Act, Dream, Plan, Believe

Like many other cycling fans I spent yesterday sat on the sofa with the Elite Men’s World Road Race on in the background.  For me it was an enforced period of rest, laid up as I was with a throat seemingly wrapped in sandpaper and joints which felt they had been knocked about with a sledgehammer – the perils of looking after your young niece and nephews! So at times, the race was a kind of comforting wallpaper, but as with many other British cycling fans it ended with the delight of watching our first world men’s professional/elite road champion for 46 years – a fact I know has delighted one other cycling Manxman well known to this blog.

I also decided to avoid Twitter for the duration of the race. And I have to say it was much better for it. The urge to send a quick opinion bubbled but was kept in my own head. And for some this is a small lesson – we all have thoughts, we all have a right to air them but sometimes it is better to keep them in our own heads. Therefore in the run up to the race we saw opinions on the presence of Sky on GB jerseys, during the race an ongoing critique of Team GBs tactics (therein is a lesson in holding opinion until an eggy face can be avoided) and subsequently the way the course was made for sprinters and how Cav benefited from a “pro-team” set up due to the large number of GB riders from one trade team. I’m sorry folks but I’ve lost interest in most of these tired arguments.  So here’s a more considered take.

Clearly the race was made for sprinters. Whilst some nations complained, the parcours will dictate the eventual winner to a large extent as, as one of the more witty comments on Twitter pointed out, the Italians didn’t complain in Zolder when Mario Cipolini won. Not that the race was easy – whilst there were no decisive climbs, the rise to the finish in itself added interest to the sprint and the fast nature of the course made it difficult for breaks to stay away but equally brought a large bunch to the end and thus a hard race to control. That Team GB rode the race they did should be seen as a master-stroke in planning but more so a genuinely superb team effort on the part of Team GB. At times the armchair fan To accomplish great things...might have questioned the tactic to try and control the race almost alone but by 3.30pm that decision was vindicated – a brave move unseen in recent World’s.  All of which is underpinned by the bigger project, nicely summarised by Inner Ring’s blog but visually captured by Adrian Timmis’ photo. We can all have gripes with the backers of British Cycling and Britian’s own Pro-Team – Sky, BSkyB, call them what you want – but the fact is they have chosen to invest in cycling at all levels. At the top end this has paid off with track and now road success at World level. At the other end it continues to be a part of the growth in the popularity of cycling – as Richard Williams suggested this morning, bike shops are now “virtually recession‑proof”on the back of it. I’m not overly enthusiastic about the puppeteers behind this company but if they are willing to back a sport I love I’ll happily take the money.

Then there is a puerile suggestion that GB are using Team Sky to get around the trade team rules for the Worlds. In a two earlier pieces I highlighted the way in which British Cycling have successfully taken forward a focussed project to be successful in world road cycling and, in another, the contradictions that the world rankings system presents for World championship qualification.  Team GBs qualification points undoubtedly were helped by the performance of Team Sky. Yet Cav himself earned a fair share of the points and was further assisted by other non-Sky riders such as Adam Blyth of Omega Pharma-Lotto.  But lets look back at the history of this project. Richard Moore’s book on Team Sky, Sky’s the Limit, highlights how its foundations are in the Academy system set up by David Brailsford and run by Rod Ellingworth. And who was in the Academy together and the same time? Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas, Stephen Cummings and Ian Stannard. Add in Bradley Wiggins (whose 1.5 lap pull on the front makes up for any previous “disappearances”) as a key member of the GB track set up and 5 of the 8 riders out there yesterday had been integral to this project. Frome, Millar and Hunt all provided experience and determination.  When was the last time a national team from any nation looked so committed, focussed and together than this one yesterday.  With the intricacies and contradictions that road racing brings, Team Sky has taken a different approach in its aims and its execution. It has learnt a lot and it has developed a lot, but there is nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with a national team having a backbone from one trade team. More often than not the World’s has teams within teams, alliances between trade-teammates which undermine the national cause, something which Great Britain have not been immune. And there is nothing wrong or conspiratorial in one rider who doesn’t ride for the trade team making up the bulk of the squad to be assisted by or benefit from those who are. I’d actually say that was quite mature, whatever future rider movements suggest.  At the end of the day, the comments of all the team have indicated a huge amount of camaraderie which is something we should all look at with pride.

So this one really goes out to the doom merchants out there: for the British cycling fans it is a lesson in grumbling less and enjoying more – we’ve waited a long time for this and the guys did us proud; for the overseas fans you’re time will come, probably next year, that’s the rich merry-go-round of cycling results.  Despite feeling lousy all day yesterday, that race brought a smile to my face. But as well as Cav’s win, there are a lot of positives which can be taken from yesterday and a new chapter in cycling history, both British and International.  I’m already looking froward to next season.

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It will survive

So in case you all missed it the line of those accusing Lance Armstrong of doping is getting bigger. The latest accuser is Tyler Hamilton. Like Floyd Landis before him, Hamilton was a prominent member of Armstrong’s US Postal Team, a faithful lieutenant who left to pursue his own Tour ambitions and then tested positive for his own doping offences. As has been pointed out by a variety of correspondents on Twitter these sources are hardly whiter than white but at least they are spilling the beans. Meanwhile Larry continues to trot out the “I’ve never tested positive” defence as if it is bulletproof and turn scorn on his accusers via Twitter tirades. Read my previous few posts and either he ignores the totality of the war on doping and the circumstantial nature of evidence employed in some cases or he has done something to put the dogs at bay. You can make up you’re own mind which. Some might say this is the ultimate time to admit cycling is corrupt. So is it time to give up?

In my view as just another ordinary Joe who watches from the roadside is no.  I’ve done quite a bit of soul searching and I can confidently say that my life would be missing something without cycling and without pro-cycling in particular. Some would say I am obsessed. I can’t plan much in July because of a certain race around France.  I stay up to watch highlights of obscure races from around the world.  Some would say I am strange. I watch men in lycra battle it out with each other. I delight in the pain of the battle, I relish the uphill fight and I want to see them hurt.  Yet without these small pleasures, life at times could be pretty rubbish.

As I’ve indicated before, friends keep telling me cyclists are all doped. They ask me why I watch the sport with such devotion. They wonder how I can live with such deceit. I’ve tried to defend it. I’ve tried the “no they don’t all dope, it’s a minority, line. It never felt convincing.  So I tried to tell them that cycling is changing only for another scandal to come along. I’ve even tried to convince them that it only has this image because it is doing something about the problem. None of it washes. I couldn’t care about the people I’m trying to convince. Many of them watch professional footballers with relish and sweep under the carpet behaviour which is far worse than cheating to win a race, behaviour which harms the lives of others.  Yes folks, this is life. Its not always nice and everything is relative.

So in the same way that Tyler Hamilton has penned his own confession, this is mine: I love cycling and I’ve got to the point where I don’t really care.  Yes, that may shock some people but I’m tired of making a defence to others.  Just as in motor-racing developments are made in order for cars to go faster, so cycling adopts other means of enhancement.  Listening to the Flammecast’s interview with Festinagirl I must admit I increasingly can’t see what the lines of distinction are between administering health care to riders and performance enhancement. We know the extremes but we don’t know the happy medium.

What I want to see is racing. I want attacks, I want climaxes. Sure, if people dope they should be caught and I want the authorities to do their bit in providing a level playing field, one which includes them playing by the rules.  But do I care if Bertie ate a contaminated steak? Come off it.  Does it matter if an ex-doper manages or coaches in the sport? I doubt it very much.  But I care about the riders. I care about the people involved in the sport. They provide my entertainment, and just as we had painful sorrow last week at the death of a rider, there are too many victims in this whole sorry mess. The comment has been repeatedly made on Twitter that both good guys and bad guys dope. The good guys ultimately confess (for whatever reason).  Having lived with my own set of masks I learnt to my own cost how destructive they are and what a relief it is to finally drop them.  In doing so I’m sure they have been through pain and relief too.  So I’m actually going to stop pointing fingers at the innocent.  However, where Larry differs is the venom of the attack and the willingness to destroy.  In this way he is the premiership footballer who has affairs behind the screen of a super injunction rather than the mere cheat who won a cycle race.  For all he’s done for the sport, he is doing his best to undermine.

Cycling won’t die. I will still follow it. You will still follow it. Riders will come and go, some will dope whilst others ride clean.  Whilst these remain misdemeanours I’m afraid I’m going to have to turn a blind eye. I merely hope they catch the nasty, corrosive and destructive elements that have burrowed into the heart of the sport.  Getting rid of them might just give us a basis to be truly proud. Until then I’m taking my moments of happiness in life and trying not to worry about the rest.

The appliance of science

Following last week’s posts on the UCI suspicion list leak and their reaction to it, I was interested to read the following piece by Ross Tucker on his blog The Science of Sport.  Obviously the leak by L’Equipe has created a lot of reaction and debate to the extent that at least one rider’s agent is threatening to sue the UCI for defamation over the matter.  Therefore a piece which tries to separate out the leak (as an act of organisational incompetence) from the subject (the development of a tool in the pursuit of dopers) by illuminating the science of the biological passport is both helpful to the uninitiated (as I alluded to last week) and a necessary brake on the runaway train of claim and counter claim.  After reading this I better understand the use and limitations of the biological passport as part of a wider amroury available to the powers that be. However, as both Ross and @Festinagirl have highlighted, the application of this science when left in the hands of dysfunctional organisations is open to abuse and manipulation.  So whilst I am slightly more convinced about the methods the methodology and application need much better explanation and transparency.

We can’t go on together

News is moving quickly today so I knew I should have held back on the blog.  Just as I was about to shut the computer down up pops a tweet that the UCI has issued a press-release.  No, this isn’t a dispatch from the @UCI_Overlord but a real press release from Aigle itself.  Entitled “Suspicion is not the same as guilt” the gist of the release can only be read from the innocent roadside-standers perspective as an admission of complete failure and, wait for it, a statement that suspicion is not the same as guilt but it might as well be.  The release states that the leaked list is a “superficial but practical procedure” to assist the targetting of suspected riders.  This would be fine if a) the procedure was kept confidential to protect all involved, including perhaps securing such information by password or better still shredding and b) it actually led to something rather than being suferficial and in no way practical.  Have we seen any evidence of this information being used for any practical good?  Which leads me to the second point, the UCI are playing the same game as many of the rest of us:

While advocating the principle that “suspicion is not the same as guilt”, it can however been seen that the system enables anti-doping tests to be targeted more effectively and therefore also enables the fight against doping as a whole to be enhanced.

So suspicion is closer to guilt than innocence on the scale. It certainly crosses from any middle ground fairly quickly.  If the UCI wants to ensure their procedures are trusted, they need to remain robust.  We’ve seen the questions raised over labs who have leaked dope test results.  For the governing body to be ensnared in this smacks of further evidence of incompetence at the top.  Office security is simple to implement.  Failure to do so leads to suspicious minds. We know where that leads, especially when it comes from the top.  I’m sure “Boss Hog” and his very own Roscoe are all rubbing their hands with glee.

Silly Games

I’m in danger of this blog turning into the (political) rant it was never meant to be so, before you read any further I firstly apologies but secondly hope you see the meaningful reason for writing this. I promise at least there is no mention of the leather jacket and denim wearing ones!  No, today’s post was promoted by the recent coverage on Cyclingnews.com of the continuing fall out between the UCI and the Pro-teams. None of this is new and Cyclingnews.com’s useful summary highlights the problem between a range of parties over the birth, infancy and death (?) of the ProTour/World Tour in world cycling. The latest battle centres on the UCI’s decision to ban the use of 2-way radios between riders and the support cars/managers, a move which has been taken up by the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP) as the cause celeb of a new front in the war between the UCI and a growing group of others. The latest volley in this growing “dispute” is the threatened boycott by ProTour teams of the new World Tour ranked Tour of Beijing and now a suggestion of a break away procycling “league” by 11 of the “top” teams and one Grand Tour organiser.

All these disputes are not new to professional sport. As pointed out by a range of commentators we’ve been here before with rugby (union v league), motor racing, cricket, football, rugby (again, and again)…look, even cycling has been here before if you only look back to the early days of road racing in the UK! These ‘splits’ were once the last resort yet now they seem so easy. Sorry really does seem to be the hardest word, “we’re off” is a whole lot easier. The problem is the impact for those of us trying to follow it or, dare I say, compete in it.  It’s something I’m acutely aware of following a day of industrial action at the day job where both the actions of the employer and the union merely combine to compound the problems for the employee/member. So who wins.

Let’s go back to the changes in cycling which have precipitated events in recent weeks.  The history is long and complex and I won’t go into detail here as it is covered more eloquently and in greater detail by others. But needless to say the ProTour is a critical juncture. It was devised to make cycling more user friendly to the international audience. It seems to me modelled on a strange blend of European style leagues with American style franchises. Teams buy 4-year franchises and commit to riding the best races in the world all in return for a guaranteed place and so prime exposure for their sponsors. The ProTour winners would be the best in their sport. The only problem is it never worked like this. Teams have come and gone with the economic fortunes of their sponsors, races have dipped in and out of the series. What we have been left with is a series of compromises and a complex set of arrangements for anyone,  expert included, to attempt to comprehend.  There’s the World Tour, the Grand Tours, continental Tours and national Tours. In all, Shearings and Wallace Arnold would be best sponsoring all of this as they seem more expert in Tours than anyone else. To understand what I mean simply read this account of Thomas Voeckler’s weekend. Follow it? I’m not sure I did and had to get another coffee just to get my head around it.  As a cycling fan I’m lost and I’m losing patience.

I can understand the frustrations involved amongst the warring parties: the UCI want control of cycling as a governing body; the teams want certainty over race schedules, a platform to sell their sponsors and the means to ‘protect their riders’ (the radio debate being dominated by ‘safety’ issues); the race organisers want to showcase their events and have control over who they do and don’t invite to their races. But this has resulted in each party thinking they know how best to do the other’s jobs. Who gets left out? Some might say the riders and to some extent this is true though I do not pretend to have any insight there. My concern is more from the spectator perspective. When I started watching cycling in the late 1980s it was easy to follow and I could explain to my mates at school about the different races, who rode in what and what it meant to lead the Tour de France versus leading the World Cup (though let’s not start on that particular one!). Now I have difficulty explaining any of these workings to any of my friends and relatives. If the 11 teams go ahead with their breakaway (perhaps unsurprisingly being lead in part by Johan Bruyneel and his (ironically named) Radioshack outfit) it can only make cycling even more complex. Furthermore, as we have seen with other elite sports which have developed premier-style splits (e.g. English football and rugby) I can only see the connections to the remainder of the sport being obliterated.

This year I finally gave up trying to follow football because of its disconnection with the real world. Rugby too has become incomprehensible and unwatchable as a result of so-called ‘fan friendly’ law changes to make it popular. Cycling is growing this tendency. I don’t want last weekend’s Milan – San Remo to be a memory of what was, I want more of it. If this “war” carried on much longer I think it might be and all that conjures up is this song and I’m pretty sure I don’t want a part in that.