Jonathan Vaughters says “it’s time for professional cycling to grow up and take its place among professional sports,” and is calling for a closer alignment of interest among the various factions involved, similar to the model employed by the NFL in American football.
In an op-ed piece for Business Insider, the American, who is CEO of Slipstream Sports, the management company of Cannondale Pro Cycling, said that “a bevy of conflicts of interest” surrounded the sport, and led to incidents such as riders being hit by motorcycles or cars accompanying races.
However, he maintained that “the interests at stake are so varied that consensus on how to move forward is difficult, if not impossible.”
The reason for that, he submitted, was that unlike other professional sports that have clearly defined business goals, “in cycling most interests work against one another, creating dangerous situations that benefit some and sometimes cost others.”
“One of the largest and most recent controversies in pro cycling is the cyclists being run over by television motorcycles, support vehicles, and referee-carrying vehicles,” noted Vauughters.
“At first glance, it seems absurd that cyclists would be getting put in danger by motor vehicles that are in the middle of a pack of cyclists. However, when we examine why those vehicles are there to begin with, it becomes less clear.
“Without television providing close-up and intimate filming, cycling loses its audience. Without mobile referees in vehicles watching the conduct of the riders, cycling loses adherence to regulations and fairness. Without support vehicles, riders have no coaching, no possibility to fix flat tires, and no mobile water and fuel station.
“Without the police on motorcycles constantly enveloping the peloton, the riders receive no protection from traffic. The hundreds of dangerous motor vehicles surrounding a bike race all serve a purpose. Unfortunately, we all now know that motor vehicles crammed into extremely close quarters with riders will eventually produce an accident. No matter who is driving.”
He went on to say that he did not believe reducing the number of vehicles involved in a race was an option, however – for example, taking out TV motos and media vehicles would cause a race to “fade to obscurity,” removing commissaires’ vehicles would result in “a Mad Max version of cycling,” and taking away team cars would deprive riders of support.
He also cited Wednesday’s cancellation of Stage 2 of Paris-Nice due to snow and icy roads, but highlighted that ‘cancelling a race isn't easy’.”
He said: “First, you have the towns that paid money for the race to start or finish in them. Then you have a television station that has paid money to broadcast the race at a certain time on a certain day. You have roads that have been closed by local governments to let the race pass.
“All these factors lead to a bevy of conflicts of interest. While the chief judge of the race should be looking at the rules in place for extreme weather, instead he has an upset race organiser breathing down his neck making sure he understands the money that will be lost if the race doesn't go ahead.”
Vaughters has a keener understanding than most of those tensions, and not just because of a riding career that saw him ride for some of the biggest teams in the sport, plus more than a decade now in charge of Slipstream Sports, and from 2011 to 2014 combined his current role with studying for an MBA.
He was also president of the professional teams association, the AIGCP, and in 2011 he unveiled a ten-point plan for the reform of the sport. Cannondale Pro Cycling is also one of the 11 WorldTour teams belonging to the Velon joint venture, and with his background it’s no surprise who Vaughters sees as suffering most from the conflicts within the sport – “the teams and the riders.”
He said: “They aren't part of the decision-making; they aren't part of the benefits or liabilities associated with the business of running a race. They are simply there to do as they are told.
"Solutions to these issues? Simple. Align the business interests so everyone decides what is best together, in advance, and live by those decisions.
"Maybe racing in the snow makes sense if everyone has brought snow tires and heavy parkas to begin with? Maybe the business benefits outweigh the negatives if done in a safe way? Maybe fewer cars and less officiating and media makes sense? Maybe not?
“Risks and rewards must be chosen by all parties. But since the teams and riders aren't part of the business of producing a race — many race organisers view riders and teams as nuisances, frankly — interests aren’t shared.
"Riders have to rely on decision-making from people who are highly invested in the business of producing a race. And that decision-making will reflect what is best for the race organiser. Not the teams and athletes.”
Vaughters gave the example of the NFL as a sport where all interests are aligned, with the NFL and its franchised teams running the Super Bowl and benefiting from it.
“There is no ‘Super Bowl organiser’ running a completely separate business from the teams competing in the Super Bowl and making decisions that the teams know nothing about,” he observed – an obvious contrast with the Tour de France, where organisers ASO, widely viewed as the most powerful player in pro cycling, make millions through TV rights but shares none with the teams and is often in conflict with the UCI.
Wondering whether the NFL model, where all parties are stakeholders, could be transferred to cycling, Vauughters said: “Maybe this type of decision-making would make races less safe? Maybe more safe? Maybe more entertaining? Maybe less? We don't know.
“But what we do know is that having teams and riders pulling one way and race organisers pulling another leaves both parties weaker. It's time for cycling to grow up and take its place among top professional sports. And that happens only with everyone pulling in the same direction,” he added.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.