Despite the challenges that the Tour de France faced in 2018, there are signs that the race is stronger than at any point in its history. The race’s media footprint still reaches across the globe. Its value has enabled parent company ASO to consolidate its power in cycling. And many of the sport’s biggest sponsors cue up for an opportunity to participate in the event. “Thirty years ago, the Tour was a very big French race in France,” said longtime journalist Francois Thomazeau, who’s covered nearly 30 Tours. “Since then, it has truly become a global event that draws in millions of people every day.”
The 2018 Tour de France may be remembered for the controversy which swirled around Team Sky, and for the smaller crowds and dip in TV ratings. But by nearly every metric — from those same TV ratings and crowds, to sponsor engagement and the quality of the field — the Tour still towers above every other cycling race on the calendar.
Jonathan Vaughters, who has long fought to change cycling’s business model, said that when he pitches potential sponsors, he promotes his team’s media metrics from the Tour de France.
“From a media impressions standpoint, the Tour dwarfs everything by a huge order of magnitude,” Vaughters said. “[Other races] are not even close. The Giro is only 10 to 20 percent bigger from a media impression standpoint than we get with Paris-Nice or the Dauphiné.”
That almost monopolistic stranglehold on the sport’s center of gravity has been an ongoing and sometimes bitter debate for generations.
Teams still grumble about the Tour’s dominion over the sport and unwillingness to share in the riches it generates from television revenue. Critics say as popular and profitable as the Tour is now, it could be even more so if ASO embraced a more integrated business arrangement with the larger cycling community.
Until Madame Marie-Odile, widow of ASO founder Émilien Amaury, decides to sell the privately held media company, that likely won’t change.
And ASO has adopted an aggressive strategy for expanding its reach, thanks to the Tour’s success. Over the past decade, ASO has purchased — and saved — such races as Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the Vuelta a España. ASO holds marketing agreements with the Santos Tour Down Under and the Amgen Tour of California. It also has expanded into profitable new markets with Britain’s Tour of Yorkshire and the Arctic Race of Norway.
This summer ASO also revived the Tour of Germany in an effort to tap into cycling’s biggest European market. The acquisitions are made possible by ASO’s revenues from the Tour de France.
Within the pro peloton, the Tour still reigns supreme. Success or failure at the race makes or breaks a rider’s season. It’s so important, in fact, that teams now regularly choose either a sprinter or a general classification rider, where in years past teams often brought both.
“The Tour is our big global event in cycling,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “The Tour has a different feel than other races. The Tour is the event that put cycling on the map. Of course, every team or organization wants to win the Tour.”
The allure of the Tour even helped BMC Racing survive. When longtime manager Jim Ochowicz, who previously ran 7-Eleven and Motorola, faced sponsorship woes at the end of the 2018 season, he leveraged his most powerful asset: A ticket to the Tour de France.
With his WorldTour license in hand — a guaranteed entry to the Tour — Ochowicz struck a deal with Polish shoemaker Dariusz Milek, who has bankrolled the CCC-branded team for nearly two decades. Despite racing the Giro d’Italia and other major races, Milek never got an invite to the Tour. Ochowicz’s WorldTour license and its invaluable access to the Tour sealed the agreement.
“Sponsors want to be in the Tour de France,” Ochowicz said. “They wanted to go with a WorldTour team. There are only 18 of them. [The license] helped close the deal.”
The inspired Tour founder Henri Desgrange might have been lucky that he thought of the grand tour formula first. Beyond chance, though, the Tour de France is still the race that fuels professional cycling and defines what stage racing is all about.
You can call Jay Petervary a legend, or a pioneer. He simply calls himself a bikepacking ambassador. Petervary has completed the Iditabike 10 times, the Tour Divide six times (he once held the time record), and Dirty Kanza 200 four times, and that’s just the beginning of his exploits.
VeloNews caught up with Petervary before he hopped on a flight to Kyrgyzstan to take part in the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race, which winds 1,100 miles through some of the most remote landscapes he’s ever encountered.
“I haven’t been this nervous for an event in a long time,” Petervary said. He ended up winning that epic trek in eight days, eight hours, and about 145 minutes.
Your bikepacking trip doesn’t have to be that ambitious, but Petervary has plenty of good advice for any adventure.
VeloNews: How long have you been bikepacking in one form or another?
Jay Petervary: I first started bikepacking in 2006. That was driven by a goal to do the Great Divide mountain bike race. It’s called the Tour Divide now.
I started preparing myself to do this once-in-a-lifetime thing. I told myself, “I’m going to do this mountain bike race, I’ll probably never be able to do this again in my life.” I was telling people, “I don’t know how people do this, how people get the time off from work.”
I’ve always been a multi-day racer, but also multi-discipline. I did adventure racing when I was 22, and now I’m 46. The bike is my favorite discipline, and I was always good at getting through the bush and bushwhacking with my bike, so when I saw I could do it solo, I wanted to try it. I came back from that trip in 2007, and it was the best thing of my life. I called it the “cheeseburger and ice cream tour” because that’s all I ate. Honestly, I didn’t even realize I was setting a record. I finished the event finding a passion I really loved, and when it was over I was told I set a record by 24 hours. So, I realized I was good at this as well. But I found something I loved, and I’ve been chasing it ever since. I’m probably pushing close to 40 or 50 bikepacking races that last up to three weeks long.
VN: When you started, what did your gear setup look like?
JP: I was way ahead of my time. I was the first one to show up with a soft bag system—frame bag, seat bag, handlebar bag. No one had seen that before. Carousel Design Works worked with me on that kit. I was actually racing a 29er at the time, which was the very first production carbon 29er, only in size medium, made by Orbea. There was no other out there. I had aero bars as well. It’s funny for me to look at that bike now. It was a slicker, neater setup than what I use now.
I also had a double stem: I had one stem that supported my handlebar, and then I had a direct mount stem above it. It wasn’t a long stem; it was from the downhill world. On it, I put a dummy bar because I found in my testing that with the aero bars, the stretch was too long. So I said, I need to move these back. People geeked out over that. Now there’s a product like it called the Fred Bar from Siren.
I’ve always been a gear guy, and I like to make things. But I’m also big on strategy. I like to figure out other ways to play the game other than just pedaling with my legs. If I can beat it with equipment, I’ll beat it with equipment.
VN: How has your gear setup changed since then?
JP: I’m someone who tinkers, so even though I’m successful one way, I try another way every time. I try an accessory bag, I try moving the equipment around, and I look back at that moment in 2007 and I think, “I need to go back to that way.”
The biggest change is probably drop bars. Drop-bar mountain bikes are the big thing now, and now I run strictly drop bars. The adventure style bars have been a real gamechanger. I’m not going back to my old flat bars.
Tire size is important, too. In the last Tour Divide, I ran a 42-millimeter tire in the rear for mud clearance. With the growth of gravel and adventure riding, wheels, wheel size, shape, tire construction, tire size, is now changing all that. Everyone was like, “You gotta run 2.2-inch tires.” But the last couple years I’ve been doing off-road races on 42-millimeter tires [1.65 inches].
Water has been a progression of learning, too. I had upwards of 15 pounds of water on my back when I first started. Now I do Tour Divide with two or three water bottles and a can of pop. It’s what my body’s capable of and I’m comfortable with that amount of water. I’m okay to run out of water 20 miles before the next water stop because I know I can go 20 miles without water. I don’t use bladders at all now. Bladders just take too much time to fill. If I need extra water I can always buy it from a store and put it in my pockets.
VN: Of all the equipment you own, what’s the one thing you will never leave at home, regardless of the duration of your trip?
Rain gear. I skimp on a lot of things. I don’t always bring a sleeping bag or sleeping kit. But I’ll always bring my rain gear no matter how long the ride is. Even if it’s sunny on a day ride, I can’t leave my house without a rain jacket. That comes with age and being wise. It’s like, “Dude, just bring it, trust me.” You learn that one the hard way.
VN: What’s one thing you’d recommend consumers don’t waste their money on?
JP: As the sport grows, people are getting gear-happy. They don’t know the meaning behind it. People are wasting their money on the lightest gear possible, and they don’t know what that provides for them. Use what you have at your house before you buy anything because the lightest equipment isn’t always the best. People often sacrifice comfort that they don’t want to sacrifice. I recommend being cautious and understand when you do put your money toward an expensive and lightweight piece of gear, lightweight is not always the answer.
VN: What’s your most important advice for someone interested in trying bikepacking?
JP: Do it for you. Don’t do it because you see racers doing it and you want to be a dot on a screen. Use what’s available to you in your garage. Most outdoorspeople have the stuff, but people want to buy more stuff for some reason. There’s a lot to learn if you just use what you have. Back in the day, we just strapped everything to the bike. So if you really want to do it, you’ll make it happen. Take what you read on the internet with a grain of salt.
Also, to have an experience, you don’t have to ride a lot of miles. I used to do this a lot: I would roll out of my house after dinner and go to the local campground. I’d have a full-on experience using my stuff and go to work the next day. And that’s pretty darn healthy. People relate this to the racing, which is kind of a bummer, and people think they need a lot of miles. That’s just the wrong approach.
I slept in a hammock (see below), so I didn’t really need a pad, even the super-light (348 grams) one I brought. That said, I do recommend one if you’re sleeping on the ground. Had the temperature been lower, the pad would have added a layer of insulation.
Similarly, I could have left my backup camera battery at home (we were only out for one night, after all), and either my fork or spoon. Remember to cut out everything extraneous to save weight and space. Be judicious with your gear choices.
It was really nice to have these in camp, and I wore them for several hours at our campsite. All told, I could have saved 471 grams of cargo and would only have sacrificed an hour or two of comfortable flip-flop time.
You read that right: I brought two kits for two short days of riding. While it’s certainly nice to throw on a fresh chamois in the morning, the pleasantry is short-lived. I would have been fine tossing on the stinky garb from the day before since we were all smelly from camping anyway. And it would have opened up quite a bit of space in my pack for other necessities.
The hammock was super comfortable and relaxing. But the entire setup (hammock straps, bug net, rain fly, hammock warmer) took up a lot of space and added a lot of weight. I could have just brought the rain fly and a comfortable sleeping pad and slept on the ground, saving myself a fair bit of weight and space in my bags.
Yes, it’s a layer of security should something go wrong. Yes, it has a camera on it. But it’s also a distraction from the mission of bikepacking: getting away. I used my phone a few times to snap photos and to check my email a couple times, which not only reintroduced stress to the trip, but also drained my battery. When it finally died, I kept it dead until we got back to the car.
Two years ago I found myself bar to bar with another racer on a cyclocross course. As we wove through a few tight tape-to-tape turns, I slammed on my front brake, went over the bars, and crashed. He rode on and I yelled some things I’m not proud of.
I derive a lot of pleasure from racing. But it also brings out aspects of my personality I’m not entirely comfortable with. That’s why this summer, I took a break from racing my bicycle. Instead, I sought out a completely different cycling experience, one that brought out completely opposing emotions.
I tried my hand at bikepacking.
SCENE 2: In which gravel doesn’t get my goat
When the gravel scene began its explosive growth, I simply wasn’t impressed. Why ride something that’s both slower than a road bike and less stable off-road than a mountain bike? There had to be a reason why so many people were embracing the gravel bike while I remained so bored by it. What was all the hoopla about?
Then I thought about Hippie Bob and The Gnome.
Bob Lombardo lived beneath Rose Bike Shop in Orono, Maine. His constant visits to the shop area where I was wrenching offered a serene, if slightly cranky, critique on why the industry’s pursuit of the newest and greatest was often hogwash. And Hippie Bob was right most of the time.
While I obsessed over the newest full suspension bikes and ever-expanding drivetrain options, Bob spent his time building up steel fixed-gear mountain bikes with rigid forks and mustache handlebars. Bob could, and did, truly go anywhere on these Frankenbikes. Camp in the woods? Sure, just strap on what you need. Mountain bike ride? Up for it. Road ride? Not a problem. It wasn’t a matter of getting the gear; it was a matter of pushing the pedals in whatever direction you wanted to go. Bob knew that well before I did.
David Herbold, known in certain circles as The Gnome, was similarly adventurous with a touch of curmudgeonly charm thrown in. I met him at Pay N’ Take in Flagstaff, Arizona. He wasn’t the first person to toss some flared drop bars onto a rigid mountain bike, but he was the first person I’d ever seen riding such a creation.
Memories of Hippie Bob and the Gnome popped into my head this past February when Trek released its Checkpoint gravel bike. I thought about both men as I listened to a presentation on the bike’s versatility. Then I got an idea.
By itself, the Checkpoint wasn’t much different from any other gravel bike I had ridden. But there was something about it that did catch my attention, something that made real the promise that I too could achieve gravel adventures. I’m talking, of course, about small bosses on the fork and top tube. They’re made to accommodate a rack and bag setup. You know, like, bikepacking bags.
I had a bike. I had a bag. And I was sure I could carve out a few free hours. Maybe I could make sense of gravel by bikepacking.
SCENE 3: In which I fail to plan accordingly
My plan was to do an overnighter from my house. Get home from work early one afternoon, start pedaling west, camp out for the night, and return home the next morning in time to get ready for work.
The plan evolved when I asked a few friends to come along. We mapped out a route from the VeloNews office, rather than my house, and we set a date. The plan evolved again when part of our route was closed to cyclists due to construction. We opted to drive to the nearest trailhead. Not very adventurous, but certainly convenient.
Just for good measure, the plan evolved again due to my complete failure to plan properly, due to a month of constant travel back-and-forth to Europe.
In the end, I wrangled a PocketRocket 2 stove and Trail Lite Duo cook set from MSR; a Slacker Single hammock and NeoAir XLite sleeping pad from ThermaRest; tools from Lezyne and Fix-It Sticks; and bags galore from Topeak, Lezyne, Blackburn, Ortlieb, Bontrager, and Apidura.
My bike weighed a whopping 49 pounds when completely loaded up. Too damned heavy. In my eagerness to try out every new piece of gear that had come across my desk, I forgot that the key to this overnight trip was supposed to be simplicity. And I would learn an important lesson about bikepacking as a result: Everything weighs something, and everything together weighs a lot.
SCENE 4: In which we learn the hard way and look to the woods for answers
We rode on dirt for several miles and it became immediately clear how important it is to properly pack your bike. Within the first quarter mile, I almost fell off my bike twice because my fork was weighted on one side by a bag full of cooking equipment. Matt had to stop a half dozen times to readjust his foam sleeping pad across his handlebars. Brad, whose setup was perhaps most appropriate, seemed to have no problems at all; his bags were tightly secured to the Salsa Cutthroat. It looked cool, too. Sam similarly had few problems with his Trek Domane gravel bike, and in true minimalist style, his loaded bike was the lightest at 38 pounds.
The latest, greatest equipment does not guarantee a smooth bikepacking experience. My 10-year-old sleeping bag posed a problem: It was too big to fit in anything but the largest seat pack I could find, which turned out to be the Topeak Backloader 15L. It’s a 15-degree bag, and while it’s more than adequate for most camping situations, bikepacking requires that you think light and small. My big sleeping bag forced my seat bag to pivot upward behind my back like a scorpion. It looked dumb, but more importantly, it hit my butt and lower back as I pedaled.
The general lesson learned: Bikepacking bags certainly open up a lot of opportunities to simply use the bike you have to go adventuring, but there are firm limitations, notably in size. You must sacrifice creature comforts and embrace minimalism due to the gear. Riders on multi-day excursions should prepare to ride into town frequently to pick up food. And you must be prepared to leave the pillow or bulky camp stove behind, instead opting for a more compact option (like MSR’s Pocket- Rocket) that might take a bit more patience at meal time.
Another lesson I learned: A fully-loaded bicycle is difficult to handle. In the past, most bikepacking and touring cyclists used panniers, which position the weight of your equipment lower toward the axles of the bike. Bikepacking bags generally do the opposite: They’re positioned higher on the bike, which means all the weight of your equipment sits far higher. That, in turn, means you’ll need to work a little harder to hold your line and balance on technical sections of gravel.
We also learned an important limitation specific to bikepacking with drop bars. Our handlebar bags generally didn’t work well crammed between the drops for a few reasons. First, the drops limit how wide the bag can be. Second, when fully loaded, the bag interferes with just about all hand positions. And third, it was difficult to mount the bag high enough to prevent it from interfering with the front wheel. A drop bar with a wide flare would probably work better, but ultimately, we all agreed a flat bar would probably be the best option.
SCENE 5: In which the rain lends its perspective
The ride wound up from the Switzerland Trailhead on chunky gravel interspersed with loose rocks and some sand. It dumped out onto Peak to Peak Highway. The scenery was stunning, the weather held, and the miles passed uneventfully. It was easy to feel “away,” the idea of offices and driving commutes and errands far behind us. It happened so quickly. This could be done on any weeknight, I thought. Why don’t I do this all the time?
We crested another gravel road and picked out a campsite. Before setting up hammocks and sleeping bags, we cracked open beers and ate a few snacks. Looking at the bikes that took us here, I thought perhaps I was judging gravel too harshly. It probably won’t ever be my jam, but if it gets more people to mountain vistas without phones and tweets and politics and noisy commutes, then count me in.
We ate, we chatted, we listened to the silence around us. And we went to sleep as the stars came out because there were no phone calls to make, no dishes to do. We all decided that this was worth doing again. My original plan — to ride from my house and head west until I hit the mountains, then climb up into the woods until I found a nice spot to camp — only seemed more doable now. Mountain bike? Gravel bike? The specifics of it seemed less relevant to the adventure than it had only a day earlier.
Then, at about 3 a.m. it began to rain. I had not set up a rain fly over my hammock. At first, the sprinkle felt pleasant, then the rain started coming down in earnest. I got out of my sleeping bag and headed through the tall grass to the bag in which I’d left my rain fly, fifty yards away. When I got back, I was drenched. The lower half of my sleeping bag was sopping, too. I crawled in anyway, then pulled the rain fly over me like a blanket. I got a little wet, but that was okay. From there, I drifted off to sleep, swaying slightly in the silent breeze between two trees high in the Rocky Mountains, thinking as I descended into dreams, why in the world isn’t everyone doing this?
This August, Danny Pate ended his professional road racing career nearly two decades after his splashy entry to the pro ranks. In September 1998, Pate won the world title in the U23 time trial, a feat that no American had accomplished beforehand (and only Taylor Phinney has completed since). Pate signed his first pro contract with Italy’s Saeco team. He departed after just one season and returned to race in the domestic peloton. For years, American fans wondered if Pate would get a chance to compete in Europe again.
The opportunity came in 2008 when Garmin-Chipotle was invited to the Tour de France. Pate nearly won a stage, and the result set him up for a long career in the WorldTour, where he rode for Garmin, HTC-Highroad, and Team Sky.
Pate closed out his career after three seasons racing back in the United States with Rally Pro Cycling. VeloNews caught up with Pate to reflect on his time in the sport.
VeloNews: You just finished your last professional bicycle race. What are your emotions at the moment?
Danny Pate: Mixed emotions. I’m happy to kind of feel done. I actually feel done. I’ve done enough where I feel lucky enough to have gotten it all out. All of me is out there on the road. I have no regrets, and that’s the main thing that is allowing me to stop.
VN: A lot of racers late in their careers have that “one more year” mentality. Did you feel that way in the last few years of your career?
DP: Probably for the last eight years! [laughs] Actually, the last couple of years for sure, and especially last year. Physically, it’s gotten harder every year after I turned 35. You just don’t recover, and it gets worse exponentially. The team is going to bigger and better races next year, and those races — I’ll be 40 next year — 40-year-olds belong behind the computer screen or in the car or something, not on the bike.
VN: What’s the result that you’re most going to hold on to?
DP: Just the experience. I came from the middle of the country, Colorado, middle-class family, and I’ve been able to go all around the world and get an education by travel. I was racing so much I didn’t go to college, so with my education via professional sports I definitely didn’t learn as much as some people in grad school maybe, but it gave me a lot. Seeing the world through tunnel vision on the bike, and getting to go to places like the Giro, Tour de France … There were some results in there too, whatever they were, some were okay. But really, just going was the big thing. And being in some successful environments, to work together with some successful teams and successful groups of people and learning how all that works.
VN: The race during that era that I always think of is the 2005 U.S. national championships. In the final group, there’s you, Chris Horner, and Chris Wherry. Wherry attacks and goes on to win. Do you ever think about that result and the way it played out?
DP: A little bit here and there. It’s so long ago it’s a little foggy. That was one of my better results as a young American on a not-so-powerful team. That was in the years when Philly was big, when the Euros were coming over, and it may have been one of the only all-American podiums when the Euros were there. So, that was a special race, that one. That was the last year before I went back to Europe, so I said, I might as well give this a try. It was a pivotal year for me.
VN: In 2008, you came really close to winning a stage of the Tour de France in Slipstream’s first year. What are your memories from your first Tour experience?
DP: It was kind of like, ‘Wow, wow this is why people race bikes.’ From parking lot crits in Colorado to Wednesday night worlds around the U.S. … the atmosphere was amazing, the energy, the crowds, the amount of people that love and care for the sport instead of here [in the U.S.], where everyone in a Ram truck is trying to run you over and make you get off the road. It was amazing to see just how much they embrace the sport and love it in Europe.
VN: Soon after that debut you’re riding on HTC-Highroad and working for Mark Cavendish, helping him win the green jersey. I understand he repaid you with a pretty interesting gift. What did you get from Cav?
DP: He gave us all watches. It was the most expensive gift I think I’ve ever been given. A generous gift. Everyone complains about Cav — you either hate Cav or you love Cav, which is great for the sport. Cav can be your worst enemy if he’s not your teammate and your best friend if he is your teammate. He’s still my friend. But he bought all the riders and directors green Rolexs. He had to wait to order them until after he won, so it took a little while to arrive. And when it came it was green. I was thinking, “Why is it green? Why would you buy a green Rolex?” Then it came to me. It took me longer to get it then it should have [laughs].
VN: You finished your career as a member of Rally Cycling. What role did you play and what type of advice did you give to the younger riders on the team?
DP: I think I’ll steal a quote from [Robin] Carpenter: “You just need to have some talent and don’t quit.” That really is his quote, and that really is what it takes. I think that is exactly what I’ve done my whole career. I was never the most talented rider. There were plenty of [Dave] Zabriskies out there that were better than me. I kind of made my own way and did the things I thought were right, and got some places that I enjoyed, all through professional cycling. I definitely had a lot of help from people along the way. My family helped me out, showing me the way, giving me a good work ethic.
The American scene helped me a lot in the middle of my career. That’s why I love Rally. They’re supporting a lot of guys like Robin Carpenter, Colin Joyce, these riders that are really good, but they haven’t gotten that break to get on a WorldTour team. These are the kind of guys that should be on Trek, but they don’t hire them for some reason. So, Rally has 16 of them.
The scene in Paris had all the trappings of a poster-perfect Tour de France moment. Geraint Thomas sparkled as a feel-good winner in the yellow jersey. The Champs-Élysées was packed and the Arc de Triomphe provided the frame. Jets flew overhead releasing vapor trails of the red, white, and blue French “tricolore.”
Yet what started three weeks earlier under a cloud of fury in the Vendée ended wearily in Paris. Just like the Tour of 20 years ago when the Festina Affair nearly brought the race to its knees, there was a sense of relief upon arriving in the City of Light.
“This Tour was a rough ride,” race director Christian Prudhomme told Le Parisien. “With the Froome case, the hot temperatures, the crashes, the protest that blocked the road, and one idiot on Alpe d’Huez …”
With that, Prudhomme summed up what was indeed a challenging Tour that revealed deep fracture lines inside the sport’s most important race.
Chris Froome’s long-running salbutamol case and the subsequent bungled ruling cast a stench that lingered for weeks. A larger, almost unspoken threat of a terrorist attack loomed ominously in the background, only to be thrust into the open as a legitimate menace with cement-block road closures, machine-gun toting police, and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling starts and finishes.
Tensions ran deep from the start when French fans gleefully booed Froome and Team Sky at the usually G-rated team presentation. That continued as French fans hissed and jeered at the four-time champion almost daily as he signed in at stage starts. The hapless Froome was later spat upon, had liquid thrown at him, and was even shoved once. Someone in an unruly mob on Alpe d’Huez knocked Vincenzo Nibali out of the race and another tried to grab Thomas as he sprinted toward the line. Protesters stopped the peloton and over-aggressive police sprayed them with tear gas that later wafted onto the peloton. At times, it seemed as if the Tour was unraveling at the seams.
“It’s a disgrace to see it happen during the race,” Froome said of the spitting and hooliganism. “The Tour is supposed to represent a celebration, and when people come to jeer and protest, maybe that’s not my idea of a party.”
And despite a unique course that blended gravel roads with the return of the fearsome cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and an innovative 65-kilometer climbing stage in the Pyrenees, the undeniable force of Sky and its $35 million budget could not be stopped. Fans keen on witnessing an exciting fight for yellow saw another Sky knockout in round one.
It seemed not only an entire nation was growing tired of Team Sky’s dominance, but sports fans across the globe were tuning out as well. TV ratings dipped in some countries and roadside crowds were noticeably smaller.
By the time Sky methodically and impassively disassembled its rivals to win another yellow jersey, seamlessly substituting Froome with Thomas at the top of what L’Equipe likened as a “two-headed snake,” it was all too much for some to take.
“We cannot blame them for winning,” Prudhomme shrugged. “We have a machine that wins with three different heads [Bradley Wiggins, Froome, and Thomas] and they’re preparing for the sequel.”
Perhaps it was Sky’s dominance, or Froome’s lingering anti-doping case, or the combined weight of the socio-economic pressures gripping central Europe. For whatever reason, the 2018 Tour de France was held under the fog of malaise. At every turn, the race looked and felt smaller than Tours of years past. The various controversies that erupted during the three-week affair gave riders and journalists alike the feeling that fans were less than thrilled with cycling’s biggest show. Was this another typical Tour de France, an event by its very nature rife with controversy, jealousy, mishaps, and sore losers? Or was there something more stirring beneath the surface?
BY THE TIME THE Tour straggled into Paris, there were many flashing warning signs that this might be more than a one-year blip.
With Sky throttling the race yet again, fans were tuning out. Anecdotally, crowds felt smaller at the start and finish cities, and on some of the flatter stages, long stretches of the roadsides were empty. The famously raucous scene up Alpe d’Huez also lacked its usual energy. Race officials installed ropes along “Dutch Corner” in an effort to hold back the usually rowdy fans from The Low Countries.
Crowd size wasn’t the only metric that was down. After matching near-record highs in TV viewership in France in 2017, ratings took a hit across most of Europe. Even in France, overall viewership was down, from an average of 2.3 million viewers per stage to 2.1 million. Peak viewerships, usually measured at the end of each stage, were down 500,000 compared to last year. According to L’Equipe, during the final stage across the Pyrenees, held on a Friday afternoon, half of France’s television audience was watching the Tour, a strong indicator that the race had rebounded from its week one ratings dip.
Prudhomme blamed the low numbers on soccer’s World Cup tournament, which saw France win the overall title. The nation’s hyper-focus on soccer, he said, simply overshadowed cycling. “We expected a drop this year with the World Cup,” Prudhomme said. “With ‘les Bleus’ winning the title, it’s a small price to pay!”
Indeed, the World Cup hangover and an erupting scandal involving staffers of French President Emmanuel Macron pushed the Tour off the front pages for much of the summer.
But the viewership dip was not a French phenomenon. Every other European market showed a dip in 2018 as well. Italy was off 37 percent (no Nibali, no viewers) while the ever-faithful Spanish saw a dip of four percent. Even in the UK, which has fueled much of the growth in ASO’s bottom line over the past several years, viewership was down 15 percent for ITV.
It’s hard to say if the declining numbers will rebound next year or whether they present a more troubling trend for the Tour.
Much like other sports, the Tour is seeing a slow bleeding of its TV audiences as fans have more choices on where to watch the race. Websites and pirate feeds are new competition — ASO’s own Le Tour race center saw record numbers in 2018 — and social media is the new digital “town square,” where fans flock to sites such as Twitter to dissect each stage.
Another metric, though harder to measure, is star power. Lance Armstrong might have once been the most hated man in France — one newspaper ran a front-page headline that read “Welcome back, asshole” when he returned after retiring in 2005 — but he drew in crowds. As New York Times writer Ian Austen wrote this summer, he counted three American flags along the route during a stage that usually would see dozens during the Texan’s heyday. The Brits came over in swarms in the early Sky years, but Froome doesn’t seem to hold the same magnetic power over foreign fans as Wiggins or Armstrong ever did.
Bike tour companies say they’re still selling out their trips each July, but one operator said, “people are more interested in the castles and wine than they are in the bike race.”
There were some encouraging signs. NBC’s numbers were up slightly, three percent among the U.S. audience, with a 23 percent jump in the highly valued 18-49 demographic. Eurosport Spain also saw a 10 percent jump in its cable viewer numbers.
Everyone inside the Tour organization knows they need to do what they can to spice up the race and to deliver a product the public wants to watch.
“We always try to innovate, and it is our duty to make the course interesting,” Prudhomme said. “It’s a shame that the teams are only thinking about defending what they have. No one seems willing to risk in order to win. We want more fight, more suspense.”
Prudhomme’s solution, however, stood in stark contrast to the current state of the Tour de France. How do you create more fight, more suspense, when one team can dominate the race from start to finish?
AFTER THREE LONG WEEKS, Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué stepped out of a team car at the end of the Espelette time trial. The stage bookended what was a very long month for the Spaniard who once won five yellow jerseys in succession with Miguel Indurain. His mask of exasperation only served to amplify his gloom.
“We came here looking for more than we have been able to achieve,” Unzué said. “Each year, it’s easier for Sky to achieve something at the Tour and harder for the rest of us.”
Unzué’s sense of futility echoed across the Tour paddock as the race neared its inevitable end. Teams and riders left the 2018 Tour more dismayed than ever. A feeling of frustration spread across much of the race and Sky’s interminable domination dismayed just about everyone trying to snatch the yellow jersey.
“The thing is they have several ‘teams’ to bring,” said Sunweb’s Laurens Ten Dam, referring to Sky’s depth. “They have the numbers to bring strong teams to each grand tour. That’s their budget — Wout Poels makes 10 times more than I do.”
L’Equipe put it best with a front-page epithet that read: “Le règne sans fins” — the unending reign.
The stats don’t fully reveal the bleak reality. In what was its fourth grand tour victory in a row, Sky absolutely obliterated the peloton to win its sixth yellow jersey in seven Tours since 2012. Few outside the Sky retinue celebrated. Cycling’s most important bike race seemed on a never-ending replay loop. Sky’s ruthless and surgical domination of the Tour deflated everyone.
France’s great hope, Romain Bardet, seemed demoralized even before the Tour started, and didn’t put up much of a fight. After two-straight podium finishes, France’s latest and greatest hope resigned himself after crashes and mechanicals marred his first week. His gloominess in the mountains seemed to capture the anxiety of many.
“There seems to be no longer space for a rider like me who races instinctually,” Bardet said. “This is modern cycling, with a team packed with strong riders. [Sky] can capitalize on one or two big moments, and then race defensively.”
Indeed, for as strong and consistent as Thomas was throughout the Tour, he hardly attacked during the race. He didn’t need to. His rivals dropped like dominos all around him, crashing, abandoning, losing time, or suffering ill-timed mechanicals. All he had to do was follow the Sky train, with the last stop in Paris.
“The differences today are minimal between the best riders,” lamented Ag2r La Mondiale boss Vincent Lavenu. “Riders only have one or two matches to burn. And when they make a big effort, they pay in cash for it later. We still dream of the days when we could attack from very far away, but that is no longer the case. Sky has a strong team to ride tempo. This is modern cycling.”
Sky’s continuing dominance reconfirmed the quandary facing cycling’s most important stage race.
Traditionalists not only bemoan Sky’s dominance, but some even say that its highly effective and calculating manner of racing is snuffing the life out of the Tour.
“Today everything is measured to a millimeter,” UCI president David Lappartient said. “How many people are really captivated? In [soccer], you have these extraordinary comebacks, but we do not have that much on the Tour de France.”
Sky has perfected its high-tempo, conservative style of racing. Though much is made of Sky’s “marginal gains,” its tactical playbook is not so different than cycling’s other great dynasties. When a team has the strongest rider of its era and a budget to match, you hire the best riders to drill everyone else into the ground. And just like the other dynasties of Tour’s past — from Renault to Banesto to U.S. Postal Service — Sky has the pocketbook and the infrastructure to keep piling on. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to watch.
The French daily Le Monde put it this way: “Cycling has become mathematics, and Sky is best at adding up the numbers. And it’s terrible.”
While fans and media are dismayed at how the Tour appears predictable and boring — it never truly is, just ask Richie Porte who crashed out in an innocuous incident early in stage 9 — riders inside the peloton said Sky was simply racing to win.
“What’s the goal of the whole race? Is it the goal to make the race exciting? Or is it the goal to win the race?” asked UAE-Emirates’ Rory Sutherland. “We are not playing to the fans or the press or not playing to make it exciting. The goal is to win. That’s what they’ve done, and everyone says it’s boring, but it’s effective. Who wins the Tour? Sky does.”
And that’s the problem, at least to anyone expecting the unexpected.
THIS SUMMER’S DISSATISFACTION WAS more than just about Sky burnout. The ambiance in La Roche-sur-Yon bordered on incredulity when Froome was cleared in his long-running salbutamol case.
The nuances of the case were lost in the sea of negative headlines — particularly how it appeared the World Anti-Doping Agency did a major retreat on its salbutamol test — and no one bought into the narrative of an innocent rider being cleared. Instead, it was another well-funded, untouchable superstar gaming the system. After decrying a peloton at two speeds in the post-Festina era, this seemed to be justice at two speeds.
For many, Froome’s presence seemed to spoil the Tour even before it started.
“We are specialists in cycling,” said Quick-Step Floors manager Patrick Lefevere. “We love to shoot ourselves in the feet.”
Later came grumbling about how the UCI and other authorities mishandled the Froome salbutamol case following a leak in December. Lappartient received criticism for trying to play both sides, at once hoping to be the principled defender of clean sport while on the other hand appearing as a self-serving bureaucrat.
“The UCI should have played more of a United Nations ‘Kofi Annan role’ instead of putting oil on the fire with the Froome case, especially in France. That did not help,” said LottoNL-Jumbo manager Richard Plugge. “The UCI is our referee — either Froome is in the race, or he’s out of the race. That message could have been communicated way earlier.”
Ross Tucker, a South African sports scientist and vocal expert inside the anti-doping community, said the Froome case was a critical blow in cycling’s attempts at rebuilding its believability.
“It’s just another huge blow to the credibility of the anti-doping movement,” Tucker said. “Testing catches a small proportion of dopers, and then the legal processes underpinning the testing successfully sanction only a small proportion of those. And meanwhile, it’s hemorrhaging credibility at every step of the way.”
Despite anecdotal evidence that the peloton is cleaner than it’s ever been — confessed doper Thomas Dekker even went so far as to suggest he believes Froome is the cleanest Tour winner in history — many see Froome as the latest in a long list of suspicious Tour dominators.
Even if fans buy into the idea that the peloton is no longer fueled on EPO and blood bag transfusions, there is still a lot of tip-toeing up to the ethical line that leaves many uneasy.
Others simply don’t see a difference between the drugs of yesteryear and things like salbutamol, and therefore still question the cleanliness of the sport.
EF Education First-Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters, who has championed clean cycling since his own personal doping admissions, said many of today’s fans simply refuse to or cannot see the new situation inside the peloton.
“That’s just not the reality,” Vaughters said. “I can say that all day, but nobody’s going to believe it. It’s not true and I think anyone inside the sport with any genuine knowledge is going to say it’s not true. Unfortunately, many people look at us skeptically.”
That ever-hardening skeptical view means trouble for Tour organizers trying to sell a cleaner sport when things like the Froome case keep bubbling up.
ADDING TO THE TOUR’S woes is something no one wants to publicly acknowledge — the fear of terrorism.
Race officials were so worried about a major terrorist attack it defanged cycling’s biggest party. The scene on Alpe d’Huez was neutered by security measures. As riders pedaled up cycling’s most famous climb, the peloton found barriers on the bottom and top four kilometers of the climb. Even more striking, when riders turned into Dutch Corner, usually packed with so many fans it’s hard for them to choose a line, they instead found dozens of police, and fans kept mutely behind barriers.
What had happened? Publicly, officials said it was to tamp down the rowdiness. Privately, it was part of a larger campaign to make one of the sport’s most vulnerable events as safe as possible.
“The Tour is so vulnerable, but no one wants to say it,” said veteran reporter Francois Thomazeau, the French journalist who broke the Festina Scandal in 1998. “It was obvious that the No. 1 priority this year for police and officials was to avoid an attack.”
Throughout this year’s Tour, a heavy police presence was one of the race’s major accents. Heavily armed police units were visible at every start and village along the route. Security guards searched bags and credentials of anyone trying to enter the race paddock or VIP village. Military vehicles and big blocks of cement cut off access roads. Bomb-sniffing dogs and an elite corps of undercover forces worked the crowds.
This year, 23,000 police and 6,000 firemen along with several thousand more private security personnel swarmed over the 2018 Tour. “It is the biggest single sporting event in France,” ministry spokesman Frederic de Lanouvelle told AFP at the beginning of the race. “The threat of terrorism is real during the entire Tour, and we will deploy all means necessary to ensure the full security for the event.” Police are jittery about large crowds in France, and rightly so. Starting with the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015 that left 17 dead, followed by the even more horrific Paris shootings later that year that left 113 dead, France was under a state of emergency until November 2017. When a terrorist plowed a truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, leaving 86 dead in 2016, many wondered if an event as open and accessible as the Tour had a place in the post-terrorism world. With such robust police presence, it seemed to have a chilling effect on the overall sensation that the Tour is France’s big summer fete. It was harder for fans to get to the race course, but for security officials that seemed a small price to pay.
Tour organizers, however, believe they found the right balance between security and maintaining the openness of the Tour.
“We never design the route thinking first about security,” said Thierry Gouvenou, the Tour’s lead course designer. “We always put the race first, and then build the security features around the stages.”
Nearly everyone agreed tempers were flaring more than usual along the side of the road this year. There was a level of hooliganism and rowdiness unseen before at the Tour.
“This year was the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said BMC’s Porte. “It does seem crazy to barrier off long sections, but maybe that’s what they need to start doing. Just look at what happened to Nibali. It should have never happened.”
More police and security officials and wider gaps between the fans and the racers might make it safer, but it will only dampen the unique spirit of what makes the Tour so special in the first place. The Tour knows it must walk a fine line between security and tradition, or it could lose what makes it so special.
DESPITE PLENTY OF GLOOM from some quarters, the Tour shows few signs of abating. Having Thomas ride triumphantly into Paris was a welcome salve for the haggard Tour organization.
The race continues to tower over other events on the international calendar and remains the central ambition for every team and rider in the peloton. The Tour remains the sun of the cycling solar system. Without it, the entire sport would wither on the vine.
The Tour also remains a cash cow and is a major driver of the estimated 45 million euros per year in profits for ownership company ASO. And until the family-run, privately held business sees a genuine downtick in profits, nothing major will likely change. Quite the contrary, ASO continues to push into new markets across Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. This summer, it revived the Tour of Germany in hopes of energizing Europe’s largest market.
The Tour, however, isn’t ignoring the warning signs. It knows there are real challenges to engaging the broader public as well as keeping fans safe and protected. There are a lot of ideas floating around on how to spice up the action — everything from a further reduction of team size to spending caps and banning race radios and power meters.
Everyone inside the Tour organization is well aware that if the Tour becomes predictable, fans will tune out permanently.
“We will always innovate to try to make the race more interesting and to push the riders to their limit,” said Gouvenou, who travels months every year on France’s back roads. “We will continue to mix classic design with new ideas, like the 65-kilometer short mountain stage we saw this year.”
The big mistake ASO could make would be to get too gimmicky or panic. Part of the allure of the Tour is the history; if they overreach, in an effort to meet the demands of today’s fickle and quickly changing media landscape, it could well backfire.
“I think the Tour today is more relevant than it’s ever been,” said French journalist Thomazeau. “Perhaps it is not as dear to the French heart as it was 30 or 40 years ago, but it’s become a worldwide sensation. France and the Tour have become synonymous.”
Despite the hiccups this year, Prudhomme is confident the Tour will endure. It’s going to take more than a few boring editions to kick the legs out from underneath a sporting event that dates back more than a century.
“I think next year we will see a strong anti-Sky block,” Prudhomme said. “I believe in Bardet, and next year we’ll have [Thibaut] Pinot. And with Dumoulin, Roglic, and, hopefully, Nibali, there will be a big fight.”
Hope springs eternal. And so it is at every Tour start.
While power meters have revolutionized training methods in the past decade, the humble heart rate monitor remains a key component to getting the most out of your workouts.
The arrival of affordable power meters in the early 2000s heralded a revolution in cycling. Every coach and athlete with the resources got onboard the “power-is-everything” train, often tossing the old clumsy heart rate strap aside. In the frenzy, no one investigated whether power was actually a better training tool.
That is, not until two studies explored that claim. The first, conducted in 2009 by the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, used 21 well-trained cyclists. Half did intervals by power, the other half by heart rate. Statistically, the gains were equal but the group training with heart rate showed “a greater probability of a beneficial effect.” The second study, published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2011, likewise found equal improvement in 11 recreational cyclists. Both research teams concluded that a power meter was not necessarily a better training tool.
Still, many coaches argue that a power meter is more precise and provides more immediate feedback to changes in effort. That’s true, but treating it as a replacement for heart rate assumes it measures the same aspects of training.
That’s a mistake, says prominent physiologist Dr. Iñigo San Millán, former director of the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. “With watts, we’re just looking at the end product, which is mechanical energy,” San Millán says. “But we might be missing what happens at the chemical or metabolic level.”
Put another way, power meters measure what’s happening with the bike. But heart rate measures the individual. Ultimately it’s the individual that needs to be trained.
Svein Tuft (Mitchelton-Scott) agrees, saying it can be dangerous to seek an arbitrary power number. “Watts are definitely a huge help,” Tuft says, “but it’s more important to understand your body and where you’re at in that moment rather than try to live up to some impossible expectation.”
Blood lactate is perhaps the best measure of what’s going on metabolically, but there is no on-the-road lactate monitor.
Fortunately, San Millán has thousands of data points showing that heart rate directly correlates with lactate, making it a great representation of what’s happening in the body. For example, riding at a heart rate just above or below maximal lactate steady state (MLSS) or anaerobic threshold offers distinct metabolic stresses.
Of course, you can identify your power at MLSS, but since it’s not a physiological measure, that number can vary dramatically through the season — up to 60 watts according to a 2000 study conducted by respected physiologist Alejandro Lucia. Threshold heart rate doesn’t change.
As a training metric, heart rate does have its limitations compared to power. You can’t say, “I’m riding at 185 beats per minute — I’m going to crush it this year!” But if you’re climbing 50 watts higher than last season and 30 watts better than your competition (all other things remaining equal), you can make that claim.
Ultimately, using a power meter and heart rate monitor in combination makes for a more complete toolbox. While power indicates how strong you’re riding, heart rate tells the metabolic cost of those watts. So, train by power zones but use heart rate to measure how your body is responding.
Building a more complete toolbox
Neither a heart rate monitor nor a power meter is beneficial unless they’re used right. Here are a few tips for making the most of whatever you keep in your toolbox.
Get accurate zones
No matter if you rely on watts or beats per minute, use this data within the context of your training zones and physiology. European-based pro ’cross racer Elle Anderson says that finding your heart rate at anaerobic threshold or MLSS is most important. In-lab testing is best, but an on-the-road time trial can work in a pinch.
Use heart rate’s consistency
Your power at threshold will change throughout the season, but heart rate won’t. Look for changes in your power-at-threshold heart rate to gauge your fitness. A gradual increase in your power relative to your heart rate means you’re getting stronger.
Race with heart rate
In most races, power can fluctuate dramatically due to accelerations out of corners, terrain, barriers, and responding to moves. This is one reason Anderson finds racing by heart rate to be more useful. “If it’s the first 20 minutes of a race and I look down and see my heart rate is pinned close to my max, that helps me to understand whether I need to back off the pace,” she says.
Do intervals by power zones; gauge with heart rate
Heart rate is slow to respond to increased efforts, making it hard to use for intervals under five minutes and useless for those under one minute. But heart rate is a great gauge for work at or below threshold. This work should be metabolically sustainable, says San Millán, meaning your heart rate should plateau. If your heart rate steadily rises during the effort, you’re targeting too high a wattage.
Gauge fatigue with morning heart rate
Because it’s a physiological measurement, heart rate can do something else that power can’t: indicate fatigue. One of the first signs of overtraining is a rise in your waking heart rate. Get a baseline when you’re rested. Then measure your heart rate regularly while still in bed. A rise of four or more beats per minute at rest suggests you may need to take a day off.
Gauge fatigue with heart rate and power
Using both power and heart rate provides a great way to gauge overtraining on the bike. When we are tired, our heart rate will drop relative to power, especially at higher intensities. If Anderson notices that her legs are tired and her heart rate is lower than normal for a given wattage, she backs off and rests.
Get advanced with heart rate variability (HRV)
HRV is becoming a common capability of new heart rate monitors. This is a measure of how variable the time interval between beats is, usually taken at rest. Both too much and too little variability are signs of being over-reached. A recent study by the Research Institute of Olympic Sports in Finland compared classically periodized runners to runners who trained by HRV. This HRV group was only prescribed high-intensity work when their seven-day HRV average was within the rested range. The HRV group did significantly fewer interval sessions over the four weeks but improved their 3,000-meter run time two percent while the traditionally trained group did not.
Use heart rate on long rides
Suppose you did a four-hour ride at a steady 160 watts. You might start the ride holding 145 beats per minute, but hours later your heart might be pumping 20 beats faster. This is known as cardiac drift. If you ride by power alone, you may be in the right physiological range initially but not at the end. Sticking to a heart rate range will keep you at the right intensity the entire ride.
Recognize artifacts when comparing the two
Since watts are a mechanical measurement, they remain static. 400 watts is always 400 watts. But a heart rate of 150 beats per minute doesn’t always mean the same thing. Many other factors can affect your heart rate. Fatigue lowers heart rate relative to power. Heat, dehydration, stress on race day, and cardiac drift all raise it. Coaches and athletes who prescribe to a power-only training method call these “artifacts.” In reality, they are important pieces of physiological bio-data that can help your training.
If your heart rate is abnormally high and you’ve ruled out everything else, remember a high heart rate appears a day or two before flu symptoms.
Trevor Connor is a long-time cycling coach and elite racer. He holds degrees in exercise physiology and nutrition from Colorado State University. He has served many roles in cycling, from team manager to coach at the National Centre in Canada.
NO ONE IS AROUND TO NOTICE AMERICA’S national cycling champion as he walks through the lobby of this Utah hotel and takes a seat in the adjacent restaurant. Without his stars and stripes jersey, Jonathan Brown looks like one of many other professional cyclists who are here to race the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
Brown’s peers, however, don’t have a story like this to tell.
Brown has repeated it maybe 100 times by this point, nearly two months after his historic national championship victory in Knoxville, Tennessee. Still, his retelling has the tone of unrehearsed authenticity. He still pauses often and struggles to find the right words to describe the action, the incredible feeling when he attacked a breakaway in the waning miles. He still smiles when he describes his improbable move—the one nobody thought would stick—and recounts what it was like to hold his slim advantage to victory, in front of a stunned crowd, in his hometown.
“It’s hard for me to even find words how to describe the feeling once I’d finished,” Brown says. “It took a while for it to soak in, realizing I just won a race that every pro wants to win at some point in their career.”
In some ways, this enthusiasm and disbelief is just what you’d expect from a 21-year-old who is suddenly thrust into the limelight. Brown is not yet a grizzled veteran who has been coached by team personnel to always say the right thing.
Brown’s stoke is also completely legitimate, due to the unpredictable nature of his victory. He was not the best climber in that breakaway. Other riders had bigger engines, stronger legs. He races for the Hagens Berman Axeon development team, not a WorldTour squad.
Yet Brown raced with greater aggression and intellect than his peers in that breakaway. He was also lucky. He’s completely at peace with this reality—those three attributes have made him the youngest rider to win the men’s elite national title.
A road title earned as an up-and-comer brings with it immense expectations. Surely, fans assume, a national champ at 21 can develop into an international star within the next few years. Perhaps Brown is destined for greatness, and perhaps he is not. He’s still young, with years remaining to develop into a sprinter, climber, or time trialist.
Or perhaps Brown’s destiny is to simply evolve into a well-rounded bicycle racer. Brown is a supremely talented young rider, born with strong legs and lungs. But those around him agree that he does not have the otherworldly talent to make him a prodigy or a once-in-a-lifetime success. He’s no LeMond, no Lance. So, Brown’s pathway in pro cycling will likely depend as much on his intellect and spirit as it does the strength of his legs
“He’s not a shooting star, not like one of these guys that goes to the top right away,” says Brown’s team director, Axel Merckx. “But he’s steady and he keeps progressing and he gets better and better, and that’s very cool to see. The jersey proves it.”
BEFORE HIS BIGDAY in Knoxville, Jonathan Brown was best known as the younger half of cycling’s Brown brothers. His older brother, Nate, is one of a handful of Americans racing at the WorldTour level. In 2017, he wore the king of the mountains jersey for two days at the Tour de France.
Growing up, Jonathan looked up to Nate, who is six years his senior.
“Especially when he was on the world scene and doing things like that,” Brown says, “It was always, ‘I want to be like my brother,’ and get on these teams just like him.”
The pair grew up in Tennessee, two bike racers out of four siblings. They were introduced to the sport by their father, David Brown. He raced as a professional in the 1980s before becoming a full-time pilot, and then returning to the scene as a masters racer.
“Pretty much from birth I’ve been around racing on bikes,” Brown says. “Nate got into racing at 10 years old, as soon as you get a USA Cycling license. At that point, if he’s 10 I’m four, I was already growing up watching him race. I couldn’t wait until I could start racing.”
That desire only grew as Jonathan watched his older brother go to junior nationals. Jonathan got his own shot at racing nationals at age 10. Nate won the junior title in his age-group that year in Pennsylvania. Jonathan, a self-described “chubby kid,” had a different experience.
“It was finally my chance to go out there and race against kids my age and everything and… Yeah, I got my ass kicked,” he says.
Brown stuck with cycling. It helped that he had a close relationship with his older brother, who became a rising star on the U.S. development scene. That gave Brown an inside look at what it took to break into professional cycling.
Nate worked his way through the ranks, joining Merckx’s development team, then called Trek-Livestrong. He won two under-23 time trial titles. Jonathan continued to watch his older brother’s success as he raced in the junior ranks.
As teenaged boys often do, Jonathan’s chubby, boyish body leaned out as he got older. At age 16, he rode to his first junior national title. The following year he defended his title, cementing his place on the map as an up-and-comer to watch in the U.S. domestic scene.
Nate Brown says he knew his younger brother was maturing during a trip home several years ago.
“I used to be able to whoop Jonny’s ass in a wrestling match. So, I said, ‘Oh, I’ll wrestle him,’” Nate says. “And he took me to the ground. That’s when I realized, ‘Holy crap, this isn’t the little kid I remember any more.’”
As Nate’s younger brother, Merckx was already familiar with Jonathan’s exploits; the Belgian saw his potential. In late 2015, Merckx signed Jonathan to his development team for the 2016 season. Brown was just 18, and headed to the country’s top Under-23 squad, where riders from across the globe earned major victories in elite professional races. In fact, that season Axeon riders recorded an impressive tally of international results. Gregory Daniel won the U.S. road title and the overall at the Tour de Beauce. Logan Owen won a U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège title. Neilson Powless showed his potential with a Tour de l’Avenir stage win.
All three appeared destined for the WorldTour.
By contrast, Jonny Brown rode a quiet debut season. The jump up from the junior ranks proved to be a big one. Even in 2017, he struggled. Merckx started him in domestic races like the San Dimas Stage Race and the Redlands Classic
“My first two years were a bit of an eye-opener for me,” he says. “Even still it was like, ‘Oh, this is pro racing.’ I’m doing races longer than I’ve ever ridden my bike before.”
Into 2018, his third season with the team, Brown remained among the less visible youngsters in Merckx’s stable of talents.
And then, in the early months, something finally clicked.
At the U23 version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and at the Tour de Bretagne, Brown finally was able to stay with the leaders deep into the races. He finished seventh at the U23 Paris-Roubaix. Brown thrived for the first time since his jump to the professional ranks.
Yet few fans of the sport noticed. Brown was rarely the designated winner. Instead, he functioned as the team’s road captain, whose job it was to direct the troops and arrange a plan of attack.
“I take the leadership role a lot of times,” Brown says. “It doesn’t hurt my feelings if I’m not the go-to guy. I enjoy rallying the troops and getting the team the result.”
It’s the kind of attitude you’d expect to hear from a seasoned veteran of the pro peloton—not a 21-year-old kid on a team known for showcasing prodigious young talents.
“He’s very level-headed,” says teammate Michael Rice. “He’s someone that leads by example.”
Teammates list Brown’s ability to marshal teammates, and his knack for coaching people to improve through better use of tactics, as major strengths. Those talents are a fine complement to what may be his biggest asset as a young rider: his instincts.
“There’s not a lot of guys in cycling who have ‘the nose.’ He has the sense for racing, and feels it,” Merckx says.
BROWN’S NOSE FOR RACING won him the national title. His legs and lungs, however, put him in a position for victory.
Brown came into the U.S. national championship riding a wave of top form. At Canada’s Tour de Beauce he finished inside the top 10 on multiple stages, a sign that he had good legs. As nationals approached, Brown elevated its importance in his mind. After all, Brown grew up in Tennessee, and recently moved to Knoxville after spending several years in Austin, Texas.
Brown knew he had good legs early in the title race. He made the day’s first breakaway, and then followed the decisive move alongside Gavin Mannion, Jacob Rathe, and Robin Carpenter.
In the closing miles, Brown began to skip pulls, lagging at the back as if he was out of energy. As his three breakaway companions continued to pull, Brown looked exhausted.
Nate Brown watched his brother from the sidelines, having abandoned the race earlier in the day.
“I thought I knew Jonny, and I said, ‘He looks pretty tired, he’ll be lucky if he gets a podium. I don’t think he’ll win,’” Nate Brown says, looking back on it.
“And then, all of a sudden, Jonny attacks.”
Brown surged away just after the circuit’s main climb, and quickly built a minute advantage on the group. The three tried, but could not close the gap. Mannion says Brown simply outfoxed them.
“He kind of played us that day,” Mannion says. “He didn’t look so great early on and we all underestimated him.”
The masterstroke was Brown’s own plan. He raced on instinct, not by direction. In fact, Brown’s team radio fell out three laps into the race, so he had no contact with his team director.
“When I attacked, they could have been yelling at me that I was the stupidest person ever and I wouldn’t have known,” Brown says.
Brown’s tactical savviness points to success at higher levels of the sport. Could similar strategies help him score victories in the European peloton? Perhaps. At this stage in his career, Brown’s future is still unknown. Over the years, young riders have earned exaggerated expectations with big rides at nationals. A U.S. title does not beget big wins on the WorldTour. It can, however, guarantee a rider a steady job and paycheck on American teams for years to come.
In the weeks after his win, Brown says agents contacted him offering to connect him with big teams. Instead, Brown decided to race for Merckx’s team for another season. Perhaps it’s no surprise. After all, Brown seems to care as much about making good decisions, his development as a rider, and the success of his teammates as he does about personal ambitions to reach the sport’s pinnacle.
Brown’s physiological attributes suggest flat and hilly one-day races, perhaps Belgium’s classics, will suit him. He knows how to ride in a breakaway, and how to sprint. Unlike his brother, Jonathan Brown is not a climber.
Those around him describe a rider willing to put in the work, one who is not afraid of addressing his weaknesses and trying to improve on them. That said, it’s still far too early to know with any certainty what kind of rider Brown will ultimately become. For now, he’s just trying to balance enjoying life in the stars-and-stripes jersey, and continuing to develop.
Whatever his power numbers are by the time he moves on from Axeon, Brown’s acumen and attitude for racing are exactly what directors like Merckx look for on the road. What he has above his shoulders should suit him well if his legs follow. Whether that means Brown will be hunting WorldTour stage wins in a few years or putting in the yeoman’s work to shepherd teammates over bumpy terrain, don’t be surprised to see him embracing whatever role he settles into.
It’s a rainy afternoon in New York and Justin Williams needs another coffee to fuel his long day of bicycle racing. In a few hours, Williams will finish in second place at the fixed-gear Red Hook Criterium in a soggy sprint along Brooklyn’s waterfront.
Following the post-race party, Williams will then board a red-eye to Southern California, where he will finish second at the Dana Point Grand Prix, one of the country’s longest-running road criteriums.
After a few hours of sleep, Williams will then climb aboard his bicycle to ride alongside his Endo Concept racing team, a development squad that Williams founded for young black and Hispanic riders from inner-city Los Angeles.
Thirty-six hours, two airports, two podiums, 3,000 miles, and plenty of caffeine.
“It’s going to be a crazy day,” Williams says, sipping an espresso. “It’s like, this is what it takes right now for me. It’s a hustle.”
That hustle is what makes Justin Williams a rare self-made success story within the fickle world of American bicycle racing. Rather than commit himself to one team and one discipline, Williams instead competes in whichever races bring him the most exposure and the most amount of fun. He mentors young riders on his team and broadcasts his various comings and goings to his 17,000 followers on Instagram. Williams, in turn, helps his personal sponsors Specialized, apparel manufacturer Assos, and protein drink Muscle Monster reach his fans.
“I can do whatever I want on the road racing side, so long as I hit the Red Hook Crits and a few other fixie events,” Williams says. “I think people figured out my character, saw what I do beyond racing, and wanted to be involved with me.”
The model requires constant drive, which is why Williams is guzzling coffee on this chilly spring afternoon. Yet it’s what also allows him to continue his career as a professional cyclist. Williams is pursuing this unorthodox life after a decade of frustration in the American professional road cycling scene, which saw him bounce from team to team. After his most recent team, Cylance Cycling, dissolved its men’s squad at the end of 2017, Williams had had enough.
A year after that setback, Williams is thriving as a one-man brand, a rare lone wolf in a sport traditionally dominated by team sponsorships. He’s succeeded largely due to his entrepreneurial attitude and desire to bring people into his circle. The model has brought Williams enough financial security to race full-time without the side gig that most elite American riders must maintain.
With every podium finish and airline flight, Williams is redefining what it means to be a professional cyclist in 2018.
And he’s not alone.
From phenom to cast-off
Williams grew up in central Los Angeles, the son of immigrants from Belize. His father had a passion for racing bicycles, and Justin took up the sport as a teenager. He thrived in Southern California’s robust criterium scene. At age 17, Williams inked his first professional contract to race for the Rock Racing squad and rode for the team for three seasons. He also regularly joined the U.S. national team in Europe. By the age of 20, he owned four national titles. A spot on Axel Merckx’s development team, Bontrager-Livestrong, was a sign that Williams could be headed for the international peloton.
It never panned out. Williams felt like an outcast as the only black rider in the upper-class, predominantly white U.S. peloton. It was worse in Europe, where the sport’s social hierarchy and complete lack of diversity made him stand out even more.
“The Americans are trying to be like Europeans, and the Europeans are so stuck in their ways. I couldn’t relate,” Williams says. “I felt alone a lot. I had been in cycling my whole life and I had nobody to relate to. I’m from this different culture and nobody could really get it.”
Instead, Williams returned to race in the U.S., where he bounced around for several years, competing for regional pro squad KHS before jumping to the upstart Astellas pro team for two seasons and then racing two additional years with Cylance. Again, Williams felt constant friction and often quarreled with teammates and managers and balked at their direction.
“Management expects you to be a robot,” Williams says. “I didn’t fit. Management was like ‘Dude, what the [hell] are you doing?’”
Disenchanted with pro cycling, Williams tried to pursue a life away from the sport. He enrolled in classes at the local Moorpark College and took a job at a boutique clothing store. Cycling kept pulling him back. In 2015, Williams attended a ride organized by the Wolfpack Hustle, an organized group ride that is popular within the city’s fixed-gear racing scene. Williams saw throngs of African-American and Hispanic kids riding fixed-gear track bicycles around the streets of Los Angeles. He was inspired.
“It was people I could relate to. It was people from my neighborhood in Central L.A. — the scene was so attractive to me,” Williams says. “These are the types of kids I went to high school with.”
Williams had an idea: create a racing team for these kids. None of them had access to coaching, sponsors, or gear. Williams contacted local custom kit maker Bobby Endo, put together a small budget, reached out to various sponsors, and contacted riders. He had the racing credibility and reputation to launch his own squad. Thus, in 2016, he launched the team, called Endo CNCPT, with a cadre of Category 2 and 3 riders. The racing program included fixed-gear criteriums across Los Angeles, as well as local amateur road events.
Williams and his younger brother Cory mentored the young riders. They organized skills camps and shot videos, called “Methods to Winning,” that explained the nuances of racing.
CNCPT quickly expanded beyond racing, and Williams focused heavily on creating images and video for social media to broadcast the team’s unique look and attitude. Videos of the riders clad in matching CNCPT kits and hats flooded the internet, showcasing their different lifestyle and take on the sport. The images blended the hip style of inner-city L.A. with the performance-driven culture of road cycling. Brands reached out to the team for promotion.
In late 2017, Williams found himself without a professional contract again after Cylance dissolved its men’s program. The news was disappointing, if not surprising. Williams sent his resume to every Continental team listed on the UCI website. He struggled to find the motivation to continue. He wondered if a different model could work for his racing ambitions.
“‘What if I put together my own team?’ I had this vision of what I wanted to do,” Williams says. “I wasn’t in a space to let other people tell me what I could do. I didn’t want to compromise.”
Sponsorship talks with Cylance’s bike sponsor, Cannondale, eventually fizzled, and Williams inked a personal deal with Specialized instead. The deal required him to race the Red Hook races, and to then ride a Specialized bike at his road events.
Early in 2018, Williams and his brother also reached out to the Southern California-based energy drink manufacturer Monster Energy. They met with Greg Sellers, the brand manager for Monster’s recovery drink, Muscle Monster, and its hydration drink, Monster Hydro. A 20-year veteran of cycling sponsorships, Sellers had looked for a way to bring the Monster brand to road cycling — it already sponsored riders in gravity mountain biking. In the Williams brothers, Sellers saw a way in.
“Here is this guy that has a great story in cycling and he’s doing something completely unique, doing the fixed-gear stuff and the criterium racing,” Sellers says. “He’s authentic and nimble. He’s carving out a niche for himself. I wanted us to be part of it.”
Cory Williams’s spot on the KHS-Elevate professional team prevented him from inking an individual deal, but Justin’s privateer setup meant he had no obligation to other brands. In March he began appearing at races with the green Monster logo on his helmet. The portfolio of personal sponsors paid Williams enough to race full-time.
Williams beams as he discusses the deal with Monster. He says he did not start the CNCPT team or launch his performance camps with the long-term plan of personal sponsorship. Still, when a major brand took note of his various off-the-bicycle ventures, he felt rewarded.
“It felt like I had been doing all of this stuff for so long and nobody had ever taken notice, and then all of a sudden these pieces are coming together in front of me,” Williams says. “It felt awesome.”
New model for a changing sport
Williams’s individual racing program comes amid a sea change in American cycling. Across the sport, more cyclists have found ways to create individual racing programs after bucking road racing’s traditional model. After longtime road racer Alison Tetrick won the Dirty Kanza 200 gravel race in 2017, she created a gravel-centric racing program in 2018 with sponsors Specialized, Lezyne, and 100% sunglasses, among other brands. Tetrick has now switched from road racing to gravel cycling full-time, in part due to the racing freedom the new model allows.
Colin Strickland, a Cat. 1 road racer in Austin, created his personal racing program around fixed-gear races, gravel events, and the U.S. road crit scene. Strickland won three out of four rounds of the Red Hook fixed-gear racing series in 2016. After those victories, Strickland chose to pursue this nontraditional racing program despite encouraging results in road races.
In late 2017, Strickland launched his own racing team, called Meteor X Giordana, with bike sponsor Pinarello. Then in 2018, he inked a personal deal with Red Bull.
“I could see that U.S. road racing was on the decline just from a marketing perspective,” Strickland says. “You’re just some name on a results page on some race that happens every year. Unless you do something that’s cool and worth remembering, you’re replaced by the guy who wins that race the next year.”
A decade ago, individual sponsorships in road racing were rare. Riders relied on team marketing and media relations to reach their fans. Dynamics within pro cycling have shifted. The rise of social media has given a platform to riders like Strickland, Tetrick, and Williams to reach fans directly. Also, the growth of new racing formats, such as fixed-gear racing and gravel, has provided a new place for riders to shine.
Nontraditional cycling brands are now seeking individual deals within the sport. For years, Red Bull kept its distance from road cycling due to the sport’s connection with doping. The decision kept important dollars from flowing into cycling. With an estimated brand value of $10.4 billion, Red Bull has the dollars to fund all of pro road cycling, if company executives wanted. Instead, the brand stayed away.
“There was already such a stigma to the [energy drink] category that our strategy is to stay away from sports that carry a lot of baggage,” says Jenner Richard, a marketing manager at Red Bull. “A lot of [Red Bull] people in Austria still don’t want to touch it.”
Rather than fund a road team, Red Bull has instead operated around the edges of the sport. A decade ago, Red Bull’s North American marketing managers inked its first major deal with cyclocross racer Tim Johnson. At the time, Johnson was the reigning U.S. national cyclocross champion and a well-known professional road racer. More importantly, Johnson had also created a short documentary film, called “The 9 Ball Diaries,” which took fans behind the scenes at his cyclocross races. The film, matched with Johnson’s ambitious efforts to create a following, was as valuable as his actual racing results.
And the fact that Johnson’s racing program was individual, and not tied to a large team, made the deal easier to navigate.
“The fact that I didn’t have a full team contract to compete against was a huge win for me,” Johnson says. “I understood that this was all about getting people stoked on cyclocross. It was part of a business.”
Red Bull continues with this strategy today. The brand looks for cyclists who are atop their respective sports and have the results to boost their credibility. Perhaps more important, however, is an athlete’s personal brand and willingness to engage with his or her fans. Red Bull wants athletes who know how to promote themselves via traditional media, social media, or a combination of the two. Traditional road cycling doesn’t always allow riders to promote themselves in such an individual way.
“You’re looking for a 360-degree individual who is already owning and operating their own brand — we’re not in the business of building a new team from scratch,” Richard says. “We want people who operate within their sphere. They don’t need other teammates. They are marketing themselves and not just feeding off of the brand.”
Most recently, Red Bull inked a deal with American cyclocross racer Ellen Noble. Noble is unquestionably fast, however she is not yet the outright fastest American woman in cyclocross. But Noble has created a platform for herself around female empowerment, and in 2017 she promoted the slogan “Bunnyhop the patriarchy” on social media alongside videos of her bunny hopping ’cross barriers. While the effort may have seemed minor at the time, it helped Noble secure her Red Bull deal.
“She has a cause, a purpose, and she’s driving messaging for what she thinks is right,” Richard says. “We’re a giant marketing muscle. We can help amplify her message.”
An individual deal with Red Bull brings with it major assets to strengthen one’s existing brand. It also brings in the type of endorsement cash that can change a cyclist’s lifestyle. Sources familiar with Red Bull’s personal endorsements pegged these individual deals in the low- to mid-five figure range, with incentive bonuses built in for results and even magazine covers and other prominent media. It’s not going to make an athlete rich. But for riders in niche sports like cyclocross or gravel racing, that cash goes a long way. Noble called her deal “an honor.”
“So much of what I’m doing in the sport, aside from racing, is about sending a positive message and getting to interact with people,” Noble says. “So if I can have a brand that can extend my reach and help me interact and engage with more people, that’s crazy valuable. I think it can change the trajectory of an athlete’s career.”
Chloé Dygert Owen, the rising star of American track racing, said her Red Bull deal has allowed her to pursue her sport without the need for extra income off the bike.
“I’m lucky. I’m able to make a living off of it and have a stable financial life with [a Red Bull sponsorship],” says Dygert Owen, who inked a Red Bull deal in 2017. “This isn’t just a fun activity, it’s a job. And if you’re only making a few grand a year, that’s not enough.”
Johnson says his deal doubled his annual salary from his road racing team. The relationship gave him other perks as well. He was invited to regular Red Bull events across the globe where he met other sponsored athletes. He also gained access to Red Bull’s network of doctors and trainers. That access helped Johnson during his road racing career when he crashed at a road race and injured his ankle.
Johnson says team doctors sent him home with an ace bandage and painkillers. When the pain did not subside, Johnson reached out to his Red Bull network for help. A company representative booked him a same-day MRI, which revealed that Johnson had suffered a broken ankle. He underwent surgery the same day. When the $7,000 hospital bill arrived, Red Bull paid.
“I could have been sitting on the couch just waiting for my ankle to heal, and maybe it would have been messed up for life,” Johnson says. “Instead, I had someone to call. That was the difference that a marketing company has when they’re truly behind the athletes they support.”
Three months after Williams’s transcontinental racing day, he recorded another impressive back-to-back series of results. In a hectic sprint to the line, Williams claimed the U.S. amateur road national title in Hagerstown, Maryland. Two days later, Williams took the win in the amateur criterium race.
Critics may point out that Williams beat a field of Category 1 riders just one year removed from his professional racing career. Yet unlike many of the other riders in the field, Williams competed without teammates. Nobody pulled him to the front of the field, and nobody told him where to be in the sprint. Like a lone wolf, Williams freelanced his way to the front of the field and launched his sprint on his own terms.
“I’m at an age where if I’m going to do something, I want to do it my way,” Williams says. “I’ve done it other people’s ways for so long, I’d rather do it on my own.”
And perhaps beating a group of Category 1 riders is the only accolade Williams needs to accomplish in his new role in cycling. Williams is 29 now. It’s doubtful that he will ever compete in the Tour de France, a dream he once had. But he’s able to race full-time as a professional and inspire hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young cyclists, many of whom are African American, or the children of immigrants.
Kasia Niewiadoma arrives for her interview at this café in downtown Boulder, Colorado, aboard a red and black vintage racing bicycle emblazoned with the words “Davis Phinney/Morgul Bismark” on the down tube. These days, Poland’s best cyclist has close ties to American cycling royalty.
“It’s Taylor’s dad’s bike — it’s how I’ve been getting around town,” Niewiadoma says. “I like it; I think it looks cool.”
Boulder has become a second home for Niewiadoma in 2018. Her boyfriend, Taylor Phinney, grew up here and owns a house near downtown; the two also share a place in Girona, Spain. Several times a year they visit Boulder to see the Phinney family and train along Colorado’s Front Range.
This particular Boulder trip has a more specific purpose for Niewiadoma. She wants to clear her mind after a tumultuous 2018 spring campaign that brought her to one of the highest points of her young career, and then to one of the lowest.
In March, Niewiadoma won her first career round of the UCI Women’s WorldTour in dominant fashion, riding away from an elite group of the best cyclists in the world at Italy’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Niewiadoma’s supreme fitness in mid-March had consequences a month later. Soon after her victory, she became ill and felt her body tire from the heavy early-season miles.
Rather than rest, Niewiadoma continued to smash herself in training. Fatigue set in. When Canyon-SRAM tackled the hilly Ardennes races — Niewiadoma was one of the team’s co-leaders for the events — she was without her traditional punch. Rather than compete for victory at La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Niewiadoma chased the wheels of lesser riders. The dismal performances brought on negative thoughts, and by late April, Niewiadoma needed a refuge.
Boulder was the answer.
“Boulder is a place where I can clear my mind. I don’t know anybody here, which is cool,” Niewiadoma says. “The other day I rode for four hours in the mountains, just thinking about nothing. It’s the best medicine I’ve gotten.”
At 23, Niewiadoma represents the future of women’s professional cycling — she’s the only rider under the age of 25 inside the Women’s WorldTour’s top-10 standings. Since her breakout season in 2014, Niewiadoma has been regularly compared to Marianne Vos and other greats. She is blessed with a dogged work ethic and otherworldly talent, and when the road points uphill, Niewiadoma is among the fastest female cyclists on the planet. And Niewiadoma races with an improvisational style that relies on her aggressive attacks.
Her early successes have brought pressure, both from outside forces and from within. Winning makes Niewiadoma happy — it also brings joy to those in her orbit, and to Polish cycling fans. Fear of losing has, at times, caused her to make mistakes.
Niewiadoma’s best results spring from her unplanned attacks. Yet victory at the WorldTour level often relies on calculated strategy.
Niewiadoma’s progress in cycling may hinge on her ability to manage the tensions caused by these two paradoxes, as well as the emotional ebb and flow that is endemic to the sport.
“I know I should want to win for myself. I also know that happiness on my own doesn’t taste that good — I want to please my family, my team, my friends, everyone that I care about,” Niewiadoma says. “People used to tell me that it’s not so easy to deal with that kind of pressure. Now I have hit the wall a few times and I understand what that taste is.”
HER FULL NAME IS Katarzyna, but most people simply call her Kasia (pronounced Kasha). Since her professional debut in 2014, Niewiadoma has forged a reputation as perhaps the most aggressive rider in the women’s peloton. Win or lose, Niewiadoma’s attacks inject a spark of excitement into the races. Think Tim Wellens, only with a ponytail.
Barry Austin, Canyon-SRAM’s performance director, points to her 2018 WorldTour victory at Trofeo Alfredo Binda as a textbook example of her riding style. Niewiadoma survived until there was just a lead group of favorites, and then rode that group off of her wheel on a steep climb just eight kilometers from the finish. Rather than ride into the finish, Niewiadoma put in more surges in the finale to build up her winning margin — 23 seconds.
“She was attacking so much it looked like she was attacking herself — she just went more and more, again and again,” Austin says. “You can teach someone to slow down but you can’t bring that type of riding out of everybody. She has that fire, that spirit.”
Niewiadoma’s attacking style won her the European U23 title in 2016, the OVO Energy Women’s Tour in 2017, and helped her finish in second place at Strade Bianche in both 2016 and 2017. The moves have also created opportunities for her rivals. Niewiadoma’s aggression during the 2017 Ardennes races often opened the door for Anna van der Breggen to surge to her historic sweep of those races.
During La Flèche Wallonne, for example, Niewiadoma surged away from the peloton on the penultimate climb. The move dragged out Boels-Dolmans teammates van der Breggen and Lizzie Deignan, and the two took turns attacking Niewiadoma until van der Breggen ultimately rode free.
Do Niewiadoma’s attacks make her vulnerable? Perhaps, but that’s still her preferred racing style. The right time for her to go is whenever she decides to go.
“I love to approach a race without knowing what this race will bring me — I want to follow my gut feelings,” she says. “Maybe because of that attitude I do not win so many races, but it gives me pleasure.”
The attacking style has earned Niewiadoma the respect of her peers. It has also won her fans in Poland and brought expectations onto her shoulders. Poland has a long history of producing champion cyclists, dating back to the country’s Communist-era Olympic sports program. Poland’s contemporary riders have also attained high accolades: Maja Wloszczowska owns two Olympic silver medals in mountain biking; Michal Kwiatkowski is perhaps the most versatile rider for Team Sky.
Niewiadoma says Polish media lumped expectations for victory on her shoulders in the leadup to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where the steep ascent up the Vista Chinesa climb catered to her strengths. Niewiadoma had already scored impressive results at the Giro Rosa that year.
“They put the medal around my neck before the race even started,” Niewiadoma says. “Once someone says you’re going to win an Olympic medal, then everyone repeats the same stuff. And then the words are repeated in your mind, and you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to do that. I cannot disappoint them.’”
Niewiadoma traveled to southern Spain for a month to prepare for the race, using the long, soaring climbs to Sierra Nevada as the perfect training ground. She blocked out friends and focused her efforts on preparations for the race. It was her first Olympics, and she wanted to prove herself.
In the end, Niewiadoma believes she placed too much pressure on herself. When race day came, she was mentally exhausted. She missed the final move up Vista Chinesa and came across in sixth place, just 20 seconds behind van der Breggen. Not a bad result, but far from her expectations.
“When somebody tells me that this race is for me, I get smaller immediately. I hate that,” Niewiadoma says. “My mind is going crazy. It’s like I want to prove them wrong.”
HOW DOES A YOUNG talent like Niewiadoma overcome the mental hurdles standing in her way? Like all things in pro sports, there is no simple solution. Rather than seek out one answer, Niewiadoma has instead pursued a pathway of personal growth and change.
At the end of 2017, Niewiadoma left the only professional team she had ever known, Dutch squad WM3 Energie (previously Rabobank-Liv), and signed a three-year deal with Canyon-SRAM. Niewiadoma enjoyed racing for the Dutch outfit, but says that after four years, she desired a change in scenery. Canyon-SRAM’s team attitude, which she describes as “laid-back,” felt like home.
“There is a balance on this team,” she says. “There is time for training and then there is time to go for coffee and be human.”
Niewiadoma also sought out role models to follow in women’s cycling. During her first three years in the pro ranks, she rode alongside van der Breggen, who is five years her senior. The two often roomed together at races, and Niewiadoma looked to the Dutch rider for advice. Van der Breggen attended nursing school in the off-season during her early career.
In van der Breggen, Niewiadoma saw a talented cyclist who had created a balance between her racing life, and her life at home. Niewiadoma says that balance allowed van der Breggen to manage the pressure and expectations that came from results.
“We never talked about cycling, it was always about other things,” Niewiadoma says. “You see so many cyclists who fully focus on eating and cycling and sleeping. Anna showed me you can be a valuable person with balance to your life.”
Canyon-SRAM’s management has actively worked to remove any pressure from Niewiadoma in 2018. Even in those races that cater to her superstar talents, Niewiadoma has shared leadership status with the team’s other stars, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Hannah Barnes. She is free to make her own decisions on the road, rather than adhere to a strict set of team tactics.
Austin says the team’s long-term investment corresponds with management’s understanding that she will make mistakes, and simply learn from those failures.
“We discovered that [Niewiadoma] puts a lot of pressure on herself. We put her in an environment where she is free to race even if it doesn’t always work,” Austin says. “She comes back angry and disappointed and she works through some phases and comes back with a new plan.”
Then there are factors away from the bicycle that impact her attitude and maturation.
THE BUFFET LINE IS a strange place to find love. Niewiadoma first met Phinney while serving herself breakfast during the 2016 UCI World Championships in Qatar. The Polish and American teams shared the same host hotel, and she recognized him from the Olympic village. The two shared a few conversations over meals.
“We were racing the next day, so it was hard to find a time to hang out,” she says. “I felt a spark.”
They kept in touch and reconnected when she moved to Girona later that year. Training and racing schedules were similar, and they were able to spend their first year together relatively unhampered by the pull of cycling. Within a few months, they were inseparable. They pedaled recovery rides together on the road and mountain bike; they also saw each other at the classics.
In Niewiadoma, Phinney found a fresh perspective on the sport that’s dominated his adult life. Her aggressive approach to racing and training stands in stark contrast to the controlled attitudes in the men’s WorldTour peloton. She lacks an ego, despite her accolades. And even in the depths of her disappointments, Niewiadoma tries to be positive.
“Most pro cyclists are constantly whining about something and bringing negative energy into your space,” Phinney says. “Kasia doesn’t let herself negatively impact me or anyone around her.”
In Niewiadoma, Phinney also saw the transformative power of his sport. Phinney was born to Olympic cyclists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, and he traveled to pro races as an infant. Niewiadoma, by contrast, grew up in rural Poland, an hour south of Krakow. Her family owns a roofing business, which employs her father, mother, and two siblings. Niewiadoma’s father is an amateur cyclist and took her on rides as a teenager for fun.
“She gave me a much deeper appreciation for what cycling can do for an individual — cycling has been her ticket to being able to open her mind and travel, and live in Spain,” Phinney says. “Seeing where she comes from puts cycling in a new perspective. I have taken a lot of my freedom and opportunities for granted.”
In Phinney, Niewiadoma saw a new outlook on managing her life with cycling. Phinney endured years of frustration following his crash and broken leg in 2014 — he took a sabbatical from cycling and took up various hobbies, including painting. Niewiadoma says she now dabbles with the paintbrush on occasion — she does not yet have Phinney’s passion for painting. She makes time for her family and friends away from cycling.
Will that fresh perspective help Niewiadoma overcome the bitterness of defeat or help her deal with the pressure to win? Perhaps. Like everyone, Niewiadoma is a work in progress. She will still face cycling’s infinite challenges at 33, even if she overcomes the ones facing her at 23. The dilemma she currently faces is to find a balance with cycling. In Phinney, Niewiadoma has found an important piece of the puzzle.
“With Taylor, I have started to live my life differently,” she says. “To take time and enjoy life when you can because the pleasure is even bigger.”