Bridging the Gap
It is estimated that there are somewhere between 1-2 billion bikes in the world, which alone is a staggering number. This is similar to the number of cars, which sits at 1.42 billion. With over 50% of the world’s population knowing how to ride a bike, it would not be farfetched to predict that one of the world’s most popular sports could be cycling- with the emphasis on could. The Total Sportek ranks cycling as the 17th most popular sport based on 13 factors, which leaves a big question as to how there can be so many bikes and bike riders and yet cycling fails to make the top 10 most popular sports.
Over half a billion bikes can be found in China alone. © Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
2020 was a booming year for the bike industry, with Forbes estimating that between April-June, the industry saw an increase in sales of 67%. The last similar increase was in 2012 with the success of Great Britain at the Olympics and Team Sky at the Tour De France, captivating many young people to grab life by the bars. We then saw an increase of the number of young racers, being one of the reasons why the UK has become a hotspot for strong under-23 and junior riders. However, this being short-lived, the bike trade subsequently declined, and the racing scene shrank once again. In recent years we have seen a decline in the number of professional teams and the strength of the racing scene, especially in the UK. It is worrying to think that the decline in the UK was foreshadowing a possible uncertain future for the rest of the sport. But 2020 has given hope to the cycling trade and sport with a phenomenal participation increase. As a result, we decided to take a look at what we can learn from previous years on how to maintain and sustain cycling as a sport.
Sir Bradley Wiggins' Olympic gold inspiring future generations. © Alex Livesey/Getty Images
The big question is: why is there a gap in cycling between the recreational/leisure side of cycling, and the competitive racing side? As we see in most other sports, those who partake in the sport usually follow or have some knowledge of the professional side. Football is one example of a sport which is both played by millions and also watched by millions; those that usually play football down at the local club or just for a kickabout with mates, tend to watch the professional game, or have a good understanding of the sport at a professional level. Why is cycling different?
With China’s half a billion bikes you would think they’d be able to produce hundreds, if not thousands, of Mathieu van der Poels and Wout van Aerts. But yet there is not a single Chinese cyclist in the WorldTour or Pro tour, with the last such rider being back in 2019, as Meiyin Wang rode for Bahrain-Merida. The answer is that China is a nation of cyclists, but not in the same way as Belgium. The bike is not a tool for sport or for recreation, it is simply a mode of transportation like it is for millions of others. Just as billions of car drivers aren’t interested in Lewis Hamilton’s next F1 victory, millions of cyclists are not interested in Mathieu van der Poel taming Via Santa Caterina at Strade Bianche. The bicycle is a mode of transport, which explains the answer as to why there is the aforementioned gap between cyclists and professional cycling- there is simply a lack of interest as riding a bike is just a way of getting from A to B. However, I believe this is an untapped market and that professional cycling is missing out on millions of potential fans. For many westerners, cycling as a mode of transport has become a green alternative and more of a choice rather than a tool. If road cycling, as a sport, was to adapt its model to pique the interest of these cyclists, the sport’s following would increase 10-fold. Your average John Smith, who is racing through traffic at 8.55am on a Monday morning after waking up late, is going to be able to relate to professional cycling a lot more than other popular sports.
As we all know, cycling is a sport that constantly changes, whether that be new technology or new UCI rules (however stupid they may be). But over the years there has been a dramatic change in the recreational scene of cycling in the UK- the death of the cycling club and the rise of the ‘weekend warrior’. For years the opening path to becoming a cyclist would be through a local cycling club. Whether you wanted to be a tester, road racer, tourer or just enjoyed a weekend club run, then the place to start would always be your local cycling club or clarion. This in itself bridged the gap between the recreational side of the sport and the racing side of the sport, as clubs were the place where all of these riders would co-exist under one roof. The up-and-coming youngster would be able to go out with the old school tourers, or the tester could go out with the 9am Saturday club run. This link through a cycling club made all the riders relate to each other, bridging the gap between the recreational cyclist and the racer. As a result, the recreational cyclist would gain more knowledge of the sport itself and may even partake in the local ten or road race. However, this original pathway into cycling has eroded away with the growth of the ‘weekend warrior’ and the lack of interest in joining a club. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons why the growth of cyclists and bike sales has not impacted the growth in the sport and to why there is this gap between the two groups. Cyclists are no longer interested in the sport as a whole, no matter what their background within the sport is. It has become more about what your fastest Strava time is, or what latest kit you have bought.
Clarion meeting over 100 years ago in Bakewell. ©Ripley & District Heritage Trust
Cycling- along with a lot of sports- has a problem with inclusivity and accessibility, especially with cycling being such an expensive sport. With a good racing bike costing a minimum of £2000, this is only the start, followed by entry fees, transport and several other costs, meaning deep pockets are needed. This excludes millions of people and ensures that a pay cheque can decide your future and performance within a sport, especially at a young age. Young riders who adore riding their bikes, be it with their family and friends or even with a local cycling club, delve into the sporting side of cycling and those without the wealthy parents can be put off. In a fantastic interview with Robert Gesink by Nancy Arreola, the Dutchman spoke of his own struggles to delve deeper into the sport he loved:
“Cycling is not a cheap sport, so I worked on my family’s farm for almost a year so that I could buy a new bike.”
Gesink later goes on to discuss prioritising cycling over school and his subsequent career setbacks; you can find the interview here on the GCN app.
Or is the recreation/commuting cycling and professional cycling gap simply down to entertainment? Cycling has never been a mainstream sport in its lifetime, with sports like football constantly dominating the headlines and airtime. Now we all know that cycling is a beautiful sport and for many of us it has produced some of our most memorable sporting moments, but for an outsider is it really that exciting?
In one YOUGOV survey, 50% of people said that cycling was boring/very boring. In basic terms the sport is very simple- the rider who crosses the finish line first wins, the same as a running race. However, we all know that it is far from that simple with different teams, classifications, courses, disciplines, rider types, just to name a few. To many, this can seem over complicated and will alienate them before finding enjoyment, therefore they stick with going for a ride every weekend. The length of the races can also be questioned, with races lasting hours and hours, it is just time that ordinary people don’t have. They want to go out on their bike for a quick blast a few times a week, then get on with their job or family commitments. The sport can not only come across as alienating and lacking any sort of excitement for a non-racing cyclist, but also isolating and lacking identity. As we see cycling increasing becoming a team-based sport with the importance of domestiques, the one thing the sport lacks compared to other team sports, is each teams’ identity, giving the fans of a certain team their own identity in their own right. This is a major flaw in the structure of cycling, whereby recreational cyclists struggle to relate to the billion-pound chemical company INEOS, along with many other companies who sponsor professional teams. When we look at rugby or football, they have the sponsors of the team, but at their foundation they will have the club itself forming an identity. This then creates a bond between the professionals and the ordinary people who enjoy watching or participating in the sport. Not only does this strengthen the team and make them more sustainable, with the long history of clubs it also means that the likelihood of them going bankrupt or closing is largely reduced.
Even the great Sagan said that “Cycling is boring to watch on TV”. © Gian Mattia D'Alberto, Archives Associated Press
As mentioned previously, cycling is a sport that is ever changing and adapting, hence this gap between the recreational side and sporting side can be bridged. In recent years we’ve seen a top-down approach by the UCI and some race organisers. The creation of the Hammer Series in 2017 by Velon, whether you believe it was exciting or not, was an attempt to try and increase the entertainment value of racing. However due to the legal complications that Velon and the UCI had, the series stopped in 2019, closing the door on an opportunity to adapt the sport and make it more spectator friendly. After the creation of the Hammer Series in 2017, the following year saw further changes made to races to make them more exciting. The UCI implemented a new rule regarding team sizes, reducing the number of riders in a team from 9 to 8 riders, hoping that it would raise the entertainment value of races and decrease the success of tactics implemented by Team Sky. However, this rule did little to change the racing, with teams adapting to having an 8-man train and team rather than a 9-man team. 2018 was also the year that ASO organised one of the shortest Tour de France stages, with Stage 17 of the Tour sitting at only 65km and finishing up the Col du Portet- with the riders even leaving the start line in an F1 style gridding system. These actions taken by the UCI and other race organisers did little to change the sport or possibly increase its entertainment value. It can even be argued that the UCI has made these changes half-heartedly, without addressing the issues that need to be addressed. But it may not be down to the people at the top to make these changes and the right approach may instead be bottom-up.
The Hammer Series: an epic fail or ahead of its time? © Getty Images
One of the most beloved teams in cycling is EF Education-Nippo and in recent years they have stepped out of the crowd to reinvent themselves. The team really began to come out of its shell in 2019 when Rapha stepped onboard as their clothing sponsor, to produce one of the most outlandish cycling kits we’ve seen in the 21st century, but this was just the start. In 2019 they launched the “EF Gone Racing” YouTube series, giving cycling fans an insight into life on the road as a professional cycling team. This rapidly gained popularity amongst cyclists, with them being able to watch this behind-the-scenes footage and gain a larger insight into life in the professional peloton. It also began to bridge the gap between a normal cyclist and a professional cyclist. This was further pushed by Rapha, with them being able to market it to their customers who may be disengaged from the pro cycling world.
The popularity of EF’s more fun and entertaining approach led to a growth in their popularity and an eventual spin off series. Lachlan Morton led the charge of the EF Gone Racing Alternative series, which began in 2019 with the Dirty Kanza. The series followed Lachlan and other riders such as Taylor Phinney in their participation of alternative races across the globe, including two British races: GBDURO & Three Peaks Cyclocross. This series was a perfect way to bridge the gap between several different groups of cyclists that are united under one thing, which is the bicycle. Being able to connect a WorldTeam with these alternative events, EF opened up a different angle to those fans who enjoyed professional road racing. We also saw EF rip up the rulebook (quite literally) at the 2020 Giro d’ Italia as they collaborated with Rapha x Palace to create the Mighty Ducks kit, leading to an unhappy UCI and a 4,500 CHF fine. The disruptive kit attracted fans both of cycling and fashion, resulting in an instant sell-out upon being ‘dropped’ (put on sale, for those of you not so in tune with the fashion industry). This gave the team an identity, which is something that most cycling teams lack and is one of the reasons for the gap in the sport between recreational/commuting cyclists and professional cycling. This approach has certainly worked for EF and I hope that other teams take onboard their model of what a WorldTeam should look like, to bridge the gap and increase the entertainment value of the sport.
Lachlan Morton participating in Three Peaks Cyclocross in 201. © Dan Monaghan
We have not only seen this disruptive approach work at WorldTour level, but also in the lower ranks of professional cycling and even at an amateur level. The L39ION of Los Angeles team was founded in 2019 by brothers Justin and Cory Williams, with a goal of increasing inclusivity and diversity in cycling. The success of the team has led to their step up to continental level for 2021 and launching a women’s team. But this team is far more than just being good on a bike; their savvy social media campaigns and race insights have made their online presence huge, creating a pathway into competitive cyclists for young people of any background. It sparked from the idea of wearing GoPros on their helmets whilst racing, something that had rarely been done and resulted in an incredibly popular YouTube channel ran by Cory Williams.
With help from innovative brands such as Rapha, their work is helping to bridge the gap in diversity and increase inclusivity in the sport. Their elite roster is not just riders of the same demographic which we so often see in cycling, instead they have riders from many different backgrounds which are connected by one thing- their love for bike racing. The team in 2020 managed to raise $50,000 to help increase diversity and inclusion within cycling. Justin Williams has also made a point in the past of bridging the gap in cycling and boosting the interest in the sport as a whole. Constantly making the point of “how do we make cycling heroes”, by creating these heroes the sport will gain popularity and it will bridge the gap between the two sides of the sport. With individual athletes or “heroes”, as Williams describes, are what leads to people falling in love with not only the sport but a team and being loyal to one team is what cycling hasn’t largely built yet. As cycling teams are constantly changing and going bust, it means fans don’t have the loyalty or identity they gain in other sports. Discussing the future of cycling with CyclingTips, Williams also said that he wanted to see “people passing down their L39ION Jerseys to their kids”. This would then create an identity as the child would follow in the footsteps of his dad or mother to then be a fan of the team. This then will inspire the future generations of cyclists to be part of something bigger and help bridge the gap in the sport. We’ve also seen Tekkerz in the UK gain massive popularity with their unconventional approach having a similar effect in the UK that the L39GION has in the States. Is this new unconventional approach that is more inclusive and entertaining going to become the new norm? Let us hope so.
The Legion leading the charge in inclusivity in cycling. ©Justin Williams
Whilst writing this article I began to think of my own ideas on how we can bridge the gap in cycling and increase the amount of racing cyclists & fans, whilst also producing a more diverse demographic, steering us away from the elitist sport that we currently have.
To help battle the exclusivity in the sport, it needs to begin at the grassroots level and implemented by our national sporting bodies. Money is the main factor in deciding a sports’ inclusivity. When turning up to youth bike races we see kids who have travelled from across the country riding kit worth thousands of pounds. To help battle this, I believe British Cycling or other sporting bodies should implement a few simple rules. Limiting the price of bikes allowed at youth and junior level; this may sound like a logistical nightmare and a utopian youth racing dream, but a simple price and technology limit in low level racing would help minimise the difference in advantages due to deep pockets, whilst also creating meritocratic racing by equalling the playing field. Moreover, it would go a long way in tackling stigmas against kids who may not have the best bike or the best kit. It would work in a similar way as the UCI registering bikes, a simple list of which bikes are authorised by the governing body and those deemed too expensive or too aerodynamic. Additional rules would be to heavily decrease the cost of all race entries for under 18s, allowing anyone to participate and even young people can afford to pay for the races themselves if they must. Finally, decreasing the competitiveness in races for kids and not allowing national level events for people who aren’t in their teens. This would allow kids to just participate at local events which would mean they gain no advantage by trekking six hours cross-country.
I also believe that a lot can be learnt from the teams like L39ION bridging out to cyclists and other people to make the sport more inclusive. Playing on what Justin Williams discussed around the idea of people passing on their favourite team jersey, I think that at professional level we should print the number and name of the rider on their kit, giving each rider one number for the whole season. Not only would this reduce the amount of paper numbers we use and save riders’ time, but also it creates an identity and inspires other cyclists, as fans will be able to purchase not only their favourite team jersey but also their favourite riders or even their heroes. Following this theme of what the cycling jersey represents, the use of collaborations between brands and thinking outside the box really paid off for EF last season, we can definitely learn from the 2020 Giro and taking cycling outside of its niche to attract a wider audience and people who may have never watched the sport. Seeing brands like Rapha and Palace collaborate is something that I believe we will see a lot more in the future.
EF showing off their outlandish kit at the Giro d’Italia 2020 team presentation. © Getty Images Sport
As previously mentioned, we have seen several attempts by the UCI and other sporting organisers to change the races and make them more entertaining. This to me isn’t the problem as cycling can produce some of the most exciting and thrilling sporting moments as we already know. Instead, there are changes that can be made at WorldTour level. Shortening of races is a possible solution, however as seen in the 2018 Tour de France and Hammer Series they tended to produce controversy and bored fans. An interesting spectacle for me would see a WorldTour criterium series that has several rounds across the globe in the major cities, allowing fans to easily understand the racing and come and watch the short, sharp and chaotic races that it would create. This would also help increase the sphere of influence that cycling has by allowing this series to move destination every year to attract more fans. If we stay, for the moment, with the aforementioned Justin Williams, one can spot a potential area for success. Williams has recently become a Red Bull athlete, meaning that he will represent their brand and don their helmets in races. It is another in a list of riders to have been sponsored by Red Bull, such as Tom Pidcock and Wout van Aert. Were Red Bull to take their cycling sponsorship further, with money seemingly not being an issue for such a large company, one could see huge potential in the idea of a UCI Red Bull Criterium Series. It would have the incredible marketing team of Red Bull on hand in order to boost the sport into untapped markets, whilst providing an incredible financial investment into the sport. Criteriums are often the perfect way to attract new fans to cycling, with the racing short and sweet, whilst taking place in densely populated cities, allowing for packed audiences in post-COVID times. Throughout the latter few decades of the 1900s, such criterium series were incredibly popular in the UK and attracted riders from all over the world. At one particular race in the 1984 City Centre series, sponsored by Kellogg’s, Sean Kelly won ahead of the likes of Phil Anderson, whilst Eddy Merckx was in attendance in the crowd! A revival of such a series would create enormous excitement within the cycling world and with the sponsorship of a company such as Red Bull, it may be the perfect initiative to open cycling to new markets.
The other changes that have to be made at WorldTour level are the sustainability and identity of teams, which would allow people to become part of something bigger. The creation of professional cycling clubs and not teams is an idea I believe will address this problem. Working in the same way as football and rugby, there will be a cycling club, but then sponsors will come onboard to fund the team. This could allow the creation of a league with several divisions, e.g., WorldTour, Proconti and continental professional. This would not only make the sport more sustainable because it no longer relies on the sole support of a company who may have not make cuts, but it would also help create an identity and allow people to follow their favourite club/team, leading to more people following the sport and gaining interest in it.
However utopian or completely foolish these ideas may seem, I think the point is clear. For our sport to continue to grow, both in numbers and diversity, as well as bridging the gap between the recreational side of the sport and the competitive side of the sport, change needs to happen in one form or another. However, things may never change, as cycling has always been an isolated sport for only the brave and crazy few who would even think about participating in it. But time will tell…