Just when you thought that cycling’s stakeholders may have finally learned their lesson when it comes to cryptocurrency, blockchains, and NFTs (non-fungible tokens), another “game-changing” online platform arrives – this time courtesy of Velon, the joint venture that represents ten of the sport’s biggest men’s teams.
An angry online response now appears almost inevitable anytime cycling and crypto are mentioned in the same sentence, whether by race organisers (such as the Giro d’Italia), bike manufacturers (Colnago and its £7,000 digital bike), pro cyclists themselves (with Wout van Aert and Geraint Thomas among those to dip their toes in the murky waters of NFTs), and even decentralised online cycling clubs (remember Bike Club NFT?).
So, it should be no surprise that the cycling world’s latest foray into the world of blockchains and cryptocurrency hasn’t gone down too well.
Yesterday, Velon – the company responsible for the on-bike footage and live data that dominates your social media feed during big races, along with the seemingly now-defunct Hammer Series – announced that it was launching Road Code, an online platform described as “cycling’s first fan universe”.
Developed in partnership with the ten Velon teams, which include the Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma, Soudal-Quick Step, and UAE-Team Emirates, Road Code – in a similar fashion to the much-maligned Bike Club NFT project – aims to provide an alternative for cycling fans to today’s mainstream, centralised social media channels.
While in a world of Elon Musks that may sound all well and good, Road Code’s “next generation of platform” will be built using “Web3 technology” on the Hedera network, a cryptocurrency, blockchain-like venture apparently dedicated to “having a limited carbon footprint” (a ready-made response, it seems, to the environmental concerns often raised by cycling fans whenever a crypto-related projected is mooted, due to the huge carbon emissions associated with the computer power needed to make blockchain technology work).
Indeed, Road Code, along with providing a “single community” for fans, teams, and riders, will also offer its users “ownership via the representation of in-game assets, digital collectibles and team access tokens, all stored securely in a personal digital vault”.
It’s beginning to sound a lot like crypto…
“All access content”
Also on the menu will be “all access content”, with Velon’s familiar on-bike footage and live data set to be integrated into Road Code.
A new rider ranking system will be launched as an alternative to the UCI’s scores on the doors, and will be based on head-to-head results which will prioritise “who you beat” rather than the “race you win”. According to Velon, “this approach recognises the strength of your opponents, rather than just the outcome of the event”.
Velon claims that a new Strava-like system will eventually emerge which will detail team and rider rankings in the classics and grand tours, as well as on specific climbs and sprints, which the company says will “in time” allow amateurs to “make direct comparisons between their performances and the elite”. The new ranking system will also provide the basis for a free-to-play fantasy cycling game, which includes “premium features like team customisation and digital collectibles”.
“Road Code will bring cycling fans closer to the teams, the riders and the action than ever before,” a statement attributed to Ineos deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth reads. “By centralising the teams’ content on Road Code and building an engaging and interactive user experience, we’ll be better able to tell our stories to new fans as well – and really bring to life all the drama and excitement of our fantastic sport.”
Bora-Hansgrohe’s Irish sprinter and Tour de France green jersey winner Sam Bennett added: “The community of road cycling fans is a great one and I hope that they’ll be very happy with Road Code giving them a new place to enjoy the racing. I’m looking forward to seeing the fans brought closer to the action and the teams on this unique platform.”
Despite the optimistic outlook of Sam and Rod, Road Code – and, in particular, its promise of “digital collectibles” and the conspicuous appearance of crypto in the project’s promotional photos – has been met with more than a touch of cynicism by the online cycling community:
Set to launch in time for the start of the 2023 road season, Velon’s crypto-based offering marks the latest in a long line of schemes and projects designed to disrupt cycling’s traditional business model and wrest control of the sport – and its income – away from the UCI, and a handful of powerful race organisers.
In 2019 the team-owned company, which also represents EF Education-EasyPost, Team DSM, Trek-Segafredo, Lotto-Dstny, and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux, lodged a complaint with the European Commission accusing the UCI of anti-competitive practices and alleging that the governing body had sought to prevent it from developing its business, in regard to both the Hammer Series and in using technology such as on-board camera footage and rider data to enhance TV coverage.
> Velon files EU complaint against UCI alleging anti-competitive practices
A year later, Velon blamed the UCI again for the suspension of its flagship Hammer Series, a team-based format launched in 2017 that saw riders compete in Climb, Sprint, and Chase races. According to Velon, the UCI’s ruling that the races could not be referred to as a ‘series’ merely sought to give the governing body and race organisers “ownership and control over the teams’ business on live race data”.
Velon also claimed that the UCI had discriminated against women’s cycling by rejecting the Hammer Stavanger women’s event.
> Is there really still an appetite for NFTs in cycling?
Of course, as noted above, Velon’s Road Code isn’t the first cycling-related foray into the world of cryptocurrency.
In May 2021, Colnago sold its C64 road bike as an NFT – essentially a digital picture of the bike – for almost $8,600 at auction, and later that year Wout van Aert decided to sell three of his biggest wins in blockchain form.
Despite the relative collapse of the NFT market in 2022 after a 21,000 percent boom the year before, Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas, and Peter Sagan chose to follow Van Aert’s lead in July with their Project Fuerza, while the 2023 Giro d’Italia’s maglia rosa is being auctioned this month, with the highest bid currently standing at $600.
> The angry backlash against NFTs in cycling, and how Bike Club NFT is trying to turn the tide
However, it was the launch of the Bike Club NFT, an initiative claiming to be ‘the world’s first blockchain-based cycling club’, that prompted arguably the most scathing reaction from certain corners of the cycling community, with some commentators describing it as a scam and a ‘Ponzi scheme’, as well as criticising its negative impact on the environment.
In an interview with the road.cc podcast in February, two of the project’s creators, Bike Rumour founder Tyler Benedict and Richard Mitchelson, the popular cycling artist also known as Rich Mitch, defended the project, which would see members purchase NFTs to gain access to a variety of perks, as legitimate, while also asserting that Bike Club “stands on its own without the NFTs”.
While the digital tokens remain a key feature of the club, later that spring ‘NFT’ was silently scrubbed from the project’s name and social media profiles as part of an attempt to prevent the controversial technology from detracting from the scheme’s other, more community-focused elements.
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