The spring classics are a big part of the season, teams can hire specialists there and some riders live for this brief part of the season. It’s wonderful sport but it can lack commercial sense… which is why it’s wonderful.
Take your pick from the marketing data and reports commissioned by various people in and around the sport but whichever way you slice it, the Tour de France is the event around which the whole sport revolves. Even in Belgium, even in Flanders where the Ronde can get 1.2 million TV viewers which is roughly double the average daily audience for the Tour, but it’s still one day compared to le Tour’s 21 stages. Now imagine how this skews for big countries like France, Germany, let alone what that’s like in the UK, USA and Australia. Put like this even Lotto-Dstny has a commercial imperative to do well in July so imagine where the likes of Bahrain, UAE and Ineos get their eyeballs from.
Of course it’s not all about TV audiences, sacrosanct though they may be. Team sponsorship can offer VIP marketing reasons, inviting valuable contacts to attend races and so on. But here again the opportunities in the spring classics are limited. Yes there are many races right now but if we think of wining and dining VIPs (beering and dining?) at, say, Dwars Door Vlaanderen as well as the E3, Ronde, Gent-Wevelgem etc, the Tour de France offers 21 days of this via mobile VIP zones… and there’s the rest of the calendar for the whole year of course too.
A team can build a classics team but it’s going to be expensive and can it hope to get a return on this? It’s complicated further by the specialism required. There’s also a physiological gap here with riders who thrive this month finding opportunities can be limited in the rest of the year. Try to forget Tadej Pogačar for a moment because normally can have riders who thrive in stage races and who can also dabble in one day races like Liège and Lombardia, or even the likes of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert because they of course can deliver throughout the year and have range. Instead there are plenty of 75kg plus classics contenders don’t have many races all year or they have to find other roles. It’s not quite now or never but a big part of their earnings profile is dependent on this short window while a sprinter, climber or stage racer has opportunities from January to October.
Plus a lot of these races are almost reserved for insiders. We value the Monuments but how many people who don’t read niche cycling blogs could name all five? How do the ordinary public rate the Ronde, Dwars or the E3? Insiders in cycling can weigh up the relative value of these races but what does a win or a podium mean to a sponsor?
Quick-Step in its various incarnations has seemed like the definitive spring classics team. But management has long known it needed to expand beyond this. You might see their current demise on the cobbles as resources go towards supporting Remco Evenepoel; but before that it was also for Julian Alaphilippe. In fact it’s been going on for decades as Quick-Step the company knew however much they valued March and April, other races counted. Marketing manager Frans De Cock told L’Equipe recently that even 20 years ago the team wanted to tap audiences in France and the US (translated):
We couldn’t be focussed on Johan Museeuw for a small part of the year in the spring, even if this was the most important part for us in Flanders
The team knew it couldn’t count on this small part of the season alone and has consistently done well in the Tour de France too. Arguably it’s doing better in the Tour these days than in Flanders.
Some teams have built up classics squad and dedicated resources here for different reasons. One alternative incentive is the availability of UCI points. It’s something few thought about, then last year many belatedly clocked that one day races offer points-a-plenty compared to stage races. While some team managers “discovered” this last year, others had spotted long ago. Take Ag2r where you might think they dream of little else but the Tour de France and a stage win or a spell en jaune. And yet they’ve also had to harvest ranking points in order to stay in the World Tour and one way they’ve done this is by racing hard in the classics. The team once recruited Iranians for points but once this avenue closed, they went for the likes of Johan Van Summeren, Oliver Naesen and lately Greg Van Avermaet. Maybe they haven’t had big headline results they hoped for but they’ve accumulated a decent points haul, the team finished 8th on the UCI rankings in 2021 helped by Greg Van Avermaet and this kept them away from relegation woes last year.
All this though is very dependent on a matrix of factors. Nationality of the team counts, obviously a team with Flemish roots will have a cultural attachment to the cobbled classics in a way that a Spanish or Bahrain team can’t. The sponsor has a say, the VIP tents right now are practically a convention for Belgian construction purchasing managers with Soudal (adhesives), Quick-Step (flooring), Deceuninck (windows), Renson (cladding) treating staff and clients. But the same goes for Jumbo supermarkets in Belgium who have a greater interest now than in, say, the Vuelta a España; while Movistar has the reverse priorities and so on. But bike companies also come into the mix here, they’re keen to be seen at the Tour de France but they know hardcore fans also watch the classics and machines that can withstand the cobbles make for good marketing. This aspect reaches its apotheosis in Paris-Roubaix which is practically a shop window for manufacturers who deploy special bikes which suit a “Sunday in Hell” but also make life comfortable for weekend warriors for the rest of the year and where “Roubaix” is even a marketing label for frames and fleece alike.
ConclusionThe Tour de France is such a large part of the season and teams all feel the pressure in July to deliver for their sponsors, even Quick-Step have to get it right. Right now we’re in a niche part of the year where there’s lots of sport and fun to be had but in cold, economical terms it might be harder to justify pouring so many resources into these kind of races which attract a smaller, niche audience. Some teams opt out but it’s surprising how many squads come with dedicated classics riders and devote a lot of resources to this part of the season. All the better for it.