How I fell out of love with cycling (OK.. only a bit)

It’s the start of a new season; time to rekindle the romance? 

I’m writing my first post of 2017 (and my first since last year’s Tour) on the first day of the Dubai Tour. Dubai marks the return of live television coverage and despite its relatively short history it’s the probably the strongest after the demise of Qatar and the indifference that is shown towards the (more varied) Tour of Oman. Dubai benefits from slick presentation by organisers RCS with coverage that lasts long enough for the commentators to sift through the off-season stories before the inevitable sprint finish.

The fact that Dubai has survived is likely to have been helped by each stage being shown live on Eurosport. Qatar and Oman had both been around longer but the former wasn’t shown outside of ‘local’ host channels and Oman’s highlights only package has steadily eroded to the point that it’s buried one or even two days later around midnight. As an armchair fan (who rides a bit too) having Eurosport is pretty much essential if you want to watch road racing on television. With the possible exception of the GP Samyn I can’t think of many races that don’t benefit from getting shown in high definition (OK maybe I don’t need to see the delights of the petrol station at the finish of Liege Bastogne Liege either). ITV continue the C4 legacy with much the same team and cover the Tour live (and in recent years the Dauphine) but other than the Tour of Britain and a highlights package of the Vuelta that’s it. Eurosport gives you the spring classics, the Giro, Tour, Vuelta and pretty much everything in between.

The reason I’m banging on about this is that it slipped out via my social media feed last week that Sky (that’s Sky as in Team Sky, home of 3 x Tour winner Chris Froome fame) are threatening to drop Eurosport from their channels as of 1st Feb*. So potentially I’m looking at my 200+ days of live cycling becoming.. er.. well 1 day actually. Now it’s possible that everything has been resolved today and I’ll tune in tomorrow and find stage 2 of the Dubai Tour there in all of its glory. In all of the hoo hah about Donald Trump, Brexit and transfer deadline day a resolution that will see Sky continuing to show live cycling might have got lost in the ether. I have often wondered if Sky would see the success of their eponymous cycling team as a vehicle for taking over coverage of at least some of the marquee races. It seems a bit odd that they seem prepared to lose all of the free marketing that having Eurosport on their platform provides. Of course Sky have announced that their sponsorship of.. er Team Sky will not continue in perpetuity and their role as principal sponsor of British Cycling ended last year. Maybe, despite the success the team have achieved, Sky are falling out of love with cycling?

Pure speculation of course (isn’t that the preserve of the armchair fan?), but wouldn’t Sky be forgiven for feeling a little bit disenchanted with cycling after last year? Almost a seven year itch perhaps. There was quite a lot of things not to love about the sport last year and pretty much all of it originated from Sky and British Cycling. I’ve lost count of the times I thought ‘Wow, what a story. I ought to post something about that’ only for the next bit of news to emerge and the original story seems minor in comparison.

2016 Annus Horribilus 

The wheels started to come off just before the start of the Rio Olympics. Lizzie Armitstead had swept all before her in 2015, culminating in a rainbow jersey by winning the Worlds in Richmond. Her form had continued into 2016 and she was widely tipped as potential Gold Medal winner in the Olympic road race. Just before the team were due to depart for Brazil it emerged that Armitstead had missed three whereabouts tests. Ordinarily this would have resulted in an automatic suspension from competition, leaving aside the inevitable questions about why any athlete would miss three tests. However British Cycling accepted Armitstead’s justification for missing three tests in less than 12 months and she would be allowed to compete in Rio.

Naturally this provoked a pretty negative reaction from press, public and many of her fellow professionals. Women’s cycling has been painted as somehow immune from the potential use of PEDs, principally because it is even less secure than the men’s tour financially. What would be the point of doping it was suggested when so many teams struggle just to make the start line. No doubt aware of the need to protect the sports reputation against comparisons with the worst excesses of the men some of Armitstead’s rivals, notably her predecessor as world champion Pauline Ferrand Perrot, were incredulous that she had even missed one test. The UK media wasted no time in seeking the views of the senior British male Olympic cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins. He couldn’t understand how Armitstead had made such a foolish error either. No guilt was implied but Wiggins stressed how important it was to be ‘squeaky clean’ in all matters doping related. He might have cause to regret this himself later.

TUE or not TUE – Wiggins

Having gone from hero to zero in the space of a few days Armitstead might have been forgiven for withdrawing from the Rio squad. We might never know if that’s what she really wanted to do. With all sports in the UK dependent on lottery funding a gold medal in the women’s road race would have been extremely useful as a bargaining chip for British Cycling. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that behind the medal achievements of Team GB in cycling and other sports like rowing the idea that success breeds success is more accurately portrayed as money begat even more cash. Compared to the sums invested in track cycling the road programme has punched above its weight with gold for Nicole Cooke in 2008 and Armitstead’s breakthrough silver at London 2012. Back up for Armitstead in Rio highlighted the lack of preparation done by British Cycling as Emma Pooley was wheeled out from semi retirement once more and the best performing UK women’s tour rider Dani King was left at home.

Armitstead rode to a diplomatic 4th place finish in Rio. Under the circumstances it seemed like the least worst option for her, demonstrating she had been in contention while avoiding any potential accusations that she had denied anyone else a medal by finishing on the podium. As the focus shifted to the track a storm was beginning to gather in cyberspace.

After the exposure of a systematic and state sponsored doping programme covering previous games up to and including London the Russian Olympic and Paralympic teams were banned from taking part in Rio. In the absence of any athletes the Russians sent a crack team of hackers to unleash files from the World Anti Doping Organisation (WADA) relating to competitors and in some cases medal winners from Rio. Most of the leaked information referred to Therapeutic Usage Exemptions (TUE) where athletes are allowed to use certain prescribed and / or otherwise banned drugs in order to compete. TUE wasn’t an unfamiliar acronym in the cycling world. One of the earliest suggestions that Lance Armstrong might be on something other than his bike came from the subsequently proven allegation that Armstrong had been issued with a TUE to hide corticosteroid use in the 99 Tour.

Bradley Wiggins had been crowned Britain’s most successful Olympian as part of the winning Team Pursuit squad in Rio when the hackers (the self styled Fancy Bears) released info relating to TUEs issued prior to the 2012 Tour and the following years Giro d’Italia. Wiggins wasn’t the only UK rider targeted; both Chris Froome and Laura Trott had information released about TUE exemptions for asthma drugs. Froome’s TUE use had surfaced a few years earlier when he was given an inhaler at the Tour du Romandie and he had suggested that he had turned down a TUE when he became ill during the final week of the 2016 Tour. The issue for Wiggins was compounded by the fact that the drug in question was a known performance enhancer with certain beneficial side effects in addition to its prescribed use. Often an uncooperative interviewee Wiggins soft pedalled through a televised chat with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, not noted for his forensic knowledge of cycling  and its recent chequered past. It didn’t help that Wiggins had been lecturing Lizzie Armitstead about her missed whereabouts tests only a few weeks earlier.

Wiggins wasn’t the only one under scrutiny either. Dave Brailsford had masterminded Wiggins 2012 Tour victory and the first of four wins in five years for Sky. Brailsford had been very vocal about Sky’s commitment to clean cycling and winning without recourse to PEDs. Indeed after the initial Tour win it was notable that several members of the team left as they were unable to say that they had been involved in doping prior to joining the Sky setup. Others also left at this time although and while this may have been coincidental the timing was at least questionable. Brailsford had come under pressure in 2012 after hiring the ex Rabobank team doctor Gert Leinders. As details of the Rabobank doping programme emerged Leinders was sacked but the Fancy Bears revelations of 2016 resurfaced questions about this appointed once more.

Part of the problem for Brailsford was that he was generally seen as an interviewers dream and very quotable. Having seen Brailsford ‘in action’ at close quarters I can testify that he’s generally good value, at turns self deprecating and insightful. However, it’s also possible to notice that he is able to provide a different answer to a particular question if the subject strays towards the controversial. With a friendly crowd this isn’t a problem but faced with the media out for blood in the light of the possibility that Sky might not be so squeaky clean it look like evasiveness.

As the world turns and the 2017 season starts the question of what  was in the Jiffy bag flown out to Wiggins at the 2012 Dauphine rumbles on. The reputations of Brailsford and Wiggins and of Team Sky and British Cycling have not been damaged in Armstrong like proportions but they’re certainly not as welcome in polite sporting company as they were. The end of year BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards show has become a bit of an extravaganza in recent years and in an Olympic year it was expected that the shortlist would reflect the greatest achievements from Rio. Wiggins, the greatest medal winner didn’t even make the list. Neither did Froome, admittedly never quite as popular with the great British public, a three time Tour winner. It might have been interesting to see where Wiggins would have finished in a public vote but the great and the good had decided that Wiggins and those associated with Sky were damaged goods.

Among long term cycling fans Wiggins remains a bonafide star irrespective of his supposed misdemeanours. While TUE use is something many think should be reformed if not banned outright (myself included) it must be said that under the current system Wiggins and Sky have not broken any rules. Wiggins won the Madison World Championships with Mark Cavendish in 2016 and ended the year racing in front of packed crowds with his long term friend at the London Six Day. Wiggins probably couldn’t care less about what the general public thinks about him, although the people that manage his image rights may be tearing their hair out. As I write this Wiggins is about to embark on his latest venture; reality TV. Notorious for the life changing injuries suffered by some of the previous competitors it’s also difficult to see how this fits with the Wiggins character. No doubt he will be paid handsomely for his appearance but if he isn’t enjoying the experience it will be painful to watch.

Time for a split?

When I started this blog in 2013 I had time on my hands and nothing better to do than write about cycling (daily posts on the Giro anyone?). By last year I was back working full time and that pretty much curtailed my chances of watching live cycling on Eurosport or anywhere else. The end of the classics signalled the end of what had become at best semi regular posts. I enjoyed what I saw of the other grand tours but maybe it was the lack of live telly that made me conclude that none of them were particular classics of the genre.

My own riding suffered as a result of the change in circumstances and I ended up riding around 1,500 miles less in 2016. The same applied to long rides where the need to compress all of my non work activities in to a couple of days made short rides the norm. Getting back into mountain biking put my nose into a different set of magazines than Rouleur and Procycling.

Despite all this and the difficult year that my sport has had I’m kinda excited about the new season (other than not being sure where I’ll watch it). There’s the chance of an early season primer visiting some new and old favourite roads in Spain and I might finally get around to doing the last day of the race the pros hate: De Panne. I’m looking forward to the swan song of disc brake devotee Tom Boonen at Roubaix and some tasty looking match ups in the Tours.

What I haven’t decided yet is how often i’ll be posting. I gave up on doing any kind of straight reportage on races long ago because VCSE doesn’t even qualify as a fly spec against the other sites out there. Any race related posts will continue to be ‘my take’ on things. What I would like to do more of is product reviews and travel related stuff. My most popular posts have been the reviews that I have done. Doing that would feel like I was going back to the original idea behind the blog which was to sell t-shirts, another thing that I might start doing again in the future.

So while I might not be posting as much as I have done in the past I will still be watching the wheels turn in 2017. The affair isn’t over yet.

Finishing this post a day later Eurosport have announced that they will in fact be continuing on Sky.

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