Lowlights of 2017

Having picked five highlights of the year, a scan of some of this year’s lowlights. In no particular order here are a few boos, hisses, gripes and cock-ups…

Peter Sagan’s ejection from the Tour de France was a huge deal and was all down to a big mistake with the UCI commissaires rushing to judgement when they were never up against a ticking clock. It was a mistake in the moment and worse it left the Tour de France without two prime sprinters in Sagan and Mark Cavendish, opening the way for a parade of wins for Marcel Kittel and even if he’d beaten everyone in Liège it would have been more enjoyable to see him do this again against a deeper field each time.

It highlighted a referee problem in cycling. This is especially notable during the Tour de France but not reserved to it, see the Volta a Catalunya’s team time trial stage where protests on social media from BMC Racing started things off and the UCI commissaires acted in the evening but this verdict seemed to have no basis in the rulebook – they later blamed translation errors – and presumably after a call from Aigle they fixed things in time for the race the next day. There were other incidents such as Rigoberto Urán initially getting a time penalty for taking food while Romain Bardet did not despite taking food too during the Tour de France, leading to a social media storm when we should remember that those of us sitting on a sofa often have a much better view of the race thanks to multiple camera angles, helicopter shots and replays than officials sitting on a motorbike. Decisions on the ground will be wrong from time to time. But if the UCI struggle with the written rules then no wonder the audience gets confused over the unwritten rules such as when Tom Dumoulin has to relieve himself or Fabio Aru and Chris Froome claiming they didn’t see each other on the Mont du Chat. The difference is the written rules are public property while etiquette is for the peloton to manage, not us. One suggestion could see the UCI explaining itself, a jury member made public to walk the media through the rule and the video evidence so that they in turn can explain the decision to their audience (one common perception in the moment was that the race had ejected Sagan when it was the commissaires who work for cycling’s governing body). Instead typically the evening press release features a page from the jury, the rule broken and the riders involved, something contextual could help.

The Ardennes week ought to be brilliant. We have a mixed field of classics contenders and stage racers together at a busy point in the season, some great routes and events steeped in history. Only we get scripted scenarios that make this blogger think twice about bothering with previews because they’re too easy to write, eg picking the first three in order for Liège-Bastogne-Liège and three of the top four in order for La Flèche. The races aren’t a disaster and not every race can be a thriller but these classics need a revival and we’ll hopefully return to the mouthwatering contest of grand tour riders and classics contenders going head to head.

Not that new formats are perfect either. The Hammer Series race in Limburg with its points tallies that included decimal points was confusing for the commentators let alone the audiences and a final team time trial stage even confused commissaires as they struggled to separate the squads. Like Liège this needs a rework but unlike that race it doesn’t have any history to it so if the format is a flop it might not enjoy the same longevity. One solution is to pull these races off the UCI calendar and so make them subject to proprietary rules but could encourage other race owners to do the same and before we’d know it the World Tour would be history.

TV matters and once again the peloton crossed the top of the Poggio in Milan-Sanremo and there was no way of telling who was in the lead group other than visual recognition. Or rather there are ways to identify the riders remaining at this crucial phase of the race, it’s just broadcasters are not adopting them. We’ve now got vast quantity of cycling on TV with more events than ever and races like the Tour de France showing every second of every stage and it’s fantastic, there’s never been a better time to watch the sport but some work on the quality needs to come soon so that the increased volume of content doesn’t drown out the essence of it all. Again this is one of those niggles, it’s not a disaster and the only frustration is that the technical solutions exist rather than asking for the impossible.

The Giro d’Italia opened with a presentation in Alghero and two Bardiani-CSF riders were ejected for doping moments later, look closely and they’re the ones frowning as apparently they knew this was coming. Both Nicola Ruffoni and Stefano Pirazzi copped career-ending four year bans and the cases reveal a small team struggling to manage its riders as they heeded the siren calls of dodgy “coaches”. Meanwhile in the World Tour André Cardoso of Trek-Segafredo was pulled on the eve of the Tour de France for EPO and still provisionally suspended and little is known about his case. A similar story with Samuel Sanchez, he was pulled from the Vuelta a Espana for the same substance as Ruffoni and Pirazzi and seems to have been airbrushed away. Who was coaching him? Where did the substance come from? What has he got to say?

The Giro peloton rounded a corner and found a police motorbike parked on the side of the road and instants later Adam Yates, Mikel Landa, Geraint Thomas and Wilco Kelderman all had their Giro hopes dashed. The police normally do a great job in the Giro but one bad decision is all it takes and this duly narrowed the field of contenders. It’s a freak event and one of the charms of the sport is how the peloton crosses landscapes but this brings its risks too as riders hurtle into corners not necessarily knowing where the exit is, let alone what is parked ahead.

Cannondale-Drapac’s near collapse was a lowlight because of what it revealed with a team signing riders on the hope they’d find funding and “hotrodding” their finances to make ends meet. Once again vetting teams every October for their licence looks too late, a provisional check in June or July could help. The good news is that the team is financially secure but can they find their mojo again?

Team Sky’s spat with cyclingnews.com during the Tour de France wasn’t a huge deal in itself and there’s always a danger when the media talks about the media rather than the underlying race. The jiffy bag story was never settled and the UK enquiries reached a dead end rather than resolution. Some topics appear off limits as covered in The Cycling Podcast (26m31s) where certain issues have to be tiptoed around. This approach to media management signals a siege mentality and only stores up problems for the future but it’s not all paranoia, as cycling journalists have lamented many teams are preferring their own channels to communicate rather than using journalists as intermediaries. In the light of current events a brood of chickens is coming home to roost.

Are mid-life crises a real thing? There might be impulse purchases of convertible sports cars among men of a certain age as an attempt to look young again. What about buying a motor for your bike? This might explain the case of the forty-something plasterer who started winning village bike races in south-western France until a tip-off saw Christophe Bassons raid the race. Cyril Fontayne became the first to be caught with a motor in a road race. This ought to have been a local news item but it briefly had an international buzz. Why? Because the topic still hasn’t been shut down for pro racing. Motors should be the easiest thing to detect as there are no samples to bottle and send away, no nanograms per millilitre and you can’t microdose or mask the battery, wires and magnets. But the UCI’s testing programme with its souped-up scanners hasn’t been definitive enough, waving an iPad over a bike does not reassure and leaves a vacuum. Instead more means need to be used and bikes impounded and examined and all this should have happened already.

Finally there’s Chris Froome’s Salbutamol case. Froome’s case is a huge issue because he is arguably the biggest name in the sport – it’s either him or Peter Sagan – and this ensures big coverage. It’s unsatisfactory what ever your take on this… or even if you don’t have a view on it yet.

RIP Michele Scarponi, Chad Young et al who died riding their bikes

59 thoughts on “Lowlights of 2017”

  1. Yet another UCI president who wants to reduce the length of the Giro and the Vuelta.

    (I’m not even convinced he’ll be any better than the last bloke, who I’m not even convinced was any better than the last bloke, who I’m not even convinced was any better than the last bloke.)

    • Any UCI President has to pick realistic goals and telling ASO and RCS to shrink the value of their prime assets is, putting it generously, a challenging task.

      Most people see too much into the role of the President. The UCI is the governing body doing the best it can most of the time but it runs it from a small building in rural Switzerland that is sandwiched behind a retail park and the autoroute.

      • I don’t think it’ll happen, but it doesn’t bode well for his presidency if he wants to ruin two of the three grand tours.
        A two-week tour is a completely different thing – it’s nowhere near the same test (not to mention all the history you’d be kissing goodbye).
        Hard to believe that someone who had cycling’s best interests at heart would think that this was a good idea.

        • Before anyone jumps on that, I’m not referring to the current Froome issue, but the UCI’s past with Armstrong, the EPO 50% rule, the silence on Contador’s positive result, a lot of shady TUE’s over the years, a wide variety of Armstrong’s competitors being caught doping ostensibly on demand – and I’m sure a lot more (and who knows about Froome).

          • I’m sure it’s all fine now: there was nothing at all suspicious happening during the Cookson era and I know we all have confidence in the UCI these days.
            Tends to take a few years for things to come out, so let’s see.
            (Incidentally, my point was that the UCI has not been ‘doing the best it can most of the time’.)

    • And, in both cases, the investigations revealed an even more dangerous behaviour by the driver than it was stated at first. Patterns that *must* be changed because in both cases it wasn’t just pure fate. Several deaths could be avoided, even if the road will always be (relatively) dangerous.

  2. A little detail about the motorbike at the Giro: all the fault is on the policeman, no doubt. That said, even if the riders said otherwise, the moto wasn’t parked just behind a corner. I analysed the videos back then and posted something here, I think.
    The bunch may have had time to manage the situation safely, but some teams/riders apparently decided to try and take advantage of the ostacle in the fight for position. The fault still is on the policeman, but, speaking of “fair play”, well, the way those guys rode is “unfair play” to say the least, IMHO, and a dangerous approach to competition.

    • +1 The moto incident was blown out of proportion based on whose race was impacted. Based on the overhead TV shots, there was a clear line-of-sight and the moto was NOT parked in an unavoidable place exiting the turn. Riders need to look where-the-hell they are going instead of at the data screen on their handlebars as well as not using road obstacles (no matter what they are) as a way to squeeze a competitor out of the way or off the course.

  3. A very well-balanced and well-articulated piece.

    Just to add a lowlight in women’s cycling and the ongoing farce of La Course. And it’s Spnish equivalent.

  4. For me the low light was RCS selling the TV rights to watch the Giro exclusively to cable/pay TV companies. A great race where the majority of fans could not freely watch the race.

    • +1
      A small correction: they didn’t sell the rights “exclusively to pay TV”, but they sold exclusive rights to pay TVs in many countries, indeed.

      The lowest point of this lowlight was going pay in countries where the Giro was already enjoying audience success on public or anyway free TVs (I could understand, without agreeing with that, if you started with pay TVs in markets where you don’t think you’ll have the proper appeal over mass public – but throwing away millions of viewers, wow!).

      The highlight was finally going on air for free in France achieving great figures (for L’Equipe TV… linked to ASO).

  5. While Sagan’s ejection from the Tour was indeed a lowlight, in my view the way he handled the entire situation was a highlight. I struggle to imagine any of the other big hitters in the pro peleton not getting caught up in a media mud slinging match. He has come a long way since the 2013 Tour of Flanders.

    • Not to mention it opened the door for Michael Matthews and the gutsiest Green Jersey win – a definite highlight actually, now that I remember.
      And Sagan seemed so much fresher and stronger than his rivals come Bergen too.

      • Sagan didn’t look that strong to me in Bergen. Others impressed more than him. I think he wasn’t in great from, either. He kept his powders dry, took the risk of waiting and finally he gave it all when it mattered the most – not only the sprint but the whole off-TV section. I like this third rainbow win also because it was so different from the previous two (again, quite different between them). Cycling isn’t about being physically stronger, most of the time. A true champion is often the physically strongest rider in key races, indeed, but he really proves his status when he still wins against superior opposition.

      • I only saw Sagan racing for about 30 seconds in Bergen, it just so happened that they were the final 30 seconds of the race!

        In fact, I’m sure I heard him mention in post-race interviews that he really wasn’t feeling good and that was one of the reasons he wasn’t making/chasing any of those moves in the final few kms.

        Have to agree with Mike’s comment though, it’s hard to imagine many sportspeople handling a situation like that with the grace that he did.

        • Sagan did catch at least one move during the non-TV part, namely the one including GvA. But most other moves were covered by other riders. Sagan took the risk and that made him compete with Kristoff on equal terms, not so tired as in usual all-against-one mode.
          I agree that there is a huge comissaire problem. Adding a specialized video-analysing judge is a step in right direction, but far from sufficient one. It is non-sense that a majority of judges are from one (though organizing) country, whould it be acceptable say in figure skating? It is terrible that they didn’t even obey own rules, not letting the rider to be DSQ to tell them his version. Remove the rule or follow it. And as inrng says: no rush. Such heavy decisions should be taken the next morning, when everyone involved calmed down and ALL videos were thoroughly analyzed.

  6. Can’t let the uci dictate anything. The last good decision they were in Volvo’s with was moving the vuelta from April to August. That said, the Hammer Series shows that Velon can’t do it either.

    • Does this mean Volvo will become an official partner to the UCI?

      And again, it’s bashing the UCI but whilst they are not perfect they do a lot of good work that we all overlook.
      Like with the moto’s issue, the UCI has given out more detailed and clear guidelines for races to follow, but the actual responsibility lies with the race organiser and the individual in the vehicle.

  7. Sadly also amongst the ‘et al’ but worth a mention is Mike Hall , who passed March this year during the IPWR in the final stretch of the race with Kristof. He organised the Trans Continental races and which I’ve learned about a couple a years ago thanks to a write up on this blog and have followed the dots ever since. A very low point this year. RIP

    • Agreed, Mike Hall’s death is a real tragedy.

      One thing in common with many of these accidental deaths or near misses (ie. Stig Broeckx) is how dangerous vehicles are to women/men/children who sit on two wheels.

      I feel as though a radical solution is required. Most specifically some type of plan that focuses on changing the drivers’ approach to passing cyclists. To me, fines and penalties and criminal charges for drunk driving, etc. is too reactive, it focuses exclusively on what happens AFTER someone has been injured or worse. Let’s look at the preventative side. Need to focus on changing the relationship between cyclist/driver from the antagonistic/”let’s squeeze by them quickly” one that it is right now.

    • +1
      I discovered Mike Hall and the Transcontinental thanks to inrng, too. One of the many great things we owe to this blog.
      Mike Hall’s legacy has changed to better the cycling world, extending its boundaries towards a territory which I’ve always found especially fascinating and consistent with the deepest potential of bicycle.

    • That was very sad too and I quietly enjoyed watching his efforts whether on the bike or creating things like the Transcontinental, it was fascinating and often very refreshing to see this outside the usual parameters of pro cycling.

      I did think twice about the RIP mention above because these deaths are obviously so much more than mere “lowlights” but sometimes things that ought to go without saying can need to be said on the internet. Many others have perished but perhaps a thought for Steve Tilford too, he was an influential racer and an early blogger too.

  8. The presentation linked in “cycling journalists have lamented” was interesting; thanks for including that. It amused me that in the slide meant to show how “media hub connects cycling’s stakeholders,” the “Teams & Riders” are represented by a picture of racers pushing their bikes up a cobbled hill. Possibly not the best way to get teams and racers back on side with the cycling media!

  9. Highlights, We have much more quality race feeds ( pay for view) available in the US.

    Lowlights , All deaths and injuries to all cyclist RIP, Chad Young.

    Anyone know what the status (mindset) is of Adrien Costa?

    • I was under the impression Froome ‘stopped’ taking them when he realised/his agent realised it could be used against him later on.

      Like you said though, Sutton couldn’t have said it worse. Tactical TUE’s may be legal as they are currently arranged, but they cross the line of what is morally acceptable in sport. I won’t miss team sky.

  10. Interesting that you mention the Sammy Sanchez case, I’d completely forgotten about that; from a quick Google it seems as though the B-sample confirmed the finding, he was dismissed from BMC and no more has been heard about it.

    It still seems like a strange case, doping and risking his entire reputation just for that one final contract-extension at the end of his career? Seems odd to me…

    • A lot of doping cases don’t make much sense, if you assume that it just works like… “you dope, they catch you”.
      A different and more realistic POV might be: you dope, they try to catch you (half-heartedly or as hard as they can – it depends), they eventually make it sometimes.
      If you’re especially suspicious you might go as far as figuring out something like: you dope, they try to catch you, they eventually make it sometimes, then they decide if it’s worth to *use* that as a positive test – or not.

      • Yes, far more scandal management vs real anti-doping efforts, especially from UCI. Sadly even the social-media generation (with its legendary short attention span) pays attention long enough to have decided pro cycling has little to no credibility these days when the big winners are too often found to be cheats.

      • I agree there are probably more young athletes who decide to say “NO!”. Whether they can rise up to the topmost levels of competitive cycling is another matter.

  11. If the MSR TV coverage was an annual lowlight, then the Worlds coverage was the disaster of the decade. Even if you take out the dropped coverage in the last 2k of the Men’s Elite RR, the feed was abysmal.

    The RR course had gorgeous scenery and a promising mix of cobbled urban climbs and winding fjord byways. The TT course, with its spectacular finishing climb, could have been a classic. None of this came through in the broadcast, in which the finishing TT climb was not covered, and the camera always seemed to be pointing in the wrong direction.

    Don’t even get me started on the commentary. In the US, we were treated to the comedically inept Anthony McCrossen. When the commentator can’t even identify the TT riders, you have to ask yourself whether there is a point to having the sound on at all. During the RR he was joined by some Aussie rider who won a stage of the Giro who projected the personality of the glowering IT guy from the British “Office.”

  12. In my Recollection, a year or three ago after Froome was captured on film sucking on an inhaler surrounded by teammates[1], he eventually reacted to the bad publicity by swearing off inhalers[?]. However, I can not find any reference to such a declaration now.
    The big lesson from Lance is that microdosing with EPO is a successful way to avoid detection. (The original “marginal gains”?) There have been no technological advances in detection to close that hole. Of course there is the blood passport but the athlete merely needs to be consistent and moderate in their doping. Moreover, on a long stage race red blood cell count would normally fall – so microdosing EPO to prevent that fall would not only be undetectable by passport, it might even look more honest. Of that doesn’t mean any particular athlete does it.
    Uncertainty is an integral part of making sense of the world.
    [1]: http://www.velonews.com/2014/06/news/froome-says-uci-allows-him-to-use-inhaler-to-treat-his-asthma_331334

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