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Image is everything: Why cycling needs us to believe in the sport again

Peter Sagan has been in hot form. (AFP PHOTO / JEFF PACHOUD)
Expert
13th December, 2015
4
1059 Reads

Go riding on any Saturday or Sunday morning and you’ll see hundreds, maybe thousands of like-minded people, enjoying one of the best sporting pursuits there is.

There is nothing complex about the science of riding a bike. Just sit on it, balance and start pedalling. What could be easier or more enjoyable? Anyone can do it and you make it as hard or as easy as you want.

You also don’t need to ride much to appreciate what it’s like to be a professional cyclist, and if you choose to follow cycling as a sport, there’s no shortage of cyclists to support.

I ride, and luckily for me have been able to report on it for more than 15 years. But these days I’m wary about nominating someone as my favourite rider, and dare I say it, a hero.

I really want to, and I’m tempted to, because I used to. I’m just not sure if I should anymore, because too many times I’ve been disappointed.

Miguel Indurain, Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich and Stuart O’Grady are four riders I put on pedestals for their exploits on a bike.

Three of them ultimately left me disillusioned, and the other, well, on reflection it’s difficult to believe what I saw all those years ago.

More recently, no one was happier than me when Cadel Evans stepped on to the podium in Paris, but for some reason I never had the unabashed fan-boy love for him as I did for the aforementioned quartet.

Since then there hasn’t really been anyone else to exalt. Admire, yes. Respect, yes. Hero status, hell no!

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So if what I feel is reflected across the cycling community – not just here in Australia but across the world – then as the saying goes, “Houston, we have a problem.”

We have a problem because in the future, if a widespread tepid view of cycling develops then it may struggle to survive at the elite level.

We need enough cycling fans willing to spend their hard-earned dollars investing in the sport, whether it’s by purchasing merchandise or at the top end, sponsoring a team.

And there will be enough money, if people can find their cycling hero. A hero that won’t let them down. A hero they can believe in.

Despite the questions that surrounded Lance Armstrong after his return from near-death cancer, the stratospheric heights he attained in that drug-fuelled seven-year period meant that any fall would be equally as big. I’d argue it was bigger.

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” West Indian welterweight boxer Joe Walcott – who regularly beat men much bigger than himself – so prophetically said more than 100 years ago.

Was Armstrong the ultimate example of a flawed hero, or are there more to come?

Given his domination over so many equally tainted rivals, it’s hard to imagine cycling can cop a bigger kick in the face than what we’ve seen over the past few years.

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But as you grow older, you realise it’s naïve to believe something will never happen again.

That said, we do need find a way to believe in cycling again.

Any move has to start at top, so right now it’s up to cycling’s governing body, the UCI. It needs to make us believe what we’re seeing on the road and in the velodrome is real.

At the recent World Road Championships in Richmond, UCI president Brian Cookson said the sport is moving forward, but admitted it’s coming from a very low point.

“Obviously I want to go forward and not dwell on the past,” he said.

“Clearly [the Armstrong saga] was very damaging for us.

“We’re moving forward very strongly now. We’ve seen a restoration of the reputation of cycling. We have made huge progress with that.

“I’m confident we can go forward even more strongly.”

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This means continuing the fight against doping and, among other things, removing the constant ambiguity swirling around teams like Astana and Katusha.

Cookson is right to say he wants to “preserve what’s beautiful about our sport around the world”, but needs to clean it up quicker.

Yes, people’s careers may be at stake, but the UCI must find a way to stop positive doping cases taking months – and in some cases more than year (remember Alberto Contador’s 19-month Clenbuterol case) – to be resolved.

The process has to be accelerated.

Likewise, the UCI must find common ground with the all-powerful Amaury Sport Organisation – which runs the Tour de France and a host of other huge races – and Velon, the newly formed group representing World Tour Teams with the aim of bringing economic stability to cycling.

There’s no chance if we can’t find consensus on a race calendar, agree on how to share cycling’s revenue, or create a stable system that gives team owners, sponsors and riders more security.

Seeing the UCI on top of its game, working in harmony with the other major players, will help us believe again.

But more importantly for the average fan, we need new cycling heroes.

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If I’m prepared to trust that I’m not going to be disappointed in the future, one name springs to mind.

I’ve written about Peter Sagan in the past, comparing him in some small way with Eddy Merckx; not so much for how often he wins, because Sagan will never come close to what Merckx achieved, it’s more about his attitude on the bike, and his demeanour off it.

The recent Elite Men’s Road Race in Richmond was the perfect example.

Sagan’s understated, ‘how about that’ salute as he crossed the line to win.

Sagan’s high-fives with rival riders as they crossed the finish line.

The trademark wheelie he popped on the way to the winner’s tent.

And the throwing of his helmet and gloves into the cheering crowd.

What’s not to love about the Slovakian!

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Here’s a guy who only had two teammates to support him, whereas others, like our own Michael Matthews, had eight.

In a huge sign of his skill and maturity, we only really saw Sagan when he attacked in the final two kilometres. And as famed as he is on those short, sharp climbs, Sagan crucially gapped the peloton on the descent before the final rise to the finish.

Power, precision and panache from a rider who doesn’t seemingly take things too seriously.

I mean, how many cyclists have you seen using their Tour de France green jersey trophy as a mock machine gun on the Champs Elysees podium? It’s certainly not something he should look back on with any kind of pride now or in years to come, but it kind of sums up Peter Sagan: a little crazy, but not in a sinister way.

“Doing our job with fun is much better” and “I go full gas”. Sagan could sell t-shirts with those quotes on them.

If Sagan can carry that rainbow jersey through 2016 with the same carefree attitude, he will help people believe again in cycling. If he races like this for the rest of his career, then he may have just saved the sport.

No pressure Peter!

Of course other riders will emerge to rival him – both on the road and in terms of personality. And they will help people believe too.

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From a parochial perspective, ‘Bling’ Matthews certainly has an aura, but he isn’t Sagan.

Image shouldn’t be everything but in the case of cycling, right now it is. And it needs to display the right image. Sagan is doing it, now it’s down to the rest of the sport to follow suit.

As Brian Cookson says, cycling is moving forward very strongly now. What Peter Sagan does in 2016 will go a long way to determining the pace at which it moves, and how soon we can all safely start to believe again.

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