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Tough to Tame Cycling, the Rogue Elephant of Spectator Sports

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Wilcockson / Sunada

Peering through the clouds at the Vallter 2000 ski resort in the Spanish Pyrenees on Thursday, hoping to see the exciting conclusion of the rugged third stage of the Volta a Catalunya, even the die-hard fans lining the final switchbacks of the 12-kilometer climb couldn’t see much of what was happening. For those watching television or live streams, it was virtually impossible. All that two fixed cameras captured was a 15-second glimpse of two men speeding around a final turn, and then, after they disappeared again into the clouds for half a minute, another 10 seconds of racing before the one in a long-sleeved red-and-black BMC Racing jersey and tights crossed the finish line in front—and then belatedly raised one finger to celebrate his victory.

That’s how Tejay van Garderen (who’s featured in the current issue of peloton magazine) won for the very first time in the UCI WorldTour, leaving in his wake most of the sport’s best climbers: French phenom Romain Bardet, Spanish stars Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez, Colombian ace Nairo Quintana, American talent Andrew Talansky and British standout Chris Froome. Admittedly, it’s still March and the first mountain stage of the Tour de France is still more than 15 weeks away, but van Garderen and his likely rivals there, including Contador, Froome and Talansky, won’t be riding alongside each other on a major climb until the Critérium du Dauphiné in June; so this was a big, big day for BMC’s young American.

It was also a monumental breakthrough for van Garderen. But, because of the fog, there are only 25 seconds of action for him to remember this, the most important result in his career so far. Imagine the outcry if technical problems or the weather prevented fans of any other sport from watching one of their top events until the final minute! But in cycling, the show always goes on, whether a race is run in snow (as on some of last year’s mountain stages at the Giro d’Italia), torrential rain (at last weekend’s Milan-San Remo), freezing weather (during last spring’s classics), or even unbearably hot temperatures (as on the Palm Springs stage of the 2013 Tour of California).

In terms of the world’s major spectator sports, cycling is the rogue elephant. It follows a different path. Football (in its various forms), baseball, basketball, cricket, golf, hockey and tennis (and similar “net” sports) all take place at uniform venues, usually a stadium or arena, and all of them require the use of a ball. And they are all sports that are infinitely controlled: in terms of how long a game takes, how referees’ decisions often determine the outcome, and how relatively easy it is to televise them (unless the lights go out at the Super Bowl!).

None of those characteristics apply to professional road cycling. There’s no fixed venue, no ball, no fixed time or distance for a race, and no rules that can affect the outcome (other than an illegal sprint or a positive drug test), and a TV feed can be easily interrupted by the conditions, perhaps adverse weather grounding the TV-relay helicopter and/or clouds blanketing a finishing climb.

It’s worth bearing all these points in mind as the cycling authorities plan on modernizing the sport and try to introduce more controls, rules and regulations. That is what the UCI has been working on this week. After two days of meetings in Switzerland, the Professional Cycling Council reported on Thursday that it is about to test a number of important changes before introducing them in 2017, three years from now. But it’s not easy to put controls on a sport as unruly as pro cycling.

The ambitious aim of the PCC’s so-called reform is to “change the culture of professional road cycling in order to guarantee it is ethical,” by reinforcing its “credibility, clarity, and ethics.” Those are ambitious goals. Among the proposals is a reduction in the number and size of UCI ProTeams—which were once called UCI ProTour teams, and will (temporarily) become UCI WorldTeams, while “awaiting a permanent name from 2017.” Why not simply call them WorldTour Teams? And will just making the WorldTour slightly smaller bring more clarity to the overall ranking system? Professional road racing has always been an amorphous sport, and the only time that a season-long contest was successful was when big cash prizes were on offer in the Super Prestige Pernod International competition that existed until 1987.

The PPC says that one key to reducing the size of the first division teams from a maximum of 30 riders to 22 would be cutting the number of race days in the UCI WorldTour to a suggested 120. Currently, the 14 one-day classics and 14 stage races in the WorldTour have a combined count of 153 race days. And in order to give the PCC enough time to consider how to modify the calendar, it said Thursday that it has “imposed a moratorium on the subject of new UCI WorldTour events…until 2017.”

Lopping more than 30 days from the top calendar will not be an easy task. And to what end? The premise is that should riders should have to race fewer days, so they will be less tempted to seek help from drugs or other illicit methods and give cycling more credibility. But most professionals today race fewer than 80 or 90 times a year, compared with stars of the past, including Eddy Merckx, who annually competed in as many as 150 races. Also, just because there are fewer race days on the WorldTour calendar, that won’t reduce the overall number of races available—including outstanding stage races such as the Amgen Tour of California, USA Pro Challenge, Giro del Trentino, Tour of Britain, Tour of Austria and Critérium International; the world road championships; and non-WorldTour classics such as the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, Roma Maxima, Milan-Turin and Paris-Tours.

Yes, changes do need to be made to give the WorldTour more clarity, to reduce the teams’ number of mandatory events they ride, and reduce the heavy burden on their back-up staff. This weekend for instance, the Garmin-Sharp team has 24 riders competing in three different countries. Its Grand Tour riders Talansky, Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal are at Spain’s Volta a Catalunya; its one-day specialists Tyler Farrar, Sebastian Langeveld and Nick Nuyens are at Belgium’s GP E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem classics; and its other stage race men such as Rohan Dennis, Nathan Haas and Ramunas Navardauskas are in the French two-day Critérium International.

But will reducing the number of UCI WorldTour race days, and making the teams smaller, really achieve that goal? Like Thursday’s wild finish to the mountain stage in Catalunya, the rogue elephant that is cycling is tough to tame.