Tour Down Undermining

Jan 24 2011

Bernhard EiselGoing to a take a bit of a break from the drama and talk about the TdU today. After all, there’s going to be about four weeks between now and the next biggish-kinda-deal event—and that fact is in no way unrelated to my thesis.

Bernhard Eisel recently made some comments that the UCI WorldTour—the sport’s top tier of competition—lacks a lot of unifying feautres; things like a leader’s jersey, a centralized media contact, and real, season-long relevance to the WorldTour points standings—for example, using them to determine caravan order.

You’d think Eisel’s concerns would come up later in the season, when there are actually some WorldTour rankings on which to base decisions, but I’m pretty sure the subject crossed the Austrian’s mind because he realized that as it stands, there’s no reason to contest the TdU earnest passion. It’s a WorldTour race in name only, and if the UCI is to have any hope of competing with the Grand Tour organizers, they need to realize that this is a very bad thing.

It’s not that the racing has been poor at the TdU. Quite the opposite, really—as per the Roche Hypothesis, the racing has been a bit “fiercer” than you might expect for a January race. Some even went so far as to see it’s the most enthusiastically contested you’ll see until July. But just how much of that is due to the top sprinters waiting for July is a matter of no inconsequential weight.

A top tier race ought to feature top tier riders who are on form, not top tier riders who are three months and fifteen pounds away from it. While Matt Goss, Andre Greipel and a few others with Grand Tour wins in their palmares looked like they put in earnest effort, for the most part, any given rider’s contribution to the event seemed to be in inverse proportion to their appearance fee.

With TdF invites coming out earlier than ever, it might be temping to see the TdU as teams’ one shot to impress the ASO’s selection committee. But given the outcome of this year’s announcement, I think it’s pretty clear that admission to the sport’s biggest stage will continue to be awarded—as it always has been—through intrigue, favoritism, and the whimsy of a few media titans back in Paris.

The UCI has long sought to decrease the influence of The Cartel in cycling, but slapping the WorldTour logo on races like the TdU is simply the wrong way to do it. While the UCI might like the exposure and (not to mention a nice slice of the 17 million AUD that goes into putting on the event), the UCI needs to realize comes at the expense of a watered-down brand.

Adding new names to the rolodex is one of the fun parts of following the sport. But outside once-in-a-generation contenders, it just shouldn’t be happening at events that claim to be the same level of competition as the Classics and Grand Tours. The more times little-known riders win at underwhelming, UCI-backed events, the more fans, sponsors and athletes will view the competing offerings of Grand Tour organizers as the true apex of international competition.

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