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THE SITUATION IS CRITICAL

Road racing in Britain really is on red alert. It?s going to take big, bold moves to establish some ground rules in order to ensure its survival. The softly-softly campaign of lobbying people one at a time is not going to change anything, that much is becoming clear.

On Saturday afternoon, police officers stopped the road stage of the Bikeline Two-Day and cancelled the whole event because riders were consistently crossing over the white line and using the right-hand side of the road.

Just days after announcing that Halfords was to be the title sponsor for the Premier Calendar series, the opening round of the competition was pulled off the road, setting a very unpleasant precedent.

What happens if other police forces follow suit and decide to stop races in their tracks? How much is it costing the teams to travel to take part in a cancelled event?

Cycling Weekly takes absolutely no satisfaction from the fact we saw this coming. In February, we looked at the problems facing race organisers in Britain, and tried to offer some constructive suggestions. You can read the full feature here.

We accept that lobbying to change the law is a slow business, but the progress is excruciating. In five years? time, the London Olympics will have been and gone, taking any political will that does exist with it. What sort of legacy will the Games leave road racing?

At this rate, it?s simply a debate about what will kill road racing first ? policing costs or police attitudes.

Of course, not every area of the country has problems. There are some very co-operative police forces and local authorities, but we cannot allow a postcode lottery system to exist. What’s fit for one part of the country must be fit for another.

The problem is that if the Premier Calendar cannot be defended, there will be knock-on consequences. Down in Buckinghamshire, the Archer Grand Prix has been cancelled because of lack of sponsorship and funds needed to run a race with a Premier Calendar sized field. Yet the smaller support races will still take place on the same course. Explain that one to me.

And isn?t there a danger that police would fail to see any difference between an elite race and a chipper? The Bikeline was pulled off the road because riders were across the white line persistently. But in the 3rd and 4th category race I rode on the same day, the bunch was doing the exact same thing.

How close are we to having the entire sport kicked off the roads entirely?

As it happened, Olympic medallists Ed Clancy and Chris Newton were not at the Bikeline Two-Day at the weekend. If they had been, it may have helped the cause. After all, can you imagine Andy Murray being kicked off a tennis court? Or Paula Radcliffe being prevented from running on the pavement?

Okay, so it?s not a perfect comparison, because the police were within their rights to step in if riders were spread gutter to gutter.

But it is going to take a slick, sustained PR campaign and some innovative responses from British Cycling and race organisers not only to bring about some cohesive legislation, but also to salvage something for the sport while we wait.

The riders bear a responsibility but the Bikeline had a field of 115 riders. When the racing is full-on and the crosswinds are blowing, from a pure sporting point of view, it is extremely unrealistic to expect the riders not to fill the available road. In the past riders were disqualified for crossing the white line even once, even briefly, but that was in smaller fields of 40 or 50, when the professional, amateur split existed.

So perhaps the idea of 115-up races has to be abandoned in certain areas for the time being. Perhaps Premier should mean Premier, and entry should be restricted to elites and first-category riders with a certain number of points?

It really is time to think laterally until civilian marshals are given the power to stop traffic, or until rolling road closures can be sought and paid for.

In the Bikeline?s case, perhaps the 120-man entry could have been split into two fields of 60 ? Peloton A and Peloton B.

On Saturday, Peloton A rides the time trial in the morning and the road race in the afternoon. Peloton B does it the other way round. Then, the top 30 riders in each Peloton?s classification go through to Sunday?s ?final? race of 60 for the final classification. The bottom 30 don?t go home empty-handed. They race in a ?B? final, setting off on the same course 15 minutes later.

Okay, so it makes the job of organising a bit more complicated but it is a workable way round an inflexible obstacle.

It?s just a thought and it may be shot down in flames, but it?s better than bludgeoning against a brick wall and having the police stop the races.

This really is a time for creativity to come to the fore. Cycling simply can?t blindly carry on just because that?s what has always been done. It?s time to adapt the races to the circumstances. Otherwise, the sport faces no future at all.

TOUR DE FRANCE TEAMS NAMED

Twenty teams for the Tour de France were revealed yesterday, with defending champion Carlos Sastre?s Cervélo team included, and the Fuji-Servetto team which rose from the ashes of the disgraced Saunier Duval excluded.

While it is a shame for the British riders Steve Cummings, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome that Barloworld were not included, it is hardly a shock. Moises Duenas tested positive for EPO during the Tour last year, bringing the race into further dispute.

It seems likely that all three riders will be racing elsewhere next year, so it?s only a temporary setback for them. Although Barloworld?s place in the Giro d?Italia is not a formality, their inclusion in another RCS-organised event, Tirreno-Adriatico, will give them cause for optimism.

However, I can?t quite work out the logic shown by ASO. One of the compromises that brought about a resolution of the row between ASO and the UCI was that the grand tour organisers would have a free hand to select their own teams. ASO?s policy has been to exclude whole teams (like Astana last year) but not individual riders.

What doesn?t tally is that Barloworld are out, presumably because of Duenas, but Liquigas are in. Their rider, Manuel Beltran, was the first positive of the 2008 Tour de France. So did Barloworld damage the Tour, whereas Beltran did not?

Perhaps it?s because Liquigas are in ProTour and Barloworld aren?t. Oh but hang on, Fuji-Servetto hold a ProTour licence but they?re out too. Confused? I?m not surprised.

While this ?some dopers are worse than others? system exists, the same problems will keep occurring. If there?s a rule it should be applied across the board.

The mind boggles at the possibility of Alexandre Vinokourov returning to racing. If he is shoe-horned into the Astana team by the Kazakhs, what will ASO do? Ban the rider? Ban the whole team? Or just open the doors to a man who made a mockery of the Tour de France in 2007 by winning two stages with knees so badly injured he could barely walk ? only to test positive for a banned blood transfusion.

CAUGHT BY SURPRISE

We were as surprised as anyone to see Mark Cavendish?s name on the Great Britain squad list for the World Track Championships.

Usually we have an inkling these things are happening beforehand, but this time British Cycling?s coaches played their cards very close to their chest.

Clearly they didn?t want to make a big thing of it, and in the British Cycling press release announcing the squad, there was no mention of its significance, other than listing his name in the men?s endurance team.

Following Cavendish?s statement that he would not race on the track again after his disappointment in Beijing, it is easy to see he did not want to draw too much attention to what some will inevitably see as a U-turn.

And British Cycling?s desire to keep the pressure off a young rider who is about to see a busy start to the season get even busier, was an understandable sentiment.

But trying to sneak Mark Cavendish?s name onto the squad list and hope no one really noticed too much was never realistic. And as we saw, just about every media organisation that covered the story, followed the same lines: ?Cavendish?s shock return? or ?Cavendish?s track U-turn? ? headlines which do little to keep the pressure or the spotlight off the rider.

It was rather like Fabio Capello naming the England team and hoping no one noticed David Beckham?s was in it.

The coaches perhaps think that team selection matters are for them to decide, and of course that?s correct. But the organisation should remember that, despite the influx of Sky?s money, it still relies on public money, courtesy of the Lottery, and Government funding. And that means it needs to be open, accountable and transparent in all matters, including team selection.

Link

Analysis: Cavendish back on the track

LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING RICCO?

Riccardo Ricco, who won two Tour stages while riding for Saunier Duval, then tested positive for so-called third generation EPO, has had his two-year suspension cut to 20 months.

He?ll be eligible to race from March 18 next year after the Court of Arbitration for Sport partially upheld his appeal for the ban to be reduced. Effectively he got a lighter sentence for dobbing in his team-mate Leonardo Piepoli.

All classy stuff, so far.

In theory he could ride the Giro d?Italia and Tour de France next year.

Finding a team to race for may not be so easy. It?s anyone?s guess how the land will lie this time next year, but presumably there won?t be a ProTour team willing to take on a stony-faced doper ? someone who doesn?t even have the partial excuse of being part of the old guard but who came through the ranks in the wake of the 1998 Festina Affair and well aware of the fate that befell his hero Marco Pantani.

I won?t shed a tear if Ricco is excluded from every big race on the calendar, but history teaches us that he will find a way in somewhere.

Dopers are like water. They find the line of least resistance. They seek a crack and penetrate it and in time turn everything they touch mouldy and unpleasant.

It?s probably asking too much to see a word of regret or apology pass Ricco?s lips. His only public utterances so far have been to say that he will come back as strong as he was in 2008. That raises questions all of its own. Either the drugs don?t make any difference at all (in which case, why use them?), or he?s intending to do the same things, or the same things in a slightly different way.

Whatever, the fact that Ricco is almost halfway through his ban, while the wound he dealt the Tour de France is still raw shows that something is still very badly wrong.

GOOD LUCK WITH THAT, FLOYD

I have got about as much chance of riding the Tour de France as Floyd Landis.

It was quite amusing to see the otherwise respected news agency Reuters fall hook, line and sinker for Landis?s comments about returning to the Tour de France and winning it.

As my colleague Nigel Wynn pointed out, he has to overcome a number of skyscraper-sized obstacles. He needs to join a team that is highly ranked enough, and participating in the biological passport, and he needs that team to be invited by ASO to take part.

There is no chance. Absolutely none.

LAST DOPING ITEM, I PROMISE

Michele Scarponi won Tirreno-Adriatico by proving himself to be the strongest on the longest, most difficult stage of the race. Great stuff!

The last time Scarponi was in the public eye was when he was pacing his Liberty Seguros team-mate Roberto Heras up the mountains in the 2005 Vuelta a Espana. Heras tested positive for EPO and was stripped of that Vuelta win.

So is this another case of guilt by association?

No. Scarponi rode for Liberty Seguros in 2006. The sponsor pulled out when so many of its riders were implicated in Opercion Puerto. In early 2007, he rode for Acqua & Sapone until the Italian investigators caught up with him.

In May 2007 he admitted doping and was banned for 18 months. The ban was shortened by the Court of Arbitration for Sport because he co-operated with the investigation. In short, he confessed to the things the authorities could prove, and he took his ban like a good boy.

So last August he returned to racing with Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni and now he?s back to his very best. In fact, he?s better than he ever was, because Tirreno-Adriatico is the biggest win of his career.

Isn?t it a heart-warming tale of a man overcoming adversity and returning to the top after terrible misfortune.

No? No, you?re right, it?s not.

SOME GOOD NEWS

It is depressing that during a week when the racing was so good, there are still almost half a dozen dopers, or perhaps I should charitably refer to them as ex-dopers, to dominate the headlines.

I?d prefer to concentrate on the untainted achievements of the week. Paris-Nice was an absolutely classic race, thanks in no small part to the superb route. Technical, unpredictable, innovative. Hats off to Monsieur Prudhomme, whose team has revitalised the art of plotting a stage race in the past few years.

Then there was Mark Cavendish?s 33rd professional victory, a win which takes him ever closer to Chris Boardman?s British record.

And looking ahead to Saturday?s Milan-San Remo, we can expect a very open race. Look at the number of favourites who have bitten the dust. Defending champion Fabian Cancellara crashed in training recently and pulled out of Tirreno-Adriatico. Twice winner Oscar Freire broke ribs in a crash at the Tour of California. World champion Alessandro Ballan is reportedly out with a stomach virus. Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd abandoned Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico respectively.

It means it could be anyone?s.

Link

Paris-Nice analysis: How Astana snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009

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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