In His Own Words: DS Martin Barras on Withdrawing from Toscana

Sun 15 Sep 2013

Sport Director Martin Barras has prepared this statement regarding the non-start by ORICA-AIS alongside 12 other teams on the final stage of the Giro della Toscana. In his own words, Barras explains how and why the decision was reached.

Yesterday, I was made aware that some of our readers were questioning why wasn’t anything done about the road safety issues I have highlighted in my previous reports on the Giro della Toscana. My report today might address these questions as I have nothing to say about the racing : ORICA-AIS, along with 12 other teams, decided today to retire from the race before the start of the final stage.

Bear with me please.

Last night I was made aware that many riders in the race had been contacting one another about what to do with the final stage of the race. The concern was the same as since the beginning of the Tour: the poor racing safety offered to the peloton, particularly if the bunch was to break up in smaller groups. Many solutions were discussed, ranging from a neutral race to sending a rider from every team in a set up break. No conclusion was reached, other than the riders would try to meet briefly before the race.

As we arrived at the start location, I immediately sought out some of my colleagues (other sport directors) to see what they had heard and understood. We discussed the problem and possible solutions, talked to the riders, and elected to meet with the race officials and directors about our issue and possible solutions. Forgive me for being vague on the details, as I believe they are not nearly as relevant as what the ensuing discussion really says about the state of cycling at large and women’s cycling in particular.

We all gathered in a large meeting room. Directors and riders standing on one side, officials, organisers and the police seated at the table on the other. Then the president of the organising committee asked Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle Honda), Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec Products UCK) and Noemi Cantele (BePink) to stand in the middle of the room and explain themselves.

I have never seen one but that did look like a kangaroo court to me. More importantly, the organisers knew what they were doing: isolate and divide the leaders and we will soon find the group will is not as strong and coherent as one thinks. And it isn’t.

Compared with other professional sport, road cycling has a peculiar structure. Using for example the National Football League in the USA, you have one ruling body that owns the rights, licensing and general revenues of the game and controls the teams. Everyone knows who is in the league. Everyone shares the revenues. Everyone has a vested interest in keeping the teams in the game. Players are looked after by their teams with insurance, health and retirement benefits, etc. It’s a good business where everyone finds their keep.

Cycling is a dog eat dog business where race organisers compete with one another and teams for sponsors. Television rights are scattered amongst races, teams folds continuously only to have their remains pillaged by other teams and when you arrive at women’s racing, it receives no real media coverage and is governed “in absentia”. The men’s peloton, although they have their problems, too, has a few organisations attempting to look after teams and riders. The women have none of this.

It became apparent that what had started as a discussion between all concerned was coming rapidly to a standoff, and we (the teams) had better get a common position quick. The general consensus was either we race or we don’t. There should be no middle ground. It was also clear that no amount of reassurances by the organisers or the police was going to re-establish the confidence lost during the previous days (and years, as far as this particular race is concerned). That made my position clear (we don’t race) and it was now a matter of seeing how many teams thought likewise and how consistent we would be.

Sensing the mood in the room, organiser Brunello Fanini did his block, told us all to “go home” and walked dramatically out of the room, only to re-enter within a few seconds. The officials met in private, then asked for Longo Borghini to present herself to them as a rider representative. Thankfully her director saw fit to accompany her into this meeting. Following this, we were called back in to the room and told by officials that as far as they were concerned, the race would start and it was our decision to field our teams or not.

I met with my riders, and we all agreed that the only way to get changes happening for the future was for us to withdraw from the race. I met with my fellow directors and we ended up with roughly the following situation: the foreign trade teams (except Team TIBCO) pulled out, the Italian teams raced (with the notable exception of BePink and all but one rider of Faren Kuota).

No one likes missing out on a race, particularly the riders. But our female riders always seem to find themselves in the position that they have to feel thankful for getting substandard conditions. I overheard an official earlier in the week, commenting about the safety: “These are good enough conditions for the women.” One point made in today’s meeting was: “if you don’t race today, there will be no race next year!”

In our sport’s current situation, one could see women’s racing as the new way of cycling. Women’s racing is unencumbered by years of tradition and culture and could easily develop a new structure, embrace technology and media like other major sports. It could be the test bed for cycling’s changing culture and could easily lead the way. All that is required is a bit of vision and a sense of fairness and fair go.

Today was our best attempt to do our part.