Rapha Roadmap, chapter 4: How to make cycling more fan-friendly
Beyond the calendar itself, and the teams that compete, the formats of professional cycling have long proved fertile ground for reform. Traditional road competitions have seen the emergence of new forms of racing all over the world, giving rise to the potential for evolution of the sport as a whole. In chapter four of the Rapha Roadmap, we consider how the game could change and lay the groundwork for an alternative calendar of events like that to raced by EF Education First pro cycling. Please send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new and easier-to-follow season-long program of team and individual honors and awards must also be developed. Other successful league sports have clearly defined seasons which lead up to a climactic season-ending, team-focused championship, with “most valuable player,” and other keystone individual awards as the hallmarks of sporting achievement. The reforms to the calendar and team organization of the sport outlined in previous chapters will help to build that narrative, but the prize structure of the sport must also be addressed. Professional cycling’s current points system has changed often and become almost incomprehensible, creating a sporting model in which season-long performance is all but irrelevant. Building an equitable and meaningful points system to accurately track overall performance in cycling is a challenging task, but rather than evolving in a coherent and easy-to-follow formula allowing race fans to track their favorite riders and teams, the system has changed frequently and unpredictably, leaving most fans confused at best. Certain races end up being worth more points than others, individual rider points accumulate at different rates for the WorldTour and the UCI ranked races, and numerous, highly-subjective judgments must be made. The value of support “domestique” riders and most of the team-related aspects of the sport tend to be lost in any points ranking system. While cycling participants and observers frequently emphasize the team nature of the sport, in reality, few fans pay attention to team performance or honors. For individual riders, points awards pale in comparison to winning races. Several past and present WorldTour riders interviewed for this research said the points model actively promoted a fractured sport, introducing unnecessary complexity and fostering discord within teams and between stakeholders.
The complexities built into the sport make it difficult for a non-cycling sports fan to differentiate between the winner of the Tour de France, or the world champion, without explanation. Those complexities also represent one of the sport’s best opportunities to reinvent its image: great riders can win great races, but professional cycling needs to supplement this with a clearer and more widely-promoted system of recognizing individual and team greatness which can build to a climactic season-ending conclusion. One attempt to do so, which experimented with a greater focus on team play than individual winners, was the “Hammer” racing format. This style of racing, developed by the team’s advocacy organization, Velon, mixes three different races over three days to determine a final winning team — where one team wins the overall race as the result of a cohesive team effort. This series has so far only been run a handful of times, with mixed results — due to confusion over how points are calculated, and the unfamiliarity of fans as to how the points were being scored on the road. It remains uncertain if this format will be successful, but it represents one of many new ideas which could open the sport to new audiences.
There is, however, a fundamental debate about whether the sport should elevate the importance of teams within its points structure. In pursuing the ultimate goal of growing the fan base, it may be more appropriate to seek a simpler system that champions individual performance within races and across the season. Organizers could, for example, use a new points system to revise the awards associated with grand tours and one-day events to incentivize combative and explosive racing, creating more opportunities for individual success and reducing the chance for domination by a single team. It has been suggested that the “time elapsed” model for determining the winner of grand tours does little to create compelling entertainment in the modern era. Race organizers should be encouraged to experiment with alternate methods of judging success. In the past, time bonuses have mostly been used for flat stage finishes or alongside intermediate points sprints, and hence favored the sprinters hunting prizes like the green jersey. However, upgrading the bonuses to 15, or even 25 seconds, and stripping away the sprinters’ points, could rewrite the stage racing script. Placing these time bonuses at mid-points of climbs, or along tough stretches of traditionally long and monotonous transition stages would give teams additional incentives to attack the race, raising the excitement of individual stages and drawing more fans into the season-long points narrative. With a revised grand tour and classics series calendar, it may be possible to increase engagement with the sport’s most historic races by moving away from traditional racing. A revised points structure linked to the above calendar reforms could also be used to guarantee particular elements of sporting entertainment are present throughout the season; rivalries between top riders and peaks and troughs of performance could be illustrated far more consistently than in the current system.
An appropriately scaled points system could underscore and reinforce the sporting narrative and emotional character of the calendar, and ultimately lure more fans into the sport. The Tour de France will always be a major event, and individuals will, of course, continue to win races, but by placing an increased focus on combative riding rather than conservative team performances, on a series champion rather than one-off performances, the sport can redefine its competitive model and enhance its marketability. The exact composition and structure of a reformed points system that elevates the appeal outlined above is an urgent question for reform of the sport.
New incentives for participation could also be used to ensure the top talent of each team is a constant at every race. For example, points reform could be used to link participation in a series of events throughout the calendar to qualification for the Tour de France. While it is preferable that all WorldTour teams compete in the Tour, it may be possible to use a points system to restrict the riders they can select for their squads to those who won a certain number of points in races earlier in the calendar. Doing so would ensure regular participation of star athletes in a varied program of events, and would better link performance across races. Further reform could see points used to compel riders to compete in a minimum number of events in order to qualify for individual awards or participation in the most prestigious races. Points standings, regularly refreshed and widely published, would also help to build a season-long narrative for fans, creating additional talking points around the sport.
A significant increase in prize money for series results could also help develop engagement with the sport. Such a change would create huge incentives for the sport’s sponsors to become more engaged in building the profile of the series and rapidly shift the focus of both the athletes and the fans. Incentivizing season-long participation in a series both encourages regular rider and team performance helps build a habit-forming predictability among fans and may help to build more varied competitions, challenging the hegemony of dominant teams. Significant series-champion prize pots would also discourage riders from regularly missing races without the need for a specific points penalty for skipping events.
NASCAR, basketball, and playing for points
The points system used by NASCAR, which helped to build the popularity of the sport to record heights in the ‘80s and ’90s, is an example of how points systems can create compelling competition and boost fan engagement. NASCAR has expanded its calendar in recent years, and encountered some of the same problems found in professional cycling: fans fatigue at too long a season, too many events of similar character, or dead-rubber races if a champion emerges early in the year.
To counter these critiques, NASCAR introduced a ‘playoff’ system in 2012, and in 2017 recast the points structure — some races are split into ‘stages,’ essentially breaking races into three mini-races, giving more opportunities for drivers to score points, encouraging inventive tactics, and creating more excitement for fans. Some have critiqued the changes to NASCAR’s point structure, but as popular driver Danny Hamlin has put it, “you don’t need to know how to build a watch. You just need to know what time it is.” As in road racing, drivers cannot perform well in the standings without the dedicated support of a talented team — although in cycling the team’s supporting workers ride alongside the star rider. Sports such as basketball, ice hockey, and soccer don’t reward individual glory to the same degree, although star players feature prominently in each sport. LeBron James may win the Most Valuable Player award in a season, but few Lakers fans would prefer this to their team winning the NBA playoff finals. Whether it champions individual riders or teams a similarly clear points structure in cycling could broaden appeal.
Tweaking the points system, which would of course require root and branch reform, could also allow proper individual classifications and awards for the sport’s top climbers, strongest time trialists, fastest sprinters, even the most effective domestique riders, with the potential for significant new prize monies and merchandising opportunities around each of these categories as well. Alternatively or in tandem, a new points system could reward the most diverse riding talent by weighting rewards to recognize achievement across multiple disciplines. There are myriad options for reform. All that is needed is a clear priority of what the sport is seeking to reward. Given the ongoing trend for riding styles that ‘suffocate’ the race of any explosivity, it seems likely a revised points structure would seek to create incentives for disruption by introducing more opportunity to score. Attack, rather than defense, could be a focus for the sport’s points system that may drive greater fan engagement.
Open the peloton
In all, the way spectators experience live bicycle races has not changed much over the past 30 years. Preview, live and reported coverage of the sport’s biggest events continues to follow a well-worn format. Written reportage and analysis have moved online and broadcast has been supplemented by slightly improved on-screen graphics, but the fundamental presentation of the sport has not developed at the pace seen in other sports. And yet in contrast to other sports, almost every cycling event has a unique character — due to location, history, length, course topography, and other factors — that could lead to huge variation in presentational styles. This diversity must be appreciated and honored, while at the same time allowing fans to expect and enjoy some of the same experiences each time they visit a race.
Several simple cues from other sports could help fans feel more connected at the actual race viewing venue, combining with reforms in each of the above areas to create a far more compelling live sport package. The riders’ names should be printed on their jerseys with a greater emphasis on visibility, for example, and a permanently-assigned season-long race number would provide even novice fans with cues to spot any racer in the pack — and make it easier to track the action as it happens. The UCI still retains several archaic regulations regarding how sponsors are to be named, where logos can be placed on a jersey, and so on. In most cases, given the size of the primary sponsor logo on the jersey, and with all of the secondary or tertiary sponsorship insignias, there is little room left to put the rider’s name on the jersey. Team Sky has experimented with small rider names on the jersey because its primary sponsor largely overwhelms its supporting sponsor names, thus making it easier to free space for the rider name. This balance should be redressed to prioritize ease of viewing. These reforms are so small as to barely be worth mentioning, and yet they are the basics of modern sport presentation that professional cycling still resists.
Making the new calendar easier to follow and publishing more understandable team and individual standings would also make the sport more accessible to the very newest fans attending their first race. These kinds of simple, but often-overlooked changes could actually be important steps towards engaging a much larger circle of potential fans. Road cycling is regularly derided for its complexity, even at the amateur level, and the prevalence of the so-called “Rules,” written and published by the so-called “Velominati, Keepers of the Cog,” has not helped lower the barriers to engagement for new fans. A simple, exciting and unpretentious explanation of the sport at its most basic level is vital to connect the peloton to larger audiences.
Some race organizers and broadcasters have developed tracker applications for smartphones and other mobile devices, but most of these are focused on providing a connection to the event for fans that are not on site. More of these apps should have “locality-enabled” functionality, with additional information and spectator maps and guides, integrated real-time race timing and mapping for fans to plan a roadside viewing itinerary, interactive alerts, mobile-friendly video feeds and other supportive information. Akamai Technologies and Verizon Digital Media Services, for example, provide live event video streaming for organizations as big as the Olympics, and the content can be skinned with other coordinated data and graphics feeds like rider biometrics and position on course. For longer races, remotely staged big screens at multiple “fan zones” with food, drink, and other entertainment activities would provide viewing opportunities, and incentives to stay and follow the race from start to finish.
Professional cycling should also evaluate other new opportunities from the broader entertainment industry to encourage race attendance. Race staging sites should be constructed and appropriately designed so that fans can get close to the athletes. Race start sign-in areas and finish podiums could be better designed with fan-friendly zones and still maintain appropriate security. In that way, race winners and celebrity cyclists could better interact with fans, arriving early or staying afterward to sign autographs and take pictures with the fans who admire them — particularly children who can be inspired toward taking up the sport. This ability to interact and get “up close and personal” in professional cycling is one of the sport’s unique attributes and strengths, and it must be maximized. Organizers should take care to develop appropriate event layouts, and teams should be required to make their riders available for various fan interaction occasions, just as other sports do, with particular success in ball sports in the UK and US, and at which point the individual characters of riders are encouraged rather than managed into obscurity. There are numerous encouraging examples from race organizers attempting to create more reasons for fans to watch live bike races. Interviewees have championed the importance of festival-style events, maximizing accessibility and variety in entertainment and creating a diverse offering beyond cycling like the Tour Down Under, the Colorado Classic, some of the Classic one-day events and smaller criteriums.