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MADRID (VN) — This week is “holy week” for cycling. Consider the setting: It’s the world championships, in Italy, over the steeply carved Tuscan hills. It doesn’t get much more hallowed than that. The only thing to top it would be the reincarnation of Fausto Coppi, soloing away to claim the rainbow jersey.
All week long, cyclists from nearly 70 nations will converge in Florence to celebrate the sport and chase the revered rainbow stripes. A world title can make, or sometimes break, a career. Even winners as prolific as Philippe Gilbert have come to respect the weight of the world champion’s jersey.
This year’s worlds arrives as the sport continues to try to come to terms with its troubled past and align it with a more promising present and future. No one can deny that the racing over the past few seasons has been as riveting as it’s been credible. Yet the ghosts of cycling’s past continue to haunt, and those themes will be front and center with UCI presidency up for grabs in a bitter fight between incumbent Pat McQuaid and challenger Brian Cookson that comes to head with Friday’s election.
The backroom wheeling and dealing might overshadow the racing, but let’s hope it doesn’t.
The worlds should be quite the show. Add the tifosi, a challenging course, all on the backdrop of Tuscany, and it provides a Fellini-esque setting for the sport’s most important individual title.
Despite a hilly, and potentially explosive course for the road races, however, it’s hard to know what to expect on the road. Circuit races inevitably do not get interesting until the final few laps. And with the Florence elite men’s road race at a long, perhaps stifling, 280-kilometer distance, the major favorites will likely keep their fuses very short.
A harder, more challenging course doesn’t necessarily guarantee better racing. In fact, sometimes it can be quite the contrary, with riders wary of going too deep, too soon on a more intimidating course.
The big question mark in the elite men’s road race will be if riders such as Peter Sagan and Edvald Boasson Hagen will be able to get over the climbs in the closing circuits to be at the line to challenge for medals. Or will it be a pure climber’s course? It all depends on how hard the peloton races.
Another major problem for riders like Sagan and Boasson Hagen are national team allotments. Under the current system, teams are awarded starting positions based on national rankings within each continental league. It’s a system that favors strong powerhouses, such as Italy, Spain, and France, yet it punishes smaller countries.
Denmark and Norway, for example, only have three starters, while Sagan will have five teammates at the line for Slovakia. Even at six for Slovakia, that’s a major disadvantage against the eight top qualifying teams — Australia, Colombia, France, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Switzerland — which all see nine starters.
That rider disparity inevitably plays out in favor of the big teams. Last year, Belgium ganged up on every breakaway, allowing Tom Boonen and eventual winner Gilbert to sit in until the final decisive charge up the Cauberg.
Of course, a rider needs the legs to win and smaller nations do have chances when they have an extraordinary rider, just as Boasson Hagen proved last year, riding to second despite having minimum help.
The big teams, however, will continue to dominate the worlds so long as the current system remains in place. Many like it because it rewards consistency and depth, yet detractors say it stifles the race.
Compare any recent worlds to the wildly unpredictable race the world witnessed during last year’s Olympics. The relatively easy course, with several passages over Box Hill, before a long run-in back to London, produced one of the most exciting one-day circuit races in years despite just about everyone expecting a mass sprint.
The reason? Teams were capped at five riders per nation.
That proved decisive when a big breakaway pulled clear late over Box Hill that included such motors as Fabian Cancellara and eventual winner Alexander Vinokourov.
Heavily favored Mark Cavendish was left chewing on dust after other teams in the main pack refused to cooperate early in the decisive moments of the chase. With only four teammates to chase down the big group, Cavendish’s medal hopes evaporated on the 50km flats into central London.
That scenario would have never played out had it been the worlds, where bigger teams have the legs and workers to do the chasing.
One way to make the worlds a much more exciting race would put a cap on the number of riders per nation, say six instead of nine. That would provide more equity across the worlds peloton, and likely open the door for more backroom payouts to smaller teams to work for the favorites, but it certainly would break the race wide open.
Overall, the world’s format is good as it can be. The time trials, the road races, mixed in with the under-23 and juniors, serve up a daily dose of racing action for the fans and keeps sponsors and backers happy for a week. The inclusion of the ProTeam time trial turns the worlds into a two-weekend affair.
One of the best things about the world championships is that it gives women’s cycling a chance to shine when the world is watching. Women’s racing last year, both at the Olympics and the worlds, produced exciting and thrilling racing as good as anything the men put down, so if the women want to do themselves some favors and earn some new fans, they will attack, and attack early, to make it an exciting race.
The same goes for the juniors and espoirs, who know a big ride can open the door to a future pro contract.
“Worlds week” has turned into a great showcase for the sport, except that the worlds are becoming more and more expensive to host and produce. Not only does the UCI ask for a 5 million euro bid price, operating costs make the worlds a highly expensive proposition for host cities. Last year, organizers in Valkenburg, Netherlands, said they spent more than 20 million euros hosting the 2012 worlds. The costs are even higher than that in Italy.
In places like Holland and Tuscany, where cycling is thriving, organizers have been able to cover their costs via TV rights, tickets and other products, and even turn a profit.
Things look bleaker for the 2014 worlds in Spain. The smallish city of Ponferrada, lost in a remote valley miles from anywhere in northwest Spain, is struggling to meet the costs of underwriting the weeklong event. The city of 70,000 barely managed to pay the UCI’s fee, and is now struggling finding sponsors to underwrite the costs. With Spain reeling from 25 percent unemployment and massive budget cutbacks, there is no guarantee the nation will be able to pull it off. The organizers insist they will have sponsors lined up to meet costs, but some expect the federal government to step in in a face-saving measure that will be rife with controversy.
Sources say Ponferrada officials are nowhere near where they need to be organizationally. Last week, city officials reached out to UniPublic, organizers of the Vuelta a España, but found a lukewarm reaction. Vuelta officials say they have their hands full organizing next year’s race, and do not want to take on the task of organizing the 2014 Vuelta, followed by the worlds two weeks later.
Things look better for 2015, with Richmond, Virginia, set to host the first road worlds in the United States since 1986. Situated close to the Washington, D.C. metro area, organizers expect to have no trouble drawing big crowds. Perhaps the biggest headache will be convincing local motorists that having roads temporarily closed down for racing is a good thing.
With growing costs, it will be interesting to see which cities push to host future worlds. It’s hardly a competitive field. Richmond’s candidacy, for example, only saw competition from Oman; Quebec pulled out early after studying the costs. With much of Europe in economic malaise, it won’t be easy to find candidate cities to pony up more than 20 million euros to organize a weeklong series of bike races when governments are slashing spending on health care, education, pensions, and roads.
The worlds could break into new territory, with countries such as Qatar and Oman rich in petro-dollars likely stepping up. The globalization of the sport is more often chasing the money.
Then there is a question of timing. The calendar underwent a major reshuffling in 1995, when the Vuelta a España was moved from April to September, and the worlds from August to October. Both have since been moved “back” on the calendar, with the Vuelta starting in mid- to late-August, and the worlds in the final week of September.
Most agree that the changes have broadened the racing season, allowing the three grand tours to be evenly spaced over the calendar. When the Vuelta and Giro d’Italia were stacked up in April and May, the sport literally ran out of gas by August after the conclusion of the Tour de France and the worlds immediately following that.
The Vuelta has profited from the move, and all but one eventual world champion over the past 15 years raced the Spanish tour before winning the stripes. Some say the Vuelta has been reduced to a worlds “training camp,” and that might be true to a certain degree, but even if the world’s favorites only hang around the Vuelta for two weeks, it usually assures some fantastic racing in the meantime.
Detractors say the worlds in late September lose its luster, arguing that the top cyclists should be arriving at the worlds in peak form. For the purists, that means right after the Tour, where all the sport’s top riders show up to win each July. By late September, many of the top Tour riders have long peaked, and some didn’t even show up. Lance Armstrong notoriously skipped racing the worlds during his controversial, now-debunked seven-year dominance of the French race.
Riders, however, have adjusted to having the worlds late in the season, with most building their seasons around peaking for either the spring classics or the Tour, and then rebuilding for a shot at the rainbow jersey.
This year’s worlds field, for example, features Tour de France winner Chris Froome as well as former winners Sir Bradley Wiggins and Alberto Contador. All three have made the worlds a major late-season goal. Nairo Quintana is also back after his tremendous Tour debut, and starts the road race with real chances to win.
No one has won the Tour and the worlds in the same year since Greg Lemond last did it in 1989, a feat that’s only been equaled four times in cycling history. Froome could be in with a shot.
Having the worlds later provides a nice closure to the year, and gives an ideal late-season focus to a long, hard-fought campaign. The world champion will usually have a race or two to show off the rainbow stripes before things go dormant.
It’s a perfect way to close out the year. So buckle up and enjoy the ride. It’s going to be a wild week.