In 2009, Bradley Wiggins finished 4th in the Tour de France. It was a revelatory result and one that suggested the Briton’s decision to switch from the track, where he was a total legend, to the road, was maybe not as ill-advised as it might have seemed.
But success can be a fickle mistress. What appeared to be a breakout performance in 2009 was made less clearly a turning point with Wiggins’ move to Team Sky for 2010. A settling-in period ensued, during which Wiggins reverted to more human results; 2011 looked better again. Wiggins won the Dauphiné and came third at Paris-Nice. At the back end of the summer he stood on the third podium step at the Vuelta a España.
This week, the gangly Englishman will win the Dauphiné again (barring something catastrophic going down), and the velo-press are falling all over themselves to install him as a firm favorite to stand atop the final GC in Paris next month. Certainly his overwhelmingly dominant performance in this week’s ITT suggests they’re not too far off.
But has he peaked too soon? Shown too many cards?
Defending champ Cadel Evans has shown strong form as well, taking a good uphill victory in Stage 1 of the Dauphiné and time-trialling as well as he always does, which was well enough to wear yellow on the Champs Élysée last year, if not quite good enough to scare Wiggins, who has all sorts of medals in the discipline.
With over 100kms of TT in the Grand Boucle this go round, are these the only two real contenders?
For a moment let’s consider Andy Schleck. He’s had a calamitous spring through injury and indolence, and his current form is probably best described as indifferent. Maybe he’s hiding his true form, but with few racing days and no discernible improvement in his TT skills, will it even matter? A running battle with team manager Johan Bruyneel may also be indicative of a star at his nadir, or else a demonstration of the enormous lengths Bruyneel will go to, to camouflage his team’s strength.
This week’s Group Ride is a real pot boiler. Let’s not go all in on maillot jaune predictions just yet. Let’s try to really evaluate the contenders instead. Other names in the hopper are: Nibali, Menchov, Valverde and Sanchez. Who else? And why?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
A friend posted on Twitter the other day, “Why do I have such a hard time caring about the early-season desert races?” and I replied, “Because those are training rides the UCI has sold ads for.” Which is pretty cynical, though essentially true.
Everyone loves to throw their arms up crossing the finish line, but only the guy in first place doesn’t look like an idiot doing it. Andre Greipel won the sprint this morning at the Tour of Oman ahead of a hard-charging Peter Sagan. Marcel Kittel, the new fast German, took yesterday’s dash, and Sagan won the uphill finish the day before on the Arabian peninsula.
They are racing in earnest, even if relatively few people are watching. As much as searching for form, some riders are trying to make statements about their worth, and this is the time of year when not everyone is racing to win, when wins are available to those who really need them. But what are they worth?
In the present day, the early season is made of races like the Tour Down Under, Tour of Qatar, Volta ao Algarve, Tour de San Luis and Tour of Oman, and here are the names of some riders who have won at those races already this season: Tom Boonen (Tour de San Luis), Simon Gerrans (Tour Down Under), Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Volta ao Algarve), Alejandro Valverde (Tour Down Under). I think it’s safe to say that each of those riders has something to prove right now.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Which of these results is most significant? Who needed to throw that victory salute the most? Are there any results here that will bear on the big time races, later in the year?
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.
Padraig has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Yesterday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us almost everything we look for from a Spring Classic, crashes, attacks, splintering chase groups, breakaways, and an unlikely winner. The name of that improbable champion was the one thing that left something to be desired in the minds of many cycling fans. You could tell from all the booing at the finish line and the wave of articles questioning the result, based on that rider’s checkered past. Despite a stunning and classy win, cycling just isn’t sure about Alexander Vinokourov.
There seem to be two strains of thought as regards the ongoing exploits of Mr. Vinokourov. There are those who view him as an unrepentant doper, a rider who cheated, never confessed and then came back at the top level to plunder anew. Then there is an admittedly smaller group who say the Kazakh has paid his dues, served his suspension and is, therefore, entitled to continue with his career.
I find myself curiously caught between the two. Ambivalent.
Certainly, I have sympathy with the skeptics. I have always been a believer that how you do something is at least as important as having done it. And so, when I ponder the growing field of convicted dopers returning from suspension, I am able to draw some distinction between David Millar, honest, contrite, outspoken and humble, and someone like Vinokourov, who has been seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of his transgressions. He has been neither contrite nor humble. Having served his time, he is back to feed at the trough. Full stop.
But is that a valid distinction?
Millar and Vinokourov both cheated. Both served suspensions. Both have, theoretically, changed their behavior to that prescribed by the governors of the sport. Those are substantive changes, no matter how they’re effected.
Does it matter that Vinokourov has not become an outspoken critic of doping within the sport? If each returning rider cast himself in this role, would the gesture become hollow? And is the sword not, in fact, double-edged? Would the same people who pillory the Astana rider for not being contrite enough, call him a hypocrite if he spent too much time extolling the virtues of clean sport? Quite how Millar has turned this trick for himself is a bit of a mystery, but, by all accounts, the British rider has always been more charming than his Kazakh counterpart.
At root, are we, as fans, entitled to more bowing and scraping? Or are the sport’s laws and punishments enough?
I don’t know. I ask myself if I’m not maybe simply biased toward riders I like better on the bike. I can forgive Pantani his transgressions, to some degree, because he gave us such drama. Danilo DiLuca also falls into this category maybe. But the less emotionally compelling riders like Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde (unconvicted) or Jan Ullrich suffer a greater wrath. They cheated, AND they failed to entertain properly. This double transgression may be the real problem.
Today, Vinokourov has come forth with an open letter that seeks to address his situation more fully. It’s hard to read it and not feel an ounce of compassion for the man, who, at 36, is only trying to salvage something of a damaged career.
Would we prefer that he simply go away? For doping to go away, do the dopers all have to go, permanently? If so, we need to change our rules and procedures. Now. Before this dynamic plays itself out into absurdity.
The whole situation brings to the forefront some of the central challenges for the UCI going forward, how to reintegrate the sport’s transgressors and how to convince cycling fans that the punishments doled out are proportionate to the crimes being committed.
What we are seeing with Vinokourov is that, though the UCI has sanctioned his return, the tifosi have not, and neither have the cycling press. Perhaps these are just the consequences. You can cheat, and you can go away for two years, and you can come back, but all that will be left for you are these begrudged victories. You can stand on the podium and kiss the girls and hold the bouquet. You can even pocket the prize money, but you will never be allowed to win again.
Is that fair? I have no idea.
Let’s just get this one thing straight before we go any further. Alberto Contador does NOT hug teammates he doesn’t like. If the 2009 Astana saga didn’t teach us that, then we learned nothing at all. So, all you conspiracy-theorists who think Vinokourov attacked his teammate when the aforementioned teammate wasn’t expecting it, I’m sorry. Circumstances on the ground just don’t confirm that theory.
If anything they suggest that Astana and Contador have now learned how to use psychological misdirection to spring a surprise on the peloton. Be afraid, Johann Bruyneel. Be very afraid.
Right, so now, onto the race.
Wow! Even watching the emotionally flat, Sporza web-feed in Flemish I was excited by this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. There were the Schlecks mixing it up at the front of the race. There were attacks galore from all and sundry. There was Alejandro Valverde sucking on Phillipe Gilbert’s wheel. And Gilbert! Was anyone NOT rooting for this guy to catch the break?
Alas, he just left it too late.
Even as they came inside 2k to go, I thought maybe Kolobnev was going to pull a Tchmil on Vinokourov, storming away at the death in that impassive Russian way. But no, instead we got Vinokourov, some people’s villain, whipping the crowd into the sort of frenzy usually reserved for professional wrestling events.
It was a beautiful race, if not a wholly pleasing result. Despite all that, we’ve gotten 24 solid hours of hand-wringing drama out of it, so, to my mind, a fitting end to the Spring Classics season.
No one predicted a Kazakh victory, so we remain awash in stickers at RKP HQ. No worries. There will be plenty more opportunities to win.
As to the many recovery solutions you proffered, some were funny, some were old-school reliable and a few had the novelty of a new group from Campagnolo: attractive, yes … but reliable? We’ll let you know how a few of these work out. Not trying the milk bath, though.
Next up is what I’d call the season’s taint race, the Tour of Romandie. It taint a classic, and it taint a Grand Tour, a dubious distinction indeed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Far be it from me to disagree with Paul Sherwen. That guy has probably raced more pro races than I’ve seen.
Having said that, Sherwen’s take on Alberto Contador’s Stage 7 attack at Paris-Nice last weekend really surprised me. As the stage played out and the GC boys came to the front, Contador attacked in a group that included his two main rivals, Alejandro Valverde and Luis León-Sánchez, both from Caisse d’Epargne.
Sherwen thought it unwise for Contador to drop all his teammates, isolating himself with a pair of riders less than a minute behind him on GC. At first blush, this is an entirely reasonable criticism, and one that highlights the weaknesses of Astana’s roster and maybe, on some level, Contador’s tactical naivete.
To me, however, it seemed like a smart move, and one that demonstrated that Contador has learned much from his Grand Tour wins. It was just last summer, after all, that el Pistolero found himself alone with the Schleck brothers on a steep Tour climb, watching as they took turns trying to break him with attack after attack. He was able to hang in that day, but rivals took note. It might not be possible to beat the diminutive Spaniard one-on-one, but there is greater strength in numbers.
And so, coming to the pointy end of Paris-Nice, Contador did the simple math. The Caisse boys were clearly going to attack. None of his teammates would be able to stay with them, so rather than sit back and defend, he went on the attack, effectively preventing either Valverde or León-Sánchez from imposing the pace.
It was a blistering attack. His rivals sat on and let him work, probably hoping he’d punch himself out, but he played it perfectly, holding his speed high enough to discourage a burst from either one, while still riding within himself.
What Sherwen seemed to assume was that there was someone other than Contador on the Astana bus who could stay with Valverde and León-Sánchez on the attack. That was clearly not the case. What el Pistolero knew that Sherwen didn’t is that neither of the Caisse riders could stay with him on the attack either.
It was bold, smart and decisive. And it put him on the top step of the podium.
At this summer’s Tour de France, the GC competition will be much stiffer than it was at Paris-Nice. The Shleck brothers will be there. Cadel Evans with his new BMC team. The Shack and their geriatric posse. The chances of a strange alliance coming together are good. That sort of thing is Johan Bruyneel’s stock-in-trade.
In short, the world’s top stage racer just won’t be able to attack for three weeks. What worked on the road into Nice, won’t work in the French heat, day after day, up Alps and down Pyrenees. But then, come the summer, the Astana bus should have Alexander Vinokourov on it. David de la Fuente will be there for the mountains, too. Maybe also Oscar Pereiro and some of the other riders who’ve been busy at Tirreno-Adriatico, or Maxim Iglinsky who won this year’s Eroica.
If anything, Astana have proven this spring that they have the peloton’s strongest man AND a team that can support him, if and when he needs it, which, despite Paul Sherwen’s doubts, he didn’t on Sunday.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The other shoe has finally dropped. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has, finally, upheld Alejandro Valverde’s Italian suspension, imposed by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), finding that, not only does CONI have jurisdiction to impose the ban on the Spanish rider for races taking place in Italy, but further, that the evidence used by CONI to ban Valverde, may well be enough to expand the ban worldwide. The origin of the ban is a connection made between a bag of blood seized by Spanish police as part of the Operación Puerto investigation and a sample given for an Italian race, confirming, according to CONI, that Valverde participated in the doping program run by Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes AND that traces of EPO could be connected to Valverde’s DNA.
This decision alters the pro cycling landscape in a number of curious ways. First, it calls into question Valverde’s results from 2006, and the beginning of the Operación Puero scandal, up to his second place finish in the just completed Paris-Nice race. If, and this is a great big if, the UCI chooses to vacate Valverde’s results, then Samuel Sanchez suddenly becomes the winner of the 2009 Vuelta a España and Ivan Basso, himself a Puerto alum, climbs up onto the podium. Should the UCI back out all those results, the peloton will be full of new winners.
Beyond the rider’s individual results, the CAS decision demonstrates several things: First, the wheels of justice turn very, very, very, very slowly in cycling. We are years from the Puerto revelations, and though this process was slowed considerably by complications with the Spanish justice system, the fact remains that the national organizations overseeing the anti-doping efforts in Europe are NOT all together on procedures and protocols.
Second, it shouldn’t escape our notice that the Spanish police were actually the instigators of this entire episode, raiding Fuentes’ lab on a pretext not related to blood doping, which was not illegal in Spain at the time. Alejandro Valverde has never tested positive for banned substances in an in-competition screening. If it’s true that the Caisse d’Epargne rider made a practice of doping, then the testing the UCI is doing has not been effective in catching him, despite a string of wins that saw him end 2009 as the top-ranked pro rider.
Third, Caisse d’Epargne has already planned to end their sponsorship of the cycling team at the end of the 2010 season. If it’s most salable asset is banned from competition for two years, finding a new sponsor for a team that contains a wealth of Spanish cycling talent might be even more difficult. in light of recent sponsorship withdrawals by entities like Saxo Bank and Milram (though this is still up in the air) Valverde’s ongoing troubles signal yet another major blow against the sport in public perception.
Insiders will tell you that cycling is the most transparent sport, due to the high level of testing and prosecution of doped athletes. Outsiders will see just another big name rider convicted of cheating.
Now that CAS has exhausted Valverde’s appeals, we can look forward to the slowly unfolding drama of the UCI moving to expand the Italian ban to worldwide competition with the rider rushing around Europe trying to squeeze in as many races as possible before the hammer falls.
I’m not sure why, but every time I hear someone mention Paris-Nice, I envision Omar Sharif standing on the deck of a ski chalet wearing a Russian ushanka and imploring some cream-skinned Euro princess to follow him to the Orient. There is, literally, no good reason for this association, so let’s talk about bike racing instead.
Paris-Nice, “the race to the sun,” rolls off the start line on Sunday, (American viewers can catch some of the race on Versus) the 7th. Eight stages will wind their way south from Montfort-l’Amaury (Prologue), south of Paris to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice (Stage 7). For the big pros who hope to compete in the Grand Tours later in the season, Paris-Nice serves as the first coveted win.
Last year, the clear favorite, Alberto Contador, blew up on Stage 7, gifting the race to his Spanish compatriot Luis León Sánchez. It was, to date, really the only sign that Contador is not a robot.
Interestingly, the French anti-doping organization AFLD will NOT be working with the UCI on Paris-Nice this year, after AFLD director Pierre Bordry accused the UCI of favoring Lance Armstrong in 2009. UCI head Pat McQuaid didn’t appreciate the accusation, so the AFLD has been pushed aside. All very mature and professional, as usual.
Historical notes: Sean Kelly is the king of Paris-Nice having won seven straight titles between 1982 and 1988. Also, of note, during the 2003 race, Kazakhstan’s Andrei Kivilev died due to head injury sustained in an accident. His death prompted the UCI to mandate the use of helmets.
So who will win?
Contador, as the mostly undisputed top stage-racer in the world, is favorite, but León Sánchez and his Caisse d’Epargne teammate Alejandro Valverde have to be considered as well. In addition to that crack (not a drug reference) Spanish contingent, Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, Cervelo Test Team’s Heinrich Haussler, Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde, Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger, HTC Columbia’s Tony Martin, Radio Shack’s Levi Leipheimer, Saxo’s Fränk Schleck are all riders to watch.
Some, like Haussler and maybe Martin, will be looking more for stage wins, but this is a race where a big stage victory can shake up the GC.
So let’s hear it? Who are you picking? Who are you pulling for? And why?
But of course, even before we get to Paris-Nice, we have what will hopefully become one of the legendary classics—Montepaschi Strade Bianche, better known as the Eroica. While most of the talk lately has been about who is ready for Paris-Nice, Garmin-Transitions Ryder Hesjedal, who has twice finished in the top 10 on this event, has cited it as a big priority for his spring.
Previous winner Fabian Cancellara will be back and last week’s winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Juan Antonio Flecha, who has indicated Paris-Roubaix is among his goals, will both be lining up.
So who’s your call?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last September I wrote The Elephant, an analysis cum-indictment of Alejandro Valverde, his role in Operación Puerto and the doping shadow hanging over the pro peloton. Since that time, Valverde has won the Vuelta a España. Then, and perhaps still, Valverde represented the modern face of doping controversy, arguably the top rider in the world, at least by UCI ranking, with the strongest circumstantial link to serious foul play. His persistence, both in protesting his innocence and winning big races, seemed to me like the single biggest threat to cycling’s future.
Six months on, my perspective has shifted.
And what caused that shift? Improbably, it was the issue, in France, of an arrest warrant for Floyd Landis on the grounds that the American rider had hacked into the computer system of the French lab that produced his doping positive in 2006 in order to steal documents pertaining to his case. The very notion of the Metallica-quoting, former Mennonite engaging in any sort of international computer skullduggery so amused me that I resolved to read his book, Positively False: the Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, a tome I had, up to this point, disregarded as superfluous to my understanding of how the cycling world works.
Landis’ book isn’t great. It sort of wanders all over the place, basically outlining what a naive, straight shooter its protagonist is and then lambasting the process of appealing a doping ban and indicting the system that convicted him more than the science, though there’s a bit of that too. I’ll save you the blow-by-blow of my reading the book, then turning to the internet and hundreds of additional pages of independent legal analysis as well as USADA memos, etc. as I stopped thinking about Landis mostly and instead sought to understand more fully how the anti-doping effort actually works.
And what I learned is that it’s complicated.
I thought it was complicated before, but mainly from an administrative standpoint. What I discovered is that testing, sanctioning and prosecuting dopers is a Kafka-esque legal undertaking wed to a scientific process that struggles for accuracy, repeatability and consistency from race to race, country to country and year to year. I began, if I’m honest, with a desire to believe that Floyd Landis didn’t cheat, a desire born of liking the public image of the rider more than anything concrete, and I ended with a deep ambivalence about Landis and subsequently my prize elephant, Valverde.
I realized that I had been applying a double standard.
I loved Landis’ performance in the 2006 Tour, the way he seemed to be assuming the mantle of American cycling leadership from a retired Lance Armstrong, his folksiness, and that amazing comeback on Stage 17, the performance that ultimately led to his doping positive and being stripped of the Tour de France victory.
I didn’t like Valverde. Viewed through the prism of the Puerto investigation, I convicted him of cheating, based on the circumstantial evidence available through the press, and then further indicted him for his flamboyant denials and audacity in continuing to compete in the biggest races at the highest level. In my mind, I was watching a cheat who suffered no consequences. He rubbed our noses in it. He imperiled our sport for his own selfish interests.
This is, of course, complete prejudice.
I don’t know Floyd Landis, and I don’t know if he cheated. I’ve heard awfully compelling arguments that he did, and equally strong reasoning to suggest he didn’t. I don’t know Alejandro Valverde, and I don’t know if he cheated either. Maybe yes. Maybe no.
By continuing to ride, and by the UCI and now CAS (the Court of Arbitration for Sport) taking so long to resolve his case, Valverde has remained the elephant in the peloton. But maybe what that elephant points out is not that doping is alive and well, but rather that the UCI’s system for detecting and prosecuting doping cases is nowhere near sufficient to the task. Valverde goes on winning, a path not available to Landis, and by doing so he proves one of two things, possibly both, that he can win races without dope or, in the event he was and is doping, that the tests don’t work nearly well enough.
Today, the Vuelta a Murcia rolls out of its start in Spain. That race’s director, Paco Guzman, barred Italian teams from entering his race to protest, he said, the Italian’s ban on Valverde, who is from Murcia. Ironically, Valverde and his team, Caisse d’Epargne aren’t racing Murcia either, due to a mixup over payments. At time of writing, UCI chief Pat McQuaid had become involved, threatening Guzman with UCI sanction and demanding an apology. It’s an ugly mess.
I see now that cycling’s politics don’t admit of easy resolutions for what, to most fans, seem like straightforward questions. Did a rider dope? Did he not? Are the races clean? Is the process fair? Are the rules applied equally across the sport?
Last September I wrote that Alejandro Valverde was the elephant, but now I see that no one rider can own that distinction. In fact, now that we’ve recognized the doping and the problems it cause, what remains is the UCI’s ability, or lack thereof, to clean things up, to give us a clean competition where we trust the participants, the administrators and the results. This is the elephant who casts its enormous, gray shadow over the races, the sponsorships, the legends and the rising stars. The dope lingers because we don’t know how to stop it. The UCI is as confused as the riders are. And I, as a fan, have to find a way to reserve judgement, for now, and possibly forever.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International