It’s all new. It’s all the same. The 2016 season is underway and everything looks so familiar. Nobody’s using disc brakes nor geolocation and instead it’s back to races in out of season tourist resorts, the ritual pinning of numbers and a peloton packed with calliper brakes.
The European season started today with the Trofeo Felanitx-Ses Salines-Campos-Porreres race in Mallorca, an event whose long-winded name must have been conceived in a pre-Twitter era. It marks the start of several races around Mediterranean locations whether in Mallorca, the South of Spain, Italy or the bike-theft hotspots of France.
Once upon a time these races sold sunshine to northern Europeans but the advent of low cost aviation means many fly over Majorca or Marseille on their way to destinations like Turkey or Morocco. If some of the surviving races feel old fashioned at least they’re alive, gone are races like Nice-Alassio or the more recent extinction of the Tour Méditerranéen. Majorca isn’t a big draw for mass tourism, instead every village and town echoes with the click-clack of cleated feet as thousands of cyclists from all over Europe converge for training camps. That’s something the Spanish will celebrate because if the Gulf destinations attract the peloton they’ve yet to entice the masses as spectators or training.
Even the newer races can feel old. Take the Tour of Qatar which is about to hold its 15th edition yet still fends off annual questions about its place in the sport. Australia’s Tour Down Under is older, dating from 1999, but also has this status anxiety too. It brings familiarity, this time for the way it visits the same places every year with names like Stirling, Victor Harbour, Willunga cropping up. Do some European and American cycling fans think they’re the only habitations in South Australia outside of Adelaide? Simon Gerrans’s fourth win just added to the déjà vu. The TV coverage was familiar too. When someone was travelling fast we got the obligatory camera shot of the motorcycle speedometer rather than an on-screen graphic to signal the speed.
Similarly the promised geo-location technology remains a distant prospect. When a lime green jersey was duelling with Sergio Henao and Richie Porte on the Corkscrew Climb nobody knew who it was. TV commentator Phil Liggett thought it was Alberto Bettiol although his voice conveyed hesitancy. Realtime geo-location can be done but it’s an experimental and novel technology yet we’re still without the basics like a timing mat at the top of a climb to capture the riders going past, both to flash up their names and to measure the time gaps despite all this being rather old fashioned technology by now. This isn’t specific to Australia, it’s going to happen again and again this year as riders cross the Poggio, Giau or Ventoux. It’s hard to know another sport that stages major events yet struggles to name the participants right at the crucial moment when the competition is being decided.
Perhaps Liggett and Co. finally identified the Corkscrew fugitive as Michael Woods thanks to the number pinned on his back? These days most, if not all, races use timing chips fixed to the bikes to count riders across the line but the practice of pinning a paper number to a jersey remains. It can be helpful when technology breaks down but it’s arcane and if BMX can have “career numbers”, a permanent way of awarding numbers to participants, surely the pro peloton could too? You might say there’s not enough numbers to go around but there are letters too. In an era when teams want to get sponsors it occupies valuable real estate on a jersey.
Talking of tech, 2016 was supposed to be the year of disc brakes but ironically their introduction has been halted. Awkward wheel changes; frame flex and rotor rub added to cycling’s innate conservatism means these new brakes and the accompanying frames aren’t going to be a common sight in 2016 whether in the pro peloton or your local bike shop. This is no bad thing for everyone: if you don’t like these brakes then they’re out for now; if you do then all the more reason to have bikes correctly engineered to suit.
Meanwhile in Italy the Giro unveiled its jerseys for 2016 and it wasn’t so much 2015 all over again as nineteen hundred-and-something as deployed a madrina to tell us the race leader would wear a pink jersey once again. The madrina, or godmother, is usually a former Miss World candidate or some other TV personality and this looks retro to put it politely. Note craft exhibitions and film festivals alike hire a madrina too making it as Italian as driving too close to the car in front; you might not like it but it still goes on a lot.
Finally there’s administrative and political continuity too as the UCI and ASO continue their spats, an ongoing theme for over a decade that blows hot and cold (this page on cyclingnews.com illustrates just how long the saga can go on). There was talk of a conciliatory meeting between Christian Prudhomme and Brian Cookson during the Tour Down Under but this was cancelled. It wasn’t going to achieve much given Prudhomme is ASO’s jovial face rather than its powerbroker and while some see Brian Cookson as the UCI’s monarch he’s really a figurehead and can’t make up UCI policy by himself given he’s mandated by its committee and congress.
As we hurtle into the future 2016 looks a lot like last year with the same old races in the same old places. Change, from TV telemetry to disc brakes or even safety pins, isn’t coming fast. Still if 2016 ends up like 2015 we’re in for a fine season of racing.