Blazin' Saddles: What next after brilliantly bankrupt Bergen World Championships?
Where do Peter Sagan, Bergen, the world championships – and cycling in general – go following the Slovakian sensation's third rainbow stripes salvo? Our cycling blogger Felix Lowe discusses the debt of the Norwegian Cycling Federation, Sagan's chances at Innsbruck and a possible Worlds in Africa now David Lappartient's at the UCI helm.
In a period of sudden change in the sport, one thing remains a constant: Peter Sagan will wear the rainbow jersey for a third successive year in 2018.
Tony Martin's time trial reign appears to be over; Norway's cycling coffers are empty – and some; Brian Cookson has been given the boot by the UCI; even Wanty-Groupe Gobert are winning races like there's no tomorrow. But amid these bafflingly choppy waters, Sagan stood firm and shone like a beacon last Sunday – even if he went under the radar for the previous six hours and 25 minutes.
Alaphilippe wins… in another Worlds
In the alternate reality which was – for two baffling kilometres – a reality for most of us TV viewers, Julian Alaphilippe held on to win the Worlds road race in Bergen. He ditched Gianni Moscon like an empty bidon and the Italian – unable to be dragged back by his team car this time round – was left to be gobbled up by trade team-mate Vasil Kiryienka. Try as he might, the Belorussian couldn't reel in Alaphlippe, with the plucky Frenchman just doing enough to hold off the peloton as Ben Swift settled for silver.
That's how it went, right?
You see (or perhaps you don't, for that was the crux of the problem), we were all none the wiser because of that inopportune power cut.
Mount Floyen, which days earlier had wowed us with a zinger of an uphill time trial that saw Tom Dumoulin trounce his rivals, was the main culprit, going from hero to zero quicker than – well, quicker than Peter Sagan on the 2017 Tour de France.
Some kind of electrical surge caused the black out and cut the relay from the antenna on the summit of the climb – forcing spectators to play a guessing game until the riders emerged for the final kilometre.
And when they did emerge, it wasn't Alaphilippe but instead Denmark's Soren Kragh Andersen – who else? – who led the streamlined pack, quickly to be reeled in before Sagan powered through to deny home favourite Alexander Kristoff gold thanks to a superior bike lunge.
Curiously, Moscon was nowhere to be seen. If ever there was time to get a sticky bidon-assisted advantage over your rivals it clearly would have been when the incriminating live TV images were down… But perhaps Gianni was simply looking for his raincoat, which he appeared to have lost.
So, victory went to the man who said he was ill and who spent the whole race hiding in the pack, not once getting picked up on the cameras. You have to take your chapeau off to Sagan, though. For when we did eventually get to watch aerial images of those lost final kilometres it was possible to make out how expertly Sagan marshalled those final kilometres, kept himself on the front and neutralised attacks before making his move.
Bankrupt Norway's bubble burst
That's not to say there wasn't a hangover in Bergen on Monday. Indeed, news quickly emerged that the organisers had somewhat bungled their budgeting in proportions of Diane Abbott laughability. Putting aside €16.7m for the event but ending up forking out €23.6m meant that the balance sheet of the Norwegian Cycling Federation was about as balanced as Bradley Wiggins on a wet Giro descent.
"The receipts haven't been tallied yet, and we'll have to see what's come in, but I'm worried," Harald Tiedemann Hansen, president of the federation, told local newspaper Bergens Tidende (BT). "I can't rule out there will be a loss," he said, no doubt looking at the €7m hole in his pocket.
Perhaps the shoddy finances explain that power cut: maybe there just weren't enough coins to put in the electricity metre.
Despite facing bankruptcy, Hansen said he had "no regrets" about hosting the event – with Bergen putting on a superb show in stark contrast with the sterile offering from Doha one year earlier. (Let’s be honest – the racing was far from vintage, but the support was sensational and the course a cracker, while the men's time trial, with its stretch of cobbles and will-they-won't-they red bike-change carpet ahead of the final climb, was, oxymoronically, a terrific TT.)
"I had never dreamed it would be so spectacular or that there would be such huge crowds of local residents turning out," Hansen said, before no doubt creating a Kickstarter campaign to help retrospectively pick up the tab.
"It's demanding to host a World Championships but the people have been fantastic. I hope those who have any influence can see that this has been a fantastic promotion of Bergen, of Western Norway and the whole country, and that they won't let the cycling federation bleed afterwards," he said, violin in hand.
Worlds in Africa?
Norway's fudging of their finances was a timely reminder that putting on cycling spectaculars is not cheap – especially one with the UCI's name on it. Indeed, the Worlds are the UCI's biggest pay day and cycling's governing body charge the host a reported €7m licensing fee (tellingly, the same amount that Norway's federation now find themselves owing).
So, it was intriguing to see the newly elected UCI President David Lappartient fight his campaign against the departed Brian Cookson by attracting the votes of African delegates with a pledge to bring the Worlds to their continent. With Innsbruck and Yorkshire lined up for the next two editions, and Venice allegedly leading the race for 2020, the earliest possible African Worlds could be 2021.
But who, pray, would pick up the bill? Supposing money was no issue, nations such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and Eritrea would no doubt put on a good show and ensure even bigger crowds than Bergen or Yorkshire. Then there's the prospect of Kenya attracting Chris Froome for a throw of the rainbow dice before he retires – or a Worlds featuring, fittingly, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
Perhaps the UCI could use some of the money it trousered from Qatar last year to subsidise the event – although such magnanimity is highly unlikely. The safe bet is that we'll see Lappartient fight his second term on exactly the same promise, for a Worlds in Africa won't be happening any time soon.
Unless China foot the bill. After all, the Chinese are responsible for much of the new infrastructure – most notably the roads – in Africa, and it's not like we're going to see any Worlds in China any time soon.
Four for Sagan in Innsbruck?
Back to what we know is certain – and that's the hilly nature of next year's Worlds road race course in Innsbruck, which was provisionally announced during the Bergen bonanza and drew inevitable comparisons with a famous Swiss chocolate bar.
Although a second – and more official-looking – course looked ever so slightly different…
Either way, this should produce a race very different to that in Bergen, with a rolling opening third ending with a quite savage climb and then followed by six laps of what must be the Patsch ascent (8km at 5.7%). The final lap, however, sees the addition of the punchy Gramart climb (2.9km at 10.9%) which should whittle things down more than Mount Salmon in Bergen.
And what better way to gauge the difficulty of the course than ask someone who's just been out there with his bicycle?
So, on paper (or, at least, on Twitter), it seems inconceivable that the likes of Sagan, Kristoff and Michael Matthews will still be in the mix to contest the win at the finish in Innsbruck – but you never know. "Nothing is impossible," Sagan told Gazzetta this week when quizzed about the possibility of a fourth successive crown. "With the right preparation," he added, ominously, "I believe I could have a chance. We'll see."
Then again, with the right financial preparation, the Norwegian Cycling Federation may have had a chance not to lose €7m - but look how that turned out.
With a total vertical gain of 4,670 metres (around 2,000 metres more than in Bergen), it seems like the 2018 Worlds are more likely to be won by a rider of a climbing persuasion than a sprint-friendly all-rounder like Sagan. Then again, Greg Van Avermaet – a rider not too dissimilar to Sagan – won the Olympic road race in Rio on a course that also boasted more than 4,500 metres of climbing, so perhaps Four-tune still favours brave Sagan.
Regardless, we won't be seeing Sagan display his new/old rainbow stripes again this season because the 27-year-old is calling it a day. No matter: with the way Wanty-Groupe Gobert are riding – with three wins in as many days in Italy – Sagan wouldn't stand a chance in the Giro dell'Emilia or Il Lombardia, the final monument of the season, anyway. And nor would Sonny Colbrelli. Some things never change, eh?
Peter Sagan celebrates his third World Championships winGetty Images