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