Red Bull Jumps In; Season Kicks Off in Australia ... For Now; Women's Cycling Isn't Keeping Pace With Other Sports? Strava Yearend Report; New Spanish Anti-Doping Inquiry; MvdP's Cross Season ...
● Red Bull Ups Its Ante in Pro Cycling
● Year-End Highlights From Strava
● Australia Kicks Off the Season, But For How Long?
● Why is Women’s Cycling Struggling to Keep Up With Other Women’s Sports?
● New Inquiry Into Spanish Anti-Doping Efforts
It was reported this week that the Austrian energy drink brand Red Bull is seeking to become a majority owner of Ralph Denk’s Bora-Hansgrohe pro cycling team. While Red Bull has long sponsored MTB downhill events and individual cyclists – most notably Tom Pidcock, Wout Van Aert and Kate Courtney – the brand has until now remained on the sidelines in terms of sponsoring a full road racing team. But it appears that that is about to change – and at the same time as Bora greatly enhances its competitive situation via the off-season acquisition of Primož Roglič. (Given Red Bull’s previous involvement with Bora’s junior scouting program and the spotting of Roglič at the Red Bull performance center a few weeks ago, one wonders if some of these developments may have been coordinated and in the works for the last few months?) Red Bull’s significant media profile and content creation capabilities (the Red Bull Media House has over 1,000 employees) could provide a significant lift to the other sponsors of the team, as well as to the broader sport. And its participation in other elite-level sports – ownership of two F1 teams, multiple soccer teams, a Moto GP team, a music label, and sponsorship of dozens of famous athletes – will provide intriguing opportunities for collaboration and extended cultural relevance. Given the generational star power in men’s pro cycling right now—the Big Six of Van Aert, Van der Poel, Vingegaard, Pogaçar, Roglic and Evenepoel—a dose of Red Bull energy could come at a fortuitous time for the sport. It’s always good news when a major international brand steps up to help fund and sponsor a cycling team.
While the Northern Hemisphere is in the depths of both winter and the cyclocross season, the southern hemisphere kicked off the 2024 road cycling season with the Australian road, time trial, and criterium National Championships. These events, which have taken place in the same location, Ballarat, for nearly two decades, comprise the center of the Australian cycling universe. This week, Caleb Ewan won his fourth Criterium title ahead of fellow WT riders Jensen Plowright (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Sam Welsford (BORA), while Luke Plapp easily romped his way to a third-straight road title (and second time trial title) ahead of a field that featured 19 riders from first and second division teams. On the women’s side, the competition was no less impressive; WT rider Ruby Roseman-Gannon (Jayco-Alula) won both the criterium and road titles ahead of other world-class riders, while FDJ-Suez rider Grace Brown took her third straight, and fourth overall, time trial title.
The Australian events run right before the continent's biggest pro race – the Tour Down Under – and the combination of events have built a festival atmosphere with widespread grassroots interest. This is in strong contrast to the U.S. road nationals, which take place in the middle of the season (the 2024 events take place during the Giro d’Italia), and which have bounced around between various locations without any significant endemic cycling culture (the 2024 professional events will take place in Charleston, West Virginia). As a result, the event has struggled to consistently draw the top American talent or a significant number of roadside fans. Considering the success of the Australian events, it might be worth wondering whether the time has come for a drastic shift of the U.S. pro nationals – perhaps to a January slot when most riders are between team training camps and the opening of the season. Such an event could be held in a southern part of the country (perhaps Tucson, Austin, or Southern California – all with significant local cycling cultures. This would allow the event to draw a higher-caliber field and gain fan traction during a time of year when there is far less overlap with other cycling events.
The Tour Down Under is followed a week later with the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race – but one could question how much longer these races will continue to anchor the WorldTour kickoff? While they are the pillars of Australian cycling, the events are a considerable logistical and financial challenge for virtually every non-Australian WT team and rider due to the massive trek south and mandatory participation in WT events. Despite earning a reputation as a fun local event, the TDU is disorienting for many fans because it takes place a full month before the next WT race (late February’s UAE Tour) and contributes to the incoherent UCI calendar schedule churn maligned by stakeholders in the news recently. The widely-discussed but still largely undefined “One Cycling” project appears to be on hold at the moment, waiting for proposed UCI WorldTour reforms proposed for 2026 – and far-flung events like the TDU might not make the cut if the UCI actually acts to minimize travel and reduce the racing days to enhance “product scarcity.” Staying on the calendar may become especially difficult for TDU with European-based events like the Tour of the Alps looking to step up, and a brand-new Danish event being added to the already crowded WT calendar, apparently with a three-year license starting in 2025. Simple math implies if the total number of races are being decreased but new events are being added, some of the other long-standing WT races will eventually have to be left out in the cold – if and when the calendar reforms are made.
Strava published its year-end review of sport, drawing conclusions and highlighting trends from among its 120 million international users. According to the report, most athletes say “their number one reason for exercising with others is social connection.” Key findings about the habits of active people included the importance of pets in getting out there, work commitments and household as barriers to greater exercise, extreme heat and poor air quality as constraints on time spent outside, and the importance of building social connections through exercise, particularly among younger generations. With respect to cycling, the report underlined the already well-recognized trend towards gravel riding, claiming a 55 percent increase in gravel riding across the globe. Interestingly, the median speed and distance of bicycle rides by Gen Z users (aged 11 to 26) was 14 miles with a pace of 12.9 miles per hour, while older boomers (ages 57 to 75) rode a median distance of 21 miles at a pace of 12.6 mph. Also of note at Strava – the company announced the hiring of Michael Martin as its new CEO, who started on the job this week. Martin was previously the general manager of YouTube Shopping and an executive at Nike.
A recent article on the state of women’s pro road cycling investment re-circulated and renewed debates about the inconsistencies and paradoxes that bedevil team and race funding. Rapid growth of the Women's WorldTour so far seems to be both a blessing and a curse for the sport. A small number of well-capitalized top teams have coalesced top talent to compete in an expanding calendar, while smaller teams and new events are struggling with cash flow, sponsor acquisition and retention, and competition with the men’s sport for media visibility. The UCI has generated a quick win by elevating the WWT’s visibility and promoting a progressive message of equality, and by highlighting flagship events like the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the Tour de France. But as the costs to stage events skyrocket, many new, or even established races face challenges, or may be subsumed by men’s events which have greater priority for sponsors. This has a suppressive effect on women’s teams, which have fewer opportunities to appear before a sporting public, and hence their sponsor interest may diminish.
The greatest paradox is highlighted by the timing: the past month saw a record number of notable women’s sports advances – team and media rights valuations, athlete endorsements and contracts breaking through glass-ceilings, and viewership and attendance marks being shattered. This raises the question of whether women’s racing has the right business and strategic entities engaged to move the sport forward. Almost every other women’s sport is accumulating value, while women’s cycling is notably off-the-back, despite the obvious upside and sports business potential. Over the last several years, we’ve examined many growth and sustainability recommendations which can be applied to stabilize and build momentum for women’s pro cycling, but at the moment, increasing media coverage – particularly airtime availability and priority – is the most important aspect in jumpstarting the next phase of the sport.
The hits to Spain’s record on anti-doping efforts keep coming, with a new investigative report alleging that the country’s national agency, CELAD, deliberately subverted WADA standards to protect athletes under its jurisdiction. Among the many damning allegations are examples of deliberately staged procedural errors for the collection of samples, egregiously backdated therapeutic use exemptions, and late-notification of findings that would result in a near-automatic dismissal of charges in NADO case proceedings or a CAS appeal. While WADA has been quick to rebut claims it aided CELAD in any way to allow the alleged infractions to its code, the specific examples highlighted in the Spanish Ministry of Culture’s report have caused WADA to admit that it is looking into CELAD’s operations more closely and may take appropriate action in the future. At best, Spain’s history in anti-doping is decidedly lackluster, highlighted by Operacion Puerto and its failure to hold athletes legally accountable (save for Alejandro Valverde – sanctioned via Italian anti-doping actions), and the more recent Hypoxianet drug bust. The latter has been seemingly buried by Spanish authorities despite it being the single largest haul of diverted and highly sought-after EPO alfa in sporting history – a haul that came gift-wrapped with shipping records to many recipients. One wonders if Spanish legislators have the impetus to pursue change at its NADO, and whether WADA President Witold Banka will seize the moment to adjudicate the doping cases CELAD may have sought to avoid. At any rate, we hope this is a watershed moment that helps Spain cast aside its “doping haven” image with renewed anti-doping efforts that reinforce the integrity of sport in the future.
Mathieu van der Poel continued his nearly unprecedented dominance of the cyclocross calendar, blitzing the Zonhoven World Cup on Sunday to take his tenth win in ten starts of the season. While hugely impressive and mind-boggling, this performance from Van der Poel continues to beg the question: why is he racing such a packed mid-winter schedule with such a high-level of fitness, given his ambitious plans for the 2024 road season? The sport’s other big cross-discipline superstars – Tom Pidcock and Wout van Aert – both learned tough lessons in recent seasons about the downsides of overloading their schedules, and have consequently pared down their 2024 cyclocross schedules. Van der Poel will likely continue to steamroll through the rest of the ‘cross calendar, but it probably won’t come without a cost. Perhaps the Dutch superstar has carefully weighed the cost-benefit outcome of a near-absurd sixth world cyclocross title; however, from an outside perspective, it appears that by continuing to run up the score in a niche discipline, he is recklessly affecting his ability to win spring monuments or a much-coveted Olympic gold medal later in the season.