‘Well, don’t watch it,’ some of you will say. It’s okay; I stopped at about the halfway mark. I’d read the stage reports, watch the odd highlights package but they were few and far between. I tried again as the race went deep into the Pyrenees, the Tourmalet and the Col d'Aubisque calling to me like a beacon. These glorious climbs and the action they promised were not enough. Nor was the lure of spotting some Pyrenean vultures, in part due to a Ripping Yarns sketch that usually always provides a flutter of excitement. None of it felt good. It left me troubled, sometimes vexed and questioning where the sport that I love is heading.
For mine, the race started to rot before a pedal was turned in anger. The Froome v UCI case was poisonous. That the Froome Adverse Analytical Finding was leaked is problematic. It was clear that the ASO didn’t want the four-time winner there. The timing of WADA’s findings, some nine months after Froome returned an anti-doping sample that exceeded the 800ug allowance of Salbutamol by a considerable margin, just days before the Tour, and 24 hours prior to a court decision regarding Froome’s right to race, was enough to raise eyebrows. While there is little doubt that the case was indeed complicated, we’re left with more questions than answers as to how Froome was cleared.
The war of words that erupted over Froome being on the start line, led by Christian Prudhomme and Bernard Hinault, would end up having ramifications into the third week of the race. It began with boos and jeers and then included Froome being spat on, and then descended into claims by Team Sky boss Sir Dave Brailsford that the reactions were ‘like a French cultural thing really…’ All of that pressure bubbled to the surface with a volatile Gianni Moscon’s ousting from the race. While Brailsford would later ‘clarify’ the cringe-worthy statement, the damage had been done. It was just more ugliness.
The fifth edition of La Course provided a highlight, albeit brief. Annemiek van Vleuten’s win over Anna van der Breggen was as entertaining as they come but the event was yet another clumsy attempt at parity by the ASO. No press conference for van Vleuten, just one kilometre of the action shown live by the US broadcaster (only a subscription to NBC Gold would have allowed you to watch the entire race; another reminder how valuable SBS’ coverage is) and a piddly amount of prize money on offer.
While there was a significant amount of hype dedicated to a grid start in the men’s event, that was never really going to work if anyone had bothered to think about it for more than three minutes, La Course, by comparison, was severely undercooked. Treated like an aside, it was an opportunity missed. Please try again and do better. The women’s peloton is flourishing, the only people who have missed that memo, are the ASO.
It’s already been reported that viewing figures for this year’s Tour de France are down and yes, the FIFA World Cup and the hangover that comes with it undoubtedly a factor.
But consider too, the impact of the prolonged investigation into Froome and the credibility of his 2017 Vuelta win. For the casual follower of cycling who usually tunes in over July, it’s just more of the same – controversy surrounding the sport’s grimy underbelly. For a lot of people, it doesn’t matter that at the very least, cycling does try and clean up its backyard. It’s lousy headline after lousy headline. For many, it probably also won’t matter that Froome was cleared. The damage was done. I’m reminded of a saying every time these stories crop up, ‘cycling’s a bit like sausages… don’t ask how it’s made.’
History has brought us to this point. That one team has now won six of the last seven Tours de France probably doesn’t help. Uncomfortably, in the back of many a mind is the fact that one Lance Armstrong led the previous team to enjoy that kind of dominance. Watching another stage where the Skybots are deployed to block the peloton’s path the freedom is becoming exasperating and downright tedious. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon – unless a bunch of other teams find the budget to lure Sky’s firepower away. A salary cap cannot exist given the current structure of the WorldTour; so, another solution is needed to find some sort of equilibrium. In the meantime, the procession that has come at us makes for uninspired viewing.
Frankly, it all feels like too much of a mess. From the various vantage points that I’ve been privileged enough to have over nearly 20 years covering the sport, I’ve become hardened into a position of distrust that goes beyond my default judiciousness as a journalist. Cycling has a problem with credibility, and it’s a shame because it’s the riders and the fans that are punished. Not for a second do I think that it’s fair that Geraint Thomas should be judged over whether he has risen to the status of a grand tour winner fair and square. At the same time, I don’t think it’s right that Chris Froome was subjected to abuse that he was over the last three weeks.
Now, more than ever, cycling is at a tipping point. In this era of fake news, we’re being asked to accept results and outcomes, but there’s little substance. The powers that be – the UCI, team bosses, the ASO and WADA – need to deliver more than the lip service they’ve been sprouting in recent years.
I want to believe. I just can’t right now