Monday, March 4, 2024
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The VV View: The Sutton Saga


The ‘Sutton Saga’ has me yet again scratching my head about cycle sport and this nation’s attitude towards it.

Great rides by Ben Swift and Steve Cummings get hardly a mention but Saturday’s Guardian sports section screams; “The Sutton Saga: 10 questions after a week of crisis.”

There’s one question missing though – ‘in a week’s time, who’ll give a rat’s backside?

Sutton Saga
Shane Sutton’s behaviour, character and effectiveness have all been discussed in detail this week.

Scandal and controversy are what the UK press want from cycling, they don’t really care about who wins what – unless it’s The Olympics or Le Tour.

The banter on a building site is infinitely more blood-curdling. I’m not going to repeat Sutton’s alleged remarks but they strike me as typical Aussie trackside banter/rough humour of which no one would even think twice about at the time – but isolate the words, put them under a magnifying glass in the cold light of day, entirely out of context, and they take on a different complexion.

Those who don’t understand that and are shocked/offended/mortified by them best not go near a construction site, comedy club or a cabin at a Six Day race – the banter there is infinitely more blood curdling.

If we’re outraged by a lady being referred to as a ‘Sheila’ then make sure you have smelling salts to hand when everything from your partner/lover’s sexual preferences to necrophilia are dealt with in graphic detail on the site/in the club/in the cabin.

A few years back Graeme Obree ‘came out’ as gay just before the Berlin Six Day, which we were working at – we had six days of none-too subtle remarks about ‘you Scots’ and what we get up to.

We played up to the chat and understood it’s just part of the rough banter you get when young men are thrust together and have time on their hands to fill.

We could, of course have been grossly offended and reported the riders’ behaviour to someone.

I can’t think who but maybe we should have written to The Guardian about that Alex Rasmussen character and the awful things he was saying to us.

It’s also a puzzle to me how events like Sutton’s fall from grace and Simon Yates’ misfortune are savoured by so-called ‘supporters’ of cycling rather than despaired upon as the PR disasters they are for our wonderful sport.

A sport which delivered a magnificent Classics season to us – albeit tinged with sadness at the loss of two young men in the prime of their lives.

Shane Sutton
Jess Varnish has fallen out of favour with some in British Cycling. Photo©Martin Williamson

The ‘Sutton Saga’ has also been used to give life to a number of those old chestnuts regarding ladies’ cycling.

Jess Varnish refers to herself as a ‘professional’ athlete.

I have to differ; if she was a real ‘professional’ she could shrug her shoulders at her dismissal, speak to her agent and see about getting a ride for another team.

She can’t do that – not least because it would be impossible for her to make a living as a truly professional female track cyclist – she’s actually a ‘state sponsored amateur.’

Just like those Poles and Russians who used to knock lumps out of everyone else in the Milk Race and Peace Race in the 70’s; it’s not commercial sponsors trying to sell frames/clothing/energy drinks to sportive riders whom athletes have to give account.

It’s Governments they’re riding for and rest assured that whilst national sports bodies may well make the PC noises about sexism, racism, disablism (yes, there’s such a word even though the spell check on my computer doesn’t think so) and all the other ‘isms’, all the ‘Feds’ are concerned about is national ‘honour,’ medals from Rio and continued funding.

Sutton Saga
Emma Pooley argues that Sky should have begun a women’s team at the same time as their men’s ProTour squad. Photo©the guardian

Then there’s ‘parity’ – at last count in men’s cycling there were;

  • 18 World Tour Teams
  • 23 Pro Continental Teams
    (three in the Americas, 19 in Europe and one in Oceania)
  • 143 Continental teams
    (one in Africa, 21 in the Americas, 25 in Asia, 92 in Europe and four in Oceania)

… giving a total of 184 teams.

There are currently 40 Ladies teams registered, that’s 22% of the number of men’s teams so to talk of ‘parity’ is nonsense.

Emma Pooley tells us that the award of Sir David Brailsford’s knighthood should have been looked at more closely because he didn’t set up a Sky ladies team.

Whatever you may think of the man, he promised a British Tour de France winner within five years and delivered.

There’s no ladies’ equivalent event and hasn’t been for a long time – and you best believe that if ASO thought they could make money from such a race then there would be one.

Sutton Saga
Peter Kennaugh during his Commonwealth Games break. Photo©Martin Williamson

As Pete Kennaugh said before he was no doubt told to retract his Tweet, ‘The Ladies Giro is hardly going to attract public attention in the UK.’

He was absolutely right, if you’re trying to lure a major sponsor into cycle sport their first question will be; ‘would the team get to ride in the Tour de France?’ if Ben Swift running second on the Via Roma isn’t newsworthy then what chance is there for a ladies’ Tour of Italy?

There’s no minimum wage for men’s Continental teams, nor can there be.

‘Minimum wage’ is the next one; there’s no minimum wage for men’s Continental teams, nor can there be – bikes, clothing and nutrition products are one thing, hard cash is another. Impose a minimum wage on the Continental teams and many would fold.

The same argument applies even more so to the ladies’ teams – impose a minimum wage and team management will hold their hands up and say; ‘we’re out!

The UCI know that and have said as much publicly.

The existing ladies’ teams are to be praised rather than criticised for the way they run; they provide bikes, clothing and most important of all, a race programme for not much in the way of reward.

For every Lizzie, Marianne and Kirsten there are a dozen girls just ‘getting round’ attracting no interviews from the magazines or websites, winning very little and giving sponsors little return.

Many of the personnel involved in ladies’ sport are in it purely because they want to be and for love of the sport – not for financial reward.

And it’s not just the ladies who have problems with getting paid; the Gazzetta Dello Sport a few months back ran a big article on how young riders approaching Italian Pro Continental teams have to bring a ‘dowry’ in the shape of a sponsor to the team.

This has long been the case in Belgium where a wealthy uncle with a car dealership or friend who owns a bar will have to put money into the team in exchange for a logo on the jersey in order to get a youngster into a team – and that’s only at Continental level.

We could give examples of similar situations with Scottish riders but would be breaking trust in doing so – but believe us, it’s common practice in the sport.

Still, the official enquiries will get to the bottom of it all come September by which times no one will remember or care about; ‘what Shane said.’

The Olympics will be past and if we do well in the cycling medal table it’ll just confirm that we didn’t really need that nasty Aussie – or, as is more likely, the Gold Rush slows to a trickle and it’ll ‘all be Sutton’s fault!’

Sutton Saga
Hugh Cathy has been winning in Asturias – who knew? Photo©Equipo Caja Rural

And as I waded through two full pages of Shane/Yates/Yorkshire in both the Observer and Sunday Telegraph I couldn’t help but think it might have been nice if a few of those expert cycling journalists – who are so concerned about our sport and it’s future – had mentioned young Hugh Carthy’s excellent win in Stage One of the Vuelta Asturias on Saturday.

But like Don Henley says; ‘We need dirty laundry…