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Make the Pie Higher!

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Yesterday was a memorable day in the annals of cycling, one where a supposed big-money powerhouse team melted away after a single year of existence. That event is being dissected elsewhere in great detail, but it's the latest in a series of moves which have changed the face of cycling for 2012 before 2011 is even done. To wit:

  • Leopard-Trek and Radio Shack, currently #s 1 and 8 on the World Tour scoring "system," are now a single, if not fully formed, entity, largely the merger of the former's big-name riders and the latter's sponsors and management.
  • Omega Pharma-Lotto split in half, with Lotto going its own way, and then recoupled itself to Quick Step, turning two medium sized Belgian teams into one rather large one and another small-ish outfit.
  • BMC didn't need another team's help in turning itself from a growing team to a behemoth, signing current world champion Thor Hushovd and his likely successor Philippe Gilbert, adding to their existing collection of guys with rainbow piping somewhere in their kit. Oh, and with their current crop of veterans running short on prime years, they scooped up Tejay Van Garderen to pal with Taylor Phinney in setting themselves up to be America's Team for the next wave.
  • HTC joined Leopard in the dustbin of cycling history, a far sadder event considering that they were the polar opposites: a long history dating back to the Deutchse Telekom franchise, and a long, long list of wins.

What it all adds up to is... to be seen. But while the last season was spent talking of Garmin-Cervelo as a possible classics mega-squad, this year's transfer market seems to signal the beginning of actual mega-squads taking shape. It will be truly fascinating (if we ever get the chance) to see what team budgets look like next year. Because if these mergers are asset mergers too, i.e. most of the 2011 money is still there in 2012, then you have two very powerful combined teams and a strong signal that BMC were already pretty flush with cash. It's tempting to view these three teams as a peek at a future where cycling teams are bigger-budgeted, multi-national entities selling a global product successfully and stabilizing their own brands beyond what the sport is accustomed to.

The problem is, it doesn't seem like the pie is growing so much as being divided less equitably. No knock on the Big Three, it's a competitive world and their job is to take care of themselves. But initially their expansion is at the expense of existing teams who either ceased to exist or took big hits to their rosters. It's cool that Nissan, a global entity of the first order, has come on as a title sponsor, and RNT look like a model for others to emulate... if they can. That's the big IF. The lack of mega-corporate sponsors surely isn't simply because they haven't been asked. Does Nissan's entry force (oh, I dunno) Toyota or Mazda to say, hey, cycling is growing in Japan and the US, we need to sponsor someone too? Does Nissan's entry as a title sponsor send a signal that it's safe for other big companies to jump into the waters of a sport that projects so much health and vitality... when not projecting carnage and dishonesty?

Maybe, or perhaps it's just a one-off, and cycling will limp along through more waves of mergers and splits and patched-together budget cycles like it always has. Maybe we'll have a year of class warfare before things shift back some. I actually think a few teams will benefit from the weakening of the second tier, Pro Conti teams like Europcar or FDJ or Skil could slide back into the World Tour if their budgets allow, or could get an awful lot of invites if there aren't 18 teams who can afford a World Tour license. I doubt we will know much more in less than five years; despite the efforts of some like Jonathan Vaughters who like to talk about how to solidify the top end of the sport and make the pie higher bigger, things happen very slowly and ideas, good or bad, seem to twist in the wind for a long, long time.