At the beginning of a new decade, Telegraph Sport is auditing all major sports – our 2020 vision – with new sports each day. Athletics, boxing, cricket, formula one, rugby, tennis and women's football have come and gone. Still to come: men's football, netball, golf and horse racing.
Cycling has plenty of stars but not that many who have genuine cut through. In terms of global recognition, Lance Armstrong, the self-proclaimed Voldemort of cycling, is probably still the sport’s biggest name and he retired (not entirely of his own volition) over six years ago.
Peter Sagan, the prodigiously talented three-time world champion, is the current poster boy. But there is a limit to how far a Slovakian with limited English can go in terms of global superstardom in what is still a minority sport. Marianne Vos and Annemiek van Vleuten are the biggest names on the women’s side.
In Britain, the likes of Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish, Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Nicole Cooke, Lizzie Deignan and Geraint Thomas have all become household names, thanks largely to their exploits for Team GB or at the Tour de France. But it would be hard to describe them as big names outside of cycling or outside of the established heartlands of cycling such as France, Belgium, Holland or Italy.
Strength in depth
Top WorldTour teams such as Ineos, Jumbo-Visma and Deceuninck Quick Step have deep squads, full of national champions and grand tour winners. Ineos alone have three Tour de France champions – Froome, Thomas and Egan Bernal – vying for leadership of the team next summer. So deep are their petrochemical-funded pockets, there is perennial talk of budget caps to try to level the playing field. But there are signs that Ineos’s hegemony may be coming to an end. Bernal’s victory last year was by no means assured and other teams and riders will be looking to muscle in on the action.
Mitchelton-Scott with the Yates twins, British motorsport brand McLaren have bought into the Bahrain team and are talking about taking on the big boys in the grand tours. Anyway, it’s not only about stage racing. The most exciting young riders coming through are cyclo-cross converts, one-day stars or track specialists. The likes of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout Van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Yorkshire’s Tom Pidcock, and London’s Ethan Hayter.
Biggest off-field headache
The most persistent headache remains doping. Although we are now light years from the systemic, EPO-fuelled era of the 1990s and early Noughties, there are still regular controversies which result in reputational damage.
Some of these controversies relate to historic issues – witness the ongoing medical tribunal of Dr Richard Freeman regarding a package of testosterone delivered to British Cycling headquarters in 2011, allegedly for the purposes of doping a rider – some current; Operation Aderlass, for instance, an Austrian police sting which started in Nordic skiing earlier this year and has spread its tentacles to other sports including cycling.
But it is not just the issues of doping which gives cycling’s administrators, teams and players headaches. The lopsided playing field, the lack of commercial sustainability which sees smaller domestic and even WorldTour teams regularly go bust, the unhealthy influence of ASO, which owns the Tour, the Vuelta a España and various other races, the lack of gender equality. There’s plenty of work to do.
It’s Olympic year so many would automatically assume the Olympic road race or track sprint finals. And they will undoubtedly be worth watching, particularly the road races in Tokyo which feature an insane amount of climbing and are likely to be run in sweltering conditions.
But after the most open Tour de France in years last summer, the hottest ticket of 2020 has to be July’s Tour. Team Ineos found the race much harder to control last year, partly due to the fact that Froome was missing and everyone had to shuffle up one spot in the team hierarchy, partly due to the fact that other teams such as Jumbo-Visma, Mitchelton-Scott and Deceuninck-Quick Step had strengthened.
With Froome set to return from a career-threatening injury in an attempt to win a record equalling fifth maillot jaune, and Thomas and Bernal also keen to add to their solitary titles, the leadership contest at Ineos promises to be a fascinating one. Whether that will ultimately make them stronger or more vulnerable remains to be seen.
Bahrain-McLaren will be the most improved team. The arrival of Rod Ellingworth at Bahrain-Merida – rebranded as Bahrain-McLaren – is a fascinating one.
As a coach, Ellingworth was responsible for the rise of countless British juniors, from Mark Cavendish to Geraint Thomas to Ed Clancy. At Team Sky, he was Sir Dave Brailsford’s lieutenant, a link between the riders and management. Now running a team in his own right, Ellingworth has signed up some big names including Cavendish himself, Mikel Landa and Wout Poels, he has brought in Roger Hammond, the former national champion and Dimension Data sporting director, as performance manager, he has brought in Tim Harris, a familiar face in the sport, as development director.
It will be fascinating to see how a figure once described by Cavendish as “the most undervalued person in British Cycling” gets on as the main man; without Brailsford above him, without that Team Sky family around him. It will be fascinating to see how he leverages the McLaren partnership; how he uses their resources and facilities and marketing and technical know-how. Although it is likely to take some time for it to come to fruition – Ellingworth says he wants to “build the culture over the next 12-18 months” it would be a surprise if they didn’t take a significant step forward this term.