More Than a Sports Buzzword
The ongoing Giro d’Italia served up some subtle action through the first week, while a thrilling GC battle bubbled just under the surface. After GC leader Remco Evenepoel won the stage 9 time trial, the race still had three riders – Geraint Thomas, Primož Roglič, and Tao Geoghegan Hart – lurking within less than a minute of the pre-race favorite, despite many predicting that the 35-kilometer solo effort would allow Evenepoel to build up an insurmountable lead in the overall classification. And, outside of keeping the overall closer than expected, stage 9 produced a thrilling spectacle with some of the tightest margins ever seen in a modern time trial. Behind Evenepoel, Thomas rolled back the clock to finish only one second down on the stage, while his Ineos teammate Geoghegan Hart came in only another second behind him in third – potentially positioning himself well for his second career Giro victory. Meanwhile, Olympic time trial champion Primož Roglič, who was a heavy favorite to take time coming into the day, finished in a measured sixth place, 17 seconds down. After the dust settled, five riders rolled in within eight seconds of Evenepoel, and fifteen were within a minute of his mark.
But the biggest surprise of the day came soon after, when Evenepoel announced that he was leaving the race and surrendering the pink jersey following a positive COVID test. While the announcement was disappointing and deflated what could have become a compelling GC battle, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Ineos’ Filippo Ganna had become the fourth rider to drop out when he left the race prior to stage 8 due to flu-like symptoms and a positive COVID test. An apparent surge of COVID, combined with the virtual lack of any COVID guidelines from both the race organizer and the UCI, quickly led to a chaotic situation on the ground. Teams were forced to make a decision about whether to test apparently sick athletes for COVID, and indeed whether to send them home even if they did test positive. This vacuum led to rumors about various athletes riding through COVID (and was intensified when Primož Roglič muddied the waters by apparently joking with Geraint Thomas that he had COVID during stage 8 of the race). It was also announced that Team EF’s Rigoberto Uran had tested positive and was alsoout of the race; then, later in the day, rumors surfaced that COVID positives were in fact rampant throughout the peloton. Although RCS moved to reinstate certain COVID guidelines, it appeared that it might be too little too late (see discussion below regarding stage 7).
From a speculator’s perspective, Evenepoel’s positive test and abrupt exit from the race raised some questions about the timing of the announcement – given that he had just won a stage, and that it was more than 36 hours before the start of the next stage. For example, why wouldn’t the team have isolated and monitored Evenepoel to see if the illness passed by Tuesday morning? Even if he was slightly subpar on Saturday and Sunday, the fact that he could finish with a main GC group and win a stage suggests that his case of COVID was extremely mild. One obvious answer is that his Soudal-Quickstep team simply has a zero-tolerance policy toward any positive COVID test, and the medical staff decided it wasn't worth risking future health issues; pushing through extreme physical efforts while suffering from COVID has been linked to heart issues like myocarditis and pericarditis. Also, if Evenepoel decides to re-focus and line up at the Tour de France – setting up a thrilling three-way showdown with Jonas Vingegaard, and Tadej Pogačar – any swirling questions about his exit from the Giro will be quickly forgotten by most people. However, RCS will likely still have a few lingering questions, especially if they forked over a healthy appearance fee to Evenepoel and/or his Quickstep team (as they did with Chris Froome back in 2018).
In an unexpected outburst, the UCI roundly condemned a handful of teams for using RCS-provided helicopters to ferry their riders from the finish area at Gran Sasso d'Italia after stage 7. The UCI said it went “against the principles of fair play and equity” and warned that it would take “necessary measures and sanctions to ensure that such a practice does not occur in the future.” It was unclear what provoked the reaction, given the fact that the bigger and better-financed teams routinely provide various special treatment or benefits for their riders – such as higher salaries, better technologies, or amenities like individual hotel rooms during the race. Bizarrely, the federation then doubled down, grumbling that the use of helicopters also went “against the principle of carbon footprint reduction, as stated in the UCI WorldTour organiser specifications.” This seemed like a pretty big stretch – indeed a bit hypocritical – given that a fleet of helicopters is used daily to broadcast the race, not to mention the veritable armada of hundreds of cars and motorcycles that accompany the race every day. In our opinion, the real problem here – unaddressed by the UCI – was not that a few teams flew their athletes back to the hotel on Giro-reserved helicopters that were made available to any team who wished to pay for the privilege. The real problem was the fact that RCS’s plan for the rest of the teams was to jam tired riders into over-crowded public cable cars to descend the mountain.
Forbes recently reported that the 10 highest-paid athletes in the world collected a record $1.11 billion before taxes – both on and off the field, during this last year. The record was achieved in part due to the gobs of Middle Eastern money currently flowing into pro sports; five of the top ten athletes were paid by either the Saudis or Qataris – soccer stars Ronaldo, Messi and Mbappe, along with LIV golfers Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson. Each one of these athletes earned over $100 million just over the last year. This is roughly twenty times the amount earned by a small handful of the very biggest stars in pro cycling, and about 2000 times as much as the sport’s minimum salary.
There are now four criterium series (counting the yet-to-begin CRIT and Nocturne events) in the U.S. – at least as of this week! Given that these series are either brand new and relatively small (NCL and CRIT), poorly executed (ACC) or (so far) unknown (Nocturne), it begs several two big questions. Will any of these events be able to generate enough visibility to grow media, fan or sponsor interest? Or should we be focusing on great execution for just a few bike races first, and worrying about creating a big series of events later? It’s too early to answer the first question, but the answer to the second one seems to be yes.
In a couple of interesting industry news items this past week, Spanish constructor Orbea announced that it had doubled its workforce to more than 1,000 employees in just the last three years, with the vast majority located in its Basque region headquarters. Interestingly, the business is organized not as a private or industrial corporation, but as a cooperative entity. More than 20% of profits was allocated to the different social action and solidarity funds that the cooperative has established in the local region. The company said that it is “looking forward to the start of a new era that will allow it to consolidate the positions achieved, continue generating wealth and sharing it with society." This is an unusual business model in today’s highly competitive bicycle industry. Meanwhile, on top of its other challenges, Peloton announced that it would recall over two million bikes, due a faulty seat post assembly. This was on top of a $19 million fine the company paid just a few months ago due to failure to report a faulty treadmill device.
A recent meta-analysis of sports enterprises which put sustainability objectives into practice highlighted several bright spots but acknowledged that many initiatives appear "gimmicky" or borderline greenwashing. Among the strongest points explored in the analysis – which included examples from soccer (Angel City FC and Forest Green), sailing (SailGP and Ocean Race), and the World Surf League – show how a truthful narrative in which sustainability statements and objectives are put into practice can positively affect a wider community and boost the enterprise's profitability. In each of the sporting examples, the team or league aligned central objectives of environmental preservation, decarbonization, social responsibility and empowerment, and sponsor influence. The WSL, for example, claims that integrating its sustainability strategy and marketing approach has increased event tour revenue 20 percent compared to pre-pandemic accounting.
Of particular interest in the analysis for pro cycling is the idea that a team or a league can, in fact, exert influence on its sponsors to adopt sustainability objectives as part of the team/brand relationship. This has been happening in cycling – although not in a coordinated or uniform way – as sponsors like INEOS seek to rehabilitate brand perception, events like the Tour of Luxembourg attempt rapid reforms, and manufacturers like TREK seek to reinforce brand confidence with consumers in a period of volatile market cycles and behaviors. (As mentioned above, inconsistent messaging and lackluster enforcement of “guiding principles” by the UCI at the ongoing Giro doesn’t help.) From the broader perspective that we explored in an earlier Special Edition AIRmail, sport remains a miniscule contributor to environmental impacts, particularly with respect to greenhouse gas and decarbonization efforts. But for sports like cycling, uniformly aligned key sustainability objectives can have an outsized effect through public awareness and influence on voting behaviors.