The UCI's sudden relish in enforcing rule 1.2.019 seems to have come as a bolt from the blue to race organisers in the USA and beyond. It's a rule no one seems to have heard of and the UCI was not too fussed on enforcing until recently. So why the sudden change?
The UCI's biggest problem is that cycling is now awash with creative people - all outside the tent pissing in.
Many of the (unsanctioned) organisers argue that the boom in cycling is a consequence of their work on the ground unhindered for the past 10 years, rather than a bunch of press releases from Aigle.
Pat McQuaid is claiming the boom in cycling to be his doing, pointing to the million spectators at the Olympic road race. So who’s right?
To try and explain the boom lets take a cross section of World Cycling, a snap shot of 1 country over the past 30 years, Ireland.
It’s your average cycling nation, some big names over the years but its membership would indicate that it’s not a hotbed, it’s not a national sport as it would be in Holland, Belgium and France. I’ll look at why the numbers have risen here and draw broad conclusions as to where the growth in world cycling has come from. Stick with me.
So here’s the chart as it appeared on CI’s website, they’ve added their own labels to point to the growth triggers at various times. I’d challenge them.
The first upturn happens in 1985. Why?
Boom years 1985-1990
TV and English.
Between 1980-84 membership remains fairly consistent at around 2000. This represents the core membership below which numbers never fall. You could call this the cycling bedrock. All countries have it. The first spike above 2000 members is in 1985 when a new UK broadcaster, Channel 4, spotted an opportunity, took a gamble and started covering Le Tour in 30 mins slots every evening. Cycling and TV are the perfect combination - suddenly there’s a spike in membership.
LeMonde was the first native English speaker to win the TDF in 1986 - coinciding with C4 coverage. We get the experience first hand, straight from the horse’s mouth not via an interpreter or captions. Making the experience more immediate and tangible. LeMond was quickly followed by Roche, then LeMond’s comeback. Over the span of LeMond’s TDF wins, membership doubles. (From 1986-2012 native English speakers have won the TDF 13 times (ok minus 8 but we’ll get to that). 50% of TDF winners have been native English speakers in that time. This can’t be ignored.)
Bust years 1991-2001
Drugs and drama
We all thought of road racing as a gritty realist documentary. Hinault blowing up on Superbagneres, Roche collapsing at the top of the La Plagne. Fignon folding on the Champs. However, drama dried up as Indurain terminated his was to 5 straight wins at Le Tour in the dullest fashion imaginable. The lack of a native English speaker mixed with the increasing stench of doping began to see an effect on cycle growth. Cycling was a switch off. Festina showed us all that gritty realism had been replaced with big budget special effects. Pro cycling was and has remained a mess ever since.
During the Indurain era membership steadily declined and failed to recover for the next 5 years. Even with Pat McQuaid at the helm of Cycling Ireland from 1996-99, the ship failed to turn around. Even securing a TDF start in Dublin didn’t have much success in raising membership nationally. By 2001 cycling was clearly back to square one.
Failure baked in.
Cycle clubs are made up from very hard working volunteers, badly funded and de-motivated by poor management and a lack of support/funding by their national federation. Most creative, innovative thinking gets driven out at this early stage.
National federations are made up from hard working volunteers, badly funded, badly managed and largely demotivated by poor management and support from the UCI.
National Federation members eventually reach top table at the UCI and eventually we get a president, Pat McQuaid. You can’t really complain when we end up with Pat McQuaid - the culture guarantees a lack of imagination. I’m not blaming the people - far from it, I’m blaming the system. It’s a system that weeds out innovation and imagination at the grassroots. To quote LBJ it would be much better ‘having them inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”.
THE BOOM 2001-2013
Whilst pro-cycling was busy disappearing up its own backside - American bike enthusiasts with time on their hands and little regard for road racing, rules or the UCI had been racing old cruiser bikes down the sides of mountains in the late 70s. They were innovative, risk-takers some of them turned out to be savvy business people. In 1980 Specialised launched the Stumpjumper. Disc brakes, suspension, high gearing, rapid-fire shifting followed. Whilst road bike sales were dropping off a cliff, the technology and innovation going into MTB was driving a market and a sport that the UCI had no hand in and no means of controlling. The USA began outsourcing to Asia and inevitably MTB production moved to Taiwan. Eventually these innovative, entrepreneurial Taiwanese companies began producing their own bikes and developing their own brands.
In 1997 Giant (Taiwanese bike company) spotted a huge gap. Road bikes were always a tailor-made Saville Row affair, bespoke, expensive, exclusive, elitist. Giant, following the MTB model, simplified sizing giving us off-the-peg S M & L. You could now do the research, buy a bike on-line and get it delivered to your door. No need for a club or a bike shop or the UCI. Decades of innovation, unhindered by the UCI, coupled with the internet, easy credit and bikes now costing less than £1000 off-the-peg kick-started road cycling again. Look at the graph in that light.
Yes - it’s Lance Armstrong! He was spotted by innovative, risk-taking business people with no regard for the UCI or its rules & regulations. We couldn’t get enough of the yellow wristband, the Livestrong logos, the books and the quotes. It’s now emerging the UCI was not only on the Gravy Train but actively stoking it. Armstrong generated more bike sales, more TV coverage, more column inches and more UCI licenses than was ever thought imaginable. Look at the graph in that light.
Fat blokes in Lycra.
What to do with the dreaded ‘leisure’ cyclist (that’s what CI call them). The UCI wants champions not fat middle aged blokes in Lycra.
Give them the odd ‘reliability run’ a few ‘leisure tours’ that’ll keep them happy while we get on with the serious stuff, developing champions.
Not happy with this, innovative club members with a head for marketing and a desire to encourage more people to cycle, turned tired old ‘touring’ events and ‘reliability runs’ into Grand Fondos and Sportives inspired by the French and Italians. Sportives are a phenomenon, once again not of the UCI’s making and outside their control.
The awful phrase ‘leisure cyclist’ is still used. It’s patronising, snooty and ignores the largest cycling demographic.
Fat blokes in lycra who rode drop-bars as kids in the 70’s have saved the Cycling Ireland/UCI’s bacon not Brad and Vino. Statistics from one of Ireland’s largest Sportives show that 75% of cyclists taking part are not members of the UCI. Potentially 75% of the million roadside at the Olympic road race have no idea what the UCI is/does.
The future champions will be the sons and daughters of fat blokes in Lycra.
Stop creating - start curating.
The UCI’s biggest problem is that cycling is now awash with creative people - all outside the tent pissing in. Creating new clubs, new products, new bikes, new bike shows, new web platforms, new clothing ranges, new magazines (with old journalists digging up older dirt), new race formats and new races. The UCI are terrified the ‘next big thing’ is going to happen and they won’t control it.
What the UCI and most of us fail to realise is that Cycling isn’t sport, it’s art. Digging out Rule 1.2.019 is akin to announcing (in an Irish accent) “There shall be no more movements in modern art without running it past us first - we don’t want another Picasso on our hands!”.
Cycling is an art form with many ‘movements’. One day racing is a ‘movement’ and Paris-Roubaix is its masterpiece. Stage racing is a movement and the Tour De France is its masterpiece. Cyclocross is a movement. Mountain biking is a movement. BMX is a movement. None of them created by the UCI. Masterpieces can be revisited countless times and still deliver a new experience, that’s what these great races do - deliver something new every year. Rather than think of themselves as ‘creators’ of events they should see themselves as ‘curators’ of a rich cycling heritage. They are the Tate, The Guggenheim and MOMA rolled into one. Their business isn’t creating art it’s protecting it, promoting it and nurturing new movements. Until the UCI realise their job is not to create but to curate they will continue to make a mess of it.
The UCI are not going to develop the next big thing, they never have, it’s not their job. That job belongs to cyclists, wanting to create something different, something better and something new. Let them do the creating. That’s why cycling is art, that’s what makes it different.
An old institution bolts the door, Dungannon, Co. Tyrone