Commentary: The comedy, tragedy, and pure circus that was pro cycling in 2017

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I feel bad for people who watch other sports. Most fans have no alternative but to consume athletic coverage as it takes place on the pitch or court or rink — and then waste their precious time watching late-night comedy programming, soap operas, and the nightly news if they want to absorb the tragicomic realities of the human condition.

By contrast, bike-racing fans can conveniently absorb the entire existential spectacle of life simply by following professional cycling. We get to see extraordinary athletes push the boundaries of human endurance as they pedal through the most picturesque landscapes on earth, distilled into a narrative that plays out like a brilliant mashup of William Shakespeare, PT Barnum, and the Coen brothers. There is classic tragedy, dark deadpan comedy, and pure circus.

Before you dismiss that as exaggerated hyperbole, pause for a moment to think through some of the most memorable moments of the 2017 pro cycling campaign. A lot of profoundly strange shit went down.

No one knows this more acutely than Tom Dumoulin. The tall Dutchman with the dreamy hair was having a dreamy Giro d’Italia, capping his unlikely transition from time-trial specialist to oversized GC contender in the mode of Miguel Indurain, when trouble started brewing on Stage 16. With the world watching on live television, the man in the maglia rosa jumped off his bike, ripped off his jersey and bib straps, and started shimmying against a giant roadway sign noting the turnoff to Umbrail Pass. His stomach was full of an anger more explosive than Andy Schleck could ever summon.

Try to imagine a world class athlete in any other sport shrugging to the press during the most important event of his year and saying the following 15 words: “I just had problem. I needed to take a dump – I couldn’t hold it anymore.”

Video: Tom Dumoulin takes a nature break, Stage 16, 2017 Giro d’Italia

After Dumoulin took his nature break and got back on the road, fans and commentators trotted out the venerable debate about whether his adversaries should have waited for him. Like a lot of fans, I find some romance in the concept of the sport’s unwritten rules, but the problem in many situations is that no one seems to know the rules. If racers don’t have a clue who is allowed to hand them a Coke on a summit finish, it’s a safe bet that they’re not clear on proper etiquette when two Italians are up the road in a break and the GC leader is evacuating on global television.

It’s not like we can count on the race officials to make all the right decisions. Just look at the officiating debacle that was the 2017 Tour de France. Let’s just put aside Marcel Kittel’s win over Edvald Boasson Hagen in stage 7, which was decided by a photo finish that had everything going for it but a conclusive photo of a victory. We can also shelve debates over the inconsequential wrist-slap Nacer Bouhanni got after throwing a right jab at Jack Bauer near the end of stage 10 or the inequitable penalties initially handed out for feeds on the climb to Peyragudes or the lack of action against Arnaud Demaire as he scooted left and right in sprint finishes across northern France.

Those embarrassing trifles merely were amuse-bouche leading up to the spectacularly distasteful main course — when Peter Sagan got tossed for dangerous and irregular sprinting at the end of Stage 4. If you’ll recall, the crash in question came after Demare drifted right and Mark Cavendish tried to squeeze into a tiny gap along the barriers and Sagan lifted his right elbow to miraculously avoid crashing himself.

The race jury initially docked the world champion a time penalty and some points, but things escalated quickly and without reason. It was stunning to see Cavendish’s DS, Rolf Aldag, a man who isn’t exactly cycling’s Virgin Mary, try to sway officials — by tweeting “Time to step up #UCI. This was not a race accident. Violence. Hard to DQ a world champion from #letour, but needs to be done.” — and even more stunning to see UCI commissaires agree with him and disqualify Sagan from the race.

Video: Peter Sagan disqualified from 2017 Tour de France

I initially had hope that UCI officials would correct their mistake before the following stage began, but it wound up taking a little longer than that. In fact, the public reversal didn’t arrive until early December, when the UCI finally acknowledged that the crash was an “unfortunate and unintentional race incident” and promised to have better “video expertise” in position for next season.

The mess from this year’s Vuelta a España may take longer to clean up. Yes, I’m referring to Chris Froome’s surprisingly unsurprising positive drug test — yes, an “adverse analytical finding” is a positive drug test — which of course was made public by two newspapers rather than by an official governing body. This case remains what hidebound commentators might call an ongoing situation, but I think it is safe to call the situation a noxious dumpster fire.

I have so many questions about this debacle, but I will only bore you with three. First, why do officials allow pro bike racers to take the asthma drug Salbutamol without even having to get a doctor’s note saying they have asthma? Second, how am I supposed to believe that a bike racer who looked pretty normal on TV was sick enough to require a ton of asthma medicine just to survive a hard stage but then was strong enough to dominate a Grand Tour? And last, why was Froome participating in the marketing carnival for the 2018 Giro d’Italia when he knew this positive, and a likely sanction, was looming?

I also will spare you my granular, disdainful questions about Team Sky, but I will say that I have more faith in the veracity of trickle-down economics than those of marginal gains. At best, the annoyingly named “jiffy bag incident” — which as an American I still feel should involve popcorn — mostly underscores the spectacular incompetence of the team, investigators, and the governing bodies associated with an obviously shady situation. In any case, I’m glad that Bradley Wiggins finally is out of the spotlight, or at least preening his beard at the edge of the spotlight as he underperforms in rowing contests.

Before I move on to the next tragicomic item, let me offer one nugget of hard-earned wisdom to readers who aren’t hip to British vernacular: A jiffy bag is a padded envelope. Please don’t hold one over a campfire.

But let me throw out a few quick roasts. Congrats to David Rebellin, who secured yet another pro contract — pretty impressive for a guy who was born during the Nixon administration and has only had one Olympic medal stripped for doping. Also, I’d like to offer my admiration to the Cannondale-Drapac team for avoiding financial ruin after telling riders they were out of a job and asking fans to crowdfund team coffers. Most professional sports teams lure fans into buying tickets or jerseys; in cycling, working-class fans can chip in $25 to show potential billionaire saviors that people still care about the sport.

I’d also like to congratulate Coryn Rivera for winning the Tour of Flanders — it was the most impressive win by a woman in a storied one-day classic I saw live on TV this year, which is another way of saying that it was only win by a woman in a storied one-day classic that was shown live all year. It would seem that if the UCI can concoct fancy video capability to avoid finish-line controversies like the Sagan-Cavendish debacle, the sport’s powers also can deploy this cutting-edge television innovation called split-screen technology so fans can watch the major women’s races as they happen. And maybe resuscitate a real women’s Tour de France. And demand the women earn a living wage. Just spitballing here.

Speaking of imperfect coverage, might I remind you that with a few kilometers to go in the World Road Championships, the live feed actually conked out. In what other sport would that happen? For a few unbearable minutes, fans cursed at their screens as they watched a stretch of empty roadway from a fixed camera at the finish line. I remember the joy, a few days later, of watching a pirated helicopter shot of those missing kilometers — the odd pleasures of seeing that Zapruder film on YouTube and realizing that Fernando Gaviria had actually been a part of the finale.

Video: Final 4km of 2017 World Road Championships

I’ll end this rant on a somewhat hopeful note. Those World Road Championships in picturesque Bergen, Norway, came to a dramatic end with Peter Sagan’s hands aloft for the third straight year. It was a moment of redemption and jubilation for the most interesting and talented racer in the sport — an up-and-down year that included that DQ at the Tour, a near-miss in San Remo, and a strange, race-changing fall in Flanders in which his brake lever hit a fan’s coat that was draped over a barrier on the Oude Kwaremont. In what other sport might the misplaced jacket of an indiscriminate fan change the arc of competition?

I already felt that Sagan’s season had been a success long before Bergen. He had done a few of these remarkable Forrest Gump-meets-Lenny Bruce post-race interviews. He already had hoovered a huge handful of Haribo gummies seconds after he out-sprinted four breakaway companions to win Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne He already had displayed pure class as he lit up the Poggio and as he wrongly was sent home from the Tour de France.

This is what we need in pro cycling for 2018 — more class, more uncanny honesty, and a lot more Haribo.

About the author

Peter Flax, former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine and features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, currently works as editor in chief at The Red Bulletin. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore, and he only wears leg warmers when he feels like it.

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