Plugge: Permanent jersey numbers ‘could improve viewer experience’

Jumbo-Visma boss calls for an end to the 'outdated' method of identifying riders through pinned-on numbers.

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Richard Plugge has called for a modernization of the numbering system used in pro racing.

The Jumbo-Visma manager has suggested that permanent rider numbers printed on jerseys would improve viewers’ experience, add value, and improve performance in elite cycling.

At present, riders are assigned race numbers by event organizers, with the reigning champion being given number one and his team taking two – eight. From there on, teams are allocated batches of eight in whatever way race heads see fit. The result? Your favorite rider may have No.7 pinned to his back one day, No.52 the next – leaving commentators scrambling through start sheets when calling the action, and viewers left guessing at rider identities.

That’s fine if you’re seeking out stars such as Mathieu van der Poel or Peter Sagan. But who’s that support rider towing his team leader through the final section of a decisive mountain stage? Permanent jersey numbers could be the solution, suggests Plugge.

“Everyone can see the difference between, for example, our jersey and the Ineos one,” Plugge told AD. “Ineos would have number 1 for Froome or Egan Bernal, and with us for Primoz Roglic.”

Plugge went on to suggest that the squad number system currently in place at Jumbo-Visma could be used elsewhere. At present, his riders have permanent numbers printed onto their jersey, while also using the pinned-on race numbers assigned to them at each race.

“We started with fixed numbers some time ago, and the rider keeps the number he got when he joined the team,” Plugge said. “People think it says something about a ranking within the team, but it doesn’t… When we asked the riders which numbers they wanted, there was little overlap. Riders choose their lucky number or the number of the date they got married.”

Permanent numbering could prove the next step in making the sport more accessible and engaging for the viewer alongside initiatives such as those implemented by Velon, who provide live rider performance data to the broadcasters they work with.

Plugge suggested the initiative could also improve marketability and engagement for fans, providing a new wrangling point in contract negotiations.

“Dylan Groenewegen is an Amsterdammer and rides for us with number 14. If a fan lives in Amsterdam just like him, he will take a shirt with number 14,” he said. Down the line, the concept could impact rider value. “The greater the recognizability, the more fans recognize a rider, the more he becomes worth,” Plugge continued.

Printed numbers would also eliminate the need to physically pin numbers onto jerseys that have undergone years of development and optimization for aerodynamics and weight. Poorly-pinned or loose numbers mark a step backward in teams’ continued focus on “marginal gains” and technological advancement.

“From a sporting point of view, I’m quite surprised that bib numbers are still used,” said Plugge. “Cyclists often have to pin their numbers on, and if a safety pin comes off, the number starts flapping, which is terrible [aerodynamically] for performance.

“Cycling has changed a lot over the course of history, and today’s bib numbers are outdated.”

While the cycling world has larger matters to contend with as it moves toward the post-coronavirus racing block, the matter of jersey numbers could be the next thing to receive its attention.