PRUDHOMME?S WORD IS LAW

The Tour de France organisers continue to flex their muscles.

Considering the new, improved 23million euros a year deal with French television is it any wonder?

Tour boss Christian Prudhomme is keen to protect the French state television station?s investment as, privately, the broadcaster sought some guarantees that the race would not be plunged into controversy again this summer.

So it wasn?t a surprise to hear that they won?t be extending invitations without first considering the potential implications.

The last thing they want is to have to ask a team to leave the race, as they did Astana when Alexandre Vinokourov failed a dope test.

What was interesting, though, was that Prudhomme said he would not ban individual riders. Instead they would simply decline to invite entire teams.

Free from the UCI?s ProTour legislation there is nothing set in stone that says ASO must invite the top 18 teams.

UCI president Pat McQuaid reiterated that all 18 ProTour teams should be invited to the Tour and that any wildcards should be restricted to the 12 squads that have signed up to the biological passport scheme.

But ASO has stayed resolutely silent on this matter and is not about to be bullied over team selection. It seems Prudhomme and Patrice Clerc will use their own criteria to choose the teams that take part in their race.

It?s difficult to blame them for that after last year, either.

And that leaves Astana looking vulnerable. The name is so intrinsically linked to last year?s unedifying scandal and so many riders remain, the impression is of a light spring-clean rather than a root-and-branch operation. Prudhomme cannot forget that Astana damaged the Tour.

Then there is the Italian Olympic Committee?s on-going investigation into Operacion Puerto to confuse matters.

With the teams for the 2008 Tour due to be announced in the next three weeks, it leaves plenty of time for a protracted legal wrangling should Astana not be in the list.

At the end of the day, riding the Tour is not ? and should not ? be a right. If ASO, a private company, wants to exclude certain teams, it is perfectly entitled to do so.

The race is what counts, not the individuals who take part in it. A Tour without Astana or perhaps Caisse d?Epargne would survive perfectly happily. But a Tour with another scandal will be a disaster.

Prudhomme is correct to take whatever steps he deems necessary to safeguard his event.

BALANCED REPORTING?

The Belgian police popped round to Tom Boonen?s house last week.

They wanted to ask him about his friendship with cyclo-cross rider Tom Vannopen, according to reports.

Vannopen was being investigated for using cocaine, according to prosecutors. Boonen used to be one of Vanoppen?s training partners.

Again the information ended up being leaked to the press.

Knowing the Belgian police they probably popped round to meet Boonen and get an autograph.

But there is a wider issue. Far be it for me to suggest there was an impropriety in Het Laatste Nieuws? reporting of this incident but there do seem to be a remarkable number of damaging stories about cycling in that newspaper.

They rushed to print allegations against Patrick Lefevere last January.

Het Laatste Nieuws, the Brussels-based paper owned by De Persgroep, is the major rival of two titles owned by Corelio, another publishing company.

Corelio owns Het Nieuwsblad the sponsor and organiser of the Tour of Flanders and Het Volk the newspaper behind the opening spring classic of the season.

So next time there?s a thin puff piece masquerading as scandal printed by a Belgian paper and regurgitated by English-language websites, check out its origin.

Because it might just be in Het Laatste Nieuws? interests to sully the reputations of Belgium?s biggest bike races and racers.

MUST TRY HARDER

Sprinters, sprinters everywhere.

Six out of six stages at the Tour Down Under ended in bunch finishes, now Qatar is offering more of the same.

What?s the problem, it?s only January and these are glorified training races, right?

Well, in Qatar?s case yes, but the Tour Down Under has enjoyed a tremendous elevation in status without a similar rise in excitement. At least Qatar isn’t pretending to be something it isn’t.

Mind you, it’s not even the organiser’s fault ? after all, they weren’t going to turn down the UCI’s very generous offer of ProTour status were they?

Instead, the season kicks off to much fanfare and then a disappointing display of predictable racing.

If I want to see six bunch sprints in a row I?ll watch the ENECO Tour or the opening week of late 1990s Tour de France. But even the ENECO has a time trial and chucks in a hilly stage towards the end.

The Tour Down Under get an A for effort, an A+ for generating publicity but a D for unimaginative route planning. Next year, must try harder.

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