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BRITISH PROS BRANCH OUT

There will be 13 British riders contracted to top professional teams next season, demonstrating that where track dominance has led, road success can follow.

Established riders such as Jeremy Hunt and Roger Hammond are in their mid-thirties now but have been professionals in Europe for more than a decade now and will ride for the Cervélo TestTeam. They will be joined there by Dan Lloyd and Dan Fleeman, who impressed with the Irish An Post squad and have earned their step up in status.

David Millar is joined at Garmin-Chipotle by Bradley Wiggins. Garmin also have Dan Martin, a former British junior road race champion who has opted to represent the country of his mother?s birth, Ireland.

Mark Cavendish will look to build on his stunning success with Team Columbia while Charly Wegelius will play an important supporting role for Cadel Evans at the Tour de France after moving from Liquigas to Silence-Lotto.

Although it is hard to imagine ASO extending a Tour de France invitation to Barloworld after the EPO positive of Moises Duenas at this year?s race, the three British riders there ? Geraint Thomas, Steve Cummings and the Kenyan-born Chris Froome ? will nevertheless get a good racing programme, which should include the Giro d?Italia. Geraint Thomas, S

Then there is Jonny Bellis and Ben Swift, who make their first steps into the world of professional cycling with Saxo Bank (formerly CSC) and the Russian Katusha squad respectively.

With British Cycling looking at launching its pro team in 2010 (and we?ll eat our hats if it isn?t sponsored by Sky) there?s been a lot of talk about how many riders are contracted to other teams and will be unable to join up from day one.

It is inevitable there will be plenty of carefully-selected foreign riders in the team at the start but as it grows the hope is that the top British riders will want to become a part of it.

In the meantime, though, there is plenty for British fans to be excited about. It looks like Cavendish will ride the first part of the Giro d?Italia, then aim for the green jersey at the Tour de France. Wiggins and Thomas are free of their track commitments for the time being to give it everything they?ve got on the road. Fleeman and Lloyd are riding for the team of the reigning Tour de France champion. Hammond is clear to have another big crack at Paris-Roubaix and Wegelius will play a big role at the Tour.

I?m struggling to remember a time when the British representation in top foreign teams was stronger. In the late 1980s there was a real boom in the number of Brits out there with the likes of Robert Millar, Sean Yates and Malcolm Elliott leading the way and enjoying successful careers. The likes of Adrian Timmis, Wayne Bennington, Deno Davie, Daryl Webster, Joey McLoughlin and Paul Watson all did enough to earn contracts with big teams, from Z-Peugeot, to Systeme-U and from Teka, Hitachi and Carrera, but without the same level of success.

I was talking to Brian Holm, the Dane who is now a directeur sportif at Team Columbia, last week and he made the point that the British riders who didn?t make a big mark in Europe during that era didn?t fail for lack of talent.

Holm, who remains a good friend of Watson, who rode for ANC-Halfords in 1987 and joined Claude Criquielion?s Hitachi team the following year, said: ?Back then, there were two places to live: France or Belgium. And you lived there all year, only going home at Christmas. It was difficult.

?A guy like Paul was so talented but he couldn?t adjust to the lifestyle and there was no help or support. He just had to live in Belgium and get on with it. We all did and it was hard for me but for some of the British guys it was even harder for some reason. Now the British have amazing support from the national federation and no one cares anymore that Mark [Cavendish] lives in the Isle of Man or if Wiggins lives in England. They can travel to races but remain happy at home.

?And when they are in Europe there is a little England in Italy [the British Cycling academy base in Tuscany] where they can all meet up and feel at home. It makes such a difference and it means that the talent is not lost.?

Speaking to Holm it became clear that the big foreign teams see British Cycling as a source of some excellent young talent.

CIOLEK IS RIGHT TO THINK OF HIMSELF

While it is a blow to Mark Cavendish that Gerald Ciolek has left Columbia to join Milram it is good for the sport that he has.

When the pair first joined T-Mobile at the start of 2007, all the fuss was about Ciolek, the former German national road race champion and reigning under-23 world champion.

During the past two seasons, Cavendish has overshadowed him by taking 28 top victories to Ciolek?s 11.

There is no doubt that had he not sacrificed himself for the British sprinter, Ciolek could have won a stage or two of the Tour de France himself. After all, he was second on the Champs-Elysees at the end of a long, tiring race.

Cavendish has never been slow to lavish praise on Ciolek for the work he has done. Remember Chateauroux at the Tour de France, when the German got the lead-out spot-on, or Toulouse where Cavendish won and Ciolek was second.

The pair struck up a strong friendship when it would have been easy for a difficult rivalry to develop and hamper the team.

But when Milram offered him a chance to be the number one sprinter on a team, it was an offer that was too good to turn down, as Cavendish himself acknowledged.

Cavendish knew that Columbia could not stand in Ciolek?s way and that, had roles been reversed, he?d have moved on in order to race for himself.

And that makes the sprinting picture look all the more exciting in 2009.

The Manxman was his usual confident self when asked whether he was worried about Ciolek becoming a rival when he said that on 80 or 90 per cent of the occasions they go to head-to-head, it?ll be a Cavendish victory.

But he then admitted that Ciolek is a more all-round rider, comparing him to Paolo Bettini.

AN INTERVIEW WITH LANCE?

Having questioned Lance Armstrong?s commitment to transparency, it is only right to acknowledge that the seven-time Tour de France winner extended an invitation to Cycling Weekly and our sister magazine Cycle Sport last week.

My colleague Edward Pickering dropped everything and travelled to Austin, Texas, for the magazine?s first face-to-face interview with him since 2003.

And fascinating reading they make too. There are two completely different takes on the same interview in the latest issues of the magazines. Tomorrow?s Cycling Weekly (November 27) features an in-depth question and answer interview and the January edition of Cycle Sport (out now) analyses his comeback and attempts to get behind what makes him tick.

CW?S TOP BRITISH RIDERS OF 2008

It?s December 1 on Monday and in households all over the country people will be opening the first window on their advent calendars to eat an odd-tasting chocolate or look at a poorly-drawn picture of some holly.

Well, cyclingweekly.co.uk has an advent calendar of its own as we count down the Top 50 British Riders of 2008.

It?s actually astonishing to think that these days when assessing the achievements of Britain?s cyclists that we are talking in terms of a top 50, when it?s not so long ago we used to struggle for a top ten.

Even though the list numbers 50, there?s still not room for every outstanding British cyclist of 2008, so we?ve had to be ruthless. It?s bound to provide a talking point or two as fans debate whether we?ve got it right or wrong.

From December 1 to Christmas Eve, we?ll count down from 50th to 11th, with the top ten being revealed in an issue of Cycling Weekly at Christmas.

Check the site on Monday to see who?s 50th and 49th in our list?

ASTANA THE SUPER TEAM

A quick look at Astana?s team roster for 2009 shows that they have six riders who have, at one time in their careers, finished in the top eight of the Tour de France.

Lance Armstrong has won seven times, of course, Alberto Contador just the once. Andreas Klöden has twice been second and Levi Leipheimer was third in 2007. Then there are new signings Haimar Zubelida, twice fifth for Euskaltel, and Yaroslav Popovych, eighth in 2007 and the man identified as Discovery Channel?s natural successor to Lance.

So, does this make them the strongest Tour de France team of all time?

It certainly looks formidable if Johan Bruyneel chooses to pick them all. We could be in for a very processional run to the bottom of Mont Ventoux with the boys in pale blue (if they stick with the Kazakh colours) riding on the front of the bunch for three weeks.

However, those who remember 1986 will think back to the first super-team of the modern era, La Vie Claire.

The team was assembled at great expense by controversial French multi-millionaire and entrepreneur Bernard Tapie.

Tapie teamed Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond together ? a combination every bit as potent and ego-driven as Armstrong and Contador.

The story of the Hinault-LeMond rivalry in that 1986 Tour de France is legendary and the day they attacked each other and then rode side-by-side up Alpe d?Huez is one of the sport?s most iconic.

It?s funny, really, but the prospect of Armstrong and Contador riding away from everyone else on Mont Ventoux is less appealing, somehow.

Perhaps it is because La Vie Claire, for all their firepower, never strangled the life out of the 1986 Tour in the way you fear Astana may attempt to.

They had LeMond and Hinault in first and second overall, with the up-and-coming Andy Hampsten in fourth. Swiss rider Niki Ruttimann was seventh overall. That?s four of the top seven from one team.

La Vie Claire also had Jean-Francois Bernard, who would go on to finish third in the 1987 Tour, and Canada?s Steve Bauer, who was fourth in 1988, in their ten-man team. And they won six of the 23 stages. It really was the strongest Tour de France squad of all time.

So, Astana will have to go some way to beat that.

BAD LUCK BERNARD

Well, we nearly got through an edition of the Wednesday Comment without mentioning the D word.

Nearly, but not quite. Bernhard Kohl has been quoted as saying he was ?disappointed? with the two-year suspension the Austrian Cycling Federation hit him with after testing positive for CERA after the Tour de France.

The Austrian rider follows Riccardo Ricco, another flagrant cheat, in claiming that the sanction should have been more lenient because he co-operated with the authorities.

Hang on a moment. They only ?co-operated? because they had been caught bang to rights. And the extent of that co-operation has not been made too clear. Mind you, the Italian authorities have seemingly set a precedent by giving Emanuele Sella only a one-year ban after he named team-mate Matteo Priamo as his cohort.

Every now and again we get criticised for being too soft on the cheats from those on one side of the argument (which is a little odd seeing as we are the magazines that originated the I Support Drug Free Sport campaign back in 2006) and for being too harsh from those on the other side.

The problem with reducing bans for those who co-operate with an investigation is that it is offering a get-out clause.

I would broadly support the idea of reduced suspensions for dopers who co-operate, but only if the penalties were stiffer in the first place.

Pat McQuaid was right when he called for four-year bans in the case of the most blatant doping offences. Perhaps then a year could be trimmed off for co-operating with the investigators and naming suppliers and other dopers. Perhaps a further year could be trimmed off if bio-passport testing demonstrates a clean bill of health over a 24-month period.

Because at the moment it?s like groundhog day. A doped rider is banned for two years, then mounts an appeal to get the suspension cut so they miss as few editions of the event they cheated in as possible.

The least palatable thing about Kohl is that he rode right the way to Paris in the thick of the action. His presence in the front group in the Alps directly influenced the race. His rivals had to consider him a serious, legitimate factor. And, of course, he made it onto the podium and took the utterly-discredited polka-dot jersey with him.

To say now that he feels two years is too harsh is laughable. After all, Bernard, what would you be doing right now if you hadn?t been caught? You?d be training for 2009, that?s what. And would you have thought ?I got away with it last year, so I?ll do it again this time??

PREVIOUS WEDNESDAY COMMENTS

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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