No fairytale finish for Mark Cavendish

I’ve been lucky enough to witness Cavendish – the greatest male sprinter of all time – win the greatest sprint finish – Stage 21, Champs Elysees – on three occasions. That includes the spine-tingling 2012 win as World Champion – led out by the first British Tour winner, Bradley Wiggins, resplendent in the yellow jersey.

If Hollywood had its way, his career would finish there – arms aloft, freeze frame and fade. But bike racing isn’t Hollywood. The fates have mockingly decreed his Tour de France career will instead end largely unobserved in a hilly final day time trial between Monaco and Nice.

I was going to try and be all journalistic about the second greatest British road cyclist I’ve watched in the last 20 years. But Cav is a passion play, a compulsive figure on a bike that refuses due impartiality.

Much like Nicole Cooke – the greatest British road cyclist of the modern era – his achievements and talent are in defiance of obstacles and received wisdom. His ability to make the impossible possible and then explain every metre of it is impossible to anyone else.

Take his 2011 World Championship win: Great Britain rode a 256km team time trial against the rest of the field only for his lead out man to lose him at the last corner, leaving Cav to use brute determination to win the uphill sprint.

Long before Wiggins became shorthand for British cycling success, it was Cavendish who drew British fans in to the big mens races.

My first memory of Mark Cavendish is a fury in hot pink, on The Mall in London. A stagiare with T-Mobile at the Tour of Britain 2006, he’d come third in the sprint behind World Champion Tom Boonen and was on his way to be interviewed by the BBC.

Even in the years leading up to Wiggins unmatchable glory of 2012, the headlines and focus of ITV’s Tour de France coverage were about Cavendish. It was Cav who was the first big storyline of London 2012 – a rare occasion on which the seemingly improbably remained beyond him.

There’s also something about the way Cav rides a bike that makes him more than just a figure in the crowd.

In the final kilometres it’s that pungnacious crouch over the bike, bristling intent and imposing itself in the line. The head extended high, terrapin-like, surveying the position and opponents, poised for the moment.

Then when the moment comes, the almost imperceptible rolling down of the shoulders, the head coming low between them. The balletic flourish of the handlebar roll as in one continuous movement he rises out of the saddle and accelerates out of the wheel into his final effort.

I’ve watched this up close on the cobbles in Paris. The telly lies – the bike bucks like a bee stung bronco under him, but he floats in a parallel plane.

Gosh, I’m going to miss spending my Julys with that gobby little Manx kid.

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Women’s U23 World Titles: create the slot, scale participation

In 2022, the UCI has deemed it timely to create world title events for U23 Women in road race and time trial. Obviously, the best way to do this is to simply integrate the even into the existing Elite Women competitions.

This innovative approach to giving rising stars the opportunity to shine – by potentially crossing the line bathed in confusing midpack glory – was greeted with the enthusiasm it deserved by riders when it was announced in 2021:

Sadabh O’Shea of Velonews asks “…does the integrated U23/elite women’s road race at the worlds cause more problems than it solves?” Surely an issue that the sport’s governing body might have considered before deciding to run it for three years before giving its own place in the schedule in 2025 at Rwanda 2025, the first Worlds to be held in Africa?

When the UCI chose to introduce the professional Team Time Trial discipline to the nation-based World Championships, it didn’t slide it down the back of existing Elite Time Trial events.

Instead it had its own slot, despite its manifest issues with attracting and retaining a deep and competitive field.

More recently, the Mixed Relay discpline arrived with much fanfare and a similarly limited level of participation. But it too was given its own slot in the schedule.

So if the concern here is that initial fields might of limited size and variable ability, it certainly isn’t one the UCI has had an issue with in recent expansions of the competition schedule.

Indeed a small entry list is exactly the sort of situation a talented rider from a smaller nation might regard as an idea opportunity.

Tactically, “sit in on Belgium/Netherlands/France/Italy/etc then pick your moment” and “go early and hope they under-estimate your ability to hold off a charging bunch” are not without merit or results.

Equally “small teams, chaos” and “that got attritionally quickly” are both valid race formats that fans love to see.

When it is due to become a standlone event the Worlds is hosted in a country with limited experience of hosting a major event. The course for Rwanda 2025 is likely to be rather selective – it’s not dubbed “land of a thousand hills” in error. Would Wollongong, Glasgow and Zurich not be chances to iron out issues and grow participation?

Fundamentally it seems the UCI has put things in the wrong order. It’s much easier to scale participation in a clear opportunity than it is than it is to untangle participation from an existing event.

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Why the UCI needs to make more money

Cor, the Tour of Beijing has ruffled feathers among the noisy few. For all the cries of despair, you’d think the world of cycling was coming to an end.

I’m going to cut straight in: the value to the sport of accessing markets where cycling is a ingrained activity is vital for its survival. A solvent, well-financed UCI is equally important to cycling’s future.

There is a qualification: the UCI dipping the pockets of the World Tour teams to fund Beijing through Global Cycling Promotions (GCP) is not the proper behaviour of a governing body. There needs to be a proper separation, a chinese wall, between the financial interests and governance functions of the UCI.

Why the UCI making money is not bad

Distasteful as some of the current behaviour of the UCI may be, it needs to increase income if it is to govern effectively. At present we have a situation where the UCI is robbing Peter to pay Paul by taking funds from teams and organisers for the privilege of seeing their name in lights in the calendar and access to some races.

Take anti-doping as a case study of what would happen if the UCI developed its revenue streams significantly.

Inner Ring says the 2010 accounts showing the teams contribute 60% of the antidoping budget. If the UCI were to increase revenues to the point where it could fund the programme without the considerable investment of the teams then this has direct benefits to the sport.

It would allow teams to return this investment into development of women’s teams and u23 squads. Both of these are areas which at present many struggle to fund properly, if at all.

It would allow the establishment of a single, independent body to oversee all testing in the sport. Ultimately this is the right direction for antidoping to take if it wishes to be effective.

To a sponsor looking at the sport in terms of investment and return, spending on talent and exposure would be far more enticing than having to lob a chunk at what is effectively admin.

Cyclismas details the costs of paying fees to the UCI for organisers alongside their anti-doping commitment. Now if the UCI generates significant new revenues to reduce licence costs, then that is money that organisers can pour back into prize funds, sustainable growth of new races and even reducing the cost of events.

Cycling goes where the money is

The central point is this: the history of professional cycling is racing bikes wherever it has been economic to do so, be it velodromes, roads or dirt tracks.

Road racing is a bit of a stick in the mud. Perhaps as befits the oldest form of racing, it clings to its heritage like lycra to a fat lad. There was a time when it had a broader public resonance.

As The Washing Machine Post points out about the rise of mountain biking

“It is no secret that the mountain bike craze of the eighties and nineties more or less single-handedly saved the bicycle industry, creating a number of new manufacturers in the process, while letting the italians continue their blinkered approach to road bike production.”

This same logic applies to the professional tier of road racing, where the blinkered attitude to preserving the “european heritage” scene as it dies on its arse comes at the expense of developing racing in the other two thirds of the world.

At the same time track has waned as one of the dominant forms of mass entertainment, a function

At the same time cycling has always had a global aspect of which “globalisation” is a function. This goes back almost as far as the sport has been practiced.

In 1902, the legendary American rider Marshall “Major” Taylor toured Europe and Oceania. This came a few years after international fields had raced in Madison Square Gardens in the hugely popular Six-Day Races.

In a period when far fewer people had experienced life much beyond their locality, the names of the top cyclists travelled across the oceans.  So far that Fausto Coppi could be found in Colombia in 1957.

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