Exciting new teams and a growing support base of amateur riders and tough anti-doping measures, are helping cycling shed its drug-spoiled image and enter a more promising era.
- The potential of new outfits like Britain’s big-budget Team Sky is generating renewed interest in cycling
- Bob Stapleton is a billionaire telecoms entrepreneur and owner of the HTC-Columbia team
The governing body's doping crackdown has dramatically slowed the welter of damaging drug cases, while the potential of new outfits like Britain's big-budget Team Sky is generating renewed interest.
AdvertisementThe developments, together with an increase in health and environment-conscious amateur riders, leave team officials optimistic that cycling is a sport on the rise.
"It's definitely cleaning up its act. You might always get a few black sheep but that is rapidly diminishing as the new generation is coming through," Team Sky manager Sean Yates told AFP.
"Everyone knows that cycling is leading the way in drug-testing and the consequences are that we've got a clean sport, virtually."
The International Cycling Union (UCI), under pressure to wipe-out doping, has won praise for its 'biological passport' which logs riders' test results to check for variations over time.
According to American Bob Stapleton, billionaire telecoms entrepreneur and owner of the HTC-Columbia team, fans are regaining confidence that they are watching drug-free sport.
"The biological passport, work-in-progress that it is, is still by far the best anti-doping programme in any sport," he said.
"It's very forward-looking. I think it can give sponsors and fans confidence that what they're seeing is legit and give them hope for a good future for the sport."
Stapleton said cycling had also benefited from the rise in everyday riders hoping to lose weight and reduce their carbon footprint.
Ahead of this week's Tour Down Under, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong attracted some 5,000 amateurs to an impromptu ride announced on Twitter.
"The sport is growing well in the United States because it's now part of a healthy lifestyle," Stapleton said.
"It's one of the few things you can realistically do to become more physically fit, and it's got a reputation now as a green form of transportation."
Cycling is also in the middle of a shake-up prompted by the entry of Team Sky, who are making waves with their financial might, meticulous preparations and bold intention to produce Britain's first Tour de France winner.
On Sunday, Sky made an immediate impact when they finished first and second in their debut race here, leaving HTC-Columbia sprinter Andre Greipel third and Armstrong halfway down the field.
Yates compares Sky to a Formula One team, working hard on aerodynamics and using innovative research such as testing riding positions in a wind tunnel.
The team uses weather research, a mind coach and nutritionists to mix its energy drinks, and drives around in a state-of-the-art bus complete with swivel seats, mobile broadband, mood lighting and a stretching area.
"Cycling is not rocket science but every little bit adds up," Yates said.
"When you're riding thousands and thousands of miles and the difference between winning and losing is sometimes thousandths of a second, then obviously it makes a difference."
The team's innovations are drawing close attention from the media and rivals like Armstrong and also Stapleton, whose HTC-Columbia dominated last season.
"I'm going to keep my eyes on Sky. They've got the biggest budget by far, they've got a lot of expertise. I'm going to look at what they do and see what we can borrow from them," Stapleton said.
However, Sky and fellow newcomers BMC have also caused a stir by their aggressive pursuit of top riders, including Olympic star Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Australia's Cadel Evans (BMC).
The moves bring added spice to the sport, with Stapleton on guard for any attempt on his contracted riders.
"I don't fear that at all," he warned. "We can play that game very well, defence or offence. Whatever it takes."