Why was Mark Cavendish riding with Lance Armstrong this week?
Thus, Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, George Hincapie and Johan Bruyneel enter a bar in Majorca…
It may be setting up a not particularly funny joke about the past and present of professional cycling, but it’s a premise that has caused quite a bit of consternation among fans of the sport this week.
On Tuesday, we reported on the Liveblog that Britain’s two most recognizable road cyclists had joined Armstrong, Hincapie and Ullrich – along with a dozen paying customers – on a series of group rides on the Balearic Islands.
This end-of-season gathering – including, it’s safe to say, a veritable who’s who of the last thirty years of professional cycling – was part of the 2022 edition of ‘The Move Mallorca’, an offshoot of the holidays in bike from the seven-time Tour de France winner’s longtime (stress, old) podcast, where guests pay over $30,000 to ride a few wheels behind Big Tex and his pals on the Sa Calobra.
It is currently unknown if Wiggins and Cavendish have been paid for their participation in the American’s group races (Wiggins is a frequent presence in Mallorca, so he may have just completed a few extra training kilometers on his former pre-Tour ground), but Armstrong spared few opportunities to paste the faces of British riders on his social media.
However, there was one photo in particular that seemed to flip a switch in a certain section of the online cycling community.
The image shows host Armstrong sharing a laugh on an outdoor patio with what makes up a Fantasy Cycling podcast guest list and who he describes as “dear friends”: the 1997 Tour winner and the eternal The Texan’s rival in France, Jan Ullrich, longtime American Postal teammate and friend George Hincapie, and the man once considered one of the company’s greatest sporting directors, Johan Bruyneel.
And Cavendish and Wiggins, of course.
“This photo makes me a little sick,” wrote one Twitter user upon seeing the image from the Buddy podcast recording.
“Even if just from a PR perspective, that’s surely something you’re NOT doing,” said another.
“I guess optics don’t matter when you’re retired (or nearly retired)…”
“I’m disappointed that Cav is here…As an active professional cyclist, I don’t think he should be around people who have lifetime UCI bans…”
Meanwhile, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins cycled in Mallorca with an American who hasn’t won the Tour de France seven times. I guess optics don’t matter when you’re retired (or nearly retired). pic.twitter.com/bTIeXrIREY
—Matt Butler (@mattbutler503) September 27, 2022
While Bruyneel, Hincapie and Ullrich (the subject of Daniel Friebe’s excellent recent biography) also remain synonymous with the EPO generation of the 1990s and 2000s, it is Armstrong’s status as persona non grata – and the Wiggins and Cavendish’s apparent willingness to be associated with his unmistakably tainted ‘brand’ – which appeared to most onlookers irritated at their Majorcan shindig.
(In fact, the troubled Ullrich was and remains a more popular figure among cycling fans than his American counterpart, despite his own dramatic fall from grace in 2006 – an intriguing paradox that perhaps highlights the sport’s uneasy relationship with its troubled past. Do we ostracize certain riders because they are cheaters or because we didn’t like them so much to begin with?)
In any case, that Cavendish and Wiggins appeared alongside the banned Texan shouldn’t come as a surprise though. The Manx sprinter has featured on The Move once before and has cited Armstrong’s personal support and encouragement for his budding career during the latter’s ill-fated comeback in 2009 and 2010.
In his first autobiography At Speed, published in 2013 – the same year Armstrong confessed his doping to Oprah Winfrey – 2011 world champion Cavendish described the 1993 rainbow jersey winner as “bewitching” and, while in describing the “bitterness” of learning that it was all a carefully orchestrated charade, acknowledged that the “race to expose it sometimes felt like a witch hunt”.
Meanwhile, Wiggins’ attitude towards Armstrong has oscillated wildly over the course of his career, ranging from praising his 2009 Tour podium rival in his first autobiography to calling him a “liar bastard” following his doping confession in 2013, before defending his “human side”. ” and including it in his book of ‘Icons’ in 2018.
This human side can be seen in the 46-minute episode of The Move (once you ignore Armstrong’s relentless attempts to move certain products).
Armstrong jokes that he can take Wiggins’ knighthood away after a generally busy night on the tiles, Hincapie and Cavendish reminisce about their time together on the High Road, and a healthy-looking Ullrich gives Remco Evenepoel invaluable advice and rich in experience (“Not too many parties in the winter!”) Meanwhile, Armstrong casually drops some allegations (the 2012 Olympic road race, anyone?) and makes Cavendish feel uncomfortable, asking the kind of questions about the 2023 Tour and this record that, under normal circumstances, would result in a blunt, sweary retort to an unsuspecting reporter.
But whatever the human aspect of appearing on a podcast and going for a ride with a friend on vacation, it’s the optics that matter most.
While the retired Wiggins has his high profile punditry gig with Eurosport-GCN, Cavendish – after all – is still a professional bike racer.
So what does Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl think of their outgoing driver who walks around Mallorca with the sport’s most controversial figure and their sponsors’ logos etched into his chest? Contacted by the Independent, the Belgian team did not wish to comment on the affair and, in any case, it will not be their problem for long.
Also, what do potential Cavendish suitors think of the “special relationship” between the Briton and the American?
The former world champion is heavily linked with a stint at French team Pro Conti B&B Hotels (slated for a financial boost from new title sponsor Carrefour), a team that relies on a wildcard invitation to the Tour de France. Yes, the same Tour that unceremoniously crossed paths with Cavendish’s riding partner in the record books.
Perhaps none of this will matter, and the cycling world will move on to the next salacious gossip (Remco to Ineos anyone?) before Armstrong can even flash his ‘The Look’ detractors.
Either way, the condemnation of Wiggins and Cavendish’s switch to Mallorca (and even Armstrong’s continued status as persona non grata in a sport littered with remnants of its not-so-distant past) highlights the ongoing struggle. of cycling – nearly a decade after Oprah – to reconcile the apparent need for clean, black-and-white narratives with its overwhelmingly gray reality.