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The 5 Big Talking Points of 2015

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January 22, 2015 – Every year in the world of cycling, there are great athletic performances, some bad crashes, a few controversial decisions, maybe a scandal or two, a number of sponsorship problems and other unexpected developments. If it’s an Olympic year, the Games provide some extra excitement to an already highly charged season of racing.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

But this season of professional cycling—which kicked off this week at the UCI WorldTour’s Tour Down Under in Australia and the UCI AmericaTour’s Tour de San Luis in Argentina— is different. We don’t have to wait; we already know five of the major topics we’ll be talking about for the next 12 months. Here they are:

1) THE CIRC(US?)
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Facts: The three-man Cycling Independent Reform Commission, appointed by the UCI a year ago, is due to submit its highly anticipated report in late February. The CIRC has been investigating “the problems cycling has faced in recent years,” and specifically “allegations which have done so much to hurt the credibility of the UCI and our sport.” At the top of the commission’s agenda is the UCI’s role in the fight against doping and the succession of doping scandals that rocked the sport between 1999 and 2013. The commission has operated independently from the UCI, though the sport’s world governing body has funded it with a $3.4 million grant.

Forecast: Very few facts have emerged from the commission’s yearlong process of interviewing people allegedly involved in the various scandals and studying the copious data from 15 years of UCI files. We do know that some riders (or ex-riders) were offered leniency with existing or possible doping suspensions, and that two contrasting perpetrators—American Lance Armstrong and Italian Riccardo Riccò—were each interviewed for seven hours. Whether any of their testimony will appear in the report, we’ll just have to wait and see. With such a broad-based remit and likely lack of sufficient evidence, the CIRC is probably having a hard time confirming any of the alleged breaches of ethical standards during the terms of former UCI presidents Hein Verbruggen (1991-2005) and Pat McQuaid (2006-13). But the CIRC’s main contribution to cycling’s future could be a series of proposals and recommendations on how to avoid past doping and ethical scandals.

2) WIGGO
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Facts: Although Australians Jack Bobridge and Rohan Dennis will be grabbing the headlines with their upcoming attempts on the world hour record, respectively in Melbourne (January 31) and Grenchen, Switzerland (February 8)—with a further shot at the record expected from Britain’s Alex Dowsett in London on February 27—their efforts are all likely to be eclipsed this summer by a certain Sir Bradley Wiggins. Wiggo’s hour record attempt is penciled in for July or August at the world-class velodrome in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, where the Englishman has a second home. But before that, the Olympic and world time trial champion has an even bigger goal. The 34-year-old Londoner is focusing his considerable talents and motivation on winning Paris-Roubaix on April 12—and that will also be his final race in the colors of Team Sky. Before his later hour record attempt, Wiggo will join (as its first leader) his new Team Wiggins—a Continental squad backed by Sky that is is made up of eight British pros, including those who will likely team up with Wiggins for the track team pursuit at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Forecast: Last year, with minimal preparation, Wiggins made it into the winning breakaway at Paris-Roubaix, finishing the 257-kilometer cobbled classic in ninth place, in the same group as multi-time Roubaix winners Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. If he is to become the first Brit to win this Queen of the Classics, Wiggins will need strong teammates at the head of the race—probably Geraint Thomas (seventh last year), Ian Stannard and Bernhard Eisel. As for the world hour record in the summer, Wiggo is the strongest candidate to restore the event to the near-mythic status it enjoyed when other Tour de France winners held the world record: Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Induráin. With current UCI-approved track bikes now in use for the attempt, we can expect accomplished track champions Bobridge and/or Dennis to increase the current mark of 51.852 kilometers held by Austrian road pro Matthias Brändle to 53, 54 or even 55 kilometers. And Wiggo? He’s capable of beating fellow Brit Chris Boardman’s record of 56.375 kilometers set in 1996 using the since-banned “Superman” position.

3) TOUR
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Facts: It’s predictable that the Tour de France will be a major talking point every year, but this year there will be even more focus on the world’s biggest bike race. That’s not only because it will be one of the most mountainous Tours in history, with all the leading grand tour riders on the start line in the Dutch city of Utrecht on July 4, but it will also be extra-scrutinized by the media in light of the doping scandals likely to dredged up by the CIRC this spring (see above). Let’s hope it’s a squeaky-clean Tour, especially as Germany’s national broadcaster ARD is returning to televise the race this July for the first time since doping scandals plagued German cycling between 2006 and 2011.

Forecast: With four-year bans now in place for serious doping transgressors, the chances are slim of repeat scandals such as those that afflicted the Tour de France in 1998, 2006, 2007 and 2010, or led to the events chronicled in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s Reasoned Decision of 2012. On a level playing field, there should be a superb battle for the yellow jersey between defending champion Vincenzo Nibali against former Tour winners Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, while 2014 Giro d’Italia champ Nairo Quintana plans to step one place higher on the Paris podium than in his runner-up Tour debut of 2013. The supremely challenging course incorporates likely wind-affected flat stages in the Netherlands and Normandy, some Paris-Roubaix cobbles, four hilltop finishes, a hilly team time trial and four mountaintop stage finishes (including three in four days in the Alps). Team Sky’s Froome, Astana’s Nibali and Movistar’s Quintana are focusing their seasons totally on the Tour, while Tinkoff-Saxo’s Contador is attempting the first Giro-Tour double in 17 years; but this being the Tour, where shocks and surprises are never too far away, don’t discard the chances of the following 10 outsiders: Team BMC’s Tejay van Garderen, Team-Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, Cannondale-Garmin’s Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky, AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet and Jean-Christophe Péraud, FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, Etixx-QuickStep’s Rigoberto Urán, Trek Factory Racing’s Bauke Mollema and Europcar’s Pierre Rolland.

4) WOMEN
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Facts: The resurgence of pro women’s racing continued in 2014 with the first editions of The Women’s Tour in Great Britain and La Course by Le Tour de France in Paris (both won by Dutch phenom Marianne Vos), and this sector of the sport receives an even greater lift this year with the addition of shortened versions of major men’s stage races, including this week’s Tour Down Under and America’s Tour of California, Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge. Also new this year to the elite women’s calendar is Italy’s Strade Bianche, which will precede the men classic race over the white roads of Tuscany on March 7, while the women’s road race at the reborn Philly Classic has been elevated to World Cup status on June 7.

Forecasts: The new and/or expanded races are a welcome tonic, but women’s racing still has a steep path to climb. First, it has to reestablish major events that existed in the past—including a women’s Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, along with such international events as the once-popular Tour of Texas and Idaho’s Women’s Challenge. And as the calendar of major events expands, so too can the TV coverage and sponsorship possibilities for women’s pro teams—that right now are little different from the amateur formations that existed in the 1980s.

5) WORLDS
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Facts: After the successful running of the world cyclo-cross championships in the U.S. two years ago, American fans can now look forward to the big daddy of worlds competition, the UCI world road championships, in Richmond, Virginia, this coming September 19-27. This is the first time in a dozen years (after Hamilton, Ontario in 2003) that the worlds have returned to North American soil. And it’s almost 30 years since the United States last hosted the worlds—when the U.S. Cycling Federation organized the 1986 world road (and track!) championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Back then, the road worlds consisted of just four events: a team time trial and road race for amateur men, and road races for elite women and pro men (there were 14 medal events in the preceding track worlds at the Colorado Springs velodrome). This year, over an eight-day span, Richmond will see no less than 12 road events: team time trials for elite men and women; individual time trials for junior men and women, under-23 men, elite women and men; and road races for the same five categories.

Forecast: Besides the sporting possibilities, the most important aspect to hosting the worlds in the United States is the fact that the event will have an impact in the mainstream media. Besides expected print and Web stories by the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and ESPN, there will be live television coverage on Universal Sports and NBCSN through the week, and on NBC and CNBC for the final day’s elite men’s road race. And the hope is that members of Team USA will figure among the medal winners. The chances are slim for an American rainbow jersey in the elite men’s road race. At the only previous road worlds in North America, the golds went to Belgium’s Eddy Merckx (Montréal 1974), Italy’s Moreno Argentin (Colorado Springs 1986) and Spain’s Igor Astarloa (Hamilton 2003). And only two Americans have ever medaled in the top title race: Greg LeMond (silver in 1982, gold in 1983 and ’89) and Lance Armstrong (gold in 1993). Greater success is expected in the team time trials (Tejay van Garderen won the men’s title last year with his Team BMC, and the U.S.-based Team Specialized-lululemon has won the past three editions of the elite women’s TTT) and the individual time trials (Taylor Phinney took silver in 2013, while Kristin Armstrong and Amber Neben have both struck gold in the past decade).

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson