If there is one thing that the last week has proved, it’s that cycling definitely DOES have a fantastic future – if only it would sort itself out.
There is no doubt the Tour de France is a magnificent spectacle and through the course of the last week, we’ve seen some great competition, a bout of controversy and more than a little farce.
The 100th Tour kicked off with the first three stages in Corsica. It was always guaranteed ‘special’ status purely because of the centenary, but right at the start, it was overshadowed by events that provided the sort of headlines cycling clearly didn’t need.
On day one, an Aussie team bus got stuck under a bridge at the finish line with the riders only minutes away. A rapid decision to move the finish line 3km closer to the leading pack before they then reverted back to the original finish line, caused a massive pile up as riders re-adjusted for strategic position. It all meant that stage one ended without the involvement of several of its major players, who were either part of the crash or hampered as a consequence.
Day two featured a loose dog which missed causing mayhem in the peloton by a couple of inches and the overall result was that the first two stage winners, Marcel Kittel from Germany and Belgian Jan Bakelants were almost a side show.
Then day 4 had US crowd favourite Ted King, disqualified for finishing out of the cut-off time by 7 seconds, after some allegedly dubious timing by officials, contradicted by Ted’s very own data.
That’s when it dawned on me. Just when cycling needed a perfect start to its three-week showpiece, it got sand kicked in its face by incidents (mostly) beyond its control. And what I fear is people around the world saying something like: “Well, that’s typical. It’s turned into a pantomime already and how do we know they’re not all taking drugs anyway.”
That’s the problem. If cycling had got to grips with tackling the debilitating link it has with sports doping, all the above incidents would have been regrettable, but not indicative.
Cycling’s current issues around doping needed (and still needs) a perfect spectacle to convince the cynics that it’s a sport worth fighting for. Well for me, it is.
At the time of writing this, there’re still around 2,500 kilometres to go and plenty of time for the seamless spectacle to emerge. The Tour de France is a special race and if you look beyond bus drivers, irresponsible dog owners and dubious time keeping, there is a spectacular, healthy and competitive sport striving to present itself to the world.
These issues couldn’t have come at a worse time. For years, cycling has been systematically damaged by instances of doping that it failed (or refused) to identify, and the latest revelations that emerged in the immediate build up to the Tour, were just what it didn’t need.
A week before the start, 1997 winner Jan Ullrich finally admitted that he doped. He’d already had all competition results he gained from 2005 onwards erased after being found guilty in 2012, but two weeks ago, he acknowledged that was just a part of his deeper history.
A few days later, details were released that ‘outed’ one-time French hero and former world number 1, Laurent Jalabert. The offending sample was collected in 1998 and tested in 2004, but curiously, the results were only released in 2013, just days before the 100th Tour de France. Everyone now knows that Jalabert doped, but bizarrely he continues to deny it. As a consequence, he resigned from his role as the French voice of the TdF which is both tragic and unnecessary. I strongly believe that no-one should continually suffer for transgressions in cycling when the culture was so corrupted – as long as they come completely clean.
Now, I know I’ve said it before, but all of this proves exactly why cycling needs some sort of truth and reconciliation process. The drip-drip-drip effect of athletes making admissions of guilt or being outed is a slow poison that is deepening cycling’s crisis. For years, the UCI has turned its back on a problem it has refused to confront. Its President remains in denial about the level of responsibility his organisation has to take for the whole problem and meanwhile, cycling is facing death by a thousand cuts.
It has to stop and it’s exactly why we’ve been consistently supporting the many people and agencies around who want to drag the UCI kicking and screaming towards a solution that benefits the sport and gets us back to focusing on fair and true competition.
So, let’s get it all out in the open and set about a visible, pro-active programme to restore confidence in a sport that’s lost credibility with the outside world and is represented by a showpiece event that’s now being used as a political football.
The Tour de France is a brilliant spectacle. There is glamour, colour, amazing scenery and the sort of rough, tough competition that is the equal of any contact sport you care to mention. As it hurtles towards its second century, it cannot be allowed to be compromised by the slow strangulation that’s currently being administered by the sport itself.
The early farce and controversy have been illustrative of cycling’s lost credibility rather than isolated, unfortunate incidents. It is exactly why truth and reconciliation is a must, because at the moment, the cry from around the world in a couple of weeks time, will be: “Oh he’s won it has he? I wonder if he’s clean?”