Saturday, 16 February 2008

Who'll take the low road...?

10 days ago I promised a preview of the new pro-Cycling season, and it didn't arrive. When I stopped to think about what I wanted to say, I realised the enormity of the task. I had to admit to myself that I had no idea what to say about the season ahead. With so much change above and below the surface of the sport, I'm still not sure how the season will play out, even though I've had more than a week to think about it. It will either be a glorious re-birth of open competition or a slap in the face. how's that for a prediction?

Let's start by asking a question which should offer a way of beginning to comprehend the massive upheavals: What do Danilo Di Luca, Gilberto Simoni and Paolo Savoldelli all have in common? Well, apart from being Italian cyclists who between them have won five out of the last six editions of the Giro D'Italia, there is something else. For this coming season, none of them will be riding for a top flight UCI Pro Tour team. They join the likes of Christophe Moreau, Magnus Backstedt, David Millar, Tom Danielson and Sergei Gonchar in dropping down a division to ride for smaller professional teams with no automatic rights of entry into the big races. With the three Grand Tours and most of the one day 'monuments' that matter all having dropped out of the UCI's unfortunate miscarriage, will their decision to tune in and drop out even matter? I'm inclined to think not, precisely because the balance of power is shifting away from the sport's governing body, which has for too long shown ambitions beyond its remit.

What this new order in pro-Cycling reveals is just how much the Pro Tour had become a costly irrelevance, a revenue driven juggernaut recklessly powering its way around Europe. Smaller teams and race organisers were pushed to the edges of a sport already self-combusting under the heat of almost weekly drugs scandals. Now they're fighting back.

If the Pro Tour was designed to appeal to sponsors then it failed miserably. Many of the biggest and longest serving corporate investors have already left the sport, getting out before their cherished brands became too soiled. In 2008 we are left with a drastically diminished and even less relevant entity called the Pro Tour. Running alongside it are the best loved races in the calendar, diplomatically termed 'events formerly part of the Pro Tour'. Race organisers are now being free to invite whichever teams they like to their start lines, without the sport's governing body imposing its will. This throws the game wide open, effectively breaking the closed shop that was the UCI Pro Tour.

One UCI event that never fails to stand out is of course the World Championships, and this season's event takes place in Italy. What price Paolo Bettini wrapping up a hat trick of Worlds victories before he retires in October? The UCI, always with an eye open for a gimmick, are even talking about inventing a race to round off the Pro Tour Series on the 5th of October. Let's hope it's more imaginative than the parcours of The Tour Down Under, the ENECO Tour and the Tour of Poland, three of the series' less illustrious events. With 2008 being an Olympic year, do we even need a third big one day race so soon after the Worlds? Probably not, but let's not be ungrateful towards the sports' governing body, which has given so much, erm leadership, as the sport has threatened to implode around it.

If the shake up that began last season was driven by fear of lost sponsorship revenue and livelihoods to a greater extent than by a desire for sporting fair play, the result is surely going to be the most unpredictable season since Lance Armstrong retired. It is precisely because the Pro Tour withered on the vine that riders like our Italian trio can step back from the big but over-stretched top flight teams. Because the smaller teams haven't shelled out a fortune for a Pro Tour licence, the chances are they can afford to meet the riders' wage demands, and crucially gain admittance to the prestige events. It is almost inconceivable that our trio of Italian riders won't be on the start line of this year's Giro, and once again that race looks set to be the most exciting of the Tours this year, with a mountain time trial and some of the toughest climbing in Europe packed into the back end of the race.

The Tour de France may well be without last year's defending champion yet again. Familiar? The withdrawal from the sport of Discovery Channel saw many of the team's top riders, backroom staff, Director Sportifs and even equipment suppliers upping sticks and setting down roots in Kazakhstan. With Astana the new Phonak - i.e. the bad men wearing black hats - it was a bit of a gamble on the part of all concerned that they'd be able to successfully re-brand and start over. At the time of writing, Astana's chances of lining up in France this July aren't looking too good, but the race should be wide open if the organisers judiciously exercise their right to invite an increased number of 'wild card' entries.

One team already confirmed for the Giro and hoping to get their wild card for Le Tour are Slipstream, the clean-cut and evangelically ethical American outfit assembled by ex-pro Jonathan Vaughters. In attracting many top riders to jump ship from the Pro Tour it's once again clear that the series has lost any of the kudos it ever had. A huge buzz surrounds the team, and their anti-doping measures go beyond even those unveiled last season by Bjarne Riis's repentantly transparent Team CSC. Team High Road, formerly T Mobile before the German telecoms giant jumped ship, are also stepping up their fight against doping, and with a squad of talented young riders - Gerdemann, Ciolek and Cavendish to name but three - it's to be hoped that the teams who have made a clean break from the sport's murky recent past can begin to punch their weight.

Ultimately I hope that 2008 will be remembered as the year that the sport got real. To retain its already low levels of credibility and begin a fightback would do nicely. Even outside of the top flight, any teams invited to the big races will need to bring riders holding valid biological passports, documentation that will theoretically map their own physical data and make it easier for the authorities to detect tell-tale anomalies. Of course we all know that many riders have used advanced masking tools and boasted cheekily that they've 'never tested positive', but if the sport is really serious about change then this could be the year that we see riders struggling under the physical effort of riding up mountain passes. This season Alp D'Huez, the Col de la Bonette, the Mortirolo and the Angliru all make returns, and by the summer Cadel Evans' plucky but ungainly style may even begin to look graceful alongside his his clean but throughly suffering rivals.

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