Is pro cycling f**ked?

Italy, it would seem, attracts more than its fair share of platitudes in the cycling world, and justifiably so. We might contrast this, though, with the approbation in receives from elsewhere, particularly over the state of its economy and politics. It also causes many a commentator to fall into what Karl Popper calls the “myth” of induction – inference based on many observations. Take this statement from a recent column by the travel writer from the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail: “Italians live for pleasure, not for work.” Having spent a bucolic vacation in the countryside, the author now becomes an expert on the Italian national character – all its subtleties and complexities reduced to a pithy aphorism.

In keeping with such a tradition, dear reader, your author is going to make some similar pronouncements, on Italian cycling and on the state of pro racing in general. This will be the last post to comment on ‘recent events’ before moving onto other topics – and a fulfillment of the promise made earlier (when the colour of this blog was Giro pink) to offer some analysis of Italian cycling. As way of preface, it is worth noting that your author – although having been to at least a half-dozen European countries – has not been to Italy. Having read numerous books on Italian cycling, however, and at least two books by Ernest Hemingway set in Italy, one should not be disqualified from the game (although perhaps some yellow cards should be raised).

Completely ignoring the myth of induction, one can pronounce with full certitude that the case of Filippo Pozzato best sums up the current state of Italian cycling. You will recall that Pozzato was banned from competition for working with Michele Ferrari, himself banned for his dodgy practices. This case has been covered in some detail elsewhere. Ignoring the ridiculous aspects of the case – such as why did Pozzato not call CONI to check on Ferrari’s status, or why did Ferrari himself not warn Pozzato, or why did his team management not check – it throws up a fundamental problem that will have to change.

The first reaction, it seems, of an Italian rider not able to perform at the level they want is to consult with an external ‘expert’, and inevitably a dodgy one. If all that Pozzato wanted was training plans, as he claimed, was there no local expertise that could be provided, no coaches or trainers or experts to give him training guidance? Apparently not, which points to an alarming absence of expertise in Italian cycling.

Team Sky showed this year that their ‘marginal gains’ strategy – small improvements in multiple areas that add up to a noticeable performance boost – is highly effective. But this strategy costs money, which seems to be absent from anywhere in cycling – not just in Italy – except for where there is state support or funding from generous benefactors. One might conclude, therefore, and perhaps fallaciously, that for Italian cycling to improve it will need to do two things: one, change its mentality that the solution is always to consult externally with dodgy doctors; two, get more money. The first is entirely realistic; the second is more problematic.

A problematic future

Amid all the doping revelations in the last week or so, two things of interest happened. Firstly, the Canada-based pro continental team, Team SpiderTech announced that it was ceasing racing for the 2013 season. Manager Steve Bauer was at some pains to point out that this was not a ‘bankruptcy’ situation but one can certainly infer that the financial situation is not a good one. Continental teams have it tough, caught between the glamour and big money of the WorldTour and prestige events and the races that attract less sponsor interest. The situation is not that much better at the WorldTour level, either, with sponsorship worries a recurring issue for many teams. Securing long-term sponsor support is a big problem in cycling.

Secondly, Michael Barry called for fundamental changes to pro cycling in an article in The New York Times. As erudite as ever, Barry argues that, “The sport cannot continue to risk crushing our children’s dreams and damaging lives.” (Although not everyone has been sympathetic to the positions of the doping confessors.) Barry calls for change and says that national governments need to get involved. He is correct, of course. Numerous changes are needed – the way teams are funded, the way rankings and results are treated, the way the calendar is organized, and the way doping is being handled.

Change will only come from those that have the power in pro cycling. At the present time, that is the ASO – with the suite of races that it runs and the support it has from other big race owner/organizers – and the UCI as the governor of the sport. Both have limited incentive to change. The current structure, despite the scandals, suits them well in terms of control and revenue. If the riders or the teams want changes they will need to get more power.

A union for the riders, as some have argued, could be one solution. Without an increase in bargaining power, the labour of pro cyclists will continue to be exploited – by governing bodies, race organizers, and even their own teams – as Barry complains about. The sport will continue to be driven by what might be called ‘short termism’, a damaging focus on results and money in the here-and-now rather than looking to the future. This is ironic, given the long and storied history that the sport draws upon. The races themselves are the iconography of the sport, while the racers are expendable in the nurturing of these myths.

Steve Bauer argues that the latest doping revelations have nothing to do with the reluctance of sponsors to be involved in cycling. This is probably true. Everyone knows that the sport is improving for the better. But the headlines persist. What sponsor wants to be involved in a sport where past revelations of dodgy doping are driving the popular media coverage? What sponsor wants to be involved given the short termism that is driving the sport?

It is hard not to think that pro cycling is f**ked. This may be too harsh of a conclusion. But there needs to be leadership for change shown at the top and this has been, it would seem, woefully absent to date. Perhaps a riders’ union will be the catalyst (there may be other possibilities). Riders have gone on strike before and they may have to do so again. But the stakes will be high. The ASO has said that if there is a boycott of the Tour by pro teams, for example, it would just run the race with French amateurs. Maybe their bluff needs to be called?

How much has changed? Perhaps the subject of a subsequent post…

3 thoughts on “Is pro cycling f**ked?

  1. Coming to this post late, but it’s both depressing and heartening to read comments like this.

    Knowing that change is needed and being powerless to implement that change grates on every fan.

  2. I agree with your take except the part about Italians. I first went there in 1989 and have been back almost (1990 was the exception) every year since, including living there for extended periods of time, most recently in Sicily. Idiots like Pippo come in all flavors, there’s nothing particularly Italian in what he did. BigTex’ doc was of course Italian but his other henchmen included Belgians and Spaniards. Italians may indeed live for pleasure but you wouldn’t know it by visiting Lombardy or Alto Adige, those folks are as industrious as the Swiss!

  3. Re: Training advice.
    I’ve been involved in sports all my life, cycling, the last 15 or so years. When I first got acquainted with “pro” cycling I was always confused as to why…. The training advice was administered by Doctors. Doctors ??? In any other sport, track and field, hockey, baseball etc. the training advice was offered by coaches.

    Now I understand.

    As for advertising and sponsorship money. If I had cash to invest, I would not go anywhere near cycling. There is plenty of other places to put your money.

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