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|TROUBLE AT MILL?|
When Carlos Sastre decided to leave CSC for the Cervélo Test Team, he became the first reigning Tour de France champion to voluntarily switch teams since Greg LeMond in the winter of 1989/90.
Although Alberto Contador won the Tour for Discovery Channel in 2007 and then rode for Astana in 2008, his change of teams was due only to the fact that the American squad folded, not because he wanted to move.
LeMond, who rode on a cut-price contract at ADR in 1989 after two injury-plagued seasons following his shooting accident, was the most valuable commodity in cycling that winter after winning the Tour and the world title and signed for Roger Legeay?s Z squad for mega-bucks.
Sastre, who finally delivered the Tour de France victory CSC so badly wanted, confirmed during the Vuelta a Espana that he would be leaving to join the new Cervélo Test Team.
It was not a particularly happy split. Sastre accused CSC of pulling the rope ladder up and leaving him stranded without team support during the Vuelta.
Anyone who has watched the movie Overcoming would have got the impression that Sastre and Bjarne Riis had a fairly cool, business-like relationship. Spend any time observing the team before stages at the Tour de France and you?d have drawn the conclusion that Sastre and directeur sportif Scott Sunderland were close.
So it was not much of a surprise that both Sastre and Sunderland announced they were joining Cervélo. Perhaps, considering the emergence of Andy Schleck, and Sastre?s age ? he?ll be 34 next birthday ? Riis was simply making a cool business decision in letting an expensive, ageing asset go at the right time.
As football managers say, one of the toughest skills to master is knowing the right time to get rid of a long-serving player.
Sastre, Sunderland, Thor Hushovd and, from our perspective, a sprinkling of British riders (Roger Hammond, Dan Lloyd, Dan Fleeman and Jeremy Hunt) meant Cervélo looked to be building an interesting team, even if the emphasis on testing bicycles rather than winning races seemed a little peculiar.
At last week?s Tour de France presentation, my colleague Simon Richardson approached Sunderland, primarily to ask about the British riders and how the team was shaping up, only to be told the Aussie had already quit with the project in its infancy.
Sunderland said there had been differences between him and the way the team was going to be run.
Cervélo issued a press release giving their side of the story. The press release did not shed much light on the issue, or the supposed differences, but that?s typical of most press releases.
Anyway, there?s more to this than meets the eye. We?re just not quite sure what it is yet.
Whatever the situation, Sastre is now left without his preferred directeur sportif, while Sunderland is now working on ?another project?.
|TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING|
It was interesting to note the comments of The Guardian?s respected columnist Richard Williams, who recently bemoaned the decision to put Lance Armstrong on the cover of Cycling Weekly in a more prominent position than world champion Nicole Cooke.
Since that October 2 issue, Armstrong has featured on the cover on a further two occasions. He has also been the cover ?star? of the November and December issues of our sister magazine, Cycle Sport.
So, of the past nine road cycling magazines to be produced by this office, seven have featured Armstrong prominently on the cover.
You could say that?s overkill and I certainly wouldn?t disagree.
By next summer I suspect we?re all going to thoroughly sick of the sight of him.
While it?s undeniable that Armstrong?s return is a huge story, I can see that the reasons to put him on the cover may become more and more tenuous as the weeks go by.
The ?will he, won?t he? saga of whether he rides the Tour de France will continue until July (even though it?s blindingly obvious he will) and when he actually starts racing every 76th place finish in the bunch will be reported and analysed in the same way that Tiger Woods usually dominates golf, or that David Beckham?s 10-minute substitute appearances for England are dissected.
Although I am not at liberty to quote actual figures, you?ll have to take my word for it when I say that featuring Armstrong on the cover in the past few weeks has lead to a significant upward spike in sales figures on the back of what has already been a very encouraging year. And, when all is said and done, magazine production is a business and the primary job is to make the magazine appeal to as many people as possible.
Of course the novelty of Lance may wear off (although I doubt it) at which time we can all get back to normal (by putting one of our staffers on the cover in Assos kit ? I know what you?re thinking at the back!)
In the meantime, if you are not a fan of Armstrong, try not to fixate on his appearance on cover. Although his face may beam out from the newsstand almost every week, he is not actually featured on every page.
Maybe those who are attracted to the sport by Armstrong will, over the course of the coming months, find that there is more about the sport to enjoy and will stick around after he?s gone again.
In the meantime, can I suggest you simply invest in some Post-It notes and stick them over his face if it offends you so much. That?s what I do. Although if you tell anyone I said that, I?ll deny it.
|THE BBC?S SKY DILEMMA|
Everyone at British Cycling was no doubt rubbing their hands together at the prospect of Rupert Murdoch rolling a few wheelbarrows of his money in their direction.
And why not. Cycling in this country deserves a high-profile sponsor with deep pockets who is prepared to back the sport properly.
After all, if the British pro team is going to become a reality it is going to rely on sponsorship from a major company, most likely Sky.
Sky?s logo is already on the British national jersey, and this weekend Victoria Pendleton and the male sprinters will make their debut in the striking colours of Sky+HD at the Manchester World Cup.
However, I can?t be the only one who feels a little uneasy about Sky?s involvement.
The broadcaster is a ruthless operator and that?s fine, but the assumption that signing up with a media giant is going to take the sport to a huge new audience is a dangerous one to make.
Although they won?t admit as much on the record, the BBC can be none too chuffed at the prospect of having to broadcast images of one of its rivals prominently at the Manchester World Cup this weekend.
The idea of commentator Hugh Porter saying: ? and that?s victory for Victoria Pendleton of the Sky+HD team,? won?t be filling the corporation?s execs with much cheer.
Sky may be heavily involved in Premiership football and a host of other sports, but this is the first time that a broadcaster has ?crossed the fourth wall? as telly people put it, and become a participant in the events.
Cycling being cycling, the teams take on the names of the sponsoring companies and that is the problem for the BBC.
Cycling Weekly contacted the BBC at the start of this week for a comment and, so far, nothing official has been forthcoming, although a member of the sport?s publicity department said that Sky+HD would be treated in exactly the same way as any corporate sponsor involved in the event, whatever that means.
The BBC has steadily built an audience for track cycling over the past few years, broadcasting the World Cups from Manchester. The World Championships earlier this year brought viewing figures in excess of a million for the live broadcasts.
That is a huge audience ? particularly when you consider only around a million people watch Sky?s live coverage of the average Sunday afternoon Premier League football match.
Sky may bring power and prestige, but it doesn?t guarantee bums on seats. For that, you need to be on terrestrial television.
It?ll be interesting to see how often the BBC name-checks Sky over the course of this weekend. Whenever they do, you can be sure it will be with a slight wince.
|HEROES COME HOME|
Manchester Velodrome welcomes home the Olympic heroes this weekend.
The three-day World Cup meeting is not only a chance for the sell-out crowd to hail the Olympic champions, but also an opportunity to see some of the next generation in action. Riders in action this weekend could be the Olympic champions of 2012.
Any fans slightly disappointed that they won?t get to see either, Chris Hoy or Rebecca Romero ? the two notable absentees ? should focus on who they will be able to watch.
Gold medal-winners Victoria Pendleton, Bradley Wiggins, Ed Clancy, Geraint Thomas, Jason Kenny and Jamie Staff will be there, as will silver medallist Ross Edgar and bronze medallist Chris Newton.
Of equal importance, though is the opportunity to see the young riders in action. There?s a plethora of riders in their teens and early twenties who will get a shot at a ride on the big stage in front of a capacity crowd. For some of them it will be their first experience of the big occasion.
They may not have the super-star status of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins or Victoria Pendleton just yet, but there are sure to be some gems among them. Who knows, if you are there this weekend, you may be seeing the first step on the journey towards Olympic gold.
|TEAM TIME TRIAL IS BACK|
The team time trial returns to the Tour de France next summer and I, for one, am delighted, particularly as they have done away with the silly rule which restricted the amount of time the weak teams could lose.
In 2005, the team time trial stage from Tours to Blois was a bit of a beast ? 67.5 kilometres. The rule meant that the times that went towards the general classification were staggered. That meant the last-placed team, AG2R, conceded three minutes to the winners overall, despite the fact they were 5-23 slower than Discovery Channel.
The theory was that the overall contenders in weaker formations would not be unduly punished for being rubbish at team time trialling. But it rendered the race a bit of a non-event. It?s far better for the credibility of the team time trial if it counts fair and square towards the race for the yellow jersey.
Christian Prudhomme has made the Montpellier stage of next year?s Tour 38 kilometres, which will restrict the amount of time the weaker teams can lose anyway, and make the stage the thrilling display of formation riding it always used to be.
|PRUDHOMME?S VENTOUX GAMBLE|
The Mont Ventoux stage promises so much, let?s hope it delivers.
As befitting a race that starts in the casino capital, Monte Carlo, Christian Prudhomme has placed all his chips on red, gambling the fate of the race on the assumption that it?ll go down to the wire.
The ideal scenario is that five or six riders go into the penultimate stage within a couple of minutes of each other, and the only way to ensure that is to blunt the teeth of the mountain stages in the Pyrenees and the Alps.
It?s a bold idea, but it could backfire if the race stalls for the best part of three weeks as everyone waits for the Ventoux, or if one rider manages to get himself three or four minutes in front before the final weekend.
It was inevitable that the anti-doping fight would descend into political point-scoring at some point, and Pierre Bordry?s nose has clearly been put out of joint as a result of the tentative make-up between ASO and the UCI.
It mean that his body, the AFLD (French Anti-Doping Agency) will not be in sole charge of dope-testing at next year?s Tour de France.
Bordry has a point when he says he has caught more riders in three weeks (seven) than the UCI has in a year.
In the battle to clean up cycling, is it really important who catches the cheats?
The UCI suffers because of its inactivity in the past. After all, what did the former president Hein Verbruggen do as the Festina Affair shook the 1998 Tour de France? He went on holiday, that?s what he did.
Law changes in key European countries forced cycling to react and a succession of scandals increased the political pressure to toughen up. An effective test for r-EPO was a long time coming, and the anti-doping authorities continue to be at least a step behind the cheats and their doctors.
But blood doping is not a simple case of black and white. The actual substances can be used when well out of the way of the dope testers at races. The traces disappear from the system before competition, but the effects remain.
That is why out-of-competition testing is such a key development and the number of tests has increased dramatically. And so in the past year riders have had to get used to updating their ?whereabouts? information on a daily basis.
The biological passport programme is a huge step forward, and yet the UCI is getting it in the neck because it is not fully operational yet.
What did people expect was going to happen? That the UCI would administer a single blood test on each rider on January 1 and base its search for anomalies on that?
What ill-informed nonsense.
This year has been an exercise in data capture and there have been successes. But just because the UCI did not catch everyone in 2008, does not mean the system is not beginning to work.
Yes, it is frustrating, but slowly the opportunities to cheat and get away with it are diminishing. The biological passport relies on building a profile of each rider?s individual profiles.
Anne Gripper and her team have taken the view that it is better to catch a cheat bang to rights and make the charge stick, than go off half-cocked with insufficient data, run the risk of having an unsafe verdict overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and fire a great big hole in the credibility of the system.
The problem is, as I said a couple of weeks ago, the levels of trust in cycling is at an all-time low. Because of the dithering, head-in-the-sand approach of the past, there is a lack of faith in the UCI.
Pat McQuaid hasn?t helped matters by resolutely refusing to consider retesting the Giro d?Italia samples for CERA, as the AFLD did with the Tour de France samples that raised a red flag. Retro-active testing, like the biological passport, could be a key weapon in deterring cheating.
The criticism of the UCI has been sitting on results it knows to be suspect. One of the realities of the blood passport is that in some cases there may be indicators that suggest foul play without screaming ?doping?.
It is not a perfect analogy, but it is similar to a policeman stopping a driver and administering a breath test to detect alcohol. The driver blows into the machine and the light goes orange. The policeman knows the driver has had a drink, the driver knows he has had a drink, but he has not failed a breath test and they all know there?s no case to answer.
|TICKING TIME BOMB|
Interesting to read in the science pages of the newspaper this week, that American researchers have found that patients are twice as likely to contract infections if given blood that has been stored for a long time.
If the blood was more than 29 days old they were more prone to pneumonia, respiratory problems and blood poisoning. As stored blood ages, it releases cytokines ? a biochemical which can suppress the immune system.
The National Health Service only stores blood for up to 35 days, the report said.
There?s a generation of blood dopers out there who could not possibly have known the potential health implications of their actions.
As time bombs go, you can almost hear the ticking from here.
PREVIOUS WEDNESDAY COMMENTS
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