CY­CLING HEADS FUR­THER OFF ROAD

EF Dra­pac's goals for 2019 will in­clude grand tours, Clas­sics and... gravel races. Are they ahead of the curve?

Procycling - - PROLOGUE -

The last races of 2018 have taken place, the last mag­num of cham­pagne has been sprayed and the last bou­quet of flow­ers thrown to the crowds. Bikes have been packed up and In­sta­gram pic­tures of rid­ers’ hol­i­days in hot places with no bikes are flood­ing in. But cy­cling’s ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis over the way the sport should be or­gan­ised con­tin­ues. And a re­cent an­nounce­ment by the EF-Dra­pac team has en­sured that the de­bate about how the sport can grow, and how it gains pub­lic­ity, will not get any less in­tense as we go into 2019.

On the sur­face, the press re­lease from EF-Dra­pac was as pro­saic as cy­cling press re­leases get. It an­nounced their new cloth­ing spon­sor, Rapha. Nor­mally, the ques­tion of who makes the cloth­ing that a cy­clist wears is some­where down near the bot­tom of what fans care about. But in this case, there was more. Buried in the mid­dle of the fifth para­graph of the EF re­lease, there was a piece of very im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion.

“A num­ber of EF rac­ers will ride a mixed cal­en­dar of events in the 2019 sea­son, in­clud­ing the World­Tour sched­ule and also cri­teri­ums, ul­tra-en­durance races and renowned mixedter­rain events,” it read. In other words, EF are go­ing to send rid­ers to events out­side the UCI’s tra­di­tional road cir­cuit, as part of the main road team it­self. There have been small ex­per­i­ments in this di­rec­tion al­ready – Joe Dom­browski took part in the 2016 Leadville 100 moun­tain bike race, for ex­am­ple, but it was por­trayed more as a bit of fun that fit­ted in with his train­ing and sched­ule. Now, it looks like EF-Dra­pac have fig­ured that World­Tour races are not the only way to get pub­lic­ity. They’re go­ing off the beaten track in more than one way, which asks a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion about the sport it­self.What is a cy­cling team for?

This is elite sport, so the ob­vi­ous an­swer is: to win races. Win­ning has be­come more and more im­por­tant than ever be­fore – there seems to be more me­dia im­pact from Quick-Step Floors win­ning 73 races in 2018 than when HTCHighroad won 85 in 2009.

But you could also ar­gue that win­ning races is a means to a big­ger end – to gain pub­lic­ity for spon­sors. In the past, that meant do­ing well in a race (win­ning, or by the time-hon­oured tra­di­tion of the

smaller French teams in the Tour de France of get­ting into the break), and get­ting tele­vi­sion or print me­dia cov­er­age. It was a cheaper way of get­ting spon­sors’ names out there than ad­ver­tis­ing.

Un­less the race evolves ex­tremely unusu­ally, EF-Dra­pac don’t have the bud­get to win the Tour. Even when the team first launched as an in­ter­na­tional squad, in 2008, CEO Jonathan Vaugh­ters pointed out that they were fo­cused on al­ter­na­tive ways of get­ting cov­er­age. At the time, this was a method of re­duc­ing pres­sure on his rid­ers to do well when there was still wide­spread dop­ing in the sport. Slip­stream 2008 were mar­keted as the crazy, Ar­gyle-wear­ing ec­centrics who, by the way, were rid­ing clean.

Over a decade on, the same team is em­ploy­ing a sim­i­lar strat­egy. And it looks like a trend, not a one-off. Daniel Oss, in­ter­viewed in this mag­a­zine, has been get­ting pub­lic­ity for a se­ries of long rides he’s done out­side his train­ing and rac­ing sched­ule. Larry War­basse and Conor Dunne got more cov­er­age for their or­ganic ‘NoGo Tour’, which was a trip into the Alps to di­gest their Aqua Blue team fall­ing apart, than they ever did for their rac­ing. And Thomas De Gendt and Tim Wel­lens were fol­lowed by thou­sands of fans as they doc­u­mented rid­ing home to Bel­gium from the Tour of Lom­bardy in an ini­tia­tive called ‘the fi­nal break­way’.

The fact that bike races them­selves are start­ing to break out of a long-es­tab­lished mould is per­haps the most per­ti­nent of all. Paris-Tours, a Clas­sic and one of the most ven­er­a­ble road races on the cal­en­dar, in­cluded gravel sec­tions this year. It up­set the fine bal­ance in that race be­tween sprint­ers and at­tack­ers and com­pletely changed the com­plex­ion of the event, but no­body could deny it was spec­tac­u­lar to watch. The Giro has strayed onto the gravel roads of Strade Bianche; the Tour is vis­it­ing the cob­bles more and more of­ten, while it even in­cluded a stretch of gravel it­self this year. And there is a se­ries of races which in­cor­po­rate gravel and of­froad sec­tions qui­etly build­ing through the year – Tro-Bro Léon, Strade Bianche and Dwars door het Hage­land.

Road rac­ing will al­ways be road rac­ing, but it’s strik­ing that the next change which ap­pears to be hap­pen­ing will in­volve fewer and fewer ac­tual roads.

Ev­ery­body has to do some­thing more... we can give more be­cause we have the in­stru­ment to do more, so why not? The world is chang­ing in this way. Daniel Oss on why r i d e rs have a d u ty to g i ve b a c k to fans, See page 48 fo r f u l l s tory

EF" Dra­pac rid­ers will in­cor­po­rate mixed ter­rain events into their 2019 cal­en­darsWel­lens and De Gendt doc­u­mented their ride 1,000km home to Bel­gium from Lom­bardy

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