Men Finish, as the Women Start; Is Vingegaard Being Unfairly Questioned? New Films; New Agent Group Forms; Is Remco Moving, or What?
● Tour Wraps Up, While TdFF Kicks Off
● Is Vingegaard Being Unfairly Scrutinized?
● Two New Cycling Films Released
● New Rider’s Agent Group Formed
● Is Remco Moving?
Jonas Vingegaard wrapped up the Tour de France this weekend, with UAE’s Tadej Pogačar coming back from a few bad days to win Saturday’s mountain stage, and Bora’s Jordi Meeus getting an unexpected sprint victory on the final stage in Paris. It was only a week ago that we were speculating about what might happen if the top two racers rode into Paris essentially tied on time, but after two weeks of nearly deadlocked racing, the fight for the overall win exploded on the stage 16 time trial, and the so-called Queen Stage the following day. After turning in a time trial for the ages, Vingegaard put almost six minutes more into Pogačar the next day, essentially ending the race for the GC. The dominant performance from Vingegaard, which saw him win by a margin of 7’29 (the largest since Vincenzo Nibali triumphed by 7’37 in 2014), continued the young Dane’s trend of destroying any and all competition and parcours put before him. However, the sudden jump in the time gap between Vingegaard and Pogačar created a mini-storm of questions and speculation around how Jumbo could have so thoroughly dismantled one of the sport’s biggest stars.
While it is to be expected that fans and journalists will question the kind of dominant performances turned in by Vingegaard on Tuesday and Wednesday, we would suggest that Vingegaard is being targeted partly because his biggest rival appeared to be experiencing a minor illness during those two hard stages of the race. When the same duo put minutes into all the other GC contenders within just a few kilometers of attacking on the Col du Tourmalet – and before smashing the all-time record – back on stage 6, there were few questions being asked. Likewise, when the other members of cycling’s “Big Six” were completely dominating the sport’s biggest races through the earlier part of the year, there seemed to be scant criticism. In fact, if Pogačar had avoided whatever afflicted him, and had the race been decided by a smaller margin, we wonder whether any serious questions would have been levied at all. Instead, Vingegaard has been left to take on the full brunt of interrogation and suspicion by himself.
Jumbo-Visma team manager Richard Plugge promptly and staunchly defended the team’s commitment to clean racing, pointing out that it has allowed film crews and reporters to embed with the team for the last few years to ensure transparency. He also reminded skeptics that performance and power data has been shared with various journalists in the past to prove the riders’ legitimacy, and asked what more the team can feasibly do to prove its commitment to clean racing. However, as long as the team continues to dominate top-level racing, it will undoubtedly face questions from various corners of the cycling and media communities.
Unfortunately, one of the only events around the Tour this week that received wide mainstream coverage here in the United States was the comical and slightly bizarre spat between the Jumbo-Visma and Groupama-FDJ team management. In response to how his rider laid down such a dominant performance in the stage 16 time trial, Jumbo-Visma general manager Plugge jokingly suggested that maybe it was because riders from other teams were observed drinking “large beers” in their hotel lobby on the day before the time trial. This claim caused a heated response from Marc Madiot, Groupama-FDJ manager – and apparently the only other team sharing the hotel with Jumbo. Madiot angrily said that only the team managers were drinking beer, but that even if his riders had drunk beers, they wouldn’t have been large ones. While it may be humorous, accusing the competition of not working hard enough or drinking too much – even if it is potentially true – is probably not the best PR strategy to support the integrity of your team’s performances.
The long awaited second edition of the Tour de France Femmes has kicked off, and the first stage fireworks are hinting that women's pro cycling may outshine the men on the world's biggest stage. The SD Worx team played its usual strong hand by stacking the deck at the front of the peloton over a punchy stage in the difficult terrain around Clermont-Ferrand, with Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky breaking clear on the final climb and holding a healthy gap for the win. But 41 seconds behind her, all the favorites appeared evenly matched in a small chasing bunch, perhaps unwilling to burn unnecessary matches so early but also unwilling to hand a perfect lead-out scenario over to Kopecky's star teammate, Lorena Wiebes.
Two of the subtexts to watch for in this edition are the disparity in team investment and the age differential among the sport’s stars. From an investment perspective, the top teams like Trek-Segafredo, SD Worx, Movistar, and Jumbo-Visma have dominated the sport’s newest iteration of the Women’s WorldTour, as they have the budget to secure, develop, and support the sport’s best riders. At the same time, the concentration of talent and consistent funding in such programs helps to explain why older, generational talent level champions like Marianne Vos and Annemiek van Vleuten are still at the top of the game, as they have benefited from that investment, health and technical support to enjoy long careers. However, investment in the sport is growing, and we are excited at the possibility of seeing all the world's strongest and most talented women elevate the entire sport in the coming days – especially the upstart riders from smaller teams looking to make an impact in cycling’s main event.
As women’s cycling continues to grow, it is instructive to study the rise of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). A recent five-part series on the WTA examined the organization’s startup and breakthrough in the 1970s with nine top players under the leadership of champion and women’s rights pioneer Billie Jean King, all the way through to its modern iteration which drives 70 tournaments with over $160 million in prize winnings annually. Upon its founding, the WTA’s roadmap was successfully charted by elevating the visibility of its most important athletes, which in turn elevated the profile of the events and increased the investment in the sport. That created opportunities for globalization and opened broad frontiers for expansion at all levels through talent development, ever-increasing media exposure, and cross-platform marketing opportunities.
The LPGA has many similarities to the WTA in its road to success, including the power of its athletes, but one of the most important milestones was finally achieved at the recent edition of the U.S. Women’s Open. The tournament has been a mainstay of the women’s golf calendar, but this year is the first time it was held on the prestigious Pebble Beach course – which was previously only used for men’s championship events. This overdue moment was the result of three factors: demand from the players to play at iconic venues, demand from sponsors to elevate the profile and appeal of the sport to woo new markets, and demand from fans to see the world’s best players compete on the most challenging courses.
Even in light of all of these successes, some factors are still dragging on growth in women's sports. In particular, the final market rights tallies for the Women's World Cup significantly missed FIFA's targets. The organizer was hoping to secure upwards of $300 million for the total rights valuation, but factors such as prime time broadcast availability (the antipodean time zone differential places key matches in the middle of the night in key markets) limited the overall value to about $200 million. This is still a fraction of the men's rights, but historically it is the first time that the women's tournament rights were sold as a separate package, and not as a value-added component of the men's programming. However, analysts are predicting that this might only be a hiccup as the popularity of women's soccer – and its influence on the popularity of women's sports in general ‒ accelerates.
Rumors continue to circulate that Remco Evenepoel, the young Belgian star, may be looking to exit Soudal-Quickstep and find a new team. Ineos seems to be the team most often mentioned – there have even been suggestions that Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe might just buy the team outright. Long-time Soudal-Quickstep boss denied the rumors, saying it was all a bunch of nonsense. But the rumors about the future of Soudal-QS don’t seem to be going away, and like most chatter in pro cycling, where there is smoke there is often fire.
Two new and interesting films about the challenges of both men’s and women’s cycling have been released recently. Uphill Climb documents the first women’s Tour de France, which ran for six editions back in the mid and late 1980s, but which is largely forgotten today. ASO also experimented briefly with a women’s race in 2014 called La Course, but it was also short-lived. “In spite of these fits and starts, women racers continued to push for a return to a full Tour de France race. And thanks to these efforts, a new era of women’s cycling that includes pay parity and renewed media attention on women’s racing has finally arrived.” Meanwhile, on the men’s side, Enter the Slipstream covers Team EF’s challenging 2020 season, as the team wrestled with both the uncertainties of COVID, and the search for a new sponsor to sustain the team. Both films are available to stream on Peacock.
Last week saw the formation of WARA – the World Association of Rider’s Agents. The group was formed by 15 of the top rider’s agents, to ensure that their interests are appropriately represented within the UCI and worldwide cycling in general. In an emailed press release, the group said, “WARA intends to reach its objectives by participating as a stakeholder in the relevant (UCI) structures for consultation and participation in policy making. WARA aims to perform this role in a friendly matter and with a perspective of mutual respect and fairness … Clear reform ideas exist among agents. These measures will be further developed within WARA in the coming months to then be introduced in our discussions with the relevant stakeholders.” It will be interesting to see how the new group evolves, as it may have competing objectives with the various riders’ associations like the CPA, and the member agents only represent a small slice of pro riders in the peloton today.