From Belgium: on two wheels
maandag 27 februari 2012 09:10

Belgium is cycling country. The new season opened this weekend with the ‘Omloop Het Nieuwsblad’ organized by the popular daily Het Nieuwsblad. The ‘Omloop’ is not categorized as a ‘classic’ but it is a traditional, held since 1945.Football is very popular in this country but mainly among men whereas cycling is followed by young and old, male and female. Tens of thousands of people encourage the racers all along the track and watch the rest of the race on television.

There are different reasons for the appeal of cycling races and its protagonists.

Although it is considered as a team sport it still is the fight of one man against the rest of the pack and the loser of today may be the winner next week. And the racers are approachable. The fans can see and touch their heroes and speak with them and the champions themselves speak the language of the common man. Lance Armstrong was the exception. He was always surrounded by body guards and managers and consequently, was never really popular in this country whereas the Swiss champion Fabian Cancellara has a fan club in Flanders. When he has the time he brings them a visit, drinks a beer and chats with everybody present in the café.

The popularity of the sport can also be measured by the coverage it gets in the media: double pages with full color photos in the quality newspapers before and after the race, a lot more in the popular press and extensive coverage on national radio and TV stations. The national TV stations broadcast the cycling races live during two or three hours and sometimes from start to finish.

Communication opportunities

Cycling teams are financed by their sponsors and it is without doubt the sport that gives the most return in visibility. Football teams are named after their hometown but in cycling, the teams take the name of their main sponsors. It is probably the only sport where the brand names are continuously mentioned by reporters on radio and television and in the print media. Surprisingly, you don’t see the big consumer brands today on the shirts of the racers but they are present in the publicity caravan, car manufacturers provide cars for the staff that follows the race and they organize hospitality events. Ministers and CEO’s gratefully accept invitations to follow the race in the car of the team with an ex-champion in the driver’s seat. Even the French president Nicolas Sarkozy found time to attend one or more stages in the Tour de France last year.

If the PR people of the sponsoring companies do their job properly, it has a positive impact on the team spirit among all collaborators. I used to be in charge of the sponsoring of one of the top Belgian teams and much to my surprise, even my two female secretaries who had never watched a race on television before, became supporters.

The start of the new cycling season announces the end of the winter. We sense the sun in Paris-Nice (4th March) and Tirreno - Adriatico (7th March) and with Milan – San Remo, La Primavera on 17th March, it is definitely springtime.