The International Advantage

Aug 20 2010

Lars Boom on TT bikeThere was some dispute in the comments section (#4) of the last post about whether or not nationalism was good business in cycling. While I think there’s something to be said on either side of the issue, I maintain that its influence will become increasingly detrimental in an ever-more-international sport.

Consider Rabobank—though widely considered a de facto Dutch national squad, they’ve made large and successful investments in foreign athletes. Since the retirements of Erik Dekker and Michael Boogerd, nearly all of their major victories have come courtesy of the Spaniard Oscar Freire or the soon-to-depart Russian Denis Menchov. It’s not like the team has suffered for the outsourcing, with the two riders bringing in a Giro, two Vueltas, two Tour podiums, several Tour stages, a Green Jersey, three San Remos and a gaggle of other assorted trophies.

There’ve been more than enough Dutch riders who could have stepped up at Rabobank, but many have chosen to ply their trades elsewhere—Karsten Kroon, Steven de Jongh, Theo Bos, among others. After Servais Knaven became the first Dutchman to win Roubaix in almost two decades in 2001, for a Belgian-registered but thoroughly international squad, I think it was laid clear to a lot of riders that their talents could be more successfully employed—even as lieutenants—on foreign teams that focused on their strongest races.

Given the success both Rabobank and Dutch ex-pats have had following this course over the past few years, it sounds ridiculous that Lars Boom would say his squad should develop more Dutch riders instead of aquiring the most underutilized classics talent of the 2010 season. It’s not like he’ll get a bigger share of the winnings if a Dutch rider is parcelling out prize money, or that Rabobank will get less camera time if a Dane crosses the line with their name on his chest.

Contrast Rabobank’s importation of talent to the approach of the major French squads, who, outside of one high-profile and ill-omened acquisition, have never shown much interest in top-tier foreign riders. While it was nice to see so many French teams and cyclists taking stages at this year’s Tour, the fact remains that at any high-profile event, they’re all still second-level players. And for the few Frenchmen who’ve elected to ride elsewhere—Sylvain Chavanel, Cedric Vasseur, Richard Virenque—the switch to a foreign squad has paid dividends.

The impression I get is that multi-national squads are better run, more focused in their objectives, and just plain tighter-knit. Bjarne Riis’ legendary commando-style training camps seemed to forge a bond stronger than any national affiliation—not really surprising, considering how many times the map of Europe’s been re-drawn over the past few centuries. Jon Vaughters has mentioned that having a core set of values can similarly draw a team together, and the team-building lesson hasn’t been lost on Columbia-HTC, either.

Stephen Roche in his Irish Champ AG2R kitWhile national affiliation is an important historical constant in a sport where teams, sponsors, and riders reshuffle yearly, the fact remains that it’s an increasingly outdated notion—and not just because the Tour hasn’t been contested by national squads since the ’60’s. Nicholas Roche, Heinrich Haussler, and Guido Trenti have each confounded the traditional notion of nationality, and even artificial changes aren’t hard to pull off when the situation requires.

When riders feel compelled to be the best rider from their country at an event it never ends well, as Paolo Bettini recently pointed out, and as Roche discovered first hand. It’s a problem even in America—lord knows how many US title races have been won by foreigners while Americans mark each other in the battle for least mediocre. Don’t even get me started on the Best Utah Rider jersey.

So while some nationalistic appeal might appear to be good business at first, any benefit will be short term as more professional international squads extend the performance gap. While Team Sky, the first major British outfit in a generation, overspent badly to bring in a home-grown Tour contender, they had the good sense to hedge the bet by placing him amongst a veteran, multi-national team, stocked with riders from similarly diverse squads—a move that paid off almost immediately in their 2010 campaign.

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