20 July 2008

Taking the high road

A cocky, confident 23 year old from the Isle of Man makes for an unlikely saviour of the world's biggest bike race. Let alone one who this morning has pulled out of the race before it hits the Alps, in order to optimise his preparation for the upcoming Olympics. And yet that's exactly what Mark Cavendish - 'Lord Cavendish', as he has been proclaimed by L'Equipe - has become in this year's Tour de France.

For while there have been - yet again - devastating doping-related headlines which mean that no extraordinary performance on the roads of France can ever go completely unquestioned, there seems to be no one in the know who has even raised a murmur of suspicion against the Manxman.

Cavendish's feats over the past two weeks - four stage wins in which he has not just beaten but crushed his rivals - would, in the current climate of suspicions which pervades cycling, normally raise as many eyebrows as they have chapeaux. And yet it is generally accepted in the peloton that here we have a cyclist fuelled by nothing more than immense natural ability. Despite an image among some of his fellow riders of being confident to the point of arrogance, his results over the past twelve months speak for themselves, and it helps that 'Cav' himself is so obviously passionate about the sport itself and his desire for it to be clean. The fact that he also rides for a team, Columbia - formerly known as High Road -which is at the forefront of the campaign for clean racing, also helps. (The team is one of an increasing number which uses independent drug testing in addition to organisation-led in and out-of-competition tests to ensure their riders are legal.) And the speed and sincerity with which he recognises the role of his teammates in setting up his race wins also speaks volumes for a man who lacks the self-centred self-interest of many others within the sport.

The French media certainly appear to have embraced Cavendish - if anything, even more so than the press here in the UK - as has race director Christian Prudhomme, who has not been backward in coming forward with his criticism and suspicions of other teams/riders, while consistently heralding the Briton's achievements as an example that cyclists can race and win clean.

Not that the doping stories have gone away, mind you. Manuel Beltran was the first positive, followed by Barloworld's Moises Duenas and Saunier Duval's Riccardo Ricco (winner of two stages here and overall runner-up in May's Giro d'Italia).

And let's not kid ourselves that it is only these three. When news of Beltran first appeared, it was widely hoped that the 37 year old was an isolated case, a relic of a bygone age who could be conveniently consigned to history. But then came Duenas's disqualification, followed the next day by two of his teammates, Felix Cardenas and Paolo Borghini (both of whom have roomed with Duenas), abandoning the race after apparently crashing into each other. (Innocent before proven guilty, of course, but draw your own conclusions.) Ricco's positive test was the most devastating of all: the 24-year old was a double stage winner and a genuine front-runner, and this the day after teammate Leonardo Piepoli had led an eyebrow-raisingly easy Saunier Duval one-two up the slopes of Hautacam. Piepoli had not tested positive at the time of writing, but both he and Ricco have been sacked by the team for breaking their 'ethical code'. (Again, draw your own conclusions.)

It's sad to see cycling being dragged through the mud yet again by the unveiling of so many cheats, and yet it must be a positive sign that so many are being successfully detected. And while the sport is in a situation largely of its own making after years of laissez faire attitude which allowed the drug cheats to prosper, there can be little doubt that considerable effort and expense is being spent to rectify this. You can't help but feel that other sports would benefit from such a rigorous - and less complacent - attitude to drug testing.

Cycling is currently going through a period of great pain but, thanks to these new, more rigorous testing procedures and the emergence of clean superstars like Cavendish who are willing to speak up vocally against the use of doping, the sport will emerge the better for it.

I wonder how we will view other sports in ten years' time?

18 July 2008

If you can't do the time

... Don't do the crime, as the saying goes.

I can't imagine there are too many genuine sports fans who are losing sleep over the news that Dwain Chambers was today unsuccessful in his attempt to overturn his lifetime Olympic ban in the high court.

Under the rules of the British Olympic Association, which takes a harder stance than other countries' athletics associations (and indeed many other sports), Chambers' positive 2003 test for the designer steroid THG - an offence to which he has since confessed in an attempt at clemency - precludes him from selection for the Olympics, even though he won the national trials last weekend.

Chambers had argued that the ban was an unfair restraint of trade. And although Mr Justice Mackay suggested that the BOA's by-law could be seen as unlawful, he refused to grant an injunction to temporarily suspend the lifetime ban until a full hearing, which is now unlikely to occur, could be convened next year.

In reality, Chambers' right to earn a living is a long way from being curtailed. He remains eligible to qualify for both the European and World Championships, and his notoriety may favour him as a draw for promoters of race meetings across the world.

And, of course, he is free to sell his side of the story to the tabloids, or to appear on the next series of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, where he can feast on witchetty grubs to his heart's content.

That aside, I am delighted by today's verdict. It will certainly make other British drug cheats think twice before challenging the BOA again - the precedent set if Chambers had won is too horrible to contemplate - and the fact that the UK governing body adopts a more draconian position than other countries is neither here nor there. And while he might look wistfully at someone like David Millar, banned from cycling for the mandatory two years but now something of a poster boy for the new anti-drugs movement in the sport, again that is neither here nor there. As an athlete, Chambers knew exactly what the risk was before he was caught, and just because he has admitted his guilt does not automatically entitle him to an early parole at the expense of clean, if less talented, athletes like Craig Pickering who have leigitimately earned the right to go to Beijing.

Whichever way you put it, Dwain, you are a convicted cheat. It's time to live with the consequences.

8 July 2008

Non-identical twins

Over the past six or seven years, my love for the Tour de France has grown, while simultaneously my interest in Formula 1 has waned somewhat.

It has only just occurred to me that the one is very much intertwined with the other.

On the face of it, cycling and F1 are in many ways very similar:
- Speed is at the heart of both sports, with the difference between winning and losing frequently measured in a handful of seconds after several hours of racing
- Man and machine must work in harmony
- While races are won (and lost) by individuals, they are also highly dependent on support and tactical assistance from their teams
- Team sponsorship is critical, to the extent where teams are frequently named after their primary sponsor (Red Bull Racing, CSC Saxo Bank) or at the very least have cars/riders effectively adding as moving billboards prominently displaying sponsor logos and corporate colours
- You cannot compete in either at the highest level without near-superhuman levels of fitness
- Each has a huge element of soap opera which enhances the racing itself: F1 is all about back-room politics, technical secrets and exploiting grey areas in the rule-book; cycling is about organisational politics and the never-ending battle against doping.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So how is it that my interest in two such similar sports has become so polarised in recent years?

Well, for me the single biggest difference is also the most important one. In Formula 1, an average driver in a great car will always beat a great driver in a poor car - put Lewis Hamilton or Kimi Raikkonen in a Force India, and even they will be down at the wrong end of the grid. In cycling, however, it is the ability of the rider which is the overwhelming factor. Swap Cadel Evans’ bike with Johnny Domestique’s, and you will see little if no difference in performance. For sure, it is possible to eke out small advantages in terms of bike and helmet design, and it’s certainly true that the best riders rely heavily on the support and protection of a strong team, but the balance is nonetheless crucially tipped in favour of man rather than machine.

And that’s a big part of the human drama which makes cycling such a compelling sport to watch. For while F1 dominates in terms of speed, glamour and outright physical danger, the sport has become increasingly inaccessible over the years. Grand prix tickets are exorbitantly expensive for many, the views and facilities at Silverstone are dire compared to other sports arenas, and there is a general lack of accessibility of the drivers for the average race-going fan.

Cycling, on the other hand, is a far more democratic sport. Whereas 90,000 people attend the British grand prix, estimates put the number of spectators over the two days that the Tour de France was in the UK last year at between three and four million. And not one of them had to pay a penny for the privilege of doing so; indeed, for some, they had to do little more than venture outside their front door as the race sped towards Canterbury.

And if anyone had wanted to emulate Fabian Cancellara or Alberto Contador, all they had to do was hop on their bike and pedal away. Fundamentally, a bike is a bike is a bike, and a few hundred pounds will grant anyone access to competitive equipment near enough what the Tour riders race on. Somehow, jumping into your car isn’t quite the same as being behind the wheel of a multi-million pound F1 racer (the steering wheel of which, incidentally, costs more than the average car).

Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter. Sport is at its most engaging when you can relate to it. I can watch Cesc Fabregas running the Arsenal midfield, and then go out to the park for a kick-around. I can watch Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson, and then pick up my badminton racquet. Cricket, tennis, swimming, cycling – all are similarly accessible. But in practical terms, Formula 1 is as accessible to the man in the street as one-of-a-kind designer clothes are to the average punter.

And that’s a real shame, because the skill and bravery regularly demonstrated by F1 drivers are worthy of great passion and admiration. But it’s hard to truly love and relate to a sport when you can only experience it from outside the glass bubble. And I guess that’s why I like Formula 1, but I love the Tour de France.

7 July 2008

The athlete and the artist

The streak ended at 41, but Roger Federer did not allow his run of consecutive wins at Wimbledon to end without a titanic struggle.

Pursuing his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title, Federer found himself face-to-face with Rafael Nadal for the third year running. Not since Borg/McEnroe in the early 80s has there been such a sustained and starkly contrasting rivalry between two players at the very pinnacle of the sport.

Nadal is the great athlete, all bulging muscles and ferocious competitive intensity, with an effective monopoly on clay courts. Federer is the consummate artist, perhaps the last true one in the modern men’s game: his competitive fire burns no less brightly but his muscles are all on the inside, an unprepossessing physique masking a devastating array of tennis shots, in particular a forehand which frequently seems radar-guided, a total package which has rendered him effectively invincible on grass.

Anyone who watched the final – and there were 12.7 million UK viewers at its peak – will know that Nadal took the first two sets despite Federer having more breakpoint opportunities and that, after a rain delay, Federer exhibited a true champion’s heart by repeatedly facing down a series of crises – 0-40 down on his serve midway through the third set, 2-5 and then two championship points down in the fourth set tie-break, 15-40 and 0-30 down in consecutive service games early in the fifth – with a series of blistering aces and winning shots.

A lesser mortal than Nadal – that’s pretty much everyone – would have crumbled in the face of such repeated disappointments. He had put Federer right up against the wall, only to see the Swiss retaliate with possibly his best tennis of the tournament. And yet it is an indomitable spirit as much as his physical and technical skills that makes Nadal such a unique player. In the fifteenth game of the final set, Nadal repeatedly pushed Federer to the brink – three times he engineered a break point only to be firmly repelled, one a passing shot under extreme duress which may well have been the best single stroke of the entire tournament – before finally, almost incomprehensibly, he secured the precious break which allowed him to serve out a 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7 victory.

At 62 games and 4 hours 48 minutes, this was the longest men’s singles final ever at Wimbledon. However, the story of the match extends far beyond a single day and mere statistics. Trace a line backwards which begins with the recent French Open final, where Nadal crushed Federer for the loss of only four games (the worst defeat ever for a reigning world number one in a grand slam final). Follow it through the 2007 Wimbledon final, where Nadal stretched Federer to the limit, squandering four break points in the fifth set before succumbing to a defeat which left him in tears in the locker room afterwards. And stop at the 2006 final, where Federer gave the Spaniard, still a novice on the surface, a masterclass in grass-court play in a four-set win.

With each passing year, Nadal has gradually added artistry to his athleticism: a greater variety of serve, solid volleying technique, the blocked service return. With each passing year, he has been better equipped to challenge Federer. And now he has finally defeated the master – and deservedly so.

Ultimately, Nadal won Wimbledon because he was able to learn from Federer’s artistry and ally it with his unparalleled athleticism.

It was an honour to watch Sunday’s match, even from a distance. But it has been an even greater privilege to see Nadal’s development over the past three years into a player who is truly capable of winning all four Grand Slam events, a feat which has been beyond Federer and, indeed, all male players with the exception of Andre Agassi over the past 40 years.

If that isn’t a scary enough proposition, bear in mind that Nadal only turned 22 last month. He is only going to get better.

Mud sticks, but Le Tour shines as brightly as ever

Last Friday, the day before the 2008 Tour de France started, I have to admit I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about this year’s event.

Within 24 hours, however, my love affair with the sporting calendar’s biggest annual event had been completely reaffirmed.

Even if you don’t follow cycling at all, you will probably have a view on the sport. It’s difficult not to, with the high-profile doping scandals which have plagued the Tour in particular in recent years. From the ‘Festina affair’ of 1998; to the black cloud of suspicion which hung, unsubstantiated, over the Lance Armstrong era; to 2006 winner Floyd Landis’s positive test, subsequent disqualification and never-ending court battle; to last year, which saw us lose Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Patrik Sinkewitz before the race, and Michael Rasumssen (the race leader), Alexandre Vinokourov (winner of two stages) and Cristian Moreni during it.

Cycling has arguably never been at a lower ebb.

Even though there is now an admirable spirit and determination from a new generation of professional cyclists to prove beyond all doubt that they are racing ‘clean’, the scars remain. Here are some of the marquee names missing from this year’s Tour as a direct or indirect result of drug-related offences: Alberto Contador (the defending champion), Levi Leipheimer (third last year), Rasmussen (race leader before his removal), Tom Boonen (the green jersey winner) Vinokourov, Basso, Ullrich, Andreas Kloden. Imagine the English Premier League kicking off in August without, say, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Aston Villa. That’s the scale to which this year’s Tour field has been decimated.

And yet, somehow, it doesn’t matter.

My first sight of the peloton sweeping its way through the French countryside like a high-speed rainbow was enough to set my pulse racing. And a thrilling finish nearly 200 kilometres later in Plumelec at the end of an otherwise routine stage was merely the icing on the cake.

The Tour is back, and that’s enough.

Yet again I have that familiar feeling of near-obsession which returns for three weeks every July. I’m busy memorising every detail I can about the teams and riders – the Agritubel team is named after its sponsor, a specialist in the manufacture of cattle stalls, didn’t you know? – and mentally absorbing every mountain, hill and bump of each and every stage. I note with interest that Britain’s Mark Cavendish, twice a winner on the recent Giro d’Italia, has targeted stages two, three and five as his best chances of grabbing a stage win; that David Millar, EPO-user turned poster boy for the new anti-doping movement, is a co-owner of the new Garmin-Chipotle team; and that Chris Froome technically counts as a third British third entrant, despite having previously raced under the auspices of the Kenyan federation.

And I try to ignore the fact that the winner of stage 1, and one of the overall favourites for the yellow jersey, Alejandro Valverde, is himself suspected of being tied up in the same Operation Puerto investigation that brought down Basso and Ullrich.

Last year I praised Vinokourov and I praised Rasmussen for exceptional performances which were subsequently disgraced by, respectively, evidence of blood doping and lying about his whereabouts during pre-race training (an offence considered only one step short of actual, proven guilt). This year I hope the same fate will not befall Valverde or any of the other riders.

The Tour de France should be regarded for what it is: the ultimate challenge of man’s physical and mental endurance. 3,500 kilometres over three weeks, ranging from sea level to nearly 3,000 metres, in blazing sunshine and driving rain – 180 riders battling against each other and themselves at an average speed of over 40kph.

If you watch sport for the physical challenge it presents and the sheer spectacle, it’s impossible not to at least admire what these men do. If, like me, you are willing to put your optimist’s hat on and allow yourself to be carried along by the sheer joy and drama of the event, you cannot fail to love it. Even if it does break your heart from time to time.