WT Season Underway Again; Bike Industry Looks Bleak for 2024; Perspectives for Cycling Media; Teams Already Targeting Visma; Does Cycling Need Stronger Rider Transfer Controls?
· WorldTour Kicks off in Australia
· Bike Industry Unlikely to Improve in 2024
· Cycling Media: Strong Critiques from Other Sectors
· Teams Already Targeting Visma at 2024 Tour
· Grabbing Young Riders: Legal, But Is It Good for the Sport?
· Will Threads Replace “Cycling Twitter?”
The 2024 WorldTour calendar is right now kicking off at the Tour Down Under in Adelaide, Australia, but one interesting theme for the new season has already emerged; several teams are already clearly trying to assemble Tour de France super-teams – in an effort to topple the Jonas Vingegaard/Visma-Lease a Bike juggernaut. Both the Bora-Hansgrohe and UAE teams, containing Vingegaard’s two biggest GC rivals, have already indicated that they are sending teams stacked with all of their best GC riders. This appears to be an attempt to give Visma a dose of its own medicine – using the “leadership swarm” tactics which Visma has very successfully employed in the past couple years.
While this may increase the level of competition and excitement at the Tour, it also signals a significant shift in the mentality of team management. Some teams have apparently determined that pooling their valuable GC resources and taking Visma head-on is more likely to result in success than hedging their risks by spreading their top riders across all three of the sport’s grand tours. This is especially interesting since the competition level at the Giro and Vuelta is rising. The most intriguing part of this shift is that at the same time as UAE, Bora, Ineos, and Soudal-QuickStep seem to be pooling their top GC riders for the Tour, Visma itself seems to be in the midst of diversifying or spreading itself a bit thinner – by sending Cian Uijtdebroeks and Wout van Aert to focus on the Giro. While it makes sense to send a team with significant defensive and control capabilities to the Tour to back Vingegaard, it will definitely alter the flexibility and ability to camouflage tactical strategy – which the team had last year – when opponents weren’t always sure what Visma’s strategy was. In turn, this could allow rival teams to leverage their resources to force Visma into making mistakes which may open up the GC picture.
As we discussed last week, and as widely reported elsewhere, the bike industry remains in very tough straits as it enters 2024. But a quick and simple numerical look back at the number of bike-related businesses that shut down during the last year really brings home just how tough the situation has been. Garnering the biggest headlines have been the closure or reorganization of larger integrated companies like Wiggle CRC, and the withdrawal of GCN from its key role in the televising of key bike races. But there have been countless other victims of the hard times in the industry. Dutch e-bike maker VanMoof declared bankruptcy after having just raised €100 million during the pandemic. Guerilla Gravity, the highly touted Denver-based mountain bike manufacturer which had developed a novel carbon fiber manufacturing process, apparently lost funding and closed its doors recently. As we noted in an earlier media discussion, Hi-Torque publications Road Bike Action and Electric Bike Action were both shuttered earlier in the year. Accell Group shut down its German Ghost bike manufacturing facility, idling over 120 employees; the company also owns a number of other bike brands. And of course, all of this is in addition to the countless number of local bike or apparel retailers that struggled or been forced to close down.
Most of the hand-wringing and analysis around the bicycle industry has tended to over-focus on market factors measured from within cycling’s insular measurements and surveys – more or less the same data that the industry’s product planners used to guide it into this downturn. The wider sporting goods market – as we covered in a recent AIR edition – is a more accurate bellwether and shows product launch delays, deliberate slow-walking of future orders, reduced product diversification through 2025, and massive staffing reductions to maintain liquidity and solvency through a lean consumer confidence cycle. And at least for the U.S. bike market, there isn’t likely to be recovery in 2024; market data shows time and again, regardless of which party wins in the presidential election year, consumers do not engage in discretionary spending on recreational hardgoods (or almost anything high value, save for healthcare needs) until the dust settles.
A recent dust-up between the Lotto-Dstny team and Visma-Lease a Bike – regarding Visma’s alleged attempt to sign Lotto’s emerging talent Andreas Kron – has once again put the spotlight on Visma’s aggressive recruiting strategy. There are now several examples of the team targeting up-and-coming talents and signing them before their current contracts expire. In the end of this latest incident, Kron stayed put, and Visma claimed the ordeal was simply due to Kron misunderstanding his own contract – which in fact did not allow him to break the deal mid-stream and head for another team. Nonetheless, this was how Visma acquired Wout van Aert before the 2019 season (despite the Belgian having a deal with his former team) and, most recently, Cian Uijtdebroeks, who jumped to Visma for the 2024 season after breaking his contract with his Bora-Hansgrohe team. While this strategy may ruffle feathers within the sport – particularly since team boss Richard Plugge is also the President of AIGCP team’s organization – the tactic is effective; Visma essentially scoops up under-paid young talent before they go to the open market. And – as Plugge reiterated on this week’s Radio Cycling podcast, there is nothing currently illegal or against the rules about this practice.
One can also argue that these actions may also ultimately be good for the riders as well, since they are given a chance to ride for the team of their choice while negotiating their pay mid-contract; riding at an exponentially higher salary for even a single season longer is important when your total career span may be relatively short. However, it’s also important to point out that this practice is not against the rules largely due to the fact that (1) cycling still lacks the professionalism of a real league and (2) there are various loopholes and vagaries in the UCI’s rulebook. It is worth noting that this type of early recruitment or team-hopping isn’t really allowed in other major sports (leagues like the NBA usually have a fairly strict No Tampering Policy that doesn’t allow team management to recruit under-contract athletes from another team), since it ultimately isn’t sustainable. Played out to its extreme, this practice could eliminate the incentive for smaller teams to create a favorable financial arbitrage by finding and signing young talent to long-term contracts – with the end results that the lion’s share of talent will end up on a handful of teams with the deepest pockets. And future grand tours would increasingly start to mirror the single-team dominance of last year’s Vuelta. That is not a positive long-term trend for the sport.
We have written extensively and critically on the challenges of the cycling media marketplace – and this week two commentaries from the broader media caught our attention. Writing in the venerable Atlantic magazine about current political coverage, author George Packer had this to say about the media: “For 25 years, journalists have been scrambling to survive the damage done to their business model by the internet. Venerable outlets perish or self-mutilate; newer ones come and go in a flash; mountains of bait are thrown into the water to see what rises to the surface, producing trillions of bits of data to be collected and examined for financial clues. This exhausting effort consumes so much time and talent that it’s difficult to face the obvious truth: The for-profit model of journalism shows signs of being broken……” And Packer’s criticism doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that the media “floods the zone” with “talking heads, hot takes, angry jeremiads” to stay afloat, and in doing so, it trades “long-term credibility for short-term gain. Social-media platforms, far richer and more powerful than the mainstream press, don’t even have to feign a higher purpose.” There are cautions and potential lessons for the small cycling media world here.
And from the Press Gazette in the U.K. comes a sobering analysis on the future of freelance writing – which has always been an important component of the cycling media. This article effectively says that “poor rates, unreliable payment and publications closing” are turning freelance journalism into a poor man’s hobby. As most cycling writers certainly know, “word rates have remained frozen – at best! – whilst the number of outlets commissioning regularly has decreased, and the chance to write deeply-reported features appears to be vanishing.” The article goes on, “writing isn’t the tiring part. What’s tiring is that in order to do the writing you’ve got to do the pitching, the chasing, the dodging out-of-offices, the haggling, the compromising, the invoicing, the self-promotion, the work at weekends, the chasing, the chasing, the chasing.” Like many other aspects of today’s media world, this is a worrying trend – as it will undoubtedly tend to diminish diversity and access to differing perspectives and opinions from the available content offerings.
With Twitter dying a slow death under the erratic ownership of Elon Musk, it appears that a new and stronger “cycling Twitter” could start to develop on the new Threads platform. Started by Meta last July as an alternative to Twitter as a text-based news feed, Threads has quickly grown to over 160 million users. When Threads opened up to European accounts last month, we immediately saw accounts pop up from Le Tour, the Giro, Team UAE, EF Pro Cycling, Remco Evenepoel and Tadej Pogačar, among others. While Threads still has a long way to go to overtake Twitter as the preferred news feed for pro cycling enthusiasts, we are paying attention to see where it goes from here.