Lost in Translation

Word was said to be leaking out of Italy over the past several days that Washington, DC, had indeed landed its longshot bid to host the start of the 2012 Giro d’ Italia. Big cycling media reports, subsequently parroted and embellished in any number of places, said that organizer RCS had made statements to the Italian press indicating it was a done deal, with the announcement to be made this morning at the Italian Embassy in DC.

Now, in the fading light of Thursday afternoon, those reports appear to be not quite so accurate, and I’m not talking about the fact that the event is going to be this evening rather than this morning. An event there will be, it seems, but rather than a triumphant victory announcement, it will be a rah-rah session held by the Italians and the Mayor in an effort to convince area businesses (and likely the rest of the DC government) that a wildly misplaced Italian bicycle race will be a financial benefit to the city. In other words, get them to cough up some dough.

That's a substantially different story from those running yesterday, though most of those stories have now been "updated", or "corrected," or "retracted," depending on how you look at it.

I have to admit, when the idea of DC hosting the Giro initially floated out, I approached it with a feeling of acute skepticism, bordering on pessimism. And frankly, even though DC’s proverbial hat seems to still be in the ring, I’m still finding it hard to shake those feelings. I support the effort – this would, after all, bring the Giro d'Italia to my backyard, or five miles from it, anyway. And it's bold, risky, and a little bit ill-advised, and I like that. But hauling a grand tour across the Atlantic is a gargantuan undertaking, fraught with a number of logistical challenges that can’t be overcome with mere enthusiasm. Some can't even be overcome with money, and that's saying something. Among the challenges, monetary and otherwise, that will have to be faced down:

  • For the past several years, the Giro has faced substantial criticism from riders about the length of the transfers between stages – and that’s when we were talking about a three-hour bus ride. Imagine the reactions to 14 hours in the air. I expect the riders’ association to weigh in.

  • Beyond the travel time, riders will be fairly resistant to sitting in a flying, germ-recirculating aluminum tube just as they're hitting some of their lowest body fat levels of the year. Twice.

  • Jetlag. Going east is worse, so expect a less-than-enthusiastic Stage 2 back in Italia.

  • During the U.S. phase of the race, there would be a six-hour time difference between the Giro's primary viewing audience in Europe and the bike race itself. Organizers would likely mitigate that problem with early starts in local time, which in turn will piss off riders, soigneurs, and mechanics.

  • Since DC would host at least a prologue and likely at least one additional stage, the cost and hassle of having to ship both a time trial bike (prologue) and a road bike (stage 1) and related equipment for each rider will have to be considered. Bike sponsors will not want to lose the time trial bike exposure of a grand tour prologue to the quaint "Eddy Merckx style" prologue rules often used for races in exotic (read: non-European) locations. This isn’t the Herald Sun Tour or Qatar. It’s the Giro.

  • The price for a second set of infrastructure required will be substantial on its own. Things like a complete set of rental cars for teams, organizers, officials, etc. And box trucks. And vans. And campers. And motorcycles. (Plus insurance.) And banners. And barriers. And radios. And 42 sets of roof racks.

  • By going transatlantic, the race would substantially increase the cost and hassle for the media and other assorted camp followers. If these outlets are forced to cut costs, coverage (and associated sponsor exposure) could suffer.

  • By exiting the bounds of the European Union, race organization and teams may spend more time than they'd like dealing with visa issues.

  • I would expect that RCS will likely incur some financial loss from the reduced value of a Giro sponsorship to Italian/European sponsors, who would receive lower exposure in their key markets for two or more days of the race, including the presentation and grand depart. Organizers would need to be able to make that up with cash from this side of the ocean, which is hard to come by these days.

  • RCS would also likely experience sponsorship value loss (and subsequent income loss) from European sponsors paying to drive a giant, rotating fiberglass sausage or something in the publicity caravan. Assuming nobody intends to fly that circus here and back, those sponsors would see about 1/10 of their days on the road eliminated. Granted, this could theoretically be mitigated by creating a second, U.S. caravan, though the concept is a little more alien here, and that could present sponsors with a pretty hefty sunk cost for 2 or 3 days of use.

  • I haven’t been able to confirm, but there were apparently issues with the National ParkService prohibition on advertising when the Tour du Pont went through Rock Creek Park awhile back, which could mean either not using the most obvious road in the city to use, or taking another hit to sponsor value by driving unlabeled vehicles on un-bannered roads, etc., for one of two days here. Again, unconfirmed, and I don't remember.

  • In trying to compensate for lost sponsor money on the Italian side with funds from U.S. backers, organizers may face potential sponsorship competition with the re-scheduled Tour of California, if it's still around in 2012. That is, potential U.S. non-endemic sponsors big enough to cut the big checks for cycling will likely have to decide whether to support the "U.S. race" or the "Italian race", both of which would be in the United States at the same time. If those potential sponsors are after warm feelings in the United States via cycling sponsorship, ToC is probably a better choice. If they're after warm feelings in Italy/Europe via cycling sponsorship, they're probably better off supporting an Italian/European race that's actually in Italy/Europe.

  • Outside of the race organizational aspects, I also suspect there will be quite a local outcry if the Mayor and City Council pony up any city money (such as police costs or road surface improvement) for some Italian bicycle race instead of paying school teachers, increasing police on the streets, feeding the poor, or addressing any of DC’s other myriad issues. And DC's usual sugardaddy, the Fed, is getting pretty strapped these days. Yes, most if not all of those costs could be recouped via economic benefit to the city as a result of the race, but few outraged citizens will get that far in their analysis once the shouting starts. Look at what happened to the San Francisco Grand Prix.

So yes, I’m skeptical. But I’m also hopeful. The people working on the bid are experienced, smart people, and they know cycling and event planning. I’m sure I haven’t listed anything above that they haven’t thought of themselves. And if they needed help, I’d sign up in an instant. Hopefully, tonight’s session at the Embassy will be another step on the road to success, even if it’s not quite the finish line people were expecting yesterday.