Mark Cavendish will replace OmegaPharma-Quick Step team-mate Tom Boonen in the Tour of Qatar, February 3 to 8, according to L’Equipe. The four-time winner is forced to miss due to an elbow injury.

“I feel sorry for Eddy Merckx and the race organization there. Everybody knows how much I like this race, but I really can’t make it,” Boonen said in a press release. “First, I need to recover 100 per cent physically and then start training again to see how things go. I will look into the best schedule to prepare for the Classics at the end of next week, and then I will decide with the team which will be the best approach.”

Boonen injured his elbow in a mountain bike crash earlier this month. He remains in the hospital after surgery to take care of a septic infection.

The Belgian team has yet to confirm Cavendish will race. If he does, he will face sprinters John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) and Andrea Guardini (Astana). He won two stages last year racing for team Sky.

Nibali faster in time trial

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) improved in time trials over the winter and placed fourth yesterday in Argentina’s Tour de San Luis. Tejay Van Garderen finished 19 seconds back and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) 43 seconds.

“I’m happy even if in the second half, win the tail-wind, I would have gone faster if I had a 55 [ring],” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“This result is encouraging, but I still have to work if I want to find my ideal saddle position. We’ll make some component modifications and this will require a little bit of work.

“I knew I was going well, but I didn’t think I was going so strongly.”

He covered 19.2 kilometres in 22-28 minutes. Winner Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEDGE) rode in 22-14.

Last year, Nibali rode 1.1kmh slower on nearly the same course. He switched from team Liquigas-Cannondale over the winter and worked closely with Astana’s bike supplier, Specialized.

Nibali won the race in 2010 before going on to place third in the Giro d’Italia and win the Vuelta a España. This year, the Italian aims to win his home race.

Operación Puerto trial begins

Hearings stemming from the Operación Puerto doping investigation begin on Monday in Madrid, with Ivan Basso, Alberto Contador and Michele Scarponi due to testify.

Eufemiano Fuentes, doctor and head of the doping ring, will be first to testify. The court dismissed his assistant, Merino Batres, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Contador, who raced in Liberty Seguros at the time, will testify on February 5.

Spanish Guardia Civil police seized nearly 200-coded blood bags in raids on Fuentes’ offices in 2006 and began the far-reaching investigation known as Operación Puerto.

Riders were kicked out of the Tour de France that year. Basso, Scarponi, Jan Ullrich, Alejandro Valverde and others eventually served doping suspensions. Reports say others are involved, including football teams, but Spain has moved slowly over the last seven years.

World Anti-Doping Agency’s director general, David Howman told the Telegraph, “We have been banging our heads against a brick wall to get access to the evidence that was gathered.

“It is not only frustrating and disappointing but it also means that many athletes who might be dirty have been allowed to compete.”

Ferrari comments and disappears

Michele Ferrari commented in an article on Lance Armstrong’s doping practices and quickly removed it from his 53×12.com website.

“I think Lance is wrong. If his way of taking testosterone was the one reported by several team-mates (micro doses diluted in olive oil, under the tongue), this could not have more than a placebo effect,” he said in his article.

“EPO and auto-transfusions, always in the manner reported by team-mates (micro-doses of EPO and one to two units of blood) correspond to an increase of Hb-mass by five to 10 percent for an endurance athlete weighing 75kg, who has nine to 10 litres of blood.

“Such increments of Hb-mass correspond to performance improvements in the order of three to six percent… Equal increases in Hb-mass can be achieved with appropriate periods of altitude training.”

The article disappeared shortly afterwards. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) issued Ferrari a global life-time ban last year during its investigation of Armstrong.

Armstrong admitted to doping two weeks ago after USADA banned him for life and stripped him of his results, including all seven Tour de France wins.