Belgian sports rivals partner at Tour of Flanders cyclosportive
Belgium’s two largest cyclosportive organizers will ride together this year.
On Saturday approximately 16,000 amateur cyclists will participate in We Ride Flanders, the annual amateur cyclosportive that takes cyclists along the iconic route of the Tour of Flanders. The 2018 edition marks an important milestone in the event’s 27-year history. The Flanders cyclosportive is now owned and operated in a partnership between Flemish entertainment company Golazo Sports, and Flanders Classics, the operators of the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, and E3-Harelbeke professional races.
Last year the two companies partnered to create the We Ride Company and the cycling brand Peloton.be, which oversees 45 of Belgium’s largest cyclosportives, including the We Ride Flanders event.
Prior to the deal, Golazo and Flanders Classics battled each other for domination of Belgium’s sizable amateur cycling market nearly every weekend.
“Cycling enthusiasts too often had to choose between various sportives in one weekend,” said Gil Thibaut, a communications representative with Flanders Classics. “When we had a sportive, Golazo had one on Sunday or maybe even one the same day. And even for the Flemish, who are crazy about those organized rides, two long rides in one weekend were often too many. I wouldn’t at all say we were killing each other by ‘stealing clients’ from one another, but especially for the cycling fans it was a shame they had to choose between two very beautiful rides.”
Sportives are big business in Belgium; a quick glance at the 2018 calendar reveals nearly 400 of the long-distance cycling events between February and November. Similar to gran fondo races, these events send thousands of riders on day-long courses that often follow the route of popular professional races. Most of Belgium’s one-day classics include a cyclosportive: Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Roubaix, and Brabantse Piil all support popular amateur events. There are other sportives that are held to honor famous Belgian cyclists; Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Peter Van Petegem, Johan Museeuw, and even Wilfried Cretskens have cyclosportives named for them.
“The Flemish remain crazy about cycling,” Thibaut said. “People buying a bike increases every year, bike stores are flourishing, and amateur cycling keeps growing in popularity.”
Entry fees for the events are often less than 50 euro. Still, some cyclosportives generate healthy revenue due to small overhead costs. In the United States, cycling promoters must pay to close down city streets and hire police protection. That’s not the case in Belgium. Most cyclosportives operate on open roads.
“We don’t have to pay for police or security — our biggest overhead cost is our own staffing,” said Christophe Impens, managing director for Golazo Sports. “The mayors and the police love it. We get financial support from the government, and the Flemish government helps us promote the event.”
In 2017 Golzao operated 25 cyclosportives in Belgium and another 14 in France, two in Austria, and two in Great Britain. By contrast, Flanders Classics operated 15 of these tours under the brand Proximus Cycling Challenge. The company’s most popular events ran in conjunction with the company’s popular pro races Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, and Brabantse Piil.
The company’s Etixx Classic event attracts more than 7,500 participants each year.
But Flanders Classics did not operate the sportive associated with its highest profile pro race, the Tour of Flanders. That honor went to Golazo, whose predecessor company Consultants In Sports, launched the event in 1992. Then called the Tour of Flanders Cyclo, the mass ride attracted 517 total participants in its first year and was held in July.
In 1999 event organizers moved the sportive to April to run the day prior to the Tour of Flanders in an attempt to drive its popularity. The plan worked, and by 2003 the event exceeded 10,000 riders. Three years later it crested 15,000 participants.
Since the event’s inception, Golazo has licensed the name “Tour of Flanders” in order to brand the cyclosportive alongside the professional race. In 2007 Golzo signed a 10-year deal with Het Nieuwsblad, which owned the Tour of Flanders pro race at the time, to use the name.
As the contract drew to a close last year, there was speculation that Flanders Classics, which purchased the Tour of Flanders in 2008, might simply take control of the event from Golazo and add it to its growing collection of sportives. Instead, Flanders Classics invited the company to form a partnership.
The deal was announced in November. Neither party has divulged financial details of the agreement.
“With the expiry of the contract for the Tour of Flanders we were at a turning point, it seemed to us better for a lot of reasons [to partner],” said Flanders Classics CEO Wouter Vandenhaute in a release. “Golazo has taken an impressive course in the field of mass events and has a lot more know-how than Flanders Classics.”
Impens, who now directs Peloton.be, said the partnership is the best way to “create value-added events” for riders.
According to Thibaut, a major focus of the new company is to market the event overseas. Already the We Ride Flanders sportive attracts more foreigners than Belgians; 21 percent of the participants are from the United Kingdom and nearly one-third come from the Netherlands. Only 2.5 percent comes from the United States.
The event performs surveys on its participants, asking them why they chose to ride. The power of the professional race, Thibaut said, is often the reason.
“The Tour of Flanders is a product with an international appeal, which sells itself,” he said. “The name alone often does the job.”