Road cycling sits uncomfortably with Olympics

With the World Road Cycling Championships taking place in Denmark this week, I was reminded of a comment from former pro Brian Holm, now directeur sportif at British sprinter Mark Cavendish’s HTC-Highroad team.

“You can’t compare anything to the World Championships,” he said.

“If you can ride for a year in the rainbow jersey, it means everything.

“It’s probably nice to be Olympic champion. Like winning Gent-Wevelgem or something.”

Why is there more prestige attached to winning an event that occurs every year – as Cavendish is tipped to do in Sunday’s road race – than there is in winning an event far more widely recognised by the sporting public, which happens probably three times in a sporting lifetime?

Firstly, this is likely to have something to do with history. The Olympics have only been open to professionals since 1992. Before then, a young rider either had one shot at the Games before “turning pro”, or laboured on a level below the top pros. In contrast, the rainbow jersey has been available to professionals since 1927, when Alfredo Binda won in Germany.

The Olympic title is arguably gaining more cache. Spain’s Samuel Sanchez tends to wear a golden helmet, seen most obviously when he won a stage of the Tour de France in Luz-Ardiden this summer.

But the Tour de France itself is another reason why the Olympics has to take a back seat. Cavendish has said in the past that a single stage win on the Tour is more important than Olympic gold, although he tends to take a more diplomatic approach these days.

If Cavendish is to prioritise both the Tour and the Olympic road race next year he will be expected to sprint down the Champs-Elysees on 22 July 2012, and The Mall in London six days later. Perhaps London organisers could have factored this into their planning further.

Meanwhile, Emma Pooley put in an impressive ride on a course that did not suit her strengths to take bronze in the women’s time trial at the Worlds on Tuesday.

Women’s road cycling falls into a awkward gap in public and media consciousness, between obvious Olympic sports – including women’s track cycling and far less popular sports – which gan exposure because of their association with the Games, and more mainstream sports that stand on their own merit.

The sporting public seems keen to know more about the exploits of Pooley, Lizzie Armitstead and rivals like Judith Arndt of Germany but – with Arndt’s HTC-Highroad team and the Women’s Cycling website the exceptions – the infrastructure to provide the information doesn’t seem to have caught up yet.

Update 1545 BST, Tuesday 27 July – Some interesting further watching and reading after an amazing week for Great Britain in Copenhagen:

Mark Cavendish makes clear how important the first British male road race rainbow jersey in 46 years is to him, and that the Olympic road race will be a completely different challenge.

Geraint Thomas says he is likely to miss the 2012 Tour de France to focus on helping to defend GB’s Olympic team pursuit title on the track.

Bradley Wiggins emphasises how much winning world time trial silver means, compared to his three Olympic track titles and says he will focus on 2012 Tour as the Olympics are “kind of ‘been there, done that”

And the Guardian’s Richard Williams rounds up some of the issues affecting Cavendish, Team Sky and Great Britain, including the possibility that David Millar’s Olympic ban for doping could still be overturned, about which more here perhaps later this week.

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