Touchpaper: just deserts?

A peloton à deux vitesses reared its head on the final weekend of the season, but this was nothing to do with doping.
Instead, a division increasingly apparent in recent years in cycling’s top-tier – that between its old and new worlds – widened with the sport’s biggest names on duty at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour, while lesser names battled for supremacy at Paris-Tours.
While Lotto-Soudal’s youngsters Tosh Van der Sande and Tiesj Benoot raced across the Loire Valley (the former contesting the finale with Matteo Trentin and Greg Van Avermaet), cheered on through the autumn temperatures by hardy souls, new world champion Peter Sagan performed a pit stop at an empty Yas Marina motor racing circuit.
And if the two races differed wildly, the evening activities of the respective parties might have offered a still greater contrast. Perhaps we are doing Van der Sande and Benoot a disservice, but it’s unlikely that either would have pulled on a tuxedo for the journey back to Belgium. For the riders and officials who jetted in to Abu Dhabi for the UCI Cycling Gala, such attire might have been mandatory.

None of which is to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with cycling’s new world, only that the heartland must respond to its existence if its cherished races are to survive.
The desert races of the early season have become established fixtures on the calendar, with the racing in Qatar, especially, a suitably ferocious introduction to the season for those who hope to find success on the cobbled roads of the old world in Spring.
The Abu Dhabi Tour was a well organised event, by all accounts, and has crowned an exciting young talent in Esteban Chaves as its first champion, but the blandness of cycling around a motor racing circuit in front of empty grandstands leaves it at a profound disadvantage, one which races like Paris-Tours must exploit if they are to continue to attract a WorldTour presence in the face of this new Middle Eastern alternative.
With scenery, history, fans at the roadside, and, in the case of Sunday’s 109th edition, enthralling racing, Paris-Tours would appear to have a formidable arsenal with which to combat its new rival, but money talks, as does technology: footage from the bikes of two Velon teams was promised for the live broadcast feed from Abu Dhabi – a first for cycling.
Paris-Tours, owned by the ASO, should not lack the budget or technical competence with which to compete with Abu Dhabi, but the days of resting on laurels are over, if cycling is to avoid just deserts. Velon’s teams were racing in western France, too: why no on-bike footage for viewers who chose history over glamour?
The geographic and economic landscape of professional cycling is changing rapidly. Competing with oil wealth is not easy, but where the might of a major media conglomerate exists, it must be deployed if cycling’s historic races are to survive.

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