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TICK-TOCK

Professional cycling is like a minefield, but for some reason the UCI seems reluctant to play the role of bomb disposal experts, preferring instead to tip-toe forwards hoping that nothing blows up in their faces.

Wherever you go you can hear a ticking sound, whether it’s the farcical situation surrounding Alejandro Valverde or the list of alleged clients of the Austrian Humanplasma blood lab, which all got conveniently hushed up last year.

Bernhard Kohl is the UCI’s worst nightmare, but cycling must ask him what he knows and listen to what he has to say. The Austrian clearly has further revelations to make. He could name names because he travelled to the Vienna blood bank, was assigned a nickname (in Kohl’s case ‘Shrek’ – how apt), paid his money (reported to be 2,000 euros a time) and gave his blood for later use.

He knows the other athletes who used the services of the Humanplasma centre too.

And if Kohl knows, then key people towards the top of cycling’s hierarchy must know too.

So what’s better for the future health of cycling? To sit down and hope it never comes out?

Kohl’s initial revelations are actually extremely demoralising, but because of their extremity, he’s already being written off as a lunatic.

Following cycling feels like playing a game of snakes and ladders that has been rigged in such a way as to make it impossible to win.

It’s been said before, but the UCI needs to show strong, decisive leadership in the face of Kohl’s revelations, because they way he’s been speaking makes it sound like everyone’s at it and that the biological passport is an easy-to-fool mockery.

I was going to ask what the UCI was doing, but then a statement arrived.

It read: “The UCI rejects recent statements by Bernhard Kohl, but does not wish to react publicly, considering it completely inappropriate to respond to a rider who has admitted having cheated throughout his career.

“The UCI’s commitment in the battle against doping, as well as its numerous initiatives on the subject, cannot be called into question by allegations made by an individual who has been excluded from cycling precisely because of the world of sport’s determination to fight as hard as possible against the type of behaviour of which Bernhard Kohl has been found guilty.

“While awaiting any information from the rider that would be genuinely constructive in fighting against ever more sophisticated doping, the UCI must nevertheless state that the blood values communicated to Bernhard Kohl’s team – in accordance with the established procedure and with the athlete’s consent – date back to the initial data collection stage of setting up the biological passport.

“Any questioning of the effectiveness of the biological passport makes no sense as the rider’s individual profile had not yet been fully drawn up. It was thus not possible for Bernhard Kohl to draw any valid conclusions on the effectiveness of the biological passport at that stage. For this reason, his statements are completely incorrect.

“The analyses of riders’ profiles, which during recent months have indicated a certain number of anomalies and confirmed the results of several traditional anti-doping controls, have now reached the final stage and will very soon allow disciplinary proceedings to be initiated.”

It reads nicely enough but it doesn’t do anything to reassure us that the centenary edition of the Giro d’Italia can avoid being tainted by the Humanplasma scandal.

Tick-tock-tick-tock.

THE PUNDITRY GAME

I know it’s unseemly to gloat, but it turns out that Cycling Weekly’s pre-race Giro d’Italia prediction was right about one thing.

We know we overlooked Danilo Di Luca (call it wishful thinking) and Carlos Sastre, but we suggested that Levi Leipheimer might struggle with the style of climbing required in the Giro d’Italia.

It’s not just the steepness, it’s the uneven gradient that causes Leipheimer, and riders like him, such difficulty. The roads require frequent changes of pace, whereas Leipheimer is a rhythm climber.

He lost time at Blockhaus and it would have been worse had the Giro organisers not neutred the stage by trimming off the final five-and-a-half kilometres, the toughest section.

Leipheimer’s team-mate Lance Armstrong took exception to the prediction, but that’s the nature of predictions. Some turn out to be right, others hopelessly wrong. In the event, we actually gave Leipheimer too much credit, predicting he’d finish third overall, because he has not ridden well in the mountains.

Astana’s tactics have been bizarre in the last few days, and Armstrong has looked increasingly a crotchety old man, seeing menace in his own shadow.

For a man who was ‘working for Levi’, he left him to his own devices not once but twice.

The anger in the Italian media expressed after the shambolic Milan stage has given way to ridicule, which is far worse. Armstrong stopped speaking to the press, preferring to give his comments direct via Twitter, so some media stopped reporting his Twitterings.

Now some Italian journalists have nicknamed him ‘Osama’ because he only communicates by video messages.

Having watched a couple, and been forced to stifle yawns, I’m staggered he earns so much on the public speaking circuit.

GIVE CAV A BREAK

As expected, Mark Cavendish withdrew from the Giro d’Italia after his third stage win. And as expected people were queuing up to criticise him for the decision.

To be fair, Cavendish is not slow to stick his head above the parapet, so he can expect to be on the receiving end of the odd ricochet. By criticising Garmin for their team time trial obsession, he must have known he’d get a bit of flak for withdrawing from the Giro before two weeks were done.

But it still seems strange to me how loose a grip on the realities of professional cycling some of the critics have.

Cavendish is a sprinter, and he’s the fastest in the world. His job is to win as many races as possible and, since the start of this year, he has made no secret of the fact that he wants to challenge for the green jersey at the Tour de France. In order to do that, he has to remain as fresh as possible.

It’s easy to forget Cavendish is still only 24. Slogging through a brutally hard final week of the Giro could do more harm than good at this stage of his career. Completing two grand tours in a season, on top of a full spring, is asking a lot of a relatively young rider. Columbia were exercising common sense by pulling him out of the race.

It’s not without precedent either. Mario Cipollini never once completed the Tour de France, but won 12 stages.

Perhaps if the Giro’s points competition was structured in favour of the sprinters, Cavendish may have stayed, but I doubt it.

I bet the Giro organisers are livid that Cavendish has not hung around to suffer through the mountains in the grupetto, because that would certainly have added value to the race.

IS THIS THE TOUGHEST SPORTIVE?

I learned this week that one-hour criteriums and 45-mile road races are not the ideal preparation for a three-day, 320-mile cyclo-sportive.

If there is a tougher sportive in the UK than the Tour of Wessex, I’d like to hear about it.

The countryside was spectacular, the routes demanding and the level of organisation exemplary. In three days of cycling there was not a single misplaced sign, and we were often passed by the motorcycle outriders from the National Escort Group, who were keeping everything moving.

As a challenge, it was up there with last year’s 150-mile Paris-Roubaix sportive, the main difference being that you had to get up each day and do it all again.

Saving the hardest day for last is almost cruel. I was cursing the organiser on each ascent of the Quantock hills, and especially on Dunkery Beacon which my colleague Edward Pickering summed up nicely. “It does nothing except sit there, like a stupid great big hill.”

A TREND IS EMERGING

Stefan Wyman has announced he is leaving his position as team manager of Nicole Cooke’s Vision 1 team.

Wyman owned and ran the team when it was Swift Racing and he handed over the ownership to Cooke in the winter.

Wyman remained as manager until today, when he announced he was leaving, but hoped to set up another women’s team in time for next season.

Last year Cooke rode for Halfords Bikehut and when the team came to an end shed little light on what had happened. She told Cycle Sport to “ask Dave Brailsford”.

Either way, a trend is emerging, and that is one that suggests Cooke is not the easiest to work with. She is a fantastic talent and it’s easy to assume that her abrasive personality is part of what makes her such a phenomenal champion.

But it is slightly odd that instead of fending off a list of top teams falling over themselves to sign her, the world and Olympic champion set up her own team. Odder still is that it finds itself without a manager after just a few months of the season.

CONVICTS OF THE ROAD

Love the story about the French prisoners who will be riding their own version of the Tour de France.

Almost 200 prisoners will start the 2,300km (1,400 mile) in Lille on Thursday (June 4) and will visit 17 towns, all of which have a jail, on their way to Paris.

They’ll be sleeping in hotels, and they won’t be allowed to go on the attack in a bid to win their freedom as they’ll be accompanied by 124 prison guards.

It gives a new meaning to the old phrase ‘convicts of the road’ which was coined by a French journalist to describe the hardships endured by the early Tour riders.

It’s great that the French authorities are using an epic cycling trip as part of the rehabilitation process for some offenders. It brought to mind a TV show called Bad Lads Army, in which a bunch of young criminals were subjected to 1950s army conditions in order to straighten them out.

Just one question: I wonder how many of the prisoners will be serving time for drug offences?

Before anyone writes in, it’s just a joke!

TOO QUICK, QUICK STEP

Less amusing is the news that Tom Boonen is to be pressed back into action for the Dauphiné Libéré next month.

It’s only a few weeks since news of his second cocaine positive test in as many years was made public.

He was suspended by Quick Step but the team has lifted the ban just in time for the Dauphiné and a challenge to any decision barring him from the Tour de France.

Does anyone else not think this is extremely cynical?

At a time when a man has admitted he has problems, he’s being encouraged back onto his bike for the general benefit of his employer and sponsor.

But where’s the benefit for Tom Boonen? Instead of a summer spent under the microscope, with the pressure building inside his head, Boonen needs time away to deal with his issues.

It’s just that his team needs its most valuable asset on show, and it was sadly obvious which need would come first.

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009
May 20: The Milan go-slow
May 13: Klöden’s commeuppance?
May 6: The end of Astana?
April 29: An open letter to Pat McQuaid
Find links to all previous editions of The Wednesday Comment here.

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