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.