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Can the Tour of California be both Boring and Successful?

Maybe a better question is, "Can the Tour of California be successful without being boring?"

This year's Amgen Tour of California had all the suspense, excitement, and drama of - well, of 8 days in a row of races. But with a wire-to-wire victory and any meaningful order in the race determined almost wholly over less than 20 miles of prologue and time trial, the event was decidedly unlike the grand tours it aspires to be.

The pre-race favorites were guys like Fabian Cancellara, Michael Rogers and David Zabriskie, simply because they're time trial specialists. These guys are all amazing racers. I'm a huge Zabriskie fan and know that he's one of the world's fastest men on a bike (when he can stay on it). But he's not an all-arounder. Granted, Levi Leipheimer is an all-arounder. But he won because of his time trialing. And his team, who were challenged, and rose to the occasion.

But they were only challenged by the other teams. In the Grand Tours, racers are challenged by the terrain and the result is a continuing narrative about the race's outcome. The major distinction between the Tour of California's climbs and those in the grand tours is not their length or pitch or category or quantity - but their location. The Tour of California had no mountaintop finishes, meaning that even stages with the area's most epic climbs were won by sprinters. J.J. Haedo conquers Trinity Grade and wins Stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California!

The answer to every "why" question you can conjure up about American cycling is the same: "Because of the economics." No cities in California with big tourism budgets are on top of mountains. And stages have to begin and end in sizable towns to draw in enough spectators to satisfy event sponsors, and enable the race to receive the continued funding it needs to grow.

The only reason The Tour of California wasn't brutally insipid to American cycling fans (or at least the American mainstream media) this year is because an American won. Again. What happens next year if Paolo Bettini comes as a racer instead of a tourist, or Sergei Gonchar shows up at all?

A boring race with world class riders and deep-pocketed sponsors is a huge win for a race promoter, and a coup for any mayor whose city is a host. But another ingredient is essential if the race wants to achieve Grand Tour status, and not plateau as a training stage race, like the Dauphine Libere (no offense, Levi). If it's not a true battle for the racers, challenging legitimate GC contenders to come fit and race earnestly, the Tour of California - like its stages - will peak early and end predictably.

The Tour of California needs a Nickname

I can't remember the last time I saw a feature story in the mainstream press here in the U.S. on cycling, that wasn't somehow about an American in the Tour de France. Until this year's Tour of California, that is. Race reports, personal interest pieces, community perspectives and a handful of other story types are showing up everywhere, from the New York Times to the San Jose Merc and the Tahoe Daily Tribune, even Wired Magazine.

One of the best pieces I've seen so far is in today's USA Today. It digs into the business side of the Tour of California, and gives some background behind the man driving it - Philip Anschutz. He owns AEG, the sports management company that's producing and promoting the Tour of California. He's also financially involved in the LA Kings, LA Lakers, Staples Center, and the MLS, and is cited by the paper as being the guy responsible for bringing David Beckham to play soccer in the U.S.

Anschutz' objective with the Tour of California is for it to evolve into one of the Grand Tours, on par with the Tours of France, Italy and Spain.

Or rather, on par with the Tour, Giro, and Vuelta.

Now I'm not saying the Tour of California needs a distinct single word moniker to continue its growth, but its current naming convention is designed to pay homage to the Grande Boucle, making it difficult for the Tour of California to demonstrate how it is uniquely qualified to be one of the world's most prestigious cycling events. Here's an analogy: If you start a new job, and you call your boss - the Vice President of the department - "Mr Smithers", you're setting a precedent that's difficult to break. If your ultimate objective is to be promoted to Manager, then Director, then VP as Smithers' peer, plan for that ascension now and call your boss simply "Adlai."

The Tour of California faces the same conundrum. Assuming it rises through the ranks, how will we refer to the 4 Grand Tours in future? As the Tour, Giro, Vuelta and The Tour of California? Not going to happen, just like Smithers is not going to promote to VP some lackey who calls him "Mr", instead of addressing him by name and showing that in his mind, he's already a peer.

20/20 hindsight, I know. Where was this line of thinking last year, before the race painted itself into a corner with the "Tour" label? Changing at this point is marketing suicide, even if a synonym for "Tour" existed and carried the perfect connotation for this event. Something that nods to California's unique properties, and alludes to the history of the event and the location, somehow.

But American cycling differs from European in that it's grounded in economics, not history and tradition. So maybe the best way to ensure the Tour of California's escalation into the Grand Tour ranks is to henceforth refer to it simply as "The Amgen."

What Cycling can learn from Nascar

As I watched qualifying for the Daytona 500 yesterday while doing a long endurance ride on the trainer I got to thinking about Nascar sponsors - why they do it, how they find a return on their investment, and how the racers work to satisfy them. Nascar has sports sponsorship figured out better than any organization in the world. Cycling is a ROI-wreck. I wrote about it the other day, and as if on queue news of a shakeup at Discovery Networks resulting in their pulling the team's sponsorship after this year hit the transom. When in doubt, don't sponsor cycling. And lots of companies are in doubt.

But big spenders are lined up to get a piece of Nascar. Sure it's got mass appeal, but part of the reason for that is because the sponsors tout their involvement, giving promotion to their promotion. I thought of a few things that Cycling can learn from Nascar:

  1. Sponsorship Merchandising: Nobody knows merchandising like retailing, and almost nobody knows retailing like the Home Depot. They positively exploit their sponsorship of Nascar. You can't come near a Home Depot store without feeling Nascar's presence: their soda machines are papered with pictures of Tony Stewart and the number 20 car; the shopping carts with kids' seats are shaped like the big orange Chevrolet; they put Stewart in their TV commercials and even create branded merchandise to sell around the holidays. The point is, they don't rely on Nascar to give them all their promotion. They know people feel strongly about Nascar, and they get close to these people - their customers - every time they set foot in the store. Some cycling sponsors get this - PowerTap, for example, is taking full advantage of their association with Floyd Landis by organizing Power Camps around him. But many smaller sponsors miss opportunities. I can't tell you how many bike shops I've been in where there's almost no evidence of the teams they sponsor. Instead of the obligatory team photo and maybe a jersey hung on the wall, they should always sell full team kits, at least giving weekend warriors the option of becoming fans. Coffee shops and restaurants who sponsor teams should create signature items named after the team so everyone who picks up a menu knows they support the sport. Car dealerships are also big sponsors. Would it kill them if just one of the models in the showroom had a bike rack on it, and that rack held a bike supplied by the shop that also sponsors the team? That's merchandising and co-promotion that benefits both sponsors.
  2. Bet on the whole race, not one of the horses in it: The biggest brand in Nascar besides Nascar itself is Nextel. They're the title sponsor of Nascar's most prestigious race series. It's pricier, to be sure. But this way, win lose or draw they get the exact same amount of exposure. And that's what sponsors want - they don't really care whether or not their teams or racers win; they want media impressions. It just so happens that racers who win are interviewed more for TV and the trade pubs. Backing a winner is more likely to result in some sponsor media exposure than bankrolling an also-ran. But sponsor the whole race and you move past "likely" and into certainty. Coverage of the race at all equals promotion for the sponsor. Major cycling events have this already, but the smaller local events typically tap the same small companies who fund local teams. Right now, there's no incentive for a major sponsor to get involved in smaller races - there simply isn't the scale. But 2/3 of the races in any regional calendar are - by themselves - in this category of small, local races - typically crits held out at industrial parks, or road races out in the sticks. By themselves, not on the radar of a Toyota or even a Jamis. But cobbled together, there are 3000 USA Cycling sanctioned events per year - the vast majority of them small and local. This cobbling infrastructure doesn't exist yet. But it's inevitable.
  3. Creative Services: Logo soup on an event flyer doesn't do much for any sponsor. Watch a Nascar race on TV and you'll see sponsors integrated everywhere. When Dale Jarret (sponsored by UPS) was racing through his qualifying laps on Sunday, a banner on the TV screen read "UPS: Go Dale Go!". Every pit crew chief at every Nextel Cup event wears a headset to talk to their drivers, and that headset is always bright yellow with the Nextel logo on it. Integration at the event makes sponsorship dollars work harder. In most cases, this sort of creative integration is absent from bike racing. Event promoters have to think of the race itself - not just the collateral surrounding the event - as media. Everything is sponsorable, and everything has to relate back to the sponsors somehow. It's more than just the race announcer giving "special thanks to the fine companies who made today's event possible." It's working the sponsors into the event in meaningful and unique ways. Got a car dealership as a sponsor? Make the hood of an SUV the podium, where all pictures are taken. Italian restaurant? Get a trophy cup and fill it with cooked pasta, creating a photo-op with every race winner, then post each picture on the event's website and deliver prints or a framed collage to the sponsor to hand in the restaurant. Spend a little money to help sponsors get their investment's worth, even if it means paying $1 / racer to have 500 custom water bottles produced which weren't part of the sponsor agreement, but which will go a long way to ensure that a key benefactor will sign on next year. When a sponsor has no expectations, exceeding them is exceedingly easy; but only meeting them is fatal.

This is not to say that Nascar has it all right and cycling has it all wrong. There's still at least one place where Nascar could learn a thing or two from the challenges cycling is facing right now. No matter what sport you're in, there's simply no reason to put up with foreign substances.