Sacked Giro boss Michele Acquarone backs Brian Cookson to bring bright future to cycling

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Interview: sacked Giro boss Michele Acquarone backs Brian Cookson to bring bright future to cycling

Former RCS Sport MD discusses theories for growing cycling, including two-week Grand Tours, and women's races held concurrently with men's

Sacked former Giro d’Italia director Michele Acquarone has been using his new-found spare time to design a future for professional cycling – and he believes new UCI president Brian Cookson is the man to take the sport to new heights.

Acqaurone was dismissed by RCS Sport – who organise the Giro d’Italia, alongside a host of other notable Italian races including Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia – as part of an investigation into misappropriation of funds.

Acqaurone has strenuously denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to clear his name, but is unwilling to discuss what he terms a ‘very bad job situation’ with investigations ongoing. He is, however, happy to discuss a raft of ideas for promoting cycling, including a calendar with four, two-week Grand Tours, and women’s races held concurrently with men’s.

Former Giro d’Italia boss Michele Acquarone, pictured, has designed a future for professional cycling and believes new UCI president Brian Cookson is the man to deliver it (pic: Sirotti)

Since his suspension by RCS in October, and subsequent dismissal, Acquarone has shared his thoughts on how to take cycling forward, contributing to The Outer Line’s “Roadmap to Repair Pro Cycling”.

And the Italian admits he is bitterly disappointed not to be a part of professional cycling as it enters what he believes is an important period for its future.

It’s the kind of heritage I want to leave to cycling. I spent the last two months just writing about everything that is working and everything that is not working in cycling

“It’s a really unfinished job for me, because my feeling was that the cycling family was ready to change,” he told RCUK.

“Under Brian Cookson we were ready to follow him and try to do something bigger for cycling. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be in the business anymore but I hope big changes are coming for cycling.

“I trust him a lot and that’s why I’m so disappointed now to not be in cycling anymore.

“Cycling is now something great in the UK – it grew up a lot [with Cookson president of British Cycling] – and Team Sky and the British team did so many good things in the last few years.

“It is everywhere – on the roads, on the track; men, women. I think he has a good mentality.”

New UCI president has wasted no time in working through his manifesto promises, and Acquarone believes him to be the right man to lead cycling forward (pic: Sirotti)

The Outer Line, drafted by American consultants Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell, combines the two men’s business knowledge with their passion for cycling.

Acquarone admits to sharing many beliefs with the pair, and after discussions with Maxwell believes the proposals put forward would have a positive bearing on cycling should they ever go from theory to reality.

It would be great to have one operator selling the whole season to a broadcaster. That could be a great opportunity because if television wants to buy cycling, they could buy everything

“It’s the kind of heritage I want to leave to cycling,” he explained to RCUK. “I spent the last two months just writing about everything that is working and everything that is not working in cycling.

“When Steve called me and said, ‘Ok, let’s just speak about cycling from a business point of view’, we spent a few hours just speaking of many things, I read his document and I thought wow, that’s what cycling needs!”

Some of the proposals contained within the lengthy document, including two-week Grand Tours and a franchise-based system with professional teams from across the globe, are radical.

A centralised system to sell television rights for races to broadcasters would serve cycling well, Acquarone believes

But Acquarone’s knowledge of cycling’s commercial aspect, having been at the helm of the Giro since shortly after the 2011 race, have allowed him an interesting perspective on the future of cycling.

Indeed, he leant heavily from his time with the race when discussing the business side of cycling with RCUK, from attracting sponsors to organising television coverage.

When I see the beginning of the next season coming up and some of the top stars are in Australia and some Argentina – I just don’t understand. I can not follow it

The latter would form a major part of any expansion to cycling, as the UCI bid to captialise on the ever-expanding global spread of the sport and Acquarone believes a centralised system – which is another major part of the Roadmap – would be crucial to achieve increased broadcasting of the sport.

Television coverage

“It was quite easy to get television coverage for the Giro,” he explained. “Last year we closed a new deal with IMG as media adviser and they did a very good job.

“There is a lot of interest. The only problem was we were selling just the Italian races so IMG took some other races in their portfolio – the Flanders [Classics], the Canadian WorldTour races and others – so they can have a good package to sell to the media.

Acquarone enjoyed two years at the helm of the Giro d’Italia and said that finding TV coverage and sponsorship for Italy’s national tour was never a problem (pic: Sirotti)

“In my opinion, from this experience, it would be great to have one operator selling the whole season to a broadcaster. That could be a great opportunity because if television wants to buy cycling, they could buy everything.

“At the moment, they have to buy something from RCS, something from ASO [Tour de France organisers] and from the others around the world.

“We need one company to sell to everybody, an independent company that could make big business for everybody. I think it’s just an opportunity for everybody – even ASO.”

Race calendar

Even with a centralised system, achieving worldwide coverage would still be difficult with the current race programme in place, however, as events compete against each other for media interest.

A case in point is the start of the season in January, which will see the world’s best riders split between those entering the Tour Down Under and those heading instead to the Tour de San Luis in Argentina.

On the issue, Acquarone said: “I think the problem now is that there are so many different races all around the world, they overlap and you don’t know if they are important or not.

“If, maybe, it seems to be not so important because it’s not a WorldTour race, but all the big teams send riders, then it becomes important.

The Tour Down Under rolls out for stage six in Adelaide this year, but a packed schedule means not all of the best riders are on show (pic: Sirotti)

“Now it’s not clear. When I see the beginning of the next season coming up with Argentina [Tour de San Luis] and Australia [Tour Down Under] together, some of the top stars are in Australia and some Argentina – I just don’t understand. I can not follow it.

“I would like just one calendar with all the top teams and top riders in the same races and a second division calendar where you have the second top riders, second top teams and second top races.

There is no common interest in cycling, and that is what it needs. I hope Mr Cookson can do it – I’m sure he can do a lot for cycling

“Of course, you would have to be brave and choose but somebody needs to do it and I hope Mr Cookson can.”

The fact that the season, despite remaining heavily focussed on European races such as the three Grand Tours and the Classics, kicks off in either South America or Australia, is for many a testament to the sport’s ever-expanding global reach.

Acquarone believes the time is right to seize the momentum worldwide, reiterating his belief in Brian Cookson’s ability to do just that.

“My feeling is that cycling is growing up a lot,” he said. “In the United States, if you go to New York then you see so many bicycles around. There are many amateur events that are quite popular in the States and it’s growing and growing.

The sponsor’s logo on the start ramp of the stage 18 time trial at this year’s Giro d’Italia bears out Acquarone’s assertion that sponsorship of Italy’s national tour was not hard to find

“If you go to South America, in Colombia and Brazil it is growing. In Australia they are crazy for the bicycle.

“Maybe just in Asia, it is a new market to grow up. They don’t have a team, they don’t have riders and they don’t have a tradition. There are just the WorldTour races there [Tour of Beijing]. It is difficult to grow it up.

The Giro is a great opportunity if you want to invest, above all, in Italy because it’s a sponsorship that embraces a whole country and millions of fans around the world

“Asia is a difficult market but all around the world I think cycling has good potential.

“But everybody is working for themselves and that’s a big problem. There is no common interest in cycling, and that is what it needs. I hope Mr Cookson can do it – I believe in him. I trust him and I’m sure he can do a lot for cycling.”

Sponsorship

Acquarone also believes a centralised system will boost the sport’s opportunity to attract sponsors, having discovered no shortage of interested parties when selling just one country’s racing.

He explained: “We were a big company and we had many people involved in that business. What we always say is cycling is a big opportunity for every company and the value for money is very, very big. It’s huge I think.

Acquarone with Italian biscuit magnate, Alberto Balocco. The confectionary firm is one of the Giro’s principal sponsors

“For the Giro, it’s a great opportunity if you want to invest, above all, in Italy because it’s a sponsorship that embraces a whole country and millions of fans around the world. It’s a great opportunity for hospitality and for B2B [business to business] for every kind of company.

“Our hospitality, our in-car packages, our VIP packages were all quite good and it’s a great opportunity if you want to have a direct relationship with fans, and people along the street lining the roads and in the start and finishing villages and areas.

“At that time it’s very good because it’s just before summer. It’s launching the summer season. Everybody said that in May it’s the perfect time to launch products like a type of beer that in summer will be very popular. It was not so tough to find big sponsors.

“I think it’s tough for cycling to find a universal sponsor though, those big sponsors need to reach a global audience, because cycling is not able to do that now.

“Maybe the Tour de France can, but even with the Tour if you look at their sponsors, they have many French sponsors.

“No global company can invest just in one country, so if you centralise the business then you can sell cycling to sponsors all around the world during the whole season. I think that cycling can get a lot of money, but you need to centralise it.”

Cycling’s global expansion will continue in 2014. Michele Acquarone and Saeed Hareb launched RCS’ latest race, the Dubai Tour, in Pescara

The importance of the Tour de France to cycling is something the Italian readily admits, with no other race able to compete with the global interest generated by what is roundly acknowledged as the sport’s greatest event.

However, he also believes the importance placed on the race risks belittling the remainder of the season – something Mark Cavendish has also recently spoken about having found interest in his Giro d’Italia red jersey victory minimal in comparison to Chris Froome’s yellow jersey success at the Tour de France.

Two-week Grand Tours

Such opinion forms the basis of the radical idea for two-week Grand Tours, of which he proposes there would be four during the season.

But he accepts that to rip up more than a century of tradition would be a near impossible task – and something he would have been unwilling to adapt to while running the Giro.

“That is one complication,” he admitted. “If our sport has more than 100 years of tradition, and the Tour de France has big, huge sponsorship and TV deals all around the world, then we can not change like that.

“If Cookson was to just come and say ‘OK, you have two weeks from now on’, if I was at the Giro then I couldn’t accept it.

“It is theoretical – but I believe that everybody, even if they don’t like it at the beginning, will learn to like it.

“Four Grand Tours of two weeks would allow all the top riders to ride each one. Maybe it would be Australia in January, then the Giro in May, then Tour de France in July, then USA in September/October.

“That’s what everybody would love to have – every top rider in all of the top races. It is not so easy to change, but I want people to start to think about that and maybe in time things can change.

“I don’t want to reduce, in my opinion, the whole season to a single race like the Tour de France, as it is today.

“Today, there is just one race everybody is talking about. Everybody – every single team, all the media, all the fans – are talking about it and it’s a pity because if you can have a whole season, why are you just waiting for July?

The media swarm around Chris Froome after his Tour de France win, but the heightened importance placed on the Tour risks belittling other races according to Acquarone  (Pic:Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com)

“You can enjoy good racing from February to October. If you can have the top riders altogether in every part of the world you can have great races.

“I would like to see a great race in Australia and now we have, unfortunately, just some of the good riders in Australia and it’s a pity.

“Also, everybody is saying how good Colorado is – I’ve never been there, but everybody says it is a great race. There are a lot of people on the street and it is really growing up, so you think OK, why is it not [on the]WorldTour?

“If we want to attract new fans we need to do something different otherwise we will always have just a very good Tour de France and then some other races just trying to survive.”

Women’s cycling

Acquarone’s vision for the future does not only include men’s cycling. He revealed the women’s side of the sport was something he was beginning to take a big interest in before being sacked by RCS.

“When I came to cycling, I didn’t consider women’s cycling at all,” he admitted. “There were just a few races and nobody talked about it.

“I live in Italy and if you read the Italian newspapers then they don’t talk about women’s cycling apart from maybe during the Olympics or the Worlds. But then I asked myself, why?

“In other sports women are really important – I’m talking about tennis, swimming or maybe even skiing with Lindsay Vonn – and I asked why we couldn’t have the same thing in cycling.

Marianne Vos is one of the biggest stars in the sport. Acquarone believes women’s cycling can expand if it is run concurrently with men’s races (pic: Sirotti)

“I asked my team to have a project ready and go to the UCI, but then of course in October I was dismissed and I do not know what is going on now.”

With calls growing for a women’s Tour de France throughout the summer, and the announcement of The Women’s Tour in Britain being met with joy from the likes of Olympic silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead, Acquarone believes the women can tap into the growth of the men’s sport to boost interest in their own races.

He explained:  “If we had to invest in just a ladies’ race then nobody is mad enough to do it, but if I spent a lot of money to organise the two races, with perhaps one hour between the finishes, then I think it would be great for TV and great for the audience.

When I came to cycling, I didn’t consider women’s cycling at all. I live in Italy and if you read the Italian newspapers then they don’t talk about women’s cycling apart from maybe during the Olympics or the Worlds. But then I asked myself, why?

“You can have one single production, while the fans can enjoy both – you see the ladies then after an hour you will see the men coming.

“Perhaps it will be a bit of trouble in terms of closing the streets etc but it is not like organising a different race in a different territory.

“If you don’t have an audience you have nothing to invest in, but with a combined event you provide an audience for women’s cycling and you will get people interested.

“There are a lot of companies investing in women’s tennis and women’s golf. Cycling is not just a men’s sport, there are a lot of women who like to cycle.

Britain’s double world champion, Lucy Garner, rides for the women’s team of WorldTour giants Argos-Shimano and Acquarone hopes the audience for men’s racing can also be harnessed for women’s cycling (pic: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)

“We just need to give the ladies the right audience. It’s hard if we have to create an audience from zero. It will be easier to provide an audience alongside the men. They need exposure and I’m sure that the races are good enough and exciting enough for people to enjoy them as they do with men.”

Having lost his job, Acquarone’s direct involvement in cycling is over, and such radical ideas may never grow from his jotting pad into reality.

However, as a businessman with insider knowledge of the sport, it could be the sort of perspective Brian Cookson requires as he continues his wide-ranging overhaul of professional cycling.

Some ideas are harder to realise than others, as Acquarone himself admits, but at the very least he has created some interesting talking points.

What do you think? What do you think needs to change in professional cycling? Let us know below, or join the debate in the forum.

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