Snow relation: cycling’s many ties to the Winter Olympics
It’s a question asked by cyclo-cross aficionados about once every four years: why isn’t cross in the Winter Olympics? The answer is resolutely simple, as INRNG underlined in a blog post last week.
Yes, the cyclo-cross season does run throughout the northern hemisphere winter, but under Rule 6 of the Olympic Charter, only those sports practised on snow or ice are considered for inclusion in the Games. Cyclo-cross takes places in varying conditions, most commonly mud. Occasionally there’s snow and ice but it’s far from requisite.
A more valid question then is: why is cyclo-cross not included in the Summer Olympics? Plenty of other sports that generally take place across winter –rugby, football, elite indoor track cycling- are also included there. But it’s a non-starter really.
With variants of road, track, BMX and mountain biking included, cycling’s administrators already struggle to convince the International Olympic Committee that it hasn’t already got too many two-wheeled events going on. Hence the in-out of the Madison, the culling of the kilometre, the faff around with the omnium. And why national cyclo-cross teams often remain chronically under-funded in comparison to their Olympic medal chasing counterparts.
If they really wanted one, a more appropriate cycle-sport for the Winter Olympics would be ice bike racing. But this is an underground, renegade sport with little organised structure. It’s not something that the UCI are going to push anytime soon.
But cycling’s association with the Winter Olympics doesn’t stop there. In many ways, cyclists and cycling fans can identify with winter sports better than most others.
Many of them, for instance, take place in the great outdoors, are shaped by natural terrain and take on familiar race formats – whether massed start or against the clock. We’re not talking about figure skating here.
At the Summer Olympics, cycling is almost alone in its obsession with aerodynamics. You see track runners giving it a nod and hydrodynamic parallels in the pool, but it’s in the speed disciplines on the Winter Olympic pistes, rinks and luge runs that cycling finds some true bedfellows in battling air resistance.
Because of this, winter sports and cycling disciplines have borrowed technology and style from one another over the years. Historically it was skiing – which enjoyed the riches from catching the imagination of the jet-set far sooner than the peasant sport of cycling – that led the way. For example, Assos founder Toni Maier first turned to lycra for cycling shorts after seeing it in use by the Swiss national ski team.
Then there’s the aero handlebar which mimics the downhill ski racer’s tuck. Its invention is credited to former US national ski team coach Boone Lennon – and there’s a neat tie-in that Greg Lemond who popularised it, only got into cycling as off-season training for freestyle skiing. Given its original manufacturer, Scott, are a brand at least as prominent on the slopes as they are in peloton, it’s surprising that the term ‘ski bar’ never stuck (‘tri-bar’ did however, consequence of its populularity in the multisport community).
There are several other companies with a foot in both worlds – literally so in the case of French company Look, who introduced game-changing ski bindings long before applying their know-how to pioneer the first popular clipless pedal.
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Plenty of athletes have taken a similar path to Lemond from skiing to cycling. Tyler Hamilton for instance. The most prominent in recent years is Primož Roglič, a former junior ski jump world champion who descended off the Col Du Galibier to win stage 17 of the 2017 Tour de France into Serre Chevalier.
This neatly brings us on to the shared geographies of the sports. You don’t need telling that one of cycling’s most famous climbs, Alpe d’Huez (above), is just one example of what is essentially an access road to a ski resort. During the winter, much of the climb up to the Col du Tourmalet lies under ski runs. Once snowed over you’d barely know it was there, but you can maybe trace some of it along blue level cat tracks.
During the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, the Alpine skiing took place at Sestriere. It was here in 1999 that Lance Armstrong asserted himself as a Tour de France contender, where Bjarne Riis set out his stall for an overall win on a truncated stage of the 1996 Tour, and where in the 1992 race Claudio Chiappucci imitated Fausto Coppi (pictured below) 40 years before him with an epic solo breakaway across the Alps. We don’t even need to mention the Giro’s visits.
Across the border in France itself, seven distinct locations from the venue list of the 1992 Albertville Games have played host to Tour stage starts and finishes. These include La Plagne, where Stephen Roche famously clawed back at Pedro Delgardo to save his 1987 race.
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While it is inevitably Alpine skiing which has the closest connection in the mountains so mythologised by road cycling (we’re not going to get into mountain biking’s many links with winter sports), it’s probably cross-country skiing that draws the closest parallels with the discipline in terms of character. Both are amongst the most arduous of endurance sports, the effort dictated by terrain.
Climbs are an undignified grovel, descents an opportunity to get in a tuck, or recover. And though speeds are slower in cross-country skiing, there’s even a resemblance in race tactics.
Such is its physiological demand, cyclists who live in the right places may very well use Nordic skiing as winter training. It was recently reported that Thibaut Pinaut’s first race of 2018 would be the 56km Transjurassienne ski event in Eastern France. He finished 50th. Romain Bardet has also dabbled and, according to L’Equipe, dreamed of being a biathlete.
Because of their shared physical toughness, both cycling and cross-country skiing also have a shared association with doping. Just before the 2018 Winter Olympics kicked off, the Sunday Times published a story alleging multiple biological passport anomalies amongst the sports’ most successful athletes and a reluctance from the International Ski Federation (FIS) to act upon them. A Swiss based governing body; incriminating documents locked away in an office; independent expert analysis; David Walsh sticking his oar in. It all sounded painfully familiar.
The crossover of pundits between winter sports and cycling is not unusual. For years former world pursuit champion Hugh Porter commentated on not only the BBC’s track cycling, but also its Winter Olympic speed skating coverage. Now Simon Brotherton calls the speed skating, a man who for years has led the corporation’s cycling coverage on the radio.
The comparisons between lapping the rink and velodrome are obvious. The short track sprints have all the explosion and chaos of the Keirin, while the relays are like the Madison on steroids. On the longer 400m track, there are similarities with the individual pursuit – ostensibly it’s a timed event, but there are two riders going at the same time, with the potential to influence each other’s run. Racers warm up on gym bikes and wear helmets from Bont, Las and Louis Garneau – also outfits by the Québécois company. Hunter are another big name in speed-skating kit, a subsidiary that falls under the umbrella of cycling skinsuit specialists Bioracer.
Out on the toboggan run in Pyeongchang, the British skeleton team are stirring up turbulence with the kit technology they’ve imported from the cycling world. The latest incarnation of the revolutionary skinsuits that were used by the British track squad at the last three Olympics, are custom made to fit each competitor and feature trip strips that offer an advantageous disturbance in airflow.
The Guardian speculates that riders can expect to benefit by as much as a second during each of their four skeleton runs and, in echoes of the uproar around Sky’s skinsuits at the 2017 Tour de France, not all their rivals are happy.
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The controversial suits are the result of a collaboration between the English Institute of Sport and Northamptonshire company TotalSim. The latter’s managing director, Dr Rob Lewis, was a founder member of the Secret Squirrel Club that tested and developed far-out technologies and ideas in pursuit of marginal gains for the British cycling team. So too was Chris Boardman, who reportedly declined approaches by the British bobsleigh team in the early 1990s after they’d seen the precision with which he held the pursuiter’s line on the velodrome.
Back on the topic of athletes switching disciplines brings us again to speed skating, of which there seems to have been disproportionate crossover with cycling.
British team sprinter Danni Khan made the direct transition from the short track on ice to the fast-twitch events on the velodrome. Ellen Van Dijk also made a similar move from ice to the boards, picking up World Cup wins in the pursuit events and a world title in the scratch, before committing to the road and building up a palmarès that includes wins in the Tour of Flanders and the world time trial championships.
The USA’s Eric Heiden was amongst the most established of speed-skaters before he made the switch. The winner of an unprecedented five golds in the Lake Placid Winter Olympics of 1980 (over distances that ranged from 500m to 10,00m), road cycling was essentially a retirement career (he would later become an orthopaedic surgeon) that saw him ride the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France for 7-Eleven. The most successful racer in both worlds though, has to be Clara Hughes (above, centre) whose career history is a muddle of both speed skating and cycling glory.
One of Canada’s most successful Olympians, she won bronze in the time trial and road race at Atlanta 1996, another in the 5000m skating at Salt Lake City 2002 before upping it to gold (along with a team silver) at the Turin Winter Olympics. She got one more skating gold in Vancover 2010 before returning to cycling and taking a fifth place in the individual time trial in London.
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Hughes is one of just five competitors to win medals at both Summer and Winter Olympics. Her compatriot, Georgia Simmerling, was hoping to put her name on that list at Pyeongchang. Having won a team pursuit bronze at Rio in 2016, she was a medal hopeful for the rough and tumble ski cross but broke both of her legs in a world cup round in January.
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