Interest in bike racing has surged in the UK these past 10 years thanks to the unprecedented success of British riders in the Olympics and the Tour de France.
But has this come at a cost? According to well-known cycling author and publisher Peter Whitfield it has. Below is his damning indictment of how professionalism is being allowed to poison sport.
It struck a chord with me and I’m sure it will with others but certainly not everyone, all dewy eyed and dazzled by the gleaming horde of medals.
And it is right that we applaud the positives that have come with this success. The last decade has seen the greatest most successful period for cycling in the UK, now the top UK Olympic sport, not to mention the five historic victories in the Tour de France (the first to Wiggins, four to Froome).
This has spawned several indoor velodromes and closed road racing circuits around the country, drawing huge crowds to the roadsides for the men’s and women’s national tours.
British Cycling’s membership has gone through the roof, has soared from around 16,000 to over 130,000. A stream of talented youngsters (many of them rising up the ranks thanks the Dave Rayner Fund) continue to make the grade internationally on the road, on track and in cyclo-cross.
Many thousands of people have taken up riding challenge rides and the sportives. A new cycling club in my town now has over 250 members.
And all the major classics and Grand Tours and a great many other international stage races are shown on television.
It’s fantastic, right? Well, yes it is. I love this aspect of it, how my once little known sport in the UK is has blossomed
But over the last two years the dream has turned sour.
My previous blog pondered the controversy surrounding Team Sky whose strong arm tactics, impressive though they are in stifling the life out of the racing until near the finish, is killing my interest in Le Tour.
Worse than that. Bradley Wiggins’s historic first Tour win for Britain has become tainted by his legally approved use of an otherwise banned and powerful steroid to treat his allergies. Its use was signed off by all the relevant authorities so he hasn’t broken any rules. But morally it was wrong, for Sky came into this sport proclaiming they will do it clean, they will be transparent. But in the search for marginal gains, they proved they are not transparent, as they moved into the grey area with a doctor’s note to permit the use of a banned stimulant.
So they’ve only themselves to blame.
To compound matters, Sky’s current hero, Chris Froome, winner of five Grand Tours, is under investigation after an “adverse analytical finding” for the asthma drug Salbutamol – measuring twice the legal limit - taken during last year’s Tour of Spain which he famously won.
That story is destined run and run for as long as Froome - who has protested he did not exceed the legal dosage - takes to come with an explanation. To make matters worse for Froome, a few days ago Belgian star Tim Wellens revealed he had quit last year’s Tour de France rather than use the very same medication to treat his breathing difficulties. His reason? Because he is against using inhalers. He was unhappy about depending upon asthma medication which he was told would improve his breathing by between seven and eight per cent, and he believes the practice is widespread in cycling. Not just in cycling. Cross-country skiers in Norway sit in their team bus breathing in asthma medication through face masks before competition!
Whitfield’s words should give us pause for thought.
NEW YEAR, OLD QUESTION: THE PRICE OF SUCCESS
The cycling year was approaching its end and everyone was happily thinking about the highlights of 2017 and wondering what 2018 holds, when a bombshell in the form of another drug scandal engulfed us, and this time it's a British scandal involving the biggest names in our sport. Once again we start to pick through the intricate technical details of what happened, who’s guilty and who’s innocent, who knew what and when, why it has taken three months for this to become public, and all the while wondering when our sport will ever get out of this labyrinth of technical jargon, half-truths and lies, and finally get to the simple truth - if there is such a thing. Everyone is shocked as the great British cycling renaissance seems to be crumbling from glory into deceit.
As I pedal quietly on my own through the damp and leafy Oxfordshire lanes I find myself looking for an answer, and suddenly there it is staring me in the face in one word: professionalism. Look around at our top-level sport and you see a world corrupted by money, drugs, technology, politics and media hype – in other words, professionalism. Where money rules, values go out of the window. It's a funny thing, but back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, we all used to moan about British cycling, asking what was wrong with it, why couldn't we win world championships and Olympic medals, and the answer then seemed to be that it was amateur: the riders were amateurs and the sport was run by amateurs. We didn’t have the knowledge and we didn’t have the money, so we couldn't compete with the French, the Italians, the Dutch, then the Eastern bloc, then later the Australians the Americans, who were all investing money and expertise in the sport that we just couldn't match.
Well now things have turned round completely and we have gone into the professional big-time, and what do we see? That we have a poisoned sport that is more akin to show-business with its star system and its deceits, its faith that everything can be planned and everything can be bought with cash. Modern cycling is a business and a career, and this is what lies behind the whole Sky strategy of control, control, control, that has ruined the racing itself. Looking at it historically, I think it was the aftermath of Chris Boardman’s brilliant success that was the great turning point. Peter Keen, Boardman’s coach, produced his World Class Performance Plan in 1999 which secured multi-million pound funding for British Cycling, which then set out on its quest for international success, creating the so-called medal factory. Unfortunately this produced in the public mind the formula: money + science + meticulous planning = sporting glory. We have been living with the consequences of this for fifteen years and more, and one of its worst side-effects is the idea that only this top-level professional cycling, on road or track, is real cycling, everything else is just playing about, it’s insignificant; in other words we have seen the death of the old amateur ideals.
Success was supposed to justify this process, this historic shift, but over the years the hidden costs of success have become clearer, and they add up to the disappearance of cycle-sport as we used to know it. I and many other people have now reached the point of total disillusionment, and personally I no longer care who wins the Tour de France, and I wouldn't mind if they shut it down and we just forget all about it. I am scarcely more interested in who wins Olympic track medals either, because these competitions have nothing to do with true cycling in our own lives. What does it take before people finally lose faith in the Tour de France and the over-hyped pro-cycling scene? Isn't there the least whisper of a chance that we could learn from this mess and get back to the old amateur days, when you took part in a sport, any sport not just cycling, for its own sake, for the pleasure and the satisfaction and the sense of achievement which it gave you, not for money and fame? Modern pro cycling is a corporate business: it defines its aims, puts in the necessary investment to realise those aims, and it demands results, and the only result that matters is winning. Money is thrown at buying every conceivable technical aid and at building racing teams and strategies that ensure results, no matter how tedious and robotic that racing becomes. Sporting success has become a management task, it’s been absorbed into the business model, the career model.
Compare this with the days when the cyclist was a pure athlete, a loner who built his own strength and skill for himself. Without science, without money, without support and without fame, he rode for himself against ordinary people like himself, with nothing to gain but his own satisfaction and the plaudits of those like-minded people who shared his ideals and who knew what his achievements meant. Sport was an enrichment of his life, not of his bank balance or his image. Sport was supposed to be a way out of the world of money, pressure, targets, tricks, secrets, and corporate plans, a way into a freer, cleaner world of honesty, integrity, dedication and sportsmanship. Amateur bike racing used to be a personal adventure, and it still can be. It does not have to be tied up with money, team strategies, and media hype, which are the trappings of business, especially show-business. We need more sport in our own lives, not star-studded millionaire entertainers to worship. We admired the champions of the past because we knew they were people like us, not remote superstars. Why make everything bigger, richer and more complex, in the belief that it must therefore be better? Have we forgotten that small is beautiful? Can’t we understand that success alone is not everything, because it’s not just what we do in life that is important, it’s how we do it? I would guess that Lance Armstrong has now learned that lesson, and that he would give anything to have won a single Tour de France honestly rather than seven dishonestly.
Sport changes as the society around it changes, so what all this says about the money-mad, technology-addicted, media-hyped society that we have created I’ll leave you to figure out. How did we get into this mess? It seems we have a unique talent for spoiling things, for poisoning things while we think we are making them bigger and better. The same shadows have gathered over the Olympics and all but ruined them; and then there is football and Formula One – are they even sports now? I suppose all this is not surprising really, coming from a species that has been busy for the last hundred years poisoning the earth, poisoning the air, poisoning the oceans and poisoning ourselves. In comparison with all that, poisoning a little bit of sport should be child's play after all.
Peter Whitfield’s most recent book is entitled: "Time, Speed and Truth: a History of Time-Trialling".