• Elizabeth Armitstead Peter Sagan celebrate on the podium after winning their respective races at the Tour of Flanders (Getty) (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Ask your mate who’s a casual sports fan about what names they know in cycling, and you’ll get a brief list of recent Tour de France winners.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central
5 Apr 2016 - 3:13 PM  UPDATED 6 Apr 2016 - 11:31 AM

Maybe with a bit of prodding you could draw out a Simon Gerrans, Richie Porte or Michael Matthews, but your average punter doesn’t turn on the cycling until the Tour de France rolls around and it’s the big mountains stages they usually look for.

Sometimes, after the excitement of the race, I look back with a bit of frustration at the fantastic racing that’s on offer, knowing that it will only be watched by those evergreen cycling fans who are committed to the sport already.

Is that all about to change however? In Peter Sagan and Lizzie Armitstead, we have two of the most memorable characters of the sport in recent years at the top of their game, winning races with panache and drawing attention as much for their personalities as for their wattage.

Watching cycling has a significant barrier to entry, there’s a lot of basic knowledge that you need to take on before you can begin to appreciate the tactics and the efforts of the riders.

That’s why you need these characters that people can identify with before they’ve completely invested in the sport as a whole, that can breach that name recognition barrier that has previously been reserved for the Tour de France elite, and bring a wider audience to the other superb races that cycling has to offer.

The Tour of Flanders is probably the best of these, and the 100th edition of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen didn’t disappoint, with wins for both the men’s and women’s world champion.

Peter Sagan is now a larger than life character, his antics have at times created controversy, but there’s no doubting his charisma and swagger garner him admirers from all over the world. There’s a fine line between that sort of roguishness and arrogance, but Sagan straddles that line effectively. Of course it helps that he can back that up with top performances in an amazingly wide variety of races. 

He now has 13 top-4 finishes this season from 20 starts, an insane level of consistency, given that there’s generally 150 riders finishing behind each time. His status as the entertainer of the cycling world, the man who seems to ooze talent at times, provides that poster athlete that will give the wider public an image of what cycling can offer as a spectator sport.

On the women’s side, there’s Lizzie Armitstead, who has begun to bring women’s cycling to the broader cycling watching community. Before, there was almost a complacency in cycling media and fans with Marianne Vos sweeping all before her. Now, we see a battle between the top riders at each and every race, with the rider who is best suited to the terrain and style of racing being advantaged. 

That means that we can have a genuine discussion of who will be suited to each race and what the tactics will be used to exploit the strength of the team and its riders. Some may say that we are simply replacing the dominance of one with another.

I would put more down to the fact that Armitstead’s Boels Dolmans team has been playing the tactics in these races superbly.They maintain numbers at the front, which allows the world champion to launch in full knowledge that she can expend all her energy as she has riders behind to counterattack or sprint for the win.

The self-coaching vegetarian is also a great ambassador for the sport, less of the swagger of a Sagan, but she’s not afraid to speak out when she wants to, and she is eloquent and engaging to listen to. 

Maybe that will only aid in bringing cycling to more English speakers, but it is important to bring the women’s side of competition to the fore as well, if not for equality, then just for practicality, half the world’s population is female. Sports like tennis aren’t poorer for the equal focus on men and women and there’s a general trend towards female elite sport that cycling would be foolish to ignore.

Are the world champions the pin-ups we need to promote the sport? Will the dual rainbow stripes atop the podium signal a new level of engagement with races other than the Tour? This pair of champions look to have the star power to make it a possibility.