26 July 2007

Is cycling winning or losing the war on drugs?

It really does get worse before it gets better.

As if Tuesday’s sucker punch about Alexandre Vinokourov’s positive doping test wasn’t bad enough, yesterday the Tour de France walked straight into a one-two combination which threatens to reduce the race itself to little more than a distracting sideshow.

First Cristian Moreni was thrown out of the race after a positive result for testosterone. As a result, his entire Cofidis team was withdrawn in line with a voluntary pre-Tour agreement signed with a number of other teams.

And then, late yesterday evening, came the devastating news that race leader Michael Rasmussen, who only hours before had won stage 16, had been sacked with immediate effect by his team, Rabobank. The reason given was that he had lied to team bosses about his whereabouts in June.

So now a stuttering Tour has lost a total of four riders – including the winners of four of the last nine stages – and two entire teams to drug-related events. To paraphrase a well-known expression, to ban one rider can be seen as an unfortunate accident, to ban two looks like carelessness, but four …

While Moreni’s appears to be an open-and-shut case (pending confirmation from the B-sample test, of course), with Rasmussen it was more a case of innocent until highly suspicious.

It’s important to stress that Rasmussen did not have to be withdrawn. Applying the letter of the law, he has neither tested positive nor registered the three strikes necessary to incur a ban. However, once it was revealed that the rider had lied to his own team about his location, the team really had little choice. At the very least, Rasumssen’s actions were unbelievably naïve and stupid in this modern age; at worst, well, draw your own conclusions. It certainly lends considerable weight of circumstantial evidence, doesn’t it?

Rabobank should be praised for acting quickly and decisively. It is no small decision to voluntarily withdraw and sack the yellow jersey wearer, when it would have been all too easy to delay and sandbag all the way to Paris.

There is now a danger that this swathe of high profile scandals could easily turn into a McCarthy-style witch hunt, with the slightest allegation being immediately assumed to be proof of guilt. And it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of riders are undoubtedly racing ‘clean’. But something clearly needs to be done, because public perception is at an all-time low. Before his withdrawal, Rasmussen was roundly booed on yesterday’s podium, something which I can never remember happening to Lance Armstrong in his seven dominant years, despite all the (unproven) allegations against him and the general murmurs among both public and press.

In a sense, cycling has become a victim of its own vigilance, trapped in a vicious cycle where more testing catches more cheats, which blackens the sport’s reputation and leads to even more testing, and so on. No other sport tests its participants more frequently or rigorously, and to be fair to both the UCI and the ASO the organisation which runs the Tour), despite all the petty politics that goes on they have been pretty consistent in their punishment of offenders, regardless of their status.

It’s difficult to say whether the events of the last two weeks indicate that cycling is winning the war on drugs (because the authorities are now catching so many cheats) or losing it (because there are clearly still plenty of people willing to cheat). You can interpret it any way you like, but the one sure thing is that the war IS being fought unflinchingly and with great energy by the UCI, and that’s all anyone can really ask of a governing body.

And let us not use this as an excuse to use cycling as the scapegoat for the sporting world’s wider malaise. From Ben Johnson to Barry Bonds, the list of the guilty, the highly suspicious and the never-been-caughts permeates every corner of competitive sport. It’s just that some sports police the issue far more stringently than others.

For example, it was only last week that golfing legend Gary Player wagged the finger of suspicion at his own sport. Asked if he would be surprised by any positive findings, he said, "No, not surprise me because I know - I know for a fact - that there are golfers, whether it's HGH, creatine or steroids. And the greatest thing that the R&A, the USGA and the PGA can do is have tests at random. It's absolutely essential that we do that. We're dreaming if we think it's not going to come into golf.”

Cycling should be praised – not pilloried – for its hard-line attitude to drugs testing and punishment. It is the responsibility of the riders, not the authorities, to ensure they are operating within the rules. After all, no matter how attentive and strict a parent is, if a child wants to be naughty, they will always find a way.

The war has only just begun. Who knows when – or indeed if – it will ever end? But maybe it’s about time more sports stopped turning a blind eye to the problem that exists on their doorsteps.

24 July 2007

Crisis of faith

Oh, for God's sake!

As if Patrik Sinkewitz's early exit from the Tour de France after the news that he had tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone before the race wasn't bad enough.

And then we've had to sift through the allegations and rumours about race leader Michael Rasmussen, which may turn out to be nothing but are nonetheless causing untold damage to the reputation of both rider and sport.

So, anyway, what did I say yesterday about hoping there were no dark whispers about Alexandre Vinokourov?

What happened today?

News emerged this afternoon that Vino tested positive for blood doping after winning Saturday's individual time trial, which casts both that victory and yesterday's combative breakaway win in, shall we say, a far less heroic light. His team, Astana, has immediately withdrawn from the race which, I think, says everything about his guilt.

Yesterday I praised Vinokourov's determination, bravery and never-give-up attitude, and referred to him as " a big winner" for the way he had bounced back from his crash-related injuries to claim two stage wins. Today he is nothing but a big loser.

And I am nothing but a disillusioned optimist - or maybe that should be fool?

It's hard to know what to believe any more. Or indeed if there is really anything left to believe in. Blow after blow has rained down on the sport of cycling. The amphetamine-related death of Britain's Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux in 1967. The 'Festina affair' of 1998. The allegations which constantly dogged Lance Armstrong's dominance. Last year's Operation Puerto which saw race favourites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso (and several others) excluded on the eve of the Tour. Floyd Landis's positive epi-testosterone test. 1996 winner Bjarne Riis recently admitting that he had doped. The catalogue of mysterious heart-related deaths (a possible side effect of EPO use) which have claimed the lives of at least 20 professional cyclists in recent years.

The list goes on and on.

And every name which is added to that list makes it just that bit more difficult to trust the evidence of my own eyes when watching a sport I dearly love. Cycling is perhaps THE most physically demanding sport there is: it requires immense levels of fitness, asks its participants complete tens of thousands of kilometres of racing ever year in all manner of terrains and conditions, and is an occupation in which broken collarbones are frequent and death is by no means unknown. It is a sport contested by supermen - or, at least, that is what one hopes for.

I have never for one minute thought that the spectre of doping had ever left cycling completely - I'm an optimist, but I'm not THAT stupid. However, I had hoped that we were starting to see the pendulum swing back in favour of the authorities and the majority who choose to compete 'clean'. The events of the past 12 months or so have categorically demonstrated this is not the case.

Like I said, I don't know what to believe in any more. It's enough to test anyone's faith.

Next you'll be telling me the tooth fairy doesn't exist ...

23 July 2007

Vino, vidi, vici

"Winning" at the Tour de France is a complex, multi-faceted thing, and never more so than today.

Now there are all sorts of ways a rider can grab glory at the Tour. In addition to the yellow jersey - the maillot jaune - worn by the overall leader, there are three other highly sought individual prizes: the green jersey for the most consistent finisher is coveted by the sprinters, the polka dot jersey is awarded to the best climber, and the white jersey is worn by the best young rider. Add to that the chance of winning any one of the 21 individual stages (in itself a lucrative reward which can guarantee a journeyman pro's contract for the following year), or even the chance of showing in an unsuccessful long breakaway (which grants the sponsors useful airtime), and it becomes apparent that during the three weeks of the race there are plentiful opportunities to shine for each of the nearly 200 riders who start the Tour each year.

Of course, for the sport's big superstars, the ultimate objective is to wear the yellow jersey in Paris, signifying that they have won that year's Tour. Even in a year as open as this one, with last year's winner Floyd Landis banned and Lance Armstrong, the champion in the previous seven years, enjoying his retirement, the number of genuine overall contenders can be counted in single digits.

The pre-race favourite this year was Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov, around whom the Astana team had been built. At close to 34 years old, 'Vino' is fast approaching the age where, by his own admission, it's a case of now or never. So when he was the unlucky victim of an early accident which left him requiring 60 stitches and undoubtedly hampered his form over the next few days as he lost minutes in a sport where seconds can be crucial, it was difficult not to feel some sympathy for him.

And when, on Saturday, he produced a storming ride to win the individual time trial, slashing three of his eight minute deficit to the incumbent yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen, and put himself back in the top ten, it appeared that a late surge to Paris, however unlikely, was at least a possibility.

Whatever hope may have started to build on Saturday, however, was utterly extinguished within 24 hours, as Vino paid for his heroic exertions the previous day, suffering terribly on the punishing Pailhères climb and losing nearly half an hour, sending him tumbling down the standings to an irretrievable 30th position. As he did so, he was seen to wave to the camera in acknowledgement that his dearest dream was no longer a possibility, and it would have been no surprise at all if he had abandoned completely, especially with another punishing day in the Pyrenees to come today.

Vinokourov, however, is made of sterner stuff. Professional cyclists are known for being tough nuts, and Vino is known for being a strong man even among his fellow cyclists.

And so he started today's stage. But surely nobody could have expected what was to follow, for just a day after blowing up in spectacular style, Vino attacked as part of a breakaway group, before racing on alone to a spectacular solo win.

For any rider to win a mountain stage in this manner requires incredible physical and mental fortitude. For one to do so having had to recover physically and mentally from such a humiliating failure only 24 hours before beggars belief.

(As an aside, Floyd Landis did something similar last year, only to test positive for abnormal levels of epi-testosterone immediately after, but notwithstanding the artificial assistance he (allegedly) had the circumstances of that win were somewhat different: Landis launched a solo breakaway and won at least in part because the main field failed to organise themselves sufficiently to catch him, whereas Vino was part of a big group including several other highly capable climbers and had to ride away from them all on merit. Let's just hope there are no dark whispers over the next few days ...)

And so Vino won his second stage in three days in swashbuckling fashion. He will not lead the Tour into Paris wearing yellow, but his determination, bravery and never-give-up attitude will be remembered nonetheless. It is a rare rider who is capable of winning two stages in the same Tour; rarer still one who can join that elite group who can boast wins in both the vastly different disciplines of time trial and mountain stages in the same year.

Alexandre Vinokourov will not be THE winner of the Tour de France this year, but today he demonstrated that he is a big winner anyway.

Up a mountain without a pedal

It wasn't officially Grand Slam Sunday as such, but if you are a lover of high drama in sport, then yesterday was as good as they come, with thrilling finishes in three major events.

At a soggy Nurburgring, we saw a Formula 1 first, with Lewis Hamilton finishing off the podium - and, indeed, out of the points - for the first time in his career. In a race of thrills, aquaplaning spills and driver errors - rain always guarantees entertainment in F1 - we also witnessed that rarest of rare things: a genuine on-the-road pass for the lead, with Fernando Alonso forcing his way past Felipe Massa five laps from the chequered flag with an ... ahem ... robust, wheel-banging move, one strongly reminiscent of Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux. (Showing my age there!) More importantly, Alonso has closed Hamilton's championship lead to just two points, and with Ferrari showing superior pace (in dry conditions, at least) over the past few weeks, it's game on again.

Later, in the final round of The Open at Carnoustie, we witnessed the kind of sedate, crank-up-the-tension drama which only golf and a finely-balanced Ashes Test match can truly provide. Sergio Garcia squandered a four-shot lead, falling two behind Argentina's Andres Romero, who then promptly dropped three shots on the final two holes to fall out of contention. Padraig Harrington teed off on the 18th one up on Garcia, only to find water twice, leaving the Spaniard needing "only" a par - on one of the hardest holes in golf - to win. A wayward second shot landed Garcia in a green-side bunker, and his subsequent delicate chip left him an eight-footer to win the championship, which he missed by a inch.

And so we moved into a four-hole playoff. Harrington immediately gained a two-shot lead, which he maintained into the final hole, where a combination of his own caution and a stunning second shot from the rough by Garcia left the result still hanging delicately in the balance. Ultimately, Garcia narrowly missed his monster birdie putt, and Harrington held his nerve to sink an awkward four-footer for his first Major title.

But for sheer spectacle and shattering physical effort, the best finish of the day took place in the Pyrenees.

Tour de France, stage 14: Mazamet to Plateau de Beille

The first full day in the Pyrenees could only really be described as a day from hell. With tired legs sapped even further by the previous day's lactic acid-inducing individual time trial, Sunday's 197km stage was always going to be a peloton-shattering ordeal. Featuring two hors catégorie (HC) mountains - HC essentially meaning (I'm paraphrasing here) "absolute bastard that defies categorisation" - with the second climb culminating in the finish at the Pyrenean resort of Plateau de Beille, the stage was always going to play a major role in terms of sorting out the contenders from the pretenders.

And so it proved to be.

As it turned out, we got our first little dramatic hors d'oeuvre on the first HC climb of the Port de Pailhères, as the early Tour favourite - and winner of the previous day's time trial - Alexandre Vinokourov blew up completely. Vino, who had gritted his teeth through the pain of a first week crash which required around 60 stitches, had finally run out of gas, waving to the camera in acknowledgement that his already slim chances were finally ended. He would finish half an hour down on the leaders.

But it is in the final 45 minutes as the other main players ascend torturously towards Plateau de Beille that the big stories unfold, one after the other almost too quickly to comprehend. As the gradient kicks up from the lower slopes and the attacks start, those with too-heavy legs are quickly exposed - Mayo, Schleck, Valverde, Kloden - one by one they drop away, unable to summon the necessary bursts of acceleration to stay in touch. And then the young Spaniard Alberto Contador launches one final attack about 6km from the finish, and it is one which we may look back on as the decisive moment of this year's Tour. Yellow jersey Michael Rasmussen follows, but Soler, Sastre and, most tellingly, second-placed Cadel Evans are unable to respond. It is only about 15 minutes' racing time from the finish, but such is the nature of these big mountain-top finishes that once a rider has cracked, he can go backward as rapidly as if an elastic cord has been cut. And 15 minutes of effort by Contador and Rasmussen - despite some tactical jockeying for position at the finish, where Contador eventually claims the stage win - is enough to distance Evans by two full minutes.

In one critical, excruciatingly painful moment, Evans has not only lost second place overall (to Contador) but has gone from being one minute off the race lead (an eminently recoverable gap given his time-trialling ability) to being three minutes distant, an equation which now swings back in Rasmussen's favour.

The race is, of course, still far from won. Rasmussen must safely negotiate two further days in the mountains, plus the second time trial. Not to mention the blackening cloud of a doping scandal (not again, sigh) caused by an alleged four missed drug tests which has been building over his head all weekend.

Nonetheless yesterday's stage remains a shining example of what makes a mountain-top finish at the Tour such compelling viewing. Great athletes stretched right up to their (considerable) physical limits, stripped of the security blanket of their team-mate minders, and reduced to a simple head-to-head comparison of who is the strongest and most determined. It is simply astonishing to watch, and it puts our pampered Premiership footballers to shame when you consider that the vast majority of professional cyclists earn less in a year (some as little as £20,000) than the likes of Michael Ballack or Andriy Shevchenko do in a week.


9 July 2007

Tales of Le Tour: Prologue

On a weekend of huge events in the UK - Live Earth, the British Grand Prix and the Wimbledon finals - by far the biggest crowd, estimated at close to one million, gathered on the streets of central London on Saturday afternoon.

Why? To watch 189 men in lycra and pointy helmets, of course!

Yes, the Tour de France was in town.

Now I know the sport is beset by the spectre of drug usage (and, let's be honest, this is nothing new to cycling). Operation Puerto last year robbed us of the chance to see the likes of Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov - the last a victim of collateral damage as he was unable to compete after five members of his team were banned - compete for Lance Armstrong's vacant crown. And then we have last year's "winner", Floyd Landis, and his ongoing attempts to clear his name; an action which, as ITV's Gary Imlach so aptly put it, means the 2007 Tour finds itself in the unusual position of starting before last year's race has finished.

It is immensely sad. The Tour de France should be celebrated as the ultimate test of man's physical endurance - this year the race covers over 2,200 miles in 23 days, including long stints over the Alps and Pyrenees. To even complete the race, never mind winning it, is an immense physical achievement. And yet even the most optimistic fan is forced to view every rider, every breakaway mountain climb, every dashing sprint finish, with the cynical eye of suspicion.

So, as a fan looking forward to the excitement of seeing Le Tour in London, what can you do? Wallow in suspicion and regret? Or just enjoy the experience?

I - like a million others - chose the latter on Saturday. And I didn't regret it for one minute.

After all, it's not every day Le Tour pitches up on our doorstep. This year marks only the event's third visit to these shores, and the first time the race has ever started in the UK. Saturday's 7.9km prologue time trial carved a scenic route through central London, passing Whitehall, the House of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park before finishing on The Mall.

As a backdrop, it was fantastic.

And as an event, it was pretty good as well. The organisation required to bring central London - literally - to a standstill and to organise and protect a million spectators a week after the most recent terrorist bombings (and on the second anniversary of the 7/7 attacks) was immense, but it seemed to go off without any major hitches.

As I've said, estimates put the assembled crowd at up to one million; as someone who walked halfway round the course to find a decent vantage point, I can testify that there were people crammed two, three or more deep all the way round the course - a combination of the expert, the knowledgeable, the enthusiastic and the just-plain-curious. It all made for an almost carnival atmosphere, and support and appreciation for all the riders, from first to last, was consistent throughout.

Of course, the biggest cheers of all were reserved for the five British riders. Both David Millar and Bradley Wiggins were touted as serious contenders to win the prologue. Sadly, both came up short, with Wiggins finishing fourth and Millar just missing out on the top ten, but that didn't seem to dampen the crowd's mood overly. And when Swiss time trial specialist Fabian Cancellara stormed home to win by 13 seconds, the applause he received from the crowds watching at the finish and on the many big screens around the course was both generous and heartfelt.

From a personal perspective, it was great to see the cyclists close up. I was fortunate enough to (eventually) find a good spot, just over halfway round the course, on a short stretch of straight between two corners at the far end of the Serpentine.

It was a great location, both from a photographic perspective (you can see one of my photos, of the Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd, at the top of this blog) and from a technical one. Having never watched a road race live before, I hadn't appreciated how big a difference there was between those riders who were going flat out for a good time, and those who were aiming merely to get round the course because they have bigger fish to fry. The major contenders and the prologue specialists - men like Wiggins, Cancellara, Vinokourov, Andreas Kloden and Dave Zabriskie - all flew past, hugging the inside kerb to save precious inches, pedalling hard, hunched down aerodynamically over the bars. Others, notably sprint ace Robbie McEwen, were clearly doing little more than turning their legs over to save themselves for exertions later in the race, sitting up relatively high in the saddle and happy to stay in the middle or to the outside of the road. I hadn't appreciated before quite how obvious the difference is - far more so than, say, watching two F1 cars of vastly differeing performance on the same lap. Interesting.

Anyway, it was clear that any concerns the London organisation might have had about the size of the crowd or any embarrassing hiccups on the day were completely unfounded. It must surely bode well for the UK's chances of hosting the Tour again some time in the future.

But even if it doesn't return to these shores again in our lifetime, I and hundreds of thousands - make that millions - of others can say: "I've seen the Tour de France".

Roll on the next three weeks. And Vive Le Tour!