I’ve been a player of many sports over the years, and consequently followed the professional versions of the same, whether that be football, cricket, rugby or many others. When I took up cycling last year, I knew virtually nothing about pro cycling; I’d heard of Lance Armstrong, but would have struggled to tell you which team he rode for, or who were the current leaders of the UCI tour. I was aware of Chris Hoy’s achievements, but oblivious to Bradley Wiggins. The last time I’d ever really watched cycling was at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. When I got on my bike for the first time in 20 years, it was in the wake of Tour de France and London 2012 fever. I naturally decided to watch the professional game and take an interest in elite-level cycling.
I was surprised, when I started taking an interest, at just how disconnected professional cycling feels from the amateur game. It may have something to do with the fact that cycling isn’t just a sport; for many people, it’s a form of transport. Car drivers aren’t all Formula 1 fans, after all. What struck me particularly was how remote the sport feels from the everyday cyclist. Maybe it’s because every major cycling competition takes place on the European continent, with only the Tour of Britain coming once a year to this country. Maybe it’s because there is only one real professional British team, Team Sky, who last year bore a strong similarity to the British Olympic team. Maybe it’s because of an almost complete lack of coverage of cycling news except on the Internet in this country. Either way, professional cycling feels remote and distant to me, an everyday British cyclist.
To add further insult to injury, I read Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race shortly before Christmas and was absolutely staggered at the obvious levels of cheating going on in pro cycling. I could think of no other sport in which limits had been pushed to such extremes that virtually all the competitors had resorted to wholesale organised cheating just to keep up with the pack. I was amazed at how tainted the sport I had just come to appreciate had made itself. It’s greatest hero – the only pro cyclist I really knew from my non-cycling day – was now being masqueraded as one of the greatest cheats of all. It certainly gave me no love for the professional sport, and I felt more distant than ever before.
To help in overcoming this disconnection, I think there needs to be more competition in this country. The UCI cannot now deny that Britain is one of the world’s leading competitive countries in cycling, whether on the road or on the track. We have the most fabulous countryside and world class velodromes. An annual visit of the 8-stage Tour of Britain, a class 2.1 event (i.e. not top tier), simply isn’t enough. There needs to be more competition – and better coverage – of the tiers of cycling below the UCI Pro Tour level. League structures make sports exciting, and as far as I know, no serious structure exists in this country, and even Pro Tour rankings are not taken particularly seriously – just whether or not a rider wins a particular race or not seems to be the main criteria.
British cycling cannot just be sustained by media coverage of Victoria Pendleton, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins. Pendleton has retired, Hoy is about to and Wiggins is unlikely ever to repeat the achievements of 2012. In any case, only Wiggins rides for a pro team. What about other British riders and teams? Without coverage, British cyclists will just be things that pop up every four years, and the pro sport will remain in the doldrums. It needs to be clean, and seen to be clean – something I don’t have a whole lot of faith with while the UCI is the governing body of the sport, given their apparent collusion with the Lance Armsrong drug scandal.
A perceived corrupt sport, with remote stars and a lack of competition will see British cycling return to the doldrums. This will be a huge blow for the sport, just as it’s more popular than ever in Britain. Last summer, despite all the scandal breaking in the pro game, the connection with the wider public was made. People like me started cycling in droves. Now the professional arena has a responsibility to keep that up.