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CAV SPRINTS INTO THE HISTORY BOOKS

What a sprint victory by Mark Cavendish at the end of the 298-kilometre epic that is Milan-San Remo on Saturday. It was, without any question, the biggest road race victory by a male British rider since Tom Simpson’s world title win in 1965.

Cavendish joins Simpson as only the second British rider to win one of the sport’s single-day ‘monuments’. Those races are Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy, plus the world road race crown, of course.

It automatically makes Cavendish one of the greats of British cycling, and proves that there is so much more to come.

Last year, Rod Ellingworth and British Cycling put into place ‘Project Rainbow Jersey’, which is a strategy to try to win the world road race title for Britain.

As Ellingworth says, if Cavendish can win Milan-San Remo, he can win the Worlds, so at some point they’ll have to check out the 2010 course in Melbourne. Even if that is not ideal for a Cavendish win, the following year in Copenhagen should be, as will the Olympic course in London in 2012.

In future, I expect Cavendish to evolve into an even stronger Classics rider and he will be in there challenging for Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. His stocky frame, low centre of gravity and pure speed make him ideally suited to the cobbles.

It transpires that Cavendish had been deliberately playing down his chances in the week leading up to Milan-San Remo, and that is understandable, because it’s easy to forget he’s not yet 24 years old. Instead of saying he was aiming for the win, he said he was heading there to learn but that if an opportunity came up, he’d take it. As it transpires, Milan-San Remo was inked on his list of goals for the season back in December.

The race was always one of his targets, he just didn’t want to shout about it, which people who take issue with some of Cavendish’s public utterances may find odd.

After all, you don’t go to look at the last 150 kilometres of a race route to check out the point at which you’re going to get dropped.

In Tirreno-Adriatico, he sat up a couple of times, choosing not to reach into the red and keeping his eyes fixed on the big goal. Some people, including Tom Boonen, assumed he was struggling on the hills and that it didn’t bode well for La Manie, Cipressa and the Poggio. Cavendish thrives on proving people wrong as much as he does on competition. Apparently Ellingworth, his coach and a man who knows better than any how he ticks, texted Cavendish Boonen’s comments just to fire him up that little bit more.

Cavendish is a combative character, but when you’re bumping elbows at 75kph, trying to produce that extra bit to beat the other guy into the ground, what do you expect? In the sprint finishes it’s not exactly a case of: “No, no, please, after you, sir.”

The tears he shed at the finish should demonstrate what victory in one of the biggest races in the world meant to him. Those who criticise him for being outspoken should recognise that he’s an emotional character, always up and down, always directing his ire in someone or other’s direction, but that’s part of his make-up that drives him to the line. Surely people would much rather follow the fortunes of someone like that than a cold-hearted robot who mouths platitudes identical through every victory and defeat?

QUICK STEP’S WRONG MOVE

It was interesting to watch the other teams, and particularly Quick Step, play into Cavendish’s hands.

They must have known that if Cavendish and Boonen arrived together at the finish, there was likely to be only one outcome.

What played into Cavendish’s hands was the fast but even pace on the Poggio set by Sylvain Chavanel. That meant Cavendish could get into a rhythm and hang in there. If the others wanted to get rid of him, they needed it to be less predictable, with a succession of attacks creating an uneven pace.

As it was, no one managed to even mount an attack, save for an effort that made Davide Rebellin look every one of his 37 years.

IN THE NEWS

I was as disappointed as anyone at the lack of impact Mark Cavendish’s Milan-San Remo win made in the British national newspapers.

And I was a bit surprised to arrive at Heathrow airport on Tuesday morning to see Lance Armstrong’s picture splashed big across the back pages of most of the papers.

How, I hear you ask, is it that news of a rider falling off is deemed bigger news than Britain’s biggest road race win in 40-odd years? The conspiracies abounded.

The answer is actually pretty simple. Cavendish’s win happened on a Saturday, when the Sunday sports pages are already planned and filled. Six Nations rugby, Premiership football and international cricket dominated the news. Then there are the ‘big ticket’ interviews, planned and conducted weeks in advance, and often trailed in the midweek editions of the sister papers. In a lot of papers, Cavendish’s victory just had to be squeezed in where it could.

By contrast, Armstrong fell off on a Monday afternoon, when there was no live sport, at the start of a long, empty week in the lead-up to an England football international.

Cycling will eventually grow in stature, and command more space in the national papers, but it will be a slow process. Look how long it has taken for track cycling to gain the space and status it now gets. Jason Queally won gold in the kilo at the Sydney Olympics also nine years ago, when the BBC and the national press were caught by surprise and the tone of the coverage was quirky, to say the least.

After some success in Athens, cycling got a little more coverage, but it was only in the light of dominant performances in Palma and Manchester, and the approaching Olympics that the sport really caught on with the mainstream media.

For the broader audience, road cycling is all about the Tour de France. Milan-San Remo, a great Classic with over a century of history, may mean a lot to cycling fans, but to the man in the street, it’s a difficult sell.

But as more and more British riders begin to have success on the road, people will become educated. Certainly next year Milan-San Remo will be on the radar of the sports editors of the national papers.

A QUESTION OF EQUALITY

The women’s World Cup kicks off this week with the Trofeo Alfredo Binda and two British women are in good enough form to win it.

Emma Pooley, who won the race last year, also won last weekend with a solo break at the GP Etrusca. Nicole Cooke was well-placed too.

If they win, will they get more or less coverage than Cavendish did for his Milan-San Remo win? I’d suggest the national papers will treat it about the same.

I’m still not sure I buy this line about the media ignoring Cooke, or that the media is inherently sexist when it comes to women’s sport.

Like it or not, the print media agenda is driven by numbers. For example, if a million people watch the men’s cricket world cup final on television, and 100,000 watch the women’s equivalent, which will the print media pay more attention to?

The coverage Cooke’s Olympic gold medal got eclipsed every other single cycling medal winner because it was Britain’s first of the Games. She was heavily featured by the papers after the Games and again after her World Championship wins.

However, I do cringe when I see features in the national papers talking about Victoria Pendleton’s penchant for cooking and sewing. What possible relevance does that have? Ed Clancy may enjoy woodwork and tinkering with engines for all I know, but is that important?

Anyway, the point is, that Cooke is not doing herself or any of her fellow women competitors any favours by beating the same drum all the time. The way to generate more interest is to get more women’s races on television.

CONTINUING THE MEDIA THEME

A few people have noted Gabby Logan’s appearance as the BBC’s anchor at the World Track Cycling Championships signals and criticised the replacement of Jill Douglas.

In recent years, Douglas has made cycling her own, becoming an expert on the sport. A few people have made the assumption that after all the Olympic success, she’s been edged aside to make way for one of the big names of the BBC’s sports presenting portfolio. Not so. Douglas has not been replaced. In fact, she’s expecting a baby.

Speaking to people back home who saw the coverage of the opening day, they were rather disappointed at the downbeat tone of the BBC’s coverage following a day when British riders won two silver medals and two bronzes.

In realistic terms, it was a fine opening day and if any comparisons should be made, they should be made with the post-Athens Worlds in Los Angeles rather than Manchester in 2008. Okay, so Wendy Houvenaghel was perhaps expected to finish the job and win gold, but Victoria Pendleton’s bronze was her best ever result in the 500 metres. Chris Newton was the most aggressive rider in the points race and bronze was the least he deserved for his efforts, and the team sprint trio, with young Matt Crampton winning his first Worlds medal in the event, were always unlikely to beat the French, who have been flying all winter.

However, look at it from the BBC’s point of view. The corporation has a big presence here, with television and radio teams providing lots of coverage, including an hour a day live on BBC2. They have a growing audience of people who are not necessarily cycling fanatics tuning in to see a Beijing-style obliteration of the opposition.

They are being asked to watch a team without the big hitters such as Sir Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Rebecca Romero.

British Cycling’s pragmatic, if necessary, approach that these Worlds are only a small step on the road to London 2012 does not play well with TV viewers who are being asked to sit down and watch. So the BBC is in a tricky position of explaining why Britain’s riders are not on peak form now because they don’t want viewers to take the simplistic view: “Well, if they aren’t at their very best for a World Championships, why should I bother watching?”

ASTANA SOAP OPERA GOES ON

Lance Armstrong’s crash is the latest twist in the Channel 5-style soap opera script that is Team Astana’s season.

Armstrong’s Giro d’Italia is in doubt after he broke his collarbone at the Vuelta Castilla y Leon. Recovering in time to resume training for the race, which starts on May 9, will not be easy. He’s doubtful for the Giro del Trentino, a key warm-up race towards the end of April.

But Johan Bruyneel has already said that Armstrong will be fit for the Tour de France, which must have been music to Alberto Contador’s ears.

This complicates the question of who’s going to be the numero uno at the Tour still further. And it begs the question, what will Astana do about the Giro now? Will Levi Leipheimer or Andreas Kloden get leadership duties there? Surely they won’t do the unthinkable and ask Contador to go there and defend his title?

Either way, Armstrong’s injury may be a blessing in disguise for him. That’s not to say I subscribe to the loony view that he chucked himself on the deck because he realised he wouldn’t be competitive at the Giro or the Tour.

But it does lessen the expectations on him, while continuing to keep him in the public eye. Armstrong, it seems, is about the only professional athlete who can turn a broken bone and a spell on the sidelines into positive PR.

A RUMOUR’S A RUMOUR

The grapevine was all a-Twitter with a pretty hefty rumour this week.

The rumour has since disappeared, and the team at the centre of the rumour has Twittered to say they don’t comment on rumours.

But out in the blog-o-sphere, the rumours still live and breathe, despite the fact they are libellous.

Twitter is undoubtedly changing the way news breaks and travels, and media organisations are also using that to their advantage. Hopefully this doesn’t sound too precious, but one thing is being lost in the rush headlong to embrace so-called ‘citizen’ journalism.

Professional news organisations are accountable in a way that some bloggers, Twitterers and forum contributors feel they are not. Journalists are trained to only write that which they can stand by in court should it ever come to that. Stories from a single source have to be backed up and often a good story falls by the wayside because of that.

But if the Twitter trend continues, one day a blogger and its host will be held to account and will face a large legal bill.

A CREDIBILITY VACUUM

Fortunately I am at the World Track Championships, so I am able to ignore what’s happening at the Vuelta Castilla y Leon.

I scanned the results to see Alejandro Valverde won the stage, even though when I think of him I picture an enormous elephant chained to the rear stays of his bicycle. The elephant is wearing a large vest with the words Operacion Puerto on it, if that helps you make sense of a rather poor metaphor.

Look who was up there in his wake. Ruben Plaza and Oscar Sevilla. How does anyone expect us to take stage racing seriously if these people are still racing with impunity?

WHY ARE WE WAITING?

When I saw that the opening ceremony for the World Track Championships was to last an hour-and-a-half, I wondered what the organising committee and the UCI had in store.

In the event, I was rather disappointed to see the eclectic fusion of rock music, line-dancing, Bollywood and rope climbing.

I’d hoped Mr McQuaid might take the opportunity to give an update on the Biological Passport.

Don’t tell me: “We can expect some results in the coming days/weeks/months/millennia?”

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009

March 18

March 11 ? A great Paris-Nice, plus much more

March 4 ? Team Sky launched

February 25 ? Why Lance was wrong to push the idiot

February 18 ? It?s all happening in California

Bonus Comment: Lance Armstrong and Don Catlin drop anti-doping programme

February 11 ? Why BC must fight harder for road racing’s future

February 4 ? What’s hot during the big freeze?

January 28 ? The Snore Down Under

January 21 ? The Second Coming

January 14 ? So, Sir Alan rides a bike?

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