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Climate change is forcing us all to think differently, and professional cycling is no different.
As “once in a generation” weather events become far more regular, it is hard to ignore what is happening on our planet. Though there are those that deny the human influence behind it, the overwhelming evidence suggests our own activity has caused climate change.
Professional cycling is a sport steeped in history and tradition, something that can often stymie major progress. Many people have tried and failed to shake up cycling and failed but the green revolution in the sport is one we can’t afford to fail.
As with any progress in cycling, change has been slow on the issue of sustainability, but a growing number of teams are nailing their colors to the mast. At WorldTour level, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl and Movistar have both committed themselves to going green.
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Movistar’s efforts, which has seen them put solar panels on their HQ and set up a reforestation project, have been such that the UCI is using it as an example of best practice for others to follow. Team CEO Miguel Grávalos — who joined mid-2020 — has been one of the driving forces behind Movistar’s eco push.
“When I stepped into the team, with all the things that were happening in the world, that was one of the things I put on the table with Eusebio [Unzué — team manager]. I think that we have to focus on this, we have to try to position the team towards a project to help push ahead all the environmental things that could help the world we are living in right now,” Grávalos said.
When Movistar unveiled its plans to become 100 percent sustainable, it calculated its emissions at 192 tons. It was far less than the 1,280 tons calculated by Quick-Step at the start of 2020, though it is not clear how each team made their calculations. Movistar worked with the Spanish environmental ministry to assess its emission levels.
Through its reforestation project, the team has already planted 1,000 trees in its local area of Navarra. There is disagreement within the scientific world about how much reforestation schemes can help reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but they are effective carbon stores.
Over its lifetime, a tree can store on average one ton of carbon.
Movistar is also currently generating 50 percent of the electricity at its HQ using solar panels and is working with supplier Volvo on transitioning its vehicle fleet to hybrid and electric. Meanwhile, it is utilizing carbon offsetting where it can’t eliminate emissions.
Not just fireworks
There’s still a long way to go in terms of reducing Movistar’s carbon footprint but Grávalos wants to make sure anything he does is not just talk. He wants the rest of the peloton to follow suit.
“Whatever we do is going to be something real. I don’t want to throw fireworks. There are many things that have been said about sustainability but most of them are no more than fireworks,” he said.
“The guidelines the UCI has launched are a critical and really important starting point. Now teams have to be conscious about it and not take it as just fireworks. It’s something serious and all of us have to take it seriously and apply these measures. What I would like to see is that the rest of the teams in cycling can start doing what we are doing.”
The UCI launched its first set of sustainability guidelines for national federations, organizers, and teams in June 2021. It includes tips on how to build a sustainability program and focuses on the United Nation’s 17 sustainable development goals.
Plans are in place to create a resource on the UCI website for cycling stakeholders to assess their impact on the environment, but it won’t be ready until at least later this year.
“Data analysis, benchmarking, and collaboration will help our sport understand the environmental impacts of its operations and value chain to identify solutions and achieve carbon neutrality in the future,” the UCI said in a statement sent to VeloNews.
“The UCI also plans to support cycling stakeholders to start measuring the climate impacts of the sport’s activities through carbon footprinting which is the best tool to understand our climate impact. The UCI is currently working on the objective of providing a carbon calculator for the cycling world in the future to support wider environmental impact measurement and harness the sport’s foundation in data to drive continuous improvement.”
Cycling towards a sustainable future 🌍
On #WorldBicycleDay we’re launching the UCI Sustainability Strategy! Click below to find out more 📄
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) June 3, 2021
A team making some of the biggest changes in cycling is the Canadian Continental women’s squad InstaFund Racing. In June 2021, it made a pledge to eliminate single-use plastics from the squad and it intends to go carbon neutral in 2022.
The team used last season as a test run for this year and what the team learned is that it’s all in the planning and getting everyone on board is key for success.
“We were making notes while going about where it was falling down,” team manager Adam Korbin told VeloNews. “The pro of driving is that it’s not as bad as flying, but the downside of driving is you are stopping at gas stations. Almost anything in a gas station is going to have single-use plastic. Planning was very, very important there.
“The other part is the buy-in from the start of the season. That will be very important on all fronts, whether it’s riders or staff. An example of how this went sideways for us last year is you finish the race and you’re handed a bottle of bubbly water it’s in a plastic bottle. That’s where setting the tone right from the beginning of the season and making sure everybody has what is needed to succeed is important.”
As a Continental team, it has a bit more freedom to design its race program as it is not committed to attending a certain number of events. It has utilized this freedom to design a calendar that cuts down on travel. A well-mapped-out calendar of races in North America has helped.
“From a travel standpoint, it’s been organized in a really nice way for us, where we sort of start everything on the west side of North America,” he said. “Then everything kind of moves to the east and then everything comes back over to the west, which is great because that’s where the bulk of our service course is, and then we’re doing one big block in Europe at the end. It’ll actually be quite easy travel-wise on the team this year in comparison to what it was in 2021, which was more back and forth.”
Some have suggested that the UCI should streamline the calendar to reduce the amount of travel that teams and riders have to make during a season. For Grávalos, there may be areas to tweak but he believes the heart of the calendar should be left alone.
“I’m sure that the calendar could be optimized and done in a better way but it’s not that easy,” Grávalos said. “It’s really challenging you because, in the end, the reality is we have to be really proud of the sport that we are involved in. It is probably one of the top sports in the world. We have to preserve it and keep on being as global as we are right now, or even more, and what we have to do is implement measures in order to be neutral.”
InstaFund has been working with a lot of suppliers and partners to work on ways of being more environmentally friendly. Korbin believes that good change is coming but he thinks that more work needs to be done on the pro racing front and he’s not as optimistic as Grávalos about future progress.
“I’m definitely optimistic on the production side and I think that we owe it to the brands to give them a little bit of patience as well because these changes can’t be made overnight for a large brand,” he said. “Where I think a lot more work would be to go in is on the professional racing side of things. That I think is a much more challenging thing to change. I think a big part of that does come back down to financial resources. Changes need to make business sense for people to really pursue them. I don’t know if I’m optimistic that exists enough yet in the racing side of the sport.”