Oleg Tinkoff faces some serious challenges if he wants to have a lasting impact on the sport. As discussed in last week's blog, he is talking big game - but will he bring it? To date his bark has been worse than his bite. His only real action so far has been a bit of trash talk accompanied with a cash splash. Most other threats he's made to rock the boat have turned out hollow - the most recent being his threat to withdraw from the Vuelta.
Here are some of the issues I see working against Oleg's ambition:
- Cycling is steeped in tradition - any changes to the calendar would have to respect the wishes of riders and the public to include the Monuments and the TDF in their current format as an absolute minimum. Every race has it's history, and this gives events momentum which is hard to shift - there are many interests, financial and otherwise, in each event. One possible counter argument is the rapid rise in popularity of the Strade Bianchi. Proof that new events can still prosper, and a long tradition is not an essential element for a race to succeed.
- The UCI - Brian Cookson seems to be doing his best to transform this unwieldy organisation. I don't profess to understand how the UCI works, but from an outsiders perspective, it seems Cookson still needs a committee meeting to tie his shoes. Anything but agile, the UCI has epic legacy issues from years of sub-par management. They will be wrestling with internal policy for some time - making the prospect of reforming the competition an unwelcome distraction.
- Sponsorship risk - Reforming the sport is a giant risk. If sponsors are uncomfortable with any of the proposed changes, they may walk away, and entire teams could be stranded. That sort of fall-out would be devastating for all involved. Of course, this may be necessary for growth, but at what cost? Mitigating the risk is essential, but how?
- Oleg's Personality - While colourful personalities can be good for the sport in some respects, sometimes they can be harmful - just ask anyone in women's cycling about Oleg (For more on that issue, read Ella cycling's great letter). He desperately wants to have an impact on the sport, but he seems to want to win races more - as evidenced by his decision to back down from his threat to withdraw from the Vuelta. Most pundits predicted this would happen due to Raphal Majka lying fourth on GC. This just says to people, despite some of his more admirable qualities and intentions, "I'm a chauvinist who puts winning before principles" - which does nothing for his credibility.
So - if we were to ignore all of these challenges, and just go about 'fixing cycling' what would the ideal model look like?
In my opinion, a sport becomes popular when great rivalries exist. Fans in the modern age crave data, and love pouring over statistics to try and validate their convictions in supporting an athlete or team. Data and stats make it clearer on paper where these main rivalries exist, and could give direction to how a competition should progress. Great rivalries are also developed by head to head competition, and a build up to a grand final style event is a proven model across many sports.
Clearly demand for more data is already making an impact, creeping into competition with limited access to athletes heart rates, power files being drip fed, and athletes themselves occasionally posting Strava files. GPS tracking and on-bike video has also recently been trialled. It seems inevitable that we will only see more of this as time goes on, but a plan with clear desired outcomes must be followed, as at this point in time there is no direction.
At a minimum, I would like to see time-delayed power and heart rate data introduced, supercharging post climb and sprint analysis whilst still hiding those elements between rivals when it matters. Add GPS tracking and we can monitor a splintering peloton (without them being smashed by motorbikes), and compare sprinters' top speeds as they hit the finale.
But capturing and using data is only part of the answer. What else can be done to expose these rivalries, cultivate them and exploit them for the benefit of the fans?
For my take on that, you'll have to check in on next weeks' blog.
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