GILBERT?S BIG WIN

Forgive me for feeling a little smug after Philippe Gilbert?s win at Paris-Tours.

In last week?s Wednesday Comment I tipped him for victory ? and I don?t mean I named three-dozen riders who might have a chance of winning and got lucky. I actually stuck my neck out and predicted that the Belgian would be victorious in Tours.

A couple of weeks ago during a trip to Monaco, our photographer and myself ended up having lunch with a few professional riders who live in the principality. Gilbert was there, having just signed on the dotted line to rent an apartment in the city, which is perhaps proof that Silence-Lotto are upping his Française des Jeux wages significantly.

I recalled last year?s Paris-Tours, when the Belgian attacked on the penultimate climb, the Côte de l?Epan, with seven kilometres to go. Filippo Pozzato and Karsten Kroon went with him but it was Gilbert who did most of the work. Had Pozzato given them more of a hand, perhaps they?d have stayed away, but as it was they were caught inside the final kilometre.

I asked Gilbert whether he was in form and he said that Paris-Tours, together with Milan-San Remo, was the Classic that suited him best and that he had planned the second half of his season so he?d be in great form for the French race.

As much as anything, he said, he wanted to win something big for Française des Jeux, to say thank you and adieu to the team that gave him the chance to turn professional.

?After last year, I know now exactly where I must attack,? he said. I asked him what he meant, but he declined to give away his plan. ?I have got a plan and I know exactly the moment, so let?s see if it works,? was all he would say.

On Sunday we saw Gilbert?s plan work to perfection. His team-mate Mikael Delage ? who will switch to Silence-Lotto with him next season ? went with an attack about 16 kilometres out. Gilbert got into a position near the front as they went over the Côte de l?Epan, but didn?t attack, instead waiting for the last climb to make his move.

On the Côte du Petit Pas d?Ane, the final hill, he gave it everything, dropped Pozzato and bridged across to the leading four ? which included Delage.

Delage then drove the group on, while Gilbert took a breather. The effort made by the lesser-known FDJ man was truly heroic, selfless stuff. Team-work at its best. In the final kilometre, and with the bunch closing down on them fast, Gilbert waited and waited until Nicolas Vogondy opened the sprint, coming past with time to celebrate in style.

It was a super finale to a much under-rated race and I must admit I was pleased to see the Belgian win it, not least because it was a victory for a well thought-out and perfectly-executed plan.

My only regret is that I didn?t put a bet on him.

SUITS YOU, SIR

There were a few sniggers and raised eyebrows at the sight of David Zabriskie in a skinsuit at Paris-Tours.

Apparently the Dutch TV commentators were laughing at Zabriskie for wearing it and for hunkering down over the bars in an aero-tuck position too.

The Garmin rider got in the break with four other riders, including his team-mate Luca Euser, but only the American had opted to wear an all-in-one suit usually reserved for time trials.

A lot of people probably put Zabriskie?s choice of attire down to his ?wacky? persona. Crazy facial hair one month, skinsuit in a road race the next ? that?s zany Dave Z.

Well, perhaps.

British fans will know that Rob Hayles has been wearing a skinsuit in road races for much of the season. He?d been trying not to draw attention to it at first, but the cat is well and truly out of the bag now. The first time I noticed was when I saw the Halfords Bikehut rider before the start of the National Championship road race in June. I made a little light-hearted joke of it, which Hayles brushed off saying that he?d packed it by mistake.

It was only after he won the national title that Hayles admitted it was a deliberate choice. As he said: ?You would be stunned at the difference in wind tunnel tests.? He wouldn?t be drawn on specific numbers, adding: ?If everyone knew, they?d all be doing it and I?d be back to square one.?

Six weeks or so later Nicole Cooke, who also rides for Halfords Bikehut, won Olympic gold in the road race wearing a skinsuit and suddenly it all slotted into place. All those hours Hayles had spent in British Cycling?s wind tunnel testing kit and equipment had played a small but by no means irrelevant part in Cooke?s win.

Now Zabriskie has followed suit it seems the trend may catch on.

NO SUCH THING AS A NEW IDEA

Even Rob Hayles can?t take the credit as the originator of this particular trend, though.

Back in 1985, Andy Hampsten won a 58-kilometre road stage at the Giro d?Italia that climbed to 1,666 metres at Gran Paradiso. That day the American wore a skinsuit, which back then was a pretty new addition to the cyclist?s wardrobe, and attacked at the bottom of the climb, time trialling to the top.

Later in the summer, Ireland?s Stephen Roche did exactly the same thing, arriving on the startline in a La Redoute team skinsuit ? much to the derision of his rivals ? for a 52-kilometre mass-start stage from Luz St Sauveur to the Col d?Aubisque, via the Souleur. Roche attacked early and soloed to victory.

With the Tour de France route due to be revealed in Paris a week today, memories of those short but sweet road stages got me thinking.

Wouldn?t it be great if the Tour?s organisers threw in a very short, mass-start mountain stage? Instead of the usual road stage with several climbs, or in the case of the rumoured stage from Montelimar to Mont Ventoux, perhaps they should just start in Carpentras and go straight up the mountain.

It would only be 30 or so kilometres but surely there is room in the modern Tour format for a short, explosive mountain stage?

KOHL?S DEVASTATING BLOW

It is impossible to gloss over the news of the latest positive test for CERA.

Although we were widely expecting one more positive test for the drug to follow Ricco, Piepoli and Schumacher, it was still a blow to find that the rider caught was Bernhard Kohl.

For several reasons, this was pretty devastating news. The Austrian finished third in the Tour de France and won the polka-dot jersey as the race?s king of the mountains, so he was right in the thick of the race. This was not a mere stage winner or pack fodder getting caught out, it was the revelation of the race.

Kohl made attacks and was a factor in the mountains, shaping the destiny of the entire event and influencing the outcome by his presence. Stripping him of his third place and mountains title is all very well, but the damage is done.

Secondly, Kohl is 26 years old and, like Riccardo Ricco, is part of the younger, supposedly cleaner generation that many had hoped would emerge post-Festina.

And thirdly, Kohl ? like Stefan Schumacher ? rode for Gerolsteiner, a German team sponsored by a mineral water company that presumably didn?t want it?s fresh, clean image sullied by blood doping. His team manager was Hans-Michael Holzcer, a man who publicly gave the impression that every doping scandal was a personal affront.

I am minded to feel sympathy for Holczer and give him the benefit of the doubt. Having spoken to him after successive scandals and seen the shock and upset on his face, particularly after Patrick Sinkewitz?s positive in last year?s Tour, I genuinely felt confident he was hammering the message home inside the team too. Holzcer didn?t strike me as someone who said one thing in public but behind closed doors gave riders the wink and said ?Do what you have got to do.? I could be wrong, but I feel Holzcer has been terribly let down.

Kohl mugged us all. Of course, taking CERA didn?t make the Tour de France easy for him and I have no doubt that he really was turning himself inside out to stay with the leading group in the mountains and cling to that third place overall.

And that?s the most damaging aspect of all. It looked real, and I don?t believe he was gurning and pulling faces for the cameras to pull the wool over our eyes. When he slumped over the line at Alpe d?Huez, a colleague said he had not seen riders look so wasted for a long time. These weren?t the plastic-faced, expressionless automatons of recent years. These were guys who were hurting a lot. And, we assumed, if they were rocking and rolling, it was because they must be cleaner. Yet it was still fraudulent.

How wrong we were in Kohl?s case.

So, this is another reminder that almost nothing in professional cycling can be taken at face value. Trust is at an all-time low. No one believes anything anyone says.

The riders don?t trust each other. The media doesn?t trust the riders. The teams don?t trust the media. The riders don?t trust the labs. The fans don?t trust the riders, the labs or the media. A lot of people don?t trust independent anti-doping programmes or the biological passport. And so it goes on.

And yet, for all the disappointment that came with the announcement about Kohl, there is hope that each painful positive test makes it just a little more likely that the cheats will give up the needle and that others will be persuaded that it simply isn?t worth believing the next miracle substance will go undetected.

Until then, though, the peloton will have to forgive those who choose to treat every race and result with scepticism. It isn?t good enough to be silent any more. If you are anti-doping, if you are doing it on bread and water without resorting to doping (and that includes re-injecting your own blood) then you need to speak out.

There are no indicators. Nothing looks real any more than it looks false. Rock your shoulders, roll your eyes, it doesn?t say you?re clean. Win from out of nowhere, people will assume you?re doping. Dominate for weeks at a time, people will assume you are doping. Struggle down the back of the bunch, off-form or injured, people will assume you?re doping. Come back strong and win, people will assume you?re doping.

It?s unpleasant and for many it?s grossly unfair, but it the reality that professional cycling has created for itself.

BLOOD TESTS REVISITED

A few people have asked why the CERA tests on the Tour de France samples have only just been conducted, considering the race ended weeks ago.

The simple answer is that CERA was detected in urine samples given by Riccardo Ricco at the Tour de France. No blood tests for CERA were carried out during the Tour but, once the authorities realised that the substance was being used, they decided to go back and use the recently-ratified blood test on some samples that had raised suspicions.

It has nothing to do with the French wishing to divert the impact of negative publicity away from the race.

The UCI has come in for criticism for failing to catch the cheats ? particularly since the arrival of the much-heralded biological passport system.

While the UCI may not be perfect, I do believe the governing body is being genuine in its fight to clean up cycling. It may be long overdue, and a blind eye may have been turned for too long, but the effort is now being made.

But as Anne Gripper explained to Cycling Weekly, things won?t happen over night. Doping in sport is a century-old problem and the new biological passport system is based on more than simply the detection of substances in the blood and urine. It will take time to build up accurate profiles of each rider, with tests conducted over a period of months and years. Only then will anomalies stand out.

Until then, there may be suspicion that cannot be acted upon until the evidence stands up to the inevitable fierce legal scrutiny. The system could collapse immediately if the UCI pressed on with a shaky case.

But that does not mean the UCI is burying bad news or protecting dopers, it is simply being cautious.

CALM BEFORE THE STORM?

There will be no more positive tests from the 2008 Tour de France, they say.

Well, until they start testing for autologous blood transfusions, that is.

That?s the process of re-injecting your own blood, which had been extracted and stored at a time when it?s nice and rich and healthy. Then, during times of extreme fatigue, it is re-injected to give the athlete a boost.

It isn?t a new technique by any means. Before the practice was banned in 1986 it was used, perhaps most notably, by Finland?s long-distance runner Lasse Viren and some of the US cycling team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

The advent of synthetic EPO, which stimulated the production of red blood cells, made the practice virtually redundant because it was simpler and avoided the problem of having to safely store quantities of blood.

But after the urine test for EPO was introduced in 2000, it came back into fashion.

However, it is the most difficult technique to detect because the test relies on analysing the blood population and assessing the age and number of individual red cells.

Pierre Bordry of the French anti-doping authority (AFLD) says it has a test that can detect autologous transfusions and that samples from as many as 30 riders taken at this year?s Tour will be re-tested.

We?re not out of the woods yet.

NO PIE IN THE SKY

A few weeks ago, I speculated that a Sky-sponsored trade team would make its debut at the Manchester round of the track World Cup.

Well, it has now been confirmed that four British sprinters ? Victoria Pendleton, Ross Edgar, Jason Kenny and Jamie Staff ? will ride for Sky+HD at the end of the month.

This is surely another big step on the road to unveiling a British-run, Sky-sponsored road team in time for the 2010 season.

LINK

See the article headlined: Sky Blue Thinking

BAD LUCK FILIPPO

You?d be disappointed, no doubt, if a week went past without mentioning the L-word.

This week Lance Armstrong announced that he had been invited to ride the 2009 Giro d?Italia.

That will more than likely mean the reigning Italian national champion, Filippo Simeoni, will not be welcome at the race.

Simeoni once gave evidence in court against Armstrong?s friend and one-time coach, Dr Michele Ferrari, something that the Texan took exception to.

Remember the life-affirming way Armstrong chased Simeoni down during a stage towards the end of the 2004 Tour de France. Armstrong rode across to a break the Italian had joined and refused to sit up until Simeoni did too.

Now, Simeoni was not a saint. He used EPO, prescribed he said by Dr Ferrari, but Armstrong?s bullying behaviour was particularly unpleasant. The inference was ?shut your mouth?.

Just as the UCI rolled over and submitted to Armstrong?s will (see last week?s Wednesday Comment), so too will the Giro d?Italia over Simeoni.

And they say no one man is bigger than the sport?

Oh well, it?s only one veteran Italian domestique who loses out, where?s the harm?

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PREVIOUS WEDNESDAY COMMENTS

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