Words: Cillian Kelly / Images: Cor Vos
How one team achieved something nobody else could, and didn't even notice.
You probably think professional cycling is about winning races. You're wrong.
It's a perfectly understandable mistake to make. Winning is what riders get asked about in interviews most often. How did you win that race? Why did you not win that other race? How are you going to prepare to win the next race? Which other riders are you concerned about who may prevent you from winning? How are you going to help your teammate win?
The success of a rider's career is measured in wins, both the quality and quantity. Finding out the identity of the winner of a race and how they did it is why most people watch cycling. But it's not what cycling is about. It's not what cycling is for.
Cycling is and always has been for selling stuff. Going right back to the 19th century, road racing was invented to sell newspapers. Then it continued to exist to sell bikes and equipment. And beginning in the 1950s, when Fiorenzo Magni landed himself a sponsor with Nivea hand cream, the first extra-sportif sponsor, the sport existed – as it still does to this day – as a vehicle for selling absolutely anything.
It just so happens that winning races is usually the best angle to take when trying to sell whatever random tat happens to be emblazoned on a rider's jersey. Crossing the finish line first with arms spreadeagled gives sponsors the money shot they can use for advertising their product. It associates them with success. Everyone wants to be associated with success, right? So, buying that specific brand of laminate floor will make you feel better about yourself, because then you'll be almost exactly like Tom Boonen.
Winning is one very effective way of activating the advertising possibilities of a company. But it's not the only way. Advertising is the only plausible reason why riders with almost no hope of winning take it upon themselves to make it into a day-long breakaway (with Thomas De Gendt perhaps the self-flagellating exception). They get up the road, get the sponsor on television and that's the next best thing to winning races when you have a team full of riders who can't win races.
There are others who have discovered that cultivating a public persona can also have a similar effect. In these cases the rider also benefits because they become more likely to land another contract. But the benefits are symbiotic, whatever exposure the rider gets will also provide a platform for the team sponsor.
Jens Voigt, for instance, would get into breakaways and win the odd race. But so do lots of riders. The difference with Voigt is that he also pushed a persona. An identity which consisted of Jens! with an exclamation mark. A wacky interview style where he would use words like “KAPOW!” and “Holy Shit”. And most importantly, a slogan, “Shut up legs!” It set him apart from other riders with a similar palmarès. He got far more exposure for his sponsor than his sporting ability could have done on its own. He ended up with a book deal and now he commentates with Phil Liggett.
THE PASSION OF THE CRADDOCK
There is an even newer, previously untapped method for riders to sell themselves. Getting injured and then dragging their broken bodies around an entire country to get to the end of a Grand Tour. In previous decades if you were chewing your handlebars in the gruppetto all day every day, nobody cared. Your final GC result probably wasn't even listed in the relevant edition of Cycling Weekly. Nobody appreciated what you were going through because nobody saw it. How could they? There were no cameras.
But now everyone watching the race has a camera. So if ASO or RCS don't have enough resources to record your suffering, don't worry, it'll end up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram anyway, where the pain face is fetishised. The idea that a rider is doing damage to themselves just to finish a race is celebrated. This is not the same thing as the glory days of the lanterne rouge in the late 1970s when Gerhard Schönbacher and Philippe Tesnière would partake in a farcical slow bike race around France. This is different. It's not a celebration of your position in the race. It's a preoccupation with self-inflicted torture. But it works.
Lawson Craddock at the 2018 Tour de France fractured his shoulder blade and smashed his face up on day one. But he soldiered on defiantly. Despite it being a fucking stupid idea and despite Craddock's team staff abandoning any responsibility for the welfare of their rider, he made it to Paris. To Craddock's credit he turned the experience into an opportunity to raise $200,000 to help repair a velodrome in Houston, Texas. But the net result was that he was talked about and written about far more for damaging his body and making a show out of his suffering than if he had actually won a stage of the race. More advertising banked for the sponsor. More cachet when it comes to negotiating Craddock's next contract.
Sam Bennett did the same at the 2016 Tour after he fell ill almost immediately after he set foot in France for the Grand Départ. Geraint Thomas cycled around France with a broken hip in 2013. Dan Martin broke two vertebrae in 2017 but continued. The injury becomes the story. The rider becomes a vehicle for suffering and it doesn't actually matter if they win or not. The anguish is now the reason the rider exists.
Despite the fact we’re discussing a team sport, all of the ways of advertising a sponsor mentioned so far are centred on the individual. For years the only tangible ways of displaying team excellence were winning team time trials or winning the team classification in the Tour de France. But we've already established cycling isn't really what winning is about and let's face it, nobody gives a shit about the team classification at the Tour de France.
Recently teams have begun coming up with ways of showcasing their sponsor which don't involve winning. Many teams now produce behind the scenes videos to increase their 'reach' and get shares and likes on social media. Orica–GreenEDGE’s Backstage Pass was a particularly fine example of just what can be produced if the team focuses on such things. An approach that is spreading.
For the individual, finishing a Grand Tour can become an internal battle where demons are fought and barriers are broken down, but for an entire team to finish a Grand Tour is an altogether more impressive feat. As of 2018, Grand Tour teams consist of eight riders each, but for the rest of modern cycling history teams have generally consisted of nine. To bring nine riders to a race and have them all be physically capable of completing the 3,500 km route, without any of them getting ill or injured or missing the time cut and to not have one significant equipment or logistical failure is a feat of teamwork which involves a whole lot more than simply exploring the murky depths of the pain cave.
Managing to complete an entire Grand Tour with all nine riders still standing should be considered a mind-boggling achievement. It should be cause for the sponsoring company to rejoice. What an exercise in teamwork, precision, planning, management, excellence, endurance. A cause for celebration in itself. No need to win the race. The team has proven its excellence in more than just organising a lead-out train or getting into a lucky breakaway.
This sort of achievement should be lauded. When a team manages it, they should be shouting it from the promotional caravan. They should be raising the topic in every interview they do. They should be making a behind-the-scenes documentary based on that achievement alone. They should, but they don't. Nobody even notices. And there is one team in cycling history which is guiltier than any of failing to capitalise on this type of situation and for even failing to realise what they'd done.
Only one team in the history of cycling has ridden all three Grand Tours in one year and completed all three without a single rider abandoning. That team was Liquigas.
What is even more astonishing is that the team managed to do it three years in a row. No other team has ever done this and Liquigas did it every year from 2009 to 2011. They actually extended the streak into 2012 through the Giro and the Tour. They managed 11 Grand Tours in a row with no abandons until the run was ended by Daniele Ratto abandoning on Stage 12 of the Vuelta.
Let's set some context to this criminally uncelebrated statistic. The Tour de France has, of course, existed since 1903 and the Giro was created six years later. But the Vuelta didn't come into being until 1935. So it wasn't until then that it became a possibility to even ride all three of these races. Regardless, cycling was a much more parochial affair back then. An Italian team taking part in the Vuelta, or vice versa, was not yet conceivable.
It was 20 years before the first riders rode and finished all three Grand Tours in a single year. In 1955, the feat was achieved by Raphaël Géminiani, Bernardo Ruiz and Louis Caput. Amazingly Géminiani finished the Giro, Tour and Vuelta in fourth, sixth and third place respectively – thirty-five riders have completed three Grand Tours in a year and nobody has managed a set of aggregated finishing positions better than this.
But in those days the Tour de France was contested by national teams which meant it was not possible for a team to take part in all three Grand Tours in a year. The Tour switched back permanently to being contested by trade teams in 1969 but also moved away from national teams between 1962 and 1966. It was during this time in 1964 when the Salvarani team of Vittorio Adorni and Ercole Baldini became the first in cycling history to be at the start line of the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. It should be pointed out that in the 1960s the notion of a 'Grand Tour', let alone grouping the three together was not yet a 'thing'. But that's a whole 'nother history lesson.
It wasn't until 1971 that another team spread themselves across the calendar again, the Spanish KAS team of José Manuel Fuente. It became a regular thing for KAS throughout the seventies as other teams began to join in – Magniflex, Rokado, Frisol, Teka. Then there was something of a lull. Between 1979 and 1984, no teams rode all three. This was primarily due to the Vuelta running into financial difficulties and they were no longer able to incentivise Italian teams to take part. In 1979 only one Italian was at the start line of the Vuelta. In 1983 there were none. But by the mid-1990s it had become quite normal for a single team to race all three. The likes of Banesto, Carrera, Gatorade, Festina, Kelme all regularly did so.
Then came the UCI's master plan, the ProTour, which began in 2005, where Grand Tour berths were no longer to be granted at the whim of the tyrannical organisers. They would now be dictated by the UCI. All of the top tier teams were now guaranteed entry to all the Grand Tours, with a handful of wildcard invitations to do what they wanted with. The same system which is in place now under the excitingly rebranded WorldTour umbrella. So these days 18 teams are obliged to race all three every year.
Since Salvarani got the ball rolling in 1964, a total of 368 teams have ridden the Giro, Tour and Vuelta in the same year. And every single one of those teams had at least one rider abandon at least one of those races. Apart from Liquigas.
During those three years from 2009 to 2011, Liquigas sent 35 riders to those nine Grand Tours. They won six stages of the Giro (Franco Pellizotti x 2, Ivan Basso, Vincenzo Nibali, Eros Capecchi and a team time trial) and three stages of the Vuelta (all Peter Sagan). They also won the polka dot jersey at the Tour through Pellizotti, although his results from this time were subsequently stripped due to a biological passport violation. And in 2010, Liquigas won both the Giro and the Vuelta, with Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali respectively. Two Grand Tours in a single year with two different riders is something which had only been done four times previously (or six if you want to include Lance Armstrong which is, of course, entirely up to you). And has only been done one other time since, Team Sky last year with Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
It's almost certain the Liquigas team had not realised the unprecedented nature of what they had achieved. It is a feat that should be celebrated and remembered, something that current squads should try to emulate. If teams are starting to realise that winning is, actually, not everything when it comes to selling windows or expanding foam or bottled gas, then perhaps it might dawn on one of them that attempting to 'do a Liquigas' might be quite a worthy cause for celebration.
Cillian Kelly is research director of The Roadbook and a renowned cycling statistician.