-By Gregor Russell-
‘Professional,’ dictionary definition: ‘Relating to or belonging to a profession. Engaged in an activity as a paid occupation rather than as an amateur. Worthy of, or appropriate to a professional person; competent. A person having impressive competence in a particular activity.’
“What is a pro?” is an interesting question and one I’ve given a fair amount of consideration to. I’ve also debated it with others, who have an excellent knowledge of professional cycle sport.
We’re not talking about Tom Boonen here, but while we’re at it – he definitely fits the definition of pro.
It would seem that there are three clear requirements which have to be in place; we’ll consider them in a moment.
‘Back in the day’ it was far clearer who was a pro and who was an amateur – the races were totally separate and only occasionally was there any cross over. In the UK the term is being abused; with almost anybody being able to use the title ‘pro,’ whether worthy or qualified to, or not.
Over the near 30 years I have been involved in the sport, I have been lucky enough to work with a number of teams, professional and amateur; I think therefore that I’m qualified to comment in terms of ‘the package’.
Excluding the WCPP the most any rider in the UK will earn is Ј25-30k, possibly a car, expenses and all equipment – that’s bikes, clothing, race food and sundries. Most however, are on much less, with many riding for only a jersey and a bike.
Let’s try to establish the cut off – the line between the real pro and the full time ‘weekend warrior.’
The three factors required would be:
1) A salary that a rider can live on, and does not require a subsidy – like working in a bike shop part time or babysitting. I mention these because I have known riders who have classed themselves as pros but have had to do these jobs to fund their ‘professionalism’.
It ain’t all glamorous and pretty.
Realistically, Ј10,000 per year would be the minimum salary; that’s equivalent to around 1000 euros per month which is the recognised basic across the water; although in Europe the package may include digs and food – many teams will have a house to accommodate their riders.
2) A good team which will be UCI registered, with the infrastructure, logistics and management in place to provide the required back up. This will include a full time DS, mechanic and masseur as well as a minimum of five other riders on a similar or higher salary.
3) A programme of quality races throughout the season. This, for many of the people I spoke to, is the most important part of a pro’s package; if you haven’t got the races, you can’t get the results to start moving up the ladder. It’s pointless to pay the money for UCI registration only to ride domestic races, however.
And if you turn up at a UCI race without the quality of rider required, then you face not only potential elimination for finishing out with time cuts, but also a fine for fielding riders who are not up to the appropriate standard. This aspect of race programme is especially important for a young rider. They should know from the start of the season what their race schedule is – to enable them to prepare, peak and taper appropriately.
The path to climbing the Berendries in the Tour of Flanders is a long and difficult one.
I’ve watched a number of riders head off to parts of the world which simply don’t suit their characteristics (skinny climbers to Belgium for example) only to return months or even weeks later, disillusioned and ready to quit.
It takes a lot more to be a true pro then, than writing ‘professional cycling team’ on the side of a vehicle and then turning up at a local road race to compete against club men who are, “just off the back shift” – as Ivan so succinctly puts it.
He also pointed out the tendency, if one is constructively critical of any team or rider, for this to be construed as “negative” or “putting people down.” There is something of ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’ in this attitude; whilst many may think that a certain rider is deluding himself by defining himself as a professional, “it’s best not to say it!”
There is no shame in not making it to the top, but it does appear that cycling alone has this obsession for riders to class themselves as ‘pro’ without any results to back the title up. An article appeared a few years ago in one of our national broadsheets declaring that three riders were ‘turning pro’ and that they were bound for ‘le Tour’ in the next few years. When I spoke to the journalist in question about the article, he admitted that it was unlikely the riders would make the Tour, but he had to ‘sex up’ the piece.
Unrealistic expectations and egos built on sand can be fatal when a rider is confronted with the harsh reality of continental bike racing. The podium girls may be lovely and the suntans cool; but riding Kermesses on a freezing cold spring day in Belgium or hanging onto some East European beast who ate raw meat for breakfast is no fun. Many former European pros revert back to the amateur ranks – and make a better and ‘easier’ living.
Finally, cycling sponsors who have been “over sold” can end up very disappointed about the lack of value for money they get for their investment. It’s much better to under promise and over deliver than do the opposite – that way it’s more likely for sponsors to stay on board and remain happy for several seasons rather than losing them through disillusionment with poorer than promised results.
It’s accepted wisdom in the cycle trade that any advertising spend should generate three times the ‘spend’ in sales to break even; and five times the spend to make it truly profitable. In other words, if a rider is given a Ј5,000 bike, he needs to generate at least Ј15,000 of sales for the shop or manufacturer.
My trade radar tells me that next season will see even more ‘shop teams’ on the road – this is great for the sport and developing riders to national and ultimately international level. And it goes to show that the trade is putting something back into the sport – however this will only continue if the riders understand that they have to give their sponsors a good return on investment, not day dreams.