In the couple of weeks after the Tour, a funny thing happens. Or rather: a whole series of similar funny things happen. In towns around France, Belgium and Holland, some of the biggest stars in road cycling appear, alongside lesser-known local riders, at what are effectively exhibition events. Over the course of an evening, following a couple of warm-up races, members of the pro peloton ride numerous very fast, short-ish laps of the town centre, and then, with a couple of kilometres left, following an agreement made before the “race”, three riders “break away” to fill the podium places. This is the standard “Post-Tour Crit”.
It is easy to dismiss these events. For one thing, not only are they fixed, but everyone – riders, spectators, everyone – knows they are fixed. Organisers agree which riders will appear on the podium in advance of the race, leaning heavily towards the stars of the recently completed Tour. For another thing, the events are very silly: at Monday’s Aalst Criterium, the prize awarded to this year’s maillot jaune Chris Froome for “outsprinting” Greg van Avermaet and Rafal Majka was . . . a big Napoleon hat.
However, there are one or two issues that are worth noting.
For one thing, Froome’s annual earnings from Team Sky have been estimated (by no less an authority than Sky Sports) at a remarkable £3m (and that was before he won his third Tour). Clearly, then, anyone who wants him to attend their event is going to have to pay a significant amount to make it worth his while (unless, of course, he rode in Aalst simply because he wanted a big hat). It has been suggested that crit organisers will pay the biggest Tour stars the equivalent of around $30,000 a night just to appear.
Where does this money come from? It isn’t hard to figure it out. A post-Tour crit may well be a circus, but guess what: people like circuses. The sight of some of the world’s greatest athletes riding round their local pedestrian precinct is enough to bring the people of small-town northern Europe onto their streets in their thousands. Then, the bunch rides laps so that – in contrast to the Tour – the punters can actually see them going past a few times. So, in simple terms – again in contrast to the Tour – such punters are both stationary for an entire evening and can easily be served with, say, beer and doughnuts. Local beer and doughnut sellers pay organisers handsomely for a spot on the course.
So. Punters get a show, beer and doughnuts. Entrepreneurs pay organisers for access to punters. Organisers pay riders (and other costs), and trouser the difference. Everybody’s happy.
Again, it is easy to sneer. But the reality is that events like these were once the core of professional cycling’s economy. Why do Tour winners traditionally pay all their prize money to their teammates? Is this the selfless gesture of a true sporting hero, born of romantic tradition? No: it’s just good business. Tour prize money was always small beer compared to what the yellow jersey could make on the post-Tour crit circuit. So it makes sense to incentivise your teammates to help you win it.
So there’s plenty of money in post-Tour cycling action, however fixed and silly. But here’s the thing: criterium racing doesn’t have to be either fixed or silly.
Since 2009, the Pearl Izumi Tour Series, organised by Sweetspot, has been bringing fast, exciting racing action (from both men's and women's pelotons) to Britain’s provincial town and city centres. The FACE Partnership’s London Nocturne has been doing the same for the capital since 2007. Before these, in the 1980s, there was the Kellogg’s series, whose Monday night races in Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow, Nottingham and Birmingham were a huge hit when shown on the newly-created Channel 4, drawing between two and two-and-a-half million viewers every week.
Another example. 2016 sees the tenth anniversary of the USA Crits Championship Series. But the individual races in the series, and US criterium racing generally, has a much longer history than that: some of the individual events in the series have been running for over a hundred years. They are a full-blown cultural phenomenon, too: races are often combined with music and arts festivals that very effectively showcase host towns, making the whole event even more spectator-friendly, and consequently drawing huge crowds of up to 30,000 people.
A post-Tour crit, as things currently stand, is obviously a circus masquerading as a sporting event. But it is equally obvious that in economic and sporting terms, criterium-style racing has a lot going for it.
We all know that, economically, professional road racing is a mess, at least from the perspective of the teams. Unable to charge entrance fees to roadside spectators, and with no share in cycling’s TV revenues (which are 100% retained by organisers), the teams are (to use Jonathan Vaughters’ term) in “permanent start-up” mode: without stable revenue sources they are dependent on sponsors, who change every couple of years – meaning teams are always scrabbling for new ones. And since sponsors buy the right to name and dress the team as they wish, the teams lack durable identities, which in turn limits their merchandising opportunities.
The teams’ dependence on one source of financing is in part due to the traditional structure of races, running from point-to-point over vast distances. While such races are, of course, often spectacular, they are neither spectator- nor TV-friendly. For spectators the action is over in a few seconds. For TV, following the race across country and up and down mountains, is a pain. Such events are great marketing vehicles in that they get people’s attention and showcase the regions they pass through. But making the most of them is very hard work.
Criterium racing, rather like track cycling (as we argued in a major feature, "Inside Track", in Conquista issue 11), solves all these problems, essentially by simply having the riders do laps of a short circuit, and so keeping everything in one place.
Crits could never replace road cycling’s great races. But they needn’t even try. Let the great races, Tour included, serve effectively as marketing for the crits - just like they always have done, and still do today. In the period after the Tour there is a huge appetite for bicycle racing and its stars. There is no reason, other than the historic, why this appetite should not be filled by genuine, all-action, city-centre racing, rather than the WWF-style circus of the post-Tour crits.
This is more or less what happened in triathlon. Originally, the world’s triathlons were run over varying distances to varying rules. But the creation of a governing body, the ITU, brought standardisation and, by virtue of having the athletes swim, cycle and run laps of city centres, made the sport vastly more accessible to spectators and television. Now triathlons bring huge crowds to the centre of cities worldwide – Cape Town, Hamburg, Yokohama and Australia’s Gold Coast are all on the schedule for 2016.
Why can’t cycling do something similar?
One final thing. Every year, the road cycling season is brought to a climax by the UCI Road World Championships. Over the course of a week, a single town plays host to a series of races, culminating on the last weekend in the men’s and women’s elite races. All these races have a distinctive format: the peloton rides a number of kilometres over a cross-country course before arriving in the city centre, where it rides a number of fast laps before reaching the finish line.
Read that sentence again. City centre . . . fast laps . . . Remind you of anything? This format is well entrenched in cycling’s history, and combines the sporting and economic advantages of both point-to-point and criterium racing. Indeed, the UCI Road World Championships remains by far the governing body’s largest source of revenue.
Could this be the format of a whole new series of events that run through the year, rather than just one annual, year-end jamboree? Every season, the UCI puts on four Track World Cups as well as the Track World Championships. Why not do the same on the road, and share the spoils with the teams – men’s and women’s?