Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pure Cycling: Irrational Love

There cannot be a professional sport with such a disassembled and bureaucratic structure as cycling is. A combination of national cycling associations, private race organisers, rider guilds as well as multi-sport organisations such as the International Olympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Federation all pool their collective desires together annually and an international racing calendar is drawn up. Above, at times within, often below this chaotic and ridiculous quantity of administrators, the International Cycling Union (UCI) as the nominal governing body of the sport tries to pull all of these desires together, and also conduct a cycling tour of their own.

It is therefore no real surprise that for a lay person with a passing interest in the sport would struggle to draw a consistent line through a season's schedule or the cyclist world rankings that are drawn from results within. A cyclist has had in the past the very real possibility of riding in a lower level semi-professional race along back lanes in northern Europe one day before being thrust into a high profile event the next and be expected to perform in both.

Such dramatic pressure on cyclists has reduced in the modern era. The peloton, readily abused by a series of sadistic administrators and team directors for 100 years, began to fight back in the late 1970s. A picture of a defiant Bernard Hinault refusing to begin a stage in the 1978 Tour de France, the race that year would later be his first of five wins, shows just what a struggle the cyclists believed the poor scheduling to be. Hinault of course was later to become, if he wasn't already, the 'Patron' of the peloton, therefore all the other cyclists that day refused along with 'The Badger'.

But today the collective power of the cyclists themselves is not an uprising any more against a sadistic oppressor, they themselves have become just another group of voices in a swirling vortex of disorganisation. The current, and some would say self-appointed, Patron of the peloton these days is Fabian Cancellara. Anyone witnessing his constant hijacking of last years Tour de France could only conclude that the thinly veiled selfish desires of him, and other riders seeking patronage, are just part of the bureaucratic problem in cycling and not a response.

There are great races every year that can only be won by persons seeking to put in a performance of a champion on that particular day, week, or longer period. In fact this is how cyclists these days approach performance as against the champions of the past. Where Eddie Merckx wanted to win all three grand tours in a year plus all the 'monument' classics, these days training and entry is tailored for cyclists that they will only be able to put in a champion performance in a specific race.

Of course the ridiculous unwieldy scheduling is just one of cycling's problems. Cycling's ongoing endemic scourge of doping is probably the worst. But I love it. It is an irrational sport, calling upon an irrational thing called love. We know the problems, the abuses, yet we return year after year, race after race, ready to forgive and be sucked back into its waiting arms. Maybe irrational love is why problems never gets fixed. Like Hugh Hefner refusing to grow up, cycling doesn't need to, it knows we will return.

by Ben Roberts. Pure Cycling will be his semi-regular look into life on two wheels.

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