Tag Archives: pro

Jonathan Tiernan-Locke

Jonathan Tiernan-Locke

As I write this, there is still no news on the Jonathan Tiernan-Locke blood irregularity story that has been in the mainstream cycling press. Some have argued that Tiernan-Locke has been given a raw deal by the press and that JTL is effectively “tainted” now for the rest of his career, no matter what he does in future. This is the reason why doping investigations remain confidential, but questions were always going to be asked about why JTL pulled out of the GB Road Race team when he did back on 26th September 2013. “Lack of form” wouldn’t have cut it for long; much lesser riders than JTL were in that squad and he wasn’t representing the higher echelon of Team Sky at the time. His form had been poor since making the jump up from Continental level, but perhaps that was to be expected.

I’m not going to speculate wildly about whether JTL’s blood readings are representative of an illness or doping; I haven’t got any more facts than anybody else, yet I do feel that stories like this deserve to be in the press. Professional sportsmen / women manage to exist because they are a form of public entertainment, no matter what the sport. If people aren’t riding clean, then people deserve to know what they’re watching. If JTL’s blood readings are “clean”, then I expect the processes around that to be well-explained by the UCI so that we can all have confidence in the procedure, and I’m sure they will be very thorough procedures indeed. It shouldn’t taint him in the long-term, so long as there is transparency. Unfortunately, the UCI is a masterful institution at remaining silent on important issues within cycling, and nobody seems to know what is happening with the case at the moment.

On a personal note, I hope that JTL is clean. I saw him win the Tour of Britain at the first ever cycling event I attended in person, standing out on Guildford High St for about 4 hours just to catch a 15-second glimpse of him as he cycled past in the gold jersey. I saw him crunch his way up Porlock Hill in Devon the day before, knowing that my car had barely once made it up that climb. For me, he was one of the outstanding riders of 2012 and a deserved addition to the Team Sky line-up. I hope my faith in him isn’t misplaced.

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UCI Proposes Two-Tiered Cycling Structure

It has been reported today that the UCI are discussing proposals to have a two-tiered structure in professional cycling, with promotion and relegation between the first and second division. There would also be a third grouping of the Continental teams, for which it doesn’t sound like there are any plans to offer promotion to the professional circuit.

While this may seem like it is bringing cycling into line with other professional sports, is it necessary or feasible? The current system on the World Tour relies on second-ranked teams being offered wild card places to enter the big events, a system which would seem largely unchanged by this proposal, but the only way they can move up to the World Tour is by proving that they have the staff, resources and setup to compete at world level. Under the new proposals, they could compete full-time on the World Tour by finishing in a high placing in their division, while another World Tour team is relegated. I’m not sure that this is good for either the teams or cycling in general.

Team Sky recently posted a video on their YouTube page giving a behind-the-scenes look at their Service Course (the division that supplies and maintains their equipment for touring) and it is nothing short of staggering. Most cycling teams could not compete with that support network without major sponsorship. If the teams had that kind of networks and sponsorship already, they would also be competing on the World Tour. But what would happen to these teams if they were “relegated”?

Major sponsors, already scarce in cycling, would not be interested in a team condemned to compete only in minor events for the coming season. If they pulled out, it is unlikely the team would be able to get back to World Tour standards anytime soon. However, if they did, it could lead to considerable uncertainty and see-sawing as teams cyclically hire and fire staff according to which division they compete in for the coming season. Football can sustain this – the structure is more supportive – but I’m not sure cycling can.

I also wonder, would the UCI really drop one or more of the current World Tour teams from the top level of cycling just because of a poor season? Cycling depends on these high level teams for its fan interest and consequent funding. Would the UCI seriously kick Team Sky out if they finished bottom? It would be the end of the team, and a significant revenue stream for pro cycling.

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Womens’ Road Racing

The other day, I read this interesting article over on Road CC where Lizzie Armitstead criticised the lack of action from the UCI in establishing a proper womens’ professional road racing circuit and called on professional teams to be forced into developing female riders as well. I think she has a legitimate gripe. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed watching the likes of Jess Varnish, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott on the track, and I see no reason why I wouldn’t enjoy watching a proper road racing calendar as well.

While I can reel off many male professional teams from the top of my head – Sky Procycling, BMC, Orica GreenEDGE, Omega-Pharma Quickstep, Movistar, Euskaltel Euskadi, etc etc, I can only name just one professional womens’ team – Wiggle Honda, and it is only through a bit of internet research for this article that I’ve learned of Team TIBCO. Even then, I only know of Wiggle Honda because they are based here in Britain. To my knowledge, none of the big teams I’ve just named have got female development squads and they are some of the biggest names in the sport (Orica are also a co-sponsor on one female team, Orica-AIS, but they are different teams). Only Argos-Shimano in the Netherlands have a direct female equivalent team, but they’re a second-tier outfit relying on wildcard invitations to get into the really big events. As can be seen from the list in this link, there are very few female pro teams.

There are some womens’ sports I don’t enjoy watching, such as football, cricket and boxing – they just don’t capture my attention in the way that the mens’ game does. Football I find too slow, the cricket I find lacks the big hits of the mens’ game and boxing I just don’t like, despite being a fan of the male sport. Yet I do enjoy tennis, athletics, swimming and cycling – so far confined only to the track – immensely. There is no valid argument that can be made to support the position that:

  1. Women can’t compete in endurance sports: they can (ask any marathon runner, biathlete or swimmer)
  2. There would be no audience to watch it: there is (look at the crowds for London 2012)
  3. There isn’t enough money to develop a women’s team: there is (cycling makes more money now than ever before – Armitstead estimates that Team Sky make over £10m per year)
  4. There isn’t enough room in the calendar to accommodate a womens’ schedule: there is.

This fourth point, to me, seems easy to address. Why not simply have a womens’ race set off an hour before the mens’ race in any professional event? The infrastructure would already be there, the planning has already been done – all that would be needed would be some more outriders and a slightly longer period of road closures. For an even braver decision, it could even be possible to have a combined start and mix the female riders in with the men, albeit they should be classified separately, much like happens in the Touring Car championship. Wouldn’t this also give the crowds at road races something extra to cheer and enjoy? I’ve stood out on Guildford High St before for 4 hours just to catch a 2-minute glimpse of some of the world’s best cyclists. If there had been women on the Tour of Britain last year, I might have doubled that.

At present, the situation for womens’ professional cycling is completely unacceptable. Recently, most of the peloton withdrew from the Giro della Toscana on the very final stage of the race, including the overall leader Marianne Vos, because they were expected to negotiate the course in amongst the general Italian traffic. Would we consider making women run the London marathon on a Monday rush hour? They are also forced to ride different courses, different routes, participate in different events (by which I mean classifications) at the same championships and scrabble around for funding – yet when it comes to track cycling, I would argue that Laura Trott is probably the biggest name going right now. This cannot continue for much longer, and I’m not the only one saying so.

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The Disconnection of Pro Cycling

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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.

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