Lance Armstrong issued an inspirational Instagram message on April 6 in which, among other things, he exhorted pro cycling riders to exploit this transformational period to seize more power in the sport. “To all you cyclists sitting at home, not sure about your paycheck – now is the opportunity to reset the scales, to get a seat at the table, to take the power back. You are the actors in this play, and remember – without the actors, there is no play.” Is this finally the time that athletes could get a real chair at the table of pro cycling? What needs to happen for that to occur? Is it possible?
Commentators across the board are speculating about the longer-term social, economic, and cultural impacts of the COVID pandemic. Observers within pro cycling are evaluating the same thing in the sporting context – will the calendar be more compact, will there be fewer races or teams, how will individual events adapt, and so on. Several other parties have issued a call to action similar to Armstrong’s. Last week, even the staunchly traditionalist team manager Marc Madiot, of Groupama-FDJ called for a rider’s strike to force a revolution in the sport. With the season increasingly in jeopardy and with more riders suffering major salary cuts or potentially being released, could this actually be the pivotal time for the athletes to stand up and demand greater power in the sport?
It’s a whole lot easier said than done, as Armstrong admitted in a subsequent discussion with The Outer Line. It’s easy and inspiring to talk about, but defining and implementing specific steps to move forward is harder; inspiring a collective work action has always been very difficult. Cycling has always been a sport where many riders are building their way out of poverty, and where there are seemingly always armies of younger or more desperate riders eager to step up.
Armstrong cites an anecdotal story from the 2009 Giro as stark evidence of this challenge. “It was a rainy day and there were a bunch of dangerous rail crossings on the route. Several riders in the peloton had come to me and [Team Liquigas captain Danilo] de Luca to say that we should conduct a deliberate race slowdown to protest the poor safety conditions. We all agreed that it was a good idea, and so I told the commissars that we were going to slow the initial racing. And we did. But you want to know what happened within about ten seconds? [Giro race director Angelo] Zomegnan jumped on the phone to the managers of a couple of the small wild-card Italian teams and commanded them to race as hard as they could, or they’d never be invited back to the Giro. So they did, and the rest of the peloton had no choice but to chase. He killed the protest in a flash. That’s how much possibility of unity you’ve got in the peloton.”
This anecdote demonstrates only too vividly where the real power in the sport lies, and the uphill battle riders face in trying to get a real seat at the table. The current rider’s association, the CPA, while well-intentioned, is an under-funded and politically weak organization, and as we have pointed out many times before, suits the purposes of most stakeholders in the sport just fine — everyone except for the actual riders. Whenever riders are concerned about anything – like safety or weather conditions, health or retirement benefits, and the like – the UCI, the event organizer or the team has a simple out. “You have a union, take up the matter with them.” But since the CPA has little real authority or power to force change, the riders usually come up on the short end of the stick.
Armstrong expands on this conundrum. “Think it through. What happens if a group of riders started to try to pull together a work stoppage, or a real union? Their teams would get a call from the UCI or the ASO. ‘By the way, shut down these riders or you guys aren’t coming to the Tour.’ Then layer in a couple of big sponsors who only invested the team to get to the Tour. And remember – there is always another talented son of a Spanish beet farmer out there, ready to race for almost nothing. It’s no wonder that attempts to unify the athletes in the sport have always failed. The powers that be don’t want to see it happen. ASO is happy where it is right now; they don’t want to acknowledge that a rising tide could lift all ships.”
“And let me be clear, I’m not criticizing Gianni Bugno (head of the CPA),” adds Armstrong. “It’s not his fault. I like Gianni Bugno, he’s a friend of mine, and I used to race against him. But there just isn’t the structure in place; he just doesn’t have the power to really do anything.” Similarly, the UCI has avoided formally recognizing The Cyclists’ Alliance, despite its success in unifying top women professionals and building a strong portfolio of services and strategies. Ultimately, it’s up to the riders to exercise their right to organize in order to change the power base. Walter Palmer, former Director of International Relations for the NBA Players Association and a recognized labor relations expert, echoes this, saying, “Nothing happens until the athletes get seriously involved.”
The Outer Line has reviewed this over the years, and we have highlighted specific ways in which a stronger athlete presence in cycling could actually improve the overall economic vitality and respectability of the sport. As we discussed in 2018, “If the riders had more skin in the game, it could really work to change their collective behavior. If the riders got a share of the revenues or profits of the sport – if they felt like they were business partners and they shared in the financial upsides or downsides of the sport, they would probably behave themselves better. The peloton would police itself better.” This effect has already been demonstrated in many other major sports, yet cycling’s leaders prefer to just coast along with weak athlete representation mechanisms.
But the current crisis presents an opportunity to try out unprecedented ideas that would never fly in normal times. The COVID era could help to force necessary or positive changes, where the sport has never been able to do that before – and it’s not as impossible as it may seem.
Most of the dollars invested into this sport ultimately end up in the pockets of top riders. For the purpose of illustration, let’s assume the average WorldTour team budget is $20 million. Assume further that about 60 percent of that average budget goes to paying rider salaries. With 18 teams of about 25 riders each, this implies that $216 million is going into the pockets of about 450 WorldTour riders every year.
Critically, a disproportionate amount of this total is allocated amongst a fairly small handful of top riders. According to one source, fully 25 percent of these total salary dollars go to just 15 top riders, and it seems likely that over half of those dollars are invested in the top 50 or so riders. In effect, a small number of riders control a large percentage of the total economic value of this sport. This hints at the raw power a few of these athletes could wield if they wanted to, and if they acted in a unified manner.
Labor experts underline the critical significance of having a strong leader in order to build union power. “I don’t see any individual having the power or ‘moral authority’ to command an action by the peloton,” says Armstrong. “But what if several of the top guys got together and began to form an action? Get Sagan, Froome, Alaphilippe, Valverde, and some others on the bandwagon. Get a couple of younger, go-getter type guys; get a couple of older, experienced and respected ‘elder statesmen;’ get Rigo involved as a leader of the Colombian contingent, and so on. Put together an influential group that could represent the whole peloton, and you might start to get somewhere.”
It’s clear that the more prominent riders would really have to take the lead to bind the peloton together if an effort like this was to be successful. One challenge, described to us by the retired Italian racer Marco Pinotti, now a performance coach with Team CCC, is that many of these top-level athletes have already made it to a place where they are paid quite well and live quite comfortably. “Sometimes the big guys no longer care so much about it, and the little guys have no power. To be strong a union has to have the big riders, but when a rider is lucky to become a big one, maybe he doesn’t care as much anymore because, the issue is not a priority for him, he’s a millionaire,” says Pinotti. Without the dedication and support of the sport’s biggest names, maintaining a union, let alone some kind of coordinated work stoppage, will obviously be more difficult.
No one knows where this season is going to end up, but at the moment many riders are seeing their salaries cut back, and there are worries about the outright survival of several teams – especially if the calendar is curtailed further or canceled altogether. And if the schedule does proceed ahead as projected, it looks like many riders are going to be called upon to race a very intensive and compressed season through the late months of the year. So it’s not inconceivable to imagine some riders might step up to try to change the modus operandi of the sport. Let’s look at a few hypothetical but possible examples.
If CCC can’t pay Greg van Avermaet, for example, what would stop him from taking a few of his friends and some of the team’s smaller sponsors and creating his own team – asking organizers to throw out the rule book and allow his new team into some races? This is just one hypothetical, and it’s clear that Van Avermaet is dedicated to his long-time team, but there are many other analogous situations with other riders.
Van der Poel is already testing the limits of an essentially athlete-controlled team. His efforts to invite himself to the Tour de France may have failed, but his current team runs at a far smaller budget than the top WorldTeams; he drives an immense ROI for his sponsors, and it seems like other companies would gladly line up to sponsor his team versus spending a much higher amount at the WorldTeam level. The same might apply to other new, smaller, and more streamlined or athlete-organized teams.
It’s not unimaginable that these kinds of scenarios could play out, where the true value drivers of the sport – the athletes – could seize the opportunity and change the model.
Furthermore, it seems — at least behind the scenes — that teams and riders should be aligned on a lot of these issues. The riders are essentially challenging the organizers and regulators to make changes, not the teams (Velon is basically an example of some of the teams trying to do the same thing – claim more power for themselves – though they are now tied up in a dispute with the UCI.) While no individual team will want to single-handedly stand up and challenge ASO, if they saw a large group of riders coalescing for change in the sport, they would likely be at least silently supportive, as Madiot’s comments last week suggest.
At a time when all the key stakeholders desperately want to see cycling restart, the chances of disrupting or overhauling the legacy constraints of the sport – and enriching its future – may well be greater right now than ever before. But it always comes back down to this: if the athletes want to improve their bargaining power in the sport, they have to step up collectively to seize the initiative. No one is going to do it for them. Sure, in the blinkered world of pro cycling it may be a bit hard to imagine, but is this the moment that Chris Froome, Peter Sagan, Alejandro Valverde, Greg van Avermaet and some of their other colleagues should jump on a Zoom call together? As Armstrong said, “If not now, you may never get another chance.”