Pro cycling is in the process of destroying itself. Although we cannot be entirely sure of the minute details of the politics and power struggles behind the scenes, the leadership at the top of the sport – at least by what we see in the media – seems more interested in protecting their individual reputations and fighting petty, tit-for-tat PR battles than engaging in genuine reform. It’s the UCI v WADA v USADA v ASO v IOC et al. Combine this with the steady stream of sordid doping revelations of past transgressions and it is no wonder that sponsors are showing their lack of interest in the sport. You have to be really, really into cycling to put money into it at the global level right now. Some sponsors are, but others are understandably tired of every other cycling headline being about doping and Machiavellian manoeuvrings in the political arena.
What can be done? Does the UCI need a Kickstarter project for anti-doping (or a new levy on race licences), to crowd source its decision making, or at least hire a decent PR agency to manage its external relations? Does the MPCC need to reassess its high-and-mighty principles and actually suggest some realistic policies? Does the bio-passport need to be fundamentally reconstructed and run by an independent organization? Should the ASO just run everything? Do the teams need to organize and drive change themselves? Would any of this actually fix the sport for good?
Unfortunately, no matter what we as fans might want, the decisions made at the top end of pro cycling can only to a limited extent be influenced by what we think (even if we could all agree on a coherent plan). The decisions will be made in pro cycling by those with money, power and influence as they always have (as they are made in other domains, too).
In some ways we should be grateful to Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France and the Giro and all the other riders and races who have grabbed headlines at the pro level over the last 15 years. Without them, road cycling would not have become ‘cool’ again. All the bikes and gear and events and rides that we now enjoy can be, at least in some small part, attributed to the burgeoning global popularity of pro racing. If that popularity has now reached a plateau or is even declining due to its own dirty past and the ineptitude of its leadership, then what – as fans – can we do about it?
Road cycling now speaks for itself. While we might lament a contraction at the global level, and a loss of opportunity for up-and-coming racers to perform on the world stage, and the fun of learning about obscure races in far away lands, we no longer need the WorldTour to drive our local cycling scene. We can build it ourselves. We can have the road racing and the road cycling that we want in our own communities on our own terms and without the intrusion of global cycling politics (well, at least except for those pesky UCI rules).
Here, then, a manifesto of sorts:
- Support your local bike shop as best you can. Give them your time and your money and they will support you in your riding endeavours and (hopefully) organize events to connect with other riders and build community relations in support of road cycling.
- Join a club and support local races and events. Help to create a climate in your community that supports amateur racing, that encourages junior riders into the sport, and which can make regular race events a feature of local roads instead of an anomaly.
- Be part of the crowd at big race events. If you’re fortunate to have top-class local races in your area, go along and support them – and that includes women’s events. Send a message to sponsors that these events are popular and worth investing in; make the road closures worthwhile and a boon to local businesses rather than a disruption.
- Support initiatives in your community for bike lanes and pro-cycling policies. The more cyclists on the road the better for improving local riding conditions and getting more people interested in local racing and other events.
- Build community and camaraderie. Get out there in a group and ride socially. Make groups of cyclists a regular fixture of your local roads. Support and promote local businesses. Show others the positive social aspects of road cycling. Help to create more ‘weekend warriors’ who will support this manifesto.
Pro cycling at the global level will struggle for another five years at least, if not longer, burdened down by negative headlines and its own sordid history. Enormous progress has been made already, but it will take time. As we know, it’s light years ahead of other sports, but that doesn’t make it any easier as there are still fundamental structural problems. And the possibility exists that these might not ever be fixed. Races and teams will continue to struggle and sponsors will look elsewhere.
But this need not be the end of racing and of the sport itself. When power structures are so entrenched and resistant to change by any other route than their own processes, we have to bypass them and build something else. Starting with our own cycling community and by thinking locally we can still grow and promote the sport that we love.
(For an interesting discussion on the history of pro cycling, which informs some of the problems today, see the Issue 36 Rouleur podcast.)