Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by swpix.com
The tug of war over the highly talented young Belgian has given fans something to chew on during the off-season, but also highlights fundamental issues that have long undermined the sport
Like London buses, shock transfers are appearing in numbers. Even while we’re still getting accustomed to the prospect of seeing Primož Roglič clad in Bora-Hansgrohe’s green and black next season instead of the yellow and black of Jumbo-Visma, this last weekend the sport was treated to the spectacle of the same two teams scuffling on social media over young Belgian talent Cian Uijtdebroeks, who is determined to move in the opposite direction to the Slovenian winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia.
The tussle has proved quite the polemic, captivating road fans for whom the only other diversion currently is the release of 2024 team jerseys. Popcorn emojis have proliferated as these two “super” teams have engaged in a tug of war over Uijtdebroeks, their contest drawing in other WorldTour squads and personalities. Intermarché opted for a humorous intervention on Twitter, while Cofidis boss Cédric Vasseur and his Soudal-QuickStep counterpart Patrick Lefevere stoked up the controversy.
Vasseur, already piqued by Richard Plugge’s plans to revamp the men’s side of the sport with the One Cycling project, lashed out at the Jumbo-Visma boss, who is also president of the teams’ association, the AIGCP. “You have to respect the rules and resign immediately !!! Get out” Vasseur asserted.
Lefevere, meanwhile, had a go at both sides, firstly by stating that Uijtdebroeks has an agreement to race for Bora until the end of 2024 and that needs to be respected unless all parties agree on the breaking of that contract. Then, a whole 16 minutes later, he was castigating Bora boss Ralph Denk for making an underhand approach to sign Remco Evenepoel in 2021. He signed off by telling Denk, “please don’t cry now”.
Amidst all this, Uijtdebroeks’ management agency A&J All Sports put out a statement saying the agreement between the rider and Bora-Hansgrohe had been terminated on 1 December and that the UCI is aware of this. The statement concluded: “Cian is excited and looking forward to the future cooperation with Team Visma | Lease a Bike starting next season.”
This brouhaha will add some spice to the WorldTour seminar that’s taking place in Lausanne today [Monday] and will continue to entertain fans for a good while longer. Watching it unfold, though, I confess that I don’t honestly care which team Uijtdebroeks ends up representing in 2024 and beyond. I don’t give a monkey’s whether it’s Team Software-Bike Leasing Companies or Team Kitchen Accessories-Taps and Showers.
This whole affair is symptomatic of some of the fundamental issues that have long undermined pro cycling as a thriving and engaging spectator sport. If you’re looking into the sport from the outside, there’s no obvious guiding narrative, no league, championship or ranking to pull you in – I’ll respond with the crying-with-laughter emoji to anyone who suggests that the WorldTour might be this. Major races run concurrently, while the biggest of them takes place halfway through rather than at the end of the season. It’s a competitive muddle where tradition trumps all. Anyone who suggests restructuring the calendar, be it UCI David Lappartient or those behind the One Cycling project, gets shouted down or ridiculed.
When moments like this occur, I often think back 15 years or so to my time editing Procycling magazine. Our publisher was always looking for ways to boost sales, usually by revamping the cover. On one occasion, though, the publisher suggested that we needed to make the editorial more accessible to the occasional or casual fan. This could be done, they suggested, by restricting the use of jargon, cutting back on allusions to great names and races in the past, by not assuming that readers understood the tactical complexities of racing, by explaining, for instance, what echelon is every time we used the term.
Talking later to one of my colleagues, they suggested that breaking these codes is an essential part of becoming a cycling fan, that once you negotiate them you join an exclusive club. It wasn’t, they suggested, cycling’s job to make itself look more appealing in an increasingly crowded sporting marketplace. Being enigmatic was the foundation of its beauty.
Over the following few issues, we endeavoured to put the publisher’s suggestion into practice, but cycling’s illogicality defeated us. In effect, it is a kind of sporting sudoku or Wordle, a puzzle to be picked over and ultimately deciphered – or not. Why don’t the Ardennes Classics and Il Lombardia, races of a similar type, take place at the same time? What’s the point of a 300km, all-day race from Milan to Sanremo? Why are the Grand Tours all three weeks long? And does a three-quarter tailwind have the potential to chaos havoc within a fast-moving peloton?
The identity of the teams adds to this opaqueness. While every other team sport is rooted in location and long-standing history, cycling’s teams are rarely rooted at all. Their absolute dependence on sponsors undermines the connection to place. If you’re a non-cycling fan, how do you engage with a team that’s branded as, for instance, Visma, Intermarché or Total Energies? For me, those names conjure up in the first case nothing, in the second a badly lit local supermarket where there are never enough tills open, and a petrol station whose prices tend to be higher than the norm. I don’t feel any of the sense of anticipation you’d expect to feel as a fan when those teams and any others prepare for their next big sporting contest.
There have been and are teams that do have a geographical connection. Euskaltel-Euskadi was a prime example, its numerous and fervent fans decked out in their distinctive orange colours on the roadside at the biggest races. QuickStep have a significant following too thanks to their long (for cycling) history and strong connection to the Classic races that resonate with Belgian fans. For the most part, however, cycling is a sport that’s wedded to landscape rather than location, that attracts because of where it goes rather than where it’s based. It’s transitory rather than anchored.
The affiliation of fans tends to be just as fleeting. It can be won or lost due to a change of jersey, the arrival or departure of a particular rider, or success in a big race. It’s not unwavering and tribal. This can rightfully be regarded as a positive characteristic. Equally, though, it can leave cycling looking insipid and lacking in meaning or substance. Brands come and go, teams survive or they don’t, the sport meandering onwards all the while. Returning to Uijtdebroeks, I’d be delighted to see the 20-year-old Belgian build on the promise he’s shown. In addition to being talented, he’s engaging, upbeat and makes time for the media. But I still don’t care which team’s jersey he wears.