Breaking the wheel: time for cycling to find its Kerry Packer?

I’ve avoided poking the road rash on the rump of professional cycling that is the Floyd Landis case. Nobody has ever thanked the ninety-nine-millionth-and-one person who says “look you seem to have fallen off” while prodding the weeping flesh.

Instead I recommend you read the following articles:

“When Floyd Landis last week accused several top riders of doping, one thing was missing from the fallout: a flat-out, en masse denial of Landis’s allegations.” – Accusations Ring Loud, but Not the Denials – Juliet Macur, NY Times

Truth, Lies and Evidence – Joe Lindsey’s Boulder Report –

Floyd Landis confession emails may only be the first chapter – David Walsh – The Times

Another fine mess

I’ll also avoid the Valverde case other than to highlight how long it has taken and why we have got to where we are. Podium Cafe has a very detailed timeline of the case

  • The case began with the judicial investigation in Spain known as Operacion Puerto in 2004
  • Operacion Puerto first came to public notice in 2006
  • The UCI and WADA both ask the Spanish Federation (RFEC) to take action against Valverde either side of the Worlds in autumn 2007
  • RFEC procrastinate into 2008, citing jurisdictional reasons they couldn’t act, apparently unable to access the evidence
  • In July 2008 Italian anti-doping authorities take a sample from Valverde when the Tour de France crosses into Italy
  • In May 2009 Valverde is banned in Italy by CONI on the basis of DNA evidence linking him to bloodbag 18, indentifying him as “Valv Piti”.
  • Valverde does not contest that he has been correctly identified, rather that the Italians did not have the jurisdiction to sanction him
  • In May 2010, after protracted appeals and foot-dragging, CAS ratifies the Italian ban and agrees with the UCI/WADA case that it should be extended worldwide
  • Valverde is banned worldwide for two years, effective 01 January 2010
  • CAS note that there is no direct evidence that Valverde has obtained results through doping
  • Valverde continues to appeal, claiming he has been unfairly treated but still not contesting his identification by CONI as a party to Operacion Puerto

Time for cycling to find its Kerry Packer?

Instead, let’s look at the third ring of this complete circus: the professional racing circuit.

Today, it was announced that the Tour of Ireland has been cancelled for 2010 joined the list of defunct races unable to find funding or favour.

Last week The Inner Ring flagged up leaked details of the revised UCI Protour which hinted at one possible future: pay-to-play where the ability to do double entry accounting for the value of your squad is more important than building a team from grassroots and moving up through the sport.

What I don’t understand is why race organisers are so happy to leave the organisation of the sport to the UCI. Surely the combined weight and racebook of RCS (Giro and other Italian races) and ASO (Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix) covers almost all of the top flight events of note and has a future value which far outweigh anything the UCI holds?

The UCI has been instrumental in trying to broaden the global appeal of the sport but it strikes me that the races it has helped developed would be better served by experienced race organisers than the sport’s administrator. It simply doesn’t have the logistical expertise or financial imperative needed to make events in Africa or Asia as significant as their European counterparts.

In my view what cycling needs is someone with the balls of Kerry Packer. For those not familiar, Packer was the man who transformed the staid world of international cricket with his World Series Cricket (WSC).

He’s quoted as having asked the Australian Cricket Board in 1976 “There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?” while discussing television rights. He would have been perfectly at home in a sport as venal as cycling.

While history records that WSC didn’t endure, it did force the sport to confront its failings and move forward in terms of professionalism and its appeal to the audience.

Currently professional cycling is stuck in an hopeless situation where fear of wholesale change leads to poisonous inactivity and decay as the remaining pool of assets withers. The longer it is left to those already with heavily vested interests, the less likely it becomes that cycling can change.

As has been said elsewhere what cycling needs is for someone to come in and re-invent the presentation and appeal. They’ll have to think beyond the traditional at the same time as retaining the core that makes cycling so brilliant.

Here’s a couple of things they could start with:

Women’s racing is demented, unpredictable, attacking.

Bar the sexist pigs who can’t appreciate great competition for what it is, does anyone think the sport wouldn’t be better for a more richly rewarded profile for the women’s scene?

Bring the crazy back

The races everyone talks about are never “sunny day, sunflowers and vineyards”, it’s the mud-splattered Tuscan battles, the chance escapes that beat the odds, the glorious epics.

Bring back motorpaced epics like Bordeaux-Paris with their night racing and fearsome endurance challenge. The “ultra” element of the sport has been left far too long as the preserve of the nostaligic amateur.

Find unique routes, don’t always chase the smooth tarmac and mountain passes. The passing of climbs like Puy de Dome from the sport is a tragedy for that reason in the same way that the rediscovery of Tuscany’s gravel roads is a joy.

So how can cycling make that move forward without someone to drive the change?

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