QUEL SURPRISE!

Possibly the least surprising news of the week came when the UCI confirmed that it would roll over and waive the rule that would have prevented Lance Armstrong from starting the Tour Down Under.

In a nutshell, the rule states that any rider seeking to return from retirement must give the UCI six months? notice to allow them to be available for out-of-competition dope testing. Armstrong told the UCI on August 1, meaning he?d be eligible to return on Febuary 1, 2009. That?s 12 days too late for the Tour Down Under.

The UCI was placed in an unenviable position. Mike Turtur of the Tour Down Under was beside himself with excitement at the possibility that Armstrong could make his comeback at his event.

Armstrong says his chief motivation for the comeback is to raise awareness for the fight against cancer, which made it even harder for the UCI to stick by what is a relatively minor rule and not one that is made mandatory by WADA [the World Anti Doping Agency].

When you consider that Armstrong could call on a recent precedent, the UCI?s chances of applying this rule melted away. Mario Cipollini had ridden the Tour of California in February without giving anything like six months notice.

Cycling Weekly spoke to a senior and very well-informed source at the UCI last week and learned that the governing body had twice written to Armstrong pointing out the rule.

Maybe Armstrong didn?t see the letters, but even if he did, it didn?t stop him from announcing his intention to come back at the Tour Down Under anyway.

When it emerged that this rule existed, Armstrong made a plea for common sense ? for which read ?Let me get my own way?.

CW understands the UCI?s key decision-makers were split on the matter but, at the heart of it, the governing body did not want to be seen as over-zealous bureaucrats pedantically enforcing a minor (though important) rule and standing in the way of an awful lot of charitable good being done.

But that is exactly what they should have done, because over-turning this rule for a rider who is coming back partly on an ?I was clean all along? ticket is the thin end of a potentially troublesome wedge.

Okay, so the fans Down Under must be excited at the prospect of seeing Armstrong?s comeback, and the race sponsors and broadcasters must be doubly so.

But can it be right that before he has even put his leg over a bike and pinned on a race number Armstrong?s power and influence has already been brought to bear and an allowance for him?

Oh yes, but it?s only a few days, so what does it matter?

Related links

Armstrong’s Tour Down Under comeback faces possible delay

Armstrong hopes UCI shows common sense

Armstrong knew about six-month rule

UCI gives Armstrong go-ahead to start Tour Down Under

PHONEY WINS

So, it turns out that five of the 21 stages of this year?s Tour de France were actually no more than entertaining street theatre.

As my colleague Nigel Wynn remarked yesterday, it is a good thing that the cheats are being caught. It didn?t come as any great surprise to me that Leonardo Piepoli and Stefan Schumacher failed dope tests at the Tour. I wrote the day after Schumacher?s first stage win that there were plenty of answered questions surrounding his conduct to make him an uncomfortable sight in the yellow jersey.

And Piepoli?s stage win at Hautacam was a complete joke. Like Riccardo Ricco he effectively ridiculed the sport, the riders he left in his wake and any spectators hoping to watch a credible sporting event.

So they have been exposed and, personally speaking, I hope that the authorities keep exposing the cheats one by one, however painful and embarrassing the process. Kick them out, strip them of their wins and ban them, even if it means I have to cross through another dozen races in my mind and consign them to the wastebin marked ?An All But Irrelevant Waste of My Time?.

Okay, so Ricco and Piepoli left the race before they could distort it any further and Schumacher didn?t affect the final outcome of the general classification in any major way, but that does not alter the fact that five of the stages of the Tour are essentially worthless in a sporting sense. It could be more if further positives are announced in the coming days.

What I do not agree with is elevating the second-placed rider and instating them as the new ?winner?. Strip Schumacher of his stage wins and leave the record books blank. To me Kim Kirchen and Fabian Cancellara no more won the time trial stages of the Tour de France than I did.

Neither rider got to feel any sense of elation on the day. They didn?t climb onto the podium and wave to the crowd.

And it would send a stronger message to the cheats that yes, you may prosper briefly, but if you are caught, your wins will be taken away and there will be a blank space instead.

PEER PRESSURE IS THE KEY

It?s all very well Gerolsteiner?s Sebastian Lang saying to the German press now that he was surprised by Schumacher?s muted reaction when Riccardo Ricco tested positive for CERA, while the rest of the team were pleased that he?d been caught.

The inference was that Lang and some of his team-mates sensed Schumacher may have been up to no good during the Tour.

But what did he do at the time?

The phrase cracher dans la soup or ?spitting in the soup? refers to anyone who speaks out on doping, but the bottom line is that the rule of silence has got cycling nowhere.

The future health of the sport depends on peer pressure making doping completely unacceptable in the peloton.

There are already signs that attitudes are changing. As my colleague Stephen Farrand revealed in our sister magazine Cycle Sport Piepoli and Ricco were a two-man team within the Saunier Duval team. They ate together, away from their other team-mates.

I also remember witnessing the Rabobank team having breakfast on the morning of the Albi time trial during the 2007 Tour. Michael Rasmussen came down by himself and ate alone, detached from the rest. At the time I put that down largely to the fact he was an oddball who had a late start time that day.

It isn?t about telling tales and turning your team-mates in, it?s about speaking out for clean, ethical sport.

I have just read Bradley Wiggins?s autobiography and while he was outspoken about his deep dislike of dopers and the damage it has caused the sport, I was somewhat surprised that he wished to play down the mantel of anti-doping crusader that he assumed in the wake of Operacion Puerto and the Floyd Landis affair, which blighted his debut Tour.

In a way it is fair enough. Why should one person have to carry the flame, particularly if it means he gets a hard time at his place of work? There may be plenty who have the courage and conviction to quietly live the correct way and influence people in small ways but who do not have broad enough shoulders to be a walking mouthpiece for ethical sport all the time, and I accept that.

It?s an unfortunate situation that riders such as Wiggins find themselves caught between wanting to state their own ethical position and not wishing to assume some sort of unearned spokesman status. Wiggins admitted that he felt awkward, as a Tour debutant, being quoted on weight matters.

Paradoxically it is exactly what cycling needs. It needs young men to come in and say: ?You know what? I don?t care what anyone says or thinks. I am clean. I believe in clean sport, and I want to rid cycling of the dopers.?

After all, what is wrong with that? You have to ask yourself, who would possibly object to that sentiment and what possible motive could they have?

SOMETHING DOESN?T ADD UP

The last one on doping, for this week, I promise.

So, the CSC team issued a press release saying that Frank Schleck had been suspended for making a payment of around £5,000 to a Swiss bank account that turned out to be Dr Eufamiano Fuentes.

Schleck didn?t know the payment was bound for the former Kelme doctor, now working as a gynaecologist and, it was later revealed, the man behind the Madrid blood-doping ring.

No, he thought he was paying for coaching advice and training plans.

I don?t want to prejudice the Luxembourg anti-doping authority?s findings here, but come on, pull the other one, it plays a jaunty tune.

Who pays £5,000 for training advice without finding out the identity of the coach first?

And when you discover the money has found its way to the most notorious doping doctor in cycling?s recent history do you:

a) forget all about it, it was only five grand

b) race on for two years while similarly implicated team-mates serve two year bans

or c) kick up merry hell, demand your money back and extricate yourself from the potentially damaging situation?

On a wider point, CSC?s press goons must think we all came down with the last shower of rain if we?re going to believe this explanation.

While I have respect for Rasmus Damsgaard?s programme, the anti-doping message starts with the public relations portrayal. Sending out guff suggesting that it is perfectly logical behaviour to suspend a rider for paying for advice from a coach he supposedly never met and expecting people to buy it is ludicrous.

SCHOOL?S ALMOST OUT

It is as if the road racing season has been in suspended animation since Alessandro Ballan?s win at the World Championships.

Everyone is demob happy (unless they are fretting about retrospective blood-testing for CERA or transfusions that is).

You just have to look at the number of riders who pulled out of the four-day Circuit Franco-Belge stage race this week to see that enthusiasm is perhaps on the wane. Only 51 of the 163 starters made it to the finish.

And yet there are two major races left before the season winds down for the winter. Paris-Tours is on Sunday and the Tour of Lombardy (Saturday, October 18).

Even though they come at the very end of a long season, both races are among my favourite, although the Tour of Lombardy remains the one major event I have never witnessed in the flesh.

Paris-Tours may not look like much for many hours, and it may end in a sprint nine years in ten, but it?s a bit of an unheralded gem. The run-in is twisty and hilly and by no means guarantees a sprint ? the teams that want it all back together have to work hard for it.

I have a funny feeling the break may succeed this year. There?s no Mark Cavendish for Team Columbia, although they may still have sprinting cards to play, and Team LPR and Alessandro Petacchi have had their invite withdrawn because they are not part of the UCI?s biological passport programme.

If I had to stick my neck out, I reckon Philippe Gilbert will give it a go. When we spoke to him in Monaco last week ? where he has just signed the rental agreement on an apartment to move there from his current home in Belgium ? he said he had worked out the perfect place to attack.

The Tour of Lombardy has become a truly Italian affair in recent years. You have to go back to 2000 for the last non-Italian winner, although it?s probably not a name worth dwelling on too long, as it was won by Raimondas Rumsas.

They have tinkered with the route in recent years but seem to have settled on the current route, which starts in Varese, then does a loop round lake Como and finishes in Como itself, with the Madonna del Ghisallo and Civiglio climbs in the final 40 kilometres dictating the outcome.

After a turbulent few weeks, let?s hope the season can come to some kind of stylish and credible conclusion with a couple of cracking races heralding a pair of worthy and believable winners.

After that there?s always Ivan Basso?s comeback at the Japan Cup (October 26) to look forward to before attention turns to cross, track and winter evenings on the turbo watching DVDs of the Tour de France from the 1980s.

LET?S WAIT AND SEE

The 2009 Tour de France route will be announced in Paris on Wednesday, October 22.

We already know that the Grand Départ will be in Monaco and that the race will kick off with a 15-kilometre time trial. And, of course, we know that the Tour will finish three weeks and a day later on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

But one of our favourite hobbies during September and October is watching the various rumours presented as cast-iron facts on websites. Some of the rumours of start and finish towns turn out to be true. Others are well wide of the mark.

Lance Armstrong seemed to confirm speculation that the race would visit Mont Ventoux on its final Saturday. There have also been strong rumours of a stage to Barcelona. A few of these rumours have been confirmed by leaky council officials or local newspapers and radio stations.

But no matter how logical and joined-up the possible Tour route looks, the organisers always manage to spring at least one surprise on the day.

I hope the rumour that the opening Sunday will see a tough, lumpy stage to Sisteron and the first week will feature a team time trial in Montpellier turn out to be true ? even if it does cut down the number of sprinting opportunities for Mark Cavendish.

The grapevine suggests that a trip to Arcalis in Andorra and Alpine stages to Verbier in Switzerland, Les Arcs and Le Grand Bornand are on the menu before a time trial at Annecy on the final Thursday and the sensationally late grandstand stage to Mont Ventoux on Super Saturday.

But forgive me if I temper my enthusiasm until the actual route is confirmed.

I remember in 2007 how everyone was convinced Mont Ventoux was definitely, definitely going to be on the Tour route. And in the office we seem to recall that Morzine has a deal with the Tour organisers to host a start or finish every third year. The last visit was in 2006 ? although that was the day Floyd Landis won his notorious stage, so maybe they are less keen.

PREVIOUS WEDNESDAY COMMENTS

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