Vélo Files: How’s the Fidelity?

Anthony Tan

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Loyalty... Bradley McGee rode most of his career with one WorldTour team. Israel Folau meanwhile has leapt between whole different sports. Is the concept a thing of the past? (Getty Images)
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With code-hopping in Australian football becoming increasingly commonplace, Anthony Tan says it should come as no surprise that fidelity is a far-flung thing of the past in professional cycling.

At the time, what I was thinking (was that) I believed in something, and loyalty and fidelity is much more important than branching out and trying a new approach. Someone like Madiot gave me every opportunity… Without him, I would have never become a professional bike rider.It was interesting to see the callers’ stir on ABC talkback radio Tuesday morning, immediately following an article penned by Sydney Morning Herald chief sports columnist Richard Hinds (no relation to Cycling Central’s Alex Hinds) that was headlined, ‘When codes sell out for a Sonny disposition’.

The crux of the column lamented the lack of commitment and loyalty shown by top athletes in rugby league and union, as well as AFL. ‘Sonny Quade-Folau’, a fictitious character Hinds created, “does not play for gold medal bling and peanuts”, he wrote of his traits.

“Sonny Quade-Folau is the X-factor. The man you think can push your club through the premiership window, or drag it from the floor. Who can attract TV eyeballs and convert those impressionable kids. A gun for hire in the battle of the codes.”

Nor is he “tied down by dated conventions such as multi-year contracts or – can you believe people still use this term – club loyalty. He is here for a pay time, not for a long time.”

With uncanny Swiss timing, the article coincided with NRL-turned-AFL-turned-rugby player Israel Folau confirming a one-year deal to play for the NSW Waratahs for the 2013 Super Rugby season (which appeared to prompt a headline change by the subs, ‘Football royalty put bucks before loyalty to crack the codes’).

On November 1 Folau cut short his four-year, multi-million dollar deal with AFL club Greater Western Sydney after just one season, citing “a lack of passion” for a game he struggled to adapt to. The 23-year-old devout Muslim said he was keen to return to his rugby league roots and was tipped to sign with Parramatta, but the deal became waterlogged in red tape after his meeting with the club last Friday, seemingly when the issue of a salary cap arose.

Folau said he didn’t “promise anyone anything”. “I said right from the start that I was keeping my options open because I knew it would be hard for rugby league to accommodate me.”

Asked if he had made the move for money above anything else, Folau shoulder-charged his critics: “If I was entirely in it for the money I could have stayed in AFL for the next two years of my contract,” he demurred.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions… but I’ll speak the truth when it’s my time.”

Continued Hinds in his diatribe de force: “You think taking over his multimillion-dollar contract will be a coup for club and code? That all those people who were supposed to have become baked-on supporters watching him play another game will now follow yours?

“Don’t you see the absurdity in that logic? That the loyalty of the supporters who follow Sonny from one sport to another is as disposable as his. That the humiliation these inter-code footballing freelancers may inflict upon your code, and your clubs, is greater than the exposure they bring?

“Until you work that out, Sonny Quade-Folau will have you over a barrel.”

All this in three sporting codes where fans follow teams more than the athletes, no matter their physical prowess or pulling power. Where team names remain unchanged for 10, 20, 30 or 50 years, even more.

Is it any wonder, then, that in the sport of professional cycling, where a team’s longevity is ephemeral rather than extended, where nowadays more teams fold than are formed, fidelity is very much a thing of the past?

Before I interviewed Bradley McGee in his final professional race at the 2008 Jayco Herald Sun Tour, it dawned on me that for all bar one season of his decade-long pro career, he’d been with just one manager and one team: Marc Madiot and Française des Jeux.

There was a convincing argument that had he switched earlier rather than grown a little stale and touch complacent at ‘old-school FDJ’, McGee, who swapped to Team CSC in his final year before becoming a successful sport director there, could have realised so much more as a rider.

When he saw the CSC approach, foundation, philosophy, did he wish he’d joined a few years earlier? “Yeah, definitely, absolutely. But in saying that, I know why I stayed at FDJ, and it’s actually part of me being me,” McGee told me.

“At the time, what I was thinking (was that) I believed in something, and loyalty and fidelity is much more important than branching out and trying a new approach to cycling. Someone like Madiot gave me every opportunity to expose myself (as a
cyclist). Without him, I would have never become a professional bike rider.”

Yes, doping – or more precisely, anti-doping – is the issue du jour, and so it should be.

But aside from the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission; aside from the governing body being separated from handling administration of anti-doping; and aside from the creation of cultural mechanisms so that history does not repeat itself, going forward, leaders, decision makers and stakeholders must also consider extraneous factors – like the transient nature of teams and its impact on job security – that may directly or indirectly encourage otherwise sensible and ethical beings to partake in the nonsensical and unethical.

Then again, the ladies are faced with transient employment on a perennial basis, yet no matter how dire their situation, the majority choose not to dabble in doping. “I’m used to it,” Olympic Games silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead, whose AA Drink team foreclosed this season and whose Garmin-Cervélo outfit shut up shop the year prior, said of the uncertainty, “and Marianne (Vos) and me are lucky we get to make a living out of it. (My new Dutch team) Dolmans have said they’ll sponsor this team until 2016. That’s amazing for me. But so many domestique girls now have no team.”

Clearly, education and environment is key to making informed choices. But the sport could be so much better if more teams hung around long enough for fans to develop an affinity towards them.

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