After the highlights, the lowlights. Sport is meant to have its drama but pro cycling often crosses the line from pantomime villainy to worse. Here’s a round-up of some of the lows.
First up the leaked details of Chris Froome’s Therapeutic Use Exemption from the Tour de Romandie. It was wrong on many levels :
- the leak to the Journal du Dimanche (JDD) broke medical confidentiality. Only a few people had access to the information but TUEs and other anti-doping data from blood test data to out-of-comp testing “no-shows” are supposed to remain private
- the JDD stirred the pot further with the sensational headline “Froome ‘dopé’ par l’UCI” and it made for another dopage story in the media when other sports see their athletes abuse cortisone without concern
- there’s the ethical element that if a rider is so ill they require these powerful drugs, should they be racing too? Especially if the medicine involved can have performance-enhancing effects above and beyond the treatment for the illness
- the UCI wasn’t forthcoming on its TUE procedures either and once again was left reacting to events
Fernando Alonso Cycling Team spells FACT but all we got was rumour. We started the year without a team and finish in the same position so there’s no loss, right? Not quite. Psychologists talk of “loss aversion” where it’s worse to get something and lose it rather than never have it in the first place. To illustrate, imagine finding a gold coin when you’re out during a ride in the middle of nowhere. Yay! You tuck it into your pocket only for it to fall out and you don’t know it until you get home. Now your wealth is the same as it was before the ride only you’re kicking yourself at the loss. Alonso’s intervention has been similar, raising hopes along the way and leaving people frustrated when nothing emerged.
It never looked very promising, hiring Paolo Bettini was a strange idea for a team promising innovation. However it’s more than story that never happened, the team’s status was enough to briefly distort the transfer market and his entourage infuriated at least two team managers with promises to merge only Alonso was only putting his name behind the team and no money nor sponsors. Too add to the confusion the project seem confused by the UCI rules, with claims the UCI’s rules on transfers prevented them from signing riders. But as Team Sky and Orica-Greenedge show, you can build a team from scratch. All you need is a wad of money to wave and the riders will come. It’s a shame there’s no team but there’s no bitterness, if the project’s been a flop we should still welcome a more coherent attempt in 2015.
The troubles of Astana have been well-documented. Even before the Iglinskiy brothers and their matching EPO tests some were asking questions, the presence of Alexandr Vinokourov was enough to spoil the image of the team. His past certainly invites questions as does the team’s recruitment policy, for example both “Vino” and rider Michele Scarponi scored the audacious double of being clients of Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes; while the MPCC blocked the team’s move of Ferrari client and bio-passport crook Franco Pellizotti. All this provided a tone of suspicion to undermine Vincenzo Nibali’s position in the Tour de France. Harsh? Yes but these questions are always asked during the Tour de France and it’s how riders manage the answers that matters.
Then came the treble of the Iglinskiy brothers and stagiaire Ilya Davidenok, a sorry case of three Kazakhs who should be emblematic for the team. It’s hard to judge which was worse, two riders on EPO or a young rider, still not a pro, caught. Astana’s management conspired to make matters worse when faced with a temporary suspension by the MPCC rules. We’ll never know for sure but it appeared the team engineered the timing of Maxim Iglinskiy’s confession to suit a narrow window meaning the squad could race the Tour of Almaty and Lombardia but sit out the Tour of Beijing and return for the 2015 the Tour Down Under. Gaming rules designed to protect ethics is cynical.
Was 2014 the “year of the crash”? It’s a common risk but we saw several high profile riders ejected from high profile target races during the year. There was Dan Martin’s slide in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the repeat wipeout in the Giro’s opening team time trial. A few stages later Joaquim Rodriguez would pull out but he was still nursing race wounds from the Amstel. Come the Tour de France and Mark Cavendish left on the first day and soon after Andy Schleck left – ending his career – then we got the exit of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador robbed us of the duel which proved so tantalising in the Dauphiné. Domenico Pozzovivo broke his leg before the Vuelta.
It all might be misfortune but there was an uglier side with several post-event polemics. When Contador crashed out of the Tour de France Twitter seemed more interested in the fate of Contador’s bike than the rider or the race. In the Giro’s Montecassino maxi-crash the post-race debate wasn’t on the impressive riding by Cadel Evans or Michael Matthews but whether riders should have waited or not. If crashes are inevitable, this year it was really for the way they removed the big names. If the “empty chair” aspect was a the worst part then we can add more names, for example Marcel Kittel falling sick in the Giro or Carlos Betancur’s illness and appetite.
Cyclingtips have their version of the lowlights too and they list Roman Kreuziger bio passport saga as one. I can understand this and so as not to copy them, let’s enlarge the topic to inconsistency over the passport and its publicity. Kreuziger’s case is an odd one if only for his provisional suspension with the UCI leaning on his team to exclude him when it wasn’t expressly written in the rules; a similar tale with Diego “Puff Daddy” Ulissi whose asthma megadose case saw him resume racing for a day only to be stopped hours later. Kreuziger’s case might be unwelcome but at least we know about it, a great improvement over the silent case of Dennis Menchov. The Russian race robber was well into retirement before the UCI slipped a PDF onto its website to state he was banned. The sport doesn’t need to trumpet the catch but spot the difference, a retired rider is busted and the case is unknown while an active rider is only being investigated but he’s pulled from racing. It’s not as dichotomous as that, I gather Menchov put up a legal battle which prevented the case from being public but outwardly it still looks inconsistent.
Nairo Quintana took an impressive stage win in the Giro but his move on the Stelvio was controversial. It’s hard to blame him but there were questions over red flags but all this serves to illustrate the uncertainty, it’s like the Japanese film Rashmon: there’s no accepted truth to events. What was more certain was the reaction to events. RCS were criticised for running the race in bad conditions but the weather turned bad, quickly. There’s talk about rules for racing in heat and cold but these will be difficult to draft, as discomfort and danger are a function of many variables. In the end the sorriest sight was the team managers meeting in public to discuss their response. It looked like a mafia meet or a jail yard gathering rather than professional congregation.
If the season is over, there’s still time to disappoint. There are two stories to watch for at the moment. First is the unpaid wages of Team Colombia. The riders are caught in a difficult situation, they’ve gone public via Twitter and the Colombian media to ask for their pay but shout too much and the UCI could deny the team a licence for 2015 meaning they’d be out of job. Colombian cycling has been resurgent and this is enjoyable to watch, if only it could attract more backing.
Second is the talk of UCI sporting reform. Some changes are needed but right now the planned changes are taking place in secret. Notionally there is input from the riders via the CPA, their union; from teams via the AIGCP grouping and, from races via the AIOCC. But the CPA often struggles for the peloton’s pulse, the AIGCP will struggle for a consensus and the AIOCC is headed by Christian Prudhomme which only gives ASO a dominant voice. Hopefully we’ll get a harmonious solution but the confidential nature of the talks suggests the parties aren’t very confident. Nobody’s explained the changes to the public nor the media – the pesky folk who stand by the road, watch TV and pay for most of it – which suggests little groundwork to build support.