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Opinion: Sky and cycling's landed gentry

By:
Daniel Friebe
Published:
January 08, 2010, 20:53 GMT,
Updated:
January 09, 2010, 11:39 GMT

I can only imagine the other ProTour team managers' reactions when photos, video clips and every other multimedia life form started beaming out of Millbank Tower and Team Sky's official launch at around lunchtime on Monday.

"The revolution will not be televised", rapped Gil Scott Heron in 1970. Well, in the brave new world which as of Monday greeted professional cycling, not only was it televised – it was Twittered, Facebooked and video-blogged, too.

"Slick" a lot of people called it. That, plus "terrifying" and "sobering" are adjectives that probably figured heavily in the internal dialogue of Brailsford's 17 ProTour counterparts. The difference between him and them, of course, is that no-one else has the world's second biggest media conglomerate performing domestique's duties, even if they do have the dollars.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't remember Katusha, whose budget apparently exceeds Sky's, ever registering more than a gentle ripple compared to splash, nay tsunami of excitement, caused by Sky on Monday.

For years followers of English football have talked about a "Big Four" of Premier League Clubs. The anointed quartet are Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Until recently, no such clearly distinguished elite existed in professional cycling, but while Sky have their sights set on all kinds of grandiose legacies beyond the pro peloton, their greatest contribution within its confines may be as a catalyst for a similar gentrification of cyclng. Or perhaps that should be "ghettoization".

What I mean is that the cyclisme à deux vitesses that the French have harping on about for years is now becoming a reality. But it has nothing to do with doping and everything to do with presentation, professionalism and, well, exactly what we saw on Monday.

Saxo Bank, Columbia and Garmin were the first to raise the bar, then came Cervélo, then RadioShack, and now we have Sky threatening to disappear into their own private stratosphere. Meanwhile, the French, Italian and Belgian teams that still embody cycling's former quirks, charms and foibles, can only stand and crane their necks.

I am talking, of course, primarily about what goes on off the road, but the divide in cultures, more than money, will also be evident when the wheels start turning in a couple of weeks time.

"None of this glitz matters when the racing starts," one Italian, industry bigwig told me today; David Millar said something similar to Cyclingnews a few weeks ago.

The romantics will hope that they're right. But for how long? Because while Brailsford maligns the lack of any formalized permit to pay for instant success, he can console himself with all of the coaches, knowledge and technology that aren't under restriction or pre-existing contracts. And with all that, inevitably, will come commodities that his millions may not buy but will certainly facilitate: motivation, confidence, job-satisfaction and, ultimately – probably – success on the bike.

Meanwhile, the former strongholds of professional cycling continue to wither. Team bosses in France, Belgium, Spain and Italy sometimes appear to select their backroom staff according to the same criteria that most of us would consider more suitable for picking friends on Facebook.

France has promising coaches and a brilliant generation of young riders on the cusp of the pro ranks – but also ProTour teams that inspire no faith in their ability to reap and nurture an outstanding crop.

Four months on from his Under 23 World Championship win, Romain Sicard's move to a Basque team is still a national embarrassment. But one, admittedly heinous, oversight can be excused. Ça arrive, as they say.

What would be far more disturbing is if, in three or four years time, we're wondering why La Française des Jeux have never teased the best out of Anthony Roux or the new enfant prodige, Thibault Pinot. Or if Pierre Rolland of BBox Bouygues Telecom has become the latest, faded Great White Hope.

The outlook in Italy is, if anything, even worse. Earlier this week, La Repubblica published the shocking claim by junior rider Eugenio Bani that his positive test for the pregnancy hormone hCG could only be explained by the weekly injections of unlabeled products his team managers assured him and his team-mates were vitamins.

It was then pointed out that Diego Ulissi, a double junior world champion who is about to turn pro with Lampre, used to ride for the same team. But Ulissi never tested positive – and, in any case, doping is just one area in which the Italians are stuck in the dark ages. Liquigas, for example, could do with looking closely at why, for years, the best Italian amateurs have routinely turned pro in their team, and for years, disappeared without trace within one or two seasons.

This year, it's Lampre who have gambled on four of Italy's best youngsters, but can they reverse the trend? And if they don't, will it be due the looming supremacy of Sky, HTC-Columbia and the rest of the new upper crust, a lack of expertise on the part of their managers, or more simply to the fact that their annual budget would cause barely a crease in Dave Brailsford's back pocket?

What I'm not suggesting for a second is that Sky's arrival is bad for professional cycling. On the contrary. The response to Monday's launch has, by all accounts, been phenomenal, highlighting the popular appetite that no doubt motivated the Murdoch empire to make road cycling their next conquest in the first place.

What I am saying is that, as was always likely to happen, Sky have already set in motion a chain reaction that will transform professional cycling as we know it. There will be victims along the way, as well as cynics and those who hark back to the sport's more homespun former life – but there will also be no going back. Because, to quote Scott Heron again, the revolution is here.

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