In June 2013, current UCI President Brian Cookson released his manifesto which ultimately succeeded in helping him get elected at the UCI congress later that year.
In that manifesto in the section entitled ‘Overhaul the structure of elite road cycling’ Cookson wrote the following:
“The structure of elite cycling needs to provide a clear and compelling narrative that is easy for spectators, sponsors and broadcasters to follow. “
In its context, Cookson was writing specifically about the organisation of events throughout the year into a cohesive and coherent calendar. But if we cherry-pick a phrase from that campaign pledge, that cycling needs to be easy for spectators to follow, this is in rather stark conflict with the news which has been emerging from various UCI teams over the last few weeks.
As it is the beginning of a new season, existing teams and brand new teams have gradually been releasing photos of their new team kit for the year. It has been incredibly noticeable that there is going to be one dominant colour in the peloton this year – black.
When two football teams play each other, there are rules in place to ensure that the jerseys of the opposing teams do not clash. This is to ensure that the players and the fans can distinguish between the two teams – simple and obvious. When a non-football fan flicks on a match and doesn’t know which teams are actually playing, it is still obvious that there are two separate groups of players.
Cycling is a more complicated case because there can be upwards of 20 different teams competing at once rather than just two, but there are similar rules in place in the UCI’s regulations.
Rule 1.3.035 states:
‘Each team may use different clothing for one full event each year. The clothing must be submitted for approval to the President of the UCI WorldTour for UCI ProTeams, or the President of the Road Commission for other UCI-registered teams, at least 21 days before the event in question. The application may be rejected for reasons considered valid for the case in question, in particular any similarity to the clothing of another team.’
The rule might exist, but as so often with UCI rules, it doesn’t appear to ever be enforced as team after team release similar kits for 2015.
There is another rule relating to rider apparel pertaining to rain jackets. Rule 1.3.030 states:
‘Rain capes must be transparent or made to look like the jersey’
It doesn’t state in the UCI’s official documents on their website what the reasons are for this rule, but in a letter distributed to teams by the UCI, their reasoning was stated as follows:
‘Riders should be able to identify their rivals at all times during a race in order to respect absolute equity and regularity between athletes.
Commissaires must also be able to recognise the riders in order to make appropriate decisions regarding the sporting management of the event.
TV directors and commentators can find it very difficult to identify riders; this is harmful to the image of professional cycling for spectators and fans who are following the race live.’
If the UCI recognises that generic rain capes can cause serious problems for riders, commissaires, TV directors, commentators, spectators and fans, why is the same logic not extended to the jerseys themselves?
The rules state that the person responsible for approving or disapproving kit design is the ‘President of the UCI WorldTour for UCI ProTeams’. A check on the UCI website of the various roles assigned to the members of the UCI Management Committee reveals that currently nobody has been officially assigned to this position. So is it any wonder that so many professional teams next year will be in dark kit?
It’s hard enough to explain to those new to the sport what is going on in races as it is, without all the riders looking alike. That helmets are now compulsory and many riders choose to wear sunglasses while riding makes it all the more difficult to determine rider identities. The commentators on 2015 races will certainly have an unenviable job of picking apart who is who.
If experts are going to struggle, what chance does the new fan have in trying to ‘engage’ with the ‘product’?
We saw with the recent Astana case of whether the team should be issued a WorldTour license or not that the UCI were hamstrung by their current set of rules and ultimately had little chance but to award them a license.
Here is a much simpler case, where rules actually already exist to take action. The colours of team jerseys may seem like a trivial matter when compared to doping, but a more generic looking peloton is also harming the image of the sport and dissuading potential viewers from immersing themselves in cycling.
The rules are there. Why are the UCI not utilising them?
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.
It’s the final mountain stage of the 2012 Vuelta a Espana and the riders are grinding their way up to the summit of the Bola del Mundo near Madrid. The overall leader of the Vuelta has previously been stripped of two Grand Tour titles and is returning to his first major race since serving a two year ban for doping. Less than a minute up the road is his likeliest challenger for the leader’s jersey, a rider who has been part of two of the most reprehensible teams the sport has ever known.
In between them, both on the road and on G.C., lies the rider who will join them on the podium, he is riding his first Vuelta since he won it three years previously. His prolonged absence is, like our race leader, also due to a two year ban which he received for doping. Further up the road, an innocuous breakaway has already crossed the finish line and the stage has been won by a rider who is currently under investigation for having been doped by the most notorious doctor in the history of this sport.
Just another typical day in another typical cycling race. The sport is littered with dopers, ex-dopers, facilitators of dopers, doctors who administer dope to dopers and has been for a very long time. So why do we continue to let ourselves believe in a sport which has never ceased to give us reasons to give up and stop caring?
Is it the ever-changing beauty of the arena in which the sport takes place? Do we continue to watch simply for the scenery?
The theatre in which road racing is acted out is one of cycling’s major selling points. The crisp Spring air of a Lombardian coastline, the brutal muck-drenched bergs of Belgium, the snow covered hairpins of a Swiss Alpine climb, even the hackneyed sunflower fields of a Bretagne summer – cycling can drink in whatever it wants from wherever it wants. It is not shackled by stadia, closed tracks or international borders. Cycling brings the world to our living room like no other sport can.
Sponsors know this and take advantage of it – ‘our country is beautiful, let’s show it to the world’. We are fed advertisements during races encouraging us to visit the places we are watching. The places can be so aesthetically agreeable that the advertisers’ money will not be wasted. But is this reason alone to tune into a sport we know to be so utterly tainted? Eurosport is good for that, but National Geographic is better.
What about the equipment used by the cyclists?
The bizarre sponsorship model which cycling is currently burdened with began from within the cycling industry itself. Teams were not allowed to display sponsors from any companies not involved in the cycling industry. A major role (some may say the only role) of a professional cycling team is to make money for the sponsor. Although it is rare in modern times to have a cycling brand as the primary sponsor of a team, pro teams all ride bicycles. These bicycles are provided by manufacturers in order to provide a shop window for their product, shift units and make profits.
Many cycling fans watch races not to see who wins, but for the ‘bike porn’. The new electronic shift system, the new ‘most-aero helmet ever’, (the new disc brake system?) – television production teams know this and endeavor to provide live footage of new cycling technology being used by the pros in order to please the amateurs. As a participatory sport, cycling is not cheap. There are rich men and women in lycra everywhere and they want to part with their cash by buying upgrades rather than cycling up grades. They want to be shown what is the best money can buy. And what better way to observe a machine performance than watching the best in the world win the biggest races in the world, regardless of what’s powering the human performance?
But then are we overly concerned with the human performance? It is perfectly possible to reconcile the fact that many cyclists are using performance enhancing drugs with the fact that they would not be able to produce these extraneous displays if they were not supreme athletes anyway. We are not watching unfit slobs shoot up before a race and suddenly produce titanic performances. We are watching outstanding human bodies perform outstanding feats of physical achievement and who only reach the final per cent or two of that effort by breaking the rules.
If we ignore the insight gained by relativity and human expression, it is close to impossible to perceive the difference in speed between a doped cyclist and a clean cyclist via television. With no frame of reference we cannot conclude that a rider on television is travelling at, say, 43 km/h rather than 41 km/h. Could this have an impact on our cynicism? One of the few indications we have of doping, from our couches, are closed mouth riders blasting away from a spent group of handlebar chewers. These indicators usually only emerge on summit finishes in Grand Tours, but we know doping is not confined to these occasions. So beyond this, how can we calibrate our radars of cynicism?
The question is, do we even want to?
Is the cycling fan, fundamentally, a perverse individual? Is it possible that we enjoy the drama? Along with equipment, training, nutrition, tactics and financial backhanders, doping certainly adds an intriguing but cantankerous element to a race. It is undeniably dramatic when the winner of a race is caught and expunged. Do we enjoy this nefarious carry-on? Is it a reason to actually stick with the travelling circus we call cycling, that something compelling may occur even after the race has ended? Suddenly the beautiful theatre through which the sport travels becomes the setting for a wicked and shameless soap opera. But it’s a show we tune into every week.
The fact that we continue to watch this sport in the face of overwhelming and detestable evidence that there are cheaters in every race suggest that we are perverse, all of us. So why? Why do we do it? Why do we persist?
It is because we hope.
We know the race we are watching contains abominable cheaters, but we hope the clean guy wins. We know some of the teams contain doctors who are doping riders, but we hope the clean team wins. We know the performance of the winner was special, it had to be to win a professional cycling race, but we hope the performance was clean. We know the governing body of cycling is corrupt and inept, but we hope that change is coming. We know that our sport is laughed at by others as the dirtiest there is, but we hope our next generation of young cyclists will prove them wrong. We hope our sport improves, we hope our sport cleans up, we hope our sport reforms.
The lack of racing in the winter months inevitably means that the news and discussion emerging from the cycling world comes from other corners of the sport that don’t involve turning pedals. Doping is the usual off-season topic to revert to, but as we are currently in a lull between the USADA report and the outcomes of the various other investigations that are taking place (UCI, Mantova, Padua), the current hot topic seems to be that of the UCI points system.
There are three stories which have emerged in recent weeks which highlight the various unwanted side affects caused by the current UCI points system which rewards riders rather than teams (a thorough breakdown of the system has been provided by The Inner Ring who highlights the fact that it may in fact be misunderstood by many riders). There are a number of facets to the application process in getting a team into the World Tour, of which the points scored via racing is just one, but it is the one which receives the most focus.
Steve Houanard of AG2R-La Mondiale was told the following by his team manager Vincent Lavenu told before the recent Tour of Beijing:
I told him we do not keep him in the team. I had told him that the door is not 100% closed, but he knew it would be difficult to change our mind.
Houanard translated this statement as a requirement to score some UCI points in China to help the team with its application for ProTeam status for 2013. Having achieved no top 10 finishes at all in 2012, Houanard decided to up his game by taking EPO. He subsequently tested positive and is now facing a two year ban from the sport.
Then there’s Matt Brammeier of OmegaPharma-QuickStep. The triple Irish champion came to the Belgian team having had a successful year as a domestique at HTC-Columbia. He has had an unfortunate year which was hampered by a knee injury. His lack of points has rendered him officially worthless according to the UCI and has left him without a contract at OmegaPharma-QuickStep and, thus far, teamless for next season.
Finally, Gianni Meersman has been making the news recently as he decided to leave Lotto-Belisol because they have still not yet received confirmation that they will be part of the UCI World Tour next year. Meersman’s situation is complicated by the fact that he will leave his points behind him at Lotto-Belisol because a particular deadline has passed, but nevertheless, Lotto-Belisol are now one (successful) rider down coming into next year because of the UCI points system.
The points system itself is difficult to come to terms with. The UCI have applied an (arbitrary?, subjective?) points system races which rewards individuals and yet when it comes to issuing licenses, it is teams that are examined. The problem boils down to one of the major quirks of cycling, in that it is a team sport where events are won by individuals.
Consider the English Premier League. Teams maintain their top tier status by gaining points which they earn by winning individual matches. Three points for a win, one point for a draw. The three teams with the least points at the end of the season loses their top tier status.
Now imagine if the Premier League reverted to rewarding individuals instead of teams. Isn’t it goals which decide football matches anyway? What if teams were awarded a place in next year’s Premier League based on the accumulated amount of goals the players on their current squad scored throughout the previous season? The three teams with the least amount of goals scored amongst the players on their team are relegated.
What would that spell for individual Premier League fixtures? Strikers become the major commodity and the players less inclined to score goals become expendable. The art of defending would be abandoned, everybody would want to score goals and nobody would care if they win or lose the game. Just as riders who win races are precious and domestiques are becoming expendable.
But where cycling and football differ is that in football the league table is ultimately the thing that matters. Individual matches are important of course, nobody wants to lose to their closest rivals for instance, but the points tally at the end of the season is paramount. Teams are judged by their league position.
But in cycling, each individual race is infinitely more important than the UCI’s contrived ranking system. A team would rather win the Tour de France, than finish ‘top of the league’.
Today, the UCI WorldTour co-ordinator Javier Barrio has come out and defended the UCI points system:
The key word is league. Now everyone can talk about something that starts with 18 teams in January and by October there is a classification that determines who is the top rider, which is the best team and which is the strongest nation… Now in every race there is something in play, there are crucial points at stake that ensure teams always take the races seriously.
But everyone does not talk about this ‘league’. The only reason it is news-worthy now is because the future of riders and teams relies on the outcome of the league. It has no inherent sporting value, unlike football where winning the league is the ultimate achievement for the athletes. To further highlight the absurdity of the UCI placing importance on their league is the riders who finished first and second this year, Joaquim Rodriguez and Bradley Wiggins raced against each other just once, at the Worlds Road Race, which isn’t even part of the World Tour.
Barrio goes on to say:
We have generated interested in a more consistent way.
Does anybody follow the Tour Down Under or the Tour of Beijing because they can’t wait to see how the outcome shapes the resulting league table? People follow these races because they are on television, the league table matters not. Barrio persists:
That is another problem…people have to understand that there would be no World Tour without a points system.
With the exceptions of the Tour of Beijing and the two Canadian one day races which are all recent inventions, every one of the other 26 races on the World Tour calendar has managed capably without the presence of the World Tour points ranking.
Barrio does admit that there are flaws in the system, such as the weighting of points for races on the lower tier tours (UCI Europe Tour, UCI Asia Tour etc.) is not perfect. He also addresses the issue of points being awarded to riders and not to teams but says no changes to this approach have been confirmed during discussions thus far.
The process of creating a system where teams have an avenue to reach the top tier of cycling teams and where the threat of relegation looms for under-performing teams is a complicated one. No system will be perfect, but the fact that riders are awarded points rather than teams seems such an obvious flaw in the system it is alarming that this is not being addressed as a matter of urgency.
Cycling has many problems, some related to doping others relating to the weird team sponsorship model that the sport has adopted. But unlike drugs and global finance, the UCI has complete control over the points system that they use and it is something that they can sort out now.
To have a UCI representative publicly declare that the UCI World Tour and its point system has “contributed a great deal” and has “revitalised cycling” is insulting to riders like Matt Brammeier, Steve Houanard and Gianni Meersman. Fans don’t care about a cycling league table. The sooner the UCI realise this, the better.
With Team Sky set to deliver a one-two at the top of the general classification via Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome as well as nabbing four stages so far with four different riders, this is undoubtedly the best year ever for Great Britain at the Tour de France.
After today’s stage in the Pyreneés, it seems clear that all of Wiggins’s potential rivals are either unwilling or unable to attack him. The only threat that could conceivably see Wiggins not reaching Paris with the yellow jersey seems to be from within his own team.
Previously, in terms of performances by a number of riders, the best any British riders had managed were stage wins by Michael Wright and Barry Hoban in 1967. The pair repeated the feat in 1973, with Hoban also adding a third stage win for Britain that year. And in 1994, Chris Boardman won the prologue and both Boardman and Sean Yates had stints in the yellow jersey.
This year they have doubled their best ever number of riders who have taken a stage. Mark Cavendish, Froome, Wiggins and David Millar have all won a stage of this year’s Tour de France. What’s more, respectively, the victories came in a sprint, in the mountains, in a time trial and in a breakaway.
But it hasn’t escaped the attention of many, that actually, none of these riders were born in England, Scotland or Wales. Cavendish was born and bred on the Isle of Man. Froome was born in Kenya and didn’t ride with a British license until 2008. Wiggins was born in Ghent in Belgium and finally Millar was born in Malta and spent his formative years in Hong Kong.
A motley crew indeed, but the top Irish cyclists are no different.
There are two Irish cyclists currently riding the Tour de France, cousins Nicolas Roche and Daniel Martin. Although Roche is the son of an Irish Tour de France winner, he was born in France and has a French mother. Martin was born in Birmingham and is the son of former British cyclist Neil Martin. The only other World Tour level cyclist representing Ireland is Matt Brammeier who was born in Liverpool and only declared for Ireland as recently as 2009.
The English author Samuel Johnson once famously declared that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. So should British cycling fans be supporting Team Sky, a team of nine riders of which only three are British, none of whom born in Britain? And should Irish fans be cheering on Roche, Martin and Brammeier whenever they throw their leg over a saddle, despite the fact that none were born in Ireland?
Of course they should.
The simple reasoning is that this is what we always do. When the Irish football team qualify for a major tournament the country comes to a standstill because everybody is either at home or in the pub cheering them on. We may not enjoy watching the team on a sporting aesthetic level (especially not in recent years) and we may not even like some of the players. But this doesn’t matter because they are Irish. To a slightly lesser extent, the same goes for the Irish rugby team when the World Cup rolls around.
The major question is here is what exactly do we mean when we say ‘Irish’? Is somebody who was born in Kerry, has a Dad from Galway and a mother from London any less Irish than someone who themselves, their parents and their four grandparents were all born in Offaly? What about a Polish guy who becomes a naturalised citizen and gains an Irish passport? Is he any less Irish than Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh?
Well, when it comes to representing Ireland on a sporting level, they are all as Irish as each other. When Jack Charlton was in charge of the Irish football team in the eighties and early nineties, he made use of the ‘Granny rule’ which saw many players claim Irishness in order to play for Big Jack. This was the best thing that ever happened to the Irish football team. Any athlete that declares to play for Ireland, no matter what their heritage or background, should be absolutely celebrated for their Irishness and their willingness to participate in international sporting events for this country.
So we should support Irish athletes whether they’re Irish or not, right?
Yes, and here’s why.
Supporting quasi-Irishness simply because this is what we always do, is the simple reasoning but it’s certainly not the important reasoning. Although sharing a nationality with someone doesn’t even necessarily mean you were born in the same country, the world is organised into countries. Some people scoff at the idea of national pride, especially amongst cycling fans, but what the division of countries means most importantly, is that television coverage and sports development funding is also organised on a country by country basis.
There has never been more cycling coverage in Great Britain than there is right now. ITV have added live coverage to their usual daily evening highlights package. They also covered the Vuelta for the first time ever last year. British cycing writer William Fotheringham said this on his Twitter page last week:
The back five pages in the Guardian all cycling. Not something I’ve seen in 18 years covering it for them. Says something about where my sport is…
Our Irish cyclists are taking part in some of the biggest bike races in the world and it doesn’t get a mention in the evening news, it doesn’t get a mention in the national newspapers and if it wasn’t for Shane Stokes’s presence at the forefront of cycling news, the sport may not even get the scant coverage it currently does get. Supporting our Irish cyclists can change this scenario for the better so that the cycling stories we read about in the paper are no longer just the doping stories.
Furthermore, British cyclists harbour some of their best hopes for medals at the forthcoming Olympics. Chris Hoy, Wiggins, Cavendish, Victoria Pendleton and Geraint Thomas are all expected to get on the medal table. Britain’s cyclists benefit from massive amounts of funding and the success they have seen on the track and are now seeing on the road is phenomenal.
Clean the office first. That’s a beautiful office but it’s badly maintained. The first thing you see when you go into Cycling Ireland’s headquarters is the state of the office. You don’t have to ask yourself any questions about the state of the federation when you see that.
I have the Roche-Kelly House, or the Kelly-Roche House or whatever you call it, in my heart. It was a major helping hand to the federation, to any federation, and I think it’s not been respected as it should be. If any young kids are looking for a licence and they go into Kelly-Roche House and they look at the state of the place, and the state of the equipment which people don’t maintain, they won’t be encouraged to stay.
Cycling Ireland needs funding and cycling in Ireland in general is in constant need of sponsorship. The more success that our Irish cyclists Roche, Martin and Brammeier achieve on the big stage, the more young kids are going to want to get up on their bikes and the more people will realise that investing in this sport in Ireland can reap rewards.
So no matter how Irish the Irish are, cheering them on and getting behind them is good for the sport, in terms of media coverage, sponsorship and growing the sport. In the long term it will benefit our children and our children’s children, one of whom may be the next Sean Kelly or Stephen Roche, whether they are born in Gort, Geelong or Gdansk.
Cycling is a strange sport. It’s a sport for individuals organised under the guise of teams. Spectators aren’t required to pay to go and watch it. It’s very difficult to sit down and watch a race if you have no idea who the main protaganists are or haven’t a notion of which riders are there and for what reasons.
Cycling fans, for the most part don’t support teams, they simply have a selection of favourite riders. Even if a cycling fan was to build up an affinity with a particualr team, that team may be called something different next year, or it may be based in a different country or it may be gone altogether.
Football on the other hand is very different. It is the quintessential team sport where fans exude a tribal loyalty. Football fans have a favourite team, just one. They pay exorbitant amounts of money to follow their team and cheer them on to victory.
And it is a game that can be watched with or without knowledge of the wider context of who the teams or players are. Unlike cycling, there are no players on the pitch who are aiming to peak for a different time in the season and there are no players who actually have no interest in performing well in any particular match. Both teams are just trying to score more goals than the other, simple.
And of course there’s doping. Cyclists dope and footballers don’t, right?
All of these topics combined lead to what are fascinating parallels and differences between the world’s most popular sport and a sport which is trying to emerge globally and attract new fans and new sponsors.
Ned Boulting is a presenter for ITV for both football and cycling and he was kind enough to talk to me at considerable length about these topics.
I half thought of transcribing the whole thing and writing an article around it but it went on for much longer than I thought (and transcribing takes ages!).
So after a couple of Skype-related false starts and an interruption in the middle in which Ned becomes loud and I become less-so, the following is the chat that we had about cycling and football.
Hopefully, there’s some people out there that will enjoy it. It’s also available to listen to directly on the SoundCloud website.
So the 2011 cycling season is over and inevitably, the countdown has begun to the 2012 Tour Down Under in January.
Well, actually the 2011 season isn’t quite done yet. There’s a race called the Tour of Hainan currently taking place in China, where Ireland’s David McCann finished in 12th place on yesterday’s opening stage riding for the Giant Kenda cycling team. McCann actually finished second overall in this nine-stage race back in 2008.
There’s also the Japan Cup which takes place this coming Sunday. This is a hilly one-day race which has been won in the past by prominent riders such as Claudio Chiappucci, Gilberto Simoni and Damiano Cunego.
Last year’s winner was Daniel Martin who unfortunately won’t be on the startline to defend his crown. However, there are some big names due to participate on Sunday. Ivan Basso, Roman Kreuziger and Richie Porte should all be
there, as will Cunego who will be aiming to win the race for a record-equalling third time.
But admittedly, these are minor races and all the big races are done and dusted for the year. But if, like me, you’re a cycling nerd and you just can’t get enough of it, the off-season is a great time to spend watching old races and cycling DVDs.
In the past I have spent a lot of time and a lot of money hunting down old DVDs on eBay. But last year, and I may be a bit late to the party here, I discovered the most amazing website – cyclingtorrents.
The videos that are available mostly consist of races which have never even been released on DVD. Cycling enthusiasts use their spare time to capture races from live internet streams and convert their old recorded-off-the-telly VHS tapes into digital formats.
Most races are also available in a variety of languages. There’s road racing, track racing, cyclo-cross, women’s racing and documentaries – you name it, it’s up there.
If it sounds like I’m affiliated with this website and I’m plugging it, I can assure you I have no connection with cyclingtorrents. I just think it’s an incredible resource, and the more people that get on board and download and share the videos the better the website becomes. As far as I know, nobody makes any money from it anyway. It’s simply fans sharing with other fans.
So if you find yourself yearning for the spring classics over the coming winter, why not go to cyclingtorrents and download the 1995 Tour of Flanders or the 1992 Milan San Remo.
If Grand Tours are more your cup of tea, why not download highlights of this year’s Tour? You can download just particular stages or you can grab the whole lot. There’s one file up there which contains full highlights of every Giro d’Italia from 1993-2000.
Fancy a documentary? There’s 236 of them available, and that’s just in English.