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HET NIEUWSBLAD DIARY

Having spent the weekend in Belgium for the rebranded Het Nieuwsblad, it was a relief to find that apart from the name change, the early-season Belgian Classic is still the same as ever.

Saturday?s race was as intriguing as ever, and Sunday?s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne produced a fine third place finish for Britain?s Jeremy Hunt.

The weekend also saw first-year professional Ben Swift finish in the top ten of two tough races, one in the northernmost reaches of Italy, the other just over the border in Switzerland. The 21-year-old Katusha rider was tenth in the Giro dell?Insubria, then eighth in the GP Lugano. Whichever way you look at it, they are impressive results for a rider who is taking his tentative first steps in the professional ranks.

But at this time of year, with the Classics looming, the focus was on Belgium.

If cobbles, beer and bergs are your thing, check out my review of the weekend, which was posted on this site on Monday. Het Nieuwsblad diary: A weekend in Belgium.

SKY TEAM BECOMES A REALITY

It is quite a relief that, at long last, the news that Sky is to sponsor the new British pro team is out in the open.

The 2010 season is a long way off, and there?s a lot of bike racing to get through before the team hits the road.

But we are on the cusp of something most fans in Britain have dreamed of for decades ? a British-backed men?s professional road team to compete in the Classics and Grand Tours.

We?ve had false starts before. ANC-Halfords was the last British team to ride the Tour de France, in 1987 and the experience contributed to the team?s downfall.

But they made it to the very top. They dined at the top table, albeit briefly.

The Linda McCartney team rode the Giro d?Italia in 2000 but the squad collapsed like a pack of cards.

On the domestic front, cycling is littered with teams that have promised much and failed to deliver, folding mid-season, leaving people unpaid and adding to the sour taste. It had become a bit of a running joke and any fan can reel off the names of the ghosts.

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But Team Sky is not in the Linda McCartney bracket. It?s not even in the ANC-Halfords bracket. It?s above that simply because of the size and scale of the funding (reported to be close to £9m a year) and the length of the commitment (four years).

This will be a team to rival the biggest in the world, and as a result it will not be wholly British. It can?t be. It will be an international squad with a core of British riders.

People will probably complain that foreign riders are given a chance over certain British riders who do not make the cut, but that?s sports management. Some difficult decisions will have to be made, but if we know anything about British Cycling and Brailsford?s methods, every decision will be made with the end goal in mind.

The question asked at every junction on the road will be: Will this help us produce a British Tour de France champion? If the answer is yes, it?ll happen.

One thing is for sure, though. This is the most exciting development in British cycling for a very long time.

And if certain British riders are not available, let?s not fret. After all, is it really imperative that they all ride in the same team? Of course not. British cycling will get stronger if there is a pro team plus high-profile British riders in other teams.

It?s going to be a fantastic journey. Can they win the Tour de France in the timeframe they?ve set? Perhaps not in five years, but within ten, why not?

After all, if you?d said in 2003, as the upward curve in performance just began to steepen, that British cycling would be where it is now, you?d have laughed. World and Olympic champions all over the place, a multiple Tour de France stage winner, and now a pro team.

LET THE SPECULATION COMMENCE

Now we must brace ourselves for ten months of rumour and speculation as Team Sky takes shape in time for its first engagement, which could be the Tour Down Under next January.

The fact that Sky was to be the sponsor of the pro team was one of the worst-kept secrets in cycling and for some reason both Sky and British Cycling seemed to want to keep a lid on it before making a formal announcement.

Presumably they wanted to make a big splash with the national media and if that was the case, they succeeded, because for a day or so last week, cycling got a big show on Sky Sports News, the rolling news channel that turns your brain to syrup if you watch it long enough, and in all the papers.

The coverage on Sky Sports News was particularly interesting for the amount of footage of Mark Cavendish that was featured, considering the fact the Isle of Man rider is contracted to another team until at least the end of 2010, and has an option to continue to the end of 2011.

Another News Corporation entity, The Sun illustrated its full-page report on Team Sky with a picture of Cavendish winning one of his Tour stages.

To the initiated, it smacked of using pictures of Cristiano Ronaldo to illustrate a story about Chelsea, an analogy Cavendish used himself when speaking to Cycling Weekly earlier this week.

Coming at it from a journalist?s perspective, it is understandable that the link was used. After all, to a wider audience, Cavendish is the most familiar British rider there is. People know the name, they associate him with the Tour de France, so it?s logical enough.

But for a team being backed by a huge media organisation that is usually so savvy in all its operations, it?s an odd one because Dave Brailsford and Team Sky don?t want to be accused of tapping up by association.

Team Sky is going to create waves all year. The perception is it?s a glossy team with plenty of cash to splash. Brailsford?s goal is big and bold. Who wouldn?t want to be part of it?

Every rider who even loosely fits the bill is going to be linked, either by the media, by the riders themselves, or by agents keen to spark a bidding war for their client?s services.

In every corner of the cycling world, key people will be asked whether they?ve been approached and whether they?d welcome an approach. In fact, it?s already started ? with the Danish press asking Columbia?s Brian Holm about Team Sky. The same thing is going to happen across Europe.

Hopefully the people at the heart of Team Sky won?t get too touchy about the inevitable speculation, because presumably one of the reasons the company got involved with the team was to gain exposure for the brand. Anyway, it was Sky that put Cavendish and Team Sky in the same sentence last week.

WHO?S YOUR FAVOURITE?

The current poll on cyclingweekly.co.uk is asking readers who their favourite British rider of all time is.

Cycling Weekly has a list of all-time British pro winners on this site and recently we revealed our all-time ranking, which takes into account more than pure victories.

But when it comes to a subjective decision based on the rider you most liked to watch in action, each person?s choice is personal.

For me, there is no contest. It has to be Robert Millar, and one day in particular stands out as a bittersweet memory.

I was just getting interested in cycling when Millar won the polka-dot jersey in the Tour de France. I can recall Phil Liggett?s commentary, which sounded like it was being beamed back to Britain via a yoghurt pot and a long piece of string. Over the next couple of years I read voraciously, learning as much as I could about the Tour de France, then the other races.

I read Cycling Weekly with a sense of tremendous injustice that the Spaniards had ganged up on Millar in the Vuelta a Espana.

By 1989, I was submerged in cycling, and every day in July was the same. Ride home from school, get changed into cycling kit (Fagor jersey, Toshiba shorts ? yes, I know, it must have looked hideous) and get a quick ride in before Channel 4?s highlights began.

In those days there was no internet (hard to believe, I know). Cycling results were not read out on the news on television or radio, and so you watched the half-hour show as if it were live.

There was almost no chance of the result being spoiled for you.

But on the day of the tenth stage, from Cauterets to Superbagnères, disaster struck. As I settled down in front of the television, I sat on the remote control and my leg pressed the ?text? button, bringing up Teletext?s home page. (For younger readers, Teletext was like the Internet, in a very, very small way. It was pages of blocky text giving you the day?s news, sport, features and TV listings).

?Millar wins Tour stage,? said the headline.

I tried to pretend my eyes hadn?t seen it. I tried to pretend I hadn?t just been robbed of half-an-hour?s suspense and drama.

For a moment I was so angry. Why on earth was Teletext bothering to give away the cycling result today? You usually had to wait for the TV to scroll through pages of bowls results before it got to the cycling snippets, and then you?d only get a couple of paragraphs.

My dad came home from work in time to watch the second half of the programme, by which time Pedro Delgado, Charly Mottet and Robert Millar were away. I didn?t let on that I knew Millar had won, but I felt such a fraud.

Embarrassingly, towards the end, when Millar accelerated away, I think I may even have said: ?He might get this!?

It was a superb win, but I felt slightly flat because the sense of the unexpected had been denied by a clumsy trailing leg and the TV remote.

What are your favourite memories of British cyclists? Email us and we?ll print some of the best ones in a couple of weeks

RACE TO THE SUN

Paris-Nice gets underway on Sunday, with a flat nine-kilometre prologue time trial in Amilly.

A quick look through the provisional start list would suggest that two British riders with the Garmin-Slipstream team, David Millar and Bradley Wiggins, could be in with a shout of winning in the prologue.

They are likely to face the strongest opposition from Caisse d?Epargne?s Jose Ivan Gutierrez, perhaps Roman Kreuziger of Liquigas and Joost Posthuma of Rabobank. You can?t count out the likes of Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) or Marco Pinotti (Columbia) either.

As for the overall, Alberto Contador could have the form to win, even if it?s not one of his big targets for the season. He won the Tour of the Algarve a couple of weeks ago and is a former winner in Nice, so he has to be the favourite. I?d expect his closest challenge to come from Frank and Andy Schleck. Saxo Bank had planned to send Frank to the Eroica and Tirreno-Adriatico, but his good form and stage win in California has prompted a rethink.

Sylvain Chavanel is another one to watch, judging by his recent form. Watch also for Ireland?s Dan Martin. A place in the top ten position isn?t out of the question.

The race is live on British Eurosport next week (with Tirreno-Adriatico highlights following afterwards).

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009

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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