The marquee event of the cycling season kicks off in about two weeks time, and as is typical of professional cycling, the run up has featured polemica, scandal and rumours. These issues, mostly centring around the inescapable presence of doping, reflect cycling’s raison d’être: to provide newspapers with something to fill their pages with; something people are willing to part with their money to read. The earliest professional races were staged by newspapers eager to create news of heroic adventures through countrysides which, in the.popular imaginary, seemed far further flung than they do now. Indeed, two of cycling’s most famous colours yellow and pink belong to the pages of the papers L’Equipe and La Gazzetta dello Sport, which were responsible for organising the first editions of Le Tour and Il Giro respectively. It seems now that this newspaper coverage has begun to be replaced by tourism agencies keen to publicise their neck of the woods and investigative detectives’ files on athletes and doctors associated with the sport.
First and foremostly there are the renewed allegations that Lance Armstrong and members of his team were involved in organised and systematic doping. These allegations have been made before and have even been heard in a court before, but Lance and his extensive legal team have so far not been found guilty. These renewed allegations, now being made by USADA, are not seen to be separate from the previous enquiry by the FDA by some, instead they are a continuation of this investigative process albeit now entering a slightly different legal space. My opinion is that Lance always seemed too infallible, too dogmatic to be taken at face value and the fact that these spectres of alleged doping keep haunting him reeks of guilt.
Beyond the simple question of did Lance dope or not, there is the question of whether cycling is now a cleaner sport than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. There are still a number of prominent riders who have been found to have violated doping controls and, of course, Alberto Contador is currently serving a ban. There is the school of thought that the cheaters will always be a few steps ahead of those trying to catch them so there’s always going to be undetected doping in the peloton. However, the renewed competitiveness in the racing I’ve watched over the past few years tells that there are more riders at the same level and fewer performances which seem to come from ‘another planet’. That said, controversial cycling doctors such as Dr Ferrari and Dr Fuentes still feature in the occasional story about riders that find themselves embroiled in a doping scandal.
Sometimes I think that cycling has a scripted storyline like WWE wrestling. I mean cycling’s biggest rivalry of recent years Contador-A.Schleck was seemingly put on the backburner this year until it was revealed that Contador would return from his suspension to race the Vuelta and Schleck would miss this year’s Tour due to a broken pelvis but is hoping to be back in time to race the Vuelta. Similarly, a discussion between Frank Schleck and Rui Costa during the Tour of Switzerland may have set in motion a storyline that will resurface during the Tour de France.
This was one of those little moments that, for me, embodies the mystery and intrigue of this sport. Who knows what they said, but in typical European style, it was animated and hand gestures were used. Movistar, for whom Rui Costa races, have been a team who have targeted stage wins previously but this year seem to have a stronger team and may be aiming for G.C. positioning. My theory that Frank Schleck gave up his chance of winning the race in order to ally with the Movistar team, given that his own team has been suffering all sorts of problems all season. Such a deal goes against principles of fair competition but when you have 190+ riders spending three weeks riding with (and sometimes against) each other, all sorts of informal alliances must be formed. Historically, there have been many instances where this shady hierarchical side of the peloton has shown its face, and now there still remain various national rivalries.
This year’s Tour de France promises to be closely fought across the various competitions. For the GC it seems like Bradley Wiggins will be in great form and his time-trialling ability should give him a distinct advantage that he’ll have to defend during the mountains. Cadel Evans, the defending champion, is also touted as a favourite but I think the desire he showed last year to win will have diminished having achieved his goal of winning, though I’d back him for some stage wins. Frank Schleck seems to be in good form and Nibali will be flying the Italian flag.
The green jersey will also be closely fought. Mark Cavendish will surely be a favourite but he seems to have other priorities this year than winning this jersey. He’s shown this year he can be beaten in a straight up sprint, but he’s also just shown by winning the Ster ZLM Tour that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. Andre Greipel has been a nearly man for a few years but this year he has been a prolific winner and could give Cav a run for his money. Peter Sagan has also been winning for fun but I feel he is still too young an not quite accomplished enough to cut it in the last 200m of a Tour de France stage.