Riding high: How a rejuvenated RCS Sport is developing the Giro d’Italia

Ahead of the start of this week’s 101st Giro d’Italia, SportsPro's Richard Partridge caught up with Paulo Bellino, managing director at race organiser RCS Sport, to talk about cycling's first Grand Tour of the year, his plans for the future, and the company’s recent UCI Tour races in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Riding high: How a rejuvenated RCS Sport is developing the Giro d’Italia

RCS Sport's recent financial difficulties have been widely publicised but in the last five years the company has used its event management knowhow to re-emerge stronger.

Leveraging its near 30 years of experience in the field, the development and running of a series of successful UCI Tour races in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as a variety of mass participation events, have been key to RCS' return to form. It is, however, the historic Giro d’Italia - the first of three Grand Tours in the cycling calendar - that remains the crown jewel of the RCS business.

The 2018 Giro's "Grand Partenza" opening stages begin in Jerusalem’s Old City at a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East. With Amnesty International among various political groups having claimed the staging of the race is actively aiding the Israeli government by portraying East Jerusalem as part of Israel - something the international community does not accept - the Italian organisers have found themselves at the centre of a broader political debate.

David Lappartient, the new president of the UCI, moved recently to allay fears that the situation could adversely affect the event, stressing that the global governing body for cycling would be “extremely attentive to ensure the race is not used for political means”. Still, the surrounding controversy has put RCS Sport directly in the firing line, even if the company had no intention of stoking divisions in the local region.

"Everything is going very well,” says Paulo Bellino, managing director for RCS Sport, speaking in Abu Dhabi in February. “Everything is on schedule, everything is working well and, to be very honest, I don’t see any difference between the Grand Partenza here and in any other country. Israel is very organised and they know what they are doing.”

The 2018 Giro d'italia is starting in in Jerusalem’s Old City (Pic: RCS/LaPresse)

With the eyes of the cycling world looking on, the start of this year’s race will be a showcase for an Israel whose geographical landscape is somewhat more serene than its political one. There will be 18 different international TV networks broadcasting the event to over 198 countries, a statistic which demonstrates the Giro’s continued global appeal, while a crowd of more than 20,000 is expected in Jerusalem for the opening stage on Friday.

"The race is also a chance for RCS to demonstrate some of its own capabilities, with the company set to use innovative technology and new broadcast techniques to engage a significantly larger global audience. Indeed, new ideas are all part of the RCS ethos, says Bellino. “We are also launching two or three new formats [at the Giro] that could be very interesting to the world of cycling in general,” he says, “one regarding the race itself, and others that relate to the narrative and content.”

This year’s race format will further embrace new technologies by bringing electric bikes into the fold. The new Giro E edition of the race will see five teams of two riders each undertake the 18 Italian stages of the race on Pinarello Nytro e-bikes. The riders will set off ahead of the main peloton, riding the same route until the finish in Rome on 27th May.

It is that kind of innovation that has become the hallmark of RCS’ approach to organising major cycling events, not just the Giro. Having established professional tours in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2014 and 2015 respectively, the company has shown it is not shy of breaking new ground. For Bellino, however, there is a limit to where RCS can take its brand of cycling in future.

“I am not sure we can develop this kind of business model in other countries,” he says. “The reason is more or less related to the fact that, at the moment, the calendar is full. So, I don’t think that there will be additional opportunities to add races in the rest of the world according to the calendar that we have now. 

“At the moment we have 180 days of UCI competition. It’s not easy to deliver an event like Abu Dhabi in many other countries - we are doing huge work here. There is an opportunity to do something really, really special - you can’t always find in the rest of the world these big roads and the opportunities we have in a country like this one.”

We are also launching two or three new formats at the Giro that could be very interesting to the world of cycling

The Abu Dhabi Tour has allowed RCS to experiment with new concepts (Pic RCS/Foto LaPresse - Fabio Ferrari)

Bellino adds that the Abu Dhabi Tour has developed into “a fantastic event” over the past four years, thanks largely to the strong support RCS has received from the Abu Dhabi Sport Council. “The level of the competition is very high - very high in terms of TV coverage, TV production, the standard of the competition and the production,” he says. “We’ve done a huge amount of work with the Sport Council to grow up because it’s their own property. Here we found an incredible, passionate country that wants to grow up.”

What sets the Abu Dhabi event apart, says Bellino, is the way in which RCS has been able to “test a certain amount of things” and use the race as a laboratory for trialling new ideas in cycling. One example of this is the company’s use of Velon's data platform to track and share the position, speed, power and cadence of the riders in the peloton in real time, which has proven to be a compelling addition to the event experience - even if it does present a number of technological challenges.

“You are not in a stadium, you are not in a Formula One circuit -  your circuit is 2,500 kms from the sea to the mountains,” notes Bellino. “From a theoretical point of view everything is already in place but you have to deliver - cycling is a tough test to deliver. There are interesting challenges for the world of cycling in general.”

As far as the UAE and other maturing markets in the Middle East region are concerned, Bellino is optimistic that RCS can carve out new business opportunities.

“We think these two countries [Dubai and Abu Dhabi] would be a good area to introduce additional mass events in cycling and running,” he says, “so we intend to create additional sporting opportunities here - sticking to what RCS are good at.”

And that, he adds, all comes back to the Giro: “RCS is in a strong place at the moment. We have one of the most important races in cycling. It’s part of our DNA. Cycling is growing as a sport, as a mass event, as a follower and a fan. 

“There is a level of technology that is incredible from the bikes of 20 years ago to now. I think there are many opportunities to grow. The sports business market is very bespoke. It’s not a question of brand visibility - it’s a question of creating packages of experiences. We have to work in a creative way that’s completely different from the past."