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MILAN PROTESTS

The go-slow in Milan on Sunday backfired on the riders in a way they perhaps hadn’t expected.

Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and Danilo Di Luca all issued apologies of some sort or other on the rest day, while maintaining their initial point that the Milan circuit had been unsafe.

But they under-estimated the anger of the fans and media. The Italian press was particularly scathing on Monday, singling out Lance Armstrong for some lacerating criticism. He was accused of being old, tired, frightened and only in Italy on holiday.

Part of the problem was the riders were already edgy after a couple of dangerous finishes and so when they saw the lack of barriers, the parked cars and the tram lines, they decided they would protest.

Whether or not the course was too dangerous will never be settled one way or the other. For every Mario Cipollini who says it was fine, there’s a Lance Armstrong who says it was not. Perhaps it was a circuit fit for 100 riders, but not 190. Perhaps the cobbles, tramlines and street furniture added to the danger and were the wrong side of acceptable.

There was the odd parked car, which was unforgivable of the organisers, and long stretches were not lined with barriers, meaning that spectators and pedestrians could cross the course in front of the race.

But the go-slow misjudged the mood of the public. For a start, people are beginning to have short fuses when it comes to the rights of riders, partly because it seems that too many of them assume it is their right to take drugs and transfuse blood at will without interference.

Denying the fans the race they came to see was a poor way to protest, particularly once they had negotiated a truce on awarding times for the stage.

The riders and teams couldn’t even decide what their actual gripe was or how they should tackle it.

Was it the Milan stage, or the cumulative effect of previous stages? If it is a problem with parked cars, will there be a protest at the next edition of Ghent-Wevelgem?

In the end the day was a shambles, the centenary Giro was badly let down, and no one emerged with any credit at all.

WHAT COUNTS AS ‘SAFE’

I saw a friend of mine, a club cyclist who does not follow the pro scene all that closely, on Monday, and he asked what had been going on in the Giro.

I filled him in a little, mentioning that the descent to Chiavenna in the rain on Friday had angered the riders.

He laughed and said: “They do realise that most bike races take place outdoors and if it rains the roads might get slippery? They should try racing on the roads in this country.”

The point he went on to make was that he felt too many professional riders assumed that it was their right to keep up on the descents. Descending is a skill and gaps obviously open up. Ground lost going downhill is seen as a weakness. The assumption is that once the group arrives at the summit, they’ll all make their way down to the bottom in one happy line. But you only have to watch the television coverage to know that is not the case. The riders push the boundaries, but it must be remembered they choose to go as fast as they go.

If it’s too dangerous, he argued, they could go slower. But, of course, they won’t go slower, because it’s a race, and they will take risks to keep up. Those risks are not the responsibility of the race organiser, they are for each rider to judge.

Safety should be a priority, of course, but there are certain things about cycle racing on the road that can never been wrapped in cotton wool. Descending at 70 kilometres an hour is risky. Tight corners, bad road surfaces and rain are all factors that can make bike racing more dangerous.

But they have been part of the sport for a century and, tragically, there have been some terrible accidents.

Fortunately Pedro Horrillo survived his terrible crash and no one is disputing it could have been a lot worse. The Spaniard’s awful fall down a 60-metre ravine was, no doubt, a stark reminder to his colleagues of the danger they confront.

No one is trying to say that descending in the mountains does not carry an element of danger. But to raise objections only when it rains, or when an accident occurs, is a bit one-eyed.

What’s the alternative? Scrap the mountain stages?

MAY 19, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 was not a glorious day for those who hope the sport shakes off the scandals and controversies of the past.

Danilo Di Luca, who was suspended for associating with a banned doctor, the infamous Carlo Santuccione, extended his lead in the Giro d’Italia. (Yes, yes, I know Santuccione was his family doctor, but it’s a bit like saying Doctor Crippen was your GP.)

There is no doubt Di Luca is an aggressive rider, and he is tactically astute too. He races the bike in a liberating manner that should be hailed as exciting, but the problem is, he has no credibility.

That is cycling’s continuing great tragedy. You want to believe in the sporting achievements, you really do, but when there is such an murky past, it’s very difficult.

It also can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that of the ten Giro d’Italia stages so far, five have been won by riders who have actually served suspensions for doping offences. Two for Alessandro Petacchi, two for Danilo Di Luca and one for Michele Scarponi.

That’s a heck of a ratio.

Meanwhile over in Spain, Old Bloodbags himself took the lead in the Tour of Catalonia. Alejandro Valverde wouldn’t be allowed to ride in Italy, because of the ban imposed on him by CONI, but it’s a different story in his home country, where it seems everyone is more than happy to look the other way and drown out the dissenting voices with seal-like applause.

A RIDERS’ UNION?

Lance Armstrong has issued more video messages than a desperate political party in the run-up to an election of late.

Towards the end of his video explaining the decision to protest in Milan, he makes the argument that the riders need a fully independent rider’s organisation to represent their concerns.

This ignores the fact that there already is one. The CPA. It’s even got a website, www.cpasite.org, and it’s president is a former team-mate of Armstrong’s, the Frenchman Cedric Vasseur.

According to the website, the main objective of the CPA is the defence and improvement of the riders’ status. The goal, it says, is to represent the riders’ point of view and defend their rights.

So what exactly is Armstrong calling for? Unless of course what he really means is that there isn’t independent representation for the riders run by him.

A TACK-LESS ACT

What is it about cycling and cyclists that has certain people frothing at the mouth at our temerity to dare use the roads.

At the weekend it appears one such person objected so violently to the idea of cyclists taking over the roads in his corner of Scotland for a whole day that he or she scattered carpet tacks across a section of the course.

The consequence was that there were dozens of punctures and a couple of crashes, and a lot of media coverage.

Unfortunately for the perpetrator, much of the media seemed to side with the cyclists, and wondered what sort of loony would do such a thing.

In a way, the protest may have had the opposite effect. Instead of rising up and agreeing with how outrageous it was that a bunch of cyclists could cause the roads to be closed to motor traffic for a day, the reaction has been very different.

Here was an event, which was enjoyed by hundreds of people, and raised money for charity, being disrupted by the dangerous, selfish actions of an idiot. Nice one, chump.

Yes, closing the roads for the Etape Caledonia sportive is controversial, because some local residents feel trapped for the day, unable to go about their usual Sunday routine.

But the positive side must surely be all the people and their money that flows into the local economy for the weekend?

And after all, it’s only for one day. Do people who live on the course of the London Marathon scatter the course with banana skins and engine oil on the morning of the event?

THE TOUR SERIES BEGINS

Tomorrow night, the Tour Series kicks off in Milton Keynes, and I’m looking forward to travelling up there to see what it’s all about.

I remember the Kellogg’s city centre criterium races in the 1980s. I remember watching them on Channel 4, and I remember travelling to watch a couple of the races too. That was followed by the Scottish Provident-sponsored series, which lasted until the early 1990s.

It was a great era for criterium racing, and the names from those days in the 1980s still live with me today. There was Malcolm Elliott, of course, and Mark Walsham, who rode for the brilliantly-named Percy Bilton squad. There was also Steve Joughin, Chris Walker, Mark Bell, who passed away recently. Tony Doyle would sometimes ride, ‘Super’ Sid Barras, was still going, then there were the Aussies, like Shane Sutton and Danny Clark.

The fact the races were on television meant that these names were familiar to the other kids at school. Perhaps not as familiar as Ian Rush, Glenn Hoddle and Kenny Dalglish, but they were known. I remember when one boy got a replica Raleigh-Banana bike for his birthday and everyone trooped up to the bike shed to have a look at it. Cycling really did have a significant profile back then.

Handled correctly, high-profile criterium racing in town centres will do a lot to boost the sport, but it all hinges on getting the local public in each town to get out and go and watch it live.

Sparse crowds will not generate an atmosphere, and it’ll show on television. The Tour Series organisers seem to have grasped the importance of this. Television coverage is handy, but without people at the events, the races will have all the appeal of a non-league football match to the public who tune in on Friday nights.

There has been some criticism over limiting the fields to ten five-man squads, but running it as a team competition is a good idea. The first three riders for each team count, so the squads will only be as strong as their third man.

So let’s hope the good people of Milton Keynes know about the event and are tempted to go and watch, giving the summer of crit racing a kick-start.

Because the future growth of the sport does not hinge on those already converted, it relies on winning over new fans. A fast, exciting criterium race is the perfect way to sell the appeal.

THE BRITISH REVOLUTION

Nine British men started the Giro d’Italia, which is a record, but did you know that 13 British women began the Tour de l’Aude?

It’s a remarkable leap in competitor numbers, and shows that British Cycling’s investment in women is paying off, particularly when you look at the average age of the riders.

Nicole Cooke may be world and Olympic champion, but the future looks so rosy you could imagine a number of contenders emerging in time for London 2012.

THE WESSEX LOOMS

This weekend, I’ll be down in the West Country, taking on the Tour of Wessex.

I admit I am a little daunted, but I feel I’ve prepared well. Over the last bank holiday I got three big rides in back-to-back so the effect of getting up on days two and three to do it all again will hopefully not be too much of a shock to the system.

I’ve heard all the horror stories about Dunkery Beacon, the hill in Exmoor that is the feature of the final day. Apparently it’s one in two for ten miles or something, and if you’re not careful you’ll actually topple backwards and your skin will turn itself inside out, such is its steepness.

I’ve also listened to the wise words of my colleague Edward Pickering, who hails from the West Country, and rode the event a few years ago. He pushed himself a bit too hard on the first two days and by the end of day three his legs were so bad, he could only walk down the stairs backwards.

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009
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.