Saturday, November 12, 2016
Fan support for cycling can be hard to quantify. You can count the visits to websites that provide racing coverage. You can even look at TV ratings … especially outside of the United States. But if you want to talk about attendance at races, then you quickly realize that in most cases fans don’t buy tickets to gain access. Perhaps they do for track events in the controlled environment of the velodrome, but they don’t for most of the road races, criteriums, or cyclocross races.
This morning, Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad published a short analysis of recent professional cyclocross races, concluding that Belgian fans are less engaged this season than they were in 2015-16. The reason? Sven Nys, the now-retired legend of the sport. Without his star power, the newspaper argues, cyclocross has lost some of its allure. Certainly, Nys’ departure is a factor. I would argue that the premature departure of another popular rider, Niels Albert, and last year’s retirement of 2-time world champion Bart Wellens also makes for a less compelling starting grid. Klaas Vantornout and Kevin Pauwels no longer produce consistent results and even at their best are quiet, introspective men whose victories can go unnoticed. Tom Meeusen remains one of the more engaging fan favorites, but he has raced with limited success so far this season. Lars van der Haar is out of action as he recovers from an injury. On the women’s side, the amazing career of 7-time world champion Marianne Vos is coming to a close. Her heir-apparent, Sanne Cant, has combined a somewhat prickly personality with a baffling inability to win a world championship despite being a prolific winner otherwise.
Still, there’s so much to like. Current men’s world champion Wout Van Aert and 2015 world champion Mathieu van der Poel are great rivals already … at the ages of 22 and 21, respectively! Laurens Sweeck is just 22 and Toon Aerts just 23. These are riders at the top of the sport right now, with many epic battles ahead. And current women’s world champion Thalita de Jong is just 23. Yes, there has been a real changing of the guard in the last couple of seasons, but cyclocross is in good hands.
I am forced to admit, though, that I am less enthusiastic about the pro road racing scene. The big stars of the previous generation gave us great storylines. Sometimes those storylines proved shameful, but we enjoyed the show while we suspended disbelief. Fabian Cancellara, Ryder Hesjedal, Michael Rogers and Fränk Schleck all retired at the end of the 2016 season, and Peter Sagan now stands out even more clearly as the bonafide superstar in a peloton full of guys who don’t make a lasting impression. You might admire the accomplishments of somebody like Chris Froome, but can you really say that you find Chris Froome to be a compelling personality whose every move demands your attention? I can’t. And it doesn’t help that there were only 5 Americans in this year’s Tour de France, and only 2 in the men’s road race at the Olympics in Rio. It also seems to be true that young road racers serve longer apprenticeships than racers in other disciplines. In football or basketball, a college stud can make an immediate splash upon turning professional. In road racing, The Next Big Thing rarely lives up to the hype.
Cycling is not a team sport in the same way as baseball, basketball, football, hockey, or soccer. Teams in those other sports are inextricably tied to geography, and you probably cheer for the ones closest to home. Players come and go, but the team endures. Fans cherish its history, its stadium, its uniform. Cycling teams have no such continuity. One day you’re riding a Brand A (“Best bike in the world!”) for a manufacturer of writing utensils and the next day you’re riding a Brand B (“Best bike in the world!”) for a company that sells hardwood floors. Fans attach themselves to individual riders—team is, at best, a secondary consideration and probably not even that. I’m more inclined to support an American on the basis of our shared nationality than I am to support a foreign rider.
The point is this: personalities matter. Superstars matter. Of course there’s a little post-Sven Nys depression in cyclocross but it will pass as the greatness of the new generation becomes even more obvious. Road racing is in bigger trouble because of its reliance on Sagan. The careers of Alberto Contador, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish are winding down. Somebody new must step into the void to create the stories from which we cannot turn away.
Posted by Dave Hanrahan at 2:00 PM