The Wednesday Comment

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Lance Armstrong returns to the Tour de France this weekend for the first time since he stood on the podium in Paris in 2005, seventh title in hand and said: “to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics, I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”

Of Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, who shared the podium with him, Armstrong said: “You should believe in these athletes and you should believe in these people. There are no secrets – this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it.”

With less than a week to go until the start of the Tour de France, the promotional videos have hit the internet.

One, for Nike, I find particularly offensive. It appears to be suggesting that to question Armstrong’s legacy, to investigate his conduct, to speculate on his motivations and assess his performances is in some way an affront to cancer sufferers.

The Nike video can be seen here:

Over pictures of people who are clearly cancer sufferers, black and white shots of hospitals, and images of Armstrong in his Livestrong kit, he says: “The critics say I’m arrogant. A doper. I’m washed up. A fraud. That I couldn’t let it go. They can say whatever they want. I’m not back on my bike for them.”

It’s not exactly a subtle message and it seems to be saying: If you’re against Armstrong you must be pro-cancer.

Well, I’m not pro-cancer at all. But I am also not in favour of a sporting event – or an entire sport come to that – becoming a single issue campaign for a man with a mounting stack of grudges.

Cycling seems to have become all about cancer. Well, cycling is not about cancer. Yellow, the colour of the Tour de France’s maillot jaune, has been hijacked by Livestrong.

I’d like Armstrong to explain how the words that voice over the Nike ad do anything to draw attention to the plight of cancer sufferers. If Armstrong truly didn’t care about the critics, he wouldn’t have mentioned them in his video.

If he really didn’t care about the critics, he’d have made a positive, upbeat video all about how he was coming back to the Tour de France to encourage and inspire, rather than score points and convince his already convinced army of acolytes.

But no. It’s about divide and conquer, fool some of the people all of the time and paint the rest as freaks and oddballs with imagined agendas and made-up conspiracies.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. There are still some enormous questions to be answered.

I’d respect Armstrong if he kept his charity – Livestrong – and his for-profit work a lot more separate. Or perhaps you can tell when you’re on his charity website and when you’re not.

I’d respect him if he in turn respected the race and its competitors instead of branding the 2008 edition a joke.

If Armstrong thinks that a good 2009 Tour de France will answer all the questions about the 1999-2005 era he’s mistaken. It’ll take a lot more than a slick video and pithy script.

For all his dislike of cynics, I’ve not seen a more cynical promotional video than the one served up this week.

Shane Sutton appeared to let slip to the BBC last week that a handful of British riders have already pledged their allegiance to Team Sky, which will take to the roads next season.

The British Cycling coach claims there was a misunderstanding, but regular readers of Cycling Weekly and this website will not have been surprised by many of the names Sutton named.

Look at the evidence. The Barloworld riders Steve Cummings and Geraint Thomas are near certainties for Sky because their team looks set to fold at the end of the year. You can include Chris Froome as another Barloworld rider who’s likely to be Sky-bound too.

But the cases of David Millar and Bradley Wiggins are less clear-cut. Wiggins joined Garmin from Columbia last year because Garmin offered a two-year contract to Columbia’s one. Jonathan Vaughters has already said Wiggins is going nowhere. Millar’s contract as a rider does expire at the end of this season but he is a part-owner of the Garmin team, although that perhaps owes something to the fact that until recently he was paying off a sizeable tax bill in France. His sister, Frances, is part of the logistics team at Sky and has been working on setting up the team’s headquarters, which is set to be in Mechelen near Brussels.

Every British rider able to turn a pedal will be linked with the team, but CW understands that in the first year, eight or nine of the riders will be British. The likes of first year pros Ben Swift (Katusha) and Ian Stannard (ISD) will be in the frame too. There is a UCI rule stating that new professionals have to be offered two-year contracts at the very start of their career (to avoid teams chewing up and spitting out large numbers of young riders if they fail to make an impact in year one) although there is bound to be a get-out clause.

Swift has done superbly at Katusha, but after two positive dope tests in the team this season (Christian Pfannberger and Antonio Colom) he’d be far better off elsewhere.

You’d expect Peter Kennaugh – who looks more and more like The Real Deal with every passing month – to turn professional with Team Sky this winter. True, the 20-year-old could continue with the British Cycling Academy for another year, but the two organisations will share staff, infrastructure and ethos, and he knows Rod Ellingworth well, so it’d make more sense for him to step up a level.

And then there are the foreign riders. Scott Sunderland told CW recently that if every rider who’d been linked to Team Sky actually signed a contract, they’d have a hundred riders.

What we do know is that some contracts have already been signed, and that the contract runs to a whopping 26 pages, including all manner of details regarding expected conduct. The more you hear, you get the sense that anti-doping is not a PR buzz phrase with Team Sky, it’s at the bedrock. Brailsford and co are being thorough with a capital T. Of course, they can never be certain, but they are looking deeply into a rider’s past and present. We understanding that so far, a number of riders have heard the words ‘thanks but no thanks’ after Team Sky has made its investigations.

The Tour de France is where deals get done for the following year, so the speculation is about to reach fever pitch. Team Sky will have people at the Tour and they must know that if any of them are spotted talking, the rumour mill will crank into over-drive.

Team Sky – As It Happens Follow the news and rumours as Team Sky takes place here>>

Catching up on the excitement of the National Championships, it was a shame to see Nicole Cooke’s 10th title overshadowed by a ham-fisted adherence to a bizarre rule which almost saw Lizzie Armitstead denied the silver medal.

Armitstead is 20 and so was eligible for the under-23 title, which was also up for grabs.

As an under-23, the chief commissaire Colin Clews studied the rules and took the decision that Armitstead was eligible for that race, not the senior race.

The thing is, the UCI doesn’t actually have an under-23 category for women at the World Championships, so the under-23 title is something of a British Cycling created invention.

Recognising the best three young riders in the race is definitely a good thing, but not if it means that a rider is denied the prize in the senior event.

So, Emma Pooley (who was third) was ‘promoted’ to second and Catherine Williamson was presented with the senior bronze medal on the podium before a British Cycling board, led by Brian Cookson, over-ruled Clews and said that Armitstead would get her silver medal. That was the correct decision, but it raises the issue of how the confusion arose.

A few years back William Walker won the Australian road race championships but as he was under-23 the senior title and jersey went to third-placed Russell Van Hout. (The second placed rider Wesley Sulzberger was also an under-23). Older readers may remember when Robert Millar won the British title on the Isle of Man in 1995, the National Championships and the Manx International doubled up as one race.

A French team was invited to take part and Pierre Painaud of France was third behind Millar and Chris Walker. Obviously the National Championship bronze medal did not go to a foreign rider, fourth placed Chris Lillywhite got it instead. These days, the field for the British Championships is so huge there’s no space for foreign teams, of course.

Fortunately there was no such confusion on Sunday and under-23 champion Peter Kennaugh got the bronze medal for finishing third in the race. I imagine the rules will have been clarified by now but put simply it should say: if the top three riders are British they get the gold, silver and bronze medals. End of story.

Quick Step look set to take Tom Boonen all the way to the start line in Monaco, fully kitted up and ready to go, before someone steps in to stop him.

A French court was asked to rule on the dispute between ASO, organisers of the Tour de France, and the Belgian rider.

If you recall, Boonen, who has won the green jersey in the past, missed last year’s Tour after testing positive for cocaine in an out-of-competition test. While that was not grounds to suspend him, the Tour’s organisers requested that Quick Step did not select Boonen in order to spare the race any embarrassment.

History repeated itself when Boonen again tested positive – again out-of-competition – for cocaine this spring. Although it was subsequently declared the traces were minute, ASO has decided the Belgian is not welcome.

Quick Step, who stand to profit if Boonen rides, wins a stage and challenges for the green jersey, is less willing to see its star asset sitting at home for a second successive July, hence the dispute.

Yesterday a judge at a civil court in the Parisian suburb Nanterre, listened to both sides of the case and declared the matter outside the court’s jurisdiction. No verdict was made.

So, Quick Step has named eight of its nine riders for the Tour, with either Boonen or Australian sprinter Allan Davis to take the ninth place.

It seems that ASO will stand firm and bar Boonen and wait for the backlash. Unless the Court of Arbitration for Sport can intervene in three days, there could be some angry exchanges in Monte Carlo on Saturday.

At least Caisse d’Epargne did the decent thing and left Alejandro Valverde out of their final nine.

Many people who seek to find ever-elaborate ways to apologise for dopers often resort to the letter of the law.

Innocent until proven guilty is absolutely right, but it seems at times that the burden of proof required in a simple case of determining whether a sports person is guilty of cheating is greater than that required in a criminal case.

Beyond reasonable doubt, says the law.

Well, as far as the Italian Olympic Committee is concerned, there is no doubt whatsoever that Valverde’s blood was in bag number 18 seized in the Operacion Puerto investigation. They took a sample of Valverde’s blood, matched it and banned him for two years.

The UCI has been spared the tedious task of actually making a decision on Valverde by Caisse d’Epargne’s team management. Still there has been no word on whether the two-year ban should be extended worldwide.

Valverde has appealed to the Court of Arbitration of Sport. We wait to see on what grounds Valverde is appealing but surely in this case the only issue at stake is whether it is his blood. That shows the rules have been broken and a ban is warranted.

It seems astonishing that Silence-Lotto have selected Thomas Dekker, but left out Charly Wegelius.

Before anyone levels the accusation that this is pro-British bias, take a look at Dekker’s results. A rider once touted as the next big Dutch hope was fourth in the Tour of Belgium and 16th in the Tour of Switzerland. Good results, but not great.

Can he be there in the mountains for Cadel Evans? You wouldn’t think so.

Mind you, his Tour place may yet be up for grabs because he was struck down with food poisoning at the Dutch national championships at the weekend.

And Cervélo raised a few eyebrows by leaving Simon Gerrans on the sidelines. The Australian has had a great spring and won a stage of the Giro d’Italia. Last year he won a Tour stage at Prato Nevoso in the Alps.

You can’t help wondering if popping to the United States to train with Lance Armstrong might not have gone down too well with defending champion and Cervélo team-mate Carlos Sastre.


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