GIRO WATCH ?

CREDIBLE OR INCREDIBLE?

It?s very difficult to comment on what we?ve been watching in Italy over the past fortnight without sounding like a miserable curmudgeon [Is that a shout of ?What?s new? I hear from the back?].

Despite what some observers have said, it has not been a vintage spectacle in terms of the racing. The route is so back-loaded with difficulty that the favourites have stuck close to one another so far, not daring to lay everything on the line just yet for fear that it?s too soon.

Zomegnan has overdone it. I am tempted to agree with David Millar that the Plan de Corones time trial was a bit of a farce. Yes, it proved the Giro organisers are always trying to think of new ways to interest the public, but it did nothing for the race and for six riders it was the end of their race as they missed the time cut.

With two brutal mountain stages to come on Friday and Saturday and Sunday?s time trial to finish with, it?s easy to see why the riders have been cautious.

Now Alberto Contador, Riccardo Ricco and Gilberto Simoni may be poised to strike at the weekend. We could be treated to an all-out battle on the Gavia and it may be edge-of-the-seat stuff.

But what is it we?re watching here? Is this Giro credible or incredible?

There are question marks over the leading three. Was Alberto Contador the man referred to as ?AC? in the Operacion Puerto files or not? He ? Manolo Saiz?s protégé ? says, defiantly, not. But it is a sad fact that professional cycling is now a world where 50 per cent of the guilt comes by association.

Ricco and Simoni were under a cloud at last year?s Giro for some unusual hormone fluctuations. CONI, the Italian Olympic Committee, did not pursue the case, so they are deemed to be in the clear.

Ricco failed several haematocrit tests as an amateur and struggled to get a professional contract until it was determined he had a naturally high haematocrit level and he was permitted to race with a special licence.

Simoni was expelled from the 2002 Giro d?Italia when he tested positive for cocaine. His initial excuse, that the substance was contained in a pain-killing injection given by his dentist, was quickly retracted when it was revealed that the substance had not been used in that way for about 20 years. Instead, Simoni?s excuse was that the substance was in some sweets sent to him by his aunt from South America.

Please, stop laughing.

The story of the week has been Emanuele Sella, who has been hailed excitedly as the great new climbing sensation.

I am immediately uncomfortable when people start bandying about comparisons with Marco Pantani because for all the man?s undoubted natural talent, there is no doubt it was heftily augmented by EPO. His drug abuse as a professional cyclist contributed to a downward spiral that cost the Italian his life ? one of the clearest and most painful examples that doping in sport is not a victimless crime.

But aside from that, Pantani was poetry in motion on a bike. He climbed with his hands on the dropped section of the handlebars, out of the saddle and at a jolting, inconsistent rhythm that shook of his rivals like a dog trying to free itself of its lead.

Sella won back-to-back mountain stages and almost made it three in a row, falling just short in the Plan de Corones time trial.

So is he the sensation some would have us believe? Not really, because none of the favourites were racing against him.

Sella crashed on stage 11 and lost 18 minutes so he went into the mountains well adrift overall. In three days he made up all but four minutes of that deficit. He took back nine minutes on Saturday, another two on Sunday and after the time trial now sits comfortably in the top ten.

In two mountain stages, Sella spent 330 kilometres on the attack, in groups or by himself. On Sunday he practically attacked out of the hospitality village.

But it is important to remember that for two days, Sella did not interest the favourites. The likes of Contador, Di Luca, Ricco and Simoni were not racing Emanuele Sella, they were racing each other. Sella didn?t rip the Giro to pieces because no one bothered about him. He just seized the opportunity to win two bike races. Now he is back on the radar I suspect it will be a different story.

Why the doubts? Why can?t we watch a man win two of the toughest mountain stages and unreservedly stand back and applaud. The short answer is because cycling is still battling for its credibility.

Sella rides for CSF Group Navigare, who started the Giro with only eight men. The ninth, sprinter Maximilian Richeze, was prevented from racing because it was revealed he?d failed a dope test for an anabolic steroid at the Circuit de la Sarthe last month.

None of CSF Navigare?s riders have signed the UCI?s charter for a clean and credible cycling, which can be found on the governing body?s website ? www.uci.ch. Not a single one of them. Now you can argue that the charter is meaningless and you can point to some of the names who have signed it and wonder whether it?s worth the piece of paper it?s written on, but it is a voluntary gesture that would say something for the team in green and orange. Why haven?t they signed it? What on earth reason is there that they wouldn?t want to align themselves with the fight against cheating dopers?

Then there is the UCI?s biological passport, a system that all teams riding the grand tours must make themselves available for.

But there is no data available to confirm the number of tests conducted and there have been some difficulties rolling out the scheme. Can we be sure at this early stage that the biological passport is being applied in the same way to one of the ProTour teams as it is to the smaller teams that have joined the system later? We have no evidence, other than the unsubstantiated but nevertheless sizeable murmurs in the peloton that there are inconsistencies.

But while the clouds of doubt roll in, consider the point that these three weeks encapsulate CSF Navigare?s season. The Giro is everything for them. They are not likely to ride any other big races this year and so they are at their peak now. Of course they?re going to be roaring fit.

Small Italian teams have won more than their fair share of stages in this Giro. Pavel Brutt won one for Tinkoff, Matteo Priamo and Sella make it three wins for CSF Navigare, Gabriele Bosisio won a stage for LPR Brakes and then took the pink jersey briefly as Di Luca?s team imposed themselves on the climbs, Alessandro Bertolini won a stage for Serramenti Diquigiovanni.

You could see this as proof that the peloton has cleaned up a bit and that the little teams can compete once again or you could fear that the playing field has simply tipped in the other direction.

After all there is a comment that sticks in my mind. A colleague was talking to a directeur sportif at the end of last year who said: ?They?re climbing faster in Portuguese races than the do in the Tour de France now.?

So what do we make of all this? I?d suggest it?s up to each and every cycling fan to make up his or her own mind.

GREAT BRITONS

Last week?s Cycling Weekly magazine featured a picture special detailing all of Britain?s grand tour stage wins ? from Brian Robinson in 1958 to Mark Cavendish in 2008.

It rounded up a half-century of great wins by British riders in the three major tours to mark the first of Cav?s Giro stage victories.

A few readers wrote in to point out we?d missed off David Millar?s team time trial win for Slipstream on the first day of this Giro.

What we should have made clear that we weren?t including team time trials because they are not a solo effort.

But to all those who did point it out, you forgot to mention that by that rationale we also missed out Charly Wegelius? team time trial win for Liquigas on the first day of the 2007 Giro.

Keep an eye on the site over the next couple of days ? we’ll be posting the full list of British grand tour stage winners. Who knows, maybe Cavendish will make it three on Wednesday?

THE GRANDEST WOMEN?S RACE

Alex from Bristol wrote in to make a few points following my assertion last week that the Tour de l?Aude is now the biggest, most prestigious and toughest stage race on the women?s calendar ? not the Grande Boucle.

Some excellent points were made. Alex said: ?[The Grande Boucle is] no longer as lengthy a race as l?Aude or the Route de France, but the stages are a lot more menacing, and take in a far more substantial route. As last year?s Tour de l’Aude took the riders over the Col de Caravelle for the umpteenth time, the Boucle sent the riders over the Tourmalet and the Aspin.

?This year?s Aude features a queen stage (just won by Susanne Ljungskog) that runs over the cols of Calvaire and Creu while this year?s Boucle (now up to six days and seven stages, a small but hopeful sign of recovery) features the Troueé de Arenberg, a scenic time-trial at Clairvaux-les-Lacs, a mountain-top finish at Villard-de-Lans and a final stage that vaults up through the Casse Deserte and over the Izoard before topping out at the dizzying heights of Sestriere.

?As far as prestige is concerned, I want to see the women taking on the most mythical backdrops, cobblestones and mountains.

?The Boucle is the race I see as the more prestigious ? something it has both accrued over time and perpetuates in its route. Let?s hope it is able to build back up to the two-week event it deserves to be.?

I certainly wasn?t denigrating the Grande Boucle, a race Nicole Cooke has won twice before, but perhaps I was just over-enthusiastic in drawing attention to the Tour de l?Aude. Anyway, it had the desired affect ? here we are arguing about which women?s race is the greatest.

Cooke and the rest of the British team will be at the Grande Boucle at the end of June.

GIVE CYCLING THE ELBOW

It was a bad week for elbows.

Alberto Contador rode on in the Giro with a cracked bone in his elbow. Giovanni Visconti had his elbow x-rayed after a crash on stage 11. Mark Cassidy crashed out of the Ras in Ireland while wearing the yellow jersey and was taken to hospital with a suspected fractured elbow. And Sharon Laws had a stitch in her elbow after crashing at the Tour de l?Aude in France.

It was a reminder that, despite some of the negative stories, cycle racing is a very hard sport which demands personal sacrifice and an acceptance that sometimes the physical price will go beyond sore legs and burning lungs.

And, with the Paris-Roubaix sportive (June 8) looming large, reading each report of a rider damaging their elbow in a crash over the past week or so has had me wondering whether it wouldn?t be a good idea to buy some BMX-style elbow pads.

HAIRY OR SMOOTH?

Talking of Paris-Roubaix, I have a dilemma.

There are less than two weeks to go and I don?t know whether to go hairy or smooth.

I haven?t shaved for years ? not since I was a teenager and thought I was pre-ordained to become the first British Tour de France winner.

I remember my girlfriend saying, when I first deemed it acceptable to watch cycling on television in her presence (after about a year, since you ask): ?They?ve all got very smooth legs, haven?t they?? I explained the old leg-shaving malarkey and she said: ?You don?t do that do you??

But there?s something about Paris-Roubaix that persuades me smooth may be the way forward.

So, what should I do? And please don?t suggest one leg hairy, one leg smooth.

PREVIOUS TUESDAY COMMENTS

May 20 ? Conte reveals a cheat?s charter

May 13 ? Why Cavendish is a superstar

May 6 ? Astana for the Giro! Yawn

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

February 12

February 5

January 29

January 22

January 15