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THE GIRO D?ITALIA LEAVES ME COLD

I just don?t get the Giro love.

Many people were no doubt drooling at the prospect of the 2009 race when the route was announced at the weekend, but the problem the Giro faces is how to regain its credibility after three farcical editions.

Don?t get me wrong, I think that of the three Grand Tour organisers, Angelo Zomegnan and his team consistently plot the most interesting, varied and potentially-exciting routes. The scenery is often absolutely breathtaking too. Of the three, it is the most aesthetically pleasing grand tour.

But a great route, with imaginative stages doesn?t make for a great race if the main protagonists are later exposed as monumental cheats.

I am not simply talking with the benefit of hindsight. Back in May, as the Giro entered its final week, I was questioning what I was seeing. It just looked ridiculous, and so it was later proved, with Ricco and Sella both testing positive for CERA.

There may have been more too, but neither the Italians nor UCI president Pat McQuaid see any merit in retrospective testing, which seems to me to be one of the most powerful weapons available to the anti-doping authorities.

Anyway, while there were some great days in this year?s race, the overall picture and the main mountain stages were a joke thanks to eventual runner-up Riccardo Ricco and Emanuele Sella. Last year?s race was won by Danilo Di Luca (need I say more?) with veteran Astana rider Eddy Mazzoleni in third place. Remember him? He was the one climbing mountains with his mouth shut, who promptly ended his career when he was banned for two years when a doping investigation caught up with him. And in 2006 Ivan Basso beat Jose Enrique Gutierrez, the bicycling buffalo, by nine minutes. Later that summer they both found themselves implicated in the Operacion Puerto blood-doping investigation.

Hardly a glorious recent history is it?

But give Zomegnan his due, he has again pulled out several aces with a fascinating, dynamic route, kicking off with a team time trial.

The now-traditional early summit finish is a particularly spicy one at San Martino di Castrozza on the first Tuesday. The following day?s stage five is another uphill finish at the end of a punchy 125-kilometre stage. It?s great to see such short, potentially-explosive stages being utilized.

Then the week ends with a superb 155-kilometre criterium in Milan, which will suit the sprinters. Mark Cavendish probably has his eyes on it already. A criterium in a grand tour? Great stuff.

Week two is dominated by the huge 61-kilometre time trial, presumably arranged for Lance Armstrong. It?s the longest time trial the Giro has had for years and will be a brute.

The most intriguing day is stage 17 from Chieti to Blockhaus. In our sister magazine Cycle Sport we?ve frequently advocated a return to short, spectacular stages like this. It?s just 79 kilometres, but uphill all the way, and finishes at 2,064 metres.

I?ll resist the puns about the explosive finish at the Mount Versuvius volcano.

All in all, it is a mouth-watering route, which should offer plenty to anticipate.

But the pre-race excitement has to be matched with post-race authenticity if the Giro d?Italia is to stand up to examination. Otherwise, it?ll just be a circus.

While we all love a bit of drama and excitement, the last thing the Giro needs is another freak show.

HIS ROYAL HOYNESS

Congratulations to Chris Hoy, Dave Brailsford and the British Cycling team honoured at the BBC?s Sports Personality of the Year awards night on Sunday.

It was fantastic to see cycling take centre stage, picking up three important awards, two selected by a panel of experts and the main award won by Hoy voted for by the public.

Inevitably the debate continues among cycling fans as to whose achievements were the greatest ? Chris Hoy?s trio of Olympic gold medals on the track, or Nicole Cooke?s Olympic Games and World Championship double on the road.

There is an argument that Cooke?s achievement was ?greater? because of the difficulty and unpredictability of road cycling and the strength in depth of the fields she was up against.

Although there is a fair point lurking in there, it doesn?t quite stand up to scrutiny.

Because if you apply that line of logic evenly, Mark Cavendish should have won, because he consistently beat the best riders in the world at the biggest, toughest and most important bike race in the world.

In the Olympic Games sprint competition, Hoy beat 20 other riders to win gold. In the Olympic Games road race, Cooke lined up with just 65 other riders, while she was up against 136 in the World Championships.

But at the Tour de France, Cavendish started with 179 other riders and beat 157 of them to win the fourth of his stages.

So, when you start to look at it like that, it becomes a bit of a redundant argument, because then you could argue that only a dozen or so Tour de France sprinters are actually capable of winning a stage.

The men?s road racing field is, without question, stronger and more competitive than the women?s. So what does that mean? Should Cavendish have been nominated and won?

The bottom line is that by becoming the first British athlete in a century to win three Olympic gold medals in a single Games, Chris Hoy has written his name into sporting legend and that is what resonated with the public who were voting for the BBC?s award.

After all, Michael Phelps won eight Olympic gold medals in the pool. I wonder if there are some swimming fans arguing that the long-distance open-water swimmers achieved ?greater? things?

SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW

What?s next for British Cycling? It was the inevitable question after all the success at the Olympic Games, and the answer appears to be that they want to win the men?s road race at the World Championships.

But the plans are already being put in place up in Manchester, with a group of elite and under-23 riders training together under Rod Ellingworth.

Ellingworth was the driving force behind British Cycling?s Academy, formed at the start of 2004 and now based during the season out in Tuscany.

In five short years Ellingworth has produced a remarkable number of professionals. So far (not including this winter?s intake of four), 19 riders have been enrolled in the Academy. Five are now fully-fledged professional riders, still in their early 20s ? Mark Cavendish (Columbia), Geraint Thomas (Barloworld), Ian Stannard (ISD), Ben Swift (Katusha) and Jonny Bellis (Saxo Bank). That is a staggering success rate.

Recently I went up to Manchester to see Ellingworth and the squad in training and hear about the plans for Project Rainbow Jersey. You can read the Project Rainbow Jersey feature here.

The plan is to build a team capable of supporting Mark Cavendish when the World Championships are held on a course that suits him. As it stands at the moment, Melbourne in 2010 and Copenhagen in 2011 look like being friendly to the sprinters.

The level of detail going into the plan won?t surprise anyone who has watched British Cycling set and then meet its goals over the past half-dozen years.

I understand why there will be doubters. The road race picture throws up far more variables than the track. But it does mean that the old line that British Cycling doesn?t care about success on the road surely has to be laid to rest.

This year, British Cycling put its full weight behind Nicole Cooke and Emma Pooley, and reaped a gold and a silver medal at the Olympics and a world title.

British Cycling built a team specifically for Cooke, Halfords Bikehut, to replicate the national team atmosphere and bring it up to a trade team level of professionalism. That squad was assembled for one reason, pure and simple, to give Cooke the best possible chance of winning in Beijing.

And Emma Pooley was the subject of Project Pooley, a plan devised to give her the best possible chance of winning a medal in the time trial. They designed and built a special set of aerodynamic handlebars that allowed her to climb in her favoured position.

It is planning and preparation and investment like that which leads me to believe that nothing is impossible.

GB PRO TEAM ON THE HORIZON

To prove the point about the road being where it?s at, the British-run pro team edges ever closer.

Extremely detailed work is continuing and within weeks, rather than months, things will start to come out in the open, I expect.

Naturally some fans will be sceptical. Dave Brailsford could sign ten of the best riders in the world, unveil a snazzy new kit and bikes, reveal the race programme for 2010 includes all the Classics, the Giro and the Tour, and there?d still be some bloke who knows best who says: ?Nah, it?ll never happen.?

See the February 2009 issue of our sister magazine, Cycle Sport for the latest behind-the-scenes story on how the plans are progressing. On sale next week.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK

It?s mid-December, the new season kicks off with the new Ladies Tour of Qatar at the beginning of February.

So how is it possible that the reigning Olympic and World Championship road race champion is without a major sponsor for her team.

You?d have thought they?d be forming a queue at the door to be associated with Nicole Cooke and Stefan Wyman?s team.

ARE YOU TOUGH ENOUGH?

For those who like a challenge, how about riding De Gouden Flandrien ? or Golden Flandrian ? in 2009?

The event starts and finishes at the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen, the museum dedicated to the Tour of Flanders in Oudenaarde.

It will be held on Sunday, May 24, 2009 and is dubbed the ultimate test in the Flemish Ardennes. At 250 kilometres, with 25 hills and 25 kilometres of cobbles, you can?t really argue.

Just 56 riders finished the inaugural event in 2007, the quickest taking nine hours, the slowest almost 14, with more than half of the starters giving up.

However, there are also Silver and Bronze Flandrian rides at 165km and 72km.

Or how about the RetroRonde, an event that is for riders on bikes more than 20 years old.

Taking its inspiration from the Eroica ride in Italy, where lots of riders turn up on vintage machines, the RetroRonde harks back to the sepia-tinted days of Eddy Merckx and beyond.

Old bikes, old kit, tyres wrapped round the shoulders and even vintage following cars make this a real blast from the past.

It?ll be held on June 28 with a choice of 65-kilometre or 35-kilometre routes.

LINKS

The Golden Flandrian sportive

Tour of Flanders museum website

The RetroRonde sportive

JUSTICE FOR MUSEEUW

The case had been delayed so long and put back so often, I was beginning to wonder whether Johan Museeuw would be let off the hook entirely.

He?s still a hero to many in Belgium, but the court finally hit him with a suspended 10-month prison sentence for his involvement in a doping scandal in 2003.

Back in January 2007, when Museeuw admitted he had ?done something wrong? in the final year of his career, I travelled to the headquarters of his bicycle factory in Lokeren, Belgium, in the belief that he was going to explain what he?d done and why.

Far from getting close to the truth, Museeuw said he didn?t feel he needed to explain any more than he already had. He seemed more interested in talking about his carbon-fibre Museeuw Bikes.

And that?s the problem. Like Bjarne Riis, who admitted doping to win the 1996 Tour de France, Museeuw?s name means a lot to his current and future business interests.

Museeuw is a world champion, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner. He?s been convicted of a criminal offence and he admitted to doping in his final year as a professional.

The line about doping only in the last year of his career stretches the bounds of credibility a bit, particularly as an array of products were found in his house by police in 2003. So does that discredit his entire career? Isn?t that relevant to his subsequent career, which relies heavily on a name earned during his sporting career?

What is he to you: hero, or convicted criminal?

THAT?S ALL FOLKS

That?s the end of the final Wednesday Comment of the year.

It?ll return in January, but in the meantime, look out for a special review of the year edition of the Wednesday Comment.

All that remains is to thank you for reading, thanks for all your emails, and have a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

PREVIOUS WEDNESDAY COMMENTS

December 10 ? With barely a mention of you-know-who

December 3 ? IT Factory ceases production

November 26 ? British pros branching out

November 19 ? Lance, the televised crits and the British boom

November 12 ? Revolution: The future for the Six-Days?

November 5 ? Why it?s ludicrous to blame British Cycling for domination

October 29 ? The BBC?s Sky dilemma and too much Lance?

Bonus comment: Assessing the 2009 Tour de France route

October 22 ? Is the Tour coming back to London in 2011?

October 15 ? How to pick a winner

October 8 ? UCI bends the rules for Lance

October 1 ? Armstrong again?

September 24 ? Why Contador must leave Astana for his own self-respect

September 17 ? Let?s leave the dirty generation in the past

September 10 ? The Armstrong Edition

September 10 ? The Armstrong-free Edition

Bonus comment ? Why Sevilla, Botero and Hamilton must not start Tour of Britain

September 3 ? Want to be national TT champ and ride the Tour of Britain? Tough, you can?t

August 27 ? Defending Great Britain

August 20 – Gold, gold, glorious gold

August 13 ? Gold rush starts

August 6 ? Team LPR in the Tour of Britain

July 30 ? Assessing the Tour

The Tuesday Comment – January to July 2008

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