Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
The World Cup, the WorldTour and now Netflix – all have been held up as a means of altering cycling’s Tour-dominant focus. But will the rest of the calendar ever emerge from the Tour’s immense shadow?
In the wake of Tadej Pogačar’s shows of brilliance in winning Jaén Paraíso Interior and the Ruta del Sol last month, I wrote a story saying that the Slovenian’s all-year focus was an indication of cycling’s renaissance, of what I see as the sport’s most exciting period since I first started reporting on it back in the early 1990s. I acknowledged that the Tour de France is still the big show, but suggested: “There’s still a mass of races and contests that we can drool over before then, starting with Opening Weekend this coming weekend, followed by the Pogačar-less but still gripping Strade Bianche, and then the duel at Paris-Nice. Lap it all up, we’ve never had it so good.”
The feedback to the article was almost unanimously positive. However, one of the few to suggest my sense of optimism might be excessive was EF Education-Easypost team boss Jonathan Vaughters. Responding on Twitter, he agreed that Pogačar’s all-round focus was good to see, but added that he didn’t think it would make any difference to the interest in small races in February. “Core cycling fans (small population) already care a lot about early races. Casual fans (large population) don’t know bike racing even exists in February. The divide between these two groups is much larger than in many sports,” he wrote.
When someone else pointed out that all sports suffer from this “overshadowing” effect, that the Superbowl receives an audience three times bigger than any individual NFL game, Vaughters agreed, but offered the caveat: “But in cycling it’s not 3x. It’s 20x”. He added that cycling’s holy grail was finding a way to boost wider interest in races like the Ruta del Sol and indeed any event that takes place outside July.
His assessment seemed pessimistic, but Vaughters speaks from a position of experience and insight. He’s been inside the professional side of the sport for almost 30 years and has spent a lot of that time selling his team and the sport to prospective backers. What’s more, after spending a few days at Paris-Nice, I’m more inclined to agree with him than I was a fortnight ago.
On the second day in the Paris-Nice press room, it struck me that I was the only member of the English-speaking written press on the race. I should add that I wasn’t covering it for any of the English-speaking press either. I’d gone with the aim of speaking to Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard for an updated version of my book Climbers, published last year and set for a few additions before the paperback is released this summer. My publisher paid the expenses to cover this. I also pitched to three different news groups in the hope of picking up some extra freelance work. Unfortunately for my own hope of making it to Nice, none of them offered me anything and I had to abandon the race following the start of stage four.
I should point out that there is plenty of coverage of Paris-Nice this week. ITV and Flobikes are there for English-speaking audiences. There is, as you’d expect, a good contingent of French journalists and significant cohorts from Belgium and Denmark. Yet, ‘the race to the sun’ would once have attracted correspondents from most of the British broadsheets and from all of the major English language websites. So what’s going on and what might it mean for the sport?
The answer to the first question is, essentially, pandemic and recession. The former made travelling to races difficult, forcing media outlets to undertake more remote coverage. The latter has hardened that trend. There have been budget cuts in most media groups, staff cuts in some, closures as well. In an era where page views and click-throughs are the metric, events like the Ruta del Sol don’t pay and, worryingly, this now appears to be the case with races as big as Paris-Nice, despite it being the first edition for more than 30 years that has attracted the last two Tour de France winners, who have so far served up a captivating contest. Like looking through a telescope the wrong way, the trend is for narrowing rather than broadening the focus on coverage. I know of one organisation that had eight journalists at the Tour last year, but not a single one for the “revenge match” between that race’s two protagonists at Paris-Nice. Of course, this narrowing doesn’t apply to the subscription fees they’re charging, but that’s another story…
Cycling has always depended on the written word providing a narrative and insight. Yet, the tendency now seems to be towards following the remit of television, of looking for soundbites and devoting almost all coverage to the big names and stories. There are exceptions to this, L’Équipe being a notable one. Reading Alexandre Roos’s previews of and reflections on the season’s big races is joyous, while the insight provided by Dominique Issartel, Gaétan Scherrer and others ensures the paper is still a must-read for large parts of the year.
Elsewhere, though, I see more races being covered remotely, press releases being repurposed, stories being recycled from other sources, often leading to the impression that many are providing the same and not very interesting narrative, cloaked by a soundbite. There’s no colour, and cycling depends fundamentally on this, on writers who are on the ground providing it. This is a sport that, almost uniquely, takes place within the landscape. Absent yourself from this, and you might as well turn your reporting positions over to ChatGPT.
Being absent also means a whittling away of the significance of smaller races like the Ruta del Sol and even bigger ones like Paris-Nice. Yet, increasingly, organisations are taking refuge in the Tour de France bunker of guaranteed audience and revenue, which further ensures those other races are pushed further to the fringes, very much the preserve of core cycling fans.
As I rage against this trend, I’m fully aware that it’s not a new tendency. This has always been the way cycling has been since the Tour was established in 1903. It has overshadowed every other event since then, often hailed as the only race that matters. Yet, I still hope that wider coverage of racing (and thanks to GCN for that) and a broader embrace of the bike as means of transport, fun and relaxation might bring the holy grail of vibrant and well-supported calendar within reach. Sadly, Paris-Nice suggests that I’ll be waiting a while longer for this elusive goal.