Cycling big wheel Doug Ryder hopeful as Tour de France postponed

A pack of cyclists race in the Alps during the Tour de France. (Photo: EPA / Nicolas Bouvy)
By Craig Ray
15 Apr 2020 0

The Tour de France has been postponed by two months, organisers confirmed on Wednesday, which is a relief for teams that depend on the exposure the most-watched sporting event in the world brings to cycling.

Doug Ryder is exhausted. He, like all South Africans, has been in lockdown for three weeks and in that time he has only had a handful of meals with his family. 

The team principal of NTT Pro Cycling, South Africa’s elite World Tour team, spends his days on virtual conference calls. From 6am to 8pm he is in meetings, making calls, or sending emails to reassure staff about the road ahead, motivating riders and placating sponsors. 

Doug Ryder (Photo: supplied)

With the entire European spring and summer seasons wiped out because of the coronavirus pandemic, being in charge of a R450-million-a-year organisation with nearly 100 staff is taking its toll on the man at the top. 

Cycle racing teams need to race. That is what they’re formed to do. The anxiety of the unknown eats away at confidence and motivation, and it’s up to Ryder to lead from the front. 

Everything at this level is geared towards racing, and every aspect of a top team is focused on one race in particular – the Tour de France. 

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) on Wednesday 15 April announced that it had postponed the Tour de France. It will start on Saturday 29 August and run to Sunday 20 September. The decision was forced after French President Emmanuel Macron banned gatherings until mid-July. The race was initially scheduled to take place from 27 June to 19 July. 

There was relief that the iconic race hadn’t been cancelled because it’s the one event every sponsor craves for its marketing and public relations material. But no one can relax yet despite a two-month postponement. In the age of coronavirus, nothing is guaranteed. 

The sport’s other two Grand Tours – Giro d’Italia and Vuelta Espana will occupy October and November as it stands. The sport’s “Monument” races, those that fall just under the Grand Tour category, are also set to be held later in the year. The World Championships will take place on the same day the rescheduled Tour de France ends (20 September). 

With the Tour de France now slotted in before the other two Grand Tours, cycling is set for a sensational last quarter of 2020 assuming the coronavirus pandemic is under control by then. 

“I would like to pay tribute to the representatives of the organisers, teams and riders for their collaboration and their commitment in these difficult times. We still have work to do to finalise the establishment of an entirely revised 2020 UCI international calendar given the coronavirus pandemic that has shaken the world, but a first very important step has been taken today,” UCI president David Lapparitent said. 

“Likewise, we have established a framework that will allow the fundamental rights of teams’ riders and staff to be preserved, while enabling the measures necessary for the survival of these teams to be taken. Together, we will manage to get through this crisis and rebuild cycling post-Covid-19.” 

Africa’s team equipped for the battle 

Ryder, who built “Africa’s team” from nothing into one of cycling’s heavyweights is probably the best-equipped man in the business to deal with the coronavirus crisis. His team has always been in a semi-state of crisis as he learned the nuances of the European cycling system through trial and error as he explained on the Maverick Sports Podcast last month. 

“Every day feels like a week,” Ryder told Daily Maverick from lockdown in his Johannesburg home on Wednesday. 

“The staging of the Tour de France is critical for every team’s success in terms of getting exposure. 

“It was good news that the Tour will go ahead. It’s vital for our sponsors and is massive for the riders’ motivation. We have 29 riders scattered across 15 different countries at different levels of lockdown with differing access and opportunity to go out and train. 

“I’ve never been so busy in my life. People think I’m sitting on my jack, but I spend all day talking to people, to keep things afloat. I have over 90 people to keep motivated and inspired. 

“A late August start date for the Tour de France is a pretty good outcome. It means we will have three Grand Tours in three months, which is crazy, but it will be amazing for cycling fans and viewers globally. 

“Obviously, nothing is guaranteed but we hope the Tour de France can happen – we need it to happen. I think it’s realistic with the European summer approaching. A lot will depend on cross-border travel. How many airports and flights will be open? That’s a key question.” 

The news that the Tour de France will take place was a relief for riders too. The route, which unusually takes the peloton into the Alps on stage two, will remain the same, unlike the Giro, which has cancelled its start in Hungary and might still host more stages in the south of Italy. 

Louis Meintjes. (Photo supplied)

“It’s great the Tour is going ahead and I hope the date remains concrete and it isn’t cancelled at a later stage,” leading NTT rider Louis Meintjes, who is locked down in Andorra in the Pyrenees, said. 

“It gives us a goal to work towards because there is a lot of time to prepare. It’s important for the entire cycling model that the Tour goes ahead.” 

South Africa’s Daryl Impey, who rides for Australian team Michelton-Scott, was also relieved at the news: 

“It’s great news for the sport. A lot of us were worried if the Tour didn’t happen, but it seems like the organisers have come to some sort of agreement. 

“It also gives us enough time to prepare and if there were racing before that, it would be superb. In some ways this will save pro cycling because if we lose the Tour de France, it will impact the sport in a negative way.” 

Cost-cutting to sustain the team 

Ryder is well aware of the commercial perils of the Tour not going ahead. It’s the thing that keeps him awake at night. 

NTT are in the final year of a four year deal they took on from Dimension Data and have so far given no indication that they will back out. But the longer the pandemic forces suspensions of races, the greater the likelihood that sponsors will become impatient. 

Ryder also revealed that the team has been workshopping some cost-cutting measures in an effort to save all jobs because sources of revenue, such as prize money and start fees for racing, have dried up. 

“It’s tough to manage a team like this through an unprecedented crisis, but we will get through it,” Ryder told Daily Maverick

“We have always had to be diverse in the way we think and the way we deal with things because we have had so many hardships. 

“This is just another one. Metaphorically speaking, it would be nice to not feel like we are climbing mountains all the time. Some nice, flat road for a change would be great. It’s another test that we have to survive, and we will. 

“At this point NTT in particular, but Alcatel-Lucent, BMC and others are sticking with us. They have been understanding, but some of our sponsors are in retail and others are in business-to-business sectors and they are also under pressure because of the pandemic. 

“They have to make sure that they sustain their businesses and staff. That’s where we are as a team as well and fortunately there is a mutual understanding with our sponsors that we are all trying to do the right thing by saving jobs. 

“We are looking at some cost-cutting plans that will come into effect this month. Because we aren’t racing there is no prize and start money coming in, which is more than our logistical costs of attending races (NTT books 900 flights a year and thousands of nights of hotel accommodation). Not racing is costing us more than racing. 

“Of course, we have lots of fixed costs, which remain. Our riders have come forward with a proposal, which is pretty good of them, to try and sustain us through this period. We won’t cut as drastically as some teams might, but we will need to make significant cuts in some areas and senior management will go into salary sacrifices over the next few months.” DM