The UCI went hard on the Astana team. It was as much a PR mistake, going public that the team’s existence was in doubt only to end with an audit. If it had been presented differently, think “UCI conducts extra audits on Astana for assurance” it’d have been better. Not that this was a presentational matter, there was a substantial issue to address. However it came on the back of bad news about the team in 2014 from the Iglinskiy brothers testing positive for EPO and the U23 riders being busted for steroids which many had lumped together under the shady umbrella of Sacha Vinokourov. Then came the February press release from the UCI saying it had found something so serious that the team’s licence was in jeopardy. Astana may always be a hard team to root for unless you’re a Kazakh patriot but the UCI managed to make it worse.
The CIRC report was never going to be fun but its interpretation wasn’t any good. Reading it there were some unattributed quotes about the prevalence of doping which sounded spurious at best, the kind of comment to be taken with a shovel of road salt because there’s nothing to back it up. So what did the mainstream media do? Run with the most salacious quote. It makes you think about the sensational treatment given to area areas whether science, politics and so on where headlines obviously compete for attention while masking more nuanced or profound stories underneath. So it was with the CIRC – cost 2.25 million Swiss francs – and a report which told much of what we already knew but final in black and white with a UCI logo on it. The recommendations are slowly being implemented so good is coming out of it but will the benefits ever outweigh the costs?
The GP Frankfurt was cancelled for the year because of a terrorist threat. At least cancellation meant no atrocity but it’s sad to see an event stopped and a concern if the gathering of people for a bike race becomes a target for cowards and nutters. Other events don’t need public order concerns and again more races drop off the calendar. Evolution as some dud races go? Perhaps but we lose good events too and new events, like Abu Dhabi, don’t inspire.
The Tour de France had a several negative points or rather they did if you switched on Twitter. Polemics about hotels, race boycotts, watts, hacked power files, spitting and more never ruined the race but they did bring a lot of negativity at times and generated loud arguments that could drown out the racing. None of it is new, in 1903 an angry mob surrounded a rider shouting “Kill him! Kill him!” and many riders have been spat on in the maillot jaune, but social media seems to elevate these scandals above the race itself. To some extent this held true in the Giro too where Richie Porte’s motorhome and Richie Porte’s wheel change seemed to make more headlines than Richie Porte and his racing. The big mess came in the Tour de France, accusations flew, Sky were bounced into releasing some data and a French TV report that used different numbers and a mini-war over the data erupted. Only each number quoted was a different ratio, it was not much more useful than comparing two sets of numbers, one in kilometres per hour to another in miles per hour. Are we really ready for live wattage telemetry?
Vincenzo Nibali’s car ride during the Vuelta was bad, it happens but when caught so obviously better to admit it rather than seek sympathy, especially when the video has gone viral. Another “what were they thinking moment” was the level crossing incident in Paris-Roubaix. It looked bad on a superficial basis and another clip that travelled the world with the subtext that racing cyclists will do anything if it helps them. It was made worse because the UCI promised a review from which little has emerged and it means the next time the bells ring and lights flash many a rider will sprint rather than brake. Moves in France are afoot to post police or marshals by the crossings for next year but as we saw in April even a moto gendarme couldn’t stop some. This brings us to general rider safety and some bad crashes, think of Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan being hit by race motos or those steel bollards in the finish line for a stage of the Tour of the Basque Country. There’s understandably a strong reaction after from fans with many emails, tweets and more along the lines of “Brian Cookson must act” but the truth is that if President Cookson can do a lot, his job doesn’t make him an omnipotent Mr Big and it only highlights how responsibility can fall through the gaps. Finally if we’ve mentioned safety and course design there was the Vuelta’s opening stage, the team time trial that wasn’t after the playa haters forced a late change. Good for the riders for standing up but these things need to be planned by the race before.
All is not well behind the scenes with ongoing talk of a feud between the Velon teams and ASO. The UCI got involved over proposed reforms. There’s long been tension because of the atomistic structure of the sport, in simple terms the teams supply the riders, the race supplies the route and the UCI supplies the rules. Only it’s not this simple as there’s overlap. Arguing over money is legitimate, it’s the amateurism that grates. David Lappartient seems to have more irons in the fire than a burning golf shop. Oleg Tinkov is reduced to calling on Velon teams to boycott the Tour de France, about as likely as flying pig made out of crystal. Tinkov himself calls for stability in the sport but irks sponsors, muses in interviews that he could stop his team and changes employees at a high rate too.
Having looked at the good races, some were flat to watch. The Ardennes week of racing isn’t a disaster but it is a bit dull, a series of races that have all the ingredients: terrain, prestige, crowds, status. Races like Liège-Bastongne-Liège and the Amstel are huge physical challenges with plenty of climbing yet they’re becoming demonstrations of efficiency and exercises in economy. Riders sit tight and throw team mates up the road to force others into taking up the chase before a sprint from a select group determines the winner. The Brabantse Pijl, the lesser of the three “Ardennes” races probably had the best racing.
Déjà vu: a lot of this year’s negatives are similar to last year with safety concerns, the Astana team, political feuds, Twitter polemics trumping sport and so on. Which means they’ll be back in 2016.