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Another One In the Books

Adios 2017 cycling season

Guangxi Tour: Last Day of the Season
Tim de Waele

There’s something perfect about the ambiguity with which the road cycling season ends, in a strange country (by the sport’s traditions at least), the middle of the night with no video coverage, save for the odd team video clips on Twitter. Finally, Cycling has achieved the perfect complement to its start of the season, which is also pretty hard to pin down. I honestly had to check a couple times to make sure we were finished. Was Japan Cup later? It was the last item on the list but Guangxi managed to extend past it. And I’m a hardcore fan. Good job, cycling!

A diagram of the UCI road cycling calendar

But what might be a problem for some sports isn’t for Cycling, because we weren’t waiting around for any final judgment, catharsis, or whatever it is that people in the sportsball world expect. Cycling is all about deciding for yourself what constitutes a good or bad season, and by yourself I am including the fans, the athletes and the teams. I am excluding the UCI, because at the end of every season, no matter what has transpired, they declare success and toast themselves with the finest champagne. At least this time they had the good sense to bring in some cool Chinese performing artists.

UCI gala, obviously
Tim de Waele

Anyway, once you have Chinese acrobats juggling wheels of cheese in front of UCI fat cats, I think we can agree that the season is over. So what was it about? Well... that’s equally in the eyes of the beholder. It was about certain memorable victories, about people coming and going, and about the sport’s continued evolution. I’ll remember it as the year I went to the Classics and saw Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet cement their already impressive legacies in person. A lot of American fans will remember it as a season where they got to watch a fair amount of it on actual television, something that seems to be getting better, even as Cycling.TV goes dark. Feel free to comment on what you’ll remember this season for.

On our most recent PodCafSt, Conor, Andrew and I debated a bit the subject of who really won the season, and how do we know. You can check it out for our specific conclusions, but I’ll spoil one of them by saying that we declared the obvious: that there is no single satisfactory metric of annual success. There are win totals, point totals, great moments, and fancy jerseys, but none of these is accepted as a definitive assessment of the season’s outcome.

And I’m fine with that, but not completely sold on the idea that it has to be this way. One idea whose time came and went, but might be back, is the season series leader’s jersey. Remember this?

UCI leader Danilo Di Luca
Lars Ronbog

And its much gaudier predecessor?

Museeuw in the World Cup kit
Lars Ronbog

That’s a lot of white for a cycling kit, particularly for a classics specialist.

The point is, there is a long history of cycling season-long competition jerseys. The UCI Pro Tour leader’s all-white kit lasted from 2005-10. Before that there was the World Cup, dating back to 1988, and before that the Super Prestige Pernod which was the standard for year-long success beginning in 1958.

The Super Prestige Pernod competition took over from something called the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo and became a recognizable measure of cycling greatness for three decades. Very few riders were up to the task of winning, and the names are all first-ballot hall of famers: Anquetil, Poulidor, Janssen, Merckx, Maertens, Moser, Hinault, LeMond, Kelly and finally Roche. There were actually multiple layers to the competition, including young rider’s and women’s categories, but when France banned the advertising of alcohol in sport the sponsor went away.

That led to the World Cup, sponsored by the rather conspicuously non-alcoholic Perrier. This lasted from 1989 to 2004, but only included the main classics. NTTAWWT, but it didn’t really get to what I’m talking about.

The Pro Tour really did try to judge an overall winner, starting in 2005, when it included a mix of top classics, short stage races and grand tours. I’m not sure I can reconstruct the precise reason the UCI jersey went away, but my recollection is that it had to do with circumstances which no longer exist. I believe it got caught up in the UCI-ASO drama which peaked about a decade ago. Basically, the Tour was trying to exclude any control of its property by the UCI, and being scored as part of their series was one of the main gripes. The jersey was the symbol of that issue, so it had to go. Another problem that, by contrast, does not seem entirely ridiculous is that the Pro Tour wasn’t made up of enough events for the jersey to have much meaning. Someone would get a grip on it in the classics, then take a vacation while the grand tours played out and the UCI ranking became less than an afterthought.

Bottom line is, it wasn’t visible on a regular basis, and then it was snuffed out by the infighting that marked the era. Now we have the World Tour rankings, but no jersey to signify who is in the lead. It’s just numbers on your computer screen. Sure, those numbers have value for the purpose of determining a team’s license status, and a rider with the most points would be welcomed by a lot of teams, so it translates into some salary.

But wouldn’t the World Tour competition be worth fighting a bit harder for if it had a jersey for the leader? Instead of being something mentioned offhandedly once or twice in a four-hour broadcast, the leader’s jersey would ensure that the competition was noticed by all, at home and by the roadside, to the point where you couldn’t miss it. Surely the riders themselves would enjoy the prestige of swapping out their regular team clothes for this special kit, at least if they ride for AG2R. This could easily be something people actually compete for.

And the leader’s status would hardly be made up. The current World Tour has been expanded to 37 events and more than a hundred days of riding, seven more races than the Pro Tour included at its peak. The robust competition is there, the calendar has filled out enough for this to be a jersey we see plenty of, and who knows, maybe ASO wouldn’t bother playing killjoy again.