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?
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