Call me old fashioned, nostalgic or whatever, but road cycling today is not the same sport it used to be. Where is the Bernard Hinault of this age? Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi, Sean Kelly, Roger De Vlaeminck, Gino Bartali, Lucien Petit-Breton and Henri Pélissier? Where are the men who could win Liège – Bostogne – Liège, a bunch sprint and a Grand Tour? Philippe Gilbert is good, but can we really write his name next to Sean Kelly’s? Time will tell, but in the meantime…
Lack of Champions is not the only problem of cycling. The peloton is infested with sissy whiners who seem to be stuck somewhere between a toddler and a second grader in their development, despite being paid a six figure salary. They seem to confuse mass media with their Moms and wail on and on about what an unfortunate lot their life is, how unfair everybody is to them and how riders from other teams don’t help them win races. For every dozen of Schlecks and Cavendishes, we only have one Johnny Hoogerland. Hard times.
The races too have become the festivals of mediocrity. Not boredom; bike races are never boring if you know what to look for, but most of modern races appear to be scripted, are uneventful, lack improvisation, craziness and the “all or nothing” attitude that used to distinguish this beautiful sport from golf. Remember the stage to Sestriere in 1992, a five hour solo breakaway by Claudio Chiappucci? When was the last time you saw something like this? Who can pull this off today? Better question is, who will even try? Or Andy Hampsten’s Passo Gavia triumph in 1988? Can you imagine the reaction in the peloton if they were facing something like this today? If Twitter existed in 1986, think of LeMond and Hinault engaged in a sobbing war while they are chasing each other in the Alps.
“You chased me!”
“Did to, did to, did to!”
And then there’s doping. When we have to wait until 2012 to know the winner of the 2010 Tour de France, you know there’s something seriously wrong with road cycling. Never mind that we’ve got now no winner at all between 1999 and 2005, the 2006 winner was disqualified, the 2007 one won because the guy who was supposed to win was thrown out from the race to avoid a doping scandal, the 1996 winner confessed he doped to win his race, the 1997 winner was disqualified for doping violations later and the 1998 winner ended his own life probably because he was sick of all the lies he had to live with. Not very pretty, is it? And yet, Pat McQuaid, the current UCI president, as well as his predecessor, Hein Verbruggen, an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee, no less, assure us their organization is not responsible for this mess. Whoa!
But enough whining, let’s talk solutions – I have figured it all out in my spare time and I’m about to tell you how professional cycling can be reformed. Read on.
There are exactly 3 acts in this play:
- Structural Reform
- Racing Reform
- Equipment Reform
Let’s have a closer look at each.
This one is a biggie. It involves the governing of the sport and the funding, both of which will impact the problem of doping. Because it’s such a complex matter, I won’t go into any detail about it right now – it deserves a treatment of its own – but I’ll say a couple of things anyway.
Structural Reform must include the complete dissolution of the UCI. This organization has shown over the years its not only inability, but, what’s even worse, unwillingness to look after the sport it governs. Some superficial changes will be futile – too many people’s livelihoods depend on the current status quo, and if reports about corruption in the UCI are true, there’s even less hope some window dressing “reforms” will achieve anything. Today’s stakeholders are not interested nor willing to embrace any changes which will deprive them of their lucrative incomes and power. The UCI must be shut down and a new governing body, based on principles designed to prosper the sport, should be set up. Anything less than that is a waste of time and an idle clapping of hands in the wind.
Road cycling is not ice hockey, we all know that. The non-stop action is both impossible and inappropriate in cycling. This sport is more like reading a book versus watching a movie – the show is long and you need to plough through all the details to enjoy the story. But, as I mentioned above, racing has become sluggish and lifeless, especially the Tour de France.
I have noticed this though – throw in some cobbles or dirt roads, and cycling transforms into a thrilling spectacle, the kind it originally was, the kind that captured the hearts of the Europeans early in the 2oth century. Ask yourself this: what races do you enjoy watching the most? Is it not the cobbled Classics like Paris-Roubaix, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem? Don’t you love the Strade Bianche? Do you remember what those dirt roads did to the 7th Giro d’Italia stage in 2010? By the way, note well who immediately popped up to the surface when the going got rough – the hard nails of professional cycling like Evans and Vinokourov. Or the Arenberg stage in the 2010 Tour de France – the peloton was blown up to pieces because of the cobbles and same story repeats: the hard men come out, the gloves are off and the fight begins.
Another observation – have you noticed the racing usually gets real tough once the “magic” 6 hour mark is passed? Take the Milan-San Remo, one of the Monuments, as an example. Almost completely flat, the race has often been won in the past by the hard men of the peloton like Merckx (7 times!), Petit-Breton, Henri Pélissier, Coppi, Bartali, Bobet, van Loy, De Vlaeminck, Kelly, Tchmil and so on. With no major climbs to speak of, the universal agreement among the pro’s is that at 298 km long, distance is the main factor that makes this race so hard. You can be smart as much as you want, you can save your legs and be ready for the final showdown, but when you hit the Poggio with almost 300 km in your legs, the lights will go out and you’ll feel the fatigue in every muscle of your body, at which point someone will attack and the race begin.
Conclusion? To return road cycling to its golden days, to make it as spectacular as it once was and reward the toughest riders, the distances must increase, the cobbles and the dirt roads must be a regular feature of road cycling rather than an exception.
Since about the 50s, the time trial stages became the all important key for winning a Grand Tour, especially the Tour de France. Who can ever forget Greg LeMond crushing Laurent Fignon on the final stage to Champs Élysées in 1989? And yet, I can’t help but ask – had LeMond not used that triathlon bar, what would be the outcome? I’m not saying he cheated or used a trick to beat Fignon, not at all; LeMond played within the rules while Fignon chose not to use the same bar and lost not only the stage, but the entire Tour. As we all very well know today, the aerodynamic position LeMond was able to achieve with the help of a triathlon bar he used that day gave him an advantage. How big nobody knows, and personally, I don’t care. Fact is, a piece of an aluminium pipe had probably influenced the outcome of one of the most exciting Tour’s in history.
Today, since everybody is using a time trial bike for time trial stages, the potential discrepancy in the results is neutralised. If it is, then why do we need them in the first place? In other words, since nobody gains any advantage – or so it seems – from using a time trial bike, why not ban them? Recumbent bicycles are banned from road cycling, are they not? Why time trial bikes are not be banned? These heinous mutants came from triathlon, to triathlon they should return, they have no place in road cycling.
The advantages of this would be numerous. If time trial bikes are banned, teams won’t have to drag them around, sometimes across the oceans, anymore. This will save them money, slow down ice melting in Arctic (or is it the Antarctic that is losing its ice?) and help increase the whales’ population. These are good things regardless of your world view.
More importantly, as far as the health of road cycling is concerned, banning time trial bikes will truly even out the so called playing field in the time trial race itself. I made a remark above about the “seemingly” level playing field when time trial bikes are used by everyone in the race. In my opinion, the field is not level at all.
Firstly, nobody really knows how much advantage each piece of aerodynamic equipment gives you. Manufactures employ professional smoke and mirror masters, known as “marketing people”, to tell us stories about their aerodynamic wheels, frames, helmets, skin suits, shoe covers and so on. Without testing the products in the wind tunnel, you can’t know how much truth is in the manufactures’ claims. And even then, it’s one thing to see x units of energy saved in a lab with one particular aero helmet, while the story will be different once you put that helmet onto someone’s head, combine it with a time trial bike, aero wheels and let the rider lose on a windy road. Will anybody really know the effects of all this on every rider in a race? For race results to be fair, the aerodynamic effects should be more or less equal for every rider in the race. Without this equality, the results are skewed in favour of those with superior aerodynamic equipment. This superiority can only be achieved through extensive wind tunnel testing where every piece of equipment is put together and tested with the rider. And here is the problem – not all teams can afford this sort of testing. And even those who can, only do it for the so called prospective Grand Tour contenders and TT specialists, everyone else is passed over. But what if someone who wasn’t expected to lead a Grand Tour grabs the leader’s jersey and has a serious shot at winning it? What if he needs only a few seconds to hold on to his jersey and loses it because his TT bike wasn’t set up perfectly some months ago? Why do we need this rubbish in road cycling? So that manufactures can sell more bikes?
Secondly, setting up a TT bike – not everyone can adapt well to this very unnatural bike riding position. This is why we have guys who can solo away from the peloton on a road bike but lose insane amount of time in a time trial because they are made to ride those stupid machines. Do you really think this is fair and adds anything to the cycling show?
By the way, about the show. The only thing that TT bikes add to the show is embarrassment. Do you remember how many times Michael Rasmussen fell in a single time trial stage in the 2005 Tour? I don’t. What I remember though is that he lost his 3rd place in the general classification on that stage of the Tour de France because of those crashes. Or the 2003 Tour when Ullrich came closest to beating Armstrong? Only seconds behind, last time trial and he hits the floor, Tour’s gone. Menchov in 2009 Giro – last time trial, almost home, last corner and bang, he is down but luckily holds on to his overall victory.
All of these crashes, and many more like them, have nothing to do with the riders’ skills – these guys have excellent riding skills, they don’t crash riding alone. It’s the TT bikes that caused the crashes – they’re awkward to ride and are very unstable. Just when you think you picked a good line through a corner, a gust of wind comes along, hits your disc wheel and your aero frame and you hit the deck before you know what happened.
The stupidity of TT bikes really shines in the team time trials when 9 highly skilled professional bike racers ride their bikes like a bunch of poo’s floating down the Yenisei river. This is a team time trial abomination, no less. Go and look at the amateur team time trial World Championships of the times past – what you’ll see is the clockwork like execution of the most sophisticated kind ever done on a road bicycle when more than two riders had to ride together to achieve a common result. To do that, you need to control your bike as much as possible and not being left to the mercies of the environment you happened to race in. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, watch the TTT stage of the 2009 Tour de France and count how many teams didn’t have at least one rider go down in that race. The Bbox boys lost 4 (!) riders on one corner because they couldn’t control their TT machines. Can road cycling get more ridiculous than this? Give these guys the bikes they know how to handle and watch them do what they do best – race bikes without worrying about losing control of their machines because the machines are designed to be ridden on a straight road without another rider anywhere near you. Time trial bikes are both stupid and dangerous, they must be banned. Once they’re gone, race organisers will have much easier time to find roads for individual and team time trials because any road will do, including cobbled and dirt roads.
In conclusion, to revive road cycling, we need to ditch the very organisation, the UCI, that is largely responsible for the decay this old sport is in today.
To thwart doping, a new environment must be created with financial incentives to compete clean and harsh punishments for fraud, which is what doping is.
To return road cycling to its former days when great champions, and not the doctors, battled each other in the most testing, spectacular circumstances, the races must return to their original roots where endurance, stamina and character were tested to their limits. The aerodynamic innovations that bring nothing to the sport and only enrich the manufactures must be left where they belong – in the world of triathlon and bicycling enthusiasts.