Kuss is First American to Lead a Grand Tour in Ten Years; Poor Organization Continues at Vuelta; Lotto-Dstny Drama; Shortfalls in TV Coverage; Recent Doping Cases
● Sepp Kuss First American to Lead a Grand Tour in a Decade
● Confusion and Poor Decision-Making Continue at the Vuelta
● Lotto-Dstny – Ridley Drama
● Shortfalls in Cycling TV Coverage
● Continuous Change in Sports Broadcasting
● Doping Trends and Analysis in Cycling
Following intense weather events and bizarre “seat of the pants” organizational decisions at its start, the Vuelta has now come alive with thrilling line-to-line racing, with the majority of top contenders still in the race. The big headline from the event so far, at least in the U.S., is that Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss became the first American to lead a grand tour in over a decade after Saturday’s eighth stage. Kuss took a massive chunk of time after slipping into an early breakaway on stage 6 and (as of the rest day) sat nearly two and a half minutes in front of the next serious overall contender, Remco Evenepoel. Given his strong performance in the individual time trial today and the extremely mountainous route remaining, Kuss appears to be a genuine threat to win the whole thing. Jumbo-Visma still has a number of cards it can play along the road to the finish in Madrid on September 17th, but simply having a charismatic and genuinely likable rider like Kuss in the spotlight is already a major victory and potentially a huge boost for cycling in the US.
Despite the consistently entertaining racing, the event’s organizational breakdown deserves a deeper look. To recap the poor race planning and haphazard decision-making: the opening weekend saw most of the field forced to complete a team time trial in the dark, a bizarre pseudo-neutralization of the final kilometers of the second stage, and Remco Evenepoel crashing into the staff zone at the finish of stage 3. This past Sunday, another important primetime event was partially neutralized, with race organizers announcing late in the stage that the GC times would be taken at the 2.5-kilometers-to-go mark (later changed to 2-kilometers) due to heavy rains causing key portions of the road through the final kilometers to be covered in mud. The call appeared to rightly prioritize rider safety – and no top contenders crashed after attempting to sprint on mud-covered pavement. However, it also led to confusion and embarrassment when some riders sprinted to an apparently random point on the road before sitting up, while the breakaway, just minutes up the road, contested the stage on the very same roads that were shortly thereafter deemed unsafe. For the second time in a week, spectators were left wondering what exactly just happened, and, why, if the roads were deemed unsafe for the GC riders, were they acceptable for the breakaway to race over? It appears that the intense rider protests over the debacle of the opening stage may have gotten inside the heads of the Vuelta organizers and led to over-compensation to stave off further criticism from big-name riders.
Another shortcoming of the Vuelta is that fans haven’t been able to view the start line and early race action. Unlike the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and even Sunday’s Maryland Cycling Classic, the opening hours of racing are not being broadcast. In an age where live line-to-line broadcasting of major sporting events is considered table stakes, it has been somewhat surprising to see the Vuelta eschew the trend. As a result, it has implicitly branded itself as a less serious sporting event. On the other hand, perhaps one of the positives of starting coverage later is that the various protests – which now appear to be mandatory at every major cycling event – have been getting less coverage. After unidentified protests littered the course with tacks, causing numerous flat tires on stage 2, police arrested four pro-Catalan independence activists after they attempted to pour oil onto the course just before riders passed through. Protests are beginning to be de rigueur for major cycling events. We would worry that – if left on the current path – this could eventually injure innocent riders.
The recent high-profile breakup of bike sponsor Ridley and the Lotto-Dstny team provides an intriguing view into one of a pro cycling team’s most important branding relationships. Details of these sponsorships are notoriously hard to come by, but due at least to the perception that the small Belgian bike brand’s product hasn’t stayed competitive in the global marketplace, Lotto has reportedly struggled to retain and recruit top talent. The team apparently broke their deal with Ridley mid-contract, in part to appease young star Arnaud De Lie, and brought in the Basque manufacturer Orbea for the 2024 season. Perhaps the most interesting part of the contentious breakup (which prompted an angry response from Ridley CEO Jochim Aerts) has been the revelation that Ridley had reduced their sponsorship payment from €1 million in cash per year plus 150 bike frames, to just the frames without any cash payment. This provides some color on exactly what it costs a bike brand to partner with a top road team; sponsoring a top-level team like Jumbo-Visma would cost considerably more in terms of both cash and equipment. This incident also may help to explain why Lotto parted ways with former CEO John Lelangue, the team’s general manager at the time of the deal. This melodrama suggests turmoil within the team, beyond the on-going uncertainty around star sprinter Caleb Ewan’s contract vis-à-vis De Lie, and a new management team under Stephane Heulot.
Sports broadcasting rights have ushered in an unprecedented era of content licensing mega-deals, technical innovations, and a business strategy landscape shift towards streaming content delivery. The recent example of Diamond Sports Group’s bankruptcy death-spiral hinted at myriad problems underlying cable’s unstable reliance on sports content, as even Diamond’s parent company, Sinclair Inc., was willing to abandon the flagging business unit to shed the upside-down sports licensing contracts. That dour outlook was fully addressed last week when one of the U.S.’s largest cable providers, Charter Communications, finally said the quiet part out loud in its latest investor presentation: the cable business model is broken.
Charter has been in ongoing negotiations with Disney over the expenses to carry ESPN and other high-value channels for its subscribers, and essentially stated that cable can’t survive without sports content and exclusives but can’t sustain the business model due to sports licensing inflation increasing costs and driving subscribers away. This underscores why many sports enterprises and streaming service power brokers have rapidly moved to cut cable out of the distribution equation altogether. Many leagues now offer consumer direct streaming packages and single games; Warner’s MAX streaming service will carry the MLB playoffs live this fall and may do so for other digital sports rights it acquired via its Discovery merger. Now Amazon, Apple, Google, and others are positioning to obtain equity in or outright ownership of ESPN, which Disney may sell in the immediate future, and which could pound the final nail in cable’s coffin, ultimately reshaping the global content streaming marketplace.
Cycling and other niche sports are caught in the middle of these vast landscape shifts: too small to be of value to anchor a content strategy, but just valuable enough due to the fan demographics and growth potential to warrant interest. We know that the sport only received a modest bump from the Unchained streaming series, and there is a backlog of overdue changes the sport has yet to implement to hook new viewers. Cycling can’t afford to pedal slowly towards change, and we must continue to question what our sport can enact to attract, engage, and sustain the season-long interest of more fans, especially those who’ve never tuned in before. It’s a great time to be alive and experience the sporting economy’s overall evolution, and it will be an even better time when cycling takes its place as a key sport contributing to the outcomes.
One great example of live sports streaming excellence was delivered this weekend by Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), which is essentially the “world series of ultrarunning.” The overall experience was rich, with live video, knowledgeable commentators on camera, and lots of useful data. Observers commented that the experience felt like a modern and more sophisticated version of the flat, low-quality broadcasts that seem to typify pro cycling. Compared with most other major league sports, pro cycling live coverage is still stuck in the 1980s. And for most American bike races, live feeds (even low-quality ones) don’t exist at all. It is simply not realistic to expect to grow the cycling fan base, or increase non-endemic sponsorship, without better live coverage. When will an event or a media channel step up to provide professional race coverage that uses these sorts of current best practices?
At the weekend’s blistering hot second edition of the Maryland Cycling Classic – now America’s top-ranked race – the young Dane Mattias Skjelmose took a breakaway win, a full 2:20 ahead of second-place Neilson Powless – who bettered his third-place finish from last year. The 120-mile course featured an unexpected 8,500 feet of climbing in the early part of the race, and a four-time finishing circuit in downtown Baltimore of 8 miles. Skjelmose benefited from a strong Lidl-Trek team and broke out of a five-man break on the final circuits. Most of the peloton will now head to eastern Canada for next weekend’s WorldTour races in Montreal and Quebec.
Setting aside the recently confirmed ban on Dr. Richard Freeman, cycling has thankfully not had a major doping controversy in recent years. Instead, we’ve seen more compartmentalized minor cases involving painkillers, unregulated steroid-like compounds, and questionable athlete/handler relationships. Perhaps that is why many are paying close attention to recent developments regarding the doping cases of cyclocross star Toon Aerts and Jumbo-Visma’s young prospect, Michel Hessmann. Aerts’ case took over two years and involved a medication which passively increases testosterone availability, while Hessmann’s positive test was for a diuretic. Both were out-of-competition drug controls, and both have spurred conversations on the methods being used by athletes to maintain a high testosterone level while dropping body fat levels to almost impossibly low percentages. That combination of strength gains, faster recovery, and higher power-to-weight potential is often difficult to achieve and even more difficult to sustain. These cases may indicate a further shift away from overt “doping” to more subtle physiological manipulations which maintain marginal gains that benefit the athlete in competition – and further highlight the importance of random and targeted out-of-competition testing.
On that note, the story of Genevieve Jeanson’s cycling career bears repeating to all young and aspiring athletes, and she shared this, in her own words, in a recent cycling video and podcast. While the conversation is at times uncomfortable to listen to, the journey of a teenage girl being manipulated by her adult male coach and forced into a cycle of emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse is a story that should be a required study for sports federation administrators and coaching programs throughout the sport. Her story provides near-textbook warning signs that administrators and parents can look for to help the athlete understand when lines have been crossed, and for athletes to recognize when they are in danger. One of Jeanson’s key insights is that her abusive coach not only robbed her of her innocence, but also the capability to know how naturally good she could have been as a rider without his destructive influences and forced doping. This self-realization is what guided her to compete again after rebuilding her life and making peace with former competitors like Lynne Bessette, and Jeanson is discovering new cycling horizons on the gravel scene at age 41.