As we stretch into cold dark winter the opportunities to get out on a bike decrease as do the opportunities to watch other people on bikes. The Tour de France is a distant memory, a time when you could watch five hours of an Alpine stage and still head out for a quick burst afterwards.
While the road season continues its slow slog to a finish, the cyclo-cross season is starting at a furious pace in the US and on the Continent. The greatest cross rider of them all, Sven Nys, has seen his star fade and a new stream of young riders led by Wout Van Aert and Lars Van Der Haar is coming through.
Yesterday saw one of the classic races on the calendar, the Koppenbergcross, take place in Belgium. You almost certainly didn’t catch it, however, because it wasn’t shown on any British channels, and nor will any of the BPost Bank Trofee races, come to that.
Eurosport might have been the obvious choice, but in the matter of ‘cross, they cannot be faulted. The self-styled ‘Home of Cycling’, will show highlights from every round of the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup, and live coverage of the round in Zolder on Boxing Day. Additionally, they’ll screen daily highlights from World Championships in January.
With such a comprehensive package sewn up, the Koppenbergcross might have offered a golden opportunity for any of Eurosport’s competitors. It is an event of huge significance in the ‘cross world, equivalent to a Monument Classic on the road, and with a recent victory for Helen Wyman, not entirely without British interest (Wyman was sixth on Sunday, behind third placed Nikki Harris).
It’s easy to argue that the British public doesn’t receive live coverage of ‘cross races, and events like the Koppenbergcross, because there’s no appetite for the sport. This is like looking at an emaciated dog and his empty bowl and bemoaning his lack of appetite. The access to ‘cross for British audiences has gone from nothing to something (witness the live attendance last year at Milton Keynes), but there’s still a long way left until the audience is satiated and Eurosport can’t be expected to take up all the slack.
The other advantage ‘cross offers broadcasters is that it fits easily into a schedule and doesn’t require much investment of time from the viewer compared to road cycling. If you only watch the last hour of a road race, you’re unlikely to fully understand the nuances of the racing that has preceded it, and if you watch three or four hours you’re saying goodbye to a large chunk of the day. Cyclo-cross isn’t like that. A race can be previewed, raced and summed up in 90 minutes and with the variety of challenging terrain offered by almost any circuit, you’re likely to keep a captive audience for that time.
It could also be argued that ‘cross isn’t a big draw because the riders are not big enough names to grab an audience. It’s true that most people wouldn't know their Wout Van Aert from their Sven Nys but this has also been the case in road racing. Every September the Tour of Britain rises to “second best race in the world” status by an armchair audience of home nation fans, but in reality the majority of people haven’t heard of the majority of riders. The only way this changes is with more access to the sport.
Why does it matter if more cyclo-cross is picked up by TV? You could argue that people who want to watch cyclo-cross are already watching it due to the UCI’s live streaming of World Cup events on YouTube or the huge number of illegal streaming sites, which I’m led to believe exist. Not every sport needs to be pushed front and centre to encourage an increased fan base.
But in a world where road cycling is broadcast almost constantly throughout the season, and in which a growing number of consumers are adding ‘cross bikes to their collections, it seems illogical that the broadcasters have been so slow to jump on the bandwagon and fill their sparse winter schedules with racing of the highest calibre.
It’s to the benefit of everyone if there’s more 'cross on the television. Cyclo-cross cynics don’t have to watch it, but ‘cross lovers will flock to the coverage and they’re more likely to develop “brand loyalty”, as awful people in front of whiteboards would say, if they’re shown something they crave.
Television suits the races and riders for the increased revenue broadcast coverage attracts. It suits the bike industry as well because it will have a larger pool of people interested in the new products it wants to flog. Let’s hope broadcasters other than Eurosport understand the commercial opportunity and ensure that the 2015 Koppenbergcross is the last that audiences beyond Belgium are forced to watch in hindsight.