The End of Multidisciplinary Racers? Scandal at Sports Illustrated; the Uijtdebroeks Mess - What Does it Mean for Long-Term Contracts? More Changes at Ineos; Ketones ...
● The Future of Multidisciplinary Stars
● The Scandal at Sports Illustrated
● What is Up with Cian Uijtdebroeks?
● More Changes at Ineos
● Update on Ketones
We have become accustomed to the sight of some of the sport’s top stars dominating across several different disciplines, but this cyclocross season has had a vastly different look to years past. The three biggest crossover stars – Tom Pidcock, Van Aert, and Mathieu van der Poel – have all either significantly reduced their off-road schedules this winter, or, in Van der Poel’s case, have explicitly said that they are considering an exclusive focus on prestigious road racing targets in the future. While this might be seen as the end of the multi-discipline star, it is important to remember that sight of cycling’s best overall riders contesting wins across nearly the entire year is a recent phenomenon at the top level of the sport, and in fact was only made possible by the recent arrival of a handful of riders with previously unheard-of levels of talent. And it is also worth pointing out that by attempting these ambitious schedules, these riders were arguably making the wrong decision – at least in terms of career longevity – by overworking without a prolonged break. Past cross-discipline stars who have competed year-round for significant periods of time – like Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot – were eventually forced to significantly scale back their aggressive schedules due to injuries and burnout. So, even as we might mourn the end of these incredibly exciting riders attempting to win seemingly every race out there, we should remember that it was never sustainable to begin with. This apparent scaling back is just the natural conclusion to their quixotic quests – and it has been to the benefit of many other dedicated cyclocross pros like Eli Eyserbeyt, who are finally getting their due respect.
There has been a lot of handwringing over the past couple weeks regarding the use of AI-generated articles by fake writers at the venerable sports publication Sports Illustrated. Once considered the very pinnacle of sports journalism, Sports Illustrated – like almost all legacy print publications – has had a rough go of it the last several years. Its ownership has changed several times, it has conducted several rounds of layoffs – including some of the most respected names in sports writing – and now it stands accused of tricking and essentially lying to its readers. An exposé article on the news website Futurism detailed the magazine’s use of AI-generated product reviews and fake names without any kind of disclaimer. The site’s human writers were horrified, and company then promptly deleted all of the apparently AI-generated writers and stories. But the damage was done – and unfortunately, this kind of situation is only going to become more commonplace in the future. The Huddle Up newsletter pointed out that as profit-driven investors continue to purchase legacy media properties, the focus will continue to shift from in-depth human-generated reporting to simple profit maximization, adding that “just like you automatically dismiss a picture as art once you find out it was generated by artificial intelligence is the same way you will think about writing, commentary, visual editing, and graphic design.” (For an in-depth take on this situation – and the broader implications regarding commerce marketing in media – see Joe Lindsey's piece on the SI controversy. He laments that Sports Illustrated’s demise “is largely the sad result of both a shrinking media ecosystem and the shambolic mismanagement of owners and executives – often from other industries…”)
Rumors regarding the potential mid-contract transfer of Bora-Hansgrohe’s grand tour GC wunderkind, Cian Uijtdebroeks, exploded into the open this week when Visma-Lease a Bike announced his apparent signing with immediate effect. However, the team’s tweet was soon tagged with a correction bubble as Bora-Hansgrohe refuted the claim, insisting that Uijtdebroeks is still under contract through the end of 2024. Then, reliable outlets reported that Bora is seeking a roughly €1 million buyout before they release Uijtdebroeks’ contract rights – regardless of his desired destination. Adding another layer to the contentious public spat is the fact that the veteran Primož Roglič left Visma, also in mid-contract, for Bora earlier this off-season; this likely amplified Uijtdebroeks’ internal disconnect regarding team leadership. However, it seems even more unlikely that he will become an immediate leader on a talent-laden team like Visma. (It also raises questions about the potential future behavior of a 20-year-old racer – who has yet to win a single elite pro race – but who is willing to initiate this kind of high-profile confrontation in an attempt to get his way.) At any rate, it is an aggressive attempt by Visma to replace Roglič with a younger rider who possesses great potential, presumably at considerably lower cost, while also weakening the team that took its former star rider. The bold move quickly angered many of the other teams, with one general manager harshly criticizing Visma leader Richard Plugge for “robbery,” and calling for him to resign his AIGCP presidency, saying “get out!” And we have yet to hear anything from the UCI on the matter. While it may seem absurd, as of this writing it’s not clear who Uijtdebroeks will be riding for when the new season starts. (As an indicator of how this may play out, it’s instructive to remember the contract dispute a few years ago when Jumbo-Visma signed Wout van Aert even though he was still under a long-term contract with a smaller team. While Van Aert was ultimately forced to pay the former team €662,000 in compensation, it didn’t stop him from suiting up and immediately racing for Jumbo.)
Impacts to pro cycling’s wider business model as a result of this spat may be more significant than just the immediate sporting implications. Assuming Uijtdebroeks does race for Visma in 2024 – or any other new team – it would be just the latest example of a star rider essentially forcing their way to a preferred destination. If this trend continues, the obvious question is: why should teams sign star riders to high-value long term contracts at all? Such contracts already carry significant risk for the teams, if the riders are injured or don’t produce as expected. (For example, consider the significantly below-par performances by Julian Alaphilippe and Chris Froome despite being extremely highly paid by their current teams). However, a team’s ability to hedge that risk by locking in talented riders at a certain pay rate for an extended period of time becomes advantageous if those riders continue to improve – as is expected with the young Uijtdebroeks. It will be interesting to see if this emerging trend causes teams to start to abandon long-term contracts altogether; right now this sort of covenant is presenting increasing financial and long-term sustainability risks. However, pro cycling certainly isn’t alone in terms of how athlete contracts and allegiances are forcing rapid change; we’ll examine this further in next week’s AIR edition.
After Ineos Grenadiers cycling split with deputy Team Principal Rod Ellingworth and reorganized in the wake of an exodus of veteran management talent, the team quietly promoted John Allert, who was previously managing director, to CEO – to fill the power vacuum. Allert’s promotion signals a shift for the struggling British team away from a pure cycling specialist like Ellingworth, who cut his teeth at the former Team Sky and British Cycling managing the day-to-day training of the UK’s greatest cycling generation (Mark Cavendish, Lizzie Deignan, Brad Wiggins, and Geraint Thomas among others). Allert was a business operations and marketing veteran and a longtime board director and CMO at McLaren Group before coming to Ineos as an adviser in 2022. Below him, the team appears to be doubling down on personnel with a deep knowledge of the nuances of bike racing, naming masterful tactician Steve Cummings as Director of Racing, and adding Movistar’s recently-retired veteran domestique, Imanol Erviti. Both hirings steer away from the team’s former ethos of hiring top scientific minds from outside the sport (such as when they brought on Tim Kerrison from the world of swimming and rowing to build their training program). Perhaps this signals just how much the team has drifted away from their pioneering team principal, Sir Dave Brailsford, who has become more and more involved in Ineos’ other sporting entities, in particular their soccer interests at OGC Nice and Manchester United. “Man U” faces a difficult and expensive re-build, while Nice’s former manager, Christophe Galtier, is facing a criminal trial for horrific claims of institutional racial and religious discrimination at that club. Thus, it seems safe to assume that Brailsford has a full plate, and that Allert will be the likely architect of the Ineos team’s direction and strategy going forward.
Cycling’s love affair with training and preparation trends has never been more evident than in two recent micro-storms, featuring one story concerning ketone supplements and another focused on high-carbohydrate consumption strategies – both in a four-week span. In one sense, the refocus from ketones back to carbohydrates was inevitable because recent scientific studies demonstrated marginal to no benefits of using ketones as a sports supplement, but instead showed measurable effectiveness in helping preserve cardiac and brain function during and after a trauma like a heart attack or stroke. In other words, ketones might provide some recuperative benefits under the right conditions, but have much more promise as a mental acuity and anti-aging supplement. However, the ability to process high volumes of carbohydrates prior to and during competition is well proven; new strategies based around an up to 150 gram per hour consumption rate are rapidly overtaking the peloton and other endurance sports. It will be interesting to see how athletes adapt to such an incredibly dense fueling paradigm (although most of us practice this during our holiday eating habits!), especially as unused fuel often gets stored as fat and elite cyclists have an unhealthy obsession with body weight. But this leaves some unanswered questions on the table that we hope researchers take up in the near future; namely, why do so many cyclists religiously ingest ketone drinks near the end of races, and – if there is no benefit over a rapid jolt of carb-heavy energy drinks for the same purpose – what advantages do cycling’s nutritionists and physiologists expect to see that are different than those found in the latest scientific literature?