Europe is not the answer

So, according to VeloNews, what cycling needs is more races in shrinking markets with shrinking capital investment, not new races in growing markets with growing capital investment:

“With cycling pinched by recession across much of Europe, coupled with a growing fixation to “internationalize” cycling by shoehorning the sport into untapped markets, this weekend’s Italian romp should serve as a reminder to everyone that well-organized and smartly packaged events set in cycling’s European hotbed remain the sport’s best bet.”

“At its heart and soul, elite pro cycling is a European-based sport.”

Was, not is.

Look at the number of African riders pushing through, the growth of the sport in Asia. All else is nostalgia. Looks at the crowds and mind-blowing scenery of the Tour of Rwanda.

Every bit as good a bet as another European race for my money.

At its heart the “cycling is European” meme is reactionary, xenophobic, bordering on racist. Misty-eyed nostalgia for what wasn’t an economically viable sport will help precisely no one.

If you want “High drama, with the best racers, set against a spectacular “stadium” of natural beauty”, it is impossible to argue that Oman or the Great Wall of China offer a lesser stadium, or that the fields have any less reason to be good.

I’m almost tempted to say it’s willfully stupid to suggest that the history and monuments of either offer less to a bike race than the olive groves of northern Italy.

There were, are and will be races across the globe that have every right to be as much a part of the fabric of the sport as the heritage brand Strade Bianche and the Giro del Lazio in a new dress that is Roma Maxima.

Remember what Strade Bianche started out as in 2007? It’s now on its third race title, after Monte Paschi Eroica, Montepaschi Strade Bianche. A race that’s doing so well it lost a title sponsor and is being propped up largely by the organiser RCS.

Actually, it’s probably not their fault that Monte Paschi is a massive banking basket case. But hey, it’s still “well-organized and smartly packaged”, just not so that it can attract a headline sponsor beyond an “endemic” – in this case helmet manufacturer Limar.

If you want to disagree, go ahead, but first pop quiz:

  • – The Madison is named after a venue in which country?
  • – Fausto Coppi contracted malaria while racing for professional money in which country?
  • – A “North Africa” team first raced in the Tour de France in which year?

The acceptance that their can be no other single power in the sport than ASO is not only historically wrong, ignoring that ASO only became powerful by consolidation and state backing for the Tour de France, it is dangerous for the future of the sport – and ignores ASO’s own failing to monetise its own portfolio beyond the Tour de France.

In layman’s language, the sport’s over-reliance on the Tour de France as an economic driver is exactly putting all your eggs in the one basket.

Allowing one organiser or event to gain control of a sport is exactly how motorsport ended up with the dominance of Formula 1 to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Market plurality of organisers and events within a coherent framework is vital to avoid a litany of issues, from cronyism, to corruption and sudden market failure.

Cycling has a choice: get out of its comfort zone of European races and explore the beauty of the world; or stay where it feels safe and die as a sporting attraction outside of one annual event.

By all means let’s keep heart and soul in the sport, but not at the expense of a body within which it can reside.

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What is the challenge facing British Cycling and Sir Dave Brailsford?

“The size of the challenge in Team Sky has grown over the last few years. Having won the Tour twice, it has put us on the map globally, and it feels like a bigger challenge.” – Sir Dave Brailsford to rethink British Cycling role after Track Worlds

Er, winning Le Tour De France with a British rider was the stated purpose of Team Sky from the outset. How has that challenge changed, or did they think they’d fluke it once and that would be it?

British Cycling repeatedly hammer how it’s about planning to succeed, yet – when they get there – there’s no evidence of having done so. First Wiggins loses his mind at the end of a very successful year, now trying to defend Froome’s title is overwhelming infrastructure they’ve been developing since at least 2009, if not 2008, post-Beijing Olympics.

At the same time, the challenge facing British Cycling’s women on the road keeps on growing, yet I don’t see Sir Dave diverting his time and efforts into that.

Or perhaps it’s all further proof that there is still something endemic within the organisation that would rather play with shiny toys than develop the pathway for women road riders into the elite, or invest serious thinking into expanding the base of participation beyond spuriously numbering every single commute muddling recreational transport in with sporting activity – for example, people riding a bike somewhere to go for a pub lunch – and Sky Ride as some sort of “regular cycling” activity.

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that Sport England doesn’t include commuting in its figures: “excludes any cycling which is exclusively for travel purposes only” – Once a week participation survey. I’ve now amended to reflect this – my view is that a lot of people view riding to work as much as recreational/exercise use as exclusively travel – “It saves me having to go to the gym”, as the oft-heard refrain goes.

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10 things to be excited about in cycling in 2014

There’s plenty to look forward to in 2014, including the possibility of this podcast happening more than last year. So here’s a run down of ten things, in no particular order, that you should be looking forward to in cycling this year.

Nicole Cooke’s autobiography

Outspoken, direct, determined. And usually bang on the money. Interviewing her was always a challenge – she could be curt, didn’t suffer obvious questions and would correct every error or misapprehension – but she was never boring.

Nicole was one of the most intelligent bike racers of any generation or gender. Just watch how she waits, doesn’t panic, then fries Arndt and Vos in the sprint to do something no other rider – male or female – has ever done: Win Olympic and World road race titles in the same year. Bradley Wiggins got a knighthood in 2012 for a Tour de France and Olympic gold double. Nicole still only has an MBE. If her autobiography is half as intelligent and strong as her riding, it will be one of the best cycling books ever.

The Women’s Tour

Britain finally gets a top flight Women’s race, long overdue. Top tier field, equal prize money, terrestrial television coverage on ITV4. So why haven’t sponsors stepped up to a great opportunity to get in for relatively low cost into the burgeoning movement to grow women’s sport? Because they are too obsessed with poor value from safe products like football.

Softening of UCI stance on in-race footage

On the Humans Invent podcast David Millar talks about the documentary on his final season and suggest RCS might give leeway in their races for the makers to use bike-mounted cameras during the race. (It’s a good interview with Millar, well worth a listen)

Start of a cycle of innovation from manufacturers

The UCI’s appointment of GB tech wizard Dimitri Katsanis as a consultant signals a more progressive attitude. It coincides with innovation from different sectors spreading to become universal to cycling – carbon fibre and hydraulic disc braking to name two.

We’ve been stuck at 6.8kg, cable-operated rim braked, double diamond frames for far too long. In terms of what is available and possible compared to when it was introduced in 2000, it looks incredibly outdated. Actually it looked outdated then.

Tour of Dubai

Yes, you could lump this together with Oman and Qatar as Gulf state cultural willy-waving – and you wouldn’t be wrong – and then dismiss it as a new race at the expense of other more “historic” events.

A shame then that most squads look likely  to split the strength of their squads, otherwise the 3 races – Dubai, Qatar, Oman – would make a very coherent Gulf States series across February.

The longer you cling to the fantasy of keeping uneconomic early season races in non-snowy bits of Europe, the less likely the sport will grow. Dubai matters because this isn’t old money shuffled, it’s new money unfolded.

Baku Cycling Project

Let’s be clear, Azerbaijan is an oil-rich, post-Soviet state that barely qualifies as democratic. But this is a sport where Katusha and Astana are established names.

Photographer Camille McMillan is documenting the team on Instagram and they’ve got a well-developed presence online that’s as good as some top tier teams.

Tarmac not being the only way

The growth of gravel racing and cyclocross suggests a return of the unpaved road, opening up a whole new set of opportunities for events. Mountain-biking continues to grow in the UK as an economic force, in particular in Wales and Scotland where facilities are as good as anywhere in the world.

Boonen vs Cancellara fortnight

Flanders, Roubaix. Can Tom make it a record-breaking double? Or will Fabian crush everyone again. Maybe Sagan will ruin the party; maybe Geraint Thomas realise that there’s a good reason people keep on mentioning these races to him and remember not to crash into everyone.

Quintana v the Aussies v the Italians at the Giro

The pocket-sized Colombian could pick up his first Grand Tour in Italy this year, but to do so he’ll have to beat Cadel Evans – perhaps one last throwing of his kitchen sink  at winning a Grand Tour – and Richie Porte – in his first effort at leading a squad over three weeks. Add in every imaginable Italian weather combination and the endearing insolicity with which the race usually develops, it could be quite something.

All Vos, all the time

If you’re not getting the joy from watching Marianne storm every sporting barricade, you’re not really getting what unmatched brilliance is. Few riders are as peerless as Vos in her dominance against genuinely classy opposition.

Please donate to the following organisations

The London Courier Emergency Fund
The Wolf Centre, Combe Martin Wildlife Park

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Thank you for listening, all feedback welcome.

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The church of the high mountain

Roland Barthes wrote of the Tour de France as being in the tradition of epic. Yet there is much to be said for the race as in the tradition of religious experience.

It is perhaps most evident in the veneration of the mountains and the sanctification of those whose glory shines upon them.

According to the Nicene Creed “We are one holy catholic and apostolic church”, or in lay terms a diverse bunch of fans.

When cycling fans, on foot or bicycle, make their journey along the mountain, they follow in the same passion as the riders. For some that passage into the mountains is an act of pilgrimage in an age where religious devotion is frowned upon.

My most recent act of devotion to the mountains took me to the top of the Col de Pailheres, an experience which felt closer to martyrdom than pilgrimage in the spectrum of quasi-religious experience.

Riding or walking up a mountain road is a catholic experience. We all suffer the thinning air, the gradient, the weather differently. Our weight, fitness, adaptation and so on vary wildly.

Yet we are one apostolic body in doing so. We all hold a belief that in the undertaking of, or witness to, the climb we are revealed something devine about humanity and its desire and need to overcome difficulty.

Mont Ventoux is defined by the journey from woodland to the calvary of white rock. The communications mast and the cluster of buildings at the summit, a cubist vision of the crucifixion. Alpe d’Huez counts 21 corners like stations of the cross in its narrative, each recalling an angel ascending into the heavens.

Fallen angels are elevated to sainthood in this church. The flaws of personality that make truly great climbers unable to endure the vicissitudes of the peloton are the same ones that have lead to beatification down the ages.

And like the rolecall of saints, we chose those whose path calls us most strongly. Pantani never called me to his patronage because the suffering was too evident, the redemption so lacking. In Contador I saw a transcendent beauty in his climbing, a fervour that redeemed his evident failings.

In Quintana I see a new icon to take their place in the pantheon, alongside those who have travelled the road before, revealing damascene their brilliance in full view of the church of the high mountain.

Come, worship, one holy catholic apostolic church of the high mountain.

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Episode 3: At last there’s racing to talk about!

  • Track Worlds reviewed
  • Het Nieuwsblad in brief
  • RCS starts a revival in Rome
  • World Series Cycling, will it never go away?
  • Truth and Reconsiliation, what does it really mean?
  • The UCI’s secret life as a Russian doll
  • Death on the public highway in Central London – the solutions are obvious

Links of note

Please donate to the following organisations

The London Courier Emergency Fund
The Wolf Centre, Combe Martin Wildlife Park

>> Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes

Thank you for listening, all feedback welcome.

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Episode 2: The Qatar is operational!

  • Farewell Sandro Carrea
  • Nicole Cooke retires
  • Wiggle Honda – new teams, great, but what about the infrastructure?
  • Tour of Qatar – Al-Jazeera runs women’s race live, so why is it so difficult for others?
  • Yet another chance to talk about Lance Armstrong
  • Parliamentary Inquiry – will it get Britain cycling or put it on the wrong path?

This week’s links of note
Twitter search for #getbritaincycling
http://wCTC report on first session of Parliamentary Inquiry into Cycling
Manc Bike Mummy on the effective ban of 97.8% of people from the road

Please donate to the following organisations

The London Courier Emergency Fund
The Wolf Centre, Combe Martin Wildlife Park

>> Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes

Thank you for listening, all feedback welcome.

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Episode 1: New year, new podcast

Welcome to the first episode of the Chasing Wheels cycling podcast. For your listening pleasure:

  • A change of kit for teams and riders, some more significant than others
  • More races fold, organisers follow the money to Arabia – The Tour of Qatar, more interesting than you think
  • Armstrong, in brief, very brief
  • Why I’m excited about MTN-Qhubeka and their Algerian hardman
  • Commuting, casual riding, whatever – are there more of them out there already?

Links of note

Joe Lindsey’s Boulder Report – Not a Comfy Sofa
The Inner Ring
Rapha Team Sky kit and Rapha & Raeburn collaboration (number 11 in the list)
Team MTN-Qhubeka

Please donate to the following organisations

The London Courier Emergency Fund
The Wolf Centre, Combe Martin Wildlife Park

>> Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes

Thank you for listening, all feedback welcome.


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Racing Through The Dark – David Millar interview

An interview with David Millar from June 2011 about his book, Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar which charts his career up to his return to the sport after his doping ban.

We discuss his own career, doping and what the future holds for cycling.


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World Series Cycling a masterclass in how not to tell exciting stories

A while ago, I was trying to write something about the UCI, breakaway leagues/calendar reform and revenues. I became so bored researching it, I gave up.

But seeing as the UCI seems determined to chase around after a billionaire’s loose change in return for control, I thought I’d muse afresh. A memorandum of understanding, if you will.

The Gifted Group – who are ultimately the ones proposing to mess about with other people’s money and sport – told all about the plan for World Series Cycling (WSC) which seems to have confused “might” with “will”.

Lovely to see the term Grand Prix weekend being bandied around. Just like the lucrative world of Formula 1. In case you were wondering, here’s an idea of what you get over a four day Motorsport event like Monaco:

  • Thursday: F1 free practice x2; GP2 free practice and qualifying; Porsche Supercup free practice
  • Friday: Porsche Supercup qualifying; GP2 Race 1
  • Saturday: Formula Renault qualifying; F1 qualifying; GP2 Race 2
  • Sunday: Porsche Supercup race; Formula Renault race; F1 Grand Prix

Four different types of racing, with meaningful action on every day, all building towards the prestige event right at the end of the weekend. A great sporting model with paying punters aplenty.

Which translates into four unrelated one day competitions with no coherent narrative thread in the world of WSC.

In 2010 I said cycling needed a Kerry Packer type figure. It still does. The World Series Cycling (WSC) proposal is the most risk-averse attempt at taking a risk I’ve ever seen.

Cyclismas, the Inner Ring and Joe Lindsey’s Boulder Report have covered off, with great insight, the logistical and historical horrors:

Cyclismas: Call me a Dinosaur 

Inner Ring: World Series Cycling plans

Boulder Report: A World Series of what?

Rather than retread that ground, I’ve going to approach this from the Barthesian side and look at the failings in terms of offering a compelling narrative to the audience.

Trim, prune shuffle and interlink

“Cycling’s heartland is Europe and we need to protect it” you say. A significant portion of road cycling’s history resides in Europe, but we’ve lost far almost as many historically interesting races as remain there. And there are events outside Europe whose history is equally important to the modern sport – the Tour of Colombia for example.

The last thing the punters need is another ten Eneco Tours forced upon the marketplace. You could junk Vattenfall, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem from the top tier without anyone noticing if you were feeling like giving it a haircut.

In the case of those last two, one suggestion is to link them more closely to The Tour of Flanders by running the three races as a mini-series over five days. To expand on that, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem could be run as an opportunity to showcase some second tier teams with wildcards for Flanders on offer for the best placed of them.

Admittedly, this then runs up against the issue of where to fit Paris-Roubaix which is related. How about Tro Bro Leon drops into the middle Wednesday?

So there you have a five race sequence over two weeks that could be sold as a series. It maintains five existing events, groups them in a coherent series that fans can follow and event allows the possibility of an overall champion, a ‘King/Queen of the Cobbles’, crowned in Roubaix annually.

This would give you a similar narrative arc to ‘making the cut’ in golf or getting through qualifying in F1. There’s a narrative progression and a cast of characters that you can follow for the duration.

That’s perhaps the most depressing aspect of the WSC proposals: they seem to have been outlined by someone with no real understanding of what engages a sporting audience.

Same time next week for more of the same

One obvious criticism of the WSC proposal is that they’re locked in to a far too predictable format consisting of sprint, climb, time trial, rolling stages. The excitement of triathlon doesn’t come from being the fastest swimmer, runner or cyclist but from the way in which the three skills become interlinked in the overall result.

There’s a tradition in cinema of killing off big names as a narrative shock device for the audience. These removals of protagonists from the plot are as old as Homer, but as a rule of thumb no one ever made a great movie by killing your hero in the opening act and then not mentioning them again until the credits.

It’s impossible to see WSC’s reductive view, with its false separations, as anything other than a predictable guarantee for the audience that you don’t need to stay to the end of the picture. Once the sprint stage is over, you’ve effectively killed off Mark Cavendish.

I challenge you to find a successful series where the same star dies in the same place every weekend for the duration of the run in an entirely predictable manner. The closest I can think of is “Oh my god, they killed Kenny” in South Park, but his death was never done by rote or so predictably signposted.

Narrative stripped from context

The proscriptions of the format meant that a key element of narrative will be buried. Closing off the context so that Contador winning a climbing stage bears no relation to events on the other three days of racing is a terrible idea.

Realistically there is no overall classification narrative to follow because whichever way you structure it, the comings and goings of your group of protagonists are predictable. It’s a story without risk, jeopardy or adventure, the sporting equivalent of reading out the phone book (I do know people that can make that exciting, even borderline erotic but I wouldn’t invite them to do it on a regular basis).

What’s in it for broadcasters?

Gifted Group have made much of their proposal being what broadcasters want as if there’s some mystery which so far everyone in cycling has failed to appreciate.

Let me tell you what broadcasters want: they want something that runs to time, allows them to sell their junctions to advertisers, and keeps the audience watching to the end.

There’s a reason sports with fixed durations and predictable junctions (AKA half-time, end of the quarter, innings or over) have proved so popular as televised events.

Most broadcasters like two hour chunks when it comes to ‘striping’ their programming, as do those selling the rights (again, see F1 – races fit neatly into a two-hour broadcast window), which even with a following wind gives you about 100km of bike racing.

And with the best will in the world “coming up tomorrow, the individual time trial” is not going to get the casual fan all fired up, is it now?

Women control the majority of purchase decisions

Omega Pharma promoted Predictor (pregnancy test) and Silence (snoring treatment) through their sponsorship. You think either of them was aimed at men or with a view to men making a purchase decision about them?

Once again, some rich man has decided they’d like to own the trainset and the UCI has said “on you go”. Not a hint of evolving one of the biggest potential markets by harnessing existing race structures and bringing into play massive purchasing power that holds the key to some of the most lucrative advertising revenue in the market coming towards cycling.

There is absolutely nothing about WSC that says it’s going to attract and inspire the casual female fan.

I think I’ll stop now otherwise I’m going to draw blood bouncing my head off this desk.

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Team Sky zero tolerance policy or how not to address reality

Team Sky has never had an active zero tolerance policy, Team Sky has always had a zero tolerance policy on doping.

Team Sky would like you to know from their statement that

“Team Sky has had a clear position on doping from the very start. We are a clean team and have shown it is possible to win clean.”

That’s a strong top line to sell, and one which is not unique to Team Sky: Garmin Sharp along with High Road Sports and Cervelo Test Team have all made that their marquee asset.

The difference here is that none of those teams actively undermined their prime asset so badly as Team Sky do in the third paragraph:

“There is no place in Team Sky for those with an involvement in doping, whether past or present. This applies to management, support staff and riders.”

When was there ever zero tolerance?

At the outset, Team Sky relied on Scott Sunderland, who had been at CSC in the Basso years. It’s no slight on Sunderland, but there must have been an astounding naivety in play during the recruitment process to ignore that he’d been part of the operation that put convicted doper Ivan Basso on the Tour de France podium in 2005, then won him the Giro in 2006 before he got the ‘tin tack’ from the 2006 Tour and CSC before the season was out and subsequently got banned for his association with Dr Fuentes.

Given that this was all current and available information at the time Sunderland was engaged, it’s hard not to suggest that ‘wilful ignorance’ might be as apposite as ‘astoundingly naive’.

At its formation it recruited Sean Yates, a rider who has an unsanctioned involvement with doping as a rider and an unproven connection through his employment on at Motorola and as a directeur sportif at Discovery Channel and Astana.  A simple search of the cycling press archives would have turned up questions about Sean Yates’ own failure to stay right side of line. It’s interesting to note that British cycling had defended him.

In 2010 it recruited Dr Gert Leinders on a freelance basis and on the quiet, hoping no one would notice his past employment at Rabobank in a period when you might run out of fingers to count the doping stories about the team. The defensive attitude to criticism and subsequent non-renewal of contract. There is nothing intelligent or appropriate about the way Sky approached this matter.

Brailsford likes to emphasise how Team Sky builds on the British Cycling values of clean sport and attention to details. In the wake of all the post-Armstrong upheaval he told William Fotheringham in The Guardian

 “The information now, the context now, is different to what it was before. I’ve read the report and found it quite shocking, the light of that will direct the discussions”

Which would be the case if most of the information and context hadn’t been freely available  in L.A. Confidentiel : Les secrets de Lance Armstrong since 2004 and latterly From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France

The great British conflict of interests

David Brailsford is British Cycling Performance Director. He is also Team Principal of Team Sky.

In a previous post on Lance Armstrong I wrote

“Take for example Emma O’Reilly’s account of effectively being asked to traffick substances across the Franco-Spanish border. It had to be taken on trust that David Walsh had got a second account corroborating events. It turns out that was Simon Lillistone, O’Reillly’s former husband (link is to £ Sunday Times site).”

Lillistone should be known to Brailsford through British Cycling. An inquiring mind with an attention to detail would have been aware of the links.

O’Reilly according to the New York Daily News has testimonials from Great Britain’s Victoria Pendleton. Here is that testimonial:

“It has been amazing to have Emma from the Body Clinic Hale as part of my wider Olympic performance team.”

Brailsford with his Great Britain hat on was OK with one of his charges receiving treatment from someone previous involved with “industrial doping”. It is not credible that as GB Performance Director he was not aware of O’Reilly’s contact with Pendleton given the precision which has so publicly been attributed to the planning of the Olympic programme .

As Michael Ashenden tells The Guardian

“They [Sky] have zero tolerance for doping. Great. But what constitutes doping according to them? Is it an anti-doping rule violation? Is it grounds for suspicion? Or are they merely relying on what the athlete tells them?”

It would seem that zero tolerance is only as strict as that which can be put in place without outside influence. As a policy it seems to have been formulated in the absence of Brailsford’s own experience.

Given The tale of David Millar, Dr Cecchini and Max Sciandri in Bad Blood: The Secret Life of the Tour de France,  do we assume then that Brailsford believes that his role in rehabilitating his friend David Millar as an international rider and selecting him for Great Britain was a past mistake that he has learned from and doesn’t wish to repeat?

Or that both Yates and Sciandri, despite questions about their past have been valuable servants of British Cycling’s current boom? There is a laughable absurdity to the fact that for years Britain’s best young riders were schooled by a protege and friend of Cecchini.

Barry, to some degree, was an open secret – questions and eyebrows were raised when he was hired by Sky given his past employers. Through his Team High Road experience, there was evidence of an attitude change and it’s hard to imagine that in the process of referencing him, Team Sky’s recruitment policy wouldn’t have had indications as to his past.

Likewise, Mick Rogers’ Ferrari connection was pretty widely discussed and a rumour that I’d certainly been aware of before he signed for Team Sky. What does that say for the quality of due diligence being undertaken by management? It’s all well and good looking at the numbers on their SRM, but that seems to have been the only thing they looked at.

Yet, on BBC Radio 5 live Brailsford praised Barry and his attitude at Team Sky in the same breath as effectively handing him his cards, despite being a retired rider.

All change, no change

It’s surreal to hear talk that the policy hasn’t changed, never changed and has always been adherred to given Brailsford admits to talking to Neal Stephens, formerly of Festina and Liberty-Seguros and took Michael Barry on face value despite allegations that were current at the time of his hiring.

The PR campaign around this announcement is prejudicial to riders who decide not to re-sign for reasons other than doping, because already any rider who announces they are going elsewhere is open to speculation about their reasons for doing so. It may blight their career and reputation in the current climate of fear.

Will they make clear which staff are which? And does it even matter if they do?

All their policy and declaration contribute to the creeping sense of keep your mouth shut and your head down, which is precisely what led to omertà.

If was sky rider who had past issues, I would start looking for a 2014 deal and brazen it out. Because there are better places to be than where you career development is less important than Team Sky clinging on to their last vestiges of dignity in a PR battle they lost before they even started.

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