Young Riders Shine at Romandie; Unchained Docudrama Drops Promo; U.S. Racing Gets Another Crit Series; Triathlon’s Doping Wake-up Call
Romandie Riders Near Peak Form Before Grand Tours
Unchained Docudrama Drops Promo, Sets Premiere
U.S. Racing Gets Another Crit Series, Sport in Flux
Triathlon’s Doping Wake-up Call
Sport At a Diplomatic Crossroads with Russia, Rwanda
Baseball Gets Another Boost
Top-level professional cycling is undergoing a brief interregnum after the Spring Classics concluded last weekend with Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and so the racing action felt subdued during Switzerland’s Tour of Romandie, won by Team UAE’s Adam Yates. Romandie is the traditional tune-up to next weekend’s Giro d’Italia and the “gateway event” kicking off the grand tours, and although it lacked all members of the so-called Big Six, it highlighted many up-and-comers. Matteo Jorgenson finished 19 seconds down on Yates, as the American showed with an excellent time trial and a surprisingly strong climbing performance on stage 4. However, other than a few exciting and decisive moments of racing and endless beautiful scenery, it felt slightly disconnected from the rest of the season due to the lack of big-name GC contenders, and the sense that no one wanted to take big risks that might lead to injury or overcook their form with the Giro looming.
However, one upside was that viewers got a slight reprieve from the domination of a handful of stars and were able to appreciate Yates’ incredible current fitness, Jorgenson’s rise as a GC rider, and most intriguing, Egan Bernal riding to 8th place overall, which signaled he could eventually make a full comeback from his horrible crash prior to the 2022 season. But an oddity of Romandie, which takes place in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, is that it is one of two WorldTour stage races in the small country (along with the Tour de Suisse). This is somewhat strange from a marketing and economic angle due to the fact that, unlike Belgium, cycling doesn’t occupy a major role in the country’s mainstream culture. Simultaneously next door, western Europe’s largest country, and economy, Germany, lacks a single WorldTour stage race. If the sport’s calendar was ever to undergo an overhaul, the clustering of races in Switzerland and the lack of significant top-level racing in such a significant consumer market might bear re-examination.
With that first grand tour around the corner, the trailer for Netflix’s new Tour de France-focused docudrama series Unchained finally launched and the publicity campaign has ramped up. The trailer has been somewhat divisive among those inside the sport, with some describing it as over the top or even missing the mark. However, when viewed from an external marketing perspective, the visuals, themes, and pacing of the content aligns with targets outside of the sport’s core fans. Compared to the storytelling in the season 1 trailer of Netflix’s flagship sports docudrama, Formula 1: Drive to Survive, the similarities make clearer sense of the plot – humanizing the competitors, bringing a different focal point to the nature of the competition, and creating an atmosphere that holistically portrays the team efforts, athlete aspirations, and the racing as an ecosystem of heroic combat that universally appeals to a global sports audience. Now, if only content creators could do the same for women’s sports, perhaps in a season-long format, we’d truly overflow with optimism! Still, Drive to Survive has revolutionized motorsport popularity and marketing activation, and perhaps Unchained can similarly capture that lightning in a bottle.
The U.S. road racing scene seems to be searching for a new identity as multiple criterium-themed series take flight, existing calendar events experience resurgent registrations, but with others shrinking. At the center of the criterium churn, the Circuit Racing International Tour (CRIT) joined the National Racing League and the American Criterium Cup in the hunt to become the predominant elite/professional racing series on U.S. soil. Business self-cannibalization is a well-studied phenomena, but unlike the context of swarming a market to self-select the most successful venture, there are only so many weekends in a season to stage professional-quality races, and hyper-scheduling a dense calendar with similar product, vying for the same competitors and fans, may need some cooperation before competition. In light of this, the road “scene” in the U.S. seems to be in a right-sizing flux due to a variety of factors, including the growth of gravel events, a contraction of the number of road races and criteriums available to competitors of all ages, but an uptick in overall race registrations as new pandemic/post-pandemic cyclists venture into the racing scene.
Nowhere was this paradox more apparent than at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico this past weekend. It was great to see a long-running event come back to life after disappearing from the calendar for two years during COVID, although the combined professional and Men’s Cat 1/2 field was just 118 riders compared to 230 riders just ten years ago, which indicates earlier USA Cycling membership woes – other categories ran healthily (if not controversially). The opening Men’s stage was won by Miguel Ángel López, who crashed out on stage 2 (Alex Hoehn would go on to win the overall). Setting aside the controversy surrounding López, who was kicked off the Astana team due to questions about his relationships with a prolific doping doctor, having a two-time grand tour podium finisher in the prime of his career at the event was a coup for the race organization. And regardless of the strange backstory behind CRIT’s launch, optimism for a resurgence in the U.S. road scene is an encouraging development. More elite-level racing options could buoy the talent pipeline, drive up national interest in cycling as sports entertainment, and spur development to add more international UCI-tiered events on home soil.
Doping flared its insidious face in elite endurance sports this past week when triathlete Collin Chartier tested positive for EPO and stirred a hornet’s nest of vitriol and reform demands from his fellow competitors. Despite the rage venting over social media, YouTube, and news feed channels, doping in triathlon is not new. However, there are two factors that are central to this outsized current controversy. First, Chartier surprisingly won the Professional Triathletes Organisation’s (PTO) prestigious U.S. Open event last fall – which is proving to be a vicious black eye in the rivalry between the PTO and the more established Ironman Triathlon brand. And second, the combination of Chartier’s lackluster apology and the PTO’s belated launch of an internal investigation did little to reassure top competitors – many of whom feel cheated out of prize money and opportunities – that the sport’s overall integrity is still on the right track.
Prior to Chartier, high-profile cases as far back as Nina Kraft (disqualified winner of the Ironman World Championship in 2004 for EPO) stand out in the evolution of Ironman’s current approach to anti-doping, which is now overseen by the International Testing Agency (ITA, which also oversees testing for the UCI). What is new is triathlon’s reckoning with the prospect that elite competitors may have been doping for years (microdosed EPO alfa is as notoriously effective as it is difficult to detect), and the realization that triathlon may have an “omerta” problem similar to that in pro cycling’s history: athletes and enablers maintaining silence about doping to protect each other and the sport’s reputation. There will likely be more revelations and fallout in the coming weeks, and if there was a winner in all of this turmoil, it was the ITA. Although they chose not to answer our scientific analysis questions via email concerning the type of EPO Chartier abused, the ITA may be emerging from its reputation as a non-independent, IOC shadow organization into that of a trustworthy drug testing body.
Controversy over Russia’s participation in international sports continues to build, as different international federations (IFs) stake a position. Among the groups polarizing the body politic, Table Tennis, Judo, and Canoeing IFs have decided – at least for now – to allow Russian participation, but Ice Hockey is disallowing Russian athletes as long as the Ukraine invasion continues. It looks increasingly like the lead-up to the 2024 Paris Olympic Games could be a contentious mess, with even the Parisian mayor on the side of exclusion. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t the only geopolitical turmoil affecting sports; Rwanda will be hosting the 2025 UCI World Championships and has already weathered many sportswashing criticisms. Rebel groups including M23, which allegedly receives direct assistance from the Rwandan military, have rapidly regained strength and recently seized valuable gold and coltan fields (tantalum and niobium) in nearby mining regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Flare-ups of rebel violence, weak borders, and competition with Uganda for political influence and economic power are escalating the risk of a new regional war.
Despite statements by Thomas Bach and the IOC to underline the power of sport in resolving these types of pre-war tensions or ongoing conflicts, it still remains very unclear as to whether sport can actually play a mediating role. This is especially true when sport is being used as propaganda to distract from and justify aggressions. Concerns are growing that Bach and his Olympic cohorts have made a mess of the world’s biggest sporting platform, but there are still 15 months to go before the Paris Games kick off and that is a blink of the eye in terms of political diplomacy. Likewise, we encourage UCI President David Lappartient to take a more active role with respect to Rwanda, and potentially play the diplomatic cards he describes as “the power of cycling” in the UCI’s Agenda 2030 manifesto to spur peaceful cooperation, especially as it was his administration’s decision to award Rwanda with cycling’s second most important annual event.
A few weeks ago, we discussed the thrilling finale of the World Baseball Classic, and the heroic and unprecedented performance of two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani. Well, move over, Ohtani! Brady Ware of the University of Indianapolis (D-II) became the first player ever to pitch a no-hitter and hit for the cycle … in the same game! (For cycling die-hards, that last accomplishment means hitting a single, double, triple, and home run in the same game.) Ware went 4 for 4 with 5 RBIs and struck out 11 batters in seven innings in a 13-0 win, saying after the game, “it was kind of crazy.” And in further not-to-be-believed sports stories, The Double-A minor league Rocket City (Madison, Alabama) Trash Pandas threw the first no-hitter of the minor league season – in a 7-5 loss. What? The team scored five runs and allowed no hits, but in the last two innings had five walks, four hit batsmen, an error, and a wild pitch – which culminated in seven runs for their opponent. You don’t see that every day, but what we are seeing is a resurgence in fan interest in baseball at all levels, lending further proof that even tradition-bound sports can change for the better.