Friday, 14 December 2007
Pro Cycling: 2007 in review...
It’s hard not to feel positive about the sport of professional cycling after the season we’ve just endured. Let’s face it, things can’t get any worse, can they? This was the year in which the Tour de France started in London and ended in farce, the two largest sponsors of the last decade withdrew their money, the Pro Tour series imploded well before it was won by Cadel Evans (a rider who failed to register a single victory), the UCI lost control of the biggest races in the calendar, and former champions took it upon themselves by the dozen to confess histories of doping in their time at the top level. And that's before we've even mentioned Operacion Puerto or Team Astana. The Kazakh super team now seem to be basing their defence of disgraced riders Alexander Vinokourov and Andrej Kasheckin on doping tests being an infringement of human rights. Great stuff! How could you not feel positive about cycling?
Let’s start at the beginning. In January we still didn’t know who’d won last July’s Tour De France, the disgraced Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso had just signed for Discovery Channel, and people were so turned off by the Vuelta a Espana that they were calling for it to be cut from three weeks of racing to just two, to spare us the misery.
True, T-Mobile and CSC were embarking on radical anti-doping policies and you could sense the beginning of a sea change in attitudes towards cheating, but nobody could really have had an inkling of what was to come. It was quite ironic that T-Mobile were to be at the centre of so much of the scandal. On the road they enjoyed limited success but lots of credibility. Linus Gerdemann and Mark Cavendish rode with distinction, and the dismissal of Sergei Gonchar and Patrik Sinkewitz for doping offences showed that their zero tolerance stance was more than just talk. Yet the team became embroiled in a very public hanging of past dirty laundry, riders including Bjarne Riis, Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag admitting to the existence of and participation in systematic doping within the team during their careers.
By and large the team avoided damage to its image as it was widely appreciated that past indiscretions were nothing to do with the new model T-Mobile, but it all proved to be too much for their sponsor. Barely a month after their great rivals at Discovery were disbanding, the German telecommunications giant was beating a hasty retreat too. They joined Unibet and Gerolsteiner in leaving the sport, and even if the grand dream of the Pro Tour series hadn’t fallen apart due to the political infighting between race organisers and the UCI, it would have been greatly depleted in 2008 by a shortage of teams with the financial wherewithal even to participate.
Next year will see a very different season, and this is where all of my positive feelings are coming from. The sport had has its wake up call and stared over the edge of the precipice. Riders are speaking openly against cheating, and the new post-Pro Tour structure may actually favour more open racing with more wild cards for local teams, fewer squads stretched to breaking point and turning up at races simply to go through the motions, and perhaps the return of some much needed perspective on the public perception of the sport from the UCI. Although not perfect, everybody used to love the old World Cup, made up of the best one day races in Europe.
By taking the grand (and not so grand) tours out of the equation and losing the preposterous ‘one size fits all’ notion of competition, we should see the return of meaningful season-long racing with prizes returning to the hands of the sport’s true specialists. Danilo Di Luca would certainly have made a swash-buckling champion had he not been withdrawn from the competition on its final weekend for his part in the ‘oil for drugs’ scandal, but much as I admire the battling Cadel Evans, nobody can be happy to see him winning the supposedly prestigious Pro Tour jersey after such a lacklustre and winless season.
To know pleasure you’ve got to know pain, and 2007 has brought enough of the latter to last most sports a decade. What 2007 has done is show that sponsors, the public and the media will not accept the lies of the past. Riders and managers alike know that their livelihoods are on the line and that any repeats of the events of 2007 could be the final trapdoor. New teams like Slipstream are queueing up to join CSC and Team High Road (formerly T-Mobile) in a commitment to clean racing. Avowedly clean French teams may now start to find the sport less ‘two-speed’, losing their biggest excuse for so many barren years, and British riders also look poised to break through into the big time.
Here’s to riders who actually looking like they’re breathing heavily as they negotiate Alpine passes, a French winner of a major race sometime in 2008, a Tour de France with a winner to believe in, and the summary removal of any remaining cheats still earning a living in the peleton. The only human rights in need of protection are those of clean riders trying to make a living on a level playing field. They may just be in luck. It’s hard not to feel positive about cycling, isn’t it...?