"THE RACE IMPLODES - A CASE STUDY" - Ned Boulting
On Monday I was supposed to be flying to Zagreb, to begin commentating on the Tour of Croatia. Though the work was going to be a little bit rough and ready (I had been told that my commentary “booth” would be the back of a van, with a monitor balanced on a seat next to me), I was looking forward to continuing my Cycling Commentator’s Gap Year and exploring a country I had barely ever visited.
Yesterday, on Thursday, just as I was about to start my commentary on the Tour of Turkey, an email landed. It was from a TV producer, based in Slovenia, with whom I would be working. The Tour of Croatia, it seemed, with a whopping five day’s notice, had been cancelled.
Now, I tell this tale not because I am cross. I’m not. The life of a freelancer, whether you’re a plumber, a musician, a builder or a cycling commentator is full of ups and downs, and often involves last minute cancellations. Sure, I would have enjoyed a journey around Croatia, getting to know some of the many young riders who were scheduled to take to the start line. But, equally, it’ll be nice to be at home, in the garden, next week.
Instead this blog is simply by way of shedding a little light on the wildly unstable world of race organisation, and cycling in general. Putting on a bike race, as anyone with experience of such things will tell you, is a precarious balancing act, in which everyone has to jump together; teams, sponsors, local authorities, police and television executives. Sometimes I wonder how they happen at all. But in order for everyone to jump, there has to be trust. And a safety net would be nice.
This is the background. For some time, I had been in contact with the organiser of the Tour of Croatia, a man called Ivan Črnjarić. I have never met Ivan, and I doubt now that I will. He sounds dead nice on the phone, and probably is. We had agreed terms for my week-long employment, and though no contract had been signed, I had no real reason to doubt the credibility of his venture. After all, the race was listed on the UCI website (and continued to be so right up until its sudden cancellation), and his name appeared as the race organiser. Besides, he’d sent me a very professional looking PDF with all the details of the race contained within. And everyone loves a PDF, right?.
I was, however, dimly aware after stumbling across an article in the online edition of Total Croatia News, of some, shall we say “beef” between Črnjarić and the people with whom he’d worked on previous editions of the Tour of Croatia. According to these reports, he’d apparently gone his own way, and taken with him the legal ownership of the name “Tour of Croatia”. So far, so unclear. But I was impressed that he was working with, or at least claimed to be working with, the very recently retired Croatian racer Robert Kišerlovski, whose reputation would surely carry some considerable heft in his home country.
I didn’t hear much from the race after that, and was a little perplexed that no travel arrangements were being made on my behalf, which is normally the case. Instead, the Belgian production company for whom I am currently working in Turkey bought a flight to Zagreb for me, straight from Istanbul. Ivan seemed pleased. Then, on the sixth of April, the previous administrators of the Tour of Croatia published their intentions to hold the race in October, under the name “CRO Race”, for reasons they outlined in a very strongly worded accusation.
I completely failed to pick up on this, because I am bit daft. Instead I continued focusing on the upcoming race I thought I’d be covering. But, once I had been made aware by a friend and colleague who works in the UK media (all right, Dan Lloyd) that there was a change of date, I did email the man in question, to express my concern at the confusion between the two races. He replied rather swiftly, on this occasion.
With hindsight, perhaps the capital letters should have served as a warning. Nonetheless, the Tour of Croatia was about to announce its line up of participating teams. One of them would be the Israel Cycling Academy, whose Kiwi rider Hamish Schreuers I’d had breakfast with in Catania at the end of the Giro di Sicilia. We’d gone our separate ways, telling each other, ‘See you in Croatia!’.
In the meantime, I was trying to figure my travel arrangements back from the race, only to discover that the final stage (a planned time trial in Dubrovnik) had been cancelled due to a lack of cooperation from the city, it seemed. That was then to be replaced with a short stage up the coast in Bikovo. Then stage 6 was cancelled altogether. But still the TV producers were informing their clients (including Eurosport) of their changed schedule, as if the race was going ahead. I was copied into some of the discussions about liaising with the broadcasters.
On April 14th, a week before the race start, the official Twitter feed of the Tour of Croatia announced the participation of 20 teams, including the World Tour team Trek Segafredo. Team Novo Nordisk greeted this confirmation with their own public reply, looking forward to taking to the start line.
That evening, I received a call late in the evening from the TV producer, whose name I will withhold, since I suspect he is a blameless pawn in this game, and might well have incurred substantial costs that he will never be able to recoup. We talked about the rearranged final stage for a while, and then I asked him bluntly if he still actually thought the race was going to happen. This was a week before it was due to start.
‘What a strange question,’ he replied. ‘I have two helicopters booked, an SNG (satellite truck) en route from Portugal and all the crew standing by. So, yes, it will happen.’ Now, this I took to be reassuring. TV equipment is often the greatest single expense. This would have been a substantial, six figure investment.
‘Well, if you’re sure.’
‘Then I’ll see you in Zagreb.’ But still I had my doubts. On April 17th, the day before they announced the cancellation, my travel was still unresolved and I asked Ivan Črnjarić if his organization could please book me on an Easyjet flight from Split to London after the race. It was a €100 flight. I got a rather puzzling reply.
That was the moment, about two weeks too late when I realised that, let’s face it, the race wasn’t going to happen. And the next day, it all collapsed. Riders were already gearing up for the race. Guys like Hamish Schreuers, for instance…
Črnjarić’s organisation has since issued a statement in which it blames the last minute collapse on the lack of sponsor’s funds materialising, thanks those stakeholders (I guess he means people like me, and many, many more who must have invested considerably into the project) for their faith and support. Ah well.
I have no real view on Črnjarić, never having met him. I certainly have no idea what lies behind his dispute with the organisers of the CRO Race. But, on the other hand, I do feel like I know him a bit. Cycling seems to attract people who over-reach, over-estimate their potential, and then fail to deliver. The UK domestic scene is littered with the carcasses of such grand designs. I don’t mind people who try, as it happens. But I prefer people who try, and succeed, and are transparent in the process.
So there we have it. The CRO Race might never get its more straightforward name back. But it’s in October, if you’re interested.
You’ll find me in the garden. In Lewisham.