A Long MSR Reveals Top 2023 Riders; Faulkner Controversy; FIFA's Sponsorship Gaffe; Cycling to Cure Depression? Anrooij Takes Trofeo Alfredo Binda
● MSR Confirms the Early Season’s Top Riders
● Lessons From the Faulkner Controversy
● Cycling as a Cure for Depression
● FIFA’s Saudi Sponsorship Gaffe – a PR Masterclass for UCI
● March Madness Cinderellas Underline the Joy of Sport
The 2023 cycling season continued to gain steam over the weekend, with Milano-Sanremo – the first Monument of the season – running from the foggy Milano to Sanremo on the sunny Ligurian coast. Mathieu van der Poel confirmed his return to form, wasting no time in grabbing the year’s first Monument. Although many pundits predicted that red-hot Tadej Pogačar would take victory here, Van der Poel wedged open a slight gap on the famed Poggio climb over an elite front group containing the all-star group of Pogačar, Filippo Ganna, and Wout van Aert. The recently crowned world cyclocross champion then used his proven bike handling skills to extend that gap into a comfortable margin on the ensuing technical descent to take his third career Monument victory. Ganna’s strong second place demonstrated once again that he is much more than a time trialist and may be emerging as more of an all-rounder capable of winning both one-day and stage racers.
Despite being slightly shortened due to scheduling conflicts, and benefitting from a strong tailwind, MSR was still a marathon event that might seem out of step with the short attention span of modern viewers. The extreme distance (almost 300 kilometers) produces hours of basically action-less racing before coming to life in the final 30 kilometers, over the Cipressa and Poggio climbs. It has become perhaps the ultimate modern one-day race, allowing all but the most intense viewers to skip the first six hours, and only tune in to the final 30 minutes – without missing any relevant action. Additionally, with stronger and stronger all-round racers, the days of bunch sprints appear to be declining – replaced instead with action-packed series of all-out attacks between the sport’s best riders. This distilled action can be attributed to the hours of mundane earlier riding – which ensure that only the most talented and in-form riders can stay on the front at the Poggio. This phenomenon should serve as a reminder that – although current thinking often suggests that cycling needs to shorten the length of its events – traditional and long races can remain relevant if they are designed in the right manner.
On the Women’s WorldTour side of the sport, a weekend of exciting spring racing reached a boiling point with the 24th Trofeo Alfredo Binda event on Sunday. The concurrent Tour de Normandie Féminin (March 17-19) was won by Cédrine Kerbaol (Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling), but Northern Classics specialists like Christine Majerus (SD Worx) showed great form coming into the next phase of the WWT season. But it was Shirin van Anrooij’s (TREK-Segafredo) brilliant breakaway win at Binda – aided by teammate and defending champion Elisa Balsamo – that stole the spotlight. The 21-year-old van Anrooij is already one of the sport’s brightest rising stars and highlights the youth movement which is also taking place in the women's ranks. And TREK-Segafredo’s 1-2 podium was a masterclass in racing tactics – if you were lucky enough to watch live coverage of the finale, as women's race coverage is still inconsistent and not as globally available. We anticipate brilliant racing ahead in Belgium and northern France throughout April.
Unfortunately, controversy hit women’s road racing this week when Strade Bianche third place finisher, Kristen Faulkner (Jayco-AlUla), was disqualified for having a glucose monitor attached while in competition. The infraction, and the decision, can be seen as both routine and controversial. Faulkner made her case to the UCI and the public in the ensuing days, explaining that she, like many other riders, use such devices to maintain adequate nutrition schedules in training. This practice is routine for many women in pro cycling, due to the extreme effects inadequate nutrition can have on their physical well-being. On the other hand, the UCI’s rules clearly ban any devices which capture physiological data other than heart rate monitors or power output during races, “including any metabolic values such as but not limited to glucose or lactate.” It has long been rumored that riders have worn the devices in competition, albeit perhaps less conspicuously than Faulkner. This may be the reason why the UCI came down with the proverbial hammer – to make a statement. Faulkner may thus be a victim of cycling’s reputation as a performance enhancement laboratory. However, the UCI is perhaps missing a golden opportunity – much the same as with power meter data – to have detailed and uniform data sets for on-screen fan entertainment dashboards that convey the sheer output of some of the world’s greatest athletes.
New reports have underlined the value of exercise such as walking, running or cycling in treating depression, saying “exercise as a treatment for severe depression is at least as effective as standard drugs or psychotherapy and by some measures better…” And exercise doesn’t have to mean running marathons or triathlons – “something is better than nothing,” said the report’s authors. Although the value of exercise and fresh air in offsetting a wide range of health conditions have long been recognized, they have not typically been medically prescribed by physicians historically. For example, formal medical guidelines from the American Psychological Association “recommend seven types of psychotherapy and several antidepressants for the treatment of depression, but they do not mention exercise.” But the medical consensus may be shifting. Said the authors, “We expect this review to lead to updated guidelines and recommendations for exercise as a first-line treatment option.”
The semi-annual Bicycle Leadership Conference, which took place last week in Southern California, is a good place to take the temperature of the bike industry. Conversations there were centered around the post-pandemic fall off in demand for bikes combined with an oversupply. While some brands are struggling, others are surprisingly thriving in the current climate. The CEOs of Trek, Zwift, Giant, SRAM, Pivot, Cotopaxi and many other brands were in attendance, as well as USA Cycling CEO Brendan Quirk. Giant Chairwoman Bonnie Tu made a notable speech on the subject of fully committing to inclusivity in the industry.
Concurrent with BLC was USA Cycling’s announcement about the new gravel national championship, coming up in Nebraska in September. This new event represents another milestone in the development of the gravel discipline. Given the $60,000 prize purse – which will be equally divided between men and women – a number of top gravel and road pros are expected to show up. While some will argue that USAC is a bit late to the gravel party, there is no doubt that more races and more top athletes participating will only help to make this a bigger and more robust category of bike racing.
Carbon energy wealth has fueled Middle Eastern sovereign fund and private investment across a wide swath of global sports, seemingly without limitations. However, pushback over FIFA’s 2023 Women’s World Cup sponsorship deal with Visit Saudi – Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund-backed tourism board – may have finally defined the boundaries. The World Cup’s Australian and New Zealand co-hosts – particularly New Zealand, with its historical focus on global human rights issues –
have demanded a full explanation from FIFA as to why they were not consulted beforehand. The blowback reportedly shocked FIFA into crisis mode as to how to handle the situation, and at its annual congress the organization indeed backed out of the deal. This suggests that sportswashing investments in FIFA are permissible up to the point where there is a specific and untenable human rights paradox – in this case, trying to associate Saudi tourism interests with women's sports.
For cycling fans, there was some irony and symbolism in FIFA holding its annual congress in Rwanda – where cycling’s 2025 world championships are scheduled to be held. Infantino went out of his way to praise Rwandan leader Paul Kagame in the post-congress press conference, equating the country’s post-genocide stability with sporting goodwill, and choosing to skip over the autocratic regime’s shocking methods for enforcing peace. Could this be the template for UCI President David Lappartient’s party-line in 2025 too? Only time will tell.
Speaking of international sport’s foray into areas with spotty human rights records – it’s worth remembering that sovereign nations aren’t the only ones playing this game. A recent report by ClientEarth – questioning the effects of Ineos’ petrochemicals business on the environment – should serve as a reminder that sportswashing is by no means unique to Middle Eastern nations. Ineos’ recent spending spree on sports properties include not only the familiar cycling team, but also a Mercedes F1 team, OGC Nice soccer team and a recent bid for Manchester United. While these may represent simple investments by the company, they are likely at least in part motivated by owner Jim Ratcliffe’s desire to create a better image for the company.
For this week’s inspirational story, we need look only at this weekend’s March Madness, and the Cinderella stories of the past few days – the inspirational underdog teams that seem to emerge every year, and that fans quickly rally behind. Two Number One seeds from the bracket were ignominiously shown the door; Arkansas upset Kansas, and newcomer Fairleigh-Dickinson University, the shortest team in the tournament, dispatched top-seeded Purdue and their 7’4” big man. And Number 15 seed Princeton – an Ivy League school that doesn’t even offer athletic scholarships – edged out powerhouse Arizona. FDU became just the second Number 16 seed to ever win a game, following UBMC’s win over Virginia five years ago. Almost every year, an unlikely Cinderella or two seem to emerge in the NCAA Championships, generating endless media ink and rallying public interest, even among millions of certifiable non-basketball fans. Said the FDU coach after the game, “If we played them 100 times, they’d probably beat us 99 times.” But – as the saying goes – on any given day anything can happen – and it is that uncertainty that can make sport so compelling and exciting. (FDU lost in its second game yesterday, while Princeton advanced to the “sweet sixteen.”)