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PARIS-NICE EXCELS AGAIN

Paris-Nice is only halfway through, but it has been a superb race, just as it was last year, thanks partly to an imaginative route, some vicious sidewinds and motivated riders keen to get on with it.

I?ve read a few comments from people criticising the strength in depth in the field, and it is true that the addition of the Tour of California has weakened the line-up a little.

Paris-Nice has always clashed with Tirreno-Adriatico and traditionally the two races have attracted different types of riders. Broadly speaking the sprinters, the Italians and anyone else with a keen eye on Milan-San Remo went to Tirreno, the Tour de France types and the French raced to the sun.

These days, the Tour of California?s money and marketing opportunities ? particularly for teams that race on American-made bikes ? provide a strong pull.

So, when the riders arrived in Amilly at the weekend, it was very difficult to see past Alberto Contador for the overall win, although as our preview pointed out, we predicted that Sylvain Chavanel would have a really good go too.

Contador?s time trial win has provided a talking point and we analysed what his victory means for the rest of the season.

Tuesday?s stage to Vichy was superb viewing. It really was bike racing at its best. It?s probably a little controversial to suggest that this is what endurance sport looks like when 95 per cent of the field are not recording identical haematocrit values, but it is true that we are seeing a new trend in stage races.

Stages that look on paper to be straightforward are no longer a formality. Rabobank can take much of the credit for splitting the race to pieces in the wind, even if they made another all-mighty balls-up of the finish, just as they did at Het Nieuwsblad.

They seemed to be racing against each another at one point. How the three of them allowed themselves to be beaten by Chavanel was probably discussed later in the team bus.

Today [Wednesday], Contador made a little statement of intent, attacking on the Côte de Rochetaillée to put the leader, Chavanel, under a lot of pressure and hammer home the fact the Frenchman has little or no hope on La Montagne de Lure on Friday. Last year Chavanel, lost 3-42 to the Cadel Evans-Robert Gesink break on Mont Ventoux, and conceded the yellow jersey.

The form Contador is in, expect him to lose at least two minutes again, although the Astana man won?t get it all his own way, as he has to put more than half a minute into Juan Manuel Garate as well.

Paris-Nice has been reborn under ASO in recent years. The racing is far more varied and exciting than was the case in California last month. There are opportunities for riders to make things happen and the stage has been sensitively set up to encourage racing, rather than merely provide a blank canvas for the riders to take or leave.

Just as a golf course designer positions the bunkers and shapes the green to offer risk and reward, so the Paris-Nice course provides opportunities to attack and times to sit tight.

The run-in to Saint-Etienne was stage racing at its best. An opportunist member of the day?s long break, Christian Vande Velde, laid all his cards on the table for the stage win, while behind the battle for the overall lead reached fever pitch.

Contador made a statement and very nearly spoiled Garmin?s day for the second time in half a week. This time, though, Vande Velde held firm under Contador?s fire.

Paris-Nice stage four report>>

FACTS NOT RHETORIC

I?m trying to be patient, I really am, but the biological passport is in danger of becoming a laughing stock.

It seems every time he?s asked, Pat McQuaid?s answer is always the same. The UCI is really close to taking proceedings against a rider with a suspicious blood profile that indicates illegal manipulation.

No, but they?re really close this time.

Just as they were really close last October. And again in December. And January. And last month.

Far be it for me to suggest to Mr McQuaid how he deals with this, but wouldn?t it be better, and more accurate, to say that samples have been collected from riders since the start of 2008, and will continue to be collected, and that no news now doesn?t mean there won?t be news later, but that until a watertight case can be brought, testing will continue.

Otherwise it just sounds like the boy who cried wolf. Wouldn?t it be a lot better for the UCI to hold their counsel and speak only when there is some actual news to report?

And as for the no-start rule, it hasn?t been applied yet, McQuaid confirmed, but this is the stickiest ground of all for the UCI to negotiate.

?Resting? a rider for a fortnight because there is a suspicion of an anomaly, but not strong enough evidence of wrong-doing to press for a ban, is going to be very hard to enforce simply because the implication will be of guilt, just as it was with the haematocrit rule.

Back in the late 1990s, I remember being struck by a team manager saying that it was as normal as falling down the stairs when one of his riders was suspended for two weeks after failing a haematocrit test.

What we want to avoid, though, is any temptation to carry out a sort of back-streets justice, where riders are suspended, but the news is kept out of the public domain, allowing the team to say that their man has banged his knee or has a stomach upset or other minor ailment.

Because if the rules are going to stand up to scrutiny and be credible, then there must be no grey areas, only transparency, which is why the UCI should be publishing the number of tests that are being conducted on the riders regularly.

After all, if some riders are happy to Twitter away to their heart?s content that they?ve just been visited by the out-of-competition testers, wouldn?t it be good if the governing body could verify this?

BASSO’S FACE PROMPTS BAD MEMORIES

Ivan Basso claims to have been given the all-clear to ride Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which is an ASO event.

So far there has been no confirmation from ASO itself, but if Basso said it, it must be true. And if it?s being reported without verification, it must be right.

It seems odd that ASO would want to welcome back Basso, who was last seen at one of their events disappearing out of the back door of a Strasbourg hotel after it was revealed he was up to his neck in Operacion Puerto.

Basso is back, yes, he?s done his time, he has even (sort of) expressed a form of remorse.

But does the Tour de France want to open the door and revisit that dark week in July 2006 when the race was rendered a farce?

For many Basso?s face is a reminder of those days. His presence in the peloton raises enough questions as it is ? such as what really did happen between Basso, his team manager Bjarne Riis and Dr Eufamiano Fuentes ? and there will always be someone prepared to raise the question.

Does the Tour really want to welcome Basso back? Can cycling exist with a two-tier attitude? Once eligible to race, should the door be opened by all race organisers, or are some scars too deep to heal fully?

Again, the return of a rider from a doping suspension raises questions and, no doubt we?ll have all this again in 18 months? time when Riccardo Ricco and Stefan Schumacher want to come back.

Just when does cycling get its clean slate? Or am I living in dream land to even hope there?ll be one?

LEVEL PLAYING FIELD?

It?s just a thought, and I?m not referring to anyone specific, but does anyone else?s heart sink when you see a breakaway containing a rider from a ProTour team together with a rider from a team that hasn?t been in the biological passport system very long?

Strides have been made, just as mistakes have, but until everyone has been subject to the biological passport for a racing season and an off-season, it still may not be an entirely level playing field.

GREAT BRITISH MEMORIES

Last week, I asked for any Great British memories readers have and we?ve had quite a few responses.

This week, we?ve published two of the best, but keep them coming in and we?ll put them all together on the website.

Baz, writes about Barry Hoban in ?68

It’s July 1968 and we’ve just arrived in Sallanches in the Alps to see my first ever Tour de France stage. It’s all a bit different to what I’d expected from weekly reports in Cycling magazine, with its fuzzy black and white photos.

Not only were the crowds lining the road massive but I had to pay to get onto the final climb up the Col du Cordon (2nd cat).

There was a British national team that year (the last year of national teams and trade teams together) and I was hoping to see Barry Hoban and the rest hauling up the final climb to the finish. Somebody had a radio and my French was just about good enough to follow the commentry; Le Brittanique Barry ‘Oban was in the lead, “seul en tete”!

The French fans around me nodded sagely; 20k to the finish, a difficult climb, he was sure to be caught. A chasing group was coming back at him but, of course, he held on to the finish, still some five minutes ahead. I think that was a few days before the finish in Paris and only a couple of other team members were still in the bunch, John Clarey and Vin Denson, perhaps Michael Wright. Great day, great ride, Barry!

Phil Riley writes about David Millar?s Paris-Nice prologue win

One of my most memorable British performances was David Millar in the Paris- Nice prologue two years ago [2007].

Early on in the course there was a climb which everybody looked to be taking on the rivet, lots of tongues hanging out and grimaces of pain.

Then came Millar, he hit the bottom of the climb and looked to have given up on his ride. I sat watching in disbelief as he rode up the climb as though he were on a course recce.

I was convinced that he must have had some sort of mechanical difficulties and he was just going to make sure he finished so as to be able to start the next day. Having reached the top of the climb he proceeded to get onto his tri-bars and ride the rest of the course like a man possessed. We all know what the result was. Edge of the seat TV.

Keep them coming. Click the email link at the top of the page.

WORLD CHAMPS ON TRACK

The track World Championships are just around the corner, and Great Britain?s team is set to be named this week.

We already know that Sir Chris Hoy will be absent because of the hip injury sustained in the crash during the Keirin final in Copenhagen last month.

It brings to an end a remarkable streak. Hoy has won a medal at every Worlds stretching back to 1999 in Berlin, and hasn?t missed the Worlds since 1995.

Bradley Wiggins and Rebecca Romero will also be absent from Poland, so although there will still be plenty of seasoned campaigners and gold medal-winning potential, one of the most interesting aspects is going to be seeing how the young riders get on.

How many ?new? British world champions will there be? I?d suggest that Lizzie Armitstead has a great chance in the bunch races and team pursuit, and perhaps Jason Kenny will step up to fill the huge gap left by Sir Chris?

A MODERN CLASSIC

Fantastic racing at the Eroica at the weekend. I?ve said it before, but they?ve created a modern Classic in just three years, and its slot on the calendar now is absolutely perfect.

I managed to find some coverage on the internet, but have resolved to go to the race next year, and I wouldn?t mind riding the sportive too.

Our photographer Tom Simpson braved the dust and got some truly jaw-dropping pictures, which you can see in a future issue of Cycle Sport.

The Eroica has managed to create a sense of history and tradition from very little, and the fact it is taken so seriously by all the big teams shows the event has that special something.

And Daniel Lloyd?s ninth place was a fantastic result. He really has settled in at the top of the sport and is proof that a classy rider doesn?t have to join one of the biggest teams at 21 in order to make it. Maybe there were days when he feared his chance was slipping by, but those seasons plugging away in small teams, learning his trade at a great variety of races, from the Tour of Qinghai Lake to Belgian kermesses, have stood him in great stead.

It is also a reminder that however strong British Cycling?s production line of young talent is, it is always possible to make it to the top level outside of ?the system?. There have been criticisms that if your face doesn?t fit, you don?t get a look in, but professional cycling is a big enough sport that talent and determination will succeed in the end.

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009

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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