• There were upset wins by Sarah Gigante and Michael Freiburg in Ballarat at the Australian road nationals. (John Veage/Cycling Australia)
As much as we hear about ill-gotten gains in professional cycling, it is nothing compared to some other so-called professional sports, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
9 Jan - 4:12 PM  UPDATED 9 Jan - 4:14 PM

"Motorbikes do not compete in the Tour de France."

That came from journalist and 11-time Sydney-Hobart yachtsman, David Salter. Why did he say that? You mightn't think there's much alike between ocean racing and pro cycling, but hear me out.

At the highest level of cycling, for all the talk of hidden motors or "technological fraud" as the UCI calls it - ignited when Fabian Cancellara launched a seated attack on the Kapelmuur at the 2010 Tour of Flanders - we've only had one confirmed instance since.

Their budget allows them to buy a bevy of world-class riders with supposed physical superiority, though as we saw the past weekend, that quality alone doesn't always translate to wins.

And while it was a UCI world championship event, the 2016 Cyclo-cross Worlds in Zolder, Belgium, it was not at the elite level but in the women's under 23 race. As the first to be caught red-handed, Belgian Femke Van den Driessche was crucified on social media and just about everywhere else - particularly following her denial where she tearfully demurred, "I don't know how it got there. It's not my bike. There's been a mistake."

She was banned for six years and fined 20,000 Swiss francs.

Naturally, it fuelled every single conspiracy theory about mechanised doping in the pro peloton prior and since. Yet despite the UCI's best efforts and a whole lot of time and money and sniffing around with iPads and X-ray machines and what have you, no WorldTour professional, male or female, has been nabbed since testing began in 2015.

Which is not to say it doesn't exist. Though given 3,773 tests were conducted at the 2017 Tour de France in an effort to crack down on the matter and no motors or electromagnetic wheels were found, you could conclude a) the X-ray machines/tablets weren't switched on or weren't working properly; b) the wrong riders were being targeted; or perhaps most likely, c) technological fraud was non-existent at that year's Grande Boucle, and with no reported pharmacological doping cases among any stage or classification winners, what we saw could be believed.

Contrast this with the most recent Sydney-Hobart where like cycling, no motors are allowed for propulsion but the first four that crossed the line nevertheless had their engines on from start to Hobart. "Very few among the general public would know that the supermaxis must keep their engines running all the way to Hobart to provide the power for their electrical and hydraulic systems. Sailing should not be a man vs. machine contest," wrote Salter in The Australian.

"Stored power is not just a response to the huge rig loads handled by the maxis - it provides a significant advantage over conventional yachts and adds a performance dimension to the sport that few believe can be adequately reflected in handicapping," he said.

That quartet of 100-foot, big budget supermaxis finished this year's race within 42 minutes of one another. The next best? Tasmanian yacht Alive, 66 feet long, came down the Derwent five hours later. And three days separated first and last.

I've written before, on a number of occasions, how there should be a cap on the presence of any one team at the road nationals to seven or at most eight riders. Not only to address any numerical advantage, but the "us versus them" mentality and the tactics and plays that go along with it; it also looks downright odd seeing Mitchelton-Scott with the numbers they bring each year. It doesn't happen in any other bike race, as it creates an uneven playing field before a pedal has been turned. Don't blame the team or the riders - they're simply taking full advantage of the rules as they stand.

That rather large grievance aside, the crew of 'supermaxi Mitchelton-Scott' didn't bring to Ballarat any weapons other teams or individuals couldn't muster themselves. Their budget allows them to buy a bevy of world-class riders with supposed physical superiority, though as we saw the past weekend, that quality alone doesn't always translate to wins, no matter how stacked the odds in their favour.

Roadnats: Freiberg flies to green and gold glory
Outnumbered, outmanned and dropped on the final climb, Michael Freiberg (Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) made the most of the cat and mouse playing out between Cam Meyer (Mitchelton-Scott) and Chris Harper (Team BridgeLane) ahead at the 1km mark where he hammered past the pair, taking the green and gold jersey at the line.
Gigante's epic Roadnats victory
We're necessarily cautious about talking up young riders. But there's not enough superlatives when it comes to Sarah Gigante who triumphed over one of the best riders in the world to take the elite and under 23 women's titles at the 2019 Cycling Australia FedUni Road National Championships.

The principle behind the sport of ocean racing, says Salter, is that it "should essentially be a fair human contest of skill, knowledge, tactical insight and physical endurance". Yet the 14-year dominance of 100-footers has made the race for line honours a battle between four or five boats and the handicap race a beguiling mystery to most. That, and meeting increasingly costly compliance standards, has seen what was once a 371-boat fleet in 1994 reduced to 85 contestants this year.

Professional cycling operates on a near-identical ideology as that described by Salter. While 'supermaxis' do exist in the form of Mitchelton-Scott at the nationals or the mega-rich Team Sky, Katusha, Quick Step and previously BMC Racing in the WorldTour, more often than not, we do see the best man or woman win.

For all the talk about doping, be it financial, technological or pharmacological, for all the polemics surrounding the governance of pro cycling and its ill-fated attempts to find a sustainable business model for the teams, that's something we should take comfort in, for that is the essence of sport: a fair human contest.

Only when, and if, it descends into something akin to a farce on water is the point at which I'll no longer watch.