End-of-season round-table: Issues of the year

In part one of our end-of-season round table, we looked back on our favourite races, riders and moments from the 2012 season, and we saw that it was good. However, the year wasn’t all a bed of roses – there were plenty of thorns too. The second part of our discussion looks at underperforming ‘super-teams’, the conundrum of China and the doping scandals which have shaken the sport to its core over the past 11 months.

BMC splashed the cash on building the ultimate super-team. Philippe Gilbert’s late-season form aside, it’s been a bit of a disaster – no rider in the top 20 and seventh in the team rankings. Where did it all go wrong?

Sheree: Sadly we weren’t flies on the wall when the team set out its strategy for 2012. We assume the end result must have been disappointing because some of its high-profile riders didn’t perform as per 2011. But maybe that was anticipated. After all it’s rare (and suspicious) for riders to be consistent year in, year out. BMC now has the current World Champion (PhilGil), three former ones (Ballan, Evans and Hushovd) and a couple in the making (Taylor Phinney and Tejay van Garderen). For the season to be judged a success or failure, we’ll have to ask Rihs about sales of BMC bikes.

Phinney was a genuine bright spot for BMC … (image courtesy of BMC)

Panache: Other than Sky, did it really go well for any ‘super-team’? I would say BMC had a more successful year than RadioShack-Nissan, for sure. BMC had some shining moments with their young guns, Phinney and van Garderen. For me, most of their problems came from supporting the wrong rider at the wrong time in various races. For instance, it was obvious that Cadel didn’t have the right form early in the Tour. BMC should have immediately adjusted to support Tejay in the GC battle.

Jack: I think a thick slice of bad luck has afflicted BMC this season. Gilbert was never likely to repeat his successes of last season, though he wasn’t helped by early health issues. Hushovd has been suffering with a rather nasty-sounding viral infection which has hindered him all season, meaning any victories he could have chased were unthinkable. Evans still finished seventh in the Tour de France (and he is now 35), PhilGil still won stages in the Vuelta, and Phinney and van Garderen are in the vanguard – or ‘vangard’ – of great new American talents. All things considered, I don’t think it was really too bad.

Tim: ‘Vangard’ – like it!

… As was van Garderen (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Kitty: Too many chiefs? That can’t be the answer as Thor was nowhere this year, Cadel seemed a shadow of himself and PhilGil was starting to look like he was totally hobbled. Not sure if the team gelled – let’s remember, Gilbert won the World Championship as part of the Belgian team. It’s a shame, as the ‘second tier’ of riders – Phinney, van Garderen, Marco Pinotti – were magnificent.

Tim: If you look beyond Cadel’s disappointing Tour, Thor’s troubles and PhilGil’s season up until the Vuelta, I think BMC’s year was actually pretty good. But it was one which took a while to get going and was perhaps more transitional than anticipated. Taylor brought his megawatt smile, infectious enthusiasm and a willingness to speak out, and showed he will be a force to reckon with for the next decade. And Tejay announced himself as one of the next great Grand Tour contenders. The peloton as a whole faces something of a changing of the guard in 2013, and BMC are well placed to feature prominently at the sharp end of it. In that respect, 2012 was a good platform for success – there’s a pleasing blend of youth and experience in the squad.

The Contador ban – on a scale of one to ten, how well was it handled by all concerned?

Kitty: One. It just dragged on and on, the fault of all parties. Surely there must be a way that these cases can be resolved quickly and fairly? Of course, the whole thing started out badly as it looked like a cover-up was desired by the UCI.

Tim: The UCI and the Spanish federation get a one from me for placing politics and self-interest above the wider interests of the sport. But Contador and his advisors get ten out of ten. They managed the PR fall-out and fully exploited the politics of the situation well, stringing out the process such that a two-year ban became just a few short months of inaction. As a result he returned with a minimum of ring-rust and was quickly able to regain the form that propelled him to victory at the Vuelta. I don’t blame them for extracting every possible advantage – it’s the fault of the authorities for creating a loophole large enough to drive Sky’s ‘Death Star’ team bus through.

Sheree: That’s a big fat zero for everyone. The only winners were the lawyers who no doubt pocketed fat fees. For me the most disturbing aspect was the feeling that the UCI would have swept it under the carpet if it hadn’t been for the story being broken in the German press.

Tim: Yes, the timing of their press release – basically 24 hours before German media would have gone live with the story – was curiously coincidental, wasn’t it? Ahem.

Panache: Sheree is spot on. Actually a zero might be too generous. I say minus-three. [We’re not very good at this ‘scale of one to ten’ thing, are we? – Ed] After this year’s revelations we now understand that the clenbuterol/Contador case is the frosting on the cake of complete incompetence by the UCI. [But what we really want to know is whether the cake itself would pass a doping control – Ed.]

Jack: See above – I think you’ve summed it all up perfectly.

Contador bounced back from his ban to storm the Vuelta, with this victory on stage 17 the pivotal moment (image courtesy of Roz Jones)

USADA’s revelations about Lance Armstrong and US Postal appear to have opened the floodgates for further revelations, sackings and investigations. How far should these go – and at what point is it time to declare ‘enough’?

Panache: How far should it go? All the way! The sport should burn down to the ground and start over. Now is the time to get it all out there. Now is the time to end the omerta. The outings and pressure should continue until there is real change in the UCI and team cultures. Vive la révolution!

Even in retirement Armstrong continues to dominate the headlines (image courtesy of RadioShack)

Jack: I agree with Panache. The Armstrong revelations and the details of the extent of doping must catalyse complete change. I think it is change which is already starting, though there can never be too many investigations or revelations if we are to eradicate cheating to the greatest possible extent.

Sheree: While you’ll never wholly eliminate cheating, root-and-branch change needs to go far enough that youngsters entering the sport are never put into situations where they feel pressured to dope to obtain results. We’re some way from that but I sense we’re now moving in the right direction.

Kitty: I’m not sure. If we go any further back, no one would have won anything – there’d just be phantom races alongside the Greg Lemond wins, which would stand. The only way to move forward, however, is to unpick all the different strands of the Armstrong years and make sure that lessons are well and truly learned this time so that riders today can never be put in situations where doping is required to keep their livelihood.

Tim: I’m more in line with Kitty on this one. The tipping point for me is where the money and effort required to prosecute the past begins to compromise policing the present and jeopardises efforts to keep the future of the sport clean. Let me be 100% clear about this: I think USADA’s decision to pursue Armstrong so vigorously was correct because it lifted the omerta and the veil of complacency and denial that went with it. It set off a chain of events which created a lot of short-term pain for an incalculable amount of longer-term gain. I think it will be at least a year – possibly two – before we can assess the full ramifications of what we have seen over the past few weeks. What I do not believe should happen is to attempt to root out every cheat from the past ten years, or 20, or 50. Accept that there are many cheats in the record books who will not be eradicated in the same way as Lance. Learn the lessons. Draw a line underneath and move on. Ensure that we never go through a scandal as damaging as this ever again, and that systematic abuse on such a broad scale can never be quietly condoned every again.

Kitty: Can I take your soapbox away now?

Tim: (wiping fevered brow) Okay. I’m done.

We’ve all heard the cries of “McQuaid out” from practically every corner of the cycling community. In an ideal world, who would you like to replace him with?

Tim: I don’t have a particular name in mind, but I would challenge whether it needs to be someone from within the cycling community. Whoever it is, it needs to be someone of unimpeachable integrity and with a track record of getting things done, rather than merely paying lip service. Then surround him or her with people who understand how cycling works to support them. For me, someone like Seb Coe would have been ideal, but I struggle to put a name in the frame who would realistically take up the role, which says something about the competence and image of existing sports administrators, does it not?

Sheree: As front man for the UCI, McQuaid has coloured our perception of that organisation and they’ve all become tarred with the same brush, which is a great shame as they have some very capable people within their ranks. However, to restore credibility, I also think it needs to be a total outsider, someone who’ll challenge the ‘sacred cows’. They must be media savvy, a polyglot, care more for the future of the sport than their own political ambitions and understand the importance of segregation of responsibility. In addition, the UCI’s role needs to be stripped back to purely governing the sport, no more drug testing or promoting of events. Just say the word and my CV will be in the post!

David Millar – a future UCI president? Discuss (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jack: Sheree. If that’s a bit too ambitious, then maybe David Millar?

Sheree: Ambitious? Jack you’ve obviously not read my CV!

Jack: (laughs) I know Millar has expressed interest in taking up work in the UCI after retiring, and he could make a pretty good replacement. He may not have the immediate wherewithal in the complexities of the role to jump straight to the top, but perhaps some time in the future.

Panache: How about Greg Lemond?

Kitty: UCI_Overlord? Velocast? Panache? Certainly not David Millar, although it looks like he’s trying to tee himself up for that. I think it would be more important to divorce the UCI from the sport’s policing. There has to be a totally independent and transparent body that does the doping tests. Until then, the UCI will always want to sweep positives under the carpet as it hinders their money-making capability and promotion of the sport.

China is clearly important to cycling’s commercial future, but with the Tour of Hangzhou postponed and the Tour of Beijing surrounded (literally) by a smog of controversy, what needs to happen to make racing in China more than an afterthought?

Jack: If the races are entertaining, more people will watch, more sponsorship deals will be signed and more big riders will ride. It is inevitably difficult for a brand new race to attract big names, not least in a country without cycling prestige, though it isn’t impossible.

Panache: Is China really that important right now? You don’t add a new wing onto the house when the older part is structurally unsound. The UCI should focus on fixing cycling, growing the sport for women, and shoring up traditional races like Lombardia before trying to grow in China.

Sheree: Simples, there needs to be a Chinese-sponsored or part-sponsored team in the WorldTour for the locals to get behind. Look how the Tour of Britain has changed post-Le Grand Depart 2007 and the advent of the Sky team. A Tour de France start in China would be irresponsible but a Chinese team would be just the ticket. Don’t forget it’s where most of the bikes are produced.

Kitty: I have no idea. It’s hard to see where it would fit into the calendar if it were earlier in the season. At the moment it smacks of the UCI trying to make some money. Perhaps if there were races that started as grass-roots events and slowly began to attract some big names and teams, they would grow organically into something important. You can’t invent a ‘great’ race – the greatness comes later.

Tim: Can I have my soapbox back, please? I totally agree you can’t just create a great race, but you can certainly put the right pieces into place. Here’s what I would do. I would start by moving it out of the end-of-season slot – put Lombardia back in its rightful place and swap Beijing into late September. Then create a parcours for a Tour of China which merges Beijing with the Hangzhou race. Make it a showcase for the country’s spectacular landmarks and scenery, just like the Tour, Giro and Vuelta. The race already visits the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Bird’s Nest Stadium, which could all be packaged into a three-day segment (one city centre sprint, a Classics-style race to the Wall and a summit finish). Then put in a transfer day to run three days around Hangzhou, where the scenery is spectacular – although late September is perhaps a bit too close for comfort to typhoon season – and which would also offer a pleasing and challenging mix of stages. It wouldn’t be cheap but if it worked well then after a couple of years the commercial aspects would quickly fall into place, with sponsors tripping over each other to get involved in a major annual sporting event in such a large and growing economy. Yes, I’ve been thinking about this a bit too much …

In the final part of our round-table tomorrow we gaze into our crystal ball and look forward to 2013.

End-of-season round-table

Part 1: 2012 in review

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