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Cycling is proving it’s the ultimate made-for-TV sport

Tour de Hoody: While other sports struggle with empty stadiums, professional bike racing is putting its best pedal forward.

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Anna van der Breggen surged to an unprecedented seventh straight victory up the Mur de Huy at Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.

Except for the odd face mask or a dearth of public along the route, the casual fan watching on TV would have never known there is a world pandemic.

Carlton Kirby and Adam Blythe called the play-by-play. The helicopters captured the beauty shots from the sky. A fleet of TV motorcycles delivered the tight shots inside the action. And even if they were told to stay home, a handful fans showed up anyway to add a touch of emotion.

For anyone watching on TV — or via their smart phone — the 2021 version was pretty much the same as the six previous editions that van der Breggen won.

Now compare that to tennis, European soccer, or other stadium sports. In any sports-specific stadium, with fans literally sitting on top of the action. Their cheers, emotion and passion have a direct impact on the outcome of the game. Home-field advantage is real.

Without fans, stadium sports are falling flat in the COVID era.

A match or a game inside a cavernous stadium with nary a soul is like a bottle of Coca-Cola sitting open in the fridge for a few days. All the fizz has leaked out. Tennis matches held “behind closed doors” miss the spark and fire that fuel a match. No one’s there to cheer when Messi marks the winning goal and change the momentum of a game.

Also read: Philippe Gilbert believes he will never face in front of fans again

This week, an effort to create a new Super League of Europe’s top football clubs quickly lost steam after a fan revolt. But why were teams like Real Madrid and Liverpool even considering the breakaway league? There are several, but of the top reasons is that Europe’s top football clubs on their financial knees, in no small part from the losing gate receipts after playing in empty stadiums.

Contrast that to cycling, and the sport is proving that the essence of a race remains largely intact despite a world pandemic that is forcing fans to stay at home.

Cycling’s outdoor stadium — the roads that ply Europe and beyond — remain as they always have, pandemic be damned.

Has the pandemic impacted racing? Behind the scenes, yes, but in terms of what fans are seeing on TV, hardly at all.

Nearly everyone agrees that the racing in 2020 and what we’ve seen so far in 2021 is among the most scintillating and exciting we’ve seen in years.

There are a lot of reasons why the action has been so good, but the fact remains that despite most races being contested without public there has been almost no negligible impact on the experience of viewing a race.

Most riders say they miss the fans. There’s no comparing the emotion of racing up the Oude Kwaremont with maybe a few local farmers standing by the side of the road instead of pedaling through a tunnel of screaming fans.

Also read: Peter Sagan is missing the fans

That doesn’t mean cycling isn’t hurting from the pandemic restrictions. Race organizers are feeling the pinch. VIP areas have vanished, and along with them, key revenue streams to underwrite a race. Teams are also seeing a budget crunch, and a few teams folded.

For the most part, however, cycling has endured the pandemic better than perhaps most people could have ever imagined.

Twelve months ago, everyone in Europe were shuttered inside their homes, racing was on ice, riders will racing on Zwift, and teams were cutting salaries and laying off staffers.

Fans or no fans, Marianne Vos is still a winner. Photo: Dion Kerckhofs – Pool/Getty Images

Flash-forward a year, and racing is thriving, or at least when rubber hits the road.

In fact, some riders and sport directors even like racing without fans (or nosy journalists hanging around the team bus).

The sport deserves credit for pushing through the biggest challenge since World War II.

That much of the WorldTour calendar and a big part of the women’s calendar in 2020 and going into 2021 has been contested is a testament to what can happen when cycling’s disparate interests circle the wagons and work as one.

But more than anything, the pandemic is confirming that cycling is the ultimate made-for-TV sport.

The color of the peloton, the majesty of the Alps, and speed and drama remain eternal.

Sure, we’re missing Didi the Devil and the crazed fans in the northern classics, but the general awesomeness of watching a bike race on TV remains largely intact.

Compare that to a European soccer game with no fans, or a tennis match or a baseball game with 50,000 empty seats, meh, give me six hours of Milano-Sanremo any day.

Rolling back the years with veterans

KONYA, TURKEY - APRIL 12: Arrival / Mark Cavendish of United Kingdom and Team Deceuninck - Quick-Step Celebration, during the 56th Presidential Cycling Tour Of Turkey 2021, Stage 2 a 144,9km stage from Konya to Konya / #TUR2021 / @tourofturkeyTUR / on April 12, 2021 in Konya, Turkey. (Photo by )
Mark Cavendish won for the first time since 2018 with a sprint victory at stage 2 at the Tour of Turkey. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

How cool was it to see Mark Cavendish win again?

Not once, but four times at the Tour of Turkey. No one saw that coming.

The 35-year-old was gleefully back on the winner’s podium for the first time since 2018. That’s a lifetime in a sprinter’s career, but the Manxster is a special star, and nearly everyone was happy to see him win again.

His resurgence also revived the prospect of a return to the Tour de France, where he is four stages short of Eddy Merckx’s all-time mark of 34 victories. Does he stand a chance? Not likely, and Cavendish admitted he’s not even sure what’s next on his calendar.

Also read: Mark Cavendish and a return to the Tour de France?

Cavendish isn’t the only older rider to elbow back into the winner’s column.

Alejandro Valverde, who turns 41 on Sunday, won at the GP Miguel Indurain last month in Spain. Valverde was third at Flèche Wallonne, and cannot be counted out for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where a victory there would tie him with Merckx, who holds the record of five wins at “La Dayonne.”

Also read: Alejandro Valverde and his birthday wish

Even Chris Froome was also back in the frame. The four-time Tour de France winner was on the march in Thursday’s fourth stage at the Tour of the Alps.

All we need now is to see André Greipel win again.

Anna van der Merckx — the ‘Queen of Huy’

Speaking of records, how awesome was Anna van der Breggen at Flèche Wallonne?

Seven consecutive victories at Flèche Wallonne puts that mark among the top in cycling history.

Also read: Anna and the Magnificent Seven

Eddy Merckx won seven editions of Milano-Sanremo, but not in a row. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever besting that record.

Has the COVID bubble popped?

Much has been made about the health protocols and mitigation efforts to keep cycling alive and kicking during the coronavirus pandemic.

And rightly so. Cycling has been one of the success stories in a year that’s seen professional sport take its hits.

Though the show must go on, there’s been some worrying signs following a string of high-profile COVID cases over the past several weeks. The most significant cases included Trek-Segafredo skip Gent-Wevelgem, and Bora-Hansgrohe sidelined during E3 Harelbeke due to a diagnosis inside its bubble.

Also read: Bora-Hansgrohe, Trek-Segafredo missing races

Other teams and individual riders have been quietly sent packing due to positive COVID tests over the past several weeks.

Sources tell us that teams are grumbling that health authorities are overstepping the bounds to err on the side of caution. Race organizers have been walking on egg shells over the spring as a spike in infections across Europe. Paris-Roubaix was postponed until October as a result.

Finding the right balance isn’t always easy, especially with the threat of government-ordered shutdowns looming with every spike of cases.

Even more surprising was seeing UAE-Team Emirates stopped from racing Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.

The entire team was vaccinated this winter, but apparently members of its race bubble were popped. A series of internal followup tests suggested a false positive, but it was too late to save the start. The team hopes to race Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Despite the hiccups, most insiders are confident that the remainder of the racing season should unfold as scheduled. There is some trepidation about the Giro d’Italia, but team sources say they’re being told the race will go on. The same applies for the Tour de France starting in late June.

Yet the growing string of COVID-19 cases — be them false-positives or not — reveal perhaps there are some troubling cracks in cycling’s “race bubble” concept.

Fingers crossed. And let’s hope those vaccines arrive sooner than later.