History, Legend, Progress
The King is dead, long live the King… With Armstrong gone, 2006 will truly be a year of transition. For the first time in seven years we will see a new Tour de France winner. Ullrich and Basso are at the top of the favorites list, but a few are tempted to think that some unexpected name will steal the spoils. Most casual observers are looking to 2006 without considering that the dynamics of the Tour peloton will be dramatically different. Without the Discovery “blue trains” keeping a tight and predictable control on affairs, it will be very hard for Ullrich, Basso or anyone else to know who is controlling what. The 2006 Tour will be a very open race and transition into a very exciting event.
At the other end of the spectrum we now see Lance Armstrong transitioning into a non-racing life. Interestingly at this stage in his story he is very much like past multiple Tour winners; loved and despised. For example, Jacques Anquetil, the first five time Tour winner, was not loved by the French public during his astounding career. He was too cold, calculating, goal oriented, arrogant and possessed an aristocratic personality. Yet as the years passed by the magnitude of his achievements and his true personality were increasingly appreciated by the French public who now remember him with pride and affection. Similarly, Armstrong's place in history will also take many years to solidify. His is a unique situation because his cycling and his fight with cancer create a compelling and complex story.
The macabre act of slicing off his own ear always overshadows the incredible career of Vincent Van Gogh. That one incident is often recorded as the defining act in the collective memory of the public. Adverse events can be burdens that most well known personalities carry.
Case in point, during their team visit to the Boston area at the beginning of October 2005, the Liberty Seguros team members were introduced to the public at several events. Invariably Joseba Beloki was remembered for his famous crash in the 2003 Tour de France. True, that unfortunate crash has played a role in Joseba's career but he should be better recognized for his race results which includes three times on the Tour de France podium.
It is unfortunate that while cycling news seems focused on the birthing pains of the Pro Tour as well as drugs we are all missing the essence of our sport. At the core are hard working and dedicated athletes dreaming of writing their names into the pages of cycling history. Joseba Beloki is dealing with his own demons as he transitions from his pre-Tour crash era to a new time and new aspirations.
Single Day Races:
World Champion Tom Boonen will be hard pushed to repeat his 2005 successes. He may not capture the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double again but his growing reputation clearly secures his claim as the new Lion of Flanders. Regardless of his 2006 single day race results we can expect to see him become a prime candidate for the Tour's Green Points Jersey. Possibly his biggest opponent here will be Alex Vinokourov who has already announced his focus on the 06 Tour (but is his goal yellow or green?). A wild card will be George Hincapie who, without his annual Tour obligations to Armstrong, could benefit from considerably more team support. Just about every race fan would not object to seeing George capture one of the spring ‘monuments' as just reward for years of consistency. Talk of him becoming a Tour winner is largely fueled by hopeful sentimentalists.
Tour de France:
Meanwhile the continuing discussion concerning the Tour organizers snub of Armstrong at the recent Tour 06 route presentation illustrates yet again the lack of comprehension of those who presumably lead our sport. Like him or not, Armstrong greatly enhanced the world image of this great race. From a business point of view the demand for global TV access has created huge revenue for the organizers. For France as a whole, millions of tourist dollars have been generated by hordes of racing fans traveling from the USA and many other countries. I have been one of those travelers and have enjoyed the warm hospitality of French citizens everywhere I went. Anyone who was on the Alpe d'Huez for the 2004 ITT will forever remember the half million people crammed on both sides of the road for the full length of the climb. Citizens from all over the world enjoyed a spectacular day of spontaneous parties, thrilling racing and the glorious French Alps. The Tour organizers need to step back and realize that they manage something that is considerably bigger than they are. Instead of trashing Armstrong, their marketing experts should be working on programs to exploit the successes of recent years.
In a similar vein we have the UCI and WADA acting in deplorable fashion. While their intentions may be genuine in targeting the best interests of our sport, their diplomacy skills are not far short of disgusting. Since introducing the Pro Tour concept in 2004 the UCI, and particularly Hein Verbruggen, have resisted all efforts from other interests to discuss and negotiate a refined formula that is universally acceptable. Everyone seems to agree that reform is necessary to accommodate our modern world of business, mass media and competition to secure a place on the global sporting stage. Unfortunately the UCI presents itself as a dictatorial empire above everyone else. The Grand Tour organizers have adopted the same stance and now we see a complete breakdown of communications. At this time it seems that the Grand Tours (who also own most of the great one day races) will refuse to participate in the Pro Tour. If they follow through with this then the Pro Tour will be a “lame horse” in 2006 with little or no meaning.
Another extremely unsavory situation is continuing issue with drugs. We can believe that both WADA and the UCI want to bring this scourge under control. Yet here again their diplomacy and control processes leave much to be desired. During 2005 we were all treated to a very public fight between Dick Pound (WADA) and Hein Verbruggen (UCI). Each was accusing the other of unethical practices while athletes were trapped in the middle. In one recent incident Pound accused the UCI of leaking documents and the UCI fired back accusing WADA of blocking its own investigations. In the end most of us have little confidence in the senior management of these organizations. As a result the drug control system and many complex cases have left us unable to make informed decisions on who, and who is not, a rascal.
The transition into 2006 needs to see vast improvements in the way the UCI and WADA conduct themselves. Their very public fight has become their Van Gogh's ear; the defining characteristic of these two organizations. Civilized and constructive diplomacy must be restored. The UCI in particular needs to emerge from its comfortable Swiss cocoon and reach out to the grass roots cycling community. Most cyclists and cycling fans do not identify with the UCI and feel that they have no say in the evolutionary dialogue of their sport. Yes, we can talk with our local hard working and dedicated reps who in turn can speak with our respective national federations. From this point on does the message get to the top? Possibly the most important UCI transition in 2006 is for Pat McQuaid to firmly assume his (Presidents) leadership role and completely sever the link with Hein Verbruggen who seems to be still very much controlling UCI policy.
Naturally behind the struggles within our sport are power and money. Organizers of professional races are running money making businesses. Professional teams are financed by sponsors with huge financial interests in their team's performance and visibility. At the elite level of sport the stakes are very high. Top athletes have very few years to capitalize on their abilities to be winners. However, money from whatever source will not enter the sport if it is seen to be out of control and run by a bunch of squabbling officials.
Cycling is a beautiful sport and one that is fairly unique. The arena for road racing is the open road. Terrain, weather, distance and many other factors ensure that as the years pass by, modern technology only has limited influence. Joseba Beloki is testament to the basics that have driven the sport for over 100 years. It is this type of link with the past that engages race fans.
The fundamental raw nature of the sport is what draws the sporting public. The Grand Tours, the five monuments and many other great races, rich in history and legend, define our sport. Regardless of the fights between cycling's leaders and organizations it seems that the great races draw increasingly more spectators to the road side and TV screens each year. This is a fact that should be recognized by the UCI who claim that cycling is a sport mired in tradition and legends. EXACTLY, so don't mess it up!
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