Analysis: Strade Bianche, Roma Maxima deliver what cycling needs

With pro cycling deeply affected by the struggling European economy, Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima will provide a lift this weekend

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Gravel roads of Tuscany and Rome’s Coliseum; it’s hard to imagine more dramatic backdrops for cycling than what’s on tap this weekend in Italy.

Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima, held Saturday and Sunday, respectively, represent two shining examples of how to do things the right way.

With cycling pinched by recession across much of Europe, coupled with a growing fixation to “internationalize” cycling by shoehorning the sport into untapped markets, this weekend’s Italian romp should serve as a reminder to everyone that well-organized and smartly packaged events set in cycling’s European hotbed remain the sport’s best bet.

There might be plenty of money in far-flung markets such as China and Dubai, but there is no matching the history, passion, and drama that comes with racing bikes in Europe. And that’s especially true in Italy.

Strade Bianche, in particular, has quickly established itself as a favorite among the peloton. Its unique mix of gravel roads and a stunning route, set against the green hills of Tuscany and a breathtaking finale in the central piazza in Siena, has quickly established the race as a prestigious target among the top riders.

A quick glance of the startlist, with the likes of Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Rigoberto Urán, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) reveal the depth of the interest from the riders. They’re not obliged to race Strade Bianche; they want to.

It’s also at a perfect spot on the calendar, just ahead of the spring classics, and riders have the base form to make it a real race.

The race is a boon for Italian cycling, which is struggling through hard times against Italy’s economic malaise that’s seeing shrinking sponsorship investment in teams and races.

It is important for cycling to expand and search out new markets beyond the struggling European market, but there are inevitable hurdles that come with this expansion.

Many are hopeful that cycling can steer around the European demise by taking root in places such as Asia and Africa. Efforts to build the sport at the grassroots level will pay dividends in the long run, but trying to impose the sport from the top down seems to have short-circuited on many levels.

Many of the “new market” races in Asia and the Middle East seem like ghost events. While the infrastructure and organization are arguably world-class at races like the Tour of Beijing or the newly christened Dubai Tour, the hard truth is that money cannot buy passion.

Cycling will take hold in these new markets only when fans there have their own champions to cheer for. When China produces its own Greg Lemond, that’s when the sport will skyrocket in Asia.

That will only happen by investing at the grassroots level, with development programs, coaching, and equipment — not by parachuting in a few big-time pros for what are little more than exhibition races.

Massive crowds in Colorado and Adelaide turn out to cheer races such as the USA Pro Challenge and the Santos Tour Down Under in record numbers not because a few big names show up, but to back homegrown riders such as Tejay van Garderen or Cadel Evans.

There is certainly room in the calendar for early season and postseason races in warm-weather destinations, such as South American, Asia, and the Middle East. The riders like them, especially in January and February, when Europe is still in the throes of winter.

But efforts to internationalize the sport by trying to impose some Formula One-type calendar and dilute the established European market are misguided at best, and potentially crippling at worst.

Cycling in such traditional markets in Spain, Italy, and Belgium are facing a myriad of problems, with teams and races closing at an alarming rate. The main problem is a stagnating European economy, leaving local businesses and governments with little or no money to back teams or promote races.

More pressing is the question of doping, and efforts to shake the image that cycling is a dirty sport. Cycling has come a long way from the EPO era, but there is no doubt it will take a long time to recover from the damage of institutionalized doping inflicted on the sport. The UCI-backed inquiry into cycling’s dirty laundry and renewed efforts in the doping fight are strong moves to bolster the sport’s tattered image.

Rather than turn its back on Europe in search of quick-fix money found in developing economies, however, cycling cannot afford to forget its roots.

Everyone talks of new markets, but perhaps the world’s biggest “untapped” cycling market is Germany, which walked away in disgust following a string of searing doping scandals. Not only is it Europe’s largest economy, German fans are hungry for a chance to back its latest general of stars, like Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin, and John Degenkolb. Yet there seems to be little interest in trying to kick start the sport in Germany.

Instead, there is an ongoing discussion among the UCI and the sport’s key players to reshape the cycling calendar, with officials insisting that everything is on the table, including the idea of reducing the length of both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España to less than three full weeks. Major changes to the calendar will be unveiled soon, and could be implemented as soon as 2016.

Many of these backroom discussions are fixated on money, and how to expand or even reconstruct the existing economic model of ownership of lucrative TV rights.

There is general feeling among some of the sport’s key movers and shakers that the racing calendar “doesn’t make sense,” and that fans “get confused” by the structure of the racing season, with its peak in the middle of the year, rather that at some sort of season-ending climax, like a Super Bowl or points title.

Those discussions seem to ignore the reality of today’s marketplace.

At its heart and soul, elite pro cycling is a European-based sport. That’s where the history, the races, and the soul of the sport reside. And the undeniable center of the cycling universe is the Tour de France, and its powerful, if traditional owners, ASO. Just as efforts in the past to challenge that fundamental truth have backfired, any renewed tweaks of the sport will inevitably fail unless ASO plays a central role.

Saturday’s dust-bowl battle across the gravel roads of Tuscany and Sunday’s finale in front of Coliseum is just what the sport needs.

Both races deliver the very essence of what bike racing is. High drama, with the best racers, set against a spectacular “stadium” of Italian natural beauty. RCS Sport, organizers of this weekend’s Italian double-whammy, isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. It is being smart with the resources it has, delivering an imaginative product designed to capture the imagination of fans. RCS has succeeded on all counts.

Sometimes in a quest for a Holy Grail you can miss what’s right in front of you.

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