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Continental thrift: Life on pro cycling’s global frontier

Far from the limelight of the WorldTour, the Continental Circuits are growing, improving, and giving more and more riders a pathway to the top.

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After one particularly grueling stage of Africa’s 2014 Tour of Cameroon, Namibian cyclist Dan Craven and his teammates on Germany’s Bike Aide – Ride for Help squad sat around the dinner table, hungrily awaiting their meal. The typical exhaustion of hard racing was compounded by situations they faced off the bike.

The bare-bones infrastructure for the stage race — which was a stop on the UCI Africa Tour — included living conditions so cramped Craven and his teammates were forced to sleep two to a bed. Few of the finishing towns had functioning showers. So, to clean themselves, riders poked holes in two-liter bottles of mineral water and stood under the outpouring stream, hurriedly scrubbing at the grime before the bottle went dry.

Then there was the enormous platter of what they were told was barbecued chicken, which had been supplied by the race’s promoter for dinner one night. (Feeding pro cyclists is a regular task for race organizers.) “We passed around one piece — it definitely was connected to a hand or paw,” Craven says. “By the end of the evening we hadn’t figured out what animal we had eaten.”

Dan Craven was the unexpected hero of the Rio Olympics, results aside. Photo: Caley Fretz |
Dan Craven at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Caley Fretz

But two years on, Craven (who enjoyed a few moments of fame this past summer when he accepted a last-minute entry into the time trial at the Olympics) looks back on the experience fondly. Yes, the lodging was bad and the food was questionable, but no one on his team got sick and Craven eventually won the general classification, which helped him secure promotion the following year to Team Europcar, a Pro Continental squad.

To Craven, the 2014 Tour of Cameroon is now just another story of adventure from his decade-long career spent racing on cycling’s wild frontier. “Cameroon, China, Rwanda — racing in places like that has an almost otherworldly feeling to it,” says Craven, who is now back in the Continental ranks with the Israel-based Cycling Academy team. (The team will move to the Pro Continental ranks for 2017.) “People will gather around you to watch you fix a puncture. They reach out with a hand to touch you. It’s not European.”

It’s not. And that’s exactly the point of the decade-old Continental Circuits, which comprise five separate yearlong series in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and Oceania. Each tour crowns an individual and team champion, with the accrued points also adding toward a final ranking that can see high-performing teams get invited to more prestigious races the following season.

The UCI created this system as a way to spread cycling beyond its traditional European stronghold. The model appears to be working. In the decade since the project began, dozens of races have sprung up across Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. The circuits also gave a newfound relevance to smaller existing events, such as the Tour of Cameroon, and have given riders from everywhere, including Europe, many more chances to compete, chase UCI points, and get noticed by bigger teams.

“When you have UCI races that award UCI points, it can really put a country on the map,” Craven says. “If the UCI had never created the [Africa Circuit], there’s no way you’d have as many races for people to compete in. There wouldn’t be much of anything.”

Dozens of current WorldTour pros came up through the Continental Circuits, including Svein Tuft (Orica – BikeExchange), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Darwin Atapuma (BMC Racing), Wout Poels (Team Sky), and Thomas de Gendt (Lotto – Soudal).

Metkel Eyob celebrated with his teammate and race leader Valens Ndayisenga after winning stage 5 of the Tour of Rwanda in 2016. Photo: Tour of Rwanda
Metkel Eyob celebrated with his teammate and race leader Valens Ndayisenga after winning stage 5 of the Tour of Rwanda in 2016. Photo: Tour of Rwanda

THE CONTINENTAL CIRCUITS TRACE their roots back to the early 1990s, when Dutchman Hein Verbruggen was serving as UCI president. While Verbruggen’s reputation will forever be linked to Lance Armstrong and cycling’s doping era, he was also a champion of globalizing the sport. Under Verbruggen, the UCI developed the World Cycling Center — a multi-million dollar training facility with a velodrome, BMX track, dormitory, and coaching staff — devoted to training riders from countries that lack sufficient cycling infrastructure.

“Hein knew [globalization] was a necessity because it has to be a business,” says Alain Rumpf, who worked on the UCI’s international campaigns from 1994-2014. “And if you want to grow your business, you cannot do that if your only markets are France, Italy, and Spain.”

In 2001, UCI officials began working on the project that eventually gave birth to the UCI Continental Circuits. The idea was to create a points and ranking system built around the handful of UCI races that existed outside of Europe. The hope was that this structure would persuade more races — and then pro teams — to grow within cycling’s hinterlands. The points accumulated at these races, after all, impacted team and rider rankings and counted toward qualification for the UCI world championships.

The original circuits were modest, to say the least. The 2005 Asia Tour had 13 races, and it relied heavily on Malaysia’s Tour de Langkawi and China’s Tour of Qinghai Lake. The 2005 Africa Tour had just four events (including the Tour of Cameroon), and the Oceania Tour had just two races.

[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Alain Rumpf”]”If you want to grow your business, you cannot do that if your only markets are France, Italy, and Spain.”[/pullquote]

The UCI also hoped the circuits would incentivize promoters to organize races in non-traditional cycling countries. The organization distributed literature on best practices for putting on races and advised local promoters directly, sidestepping the national federations. It persuaded promoters of European races to look at Africa and Asia. And in 2009, the UCI created its own subsidiary events company, Global Cycling Promotion, which promoted the Tour of Beijing and looked to create other events in China.

“Before, the structure was so vague — there was no way you knew how to grow your event,” Rumpf says. “This [new effort] gave a sense of direction to anyone involved in cycling outside of the European continent.”

The aggressive growth strategy led to a series of political battles and debates. Some critics viewed the UCI’s push as just another strategic move in its ongoing battle against Tour de France organizer ASO. Others saw it as a quick cash-grab for the governing body.

When Patrick McQuaid, Verbruggen’s successor as president of the UCI, lost his bid for re-election in 2013, the organization’s global attitude began to soften. In 2014, new president Brian Cookson announced that he would be ending Global Cycling Promotion, due, in part, to a perceived conflict of interest. The UCI is in the business of sanctioning races from independent promoters, so who would challenge its sanctioning of GCP events? The next year, he clarified the UCI’s stance on its global push.

“We have to see if we can help cycling grow around the world,” Cookson told Reuters in 2015. “But at the same time, I want to make sure we protect those beautiful things that make our sport what it is.”

Cookson’s term as UCI president effectively marked the end to Verbruggen’s aggressive strategy of globalization. The UCI is no longer in the business of creating its own events in nontraditional cycling markets, like China. The UCI’s push to elevate cycling in those markets continues, however. For 2017 the UCI elevated the Tour of Qatar and Abu Dhabi Tour from the Asian Tour to the WorldTour. But there appears to be little to no change to the Continental Circuits structure or the global races that receive sanctioning by the UCI.

By the time Cookson effectively pulled the plug on the UCI’s activist role in creating and overseeing the Continental Circuits, the respective tours were established enough to keep going on their own. By 2015, there were 32 races on the Africa Tour, six on the Oceania Tour, and 31 on the Asia Tour. To illustrate this more clearly, in 1990, Europe hosted 95 percent of all UCI-registered races; in 2015, that stood at 73.2 percent.

The benefits go both ways. Riders from outside of Europe get more exposure and more opportunities to race, while riders and teams from Europe and the relatively established North American scene have more places to chase points, money, and experience.

“I think cycling as a whole has gotten big enough almost everywhere in the world to grow by itself,” Rumpf says.

The now-defunct Tour of Beijing was part of the UCI's efforts to globalize the sport of cycling. Photo: Tim De Waele |
The now-defunct Tour of Beijing was part of the UCI’s efforts to globalize the sport of cycling. Photo: Tim De Waele |

IT TOOK ONE FULL season before the first North American cycling team focused an entire campaign on the new Americas Tour. In 2006, Canada’s Symmetrics Pro Cycling Team hatched a plan to win it by focusing on familiar races in the U.S. and Canada — such as the Tour de Beauce, Tour de Georgia, and Wachovia Cycling Classic — as well as lesser known races in places like Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico.

Symmetrics’s calculus was that winning the Continental Circuit would earn them entrée into the continent’s biggest race, the Amgen Tour of California, which had eluded the squad since its inception in 2005. The points chase, however, meant Symmetrics needed to target the traditional American events, as well as the Vuelta a Venezuela, Vuelta a Colombia, Vuelta a Cuba, and Volta do Rio de Janeiro. “We did it the hard way,” says Eric Wohlberg, a Symmetrics alum and current road manager for Rally Pro Cycling.

Symmetrics’s campaign began swimmingly. Rising Canadian star Svein Tuft — who currently rides on the WorldTour with Orica – BikeExchange — won the six-day Vuelta a Cuba after battling with the race’s four-time defending champion, Pedro Pablo Perez.

But the South American leg of the trip started badly. While the team was at the airport in February to fly to Brazil’s Volta Sao Paulo and Volta do Rio de Janeiro, they learned that the latter race had been canceled. Then, during the race in Sao Paulo, the team awoke to discover that its transportation bus had rolled down the street and smashed several vehicles.

[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Eric Wohlberg”]“It was some of the fastest racing we ever did. There was nothing easy about it.”[/pullquote]

When the squad headed to the Vuelta a Venezuela in August, Symmetrics’s challenges continued. Wohlberg says stages rarely began on time, and the race bible often contained wrong directions for the route of each stage. On several occasions, the racers sat around for hours after the finish while the organizers attempted to book them hotel rooms. And when the Central American heat gave way to rain, the roads became muddy, pothole-filled minefields. “The stuff from the road gets sprayed in your face for days, so all of us got sick,” Wohlberg says. “Nobody even finished.”

At each race, Symmetrics faced stiff competition and aggressive racing from local teams, such as Mexico’s Tecos Trek squad, as well as national squads from all across Latin America. The small teams had strong riders, astute tactics, and plenty of desire to challenge the visiting Canadians.

“It was some of the fastest racing we ever did,” Wohlberg says. “There was nothing easy about it.”

Symmetrics still ended up winning the UCI Americas Tour team classification, and Tuft took home the individual prize. But while the awards gave the team plenty of bragging rights, it wasn’t enough to earn a spot at the Tour of California. The team was not invited to the race in 2008, and then folded at the end of the year.

“It didn’t work out too good for us,” Wohlberg says. “But it definitely helped Canada as a nation, with our Olympic and world championship quotas.”

Over the next decade, additional North American teams ventured into South and Central America in search of UCI points and the Americas Tour title. Australia’s Rory Sutherland won the title in 2012 for the UnitedHealthcare team. In 2013, Colombian climber Janier Acevedo won the title while riding for Jamis – Hagens Berman. He would spend the next two seasons on the WorldTour with the Garmin – Cannondale organization before returning to the Continental level. Toms Skujins took the 2015 title for Hincapie Racing, en route to his trip to the WorldTour with Cannondale.

European and American riders quickly discover that life on the UCI Continental Circuits is drastically different than within cycling’s more developed regions. For riders raised on European-influenced race culture, the tactics — or lack thereof — on the circuits can take some getting used to.

[pullquote align=”left” attrib=”Chris Butler”]“A truck driver got mad and pulled out a gun and started shooting in the air. It was insane.”[/pullquote]

American Ed Beamon, who began taking the U.S.-based Navigators team to China’s Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2003, says the racing dynamics at these Asia Tour races were unlike anything he had previously experienced in the pro ranks. Instead of allowing breakaways to form, for example, riders chased down every move, often trying to create a bunch sprint in each stage. “It was a lot like racing a Cat. 3 race here in the U.S.,” Beamon says. “We were used to European dynamics, where you fight hard at the beginning, let a breakaway establish itself, and then play the game.”

Once the riders chased down the breaks, however, the packs accelerated to leg-cracking speeds. Even then, some of the Asian riders attempted breakaways, often darting through small gaps in the pack in harrowing moves or zipping from the pack onto curbs. “It was kamikaze-style racing,” Beamon said. “Some of these guys from Korea and Malaysia could pilot a bicycle like it was an appendage of their body.”

In 2015, American team SmartStop embarked on a short campaign into Central and South America that started with the Vuelta Independencia Nacional Republica Dominicana. Heading into the race’s penultimate stage — which featured a long, grueling climb — Chris Butler, 27, was in third place overall, looking to move up.

As the peloton hit the base of the climb, Butler watched in dismay as the group began riding alongside a small army of motorcyclists. One-by-one, Dominican cyclists grabbed onto the motorcycles and were whisked away up the hill. “These guys would just grab onto the f—king scooter and shoot away,” Butler says. “One guy put 1:30 into our group in less than a minute.”

Unable to stop the chaos, race organizers eventually halted the stage, Butler says, which led to riders blocking the road — and more chaos. “A truck driver got mad and pulled out a gun and started shooting in the air,” Butler says. “It was insane.”

Screen Shot 2016-11-18 at 3.02.26 PM

INFRASTRUCTURE AND ORGANIZATION CAN also vary wildly from race to race. Beamon says the Tour of Qinghai Lake rivals major European races in terms of hotel infrastructure, the team presentation, road closures, and spectator numbers. But during the 2012 Tour of Korea, Beamon — who was then directing — watched in horror as a motorbike from the race organization hit two riders in separate incidents, including one, Jaan Kirsipuu, from his team.

Beamon blames the race organizers for hiring novice drivers who were piloting powerful Harley-Davidson-style motorcycles, rather than the smaller bikes traditionally used in bike races. “They were on machines that had no business being in the pack, and the guys piloting them didn’t understand racing dynamics,” Beamon says. “It was reckless.”

Screen Shot 2016-11-18 at 3.02.56 PM

Of course, even the WorldTour has seen its share of moto incidents, dangerous racing conditions, and dodgy hotels. When the UCI created the Continental Circuits, it also developed a new system to maintain quality control at all races, from the WorldTour on down. Rumpf says UCI officials compile racing reports on all UCI-sanctioned events that include feedback from referees, riders, teams, and even the cyclist groups Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP) and Cyclistes Professionnels Associés (CPA).

The UCI then issues summaries to the event organizers containing requests for improvement, or sometimes complaints about hotels, food, and safety. In serious cases, a race could be demoted for serious offenses.

“The most important thing is that the organizer would receive feedback and then be given a chance to address issues,” Rumpf says. “The issues had to be reported.”

But the UCI feedback often clashes with the realities of each race’s financial or organizational situation. Some races simply lack the cash and infrastructure to live up to the standards set by the UCI. The Caribbean one-day race Tobago Cycling Classic, for example, operates on approximately $250,000, which is a comparable budget for a one-day race in the United States. But the race lacks a sufficient number of metal crowd barricades, and the UCI has repeatedly demanded its organizer, Jeffrey Charles, supply the barriers.

“[The UCI] are insisting that we have one kilometer of barriers at the finish line. The whole of the Caribbean doesn’t have one kilometer worth of road barriers,” Charles says. “That is like an impossible dream.”

Buying barriers would either break the Tobago race’s budget, Charles says, or force him to divert funds away from some of his more important expenses. The race pays for some of the teams to travel to Tobago, for example. Removing those pro teams could impact the race’s ability to bring in sponsors, attract television audiences, and bring in fans. Already, the race pays sizable sums to bring much of its infrastructure over from the adja- cent island of Trinidad.

Charles says the various pressures make him question whether the Tobago Cycling Classic should even remain sanctioned by the UCI.

“I ask myself every year: ‘Is it worth it to try and do the impossible, and for you to be expecting us to meet these demands?’” Charles says. “They see my frustration and the possibility that I may give up the UCI, but they don’t want me to give it up.”

Daniel Teklehaimanot is one of the most successful African racers to come up from the Continental Circuits. Photo: Tim De Waele |
Daniel Teklehaimanot is one of the most successful African racers to come up from the Continental Circuits. Photo: Tim De Waele |

ONE HAS ONLY to look at the early years of the Tour de France to see this sort of barebones organization, bizarre course features, and rampant cheating. The situations riders on the UCI Africa Tour encounter would be familiar to any of the sport’s European pioneers. These conditions are, to a certain degree, an expected step in cycling’s evolution. And all the signs are that the sport is indeed evolving into these new regions.

Dan Craven, who is a Namibian of European descent, says that during his first few years in pro cycling, the trend in the African peloton was that white riders like himself dominated, while the black African riders struggled to keep up. When Craven won the 2008 UCI African Continental Championships, he was the fifth consecutive white winner in the tour’s five-year history.

“There was Team South Africa and then everybody else,” Craven says. “They would control the entire race.”

But Craven says things began to change as more UCI races sprang up across the African tour. Black African cyclists from Rwanda, Cameroon, Eritrea, and Zambia began to feature at the front of races. Their teams traveled around Africa, competing at newer events in Algeria, Morocco, and Eritrea. And there was a budding rivalry between riders from Morocco, Eritrea, and South Africa, which added new drama.

Read the interview with Jay Thomson about the growth of African cycling >>

Craven credits multiple factors for this shift, including the UCI’s World Cycling Center development program, the growth of regional teams such as Team Rwanda and MTN-Qhubeka (now Dimension Data), and the launch of multiple talent-identification camps across the continent.

In 2010, Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot (who has since become a Tour de France hero for wearing the polka-dot jersey in 2015) became the first black African to win the African Championships. Since then, only one white African rider has won the title.

There’s still room for improvement, of course. Craven says the propagation of UCI races in some African countries has surpassed the growth of amateur and lower-level events. Often, these UCI events will attract riders who lack the rudimentary skills that are often developed in the lower ranks. Since promoters spend their money to organize a UCI race, there’s no cash left over for a national series or lower-level events. But Craven believes African cycling is headed in the proper direction, and is not shy to credit the work of the UCI and its Continental Circuit.

Thanks to the decade-long support of the UCI, the sport is now in more places, and more riders have a chance to participate in the sport at increasingly higher levels. The number of teams and riders from Asia, South America, and Africa is growing. For example, according to the website, Asian riders made up just 5.9 percent of professional riders in 2005. They now account for 14.9 percent. Over the same period, European representation in the pro ranks dropped from 77.7 to 66 percent.

It’s no coincidence that 2015 saw the first ever black African wearer of a leader’s jersey in the Tour de France, when Teklehaimanot — a product of the UCI’s World Cycling Center — spent four days in the polka-dot jersey. Like Craven, Teklehaimanot cut his teeth in the Africa Tour. At the 2010 Tour of Rwanda, Teklahaimanot finished second and Craven was third on the opening stage.

In Craven’s mind, the scene that best illustrates his optimism for African racing comes from the 2015 La Tropicale Amissa Bongo, a stage race in Gabon. As the peloton steamed into the final kilometers at breakneck pace, Craven looked over and saw riders from Team Rwanda forming a sprint train alongside the peloton.

“All six riders were riding as one unit,” Craven says. “I had never seen that before.”