Commentary: Fake bike races don’t belong in professional cycling

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Chris Froome and Marcel Kittel clasped their right hands together as the charade began.

As photographers circled a table in a Shanghai hotel conference room and VIPs like Alberto Contador chuckled in the background, the four-time Tour de France champion and the German sprint star engaged in an arm wrestling match.

The odd spectacle, what PR hacks might opportunistically label a photo op, lasted 23 seconds. The Tour champion, who weighs about 45 pounds (20 kg) less than his musclebound opponent, appeared more earnest in his effort, gamely attempting a few parries. Kittel, laughing awkwardly amid the theatrics, withstood these attacks for a while before he flexed his bicep and smashed Froome’s hand to the table.

The silly and completely staged moment would soon thereafter be widely shared on with bike racing fans on social media by the ASO — the organization that long has run the Tour de France and now organizes the Shanghai Skoda Criterium. The official Twitter account for Le Tour pushed out video of the bogus competition without irony or shame or even a sense of humor.

Yet this story isn’t really about that staged arm wrestling match. It’s about a different bogus competition that would take place the following day, one that would be similarly devoid of authentic competition and pushed out to the public without irony or shame or even a sense of humor. And it would be too easy to simply take aim at one counterfeit event, one piece of theater masquerading as a bike race, without acknowledging the unwelcome role such ersatz events have in the bike-racing universe.

Video: Chris Froome and Marcel Kittel arm wrestle in Shanghai, China, October 2017.

Actual race reports document the news that Froome out-sprinted two breakaway companions, Rigoberto Uran and Warren Burguil, to win the inaugural Shanghai Skoda Criterium — an event ASO bills as the 22nd stage of the Tour.

“A victory that tastes more like a gift to the Chinese fans who gathered massively to celebrate the first Tour de France winner to come to China,” ASO’s press release read. “Marcel Kittel got the green, Barguil the polka dot and Contador the most aggressive rider award for his last appearance as a pro. Like a symbol.”

Some of the journalistic recaps contain subtle clues to the true nature of the contest, calling the race “largely ceremonial” or “unsurprising.” Photos in such recaps pictured the reigning Tour champion, wearing the yellow jersey from that event, punching the sky as Uran looked to be hanging his head after a narrow loss. To a casual fan, the stories and photographs give the collective impression that a true bike race had taken place.

But after suffering through video of the final 10 kilometers of the Shanghai Criterium, I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen Santa villages at the local shopping center that had more verisimilitude than that competition.

The pace in the main field was steady and controlled, as if everyone was there on a paid vacation to China slash mandatory work meeting. A break loaded with big names and members of top teams eased off the front. Contador, ostensibly wearing a race number for the last time, got to pedal a few kilometres in the lead, before Froome, looking like he was dragging a few mates on a moderately hard training ride, brought it back together.

Chris Froome (Team Sky) “won” the Shanghai Skoda Criterium, which ASO bills as the 22nd stage of the Tour de France.

What happened next was just awkward and embarrassing to watch. With three kilometers to go, Barguil got out of the saddle and accelerated — I’ve seen sharper moves at town-line signs — and only Uran and Froome came across. Greg van Avermaet and Edvald Boasson Hagen and Contador tried their best to stick to the script, gamely pretending that they couldn’t hold the wheel.

Sunday was not their day — the podium was reserved for the men who had won, finished second, and earned the polka-dot jersey in the marquee race owned by the same company organizing this criterium. Barguil and his polka dots took a ceremonial dig with a kilometer to go before sitting up, and then Froome and Uran exchanged four careful sideways looks in the final 200 meters before they both struck the correct poses for finish-line photography. Kittel and the rest of the main field would roll across the line a minute later. The finale might have looked exciting and satisfying to unsavvy spectators and VIPs at the finish, but it looked awful on video.

Let me be clear — nothing about what transpired at the Shanghai Criterium is surprising or novel. It illuminates a kind of sideshow dramaturgy that has been a part of bike racing since the days of the penny farthing. Many fans understand that the criteriums that take place around Europe after the Tour de France are ceremonial. The Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, the Tour of Flanders, and many legendary races were dreamt up a century ago as publicity stunts to sell newspapers. There’s always been an element of the circus within the sport.

But fake bike races don’t belong in professional bike racing.

The elemental promise of a bike race is that there will be a competitive field where every participant is trying their best to succeed. Intentionally tampering with that basic premise — that the race is defined by a real battle to win — is extremely dangerous. This is especially true for a sport that has tested even its most passionate fans’ resolve with an illogically never-ending race calendar, inequity between the richest teams and everyone else, and a parade of doping scandals.

On the podium, some faces masked the reality of the situation better than others.

Look, I understand that the UCI and ASO and other big stakeholders want to grow the sport internationally and tap into important new markets. But pro cycling seems to be going about it wrong.

I see the NFL expanding into Latin America and Europe, for instance, and though those incursions may include silly localized PR stunts, the focus seems to be on building a large audience by delivering authentic competition. With cycling, I instead see the sport just chasing money — more interested in finding benefactors in places like the Middle East and China than on staging real races with great courses and legitimate promise as fan markets. Pro bike racing needs to vigilantly present itself like a real sport in every moment, and resist the urge to pull a page from the pro wrestling handbook.

I look at the finish line photo from Shanghai and can’t help but think of the finale of the Olympic road race in London, where Uran had shoulders slumped after getting outfoxed by Alexandr Vinokurov. Even if nothing untoward happened that afternoon, it sure as hell looked hinky — with a man who never really denied buying a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege out-sprinting someone who took a theatrical look over the wrong shoulder. Even if nothing untoward happened that afternoon, it does not benefit Uran or his sponsors (or his fans) for the Colombian to participate in ceremonial races.

This is obviously not about one rider. Froome — a guy who rightly or wrongly has been accused of winning the wrong way — shouldn’t be seen punching the air after triumphing in pre-scripted sitcom on two wheels. The symbolism that Contador’s last “race” was that dubious business trip to Shanghai is an insult to his legacy and the effort he gave fans at the Vuelta.

And what about all the young racers who might have great legs in October, guys who had to fly to China and go through the motions without having an opportunity to show their stuff? What about Kittel, whose big win in Shanghai was slamming Froome’s fist to a table after 20 seconds of stagecraft?

It’s time for the powers that control the sport to end or at least more carefully limit the practice of these staged events, and it’s time for cycling media to ignore them or call them out for the farces that they are. These faux races, and the traditions that sustain them, insult the intelligence of fans and degrade an already tarnished sport. Say it with me: No more fake races.

Video: Highlights from the 2017 Tour de France Skoda Shanghai Criterium

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