Even as the new cycling season gets underway this week in Argentina and Australia, enthusiasm seems tempered, partly because of continuing Lance Armstrong-related reverberations, and the sense that professional cycling is on probation.
But it is not just that. In a sport that is particularly vulnerable to the state of the economy - particularly in the Eurozone - there are other, possibly bigger problems than doping, though admittedly it can seem impossible to untangle the two.
With the doping, fresh claims and revelations come everyday, from the USA last week, Holland and Belgium this week, and Spain next week, when the six-year-old Operacion Puerto files are re-opened. Each case is of course amplified by the scale of the Armstrong scandal, and in turn appears even more ominous because of the depressed world economy.
Where are the grounds for optimism? In the cycling heartlands of Spain and Italy, professional races and top level teams appear as endangered as polar bears in the Arctic.
The small teams, with more sponsors on their jersey than notches on Hugh Heffner's bedpost, owe their survival to the odd appearance in a WorldTour event, or the possibility of a wild card to the Giro or Vuelta.
Quotes of the week
Italy has only two WorldTour teams, with an American bike company, Cannondale, taking over as title sponsor of Liquigas, while the other, Lampre, has a hefty slice of its budget from its Korean co-sponsor, Merida. There are still more Italians than any other nationality in the WorldTour, but the numbers reduce every year.
Spain also has two teams, but Euskaltel seems permanently on the brink, and Movistar are said to be withdrawing their title-sponsorship at the end of this season.
In the new heartlands, of America and Britain, the sport appears to be in better health, and yet these two countries still only support three top-level teams: Garmin-Sharp, BMC and Team Sky.
Plans for a new global series, World Series Cycling (WSC), seem to be about creating a more stable and lucrative structure for the sport, at least - or exclusively - at the very highest level.
But some of the proposed events - over four days, to include a time trial, a sprint stage, a mountain stage - appear formulaic, and they are set to be held in places with no tradition of cycle racing.
An earlier attempt to globalise the sport - or at least take it to 'new markets'- illustrated a central problem. A British 'classic' - alternately called the Wincanton Classic, Leeds International Classic and Rochester International Classic - began in Newcastle in 1989 and breathed its last in Rochester in 1997, but watching it was an odd, even surreal experience: here were the same riders, and the same teams, but, watching them dodge parked cars in Newcastle city centre, the sport seemed different and diminished.
It was like watching Man Utd and Liverpool play in the local park. Or lions in the zoo. Plucked from their natural environment, the continental pros seemed to lose their mystique.
These days, the sport has a passionate, educated following in Britain, but how much does that owe to the Wincanton Classic and other versions of the World Cup? Not much, if anything.
The question is, how do you establish a race that truly captures the imagination? A prerequisite is an inspiring course, but the event also needs for world class riders to really, really want to win it. And it needs time to bed in and establish a history.
There is no formula - though history does seem important. The exception that proves this rule is the Strade Bianche in Tuscany: a new event, but one that thrills and excites, partly because it harks back to a previous era (confirming that history does matter, even when contrived) and partly because of the unusual course, featuring the region's old dirt roads.
As for establishing a race series that captures the imagination, there is no precedent and nothing to suggest that an appetite exists for it now.
In the efforts to secure cycling's future, some cycling fans will feel conflicted. On the one hand, they want the sport to thrive. On the other, it is possible that for some, its anarchic, shambolic structure, its ridiculously packed and ill-conceived racing calendar, its mish-mash of teams with random sponsors (Belgian laminate flooring; Italian pre-coated steel), is what appealed in the first place.
If some of the smaller races and teams - some of them barely meriting the description 'professional' - are cast aside, or die because they are barred from the top races, some of the essential lifeblood of the sport will be cut off.
WSC seems all about building an elite premier division, but there is a danger that the sport becomes top-heavy. The small teams, with more sponsors on their jersey than notches on Hugh Heffner's bedpost, owe their survival to the odd appearance in a WorldTour event, or the possibility of a wild card to the Giro or Vuelta.
These teams are the antidote to Sky, with their sleek, clean lines and corporate air - but wouldn't the sport be more boring without them?
Sadly, there is a possibility we will find out. Take away the possibility of small teams riding in the top events - or, indeed, the possibility of top teams riding smaller races - and the teams and the events will vanish.
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M Anderson says...
The format may change, some of the big races may disappear and other, new races take their place, but the sport of road cycling will survive and thrive. Standing proud over the drug scandals and cheating is a huge fanbase of people who are fanatical about cycling, people who love their bikes and bike racing. We are those who understand just how endemic drug use was in the professional circuit and recognise that the turmoil of recent years was a necessary blood letting. Real fans already knew the truth about what was going on, and eventually those that continue to berate all pro cyclists will get bored and move on to some other media story they really know little about, leaving the real fans of cycling to the sport they love. The future is bright, the love of the sport is still there and the teams and riders that are the future of the sport are already operating. Given time road cycling will make a full and healthy recovery, starting when the gutter press and the associated trolls move on to fresher pickings. And it won't be long!
Posted 20:51 28th January 2013
Philip Willoughby says...
I don't think it will turn out to be a problem, for the same reason that Formula 1 hasn't destroyed all the lower tiers of motorsport. I would expect WSC to become the F1 of cycling, and along with that to have support races from smaller & local teams on the same courses (cf GP2, GP3). This will keep the trackside crowd entertained and it can be televised at less popular times of day (as GP2 and GP3 are today). I suspect it would be avidly watched by the WSC teams as they look for potential problems on the route.
Posted 21:11 23rd January 2013
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