The tradition of cycling has men escaping from the fields and mines to find a life pushing two wheels. When an outsider pointed at the anemic salaries of your run of the mill donestique, the response always included a reference to the salary the rider left behind so in comparison, cycling paid generous salaries.
Even sponsors used to be local businesses with small budgets. So the romantic story continued for generations.
Then came the ProTour forcing a budget well beyond the reach of your local bakery. Large corporations took center stage. The rider’s salary increased when compared to his predecessors but are still anemic when compared to other professional sports.
Is cycling entering a new phase? That of the plaything of the very rich? This month, VeloNews has an editorial posing that question. In recent years, billionaires with a passion for cycling have taken to sponsoring their own teams. In Europe, you have Bob Stapleton (High Road), and Oleg Tinkov (Tinkoff Credit Systems). In the US, you have Doug Ellis (Slipstream) and Michael Ball (Rock Racing).
Sure this has happened before. Many corporate sponsors were driver to sponsorship agreements by a cycling fanatic CEO and not objective ROI. But this time it is different. We are not talking about just sponsoring, we are talking about full ownership with no sponsors.
This reminds me of the world of America’s Cup sailing. It started with Bill Koch and Ted Turner. Now Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli have the helm. Seeing Larry Ellison trying to skipper his America’s Cup yacht during a qualifying race still gives me shivers. Then again, similarly frustrated sportsman Oleg Tinkov took to riding with his team and insinuating a place as rider/owner was in the offing.