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Hello CyclingTips readers! Remember me?
It’s been a little while, but I’m back and fired up for the 2017 season. My last column was back in October. Has anything happened in pro cycling since then?
I’m kidding, of course. This is pro cycling, where there’s drama and intrigue around every turn. As a pro cyclist we live in a bit of a bubble, you have racing life and training life, some may have family commitments, but in all honesty, it’s nice o unplug from the cycling world for as long as possible. But there are stories that hit the media, cycling and mainstream, that are big enough to pluck my attention. So let’s dip into what’s been going on.
Out with the old — or Oleg, as the case would be — and in with the new, or Bahrain-Merida as they’re known.
If we thought Oleg Tinkov was an “interesting” and outspoken team sponsor, well the Prince of Bahrain has trumped Oleg. As you’re aware, the Kingdom of Bahrain doesn’t have the greatest human rights record, and the Prince himself has been accused of torturing dissidents. I’m not going to delve into that side of the team sponsorship too much, but let’s take a look at the team as a whole. I previously mentioned that I thought it a weird move by Nibali that is probably driven by money, but as for the rest of the team, well what can you say? From the outside, it seems a very odd mix of riders — a real hodgepodge. There doesn’t appear to be much thought put into it. There are riders for GC and the classics, but it’s an odd mix and there doesn’t seem to be a culture to the team yet. It’s as if they’ve grabbed one guy from over there, and another from over there, and they are just hoping it’ll come together. From the outside, it seems a messy group of riders, not so much a team at all. We’ll have to wait and see if this mismatch of riders will perform well, or if they’ll splinter into small, segregated groups within the team that don’t mix with others.
As for the other transfers, the big one is of course Peter Sagan. He’s taken his rainbow jersey to Bora-Hansgrohe, where he’s already won several races and is a big favorite for the Spring Classics. I’ll admit, when I first heard about that move, I thought it was very peculiar indeed. But now I realise it was the only team where Sagan could take his entourage — several other riders, and staff, from Tinkoff. I think it was six or seven people, total. The team is looking extremely well managed, and the more we see them in action, the more it seems to be a savvy move.
Trek-Segafredo is another team that’s had a shake up. With Fabian Cancellara retiring, they’ve had to get a few faces to fill the gap. After parting ways with Oleg and announcing he wasn’t that all that keen on his old boss — no surprise there — we now see Contador as GC leader, sharing that role with Bauke Mollema, while John Degenkolb is now their man for the classics. It’s an interesting move by Degenkolb as it’s now put the stoppers on what Giant-Alpecin (now Team Sunweb) had been working towards — a German team project. Things always change, and internationalising teams is something that is, of course, a route that we’ve seen work wonderfully; many major squads are registered in one country, but they don’t have a singular national character. Because of this, there’s now fewer teams with that real national character as there once was. More on that below.
Motors in bikes
The topic of hidden motors got a refresh airing with the U.S. TV program 60 Minutes bringing the story to the masses. I think the feeling in the peloton is that this is a story that will keep rearing its head — the guys who have question marks over their heads may one day be found out. You can only pay mechanics and other people involved in putting together a motorised bike to keep quiet for so long. No matter how big you are, the house of cards can — and more often than not will — fall. I’ve mentioned before that I’d seen strange bike changes, at odd times, from some big-name riders, at the bottom of climbs, or on sections of road that mattered, and questioned what was going on. But I do think that has to be a thing of the past. With the UCI and the media both chasing after these bikes, you’d either need to be either stupid or suicidal to use a motor in a bike now. I find hard to believe at this time.
Before there were controls it’s a different story, though. Unfortunately, it’s a sport, and like in any sport people did and will try to cheat. It’s a fact of life.
But when compared to ‘normal’ cheating or doping, the way in which this would damage the spot if it actually turned out it was currently happening in my eyes is on a different level. We’d be a laughing stock, it would be pretty hard to come back from that. I’d say that many feel the same though in my opinion. But despite all the checks no motors have been found (in road cycling) yet and this is a good thing….I hope. Let’s just hope it stays like that. At the end of the day it’s a damn sight easier to control than drug use.
The early season is that time of year where you have to be a serious professional athlete again after a few months away from the team and the races. You spend December getting in shape for those all-important early season races, which is all cool when you’re on the start list for the Tour Down Under, one of the best races of the year, but less cool when you get sent to the races in Dubai or Oman.
Those Middle Eastern races are nice to do once; seeing a new country and experiencing new cultures is always a blast, but once is enough. Really, just some sort of atmosphere would be nice to have. Those races don’t really have fans, or anything resembling a crowd. There was a stage at the Tour of Oman where there wasn’t even one man and his dog at the finish. The only spectators were the guys who had put up the gantry and finish line. The World Championships in Doha were no different. We started the 2016 season in a dusty desert with no crowds, and finished it the same way.
It’s an absolute disgrace that the UCI even allowed worlds to be held in Qatar. They want to expand the sport and promote cycling in new territories, but holding one of the biggest races of the year in a place that didn’t allow us to showcase our sport at its best was again another massive mistake by the UCI. Who’s going to have their imagination triggered by a bunch of blokes racing around a hot desert? It was lucky that the race had some interesting crosswind action. Otherwise, it would have been a snoozefest until the last few kilometres. At least this year’s worlds in Norway should be a better race; there will be crowds, as well as a course that should make things a bit more exciting. It’ll feel like a bike race and not a criterium around a big carpark. I’ll be packing some cold weather gear though, as it could be a bit nippy at that time of year in Norway — a vast difference to the heat of Doha.
Velon’s Hammer Series
Unlike the ASO or the UCI, I think Velon are doing some great things to shake this up, to turn cycling into a sport that’s more accessible and watchable. I love the idea of people at home being able to check on their mobile apps to see how their favourite rider is getting on, to see cadence and heart rate values at certain points of a race. It could bring a new generation of tech-savvy, dual-screen fans to the sport. And then there are the onboard cameras, which not only show exactly what is going on in the peloton, but are also safer than having multiple motorbikes swerve through the peloton. I look forward to the day when live GoPro feeds are a standard thing in TV coverage. People think that it’s the last 40km that is the most exciting part of the race, but in the peloton that is far from the truth, and onboard cameras will show that there’s (almost) always something exciting going on in the bunch.
As for the new Hammer series that Velon has lined up for June, it’s something many riders, including myself, are pretty stoked about. As part of a Velon team, I couldn’t say anything bad about it on the record, but I’m totally happy to see this sort of development in pro cycling. I think it’s a good moment to try and create something new to attract those younger fans. It’s an entirely new thing though, and you can never tell if it will be a success from the outset. The first one may be a bit hit and miss, but if you never try, you never know.
Fisticuffs, and the French
Blood has already been spilt this season, and it was that of Marcel Kittel’s when Andriy Grivko thought he would show the big German that the wind wasn’t to be the only thing to batter him on Stage 3 of the Dubai Tour. You probably know the story, as it was all over the press, and of course Twitter was alight with people wondering what had happened, as it wasn’t caught on camera.
As you’d expect, Kittel is a sound guy. I’ve had time to chat to him, and he comes across as a bit of a kitten. So for him to get involved in a fistfight, mid-race, says a lot about the situation. It definitely got out of hand. No matter who was pushing who first off a wheel during a cross wind, fists should not have been thrown.
The UCI needs to put in place some strict rules, but that should just be a given. Even more so when you take into account the unwritten rules of the peloton. You give the guy in the leader’s jersey that little bit more respect, it’s just a given. You don’t attack the guy in yellow when he’s taking a nature break. It all boils down to taking what your mum should have taught you when she raised you, and transferring it into a professional cycling environment. Punching a guy mid-race over a wheel is out of order. I didn’t see it myself, but I know Kittel and his temperament, and he’s a pretty chilled guy. You don’t have a quiff like his if you’re as easygoing as him, so I can’t see him causing the fracas. It’s not something we’ve seen in the peloton much. A swift boot out of the race should be the minimum penalty that should be dished out by the UCI and organisers, even the team. And if the rider causes more trouble throughout the year there should be bigger consequences, maybe an enforced ban from racing.
As for other situations that could result in bust-ups or punch-ups, it’s always fun to sit back and watch the French teams try to one-up each other. The likes of FDJ, AG2R La Mondiale, and Cofidis have a constant thing for getting one over on each other it seems. They just don’t know how to play nice with one another. It must be a national trait; it’s not just the riders that cause this French national rivalry, but the managers as well. But that’s the French teams for you, they are their own worst enemies. And in many ways, it holds the teams back. They like to keep things very French, not often employing foreigners to the squad. This obviously limits the talent pool choice.
Plus, the language of the peloton has very much changed since the days when Italian and French was mostly spoken. Teams are now very international, and English is the main language used to communicate. The French being stuck in their way, with many not speaking or not willing to speak English, limits them again. I take my hat off to any young French guy that decides to ride for a foreign team, like Julian Alaphilippe for example. It’s a bold, but often wise, choice.
The Giro-Tour double
Nairo Quintana’s announcement that he’ll attempt the Giro-Tour double is something to question, especially in this day and age. Sure it’s possible to ride both back to back. Just ask Adam Hansen, I’m sure he’ll have a big bag of tips to anyone who wants to know how to back them up. But to ride them as a GC contender and win both? No way. In a bygone era, maybe, but in today’s environment, I think it’s not possible. Not just physically, but also mentally, it’ll be a strain.
I’ve done the Giro and Tour back to back, and I didn’t find it too demanding, but I had a role to play, and that role wasn’t as a team leader. I usually only had to go deep in the last hour of a stage at the Giro, and that allowed me to head into the Tour ready to race. I wish Quintana luck, but my experience has been that GC riders who attempt the Giro-Tour double always seem to end up going a bit shit at the Tour.
Discs and jiffy bags
The whole Wiggins/Sky/British Cycling/jiffy bag controversy seems more than a little suspicious. To me, it looks like they did something wrong, and like any good cover-up, things are coming apart at the seams.
I think British Cycling is already suffering from it. For years, riders in the peloton have been suspicious of Team Sky and their dominance. Just look at Wiggins and his standout season, in 2012, winning from Paris-Nice all the way through to the Olympic time trial. That’s one huge year, with an incredible improvement over his 2011 season. Anyway, as always I hope all will all be clear sooner rather than later, either in a good or bad way. Having stuff like this hanging over the cycling world yet again isn’t good for any of us.
The whole Wiggins fiasco that goes along with the British Cycling scandal is mesmerising, I along with everyone else I’m sure are interested to find out what he has to say when he does open up about it all. As a person though Wiggo was actually a nice guy in the peloton. Not that I had a lot of chats with him, but to me he never acted arrogant or anything and you could tell he was certainly something special. I remember that a teammate heard him once talking to himself, cheering himself on like “come on Brad you can do that”. With him though you never really knew if it was a joke or not, he did like to fool around from what I saw.
Time will tell how clean his career really was. I don’t know him good enough to trust him and anyway, and to be brutally honest you trust no one really.
As for Team Wiggins not getting on the start list for the Tour de Yorkshire it seems mighty unfair. Excluding the team from races as a sign of taking a stand to either him blackening the UK cycling or such is the wrong thing to do in my eyes. The riders in that team have nothing to do with it but have to suffer most. I guess they all looked forward to a race on home soil. Would they have been picked if the team wasn’t named after a rider who wasn’t currently under a black cloud of doubt?
Like everyone at the moment, I also have an opinion when it comes to the use of disc brakes in the pro peloton. The simple fact is that, of course, manufacturers want us to ride with them as soon as possible; there’s a trickle-down effect of pros using the technology that will help with the sale of disc road bikes to the general public. This will then hopefully keep manufacturers investing as sponsors.
I’ve always been a fan of innovation, and disc brakes should be seen as innovation. When electronic shifting came out, no one complained because it was simply making shifting better. I believe that disc brakes make braking better, especially in wet conditions. So looking at it from that point of view, there is nothing to say against it. The only thing that annoys me, and other riders, is that there was not a whole lot of testing carried out, with regards to crash safety, prior to allowing the technology within the peloton. It was all theoretical, from what I can gather. This sport is dangerous enough, and having another potential risk added is nothing anyone wants.
And on that slightly positive note, that’s it from me, until next time — when we might actually have a solid and definite answer on disc brakes and the jiffy bag. Yeah right!