The Outer Line: The invisible return of pro cycling

After months of only virtual events, some of the world’s best riders are lining up to race, outside, on the road – but no one can watch.

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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This past weekend, real-world professional road cycling returned, in the form of the Slovenian national road racing championships. After months of virtual events, some of the world’s best riders lined up to race — outside, on the road, and in front of fans. Primoz Roglic, a favorite for the 2020 Tour de France, rode away from the rising star and countryman Tadej Pogacar to win in thrilling fashion on the race’s summit finish.

However, unlike the professional European soccer leagues, this return to live racing wasn’t marked by any highly publicized and triumphant kickoff. In fact, it was run with no television coverage at all outside of Slovenia, and it took a backseat in the English-language cycling media to the latest Everesting attempts and team sponsorship rumors. Indeed, numerous virtual racing events held during the lockdown over the past few months have been given far more attention.

And consider the upcoming but unknown Belgian sportive, the Grote Prijs Vermarc Sport, which recently received requests from more than 400 riders, including superstar Mathieu van der Poel – aiming to get racing miles in their legs before the formal UCI schedule presumably kicks off with Strade Bianche on August 1. However, once again, it appears that fans who are starved for some real-word racing will be unable to watch this all-star lineup compete.

This failure to generate any meaningful media coverage for these early, live events is just another example of how cycling struggles to effectively promote itself. While the English Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga recently returned to play with massive fanfare and record TV ratings, cycling returned with a shoddy local TV broadcast, akin to a PowerPoint presentation consisting of photos of the race. And most fans were unaware that the event was even covered.

The most regrettable part is that this was a completely unforced error. Some simple schedule coordination, TV production, and syndication could have brought the event before a much larger audience. This is a symptom that speaks to a bigger issue of a lack of coordinated and widely available televised events in the sport. Much has been said about how to create a better business model for professional cycling, but surely a critical first step is ensuring that fans and enthusiasts can actually view the events, via either terrestrial television or streamlined digital offering like NBC Sports Gold, Flobikes or Eurosport. A sport can’t build a dedicated global following and attract blue-chip corporate partners without a reliable broadcast product. The fact that professional cycling continues to have trouble offering this basic service, is once again due to its legacy model and patchwork of governing bodies and stakeholders.

If and when the sport’s bigger races like the Tour and the Giro take place later this year, other major sports will be springing into action as well. By that time, the sports landscape will be much more crowded, and cycling will undoubtedly be somewhat muted. That is perhaps to be expected, but a failure to gain attention and traction now, while there are only a few other professional sports leagues back in action, is a major missed opportunity for cycling. If cycling can’t drum up interest in its own orbit for the first real-world race in months – including some of the best riders in the world – how does that bode for the sport when three major races are overlapping each other while simultaneously competing against many of the other biggest and most popular sports leagues in the world?

There are many challenges in professional cycling’s business and distribution model, some of them legitimate and incredibly difficult to overcome. However, the muted return to racing from the COVID-19 racing halt so far highlights that it is time to stop repeating these same excuses and finally come up with a workable, stream-lined promotion and broadcast solution.

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