The History of Professional Road Cycling
by Jean-François Mignot
Why did cycling become professional as early as the late nineteenth century, while other sports (such as rugby) and other sport events (such as the Olympic Games) remained amateur until the 1980s? Why are the organizers of the most important bicycle races private companies, while in other sports such as soccer the main event organizer is a nonprofit organization? To what extent have bicycle races changed since the late nineteenth century? And how does cycling reflect long-term economic changes? The history of professional road cycling helps answer these questions and understand many related phenomena. This chapter provides a long-term, historical perspective on (1) professional road cycling’s economic agents, i.e., the public, race organizers, team sponsors and riders, and the relationships amongst them; (2) cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union; and (3) professional cycling’s final product, i.e., the show of bicycle races. More precisely, the chapter mostly focuses on the history of male professional road cycling in Western Europe since the late nineteenth century. It is founded on both an analysis of quantitative time series on the Grand Tours (and, to some extent, the classics) and a review of the existing literature on the history of professional cycling, whether economic history, institutional history, cultural history, or sport history.
Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-10-02
Revised by: Stefano Tijerina, Ph.D.
The professionalization and commercialization of sports illustrates the forces of capitalism in action, as its culture and institutional structures transition from the local to the global in response to the demands of the market and the increasing interdependence among multiple private and public stakeholders. In his brief history of professional road cycling Jean-François Mignot demonstrates how the sport is transformed throughout the twentieth century as it transitioned from amateur to professional. Mignot argues that the professionalization of this sport anticipated many other international sports because the forces of capitalism pressured the athletes to abandon their amateur status early on in order to secure an income. His research reveals the early infiltration of the private sector within the culture of cycling in Europe, the institutional transformation of the sport, the market’s impact on the institutional structure of bicycle racing, and its integration into the global system. Ultimately, his historic analysis allows the possibility of drawing parallels with the processes of transformation experienced by other goods, commodities, and services that adapted to the inevitable pressures of the expansion of capitalism.
Jean-François Mignot’s research shows that the idea of organizing road race competitions around the commonly used bicycle emerged from the desire of newspapers across Europe to sell more newspapers through this new and creative marketing scheme. Newspapers in France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy began organizing races on public roads in the late 1800s to show the public that human and bicycles could cover vast distances across flat and mountainous terrain. As indicated by Mignot, early races of 25 to 70 hours in duration covering 250 to 400 kilometers became epic sporting events of duration and perseverance among extraordinary European athletes. The media’s construct of these epic figures created the thirst for road cycling, but it was the fact that the spectator standing on the side of the road was only able to watch the spectacle for a few seconds and depended on the print media to recreate the rest of the race, that pushed newspapers into the sponsorship business. It was this interdependent relation between spectator, athlete, and newspapers that inspired the print media industry to organize these road races, hoping that races would become magnets for advertisement sales. As indicated by Mignot, “cycling fans demanded more information” and “pictures of the race,” and the race organizing newspapers were interested in supplying the demand by covering the races in detailed form as they watched circulations increase.
The one-day races or “Classics” and the three-week “Grand Tours” became the backbone of professional road racing in Europe. By the 1930s newspapers had monopolized the sponsorship of the events, while fans filled the roadways accompanied by publicity caravans “that distributed product samples to spectators.” Meanwhile bicycle and tire companies became the sponsors of teams, as individual riders were replaced by teams that worked on behalf of the stars that made up the top cycling teams in Europe.
In the early stages of professionalization, cycling stars did not receive any wages and were therefore forced to secure their income through race earnings. The increase in the popularity of the sport was followed by the increase in riders’ income. The interdependent relations necessary for the expansion of capitalism slowly developed; increasing sales motivated the newspapers to improve the quality of the spectacle by increase the race winnings, forcing the sponsors to offer better wages in order to recruit and maintain the loyalty of the top cyclists, ultimately attracting more fan-base that in turn attracted other secondary sponsors that turned the caravans into marketing spectacles as well. This became even more lucrative as other means of communication joined in, particularly radio and later on television.
Jean-François Mignot points out at the first three decades of the Cold War was a period of crisis for the sport in Europe, emphasizing that urbanization and the increasing sales of motorcycles forced bicycle manufacturers to decrease their team sponsorship funding and ultimately sending the salaries of professional riders in a downward spiral. This, argued Mignot, forced the professional rider to seek sponsorships outside of the bicycle world. The stars and their teams began to tap the “extra-sportif” market for sponsorship and this market segment was quick to capitalize on the opportunity.
Jean-François Mignot points out that sponsoring newspapers and bicycle companies interested in protecting their own profit margins opposed the penetration of “extra-sportif” sponsors by trying to control the rules of the sport in order to impede their participation, but at the end the market forces prevailed. This European crisis that unfolded between the 1950s and 1980s was in fact the initial era of global commercialization of the sport. Mignot’s Euro centrism impedes him from moving beyond the region’s Grand Tours and Classics, not recognizing that the “extra-sportif” sponsorships that challenged the status quo took professional cycling outside of Europe and introduced it to the rest of the world. For example, by the 1950s radio transmissions of the European races were common in distant places like Colombia where their own private sectors had replicated the European business model and established lucrative professional road races to supply the local demand for professional bicycle road racing. The first edition of the Colombian Grand Tour, La Vuelta a Colombia, was organized in 1951, and by then several local Classics like the Tunja-Bucaramanga and the Medellín-Sansón were already engrained in the Colombian cycling culture. As in the case of Europe, local newspapers like El Tiempo became interested in sponsoring the local Grand Classic as a means to increase sales and circulation, but contrary to the European distrust of “extra-sportif” sponsors, the Colombian organizers welcomed other private local sponsors including the national airline Avianca, the Bavaria brewery, Avisos Zeón and the Flota Mercante Grancolombiana.
The crisis of professional bicycle road racing in Europe described by Mignot was certainly caused by a decreasing popularity of the sport and the internal struggles over the monopoly of the sponsorship and management of the sport, but it was also the market’s response to the emergence of other professional sports in Europe as well as the professional cyclist’s ability to capitalize on the globalization of the sport. It was an illustration of how, in a capitalist system, the internal saturation of a market led to the natural expansion into other global markets, as in the case of Colombia in the 1940s and 1950s.
Such was the case of French Born, José Beyaerst, the 1948 Olympic road race champion who moved to Colombia after the Second World War, winning the second edition of the Vuelta a Colombia in 1952 and later on establishing a career as the coach for the Colombian national cycling team. Beyaerst would make Colombia his home, developing the professionalization of the sport and becoming a key player in what would later become one of the cycling powers of the world. The expansionism of the sport would reach all corners of the world between the 1950s and the 1980s, it was a period of crisis for Europe as Mignot points out but it was a glorious time for global professional bicycle road racing.
Television was the game-changer, spearheading the resurgence of professional cycling in Europe in the 1980s. Taking advantage of the integration of Europe, race organizers capitalized on the magic of television to attract new European audiences, redesigning the stage circuits of the Grand Tours (Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España, and the Tour de France) with the intention of tapping new urban centers that were outside of Spain, France, and Italy. Television also globalized the European Grand Tours, introducing the cycling stars to the world, providing an opportunity for sponsors to reach a global audience, selling commercial air space, and as a result increasing revenues, salaries and profits for the whole sport.
Jean-François Mignot points out that the globalization of the sport also impacted the nature of cycling teams. By the 1980s the teams competing in the Grand Tours were no longer made up of Spanish, Italian, and French riders; their nationalities diversified and so did their sponsors. Although Mignot highlights the fact that by 1986 the American Greg LeMond had won the Tour de France, Colombia’s Lucho Herrera had conquered the Vuelta a España (1987), the Russian Evgueni Berzin the Giro d’Italia (1994), and the Australian Cadel Evans the Tour de France (2011), he does not point out that these foreign cyclists also brought with them new local sponsors that then began to compete with European sponsors. Mignot avoids talking about the American Lance Armstrong, leaving a large gap in the history of the globalization of the sport, considering that the American rider won seven consecutive Tour de France championships (1999-2005) before the US Anti-Doping Agency and the Union Cycliste Internationale stripped him from his titles after a doping scandal. Although LeMond popularized cycling racing in the United States it was Armstrong that converted it into a multi-billion dollar industry bringing in American brands such as RadioShack and Motorola into the world of cycling.
Jean-François Mignot’s research illustrates how the sport expanded globally as the Western World exported the idea of the professionalization and commercialization of cycling, taking advantage of the expansion of Western culture across the world, the increasing leisure time and incomes of the global population, and the increasing communications technology that allowed viewers from across the world to connect with the live stage by stage action of the Grand Tours and the Classics. Nevertheless, his Euro centric approach impedes him from explaining how the professionalization of the sport evolved outside of Europe. Although Mignot clarified early on that his analysis centered on Europe, this approach weakened his argument regarding the globalization of the sport and its repercussion on the European construct, as foreigners began to conquer and dominate the sport as in the case of Americans Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, or the current stars South African born Christopher Froome and the Colombian climber Nairo Quintana. The incorporation of a broader global perspective would have allowed Mignot to test whether or not the professionalization of the sport in other markets was also spearheaded by other local newspapers or if on the contrary other media and non-media-based sponsors jumped on this business opportunity. It would have also been important to identify when professionalization took place in other markets to compare whether or not the influence of the European sport transcended the borders in a timely manner or even identifying political, economic, social, and cultural factors that delayed its expansion into other global markets. Moreover, it would have been important for Mignot to link the policies of the Union Cycliste Internationale to the globalization of the sport, as well as the escalation of global competition among bicycle manufacturers, and the global competition between scientists, technological designers, and pharmaceutical industries that centered on the legal and illegal preparation of the current athlete.
 Jean-François Mignot. “The History of Professional Road Cycling.” HAL archives-ouvertes.fr, https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-01326719/document, June 5, 2016, p. 4.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 5.
 “Vuelta a Colombia Historia.” Ciclismo colombiano – La Vuelta a Colombia. April 25, 2007. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://ciclismo.al-dia.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=13.
 Kidnapping of Lucho Herrera (and José Beyaert’s Narrow Escape”. Alps&Andes, March 2000. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://www.alpsandes.com/posts/clinginquisition.com/2013/04/the-kidnapping-of-lucho-herrera-and.html
 Mignot, “The History of Professional Road Cycling,” 5.
 Ibid., 6.