Having picked five highlights of the sporting year, now a look a few things that weren’t so enjoyable, hopefully in a constructive light rather than a long whinge…
Chris Froome’s Salbutamol case hung over the first half of the season like a storm cloud approaching a BBQ party. This wasn’t so much Froome himself as he couldn’t add much, it more the procedural events and officialdom. To mention Froome on Twitter was to invite all sorts of questions, for example “why isn’t he suspended?” someone would ask, “because it involves a Specified Substance” was the dull reply and too often simple questions required 500 word walk-through replies. The rules only got us so far, it was the uncertainty that compounded things. A year ago this blog set out Froome’s likely route out of the matter, pointing out the flaws in the Salbutamol test but it was far from obvious things would conclude this way. Come May and even the Giro boss was talking of “deception” and signalling he wanted Tom Dumoulin to win his race. It meant watching the Giro with a copy of the WADA Code on your lap at times and when Froome made his raid to Jafferau it was unclear if the result would stand, likely but not certain was the idea at the time and not the kind of suspense sport needs. All along there was little guidance from the parties involved so in a world where serious matters of state such as elections can be swung by heuristics and memes then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if millions read “Froome positive” headlines and quickly made their mind up either way.
Worse when Froome was exonerated the procedural part was far from finished. The case had leaked originally and so did the verdict. This might have given more people time to prepare their statements but it ended up with a cacophony. Tour organisers ASO let it be known they’d try to block Froome from the Tour de France, a move that if pursued would probably have fallen flat in a courtroom but left everyone looking silly (imagine trying to prevent someone from coming to your summer party only to drop it, have them show up, it’d be socially awkward: now try this with millions watching). Meanwhile the UCI said it wouldn’t comment more in its… initial statement before starting a volley of press release tennis with WADA as each side lobbed the topic back, not a dignified look even if it’s far from the days of Dick Pound and Hein Verbruggen. Sky habitually walk into a trap marked “trap” every July and once again their surprisingly clumsy media reach in France saw them blunder. Their initial tone seemed to be “we’ve been cleared, deal with it” rather than trying to explain things. Faced with a skeptical French crowd they reacted with a newspaper piece by Froome aim at the French public, only it went to Le Monde, a newspaper with a small and rather different readership to the roadside crowd – think penning a piece for the Wall Street Journal to reach the Nascar audience – and then the article was behind a paywall reducing its reach even more. Sky ought to have fronted Froome on France 2’s lunchtime TV show and talked to Le Parisien.
You’ve probably forgotten about Bahrain-Merida’s Kanstantin Siutsou but he’s still provisionally suspended for EPO, a World Tour rider rumbled when the majority on the provisional suspension list seem to come from semi-pro teams in South America. Meanwhile Rémy Di Gregorio was active in Paris-Nice and soon provisionally suspended too for a similar substance. Samuel Sanchez is still parked following a test in August 2017, his career over but the case still open.
Vincenzo Nibali’s crash in the Tour was a sorry moment, depriving the race of a challenger and the rest of his season was ruined. If he made the headlines, Ag2r La Mondiale’s Alexis Vuillermoz had earlier crashed on the stage to Roubaix after a “spectator”, a generous term these days, tried to get a photo resulting in a 60km/h collision and a broken shoulder. I’ve been watching the footage of the 1989 Tour de France a lot recently and there are many differences but once you notice that nobody has a phone and few even have a camera and that they’re there for the riders, then you keep seeing it. Today many go to the Tour, wait hours for the riders only to mark the moment with a blurred photo. It’s hard to see how the Tour de France or cycling can take on and beat Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram. Measures to protect the sport from a handful of idiots need to be balanced alongside keeping the sport open and accessible. We might sometimes lament that teams have no ticket sales but show me another sport where fans take days off work, spend money on fuel and road tolls and trek up a mountain to see the sport: this is rather valuable. Indeed what if the real problem on Alpe was the reduced crowd, there were a lot less people there than usual?
Liège-Bastogne-Liège was an ok edition this year with Bob Jungels going solo and then Michael Woods and Romain Bardet going away late to land their podium places added some tension but it’ll be a while before anyone gets nostalgic about the finish in Ans, a place which makes Roubaix look cheery. Why did it end up in Ans? It’s a tale of political rivalries including a mafia hit job and several other scandals in Belgium that have been front page news in Belgium. Probably the only time Belgian municipal politics or Walloon socialism pops up on your radar but France’s Liberation wrote it all up and a reminder that many races are beholden to political decisions.
Talking of which the Giro’s venture to Israel might have been a flight too far, it meant a lot of talk about whether it should be there rather than what would happen on the road when it was there. With hindsight perhaps it’s filled the coffers to enable appearance fees that might help bolster the already juicy startlist for next year. As logistical challenges go it worked, so New York could too. Indeed riders griped more in private about potholes, poor hotels and being stuck waiting for cable cars in Italy than Israel.
Usually the Critérium du Dauphiné is a highlight of the year, it attracts big names and the Alps look sublime in June. Often the race is watched for the clues ahead of the Tour de France but ought to be enjoyed for its own sake only this time the decision to include a long team time trial for the sake of the Tour de France put big gaps into the GC meaning the ensuing mountain stages were locked down. It wasn’t a dire race, putting this among the lowlights is more because it wasn’t as good as recent editions.
Who understands the Hammer Series points system? Perhaps it’s cycling’s version of the Schleswig-Holstein question? Cycling can be complicated, once upon a time someone probably explained to you how the yellow jersey gets awarded. A new series designed to attract a fresh audience ought to peel back these traditions, only it compounds them with points and decimal places. Even the teams struggle with the rules, in the last round in Hong Kong the Quick Step were disqualified.
Which was worse, the gimmicky idea of the Tour de France’s grid start in Luchon or the people who fell for it and got irate when it flopped? It got people talking and probably boosted the audience for the start of the stage but surely won’t be back.
The UCI is going through a productive and progressive patch. There’s a minimum wage for the Women’s World Tour, plus maternity pay. The UCI, pro teams and major race organisers have shaken hands on reforms for the men’s future. New rules on Tramadol and cortisone abuse are coming in 2019 and there’s more, like a Worlds in Africa. Only much of this is lost as noise alongside David Lappartient’s media interventions where he floats ideas which seem to get as much traction as the actual policies enacted by the UCI. The current President stood on a manifesto that included setting up a working group on how to make races more attractive but he’s not been shy venturing his own ideas ahead of them reporting; similarly the progress on women’s cycling gets overshadowed by his talk of a women’s Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix in the works.
Now onto the teams, some riders had seasons that worked out but nobody planned this. Movistar’s El Tridente collectively underwhelmed, Alejandro Valverde did get to work on the Col du Pré during Stage 11 but, to borrow from soccer, it was like having an active midfield without a pair of strikers to finish it off given Mikel Landa was sore from a crash and Nairo Quintana looked stale. Still with Richard Carapaz and Marc Soler they’ve got more than three prongs. Dimension Data had a season to forget, things started well with Nicholas Dlamini winning the mountains jersey Down Under and Mark Cavendish got a sprint win in February but was diagnosed with mononucleosis again and the rest of the team were hit with injuries and illness for much of the year and notional leader Louis Meintjes vanished from the results. Sheer bad luck for the most part but they’ll cheer Ben King’s Vuelta stage wins and Ben O’Connor’s emergence. Katusha-Alpecin had a shocker of a season, just five wins and UAE-Emirates had two Tour de France stage wins in Dan Martin and Alexander Kristoff but were otherwise discreet, especially Fabio Aru who can suddenly emerge when you least expect him – 8th in the Giro’s Rovereto TT – but his stage race results have been looking lean for years now.
Aqua Blue’s demise this year is a serious issue with riders apparently still unsure about being paid in full, or at least waiting for this to be settled. The single chainring bikes didn’t work out either but that’s almost forgotten. The “glass half full” view would be here’s a team that tried and had a different model in mind with an e-commerce website that would generate revenue to keep the team going, good on them for effort. But if they’d put their hands up saying “this isn’t working, we’ll pull out at the end of the season” it would have been more noble rather than quitting before the season was over. How to prevent this? It’s near impossible, all pro teams are audited by the UCI to check they can fund a team for the year and they must front up hefty wage guarantees which are already significant barrier to new teams. Hopefully lessons can be learned from the Wout van Aert saga too and the partial retreat of the Sniper team.
Pro cycling isn’t broken but some parts are brittle. We’ll look at this in the new year but for now there’s never been as much sponsorship money in the sport, rider wages are at their highest and there’s more TV than ever too, whether more hours or more events covered and you can now get this almost anywhere on your phone too. Whether this can survive a downturn is another matter. Even during the boom some teams struggle for sponsorship. BMC were saved at the last minute, perhaps a canny deal by Dariusz Miłek who waited and waited and he presumably hasn’t become a billionaire by paying over the odds for assets. The mighty Quick Step have secured Deceuninck which is good news, but the maker of PVC windows rather suggests the team’s sponsorship reach extends to Benelux construction project managers rather than households all around the world. And Sky are pulling out with no replacement sponsor lined up too.
RIP Michael Goolaerts, Jeroen Goeleven, Jimmy Duquennoy and others who died this year.