Watching the time trial world championship here in Stuttgart, you'd be forgiven for thinking that German people had never liked cycling, let alone been so infatuated that seven-figure crowds were the norm whenever the pro peloton stopped by in the late nineties and early noughties.
Yesterday it was more like four figures. OK, the weather wasn't great, and OK, it was only the time trial, but the muted reaction of the public spoke volumes about the direction the love affair which began with Jan Ullrich's Tour win in 1997 has taken in recent months. Ever since the international cycling circus - and yes, I do mean circus - arrived in Stuttgart this week, cycling and the Germans have shown all the mutual affinity of a boxer and a punchball.
Fabian Cancellara's successful title defence was a masterpiece of force and finesse, but you only had to sit in on the Swiss rider's post-race press conference to realise that the racing now seems like a sideshow to the politics. The UCI president Pat McQuaid laid the blame squarely at the door of individuals like president of the Stuttgart organizing committee, Susanne Eisenmann, for "undermining their own event with politics", before he proceeded to do exactly the same thing himself.
In short, McQuaid thinks that Eisenmann is trying to use doping and in particular Paolo Bettini's failure to sign the UCI's "Commitment to a New Cycling" as a pretext for not coughing up the full fee she and city were supposed to pay to host the Worlds. Apparently Eisenmann and Co. owe the UCI around 150,000 euros. McQuaid also accused Eisenmann of using the stand-off to "further her own political career", and of almost literally taking world champion Paolo Bettini hostage. Having himself condemned Bettini earlier in the day, McQuaid later insinuated that Eisenmann was behind the Stuttgart police's decision to call the Italian in for questioning yesterday [see here].
I'll spare you the other tedious details as, to be frank, they're not worth knowing. All I took away from a brace of press conferences yesterday - one on the Eisenmann fiasco, another on the fiasco to end all fiascos a.k.a the ProTour - is that McQuaid's biggest weakness is as a diplomat. "Diplomacy is thinking twice before saying nothing", someone once said. The UCI's president said an awful lot but appeared to have thought very little.
There should have been no press conference about Eisenmann, just as there should never have been a "New Commitment to a New Cycling" which, McQuaid half-admitted, was almost meaningless. Both moves smacked of a desperation to use the media, but minus the savoir faire. In times as dangerous as these, the UCI should be resolving its petty quarrels well out of the public glare, mindful that one thing the media is certain to do is seize on any incoherency. And incoherency is one thing the ProTour has specialized in ever since its inauguration - witness ProTour tsar Alain Rumpf's statement yesterday that: "The Tour de France is on the ProTour calendar but not in the ProTour."
No, McQuaid and company should play it very cool for a while. If professional cycling is currently damaged goods, and it certainly looks that way, then it's the UCI's damaged goods, and their job to sell it. Frankly, you only needed to do a headcount at the finish-line of the time trial to appreciate that, after the events of this summer, the world cycling championships isn't the marketable sporting bonanza which Stuttgart signed up for in 2003. That agreement, incidentally, was signed just after a certain Jan Ullrich's mano a mano with Lance Armstrong had lit up the German summertime.
Eisenmann and friends aren't blameless of course. McQuaid is right when he says that the Germans' anti-doping drive is now bordering on evangelism, but again, what's worrying is not so much what they're doing as how they're doing it. Dialogue and common sense seem conspicuous through their absence. Either that or they're being subordinated to a need for political or financial gain - and both sides might just be as guilty as each other in this respect.
See, now I've gone and forgotten to mention that next year's ProTour starts at the Tour Down Under...