THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT
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This edition reflects on some of the big issues in the sport this week, including Britain's continued dominance on the track, the potentially awkward relationship between Sky and the BBC, Lance's transparency with the media and why you should Vote Hoy (and ask two friends to do the same) for Sports Personality of the Year.
|THERE'S NO PLEASING SOME PEOPLE|
Not everyone, of course, but there seems to be a vocal minority who are uneasy with the idea of being the best in the world.
As the British riders won event after event at the World Cup in Manchester, the idea began to circulate that this may not be entirely good for the future of the sport. The idea appeared in one or two newspaper reports and on the internet in subsequent days.
It is a subject we have explored in tomorrow’s edition of Cycling Weekly, but it strikes me as odd, in light of dominance at the World Championships and the Olympic Games earlier this year to raise this now, after a World Cup on home soil against weakened opposition.
That is not to downgrade the achievement by the British riders on what was a homecoming celebration, but there were more British riders in action than any other nation.
Although the rate of progress by the youngsters, particularly Lizzie Armitstead and David Daniell, must be causing the rest of the world concern, it wasn't as if British Cycling took the cellophane off another half-dozen teenagers and watched them beat the very best in the world at the first attempt. Let’s not get the scale of the weekend's victories out of perspective.
Britain has comfortably been the number one track nation for two seasons now – the result of a decade of hard work, investment and steady progress. There were only a handful of Aussies and New Zealanders in Manchester and the French, Germans and Dutch left their best riders at home to take a break.
Certainly the crowd at Manchester wasn’t going to complain about winning 14 of the 17 World Cup races and presumably it wasn’t a lot of fun for the visiting nations to scrap over the meager crumbs on offer to them. But this was a home World Cup at a time of year when everyone is in need of a rest. Britain will send only small teams to the next three World Cups in Melbourne, Cali and Beijing – where other countries will wheel out their big guns – before returning to full strength for Copenhagen and the World Championships in Poland in the spring.
If Britain were to win every single event at the World Championships perhaps there would be a reason to fear for the sport’s future.
But whose fault is that? Not British Cycling’s, that’s for sure. They have raised the bar and continue to raise it. As Dave Brailsford suggested, if the rest of the world is to catch up, they are not going to do it all at once across the board. They need to focus on specific events – as the Danes and Kiwis have done of late with the team pursuit, and the French have done with the sprint events over the years.
Remember Britain's success started with some very modest steps, when they hit upon success in the team sprint almost by accident thanks to the talent and quiet determination of two Scots – Chris Hoy and Craig Maclean. Then BC began to focus on the team pursuit, slowly building the world record-breaking quartet they have now. Along the way, the areas of excellence have expanded, but it didn't happen in the blink of an eye.
This dominance won’t last for ever. Let’s enjoy it while we can.
|BC, BEEB AND SKY – HAPPY BEDFELLOWS?|
It took the corporation’s press office three days to issue a statement that said: “We plan to cover this team and their sponsorship in exactly the same way as we would any other team competing in the event.” That's only one small step up from 'no comment' which either means they are not at all bothered, or that they were unhappy but didn't want to draw any further attention to the issue.
I gather from contacts within the BBC, who are not allowed to comment on the record, that the idea of Sky’s logo appearing all over BBC2’s coverage of the World Cup on Sunday would have gone down ‘like a cup of cold sick’. It may seem petty to others but media organisations do not like to make a habit of name-checking their rivals.
Of course, the BBC and British Cycling have built up a strong relationship during the past Olympic cycle and that has brought some big audiences. During the track World Championships at Manchester in March, 1.7 million viewers tuned in on the Saturday afternoon to watch the action on BBC1. That is the sort of figure Sky Sports’ pay-per-view channel cannot even match with top Premiership football matches – 1.6m watched the game between Chelsea and Manchester United in September, for example. Many viewers watch in the pub, of course, but still, we are not talking about big numbers.
Sky is not a free-to-air broadcaster and so when the Olympics comes round – an event which must, by law in this country, be available to all – they are shut out in the cold.
What better way to get in on the act in time for 2012 than by sponsoring the most successful segment of the British Olympic team? It’s a great move for Sky.
And British Cycling benefits too. Continued success means that it deserves a high-profile sponsor with deep pockets, but was Sky such a canny choice?
Sky can bring media profile, marketing nous and has a certain power and prestige, but can it deliver millions of viewers for cycling in this country? Highly doubtful. If only 1.6m will pay to watch Chelsea v Man U, how many are going to sign up specifically to watch cycling?
Perhaps Sky has no intention of showing cycling on its channels (although it seems unlikely they won't do something in the coming years). Maybe the real value is in exposure of its brand on a mainstream channel once in a while.
And there lies the danger for BC. By signing up with Rupert Murdoch’s ruthless organisation will the BBC come to feel isolated over the next three or four years?
Time will tell, but one thing is for sure – during Sunday’s BBC2 broadcast, Hugh Porter and Jill Douglas were running out of ways to avoid mentioning Sky. So, Victoria Pendleton was ‘riding for her British trade team’, the Sky+HD team sprinters were ‘the British trio’ and so on. Let’s hope that the BBC remains on side because presumably British Cycling’s goal is to expose cycling to as many people as possible, not simply hoover up the cash.
CW looks at the television viewing figures for cycling in 2008. Just how many people are watching? We find out.
|NOT SO ACE NEWS|
The independent agency conducted tests for Garmin-Chipotle, Team Columbia and BMC Racing in the US. Garmin and Columbia plan to work together to find an alternative programme.
Reportedly all three teams paid six-figure amounts into the programme and yet the business was not viable.
Anti-doping testing is a lot more complicated than holding a test tube of blood or urine up to the light and looking for cells shaped like a skull and crossbones. It is expensive science.
And the questions will continue about how anti-doping testing should be funded, particularly these kind of voluntary programmes that the teams have signed up to in addition to the mandatory schemes run by the UCI.
It may be that money that could be spent on rider salaries will have to go towards anti-doping programmes – another example of how the clean riders of today and tomorrow will pay for the offences of their predecessors.
|VOTE HOY FOR BBC AWARD|
Two weeks ago Cycling Weekly suggested that if cycling fans wanted to see a cyclist win the award for the first time since Tom Simpson in 1965, they would most likely have to unite behind one candidate. It’s a theme I picked up on in The Wednesday Comment.
It is probable that more than one cyclist will be on the shortlist when the BBC unveils it on December 1. The concern is that the vote will be split.
So, as we said two weeks ago, it’s over to you. If every reader of Cycling Weekly can persuade two friends to vote for Hoy in December, there is a chance he could win it.
That isn’t to overlook the achievements of Nicole Cooke, Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton and the rest, but if a cyclist is to win, we’re going to have to pick one and not divide support between a number of candidates.
With three Olympic gold medals, Hoy is the obvious choice.
|IS THIS TRANSPARENCY|
Gone would be the blacklist of ‘troublesome’ reporters. Bruyneel and co would not take pictures of the journalists to be avoided and pin them up inside the team bus. Oh no, Lance would be media friendly with everyone, not just the helpful ones who do his bidding on ‘main street’.
Taking Armstrong to his word, Edward Pickering, deputy editor of our sister magazine Cycle Sport emailed Mark Higgins, Armstrong’s press relations operative, requesting an interview.
It took a week or so but Higgins did reply to say that yes, Cycle Sport could have an interview. That was on October 1.
Since then, every follow-up email to request a time and a place for the interview has gone unanswered.
In the meantime, our office has received numerous press releases – which does not really equate to openness.
The latest, which arrived in Cycle Sport’s email inbox at 01.43 on Monday morning was inviting us to watch Armstrong testing in a wind tunnel. Email us, it said, if you want details of the venue.
Unfortunately for a UK-based magazine, the wind tunnel testing was taking place on Tuesday. In San Diego.
Well, that’s one way to control who gets access to the great man. Issue the press releases at the last possible moment.
Perhaps Armstrong’s team didn’t have confirmation of the time and venue of the wind tunnel session until the day before – although that would be at odds with the line that everything he does is planned meticulously.
Anyway, if you’re reading Mr Armstrong or Mr Higgins, do get in touch. We’re happy to meet any time, any place – as long as we get more than 24 hours’ notice.
|WAS SCHLECK SUSPENDED OR NOT?|
The CSC team issued a press release explaining the decision. It said: “For the moment, Frank has to concentrate fully on this case and we will await further information from both the Luxembourg Anti-doping committee and the UCI in order to make an assessment of our further actions in relation to this. Together with Frank, we have made the decision that he doesn't enter our race programme until we have had the chance to evaluate the outcome of this.”
Schleck missed the Tour of Lombardy, a race he has done well at in the past, and went on holiday. Luxembourg’s anti-doping authorities say they hope to conclude the case one way or another by the end of the year.
However, he returned to race in his CSC-Saxo Bank-branded Luxembourg champion’s jersey at the lucrative Amstel Curaçao Race in the Caribbean, where he finished 22nd.
While there Schleck told a Dutch newspaper that the talk of CSC suspending him was a lot of nonsense invented by the press. While the word ‘suspension’ was indeed not mentioned in CSC’s carefully-worded press release, how else should it have been interpreted? It was a suspension, pure and simple, to avoid negative publicity at the final big race of the season.
Schleck should be commended for his willingness to co-operate with the authorities by offering all his medical files for scrutiny and giving permission for his blood values to be examined.
But his attempt to spin a line to the media is less worthy of praise. He accepts he paid 7,000 euros to a Swiss bank account but says it was simply for training advice, not for blood doping services. He said: “I was young and naïve.” Not that young and naïve, he was 26 and a fourth-year professional.
The Amstel Curuçao Race is really only an end-of-season exhibition race held in the sunshine, not a UCI-ranked event, but wouldn’t it have been best for Schleck to have stayed out of the spotlight?
|CURRY REPEATS ITSELF|
During the World Championships in March we asked a taxi driver to take us to ‘the best curry restaurant on curry mile only to be dropped off outside a dreadful-looking kebab shop.
Left to our own devices, we selected a restaurant based on the quality of its exterior signage only to be over-ruled by a colleague from another publication who said the menu looked ‘poncy’.
The establishment we settled on served up some truly awful fare, proving that overwhelming competition does not necessarily guarantee excellence.
This time we arranged to meet some other media types in a restaurant and made our way there. Imagine our surprise and disappointment when, having given the taxi driver the name of the place, we pulled up outside the same establishment.
I’ll spare its name, but I can say it hasn’t improved in the past six months. I am pretty sure authentic Indian and Bangladeshi food does not come slathered in what tasted like tinned tomato soup.
PREVIOUS WEDNESDAY COMMENTS
October 29 – The BBC’s Sky dilemma and too much Lance?
Bonus comment: Assessing the 2009 Tour de France route
October 22 – Is the Tour coming back to London in 2011?
October 15 – How to pick a winner
October 8 – UCI bends the rules for Lance
October 1 – Armstrong again…
September 24 – Why Contador must leave Astana for his own self-respect
September 17 – Let’s leave the dirty generation in the past
September 10 – The Armstrong Edition
September 10 – The Armstrong-free Edition
Bonus comment – Why Sevilla, Botero and Hamilton must not start Tour of Britain
September 3 – Want to be national TT champ and ride the Tour of Britain? Tough, you can’t
August 27 – Defending Great Britain
August 20 - Gold, gold, glorious gold
August 13 – Gold rush starts
August 6 – Team LPR in the Tour of Britain
July 30 – Assessing the Tour
The Tuesday Comment - January to July 2008