Saturday, March 8, 2008

Beijing or Bust


The tug of war for control over professional cycling being played out has finally taken a turn may leave a lasting, if not permanent, scar on the sport. Cyclists preparing to race Paris-Nice are being forced to choose a side in a battle that shouldn’t be taking place. Their choices: Their employers or themselves.

It’s no choice, to be sure. The battle has been cast as two Goliaths battling for destiny of David, but it’s anything but that. The latest escalation of hostilities between ASO and the UCI purports to make the riders choose between racing spring’s most important stage race and Olympic and World Championship aspirations. If they choose to race Paris-Nice, then they’ll be able to race the Tour de France, while risking fines, hopes for an Olympic berth and even their license to race professionally. If they avoid the event to curry favor with the UCI, then they’ll endure the wrath of the Tour de France organizer, which means, “No soup for you; come back one year.”

Based on ASO’s treatment of Astana this year, we can be certain Christian Prudhomme isn’t bluffing. But what about the UCI? Frankly, Pat McQuaid’s latest threat to sanction the French Cycling Federation (FFC) should Paris-Nice take place as a French event smacks of desperation—“Walk out of that door and I’ll never speak to you again!” Threatening to suspend all French cyclists is as rational as buying a home that has tripled in value in two years. Hmm.

But back to that choice. Who really decides who races Paris-Nice? Is it the riders? Only marginally. Is it the team directors? Almost. Could it be the sponsors? Bingo. Ultimately, anything a cycling team does is up to the title sponsor. No matter who the team director or license owner is, sponsors get a line-item veto. If the sponsor wants the TV time that comes with racing Paris-Nice, guess what?

To be fair, media reports note that many team directors have held a dialog with their riders regarding their wishes and a few riders scheduled to race P-N, such as High Road’s Bradley Wiggins, have been permitted to change their personal schedules in order to avoid the conflict. Marc Madiot, team director for la Francaise des Jeux doesn’t want to risk having his strongest rider, Phillippe Gilbert, suspended, so he is sending him elsewhere for the week.

So what if a rider should tell a less-than-sympathetic team director that they’d like to stay out of the fray? Not showing up for P-N would likely be professional suicide. The rider keeps his license but has no job. That’s the real choice—What is more important to the rider, his right arm or left?

Let’s not forget that ASO has a dog in this fight. The organization has been taking steps—some of which are opposed by the UCI—to prevent itself from further embarrassment brought on by doping scandals. It has a lot to be concerned about. How bad is the crisis in its view? A quick review of the list of Paris-Nice victors is a who’s who of the scandal itself: Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis, Bobby Julich, Jorg Jaksche, Alexandre Vinokourov (twice), Dario Frigo, Andreas Kloden, Michael Boogerd, Frank Vandenbroucke, Laurent Jalabert (thrice), Tony Rominger (twice), Alex Zulle, Jean-Francois Bernard and Miguel Indurain (twice). That takes us back to 1989 and the start of the EPO era. Convictions aside, if you simply look at all the allegations of drug use in the peloton, only one of those names has been conspicuously clear of the rumor mill: Bobby Julich. That Paris-Nice’s winners are a virtual inventory of drug users (as are all races from that period) is why ASO is so upset and wants such complete control over who competes in its events.

The true nature of the conflict between ASO and the UCI is best left for another piece. However, the severity of the conflict, surprisingly, has the ability to overshadow the humiliation the sport has suffered due to clockwork emergence of fresh drug scandals. Should 16 teams start Paris-Nice, the UCI’s threats could derail the licenses of not just 160 of the world’s finest cyclists, but every French cyclist, including Julien Absalon, and every rider of every team as McQuaid threatened team’s licenses as well, meaning that Slipstream’s Taylor Phinney, a near-shoe-in for the Olympics, could conceivably be sidelined as well. Added up, the UCI is threatening to suspend more than 1000 cyclists if 20 teams show up to Paris-Nice.

Such an action may seem inconceivable (in any rational world, it would be), but crazy knows no bounds; it is the mind unfettered by the by the guidance of the creative urge that keeps so many artists and writers part of productive society. It may seem unreasonable to us that the UCI would threaten so many over what seems so minor—racers racing an event that’s been going on since 1933—but if the UCI backs down, its authority will have been effectively broken.

A quick shake of the Magic 8-Ball says: “Things will get worse.” The UCI isn’t going to back down. Slipstream and many other teams will race the Tour. And while we will see many races come down to the line, none will have an outcome as monumental as whether or not the UCI prevents athletes from racing in the Olympics. Should such a turn take place, the UCI will have succeeded in making cycling more ridiculous than drugs ever could.

14 comments:

Brian said...

The doping scandals in our sport are really no surprise in light of the incredibly poor leadership demonstrated by its sanctioning bodies. I think that recent events somewhat undermine the legitimacy of the self-righteous doping crusades. It's time our reconstructive energies are refocused on rider's rights and stable infrastructure rather than the endless and relentless persecution of athletes.

The Team Chef said...

Setting aside the row between the UCI and ASO, I would like to see the Olympics returned to the realm of amateur racer. If the UCI does ban riders, is the absense of professionals from Beijing such a bad thing? I'm not sure many sponsors will care all that much.

ed6061 said...

Contador has been guilty of nothing more than being victim of rumors in and innuendo. No sanctions or attempted sanctions have been brought against him. Its is blatantly unfair to lump Contador with a demonstrated cheat like Vino. If Contador tests positive, or his blood shows up in a operation Puerto bag, that he is demonstrated to have cheated, then he is a cheat. Until then, by lumping him with proven cheats is unfair and only muddies the water.

Anonymous said...

@ed6061 quite "his blood shows up in a operation Puerto bag"

that's what happened...

bikesgonewild said...

...i understand the concept & aims of the PRO-tour but it was not well conceived or implemented, so it is understandably problematic...
...at the same time, the aso & it's cohorts have been using the riders as hostage in it's battle w/ the uci for control over the sport...now the uci is threatening to do the same...

...the riders should show a little intestinal fortitude & conviction for both their sponsors & themselves...a stand needs to be taken to show both sides in the uci/aso conflict just how powerless they are w/ out the cooperation of the main players in this PRO-longed drama...

...this is dragging into three straight years of using "doping" as an excuse...doping is, has & always will be a problematic concern in cycling but it's also a convenient scapegoat in a major power struggle between the 'old guard'...
...prudhomme & mcquaid are the new leaders of the 'old guard' & neither deigns to relinquish any control or show a reasonable compromise, so the sport is stalemated...the sponsors, the riders & the fans are the losers, as it stands...

...last year it was unibet, this year astana...the riders in solidarity should have used paris-nice to their advantage...
..."no one rides your race mssr prudhomme, unless all PROtour teams ride & there will be no sanctions mr mcquaid, against anyone"...
..."get your houses in order, build a working & cooperative infrastructure or we will strike until such time"...
..."in the meantime, we will find ways to best represent our sponsors in the hope that they will not feel duped in this irresponsible battle"...

...bold ???...you bet, but just how long is this supposed to play out & to who's advantage ???...

flanman said...

Who do you distrust least - ASO or UCI?

Who has more accountability - ASO or UCI?

Who cares more about making money?

Who has done more for riders rights?

Would Isaac Galvez's widow have received 0.5 mio Euro compensation if ASO/RCS was in charge of running cycling?

This is a war. UCI has no choice but to defend itself with teeth bared. ASO clealry has the French Fedeation in its pocket and is moving on to break the UCI. This would be bad for riders and cycling.

The French federation will bear the brunt of any punishments.

bikesgonewild said...

...i agree w/ you flanman...my support goes to the uci but there seems to be a certain incompetency on their part that is fed by the lack of support from the riders & preyed upon by the aso & prudhommes cronies...

...i also agree that the collusion between aso & the french federation is unhealthy for the sport & probably based on future promises...

...i still think the riders & teams, w/ a show of solidarity could improve the whole situation...

Anonymous said...

Of course ASO have more credibility as they have invested more money in cycling. UCI has looked the other way since the 90's.

McQuaid will be resigning shortly. If Armstrong (its been proven), Contador (definitely being exposed this year) and Bruyneel (raced for Saiz) are not drug cheats then I have a bridge to sell you. ASO is right to say good bye to them.

rmckittr said...

While I feel sorry for the pros who have not cheated, who are nonetheless embroiled in this catch 22, I feel like the professional peleton has brought this mess upon itself by its flagrant disregard for the doping regulations. Both the ASO and the UCI were accomplices until recently. Now these organizations want to clean up cycling, but only when the doping has threatened to cost them money. Screw both organizations. There will be exciting bicycle races even if both of them go bankrupt and stop supporting cycling. In fact, that may be what it takes for professional cycling to earn back its dignity.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is great. I thoroughly enjoy it and learn a few things too.

This is about the best commentary on this situation I've read so far, kudos.

The idea of going back to an all-amateur Olympics is something I always come back to as well; no matter how utterly remote--check that--impossible. I'm with the Team Chef--it'd be great and reinvigorate cycling in many different ways.

--Brij L. in Santa Cruz, CA

Kazeebo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gary watts said...

It's not obvious to me what purpose the UCI serves. If they disappeared, I'm not sure it would matter. I do guarantee you that if the Tour de France disappeared, you DEFINITELY notice.

Race organizers are the ones with a stake in the game, along with the riders. The riders need a union FOR THEIR BENEFIT, not the UCI's. The UCI just need to keep getting funding from the Olympic committee....

The UCI is getting involved in doping monitoring, something they should 100% contract and stay out of. Their technical decisions regarding equipment requirements are poor and arbitrary at times.

The continued voice for "wiping the slate clean" would appear to extend much further than has been suggested.....my opinion.

Art said...

gary: If the UCI went away, you would notice. There would be a different set of rules for nearly every race. And that could cover everything from depth of prize money all the way down to aero bar positions. As heavy handed as they can be sometimes, the UCI has lent a lot of stability and consistency to the sport. But sometime very soon, they're going to have to bend an inch and sort this situation out, because right now it's heading for a league split. If RSA and ASO completely break from the UCI, there's nothing to stop them from building a private race league that's the cycling equivalent of professional wrestling. They'll take races like the Tour de France in whatever direction serves their financial interests. Once it's made clear that riders in the private league are out of the Olympics, then the races are out of WADA jurisdiction. Organizers will no longer have to ban teams to avoid drug scandals, because they will be under no pressure to test in the first place. The silver lining will be a return to amateurs in the Olympics, but only because there isn't enough sponsorship money out there to support two international professional cycling leagues.

bikesgonewild said...

...i agree, art...the uci is more of a necessary stabilizing force than anything else...

...both parties (& their predecessors) have been aware of drug usage since the dawn of competitive cycling, not as something new & recent & have only ever bothered w/ it when usage has become too obvious to the public or outside officials...
...for the aso to portray themselves as innocent victims & use the issue as a trump card is bunk...

...this is a simple control issue...money, power & to some degree, prestige...