Friday, March 7, 2008

For the Honor of Racing on the Cobblestones

I may have been wrong about the "fast and quiet" death of cycling that I predicted. The UCI has seen to that as they have opened a disciplinary case against the French Cycling Federation (FFC) for supporting the owners of the Paris-Nice race in running the race, making it very public indeed. The owners, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) own the Tour de France, cycling's marquee event.

This does not bode well for cycling's future. There are riders who have already declined to participate in the Paris-Nice race because they are worried about their Olympic eligibility, which is governed by the UCI. Cycling needs the Tour, and the Tour needs effective, open, and honest doping controls. And these controls need to be run consistently across international boundaries, and this is something that only the UCI can effectively accomplish.

There last time there was not a Tour de France was in 1946, and since 1903 only the two World Wars have prevented the contest from going forward. No one is suggesting the the race will not go forward. UCI is saying that without their support, it should not take place, but the ASO has said all along they will go forward under French authority, even without UCI support and controls.

Already the Tour is going to go forward without marquee names like Levi Leipheimer and defending champion Alberto Contador. There are many other names that cycling needs to have racing, however, if it is going to survive as a major event and not become a sideshow. The UCI wants control, the ASO wants independence, and caught in the middle are the men who just want to ride and compete for the greatest prize in their sport, and one of the greatest athletic accomplishments in the world.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has offered to mediate the dispute, but both the UCI and ASO have rejected their offer. What they have ignored is the fact that not having the Tour de France is like open wheel racing not running the Indianapolis 500 because Tony George wants exclusive control over the rules of the race, wants them drastically different from the rest of the season, and if the sanctioning body does not agree to it, he will run the race without Penske, or Ganassi, or any other major team.

The UCI and ASO need each other. Cycling needs a marquee event, and you cannot just go out and create history, especially not the kind that comes with over a century of racing across the French countryside. The ASO needs the Tour to be consistent with cycling events the world over, at least in terms of the rules, regulations, and controls. And the sports world needs for the cloud of suspicion and embarrassment that has hovered over the Tour de France for over a decade to lift so that we can trust that our champions truly are figures that we can recognize with a clear conscience.