The Spanish Cycling Bubble

Jan 24 2012

Hey remember me? I was on Vuelta podium...for like a week. / Rafael Uñach, cc-nd-nc

I was on Vuelta podium...for like a week. / Rafael Uñach, cc-nd-nc

20% unemployment. Massive cutbacks in public funding. A looming credit downgrade. There’s no question that “La Crisis” marks a major threat to the fortunes of the Spanish peloton. But if recent history is any indication, the increasing internationalization of cycling will force a near-total collapse of the Spanish peloton in the next few years, if the nation can’t take the management of its doping cases more seriously.

Let’s start in Germany in 2010: after some 14 years at the forefront of the sport—reference Erik Zabel’s 6 green jerseys, Team Telekom’s two Tour wins, and the perpetual candidacy of Jan Ullrich—the most powerful nation in Europe found itself without a single top-level squad. There are plenty of fingers to point, but the German economy, having recovered smartly from the Crisis of ’08, seems an unlikely culprit.

Let’s go back a few years further, across the Atlantic to the United States, where an inflated housing sector and over-leveraged credit markets were plunging the nation into the worst financial crisis in 80 years. Surrounded by this economic wailing and gnashing of teeth, Bob Stapleton reinvented the old T-Mobile squad, bringing it to the US with new objectives and sponsors, while Jon Vaughters floated an even more improbable proposition—an American-based, American-populated team dedicated to the idea that bike races could be won without the aid of performance enhancing drugs.

Returning to 2012, we find a Germany economically strong enough to essentially carry a continent, yet that still lacks a single top-tier squad. Meanwhile, while recovery has continued to be frustratingly slow in the US, the nation’s collection of international cycling teams continues to blossom, refuting the notion that economic conditions are a reliable predictor of ProTour presence. Indeed, the management of high-profile doping cases seems a much more reliable bellwether of a country’s ability to support WorldTour cycling squads.

The collapse of Germany’s cycling teams was brought about by a two-fold crunch—the bubble initially opened by Ullrich’s win in 1997 began to deflate just as a new generation of German cyclists and teams came up and found themselves immersed in doping scandals, while promising new talents like Gerard Ciolek and Linus Gerdemann failed to deliver big wins. Compounding the issue, those caught up in doping either admitted their charges outright by saying that cycling was impossible without doping, or dodged prosecution by dancing between national federations or paying a simple fine.

In the US, anti-doping authorities have proven far less ham-handed. While the White Whale still eludes them, they’ve been sensationally effective at putting a harpoon through nearly any drug cheat unfortunate enough to drift their way. Forget Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis—cereal box names like Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, and Barry Bonds are now notches on the USADA bedpost. Meanwhile, neither USATF nor MLB have put together anything close to the “it’s ok not to win so long as we don’t cheat” operation run by Slipstream Sports.

While I’ve found the specific efforts at transparency occasionally disappointing, there’s a general air of openness with the post-Lance generation of American cyclists. Fully illustrated, long-form blog posts, occasionally embarrassing honesty on Twitter, and a generally open stance toward fans and the press are all refreshing changes from the boilerplate patter proffered by the pharmaceutically-prepared generation. Combine this with the stubborn (if wrong-headed) meme that Lance Armstrong has “never failed a drug test”—and you’ve got an atmosphere in which American companies take some cautious comfort in the cleanliness of the riders they sponsor.

To sum it up, German cycling came out of the 00’s on a deflating bubble, with good riders that were dirty, clean riders that couldn’t win, and supporting infrastructure that utterly failed to convince fans and sponsors that they could wait out the trend. At the same time, the sport in the US had a boom of interest generated by Lance, a slew of successful, high-profile dope prosecutions, and new teams and riders willing to cater to the concerns of dope-weary fans and supporters. It’s the salability of the product, not the prevailing economic winds, that are the biggest factor in getting sponsors to sign.

So where does that put Spain in 2012? Nationally, there’s no shortage of success—in the past five years, Spanish riders have notched nine Grand Tour wins. The audience and homefront support is certainly there as well—the Contador Saga has given a podium for every even remotely significant Spaniard to pronounce him either completely innocent, or getting a raw deal.

But there’s a saying that when your cousin and your brother-in-law start climbing onto the bandwagon, it’s time for you to hop off. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Spanish fans (if not Spanish teams and governing bodies) would be happy to glibly play along as dosed-up Spaniards roll to victory after victory. But Spanish companies, I feel, have already realized that a Spanish cycling jersey is a very dangerous place to print a logo.

As cycling’s focus becomes more and more international—and as Spain’s public funding crisis makes Spanish races fewer and farther between—much of the advertising reward reaped from cycling Spanish teams will have to come from outside of Spain. And, call me cynical, but in the shoes of an event organizer, I just couldn’t get exciting about tossing a Spanish wildcard or two into my event knowing how business gets done on the Iberian peninsula.

Indeed, Team Geox’s sponsorship failure this past winter may have been pre-ordained in large part by its inability to land invites to major international events—the Tour and Giro, most notably—despite a star studded roster. Is it any wonder then that Oscar Freire and Juan-Antonio Flecha—two of the most “credible” Spaniards in recent memory—have raced on foreign teams for the bulk of their careers?

While the (hopefully) final outcome of the Contador case may provide the nation with some much-needed motivation later this month, if Spain can’t create at least a facade of transparency and enforcement, its squads will slowly find themselves going the way of Gerolsteiner and Milram, with their rides and staff unable to find work.

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