THE TUESDAY COMMENT
• Astana in the Giro
• Stripping Vino of his Tour stages. Why?
• A trip to the Chas Messenger
• Boris for London. Boris for cycling?
|READY FOR ASTANA-FEST 08?|
The fans of Astana and Johan Bruyneel may well rejoice at the chance to see Alberto Contador, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer race in one of the grand tours.
But the last thing the Giro needs is an Astana-led procession.
The last-minute change of heart by the Giro’s organiser, RCS, threatens the credibility of the race.
And, if we’re being honest, the credibility of the Giro doesn’t need another jolt.
The past two years have seen super-hard routes, back-loaded with insanely difficult mountain stages in the final week, descend into farce.
If it was a bit perplexing then, reflected on now, the 2006 race looks like a complete joke. Ivan Basso won it by more than nine minutes, exuding the aura of the greatest mountain climber ever born. Three weeks later he was prevented from starting the Tour de France when his links to Dr Eufamiano Fuentes were uncovered. Basso gave it the whole ‘I made a few plans to dope but didn’t actually do it’ line but nevertheless took his punishment without complaint.
Runner-up was a man they nicknamed the buffalo because he was a lumbering beast. Yet Jose Enrique Gutierrez – who rode for Phonak (stop sniggering at the back, it gets better) – managed to follow Basso over the mountains and finished second, albeit a distant second.
His name, too, was in Fuentes’ filofax of doom and he was ‘withdrawn from racing’ by Phonak. He wasn’t sacked or suspended, he was just handed the rough end of a catchy euphemism.
Phonak’s summer got worse when Floyd Landis failed a dope test at the Tour and the sponsor pulled out.
So the first two in the race had rather large question marks over them and third placed Gilberto Simoni was not slow in airing his concerns about them.
Last year, Danilo Di Luca, he of the child-like hormone values, won.
What? Don’t be so cynical. He just loves mineral water, drank loads of it to rehydrate and his hormones went all funny. These things can happen.
In the face of an investigation into Di Luca’s association with a banned doctor, Carlo Santuccione, the Liquigas rider was prevented from putting the seal on what would have been a second ProTour victory when he was stopped from riding the Tour of Lombardy.
Then he was banned for three months – a totally pointless gesture as it ran concurrently with the off-season, so unless Di Luca fancied a crack at the Six-Days or some cyclo-cross it was no punishment at all.
Liquigas did not renew his contract – odd considering they’ve now signed Basso. Di Luca found salvation at team LPR Brakes and will fancy his chances of the podium again, no doubt, despite Astana’s stellar squad catapulting into the line-up.
Angelo Zomegnan, the race organiser, insisted back in February that Astana’s exclusion had nothing to do with the team’s murky past.
Last year Astana’s Eddy Mazzoleni nearly made a monkey of the Giro. Ivan Basso’s brother-in-law got on the podium. It was his last professional result before being suspended as part of the Oil for Drugs investigation. He was given a two-year suspension but decided, at the age of 34, to retire.
It wasn’t that which irked Zomegnan. Instead he took exception to the fact that Bruyneel planned to send only Janez Brajkovic as the team leader. The 24-year-old Slovenian led the Vuelta briefly in 2006 and is touted as a future grand tour star.
Unimpressed, Zomegnan wanted at least one of the big three – Contador, Leipheimer or Kloden – to race. Now they’re all coming.
At the time Bruyneel touted Brajkovic as the probable Giro leader, Astana did not know their invite to the Tour de France was to be lost in the post. Permanently.
Since then the behind-the-scenes lobbying of the Giro organisers must have been powerful. For the small NGC team to give up its golden ticket, a considerable compensation package must have been offered. Or perhaps they were invited to Kazakhstan to ‘see the sights’ if you get what I mean.
Some may ask why both teams can’t race. Well, there are rules regarding the maximum size of a field in a grand tour and having a 23rd team would bust that. Also, all the hotels have been booked for months in advance. Finding room for another team at this late stage would be a logistical nightmare – far easier to swap one team for another.
As a spectacle, though, the last thing the Giro needs is an Astana-led dominance like the one we saw at the Dauphiné Libéré last year. Total domination of an event by one team or rider is not an attractive spectacle.
However, total dominance is not a given. Contador has recently had major dental surgery and was on holiday when the call came. Leipheimer travelled to Italy from the United States at the weekend. Only Kloden has been racing seriously, and he won the Tour of Romandie.
But don’t be mistaken. Astana will be ready. Bruyneel would not have discounted the possibility of a reprieve from the Giro and would have been planning accordingly. Astana’s big three may not be at their peak but they will be ready.
One thing is for sure. The Giro’s U-turn does not indicate that ASO is about to do the same.
As for the Giro, let’s hope that the race is a credible event and that questions about Operacion Puerto, Freiburg and the like do not cast a long and ugly shadow.
And what happened to the buffalo? Well, as foreign riders found their careers halted by Operacion Puerto, the Spaniards carried on regardless and Gutierrez found a team for 2007. LPR Brakes.
This year he found himself surplus to requirements and out of a job as LPR signed Di Luca. Funny how it all works, isn’t it.
|LEAVE RECORD BOOKS BLANK|
The Kazakh won the time trial at Albi in last year’s Tour and then a Pyrenean stage a couple of days later, before being booted out of the race after testing positive for a banned blood transfusion.
Don’t get me wrong, stripping Vino of those wins is the right thing to do, but what is to be gained from giving them to the runners up, other than more confusion and controversy?
Evans and Kirchen did not win those stages. They didn’t get to stand on the podium and wave to the crowd. They didn’t experience the winning feeling or raise the traditional glass of Champagne over dinner with their team-mates.
Their rolls of honour are not enriched by a Tour de France stage win – a victory that can add value to the next contract. Will any performance bonuses be paid in retrospect? Probably not.
Worse, and more insidious, is that both Evans and Kirchen will, inevitably, be asked for their reaction.
What, exactly, are they supposed to say? They won’t want to say: “Fantastic! I was the rightful winner and I am delighted to have won a Tour de France stage,” because that is probably not how they feel.
But anything less than an outright condemnation of Vinokourov will have the cynics raking over every word. “Ah, he didn’t condemn a cheat so he must feel a bit awkward about the whole thing.”
Cycling doesn’t need that kind of confusion to cope with as well. Strip the results and leave the record books blank.
Even in retrospectively altering its results, ASO has failed to be consistent. Last June Christian Prudhomme announced that Bjarne Riis had been stripped of his 1996 overall win.
I was at City Hall in London the day that news broke. Prudhomme had visited London as Major Ken Livingstone’s guest to promote the Tour de France coming to the city.
He was asked about Riis, who had confessed to doping to win the 1996 Tour.
Prudhomme explained that in the official records, Riis’ name would be removed and replaced with an asterisk.
Asked whether Riis’ stage win at Hautacam would also be asterisked, Prudhomme hummed and hawed. Asked if Riis’ seventh place in 1998 would also be asterisked, it became clear that this particular rule was going to be tricky to enforce consistently.
Frankly, if this policy were to continue, the Tour de France record books would be littered with asterisks.
Take Kirchen and Evans’ wins. Does it mean everyone moves up a place on those stages? What if lifting them one place had affected time bonuses or the points or king of the mountains competitions and altered the complexion of the race?
Surely the stronger message to dopers would be to erase their names from the books entirely and leave them blank. If you dope, win and get caught you will be wiped out of history. To my mind there was no winner of stage 13 in Albi, or stage 15 at Loudenvielle.
|PREMIER BRITISH CYCLING|
Given that the Archer Grand Prix fell by the wayside because of a lack of police support from the Thames Valley force, you could have been forgiven for worrying that the Chas Messenger would suffer the same fate.
However, the circuits, based on East Claydon in the Buckinghamshire countryside, showed what could be achieved without a police presence.
Okay, so it didn’t run through any significant towns and villages but in 21st century southern England this kind of event showed the future, in the short-term at least.
The circuit for Saturday afternoon’s stage was lumpy and excellently marshalled. It may not have boasted the sort of hills that provide a severe test, but it encouraged extremely fast racing.
Sponsors may not have been falling over themselves at the size of the crowds but you have to bear in mind this is a young event.
And if the legislation concerning racing on the highway is revised to make it easier for organisers to put on events, you could see this race evolving and growing quickly.
The Archer Grand Prix was one of the jewels in British road racing but that particular corner of Buckinghamshire has got increasingly busy during the past decade.
As organiser Stuart Benstead said, moving it to a new course was not an option because it would cease to be the Archer.
Instead, the Chas Messenger, directed by Ian Chatfield, plugs the gap by seeking quieter roads.
Dean Downing may have been held up by a tractor during Saturday morning’s time trial but other than that the race passed without a hitch.
Credit to Russell Downing for winning his third Premier Calendar in a row, although it was the smaller teams that caught the eye. Matt Higgins of Corley Cycles was third overall, Marcin Bialoblocki of Sports Beans was fifth, James Stewart of KFS sixth and Wouter Sybrandy, who rides for Sigma Sport, was tenth. Matt Cronshaw of Kinesis was only just outside the top ten.
What was impressive was the back-up these teams offered their riders, with professional-looking cars taking their place in the following convoy along with the big three Rapha, Plowman Craven and Pinarello.
It shows domestic racing is growing again after a fallow period and the investment and commitment of the people behind the teams, whose ambition and enthusiasm outstrips the budget available, are adding a new dimension to the racing.
In my youth, one of the dates I marked in the diary was Archer Grand Prix day. It meant a decent ride out to see the country’s top riders in action.
Visiting the Chas Messenger meant a solid 100-mile round trip, but the race was definitely worth the ride.
|BORIS FOR CYCLING|
London may regret electing Boris for a whole host of reasons but at least he's a cyclist, I suppose, although when I see still pictures in the paper of him cycling I can't help thinking he's on one of those clown's bikes where the front wheel goes the opposite way when you turn the handlebars.
It should not be forgotten that Ken has done a great deal for cyclists in the capital. He’s encouraged, through many and varied schemes, Londoners to get on their bikes.
And he was a key figure in bringing the Tour de France to London last summer. It was his vision and drive that made it happen and as soon as the great circus rolled out of town he was making overtures to bring it back.
For that, thank you Ken.
And to Boris, I hope you continue to encourage cycling in London and persist with the plans to bring the Tour back.
PREVIOUS TUESDAY COMMENTS
April 29 – Yeah, well done, Liquigas
April 22 – I’ve had a brilliant idea!
April 15 - Thanks a bunch, Eurosport
April 8 – The Tuesday Comment live from Belgium
April 1 – Why I believe Rob Hayles
March 25 – Just how good can Emma Pooley be?
March 18 – Forget sitting in a bath of beans, cycling is the new charity fundraiser
March 11 – Can Sportive riders defy UCI ban?
March 4 – Why Het Volk is the real deal
February 26 – Pendleton Poses Nude and the Demise of the Archer
February 19 – Let Levi Ride? Leave it out