Perusing Cycle Sport, I was struck by the tone of the Tour route coverage. No, not by the organizers' ridiculous home-video effects of Floyd Landis with a mirror cracking across his image (Prudhomme and LeBlanc are no doubt still wetting themselves laughing over that one). And not by Cycle Sport's constant drug-warrior-speak that makes them sound like they're channeling LeBlanc and Dick Pound. What concerned me was Prudhomme saying that the Tour intends to select teams as if everyone is a wild card.
more on the flip...
Now, it's easy to dismiss such talk as the posturing/rantings of one of the major players in Cycling's ongoing power struggle. Or maybe this will be the next big showdown... leave it to ASO to drain what little remaining joy there is in the sport by, say, excluding Discovery Channel from the Tour because they don't meet whatever arbitrary ethical standards ASO claims to live by. Seriously, if this happens, I will not be the least bit surprised.
But back to my point. There seems to be an emerging consensus that someone in Cycling needs to be empowered to sort out the drug mess, or at least that the current constant power struggle is making progress on the drug question more difficult, if not impossible. Fine... but what are the options?
I've been advocating for one organization to be created, with a Kenesaw Mountain Landis (heh heh)-like figure empowered absolutely to clean up the mess. Well, I've waived my magic wand over and over, and yet this scenario still has not come to pass. I'll keep trying, but not without some caution... if I may argue against myself for a moment.
Absolute structures work in traditional team sports, where the teams don't have the mobility to come and go. Take baseball, for example: even at the minor league level, there are still stadiums, real estate investments, entrenched local audiences, the need for opponents and thus the need for long-term planning of schedules, travel, coordination with the larger league structure, and various rules to make the competitive balance work. You can't contract the Minnesota Twins on short notice, and then create a new team in Omaha or something, ready to play for next season. Or, maybe you can, but it's gonna hurt like hell.
By comparison, dissolving and creating cycling teams is relatively easy. In a single off-season, it's not that hard to sign the riders you need and start entering races... provided you have a sponsor lined up, a supply of equipment from bikes to massage tables, and a platoon of support employees. But you don't need to schedule opponents or build stadiums years in advance. It's not that hard.
So, about every year there is a new pro team coming on line, either at or near the pro tour level, who can justify a place at the table. Can an absolute structure get control over such a fluid situation? Maybe not, and maybe it's not worth trying.
This is the old way... and now the sport is saturated with drugs. [insert sarcastic clapping]
The Pro Tour
What the Pro Tour structure offers that the alternatives do not is total authority over the top X number of teams, without having to track the Chocolade Jacqueses and Barloworlds, assuming this is an efficient place to cut things off. There is legitimate debate about how many teams should be involved; at a minimum the Pro Tour needs to include enough teams so fans know that, for the most part, the stars are operating within the system. With no method, I declare that number to be 15... but whatever.
The point is, as long as the Pro Tour exists, it will function as the public face of elite pro cycling, and every rider or team aspiring to championship level will want in. At the same time, it's also a manageably-sized structure, even at 20 teams, that doesn't necessitate some unrealistic effort to track down countless teams and every rider with a pro license. If everyone got serious about combatting drugs in elite Cycling, and came up with an effective way to do so, the Pro Tour structure would give the sport a confined area within which to launch the coming drug war. And if it worked, even on just those 15 teams, perhaps it would be enough for us to believe in what we're watching again.