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The Scott Sunderland Diary 2003
Winds of change
Belgium, March 12, 2003
I was supposed to ride Paris-Nice. I decided not to go there, as my form wasn't good. "I'm going to kill myself in three days trying to follow wheels at the back of the pack," I told my director. What a morbid ring that sentence now has.
Both my wife and I had one reflex when we heard the tragic news on the radio this morning. We gave each other a big hug in silence. Our thoughts have been with Andrei Kivilev's family since we saw the horrible crash during the live coverage on Belgian television.
Our deepest sympathy goes to his wife and little son.
The accident in '98 almost took me away from my family and I can only thank God for the gift of life. This is a cruel reminder that every day needs to be lived and cherished to the fullest.
Cycling has been in a lot of turmoil over the last few years. The doping issue has taken the attention away from what is maybe the most important issue of it all: the safety of those athletes that bring the joy, the thrill and all the other emotions of top sport to the public.
It is true that doping might harm one's health, but it is still the individual choice of an athlete to use prohibited substances. To have to ride in dangerous conditions, on an unsafe parcours or with way too many inexperienced riders in the peloton is not the athletes' choice at all. Another wind of change is needed according to me.
It was a pleasant surprise to hear that Hein Verbruggen agrees with many of us, the ones on the bikes, that the peloton has become a "hazardous" place in some ways. Too many teams and too many cyclists he said, and I agree fully.
Knowing that my team, Team fakta, would probably be one of the first to be left out of the first division in case the new ideas become reality, I still would prefer a first division of 23 to 25 teams, not 30. Why?
Well, first of all because the system as it is now does "discriminate" against first division teams like us in the obtaining of wild cards. We are the second team in first division in Denmark. Big brother CSC of course is rightfully entitled to the privileges of being a bigger team. But that means that for a small cycling country such as Denmark, there are few crumbs of the big piece of cake left.
It's better for the morale and the working of a team in that 'top elite' not to get idle hopes up for one of those sought after wild-cards to the bigger races. It would also be more justifiable to the sponsors. Those 23 to 25 teams can guarantee their sponsors the start in the biggest races.
I feel that a system with no more than 25 teams in first division, of which all teams have automatic "starting rights" in the World Cup, Hors Categorie, 1.1 and 2.1 races will ensure that those hard races are ridden by the highest possible percentage of experienced elite cyclists. This means without doubt that the safety of races would be improved.
Experience has been overlooked and underrated the last few seasons. Often the younger riders are thrown in as gladiators before a pack of lions they have no experience with. The amalgamation of professionals and amateurs in the mid-nineties has given the opportunity for amateur teams to turn professional, hence the second division teams. In the early nineties there were less professional teams, big and small. But at that time you had to be at the very top of amateur racing before you got the chance to turn professional.
Now, because of the U23 division, which only allows a rider to race with the national teams in amateur World Cup races and major amateur tours until the age of 23, many "amateur" teams now, for little extra money, operate as second division teams and have a lot of riders above that 23 age limit.
Now, when you turn 23, where do you go if you are serious about racing? You need to look for a second or third division team to do the races that once were open only to amateur teams.
Professionals had their races and nearly all of the races now categorized as a 1.2 and up were professional races. Fifty percent of the 1.3 races and under were amateur races or kermises. Professionals had their "league" and amateurs had their very own prestigious race calendar. If, as a professional you chose to do a pro-am race, you at least knew what you were in for. Those races were mostly 70% amateurs, 30% pro's.
The current divisional system and a UCI points system are enough to even turn a 1.5 into a dangerous situation. Too much eagerness mixed with not enough experience on a non-safe parcours gives you a dangerous cocktail.
I have raced on the most unthinkable parcours: a 180 kilometre race with a finale on straight four lane roads, but in the last 300 metres contains a couple of turns which, without warning, take you onto a road that is narrower than most people's driveway! I mean, what is the purpose? It's like growing trees on football grounds. The UCI definitely needs to keep a closer eye on the safety of the final kilometres of the races
The value of your contract is linked to the amount of UCI points you have nowadays, and that means that a sprint for a handful of points is ridden like a World Championships finale, with the difference that in the sprint of a World Championship the chaff has been separated from the wheat.
Anyway, it's up to the race organisers and the UCI to come together on this and make the right changes to make professional cycling safer. The latest interviews I have read show that they are looking at upgrading division I. But also division II needs attention, so it's not left in the same predicament as we are in now. I know this is easy for me to write down, but I do realize that there is a hell of a lot of work to be done. I hope the seeds currently planted will bear fruit in the near future.
On another note but continuing the song, Team fakta has missed out on a wildcard for Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders. The reasons for that are simple. We did not show ourselves enough in the results so far, which doesn't mean that we didn't perform strongly in many of the races that we have ridden this season. Unfortunately, a wild card is given because of many reasons, politically correct ones and politically more obscure ones, but hey, that's the way things are in many sports.
Eight of the guys are riding Paris-Nice and they are pulling their weight just fine so far. It would be fantastic for the team to see a win by the end of this important stage race. The other half of the team is riding GP Erik Breukink over the weekend. It will be a good opportunity for myself to get the legs turning a little less square than what they have been so far.
I feel good on the bike, but the legs say no to too much speed at the moment. I am fine-tuning things as intensively as is possible right now, by training behind the scooter and doing interval and strength training. I hope it pays of soon as I have been in a bit of a dark mood the last couple of weeks.
But gee, I still enjoy riding that bike! ;-)
Talk to you later, with better legs and more optimism!