Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by ASO/Alex Broadway/SWpix.com
It is said that in the fog of war, disorder rules the battlefield. And, while the Russian invasion of Ukraine becomes ever more horrific, the bike races carry on, as some riders distance themselves from the nation of their birth and others claim to have been unfairly victimised.
Sitting on the couch watching a bike race while simultaneously doomscrolling about casualty levels in Ukraine is a very weird place to be. Most of us are safe, distanced from the chaos and terror, watching a race unfold in a beautiful bucolic landscape. It is a moment of escapism, contrasting sharply with what is happening elsewhere in Europe. It is also profoundly unnerving.
It’s very clear that Vladimir Putin has long abused and manipulated the power of sport, but as the anti-war protests grow, it is also clear that — if stakeholders find their voice — sport can bring people together. Now, sponsors, riders, promoters and administrators are being forced to take sides.
The tedious old cliche that so many have clung to, for so long – that sport and politics don’t mix – has been definitively washed away over the past week. If at first, most of those working in sport hoped they could somehow avoid getting involved, the past week has shown that they can’t. In fact, precisely because sport is so globalised and so culturally significant, the reverse is true. They have to find their voice and take a stand.
These past seven days been a reckoning of sorts for the anonymous men in federation blazers whose obsequious glad-handing of Putin — and others who have infringed human rights and democratic freedoms — has long cast a dark and shameful shadow over their sport.
Slowly however, as the pressure grew on the governing bodies to act, the sports administration machine swung into action. In cycling, the governing body, the UCI, took it’s lead from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), eventually coming down on some, but not all, Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams, and banning them, while simultaneously saying that Russian and Belarusian members of UCI bodies could “continue to serve” if they had not violated the “Olympic Truce,” seemingly a direct reference to Russian UCI management committee member Igor Makarov.
British Cycling however, was among those dismayed that the Russian berth on the UCI’s management committee, and also the Belarusian seat at the European Cycling Union, remained occupied.
“…it is simply wrong that Russian and Belarusian officials will be permitted places of honour and influence at the highest level of our sport while our colleagues in Ukraine live in fear for their homes and their families,” British Cycling said.
But what of the riders? Where do they stand? We know that some, such as Russian riders Pavel Sivakov and Alexsandr Vlasov, have said they want the war stopped, while other non-Russians, such as Sivakov’s Ineos Grenadiers team mate, Tao Geoghegan Hart, have condemned the Russian invasion.
Sivakov, in fact, of Russian parentage, has now hurriedly changed nationality from Russian to French. “I was born in Italy and moved to France when I was one year old,” he said. “France is where I grew up and was educated and where I fell in love with riding my bike which led me to racing. It feels like my home.”
The Russian sponsored team, Gazprom-Rusvelo meanwhile, which has non-Russians on its roster, has attacked the UCI’s ruling against them and bemoaned their exclusion from racing.
“I would like to know why the Russian riders of the German or British teams can continue to race. It is a measure that feeds hatred, in an environment that is used to mixing nationalities,” the team’s Italian rider Alessandro Fedeli told his national media earlier this week.
In some ways, he’s right. His team, while Russian-sponsored, has a cosmopolitan mix of nationalities. He’s not Russian, yet by virtue of the branding on his jersey, he’s prevented from racing, while Sivakov and Bora-Hansgrohe’s Vlasov race on. Disorder rules the battlefield.
It’s an odd situation, though, that this multi-national, globalised sport finds itself in, divided on blurred nationalistic lines. Road racing, after all, unconstrained by stadiums or velodromes, is the most people-friendly of all sports, arguably the most international and the most unifying of all. It is not tribal, like football or rugby, and, based on a cross-borders culture of camaraderie and shared experience, is not divided by nationalism.
There are also numerous examples of cycling being a manifestation of peace and unity. Think of Italian icon Gino Bartali’s role during the Second World War in saving the lives of Jewish people from the Nazis by transporting counterfeit identity papers. Cycling’s ability to transcend borders is so great that there even used to be a race called the Peace Race — the ‘Tour de France of the East’ — designed to defuse post-war tensions in the old Eastern Bloc.
More recently, during the pandemic, the modern Tour de France became a manifestation of community spirit and collaboration, during dark and frightening times. Cycling has often played that role, so perhaps the continuity of racing, as a sport symbolising entente cordiale and unification, rather than division, can have a meaningful place.
Even UCI President David Lappartient, when he announced that the 2025 World Championships were to be staged in Rwanda, 30 years after the horrors of the genocide, emphasised the cultural importance of cycling to Rwanda’s regeneration, calling the award of the Worlds to the African country a “symbol of hope.”Meanwhile the races keep coming, thick and fast.
In the next few days we have Strade Bianche, Paris-Nice, and Tirreno-Adriatico, among others. It’s exciting to watch, even if that enjoyment is hollowed out by what is happening a couple of thousand kilometres away. But when sport and political activism are combined, powerful statements can be made on a global stage. The past teaches us that. Yet it does still feel that the riders and teams have failed to fully realise the power that they have, because only a handful of names have put their heads above the parapet and spoken out.
Of course, a post on social media, or a flag fluttering on a team car, will not stop Putin’s tanks or rockets, but it is not an empty gesture. Influential athletes adding their public condemnation while demonstrating solidarity will further fuel the sense of outrage that is sweeping Europe and increase respect for a sport that, for over a century, has maintained a strong bond with the ordinary people who flock to the roadside.