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?
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