The International Advantage

Aug 20 2010

Lars Boom on TT bikeThere was some dispute in the comments section (#4) of the last post about whether or not nationalism was good business in cycling. While I think there’s something to be said on either side of the issue, I maintain that its influence will become increasingly detrimental in an ever-more-international sport.

Consider Rabobank—though widely considered a de facto Dutch national squad, they’ve made large and successful investments in foreign athletes. Since the retirements of Erik Dekker and Michael Boogerd, nearly all of their major victories have come courtesy of the Spaniard Oscar Freire or the soon-to-depart Russian Denis Menchov. It’s not like the team has suffered for the outsourcing, with the two riders bringing in a Giro, two Vueltas, two Tour podiums, several Tour stages, a Green Jersey, three San Remos and a gaggle of other assorted trophies.

There’ve been more than enough Dutch riders who could have stepped up at Rabobank, but many have chosen to ply their trades elsewhere—Karsten Kroon, Steven de Jongh, Theo Bos, among others. After Servais Knaven became the first Dutchman to win Roubaix in almost two decades in 2001, for a Belgian-registered but thoroughly international squad, I think it was laid clear to a lot of riders that their talents could be more successfully employed—even as lieutenants—on foreign teams that focused on their strongest races.

Given the success both Rabobank and Dutch ex-pats have had following this course over the past few years, it sounds ridiculous that Lars Boom would say his squad should develop more Dutch riders instead of aquiring the most underutilized classics talent of the 2010 season. It’s not like he’ll get a bigger share of the winnings if a Dutch rider is parcelling out prize money, or that Rabobank will get less camera time if a Dane crosses the line with their name on his chest.

Contrast Rabobank’s importation of talent to the approach of the major French squads, who, outside of one high-profile and ill-omened acquisition, have never shown much interest in top-tier foreign riders. While it was nice to see so many French teams and cyclists taking stages at this year’s Tour, the fact remains that at any high-profile event, they’re all still second-level players. And for the few Frenchmen who’ve elected to ride elsewhere—Sylvain Chavanel, Cedric Vasseur, Richard Virenque—the switch to a foreign squad has paid dividends.

The impression I get is that multi-national squads are better run, more focused in their objectives, and just plain tighter-knit. Bjarne Riis’ legendary commando-style training camps seemed to forge a bond stronger than any national affiliation—not really surprising, considering how many times the map of Europe’s been re-drawn over the past few centuries. Jon Vaughters has mentioned that having a core set of values can similarly draw a team together, and the team-building lesson hasn’t been lost on Columbia-HTC, either.

Stephen Roche in his Irish Champ AG2R kitWhile national affiliation is an important historical constant in a sport where teams, sponsors, and riders reshuffle yearly, the fact remains that it’s an increasingly outdated notion—and not just because the Tour hasn’t been contested by national squads since the ’60’s. Nicholas Roche, Heinrich Haussler, and Guido Trenti have each confounded the traditional notion of nationality, and even artificial changes aren’t hard to pull off when the situation requires.

When riders feel compelled to be the best rider from their country at an event it never ends well, as Paolo Bettini recently pointed out, and as Roche discovered first hand. It’s a problem even in America—lord knows how many US title races have been won by foreigners while Americans mark each other in the battle for least mediocre. Don’t even get me started on the Best Utah Rider jersey.

So while some nationalistic appeal might appear to be good business at first, any benefit will be short term as more professional international squads extend the performance gap. While Team Sky, the first major British outfit in a generation, overspent badly to bring in a home-grown Tour contender, they had the good sense to hedge the bet by placing him amongst a veteran, multi-national team, stocked with riders from similarly diverse squads—a move that paid off almost immediately in their 2010 campaign.

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9 Responses to “The International Advantage”

  1. Jarvis 20 August 2010 at 11:57 am #

    I can’t see how the Boom suggestion for Rabobank is any different to what Team Sky have done. Most teams from the smaller cycling nations are effectively de facto national teams, even those with a more multi-national construct such as Sky & Saxo Bank have the heart of the team built around riders from that country

    I’d argue that the national approach is becoming increasingly popular. Team Schleck, the new Aussie outfit, Astana, Katusha, Rabobank, ISD are all based on a national format. I imagine that in order to compete at the Protour level it’s easier to attract big-money sponsors if you are the only team from that country or even pooling resources.

    Inner Ring gave a very good explanation here: http://theinnerring.blogspot.com/2010/08/lets-talk-tax.html of why the French teams don’t recruit big-name riders and why the big-name French riders seem to move abroad to ride.

  2. Tom 20 August 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    Having grown up in the midst of Scottish Nationalism in the 70s and 80s, I have a deep lifelong hatred of all nationalism.

    On the other hand, living now in the US, I’d be well proud of a masters state or regional championship medal (I didn’t get you started, Cosmo. You did.), even if that merely showed me less mediocre than some — an acurate but unnecessarily provocative description.

  3. cthulhu 21 August 2010 at 5:41 am #

    I have to concur with Jarvis.
    For example SaxoBank, their stars are mainly foreigners but their core are all danish. If you look at their roasters at smaller races one is surprised how many Danes they have in the team.
    Also I think a bit of nationalism in the teams does work also on long term. Imo, if a team understands itself as a team of a specific nationality it is more willing to grant a younger rider of the same nationality a chance because if he succeeds he is even more marketable than a foreign one. And especially in cycling where there are no national teams if the private teams lack a certain amount of nationality there is less motivation for the youth to follow/pick up the sport.
    Of course for some riders it is good to ride in a foreign team, like Flecha who was very happy abroad because as he himself said in Spain only stage races are important but not one day and especially not spring classics. And of course it also good for the teams to buy in expertise and class where it’s lacking but in the end the core is usually still of one nationality and that are not only the riders but the staff too. The only real multinational team I see out there atm is htc but they are also the only team advertising a worldwide sold product and still the start to place US based events higher than other ones. I mean even banks that are international operating companies are only represented through one branch on the jerseys and those are usually region-/countryspecific and of course they focus on that audience. And I couldn’t tell what Lampre or foot-on are selling ergo trying to advertise for.
    It is of course possible to built multinational teams through buying always the best (fitting) riders for your squad ensuring one’s athletic success but imo on the long term lose/thin out your base of youth athlets to farm from.

  4. tigwelded 21 August 2010 at 10:57 am #

    I think if you could an honest answer out of the senior management at Rabobank, they’d tell you that part of their mission is developing Dutch talent. The perennial Basque team is a similar example.

    Lars Boom, in particular, is one of those riders with great potential coming out of cyclocross. ‘Cross is a cycling specialty with good, deep Dutch talent. I think he’s talking from his ‘cross bias.

  5. Sebastian 21 August 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    French cycling seems to have responded to its recent talent gap with a protectionist attitude: no matter how lean the pickings are, there will always be room for not-bad French riders on Cofidis or AG2R. In general this seems to have made the problem worse, with the French teams becoming parochial in their culture and falling behind the more international squad in their approaches to the sport. The recent elimination of a couple of their teams from the ProTour may, I think, improve things, as it seems to have encouraged a number of French riders to sign for foreign squads.

    Not every team has to be as cosmopolitan as HTC-Columbia, of course (which showed up at the TDF without a single rider from its registered country — surely a first in Tour history?). I think you’re right that Rabobank has the right approach for “national” squad: it gives younger talent from the Netherlands a platform on which to step up to the big leagues, while keeping the top level of the team fresh with a constant infusion of international talent.

  6. Mark Schooley 21 August 2010 at 8:50 pm #

    The highest-performing teams are those with the most money who are going to buy the best GC and the best supporting domestique talent. It’s always going to be multinational, unless the rules were changed to require all riders on a team to be from the same country.

  7. Arjan Hulsebos 23 August 2010 at 7:53 am #

    Rabobank never had much competition in the Netherlands itself, that’s now changing with Vacansoleil and Skil-Shimano attracting more attention, better riders, and more results. And I can assure you that Johnny Hoogerland and Kenny van Hummel are more popular in the Netherlands than Denis Menchov.

  8. Touriste-Routier 23 August 2010 at 8:38 am #

    To call Team Sky a British National Team (de facto or otherwise) is a major over statement. Only 8 of 26 riders are from GBR. Team Saxo Bank has 11 Danes in a 25 person squad; again not exactly national. These teams are International squads, plain and simple.

    The biggest impediment to French, Spanish & Italian teams are cultural and historical. They have been more resistant to accepting other languages (meaning mostly English) within their teams, so finding common ground is harder, and makes adapting and assimilating more difficult for foreign riders, combine this with strong senses of nationalism, and strong domestic calendars of events, and you can understand their rosters better.

    The Northern European nations don’t have strong domestic scenes, have smaller populations, and their citizens all generally are taught English as a major part of their education, and the language flourishes in their business culture. Mix in management which is less jingoistic, and it is easy to see how and why these squads are and have become largely international.

  9. Souleur 24 August 2010 at 10:53 am #

    I agree w/Mark and Touriste-Routier.

    The international flavor of cycling and the money will maintain it as it is w/multinational teams. It really does all boil down to the money in the end. The money will bring in much more support and they can more quickly evolve riders into something via coaching and scientific regimens etc.

    Now, if…and its a big if…as Jarvis posed was able to be (and I would find it more interesting personally), one would also have to admit it may deteriorate a team. For instance, take a look at the French teams. They have the TdF, they should defend their turf, they have big salaries in comparison to their priors, and until this year they were largely absent their own race. The Badger said it best, French riders had become lazy, paid well and unproductive. They had little reason to race/ride hard when their payout was well whether they won or lost. So, their prodigy went downhill if you will. Now, I know this isn’t a direct comparison to a nationalized team, but it is close in many regards.

    Some teams would do well, some may not, especially those whom are in their infancy now, like in asia and africa.

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