It appears the news that Italian super sprinter Mario Cipollini has signed with Rock Racing were a bit premature. That doesn't mean that Cipo is heading back to the land of fine wine and pasta for good. It just means that the negotiations aren't over. Where's Donald Trump when you need him? Personally, I hope Mario signs and has a presence in the US. I am sure The Donald would allow him to be a judge at his Miss America pageant.
In light of being in limbo over Super Mario's future, I thought I would recount my most favorite story about the flamboyant Italian. In 2002, I was covering the spring classic in Northern France and Belgium for Cycle Sport Magazine. It was a blast. If you have never been to the classics, you should go and don't forget to bring your bike and some warm and waterproof clothing.
Anyway, the Tour of Flanders ranks just behind Paris-Roubaix in prestige and some consider it even more difficult. This is the event to win if you are Belgian. The great Belgian cyclist Peter Van Petegem once told me that after he won the Tour of Flanders he never had to worry about getting a speeding ticket (and boy did he love to drive his Volvo 760 fast). When he would get pulled over the cops would recognize him and just let him go. Unfortunately, Belgium is implementing a lot of photo radar and Van Petegem mused that his lead-footed days were soon to be over.
Hey, but this is about Mario and here's the story. The Tour of Flanders is around 165-miles long and has about 20 named short climbs most of which are cobbled and reach grades of up to 23%. In 2002, Cipollini, who is nota noted climber and seems to disappear on all but the flattest of courses, was leading the UCI World Cup, the precursor to the current Pro Tour. As such he felt a need to defend his leader's jersey and rode exceptionally strongly to win the field sprint and finish 9th overall.
As Cipo crossed the line, a female TV reporter approached him and asked, "Do you want a massage?" Now you have to remember that Mario had just ridden 165 of the hardest miles there are in pro cycling, something that would have left lesser men near collapse. But not Cipo. He looked straight at the reporter and asked, "Are we talking a therapeutic massage or a sexual massage?" The reporter answered, "a therapeutic massage." Mario responded, "a therapeutic massage? No, not a therapeutic massage."
This is the time of year when the professional cycling teams hold their pre-season training camps and one of the first teams out of the blocks is the BMC Professional Cycling Team. This is former Team Phonak owner Andy Rhis' squad and with the addition this year of John Lelangue, who directed Floyd Landis to victory in the 2006 Tour de France, and who will share the team director responsibilities with current DS Gavin Chilcott they are looking to take it up a notch in 2008.
Founded in 2006 as a US regional team, they upgraded to a full-blown US pro squad in 2007 and with the addition of riders such as Scott Moninger, Scott Nydam, Jackson Stewart, Jonathan Garcia and ex-Phonak rider Alexander Moos they were ready to play with the best teams in America and beyond. Moninger nearly pulled off a huge win at Redlands and Nydam finished a respectable sixth place in the Tour of Georgia while battling a number of European Pro Tour teams. The capper came with a win in the team time trial at the Giro del Friuli Venezia Giuli in Italy becoming the first all-American team to do so. Colorado-native Jonathan Garcia held the leader's jersey for a few stages as well.
For 2008, the team has upgraded to a UCI Professional Continental team, the same classification as Jonathan Vaughters' Slipstream/Chipotle squad. The move paved the way for the team to compete in some of Europe's best professional races. I caught up with John Lelangue on a cold, misty day in Palo Alto after the team had returned from riding stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California up and over the daunting Mount Hamilton and the brutal Sierra Road climbs. Lelangue was excited with the races on the US calendar, noting that the Amgen Tour of California, Tour of Georgia, Tour of Missouri and the Tour of Utah were all on their program. But, he was most excited about taking the team to Europe and testing the waters there. Already on the program are the Criterium International, Three Day of DePanne, Tour of Picardie and GP Pino Cerami. The squad is eyeing several more wildcard invitations to two high-profile stage races in Switzerland and a bumpy, one-day race in northern France.
It must be remembered that Andy Rhis shut down the Phonak team at the end of 2006 because of sponsorship difficulties. The BMC team has slowly evolved into a potential replacement, but to be sure, even if the European campaign is a raging success, team management will still be taking things slowly. This year they are knocking on the door. Next year they will be looking to break it down. Keep an eye on these boys in 2008!
Frankly, I don't know what to think about the 2007 Tour. We saw some great racing in both the Alps and the Pyrenees. Aggressive riding and attacks by all the favorites marked the march across the mountains and the rain-soaked first time trial produced more drama as well. But, in the end, I just don't feel like there was a real winner of this year's Tour. Don't get me wrong, Contador, Evans and Leipheimer rode really well and deserve plaudits for their efforts. They were clearly the strongest riders who finished the Tour. But kicking Rasmussen out when he was clearly the dominant rider just makes the final outcome in Paris unsatisfying.
Maybe we can give an honorable mention yellow jersey and all three podium finishers could wear one. As I said in an earlier blog when referring to Levi and his riding in the Pyrenees and time trial, he earned his podium position. I feel the same for the gritty riding by Evans and the incredible accelerations of Contador. All three of these riders deserve to be on the podium. But, does one of them deserve to stand on the top step?
BTW, a lot of journalists are saying that Contador is an unlikely winner. If you read my pre-Tour prediction article on this site, you will notice that I predicted that Contador was a lock for the white jersey, and that even though he might have to work for Levi, he was also a contender for the overall. Hey, that's why they pay me the big bucks.
So what is going to happen with the Tour? As I said in my blog yesterday, things will get worse before they get better because the first item on the agenda is for the Tour organization (ASO) to define its relationship with the UCI. In all probability this will result in WWIII and the Tour will probably make serious moves to distance itself from the UCI. ASO has a huge sports property and clearly feels a need to protect its viability. To save the Tour, ASO feels that it needs to divorce itself from the UCI.
As far as the doping problem goes, I see this as two separate problems. First, there are the systematic doping programs that some professional teams employ. These systematic programs need to be dismantled much like what Bob Stapleton is attempting to do at T-Mobile. Secondly, there are the individual riders who operate outside the purview of their team. This is a much more difficult problem and the only current solution is more out-of-competition testing. I think it will be easier for the teams, if they really want to, to clean up their own internal doping programs, I am hoping that more out-of-competition controls will catch the lone wolves.
Hey, don't give up hope. The Tour has been around for 100-plus years. It has survived two world wars and a 20-plus-year drought of no French victory so it will survive. I haven't given up hope and neither should you!
With all the excitement surrounding Vino and the Chicken, a few of my blogs got sidetracked. Hey, there was some good stuff in there, if I do say so myself. Read on.
I talked with Quick Step director Patrick Lefevre about Tom Boonen and his quest for the green, sprinter's jersey, something Tom has tried hard to win for the past four years, but has come up empty each time. Lefevre noted that in the past Tom was down to 174 pounds for the Tour trying to be lighter to be able to get through the mountains. Patrick felt, looking back, that was too light for Boonen; after 10 days he was finished. This year Boonen was up to 181 pounds which is the optimal weight for him.
Lefevre also remarked that in the last several years Tom has had a lot of pressure on him to win. He raced too many races. This year, after the classics, Lefevre told Boonen to take some time off to rest but also to take off the pressure. And apparently, as Belgium's most popular cyclist rides down the Champs Elysees in green, the plan worked!
How about Levi in the final TT? Leipheimer told us at the Discovery Channel pre-Tour press conference that he was planning on peaking in the third week of the Tour and he did just that. And he almost snagged the yellow jersey. As Hannibal Smith used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together." More importantly, because Rasmussen's departure opened a slot on the podium for Levi, it was critical that Leipheimer ride well to prove that he earned, rather than inherited, his podium spot. Levi's ride on the last Pyrenean stage coupled with his TT win clearly proved he earned third place.
There's going to be a major war between the ASO, the company which owns the Tour, and the UCI. This feud nearly crippled pro racing early this past spring. After the doping scandals at the Tour, you can rest assured that Mssrs. Prudhomme and Clerc are not going to let the UCI control their race. Frankly, the UCI has been extremely two-faced when dealing with the doping problem and they have no leg to stand on to defend themselves. However, the UCI being the UCI, they will attempt to defend their actions and the rift will cause even more damage to the sport of cycling. Stay tuned; it will get worse before it gets better and I am not talking about the doping problem.
Talk about irony. In all likelihood, Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador will win the 2007 Tour de France. Not to take anything away from the Spanish rider's efforts, but his victory is due to Michael Rasmussen's departure because of the Rabobank rider's suspicions of doping. Discovery Channel is in the final year of sponsoring Contador's team. For the squad to continue in 2008, they need to find a sponsor to the tune of about $15 million a year. Unfortunately, because of all the doping scandals in the sport, the Discovery Channel team has been unable to find a replacement sponsor.
It is incredibly ironic that the situation which will most likely bring the team the Tour's yellow jersey, may also lead to be the demise of the very same team. It just doesn't get anymore Shakespearean than that. Would the team rather have the yellow jersey or a new title sponsor? What a dilemma.
Given that the Discovery Channel team may not exist next year, several of its American riders have signed letters of intent to ride for ex-U.S. Postal and Credit Agricole rider Jonathan Vaughters' new European pro team. Currently, Vaughters is the director of Team Slipstream, which is registered as a UCI Continental team. Because they are a continental team and not a pro tour squad, Vaughters must fight to get his riders entry into Europe's best bike races. With the addition of some high-profile riders, Vaughters could make a bid to become a Pro Tour team. Hey, Astana's Pro Tour license may be up for grabs.
Jonathan is reported to have a budget of about $5 million, a full two-thirds less than the needs of the Discovery Channel squad. It was reported this week that George Hincapie, David Millar and David Zabriske have signed letters of intent to switch to Vaughters' team for 2008. Rumors have also linked Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson and Christian Vandevelde. It seems like as one door closes another one opens. Of course, the best scenario is one that has all doors opening for cycling and the teams having to choose which sponsors they want.
So, as Contador gets one step closer to the top spot on the podium in Paris, the sponsorship woes of Discovery Channel and several other teams are very real, due in large part to the Tour's doping scandals which put Contador in yellow in the first place. Did everyone get that? Do I need to type more slowly? Do I need some descriptive pictures or diagrams?