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Inside Line: Three parties banking on a German cycling renaissance

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As the Deutschland Tour returns to the roads of southwest Germany this week, can the nation’s public re-embrace a sport that so badly burnt them?

Photographs: Offside - L'Equipe
9/7/2005 Tour de France 2005. Stage 9 - Gererdmer to Mulhouse. Jan Ullrich signs autographs at the start of stage 9. Photo: Offside / L'Equipe

Although incarnations of the race date back as far as 1911, the Deutschland Tour has had a sporadic history. Ten times the race has slipped off the calendar, sometimes for spells that would span a rider’s whole professional career.

 

In 1999, after a 16 year hiatus, the race was relaunched on the back of Jan Ullrich’s hugely popular Tour de France success. But as the deceit of Germany’s purple patch was retrospectively exposed in the mid to late 2000s, the country’s mainstream largely turned its back on the sport. The public lost trust, sponsorship dried up and the media looked elsewhere. The race once again found itself shelved.

 

Read: Jan Ullrich and the missing Tour de France trophy

 

But old wounds are healing and the whispers are seeping through. Cycling has changed; it’s cleaner now, they say. And Germany (a huge market, they’ve noted) could potentially give it another chance.

 

Last year, the Tour de France rolled away from Dusseldorf. And on August 23, the Deutschland Tour (now owned by ASO) picks up again -albeit for only a tentative four days- after a nine-year absence.

 

In this extract from a 2017 feature for Rouleur, Andrew Curry spoke to three organisations who envisage Germany falling for the sport once more.

 

The marketeers

 

The evening before the 2017 Eschborn-Frankfurt race, on the top floor of a Mercure hotel, local bigwigs, sponsors and race officials mingle over slices of ham, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. Champagne flutes filled with traditional Frankfurt “apple wine” – a mouth-puckering local cider – are circulating on trays.

 

Near the bar, a German TV personality named Marc Bator is handing out business cards. Bator is a familiar face to the Germans in the room. He spent 13 years as an anchor for Tagesschau, the country’s top-rated evening news programme. Tonight he’s wearing a white button-down, straining slightly at the midriff. An avid cyclist, he’s provided live commentary for the Frankfurt race, too – in 2012, he even hopped into the broadcaster’s booth straight from the finish line of the 100-kilometre sportive.

 

Read: Flourish or flounder – Egan Bernal and other cycling prodigies

 

In 2014, Bator founded TeamVision, a marketing and management agency devoted to cycling. The decision didn’t come easily. Unlike the coaches downstairs in the lobby who circumspectly refer to “the problems”, Bator tackles the question of doping head-on, addressing it before he’s even asked. “In Germany, cycling as a sport is still suffering from a great trauma. The public has so many unanswered questions: what exactly happened in the era of Ullrich, of Telekom?” Bator says. “It’s like a wound – it’s been bandaged, but it’s still bleeding, still unhealed.”

28/7/1997 Tour de France 1997. Crowds gather in the square in Bonn to celebrate Jan Ullrich winning the tour. Photo: Offside / L'Equipe

Given Bator’s feelings about its past, cycling wouldn’t seem like a natural fit for a TV presenter looking to start a second career. But physics suggests that what goes down has to come up. In 2011, Bator had a talk with his wife. “I said: ‘This sport is in such a bad place it’s worth getting into, because at this point it can only improve,’” he explains. “As long as German athletes stay out of trouble, it can only get better.”

 

Today his agency has a handful of employees; Dimension Data and former Team Sky rider Bernhard Eisel is a consultant, along with German track star Robert Bengsch. When pitching clients, he points out the extraordinary lengths cycling has gone to, to root out doping, contrasting it with football, which he covered as a young sports reporter.

 

Bator claims he’s in talks with at least a dozen German companies interested in sponsoring teams or athletes. Cycling’s marketing potential – for a relatively small investment, brands get outsized exposure in international markets – is attractive to businesses flush with cash in Europe’s strongest economy. “I think in two or three years, we’re going to have a very different situation. I think a lot of companies are going to come back.”

 

The race promoters

 

At the other end of the room is Loïc Hoscheit, a youthful Luxembourger working for ASO’s business development team. Hoscheit’s slightly harried presence is a strong hint that Bator is onto something; the sports giant that runs the Tour de France wouldn’t invest in Germany if it didn’t think there was serious untapped potential in the German market.

 

Hoscheit cites the Tour de Yorkshire as a model for the Tour of Germany. When the Tour started in the north of England in 2014, it created a groundswell of excitement that proved strong enough to sustain a three-day stage race that’s rapidly becoming a fixture on the calendar. “Looking at Yorkshire, we were positive we could build something long-term,” Hoscheit says. “The idea is to build on the momentum of the Tour de France to establish a long-lasting presence in Germany.”

 

One of the ironies of Germany’s reluctance to embrace cycling as a spectator sport is its passion for cycling as a hobby or transport option. Key to the ASO’s plan for German domination is fan engagement: youth rides, wheelchair events, and lots and lots of opportunities for cyclists at every level to ride alongside the pro race. (Pre-race literature refers to the 2018 Deutschland Tour as ‘your tour.)

 

Despite pouring rain and temperatures in the low single digits, over 5,000 people took part in a variety of sportive rides ahead of the pro Eschborn-Frankfurt race; larger, older events like the Hamburg Cyclassics and Berlin Velothon regularly attract 15,000 to 20,000 participants.

19/8/2012 Vattenfall Cyclassics 2012. Photo: Offside / Witters.

Frankfurt should be a perfect test case for ASO’s approach. It is home to the European Central Bank, the German Stock Exchange and the headquarters of just about every major bank in the country. Packed, in other words, with the type-As supposedly giving up their golf bags for carbon wheels. “It’s one of the biggest markets in Europe, and people here are quite passionate about cycling,” Hoscheit says. “They might not be big fans of pro cycling, but we think that can change.”

 

The Broadcaster

 

The German freeze on broadcasting professional cycling is beginning to thaw. In 2016, after nearly a decade, public broadcaster ARD tentatively began showing the Tour de France again. It wasn’t a decision the network reached lightly. The pivotal moment, Axel Balkausky says, was when German sports journalist Hajo Seppelt told ARD executives like himself that cycling’s powers-that-be – from the ASO and UCI to team directors – had instituted what he considered to be the most stringent doping controls in sport.

 

Seppelt should know, having reported on doping for nearly 20 years. It was, in part, his work in 2006 that broke open the Fuentes Affair and tore the mask off Team Telekom’s systematic use of performance enhancing drugs once and for all.

 

Read: Jan Ullrich – back on the bike

 

In the years since, he’s gone on to investigate state-sponsored doping programmes in China and Russia. Seppelt couldn’t guarantee the network there would be no scandals, of course. But, Balkausky says, he did give them the confidence to take a chance on the Tour. “Seppelt did an independent investigation for us, to tell us how far along cycling was in terms of anti-doping measures. He told us the measures ASO is taking are further along than any other sport,” Balkausky says. “More, we can’t ask.”

 

Still, coaches and team managers don’t think their coverage is currently extensive enough to build a nation of cycling fans. Will German viewers one day be able to watch one-day Classics – ironically, the part of the sport where German riders like John Degenkolb have been particularly successful – without a cable subscription? Balkausky is noncommittal. “First we want to see if the biggest event on the calendar works and gets decent ratings,” he says. “If the Tour of Germany happens, we’re open to broadcasting that too.” ARD will indeed be covering its 2018 return.

22nd August 2014 - Tour du Limousin 2014 - STage 4 (MEUZAC to LIMOGES) - Mauro Finetto is interviewed by the TV follwing his race victory - Photo: Offside / L'Equipe.

It’s hard to overstate Jan Ullrich’s popularity at the peak of Team Telekom’s dominance. After his Tour win, he was singlehandedly responsible for a nationwide bike boom. The same year, he was named Germany’s Sportsperson of the Year. “Jan Ullrich was one of the most successful German stars, not just in cycling but in everything,” says Balkausky.

 

Read: A country for old men – John Degenkolb on Paris-Roubaix

 

Unlike France, Belgium or Italy, with long and storied cycling traditions, Germany’s interest in the sport was tenuous – and largely tied to the one and only German to win the Tour. It’s a familiar story to anyone familiar with the football-crazed Germans. When a German emerges who can dominate an unfamiliar sport – think Boris Becker and Steffi Graf on the tennis court – ratings soar.

 

Consequently, Balkausky is convinced of one thing: if German cycling is to boom again, it desperately needs a new star. “I don’t think fans are interested in teams,” Balkausky says. “They’re interested in individual athletes.”

 

The full version of this article, titled Hearts and Minds, was first published in Rouleur 17.3