Pro Cycling – Why Bother?

Bit of an odd article title for someone who’s obsessed with cycling isn’t it? Maybe, but when someone who – in theory – shouldn’t even be racing utterly dominates a Grand Tour and then continues his season expecting (or at least being expected) to dominate the very next Grand Tour and biggest event on the cycling calendar, why should I bother?

Firstly, a bit of background about me – probably the most surprising thing being that I’m still fairly new to road cycling. Sure, I’ve had road bikes in the past (an early Giant TCR back in the late ‘90s followed by a Cannondale Synapse sometime around 2006) but they were only ever to supplement my mountain biking. Neither lasted long, both making way for new MTBs or MTB parts with the money received from flogging them on.

A job move in 2008 saw me becoming a Monday-to-Friday lodger in London, going home to ride mountain bikes at the weekends. That was quite quickly followed by moving to London full time. Once I’d made the full time move it became a hassle and a faff getting out on the MTB, involving a good hour-or-more journey before I could hit any trails. Having already built my first road bike (a Ti Omega with Fulcrum Racing 1s and Campag Chorus no less) I began to use that more and more, reasoning that I’d rather be riding than travelling to ride, and that when I did then get back on an MTB I’d be quicker for it.

Getting back on an MTB became a more and more rare occurrence. MTBs were sold and the Omega got replaced with a Cervelo (aluminium Soloist Team) that fitted me better. During the weekday evenings I could be found lapping Richmond Park and a regular weekend ride crowd was beginning to establish itself. I paid more attention to the Tour de France that year than in any year previous, and was more aware of the other events that went on. I was hooked. I was now a fully fledged ‘roadie’ (although I was still yet to shave my legs).

The following year – and remember I do still only mean 2009 here – was the first time I fully understood all of what the Tour de France was all about, how it worked, why the riders did what they did and when. It was the first year I knew anything about the teams and the bigger name riders. It was the first year I’d watched, or was even properly aware of, the Spring Classics. It was the first time I realised just how many stage races there were in the pro calendar.

It was also the first time I understood all the things that really went on in the pro peloton, most notably the doping.

And so as I got more and more engrossed in the pro tour and I read more and more about what had been, and still was, going on I got more and more disillusioned at the races I was watching. Almost as soon as I’d fallen in love with the spectacle I became doubtful about the reality of each win, each Grand Tour victor, each hard fought classics glory. Every rider first across the line was faced with a “yeah but” challenge from my armchair.

Time for another confession: show me a picture of a pro rider and there’s only about a 25% chance that I’ll correctly identify him. Unless it’s a big name I don’t have a clue. Frankly I have no intention of changing that either. You know what though? Frankly it doesn’t seem to matter. Big name on a big team or small fry upstart, how often is a win a genuine one?

The very fact that I have to ask that question is what kills it for me.

Back to this year and the whole Contador debacle. Here we have someone who was tested positive for a banned substance, yet he’s back racing – and winning – Grand Tours, whilst other smaller name riders have been banned for the same thing. A catalogue of cock-ups along the way have meant that since he was cleared by the Spanish authorities the challenges to that clearance will now not be heard until after the Tour de France this year. His performance at the Giro was impressive, but to me was also a little blatant. Who can truly, hand-on-heart, claim to be riding that hard up those climbs on consecutive days without assistance? Whether wee Bert was trying to make a defiant statement with his dominant riding I’m not sure, but the message I took away from it was that if he’s going to ride ‘le tour’ in the same manner there’s little point watching.

Doping aside, there’s now also apparently only a certain manner in which a win can be regarded as a real ‘victory’. Today the news of Bradley Wiggins’ sealing his win at the Dauphine-Libere yesterday is all over the cycling news – fantastic to see a Brit win a key stage race, and a solid performance to achieve that. What’s the reaction? Criticism about not ‘winning with style and panache’, challenges about his form, digs about him not really being a tour contender, suggestions about doping. Honestly, can’t we just be pleased for him? With all this going on it’s a wonder any of the pros even want to win anything, let alone do it in style or dope to achieve it.

I’m a bike nut through and through, and have been for a good twenty years or more. But as a rookie roadie I’m still getting my head around all of the things that have gone on in recent years and filing through all of the Armstrong stuff, let alone everything else that has gone on. I can’t recall the great battles of past Tours because I just don’t know them, and frankly my days are too full of other bike stuff to trace through history and watch it all over again. I’ll watch a race unfold and enjoy the spectacle, but the more I see the less I believe and I thoroughly dislike that.

And so as a spectator who loves the sport but just cannot bear the doubt, questions, ambiguity and farcical nature of how the wins arrive and how the minnows get banned whilst the big name riders have become untouchable, I ask again…

Pro cycling – honestly, why should I bother?

Rich [@RichTheRoadie]