The Whole World On A Bike

Cycling has been a defiantly, narrowly European sport for a long time. That's changing, although it's not at all clear how ready cycling is for that.
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Illustration by Ian Miley.

The thing about revolutions: timing is everything. A substrate of unstable conditions or disarray in concert with the empowerment of a previously marginalized element can lead to a changing of the guard. Both conditions must overlap, though, or tension will diffuse horizontally or won’t build up, or any number of the many other revolution-preventing eventualities might occur. It’s almost impossible to tell if changes made will last or simply provide a texture for the moment, but they always matter.

Cycling is a sport grappling with basic existential questions. Three teams -- Vacansoleil, Saxo-Tinkoff, and Euskatel-Euskadi -- employ 17% of the riders on World Tour teams, which is the highest level of competition; all three squads will have either fewer or no sponsors in 2014. This is an unsurprising and frankly shitty consequence of a troubled sport’s corrupt ruling body’s refusal to acknowledge its dark past and its elementary-school insistence on suing anyone who dares talk about it. Cycling has problems, in short.

Sponsors don’t want to be painted in the media as paying for cheating and drugs. The Basque team Euskatel-Euskadi has also been a rock in the peloton, wearing the same jerseys and riding the same bikes for basically two decades. They were almost saved by F-1 superstar Fernando Alonso, but their agreement fell through and now the carrotmen are now left to scour the market for new jobs. E-E have been declining steadily ever since Samuel Sanchez, the Liberace of cycling, won Olympic gold in 2008. The spookiest aspect of the coming storm is that abolition is not a threat to poorly performing teams alone.

Rabobank had been one of the cornerstones of the peloton for 16 years until 2012. A kind of cycling San Antonio Spurs, the Dutch team consistently won Monuments, Grand Tours and all manner of minor stages races with a rotating cast of international and homegrown riders. Last year when the air-raid sirens were blaring around Juan Pelota and the Americans, Rabobank’s Bert Bruggink dropped the deeply shaking line that the bank was “no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport.” The team threatened to disband if they couldn’t find a sponsor, a hypothetical that was avoided via intervention by American electronics giant Belkin. The team remains alive, but a team as successful as Rabobank needing to fight back from the void leaves many justifiably queasy on the future of cycling. The vultures barely spared Rabobank, but Vacansoleil was less lucky. Despite the fact that sponsors tend to make their money back, there is a deep-seated hesitancy involved with bankrolling something so volatile. The conditions for overhaul are all around.  

This unease is not necessarily about whether cycling will dissolve loudly into the ether like the XFL. The sport is too important in Europe not to attract fans and their money. Instead, the anxiety is a softer-edged worry about what the new, reorganized and theoretically transparent sport will look and feel like, and also which of the past’s great criminals will be punished most harshly in the future. Ethnic Mod Bradley Wiggins even said himself that cycling’s future is destined to be more human and boring.

I remember thinking when I was a kid that someday, humans would run out of jokes completely. Everything funny in the world would be exposed and we would have to face the future without any possibility of laughing. This is a silly thought, as humor thrives on surprise and juxtaposition and neither will expire for lack of material so long as there are humans out there to be ridiculous. An analogous phenomenon, maybe, is happening with regards to fears surrounding cycling. The sport is not going to disappear completely, of course -- it’s the easiest marriage of human and machine in sports, it’s beautiful and millions of people really like it. This does not necessarily mean that it will avoid becoming a wan and self-parodic shell of its former self.

***

One unintended and broadly welcome consequence of the sport’s decline is the erosion of white European cycling hegemony and an oncoming wave of diversity. The 23-year-old Colombian phenom (and Classical favorite) Nairo Quintana laid waste to everybody but Chris Froome in his Tour De France debut, including Alberto Contador -- cycling’s Gus Fring -- who had won eight of the previous nine Grant Tours in which he had raced.

Contador’s attitude towards Quintana illuminates a larger toxicity towards cyclists perceived as outsiders. Back in 2010 when Quintana was on Colombia es Pasion, his team received a wild-card invite to a small one-day race in Spain. There were some larger names there, including Andy Schleck. Quintana won the small race, and afterward had his first interaction with the famous Contador. Instead of congratulating the young climber on his hard-earned win, Contador reportedly (according to Klaus of Cycling Inquisition) growled “I don’t believe you and I don’t believe this” at the then-20-year-old Quintana. This is what the sport’s European supremacy complex sounds like out loud -- hostile, witheringly superior and, increasingly, skeptical of the non-European interloper who just won the race.

The young Colombian faced further skepticism this year after he beat Contador and others at the Vuelta A Pais Vasco with a surprising time trial run. Media members openly questioned the legitimacy of Quintana’s performance after he won the stage race, which is somewhat commonplace, but the speed and cynicism of the unfounded criticism directed at Quintana seemed based on the belief that South American cyclists are inherently inferior and would therefore need to cheat to best European and Australian cyclists. In 2007, Ex-UCI president Pat McQuaid took shots at the “mafia-like Western European cycling culture” and called on the “Anglo-Saxon Vision to carry the day”, which a quick look at the final top riders in the UCI World Tour Rankings for 2013 will tell you is pretty stupid.

There is mounting transparency and trust within the sport, but people still question victories they see as “surprising.” Quintana’s win was only surprising to those who ignored his history of fearless improvement; many apparently had. This is silly, and probably racist, and moreover ignores the rich history of Colombian success in Europe. It’s also something cycling people will need to get used to, as the instability at the top of the peloton could precede a new period of Colombian dominance.

The 2013 Giro D’Italia -- Italy’s Grand Tour -- featured an all-Colombian squad (aptly named Team Colombia), as well as Team Sky’s Rigoberto Uran taking the second podium spot and AG2R’s Carlos Betancur placing fifth and winning the best young rider competition. Uran and Sergio Henao were the two leaders of Britain-based Sky at 2013’s Vuelta A Espana, marking the first time such a prestigious (and white) team has handed over the lead to Colombians. Uran is joining Belgian powerhouse Omega Pharma-Quickstep next year. That acceptance of Uran as new team leader at Grand Tours is a spiritually significant hiring for Colombians, since Belgium is the crucible of European cycling. And with Quintana clear to lead at Movistar next year, Uran at OP-QS and Betancur at AG2R, we could see up to a fifth of all teams led by Colombians next year, contingent on some very anglo teams plans to integrate their Colombian talent.

There will, of course, be resistance, because humans can be shitty and exclusionary and old dumb things die harder than they should. But for teams attempting to scrap and retain tenuous footholds in a shifting climate, fielding the best team regardless of language or skin color is essential to continued cash flow. And that matters.

***

Cycling’s new, more diverse future isn’t solely limited to Colombians. Team Europcar is one of the top pro-continental teams in the world, functionally an elite AAA team who receives wildcard invites to huge races, including the Tour De France. 2011 saw Europcar’s Yohann Gene become the first rider of African descent to start and finish the Tour. His inclusion was an important one, as he paced team leader Thomas Voeckler to an astounding fourth-place ride. The Guadalupe-born Gene won a stage at the Route Du Sud this year and is a fixture in Europcar’s larger races.

Europcar also employs Natneal Berhane, a 22-year-old Eritrean climber. Berhane is thriving in his first season of European racing and looks to be someone poised to shake up mountain stages of the Tour for the next decade. He won a stage at the 2013 Tour of Turkey and will likely be awarded the overall classification after winner Mustafa Sayar popped an EPO positive immediately after the race. Fellow Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot of Orica-Greenedge competed in the 2012 Vuelta and was the first African rider to do so. He aided teammate Simon Clarke’s successful King Of The Mountains attack at the climbiest of the Grand Tours.

These riders are all promising talents and equally tough dudes for enduring the sadly unsurprising amount of external abuse and doubt they have with such flair. For example: Phil Liggett, main fixture of American cycling coverage, referred to Gene as “coloured” in 2011. These few African riders are blazing trails, but these efforts are relatively minor and still widely passed-over. There is a team with long-term plans to change that, and to win African riders equivalent status with Colombians -- and eventually parallel acceptance from everyone in cycling.

Team MTN-Qhubeka received its license to upgrade to pro-conti this season -- they are the only African team to achieve this status -- and already has a signature win. Sprinter Gerard Ciolek won Milan-San Remo, one of the aforementioned Monuments, after cleverly planning his move and cat-and-mousing Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan into leading him out for the sprint. You’ll notice from the video that Ciolek is white, but this is part of the plan. MTN Directeur Sportif Doug Ryder explained that their ambitious plan to race the 2015 Tour De France with an all-black African team requires signing some established German, Belgian and white African cyclists in the interim, so that the team can bring in the money and attention needed to develop their increasingly skilled African squad. On Thursday, MTN took measures to lay more groundwork of this plan and deepen their squad, as they signed two of the more established Eritrean cyclists in Europe, Merhawi Kudus and the aforementioned Teklehaimanot.

Ryder is fully aware of the audacity of his plan, which is why he is making a point of pacing himself. He seems uninterested in novelty or statements for their own sake. His goal is to show that African cyclists have the tools to be elite racers and deserve a place in the highest levels of cycling. It’s his opinion that African cycling needs a “Michael Jordan figure” to push for the big annual prizes, and while every sport could use a Jordan or two, give or take MJ’s dubious denim choices, Ryder’s clearly right.

Less clear is whether he might already have that Jordan on his team. Ethiopian Tsgabu Grmay raced the Tour Of Utah and raced bravely on the high mountains, finishing ahead of winner Tom Danielson on one stage. He and his teammates are so unseasoned that it’s hard to tell quite what potential they have, but Ciolek’s success and the Ethiopians’ collective promise represent crucial steps toward satisfying Ryder’s vision. If implemented, the plan could change attitudes within cycling and make racing more interesting, vibrant and otherwise a little bit more like the world -- and even Europe -- that actually exists.

It’s a big bright shiny dream, one that feels big and difficult and important even as it is still more distant than it should be. But cycling is a sport of incremental differences, where all competitors chase each other up toward the same pinnacle, and the true separations are about subtler things than revolutions-per-minute: things like teammates, sharpness and in-the-moment intelligence; success, as much here as in any other sport, comes from experience. A few more go-rounds, and we could see Grmay stepping atop a podium and challenging ingrained attitudes the same way waves of North African immigrants are forcing their European ex-colonizers to reckon with their own histories. It’s everyone’s game now.

This expansion and gradual opening of the sport to the world doesn’t stop with East African and Colombian riders. Large teams like Trek and Europcar employ Japanese riders; the Tours of Japan, Langkawi and Beijing increasingly attract top stars. Dutch world-smasher Marianne Vos has dominated at every level and in every discipline of women’s cycling. Her resume is virtually complete and she just turned 26 this year. Vos has recently expressed boredom at the prospect of dominating the women’s field for another year, and she has a good point. A look at her palmares shows her scorched-earth ability to ball out on the road, on a mountain bike and in cyclocross races. It’s a routine that is unprecedented, not even by Eddy Merckx, maybe the most scientifically transcendent athlete to ride a bike.

Vos’ only opportunity for further achievement is to join men’s races. She and fellow elite cyclist Emma Pooley have been lobbying for women to have their own Tour De France, run concurrently with the men’s version. Part of their manifesto calls for partnership with UCI men’s teams, an agreement that could eventually smash the gender barrier and get female riders into in men’s races, including the Tour De France. Vos has a measured power output of 6.63 Watts per Kilogram, which is very similar to her male counterparts on Belkin.

Cycling is, of course, about much more than raw power. Ciolek isn’t as powerful or fast as Cancellara or Sagan in an open sprint, but he raced the smartest at Milan - San Remo and won. Vos obviously knows how to win bike races, and this intelligence would translate to men’s races regardless, presumably after an adjustment period. Any men’s team could use a punchy virtuoso as domestique or breakaway specialist. This would not be a novelty addition, a la Mark Cuban getting attention for Mark Cuban by talking about adding Brittney Griner to the Mavs. This is an actual opportunity for a woman to join men’s races and perform up to elite standards.

Vos’ barrier will be the hurdle with the most resistance because of ingrained attitudes on gender and sexual dimorphism in sports, but it’s difficult to imagine a barrier she couldn’t clear. Sooner or later, and one way or another, change is coming to the peloton. It will be resisted from within, as such things generally are. But if the push is sustained enough, and the trouble of the current system as real as it seems, then change will come. Cycling doesn’t know it yet -- and certainly seems inclined to keep not-knowing it -- but the sport will be better off for it.


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