United Arab Emirates, Israel, Kazakhstan… What are these “sponsor states” doing on the Grande Boucle?

Tip for back home: The World Cycling Championships are usually held in October, on a circuit course and under low and gray skies. If you see a lot of national team jerseys at the Tour de France in the middle of summer, don’t panic. We haven’t gone back to the days of Jacques Anquetil or Louison Bobet, when sponsor teams weren’t allowed. It is the states that have decided to invest in cycling and its supreme discipline, the Grande Boucle.

A look back at a phenomenon affecting Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and even Kazakhstan this year. Four ‘Sponsor States’, like many brands, were attracted by the exceptional exposure that race coverage offersyears 195 countries.

When he first donned the jersey of the Israel Cycling Academy team, the ancestor of the current Israel Start-Up Nation, Clément Carisey couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing there. “The Israeli side of the team was not obvious. We spoke English, the sport structure was based in Spain… But the team management then organized a course for foreign riders who had never come to Israel.” The program includes visits to kibbutz, these famous collectivist villages, a tour of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. All of this is punctuated by a briefing from the big boss, billionaire Sylvan Adams, who insists on the role of ambassador of peace for all riders wearing the blue and white jersey.

“He didn’t have to tell the Israeli runners, they were already equipped with a mission.” The stay ends in the grand chef’s maisonette, at the top of a building located on one of the capital’s trendy thoroughfares. “The curtains were drawn, I don’t remember the view well, but what a high ceiling!”laughs Clément Carisey, now signed to the French team Delko.

Israel Start-Up Nation is the new generation of national cycling teams. Not the direct emanation of the state, but the will of a businessman anxious to return to his country part of what it owes it. “Sylvan Adams is not doing this to make a dime, he is writing his legend for future generations”, is swarming with Asaf Ackerman, who commentated on the tour for TV channel Sport5il for eight years. Hence the choice of the name, which takes up the title of the book by two economists, Dan Senor and Saul Singer on the “Israeli economic miracle”.

“It’s a universal message that Israelis, from the government to the man on the street, want to put forward to push the still-divisive Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the background.”, notes Yoav Dubinsky, a professor at Lundquist College of Business in Oregon and a specialist on the question. Which adds: “It’s due Nation branding? yes and so? What do you think France is doing by broadcasting helicopter views of its landscapes on Mondovision, forcing commentators around the world to speak out?

In a few years the message got through. “Of course, when we got to the races in the peloton, the riders from other teams asked us questions. The respect gradually came with the results. Then nobody asked us what we were doing there, the geopolitical dancer of a billionaire.”describes Israeli Aviv Yechezkel, who wore his shorts for the team between 2016 and 2018. “I won’t tell you I haven’t seen a Palestinian flag or two on the side of the road, but those are the only incidents that come to mind.”

The cycling connoisseur might even think it’s the team’s headliner Chris Froome, who was poached from Ineos during the off-season and risks attracting public hostility given his liabilities with viewers of the Grande Boucle since his reign on Sky -Team. The British runner represents Phase 2 of the program: “With Froome, Greipel, the young Israeli runners will gain a concentrated experience in a few months”, enthuses our veteran. Because it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Tour de France or a second-class race in Azerbaijan, there is always at least one Israeli driver in the team. We’re not yet at the level of British Cycling that brought the Sky team into the baptismal font in 2009 with a view to a London Olympics heist three years later, but we’re getting there.

Christopher Froome in the colors of Team Israel Start-Up Nation during the first stage of the Tour de France between Brest and Landerneau (Finistère), June 26, 2021. (CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON / POOL)

The reference in the field remains the Kazakh formation Astana, which until recently was borne by former champion Alexandre Vinokourov, who has just been released from the team. It all started in 2000 when he set the Tour de France on fire with Jan Ullrich’s Telekom team. Unless it was 2005 when the movie came out borate brings with it the planetary humiliation of this unknown land. Be that as it may, the Astana team was formed the following year, with Vinokourov at the helm of the gondola and President Nazarbayev’s well-stocked wallet. “Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia and it was always about showing that the countries in ‘-stan’ are not just havens for terrorists.”summarizes Michaël Levystone, researcher atFrench Institute of International Relations (Ifri) passed the French embassy in Astana a few years ago.

The team jersey shows the national flag with eagle and sun, the team’s name that of the capital (“Astana” means “capital” in Kazakh, things are simple in this country). The budget is substantial, national prestige is at stake: “The funds were higher than the French teams, describes Julien Mazet, who was under contract with the team in 2007 and 2008. This was reflected, for example, in travel: a French team will look at the cheapest flights, while Astana was the most convenient for us. We had quality mobile homes. There was a desire to put a lot of resources into the teame.

Want to attract tourists from there? “I lived in Astana for years, imagine the architecture of La Défense with the climate of the ice planet Hoth War of stars, It’s complicated to make the masses dream”, laughs Michaël Levystone. The diplomatic ulterior motives are very present for a country that dreams of making it onto the international stage: “Do you remember the admittedly somewhat ridiculous photo of François Hollande with a chapka? He visited Kazakhstan, and the President granted him an interview with Vladimir Poutine. Two months later a peace agreement over the conflict in Crimea was signed.” Since then, the country has even included Borat’s famous “very nice” in its international communications. Fifteen years later, the affront has been digested.

A relaxed approach to nation branding (a country’s brand image) that we didn’t find in the Russian team Katusha, which recently disappeared from the peloton. Sponsored by Gazprom (the Russian gas giant) and a variety of energy companies, the team defined itself as “the global project of Russian cycling”. “It’s not an economic project, it’s a political project”stated the team’s sporting director when Katusha was founded in 2009.

That leaves UAE-Team Emirates and Bahrain Victorious as some of the best budgets on set. But a drop of water at €20m for the former if we compare to the abyss Financier represented by the Manchester City football team (€1.7 billion in transfers alone, since 2010). With such means, the results did not drag on, as at the 2020 Tour with the surprise victory of young Tadej Pogacar, leader of the Emirates team. The notoriety gained thanks to him on the asphalt has been used for purposes far removed from cycling, like last January when the team presented itself under the colors of the Chinese vaccine developed by Sinopharm, the Chinese pharmaceutical group, national supplier. Tadej Pogacar even had his sleeve rolled up during a Mondovision stitch. Did you say “viral marketing”?

Unlike other state-sponsored teams, these latter two teams have struggled to launch young local riders (with rare exceptions) or get locals interested in the little queen, Eric Boyer, ex-Cofidis team manager, laments: “No one is fooled. We all understood that there is a political-economic-diplomatic-tourist interest. They have great resources, they want to win. Sorry, but they don’t do this for the beauty of the sport, they do it. ” to know and recognize this.”

With the risk that the interest of these newcomers to perform in the peloton, is only transient, asserts the former fifth place in the 1988 Tour de France. “Of course, if all French teams had 7 or 8 million euros more, we could compete. But there… The risk is that it won’t last. When they’re done with the bike tour, they’ll look elsewhere Qatar: They’ve created their national tour [en 2002]it lasted a few years and it was over [en 2016]. There the country puts the package on football and the World Cup next year. Then it will definitely be something else afterwards.” How do you say “the wheel turns” in Qatar?

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