July 21, 2013 by Irish Peloton
Cycling’s Newest Conundrum
Cycling is changing. It’s becoming more and more popular and judging by the evidence we’ve seen during this year’s Tour de France, it is not dealing with its growing popularity very well.
For the most part, cycling fans have a few riders that they enjoy watching with which they may or may not share a nationality. Unlike football fans, up until now at least, the cycling equivalent don’t tend to support a team through thick and thin. One of the major reasons being the nature of the financial structure of cycling teams – the teams themselves don’t tend to stick around for very long for fans to develop any sort of rapport.
But recently, there has been a tribalism settling in around Team Sky, something which British cycling fans have never experienced before. The team actually has ‘supporters’ who wish to see the team succeed regardless of the rider. This is a behaviour which has been encouraged in the past by Jonathan Vaughters, the manager of Garmin-Sharp.
Two years ago, Vaughters released a 10-point plan outlining changes which he thinks should be implemented in order to improve and stabilise the sport of cycling. One of these points was:
- Consistent, year after year, team branding to develop fanbase
The turnover and renaming of professional cycling teams from one year to the next makes it easy to understand why this may be a desirable change to the sport. But the idea that cycling fans support one team and one team only the way football fans do is not straight forward.
In this year’s Tour de France, Mark Cavendish had urine thrown at him during the second individual time trial. This is not an isolated occurrence, similar unsavoury incidents have happened in the past. The most famous fan interaction is probably when Eddy Merckx was punched in the kidneys on a climb during the 1975 Tour de France.
Fans of any sport are liable to do crazy things and the more fanatical they become, the more maniacal they become. Football fans in stadiums have limited access to the stars of the show on the pitch. The interaction, for the most part, is confined to chanting from the stands. On a weekly basis, fans in England would chant about Luis Suarez being a racist bastard, Arsene Wenger being a pedophile or their desire to murder Malcolm Glazer.
The majority of the people taking part in these chants are grown men who probably have children and respectable jobs and who might not usually resort to this kind of behaviour in any other setting. But this is the power of the mob mentality. Is there a minority of rabid football fans who could not be trusted to be within arms reach of the rival team’s players?
Friends of mine often cannot believe when they see cyclists wend their way up mountain passes through a mass of people. How are the riders not pushed off their bikes more often? How are there not more crazy incidents involving fans?
The only answer I have is that cycling fans are respectful of all of the cyclists and they’re not wishing any ill-will on the riders. Would stable, long-term team franchises threaten to destabilise this wall of respect that exists between fan and rider?
Then there’s doping…
What is the difference between Carlos Sastre’s ride up Alpe d’Huez in2008 and Chris Froome’s ride up Mont Ventoux this year?
Sastre finished 2’03” ahead of everybody that day in 2008. Froome finished just 29 seconds ahead of Nairo Quintana on Mont Ventoux, and seven other riders finished within 2’03” of him. Yet Froome has had to deal with an inordinate amount of accusations of doping, a problem Sastre, managed by Bjarne Riis, hardly had to deal with at all. So what’s changed?
The obvious changes since 2008 are that fans (and journalists), via social media, have been given much more of a platform on which they can air their concerns and shout out their doubts and accusations. There is also the fact that this is the first Tour de France since the USADA reasoned decision was released. It is to be expected that fans (and journalists) don’t want to be blindly led down an alley of deceit once more, so it is only natural that there are more questions now than ever. Fool me once and all that.
But there is a further contributory factor to the shit that Froome has had to put up with during this year’s Tour de France and that is the black and white-ness which some fans are now viewing the sport. Fans of Team Sky are adamant that Froome is clean, this tunnel vision view feeds and antagonises those who think he’s doping, and with equal tunnel vision the cries of doping are shouted louder, which in turn feeds and antagonises the Team Sky fans and it goes around and around and nothing constructive emerges.
This is a dangerous trend which is emerging among fans of the sport. Instead of chanting ridiculous songs about racists and pedophiles, cycling fans can simply cry ‘doper’. Arsene Wenger is not going to be asked in a press conference whether he is or isn’t a paedophile, because it’s preposterous and baseless. But if enough fans shout ‘doper’ at a cyclist, because of the sport’s past, it is probable that he will eventually be asked in a press conference if he is or isn’t a doper, whether it’s preposterous and baseless or not.
A further problem with the fandom model being urged by Vaughters and being realised by Team Sky is that fans have absolutely no say in what goes on in ‘their’ team. The financial model for cycling, even with stable ‘team branding’ does not rely on the fan at all. With football, if the fans don’t like the manager, if they shout loud enough about it (literally) then there’s a fair chance the manager will be sacked. Football teams need fans to buy merchandise and fill stadiums. Being a spectator of cycling costs nothing, managers of cycling teams do not have to pander to the fans the way football managers do.
Last week it appeared that Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford caved to public pressure and released some of Froome’s data to L’Equipe for analysis, but this is very much the exception. It appears that cycling teams want fans, but ultimately, they don’t need them.
Currently, many cycling fans have a guarded cynicism which they cannot be blamed for after enduring decades of scandals. Given the fact that fans have not got a long affiliation with any one team, what would happen if a spate of riders on the one team tested positive? Would fans simply jump ship?
Football fans usually support a team because their Dad or older brother supported the same team. There’s a family history involved and a loyalty that to turn your back on would be blasphemous. Dr. Niall Redmond works for the popular game Football Manager and is no stranger to maniacal football fans. He himself is an avid supporter of Manchester United and I asked him if he found out tomorrow that United had been organising a massive team-wide doping programme in the 1990s and all of the 1999 Treble winning team began admitting to taking various drugs in order to win….would he still support the team now?’
“If it were proven, I would be massively upset and very angry, but I would keep supporting them” admitted Redmond “in the hope that it wouldn’t happen in the future, that the team and those in charge would change and it would become something good again.”
But what about football fans by nature being blind in their support? Does this contribute to a complete unwillingness to acknowledge that there’s a chance there might be doping prevalent in their team?
“I’ve talked about the possibility of doping in football to a number of football fans who dismiss it instantly. If you said to any fan, there’s a worldwide doping problem in football, but your team is involved, there’s no chance they would want it to come out. But for me, if it were a rival team, say Barcelona, then I would take pleasure in seeing it come out.”
This loyalty that football fans have toward their own team and the tendency to spite any rival is the reason why the sport is so popular. But it is perhaps also the reason why fans think there is no doping in football. Redmond suggests “what’s happened in cycling, and how the world now views cycling, probably makes it more unlikely that football authorities would ever investigate doping in any significant way”.
Cycling has a conundrum. The doping problem is known but now teams are gaining ‘fans’. There is a very real potential for the sport to grow in popularity but in tandem, the potential is also there for it to degenerate even further into a never-ending game of mud-slinging. Team Sky have had to deal with this problem more than any other team and so far they have yet to find a solution. Endless aspersions is not the price that teams should pay for gaining fans. But currently, this is what the sport is stuck with.
Jan - July 21, 2013 @ 2:37 pm
Excellent article, well written and informative, most people watching bicycle racing here in the U.S. see it as an individual and not a team sport, I don’t see it ever becoming a mainstream sport because our attention spam is to short to watch for 5 hours, also being mostly a European sport to watch it live means getting up at 3AM in California to watch. BTW big day coming up soon for you right?
Steve - July 21, 2013 @ 3:04 pm
Surprised there’s no mention of Rabobank and Euskatel fans who surely pre-dated Sky fans by quite a number of years in their rabid team-related support? We saw similar with T-mobile as well.
Think you’ve been a bit reductive re: football fans as well. Football fans, as in those who go to games, generally follow their local team as such there’s a lot more culturaly to it that mere “maniacal loyalty”. “Followers” – the sort you might find braying loudly down the pub during a live transmission – are the infamous banterers and infest social media with their three monkeys approach to fandom.
Irish Peloton - July 21, 2013 @ 3:20 pm
Big day not for a while, next June, so a few months left of freedom yet!
Yeah I think they still have a lot to work out in how to best present the sport to fans, which naturally enough was another part of Vaughters’s 10-point plan:
Technical innovation, such as cameras on bikes, inside cars, helmets, inside team buses to make the “craziness and danger of the peloton more real to the viewer”.
Open radios to the public and listen to your favourite team and what they are doing.
GPS tracking of individual riders to make races fun to watch.
Irish Peloton - July 21, 2013 @ 3:46 pm
Yeah was probably being reductive, but I was focusing on the extremes of what’s possible with fandom. There’s also the tifosi in general who have a long history of protecting their own, not least Roche vs Visentini in 1987.
But I was focusing more on this new branch of cycling fans away from the ‘traditional heartland’ of cycling on mainland Europe. Fans who are relatively new and who don’t quite know what they’re dealing with, and I include myself in that.
CM - July 21, 2013 @ 3:54 pm
There has been a similar trend in Australia with GreenEDGE.
Not aided in any way by the national broadcaster being a glorified team PR service
Edna - July 21, 2013 @ 4:04 pm
You don’t understand cycling fans. We don’t give a rats ass about Sky or Radioshack. Cycling fans love character. When a rider gives 100% and rides himself into the dirt, when they get up after a crash and still ride 100km bleeding and bruised, when they ride like a rookie and they’re 41 years old that’s when we become fanatics. And that’s why Jens Voight is “Jens Mother F*cking Voight”.
Edna - July 21, 2013 @ 4:05 pm
Irish Peloton - July 21, 2013 @ 4:06 pm
I’m sure there are plenty of fans that only care about the character you describe. I’m describing a new type of cycling fan. They’re not all the same.
Neil Garnham - July 21, 2013 @ 4:50 pm
Thought provoking piece and of poignant interest to myself.
I decided to take an interest in the sport of Professional Road Cycling during Bradley Wiggins road to glory at the Tour last year (like many other newcomers i suspect) and have been hooked since. Prior to this i was a staunch follower of football for the past 10 years, supporting Ipswich Town FC home and away, as well as spending a few years following the England national team home and away also.
Over those years i had adopted the mob mentality and tribalism you rightly talk about existing in football, but grew tired of it all in the end and realized that there comes a point in your life when you need to simply grow up and broaden your horizons somewhat. I grew weary of the disgusting (often alcohol-fueled) chanting and loutish behaviour i witnessed at stadiums, towns, cities and on public transport throughout the country at most weekends. I must add that this still concerns only a minority of football “supporters” today, but its had enough of an impact on me to leave the sport behind. Not the only factor though, through my experiences football has become incredibly greedy and i did not feel valued as a loyal supporter. I often felt i didn’t receive fair value for the money i was investing in the sport through match tickets, merchandise, travel to games etc. This often stemmed from lacklustre performances on the pitch. Has football got it’s own murky underworld of doping practices? Quite possibly at the highest level of the game, but certainly not at the club i supported! Why? Because the lack of “not normal” or “mutant” performances in the context of outstanding athletic displays on the playing field were the stuff of dreams! If there was any form of “doping” going on, then it would have centered only around making the already intellectually-challenged “professionals” at the club even less aware of the importance of giving their all for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon instead of being more concerned about which piece of their body they were thinking about getting ‘inked’ next! Anyway, i digress….
I came in to the sport of cycling with no thorough knowledge or understanding of the sport and it’s history, culture and traditions beforehand. I was aware of the name Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France, but had never scratched beneath the surface of the sport, just occasionally picking up on the odd snippets of news in the mainstream press or media. I had never watched the racing on the TV at any stage before. I wasn’t aware of the true extent and nature of the doping culture that had existed in the sport until the outcome of the USADA investigation last October and tidal wave of coverage since. As a result i have been making a conscious effort to do background research so that i can build up a better understanding of the subject and role it has sadly played within the sports history. At the same time though, i do not want to let the subject consume me and cloud my judgment with regards to my viewing and enjoyment of the sport today and it moving forward. However, I am not naive enough to think that this scourge of cycling has completely vanished for good and that we must never rest on our laurels as supporters of this great sport, yet we must not let chronic cynicism get the better of sensible skepticism.
Sadly, i feel that if cycling does begin to develop strong fan bases amongst more established and enduring teams, then the acts of mud-slinging will only increase amongst ‘rival’ supporters group as this is the nature of tribalism. I am, however, not against the idea of teams building healthy support bases if they contribute to the successful growth and development of the sport, leading to more sponsors wanting to get involved in it. Just so long as cycling does not end up mirroring the more disappointing aspects of ‘passionate’ support you see and hear about in football (and some other team-based sports), and become as gluttonous as modern-day football in it’s quest to ‘milk’ the blind faith of the seemingly unwavering supporter.
I must confess to having been a bit of a ‘Team Sky fan boy’ in the early stages of my journey in to the following of the sport. Over the past 12 months, however, as I’ve followed more and more of the races within cycling’s dense racing calender, I have tended to establish favorite individual riders who i enjoy watching race, as opposed to claiming allegiance to one particular team and it’s riders.
The British racing scene I enjoy following and attended a stage of Tour of Britain last year, as well as a round of the very entertaining and successful crit-based Tour Series this year. The level of up-close access and approachability of teams, riders and staff is something I hope never changes as a result of the popularity of the sport increasing and potential for teams to develop loyal fan bases. It is a world apart from modern-day football, through my experiences anyway.
I love seeing the passion of supporters by the roadside who want to show their appreciation for the effort and suffering professional cyclists put in on the road. Those two things combined, along with the quite magnificent landscapes and terrains in which these professional cyclists demonstrate their incredible talents, bravery and commitment, are what has captured my imagination since I started following the sport just over a year ago.
I hope the passion I have developed for the sport in this short space time only grows stronger over the coming years, and I can look back and think that it was one of the best decisions I have made in my life to follow this sport. I do believe in the current new generation,and I do believe that I won’t regret my decision in the years to come.
Bill G - July 22, 2013 @ 10:13 am
Regarding doping in football; in the late 90’s early noughties Arsenal players were given Creatine supplements in an attempt to improve their speed.
At the time creatine was not a banned substance in football, so no foul play, but remember this example when it is argued that PED’s don’t assist footballers as it is a skills based sport, not an endurance sport. If that argument were wholly true why were Arsenal using creatine?
Pauli - July 22, 2013 @ 2:00 pm
re: Bill G
You say that ‘at the time’, creatine was not a banned substance but I don’t believe it ever has been a banned substance Bill. It had been fairly well publicized in use in athletics by the late 90s anyway. It is seen as doping about as much as taking protein is (not at all!!!).
Chris M - July 22, 2013 @ 2:19 pm
Interesting article and lets hope we don’t get the sort of tribalism in cycling that we get in football.
But regarding Team Sky, may I pose an alternative explanation
It’s not that people believe they are clean because they are fans of Sky.
They are fans of Sky because they believe they are clean.
There is nothing that Froome or Wiggins can say in denial that hasn’t already been said by the dopers, but Brailsford has been able to say something different – why he avoided involvement in road racing until recently, how and why they have had a different approach, and what he hope to achieve in cycling generally, not just professionally. Yes the “Aggregation of Marginal Gains” has become a cliché but it has been producing outstanding and credible results for over a decade.
P.S. – I wouldn’t be seen dead in a Sky kit, but will admit to having a Carrera top (but not the shorts) back in the day
adam - July 22, 2013 @ 7:59 pm
@ Chris m.
If fans want to support a clean team they can support Garmin or maybe fdj. Teams for whom anti doping is not just a Pr move
But they instead choose to support the team that wins everything, like all those tourists choose Barcelona. And in 99% of cases sky fans are choosing the team that comes from their nationality. What an amazing coincidence. We all know it’s bs. Trying to attach the team label onto people and teams you already like is one of the biggest obstacles to anti doping. To attach it to your home team that wins everything, just a little tp convenient when there are more authentic and less suspicious “clean teams” out there.
dermot Kelly - July 23, 2013 @ 11:04 am
The remark in relation to Carlos S winning – really is off the mark .. he was ” let ” ride away as it suited team CSC to over cook Evans on the stage and the two S Boys just waited for someone to chase .. which never happened .. so he rode to the yellow jersey and CSC shared the jersey in the team – as it’s about the TEAM win the tour – not making priorities WHO should hold the jersey ..
For those that aren’t history aficionados perhaps you’ll recall the way Cadel Evans was completely worked over by Team CSC in 2008, culminating in Carlos Sastre’s Tour winning attack on Alpe d’Huez. Evans was gritty and determined throughout the ’08 Tour, and was arguably the best rider at the race that year but was turned inside out by CSC – a team which boasted a stacked deck, three aces; the experience of Sastre, flanked by Frank and Andy Schleck.
Over the three week event Evans dug in, but could do little but succumb to Sastre just four days from the finish on the 21-switchback ascent. He’d been exhausted, and utterly out-gunned by CSC
Irish Peloton - July 23, 2013 @ 12:22 pm
I’d have to agree with Adam. I would wager that the major reason British fans support Team Sky is simply due to a national affiliation. There are plenty of reasons to question Team Sky and their anti-doping policies.
We both know what happened in 2008 on Alpe d’Huez. Honestly, I just plucked that stage at random, I could have easily picked Schleck’s ride into yellow in 2011 or Contador up to Verbier, for instance. The circumstances should be taken into account when comparing power data and all that has been going on for the last while, but are they being taken into account? I don’t really think so. Academics and scientists can attempt to measure power, wind, gradient etc., but as you rightly point out, you can’t measure tactics and what affect they had on climbing times.
But some fans don’t care. Do the British fans and French fans who were brawling on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez last week care? Does the average Man United fan know all of the complicated financial details which constitute the Glazer’s debt and their ownership of the club? Or do they shout about wanting to murder him because everyone else is?
My point is, maniacal fans don’t care too much about the finer details.
Chris M - July 23, 2013 @ 12:52 pm
I think your post has convinced me as to why I don’t want to see team/tribalism in cycling. It leads to the notion that you support one team, and one team only, through thick and thin, and hate all others. No self respecting football fan would support both (for example) Man Utd and Villa, whilst any Chelsea fan is regarded as a glory hunter even if he supported them through the lean years.
That’s not how I view cycling and never have done – I may have favourites, yes mostly the British & Irish riders – but have respect for all. But there are certain teams that I have more respect for than others. You may regard Sky’s anti-doping stance as merely PR, but my respect for DB goes beyond this – I genuinely believe his aim is to make cycling more popular in the UK, which will make it safer for me, so for that alone I am grateful. But I am also a big believer in Vaughters – similar aims, different approach.
Is it really odd that I would prefer to see races won by teams managed by these guys than by Riis or Vinokourov ?
P.S. Re Glory hunting – my football team is Tranmere Rovers – you might have to look them up !
dermot Kelly - July 23, 2013 @ 2:32 pm
IP .. Point taken … just clarifying , as it looked too simplistic the assumption – how I seen the 2008 and Carlos .. riding ( been let ) to get gain two minutes that was not the way Chris Froome did it this year …. he thrashed everyone .. made them all look like school boys against senior cats ..
I am purely a cycling fan – just love it – have done for years and always will ! … although the sport is so damn -hard – I’ve done the schools boys / junior / senior levels … and I have never seen someone ” turn up ” at the age of 28 years – with very little pedigree go and win the TDF and make it look so easy … ( sorry he won the JOCK race in Kenya !! … )
DB & SKY – The term marginal gains .. it kicks me in the gut … Chris F the guy is thrown off the Giro for holding onto a Police motor-bike going up the Moritolo … now the cycling race is in reverse .. the leaders are last and chris is the motor -bike … come on ….. do we choose to believe that !? DB & CF will have you believe because the dopers are now cleaner the ordinary guys now have chance to win a race …..
I tell my children fairy tales before they go to bed each night .. but do I believe these stories !? make your own mind up on that …
Basil - July 25, 2013 @ 4:06 am
Well,Dermot,none of Brailsfords riders have ever tested positive,and no ex team sky rider has ever suggested there has been doping going on within the team.And Froome didn’t just rock up at the age of 28.When he was 26 he finished 2nd in the Vuelta and when he was 27 he finished 2nd at the Tour.This idea that if you are not a GC rider at the age of 23 then thats you consigned to a career as a water carriers just ridiculous.Cyclists don’t peak until 30 years of age on average,with a few exceptions of course.Froome rode in Africa where the training methods were way behind those in Europe.He also suffered from Bilhazia from the age of 10 and was unable to shake it off until Sky got him seen by the worlds leading authority in tropical diseases in 2010.One of the side effects of Bilhazia is extreme fatigue which is not particularly conducive to riding a bike flat out for hours a day. Still you Irish are so used to your T de France heroes being exposed as drugs cheats re Roche and Kelly that i don’t blame you for being cynical.And who was that Swimmer again?
dermot Kelly - July 26, 2013 @ 10:53 am
Well Basil …
Firstly I was born and bred in Kilburn – North West London … holding a British passport .. well it’s the home of the Irish in Londan .. maybe you do not know that ! .
Yes … none of the Brailsfords riders have tested postive – just like Roche and DeBruin .. so what are we ( or more to the point you are talking about ? ) ..Ohh nearly forgot either did LA test positive and passed all the controls .. plus countless others ….
If we want to talk British … just like you I felt ashamed when Millar tested positive for EPO
… how could he .. but you more than likely viewed him as a Scottish Cheat anyway ….. when it suits …….
As for the Bilhazia BS …. Hmm great story – nearly as gripping – well not really could make it into a award winning book and title it ” what about the bite ” OR ” it’s time for the motor bike ” …. Ohh the SHAME in that ! …. I think Froome should advertise MAZDA cars .. what was their slogan again …. Vroom wroom vroom …. perfect ..
Bascially … honestly should be more like Broom … ” broom wagon” ..reversed for the last riders on the race …
So in conclusion – maybe your threads should be reserved for ” cyclingnews ” or eurosport .. as your just ruining a great forum .on IP ………