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KLODEN’S COMMEUPPENCE?

It looks as if Andreas Klöden’s trip to the University of Freiburg for a blood transfusion on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France is about to catch up with him.

It’s been rumoured for months but an independent commission has determined that Klöden was one of three T-Mobile riders to travel to Freiburg from Strasbourg on Sunday, July 2, 2006, for a transfusion of his own blood, which had been removed earlier and stored.

That Sunday was the second day of a Tour that had kicked off under the big black storm clouds of Operacion Puerto.

Two of Klöden’s team-mates, Jan Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla, plus several riders from other teams had been sent home.

I was in Strasbourg and remember the stifling feeling of suspicion and disgust that hung in the air. The riders, whether they had something to hide or were entirely innocent, were tetchy. Bad-tempered at answering questions about doping. Angry at having to participate in a sport that was not only being examined by critical eyes but that was also being openly mocked.

For the first time I witnessed riders being heckled by fans. Okay, so it wasn’t terrible abuse, but there were comments that cut to the bone, such as: “Are you all on it?”

It was an amazing weekend. My abiding memories will be of those team mechanics and soigneurs who roped off areas around the team buses and who kept reporters away with angry stares. I remember the sight and sound of camper van doors slamming shut, riders avoiding questions and pushing past TV cameramen. I recall the hotel lobbies that were taken over and used as temporary newsrooms by scores of journalists. There was a gallows sense of humour, as well as anger and despair, plus a genuine doubt that the race would even reach Paris.

And yet, amid all this suspicion, with all the rumours flying about, with the French press demanding “Enough” Klöden and co are said to have travelled an hour or so by car to Freiburg to undergo a technique they knew was banned.

That beggars belief. The sport was crumbling around them. Their team-mates had been stopped in their tracks, and they were carrying on as usual, off to get a refill of fresh blood to help them with their job.

Did they just switch off their minds? Did they really feel there was no option? Or was it like the law of the jungle. One of their number had been picked off behind them, but don’t look back, just keep running. This is what we do.

Of course the key issue was that a blood transfusion of your own blood was, and still is, very difficult to detect. Only by studying the age of the cells can any unusual patterns be spotted, and even then it would have to be a blatant case of manipulation to prove foul play, so presumably they felt they could refresh their blood with impunity.

That’s actually the saddest indictment of all, that despite the scandal, they carried on as usual.

NIGHTMARE TEAM

The T-Mobile team selected for the 2006 Tour de France was a beauty, wasn’t it.

Jan Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla were forced to pull out of the race before the start. They had signed a document issued by T-Mobile’s management guaranteeing they were not involved in the Operacion Puerto scandal that had blown up in Spain a few weeks earlier.

When the documents were released, both Ullrich and Sevilla were named. They were fired by the team and retired. Ullrich had the good grace to stay retired. Sevilla evaded suspension, sneaked back in and is racing with impunity for Rock Racing.

But what of the seven who actually started the Tour?

Serguei Gonchar – Suspended by the new Bob Stapleton-run T-Mobile in May 2007 after registering irregular blood values. Had his contract terminated in June 2007.

Matthias Kessler – Joined Astana in 2007, but was sacked mid-season after testing positive for excessive testosterone levels.

Eddy Mazzoleni – Also joined Astana in 2007. Was implicated in an Italian anti-doping investigation. Finished third overall in the Giro d’Italia before being suspended for two years for doping in April 2008.

Patrik Sinkewitz – Tested positive for testosterone during the 2007 Tour de France. Later in the year he admitted to using EPO and blood transfusions.

Andreas Kloden – Denied repeatedly that he had travelled to Freiburg with Sinkewitz and Kessler to have a blood transfusion of his own blood, removed earlier and stored, on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France. The publication of a report investigating doping practices at Freiburg claims he had done. Currently on Astana’s books, but facing a ban,

The other two members of the team were Giuseppe Guerini and Michael Rogers.

Ullrich T-Mobile
As the storm clouds gathered over Strasbourg, Ullrich and the T-Mobile team took to the stage at the pre-Tour de France presentation. The next day, Ullrich went home.

CALIFORNIA OR ITALIA

Next year the Giro d’Italia will clash with the Tour of California, which is about as much of an affront to Angelo Zomegnan as serving him a plate of soggy lukewarm pasta, pomodoro out of a jar and pre-grated Parmesan from a packet.

The Giro organiser has reportedly paid Lance Armstrong handsomely to grace the centenary edition with his presence, and although the race organisers made an almighty balls up of actually allowing American viewers to watch the race, Zomegnan has made no secret of his wish to internationalise the event.

America was a big part of that strategy. Now he finds he’ll be competing with the Tour of California for riders. With so many American sponsors and bike manufacturers in the peloton, the field on the West Coast may well be stronger.

And what will happen to the Tour of Catalonia, the third oldest surviving stage race in the world. It almost went to the wall this year, until local government funding saved it. It could be curtains next year.

WHO’S THE BOSS

While Chris Horner stayed alongside Levi Leipheimer to the bitter end of today’s fifth stage, you have to wonder why three others flocked around Lance Armstrong as he got dropped.

Armstrong came into the race talking down his overall chances. Leipheimer was the leader.

So why did Janez Brajkovic, Jose Luis Rubiera and Daniel Navarro stay with Armstrong?

With Armstrong assembling his own team for 2010, were they making sure they did their bit for The Boss?

WIGGINS ON FIRE

Bradley Wiggins was undoubtedly the star performer in the Dolomites, staying with the leaders until the final three kilometres of Wednesday’s stage, beating Damiano Cunego and Lance Armstrong on a serious climb.

Perhaps now people will stop dismissing him as ‘just a track rider’. He’s a classy bike rider, and for the first time in his career, he’s been able to concentrate on training for road races this year.

VALVERDE AND BOONEN

Whatever the misgivings about the UCI’s continued silence on the biological passport, the riders keep falling like flies.

This week Alejandro Valverde was banned from competing in Italy for two years, and Tom Boonen faces suspension after testing positive for cocaine again.

Valverde’s case is far from cut and dried, but there is a feeling that were he not Spanish, he would have been facing the consequences long ago. He came through the ranks at Kelme (team doctor Eufamiano Fuentes), he was alleged to be a client and the blood in bag 18 was said to be his. The code name Valv.Piti has dogged him for three years.

To give the UCI some credit, they have been hassling for movement on Valverde’s case for a long while. They tried to bar him from the World Championships in Stuttgart and they tried to force the Spanish to investigate him.

Valverde will appeal to CAS and if the Italians are correct when they say the blood in bag 18 matches the rider’s, it should be an open and shut case. There is, of course, plenty of latitude for legal semantics yet.

As for Boonen, he deserves an element of support and understanding.

What is disgraceful is the framework of apologists that exists around him and in the sport in general. It means that his increasingly obvious problems have been ignored for as long as he was useful to his team.

Despite increasingly obvious signs that he was struggling to cope with his lifestyle, he was pressed into action as if nothing was wrong. The media, sponsors and fans expected. Whether he delivered results or fell short, he faced the spotlight. It must have become suffocating.

What cannot be excused though, is last May’s whitewash, when Boonen and Quick Step evaded the issue of his positive test for cocaine, cooking up a load of nonsense about spiked drinks. It turns out there was a previous out-of-competition positive for cocaine and ecstacy. And after his latest misdemeanour he said that excessive drinking caused him to make bad decisions.

So last year’s comments were lies, then? Boonen takes coke when he’s had a lot to drink. His drink wasn’t spiked?

Whatever his personal problems, he needs time away from cycling to solve them. Permanently, if need be, because cycling, with all it’s doping problems, does not need the added issue of recreational drug-taking.

PROVING THE CRITICS WRONG?

I never buy the argument that a victory for a rider returning from suspension is one in the eye for the critics.

Alessandro Petacchi’s two stage wins and a day in the pink jersey at the Giro were hailed as the sprinter’s return to the top. Victory proved those who criticised him wrong.

Really?

The Petacchi case highlighted the issue of therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) for asthma drugs and the thin grey line that divides medication and performance-enhancement.

Petacchi was permitted to use a certain amount of salbutamol to treat his asthma. After the 11th stage of the Giro d’Italia in 2007, the third of five wins for him in that race, he registered 1352 ng/ml of salbutamol. An athlete with a TUE is permitted 1000 ng/ml.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted that Petacchi did not get a performance-enhancing benefit, but it did strip him of his five Giro stage wins and suspended him. Milram, his team at the time, also terminated his contract.

My abiding memory of Petacchi is seeing him in the post-race press conference at Paris-Tours two years ago. He’d just won a Classic but he sunk down in his seat, pulled his baseball cap low over his face and mumbled monosyllabic responses to questions about his victory.

Now he’s back, and this week he says he still counts those five 2007 Giro stage wins among his tally.

And why not? After all, he’s over his problems now. He just wants to concentrate on the racing. The euphemisms just keep on coming.

BRITISH BATTLE HOTTING UP

After an indifferent start to the season, Russell Downing has hit form, with victory in the Chas Messenger Trophy followed by his third win in the Lincoln Grand Prix.

It means his CandiTV team has closed the gap on the season’s most impressive squad so far, Halfords Bikehut, in Cycling Weekly’s Super Team Challenge competition.

And things will really hot up in the coming weeks with the start of the Tour Series of criteriums, which kick off in Milton Keynes on May 21.

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009
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.