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Comment: Why would you support a cycling team?

Rob Whittle
1 Aug 2019

We’re not football supporters cheering for the local lads, so why do some cycling fans get so attached to teams?

Cast your mind back to the troubling and turbulent times when the Artists Formerly Known As Sky were cast adrift and in speculation mounted that it may be no more. A tweet popped up on my timeline that stuck with me.

“If Team Sky are leaving pro cycling, I really have no reason to follow the sport.”

It was no great commentator, or even a particularly popular tweet, and has long since faded into the ether of Twitter’s unsearchable mass of tweets of old.

It struck me, though – why support a team more than an actual sport? Surely most, if not all (well, obviously not all) people who follow a sport are a fan of the sport itself.

Cycling, football, snooker, golf fans – we all gravitate towards the TV in the corner of the room showing our sport, whether our chosen team/player is featured or not. Why would someone’s interest live or die on the fortunes of a single team.

The question poked its head again during the Tour, where I saw banners stating support for Movistar or Team Ineos on the roadside. Again, I wondered who these fans were.

The "new" cyclist 

Perhaps it is symptomatic of the kind of supporter who entered the fray following the recent UK boom in cycling, one intent on flying the flag. 

It is not hugely surprising that new fans gravitate towards the most successful teams. I suppose it’s human nature.

It could be that it is just someone who got caught up in the team’s ‘them and us’ mentality, fostered, knowingly or not, by its own hierarchy. Certainly, Team Sky-cum-Ineos have found themselves polarising opinion like no other team in the sport’s recent history.

I have to emphasise that I am not Ineos-bashing here and this could be a comment from a supporter of any team. If it is mere disgust that a favoured team is going the way of many cycling teams before it, it is as clear an example of cutting-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face as binning the telly just because Game of Thrones has finished is.

The surprise for me in this case is that there is no apparent love for the sport outside this support.

Relax – watch the race

Now, there’s nothing wrong with watching sport in whichever way you want to, but for me, it’s hard to comprehend because it is absolutely at odds with the way I watch cycling.

I love the sport (dodgy historical warts and all) without feeling the need to show any specific support. I have no team affinities. I have riders I like, but I do not have a need for them to win the race.

Because of this, I am free from all the stresses that have blighted my years watching football. I’m a Man United fan so, admittedly, over the past 20 years I’ve had a less stressful time than most. I don’t watch “the beautiful game” so much now – I get annoyed at all the cheating.

Because I don’t have one team, or one rider, I spend my time watching cycling sitting on the fence, free to enjoy the spectacle that unfolds, like a game of chess on wheels, before me.

This might sound dispassionate, but it’s not: I simply, as someone once said, let the road decide, and appreciate the races I watch no less for it. And, even if I start out watching a race with no clear favourite, this doesn’t mean I finish it that way.

Keep Gesink

So what was it our Sky fan was supporting, if not the sport? Was it ‘the home team’? Well, that team is now pretty far removed from the all-British outfit it set out to be. 

Cycling is as global as any other sport and, whatever good intentions the team had at the start, the will to win outstripped the need to act as a national team. Egan Bernal and Iván Sosa aren’t local lads from Leafy Cheshire.

Some teams do manage to keep an identity – FDJ’s roster has, over the years, remained mostly French, and Euskaltel-Euskadi were Basque through and through, and perhaps, in terms of results, it has been to the detriment of both – but it is the nature of pro cycling that teams change.

So much so that it is one sport where a protagonist can change sides simply by staying put.

It is this fluid nature of team ownership that helps keep partisan support at bay. Jumbo-Visma are the latest incarnation of the famous Rabobank squad, but they started out as Kwantum in the late ‘80s. If you want to support them by wearing retro, you could rock the Belkin look, or even Blanco, when the team was sponsorless. 

It’s very hard to nail your colours to the mast when the colours keep changing.

Rider, Nation, Team?

In this dynamic world, most cycling fans do have their favourite riders, over and above favourite teams. Cavendish fans support Cavendish whoever he rides for. Riders like Cancellara or Boonen had a huge following in the Classics as does, more recently, Peter Sagan. Warren Barguil has a fan club – I saw him on Ventoux. “Allez, Warren!”

National identity always comes into the equation. You won’t see a race without a Lion of Flanders or Basque ikurrina popping up somewhere or other.

The Italians and French, the Dutch and the Columbians all give vociferous (and sometimes physical) support to their own riders. I believe Valverde is quite popular in Spain.

In football, support usually starts with the team, and the hero can become the villain the moment the asking price is met. I don’t believe that this is the case in cycling. The French might wail and gnash their teeth if Pinot or Bardet sign for Sky, but they’d still love Pinot and Bardet (although, perhaps, a little less).

That cycling is often described as a team sport for individuals highlights the contradictions within. In following the sport it is not unusual to support the rider but not necessarily the team.

Leadership juggling can polarise this issue – think Hinault/LeMond, Armstrong/Contador, or even, more recently Wiggins/Froome and Quintana/Landa/Valverde. Everyone has a view, and everyone takes a side.

As we know, Team Sky turned into Team Ineos on May 1st as Sir Dave managed to find the UK’s richest man and his petro-chemical millions. On one side of the argument, this saves a major player in the pro cycling world: on the other, it gives the team the chance of an even bigger budget.

Moral questions have already been raised as to how the company makes its money and its effect as an environmental polluter. It has already been used as a stick to beat the team with by fans who seem to conveniently forget that Bahrain Merida is essentially an advert for a country with, at best, questionable human rights issues.

So, what about our Sky fan? I think that they probably came to the sport in the last few years and jumped onto the success of Team Sky. Watching Sky, and now Ineos, win is the be-all and end-all.

If that were gone, for them, there would be nothing. In its own way, it’s not dissimilar to many of Armstrong’s US fans back in the day: happy to watch their man crush the opposition whilst flying the Stars and Stripes, but with no real love for the sport.

It might just be that they don’t understand that cycling teams are generally at the whim of whoever pays for them. They have to change name, kit, bike and, sometimes, country to survive.

Whatever their motivation, they display a pretty shallow appreciation of the sport of pro cycling.

In case you were wondering, the first response to the tweet was perhaps most apt:

“Go and find another sport.”