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?
Just when you thought the Tour couldn't get any weirder, Michael Rasmussen has been asked by his Rabobank team to leave the race and the wearer of the yellow jersey has departed. The request comes after revelations that the Danish rider holds a Mexican racing license and hasn't had an out-of-competition drug test in two years. Because, this year, Rasmussen is a member of the Danish national team he also comes under their scrutiny and has missed at least two out-of-competition tests requested by the Danish national cycling federation.
Rabobank team officials deny that the Tour organizers put any pressure on them to expel Rasmussen, but on Tuesday, the Tour bosses said, "Michael Rasmussen should not have started the Tour. We should have refused him entry into the Tour." It is clear from the expulsion of both the Astana and Cofidis teams in the wake of positive tests by riders from those squads that the Tour organizers are taking a very strong stand on doping, a policy which can best be described as "zero tolerance".
Frankly, I am stunned. It is hard for me to believe that the Rabobank team decided, on their own accord, to throw away an almost certain Tour victory. In the short term this is a disaster for the team and its sponsors, most notably the Dutch bank Rabobank. However, in the long term, given the comments made to me by Tour boss Christian Prudhomme about running the Tour next year under the Tour's rules, the team is risking a possible non-participation in next year's race, and future Tours for that matter, if it doesn't deal with this situation quickly and effectively.
Let's face facts: For most professional cycling teams, the Tour is far and away the most important race on the cycling calendar and in most sponsor's eyes; it is critical for justifying the huge budgets of $8,000 to 15,000,000 a year for a top-flight professional cycling team. So, it would appear that Rabobank was caught between a rock and a hard place and decided to look to the long term rather than the short term.
However, the other side of the whole doping saga of the Tour, which really should be the subject of another blog, is the rider's rights. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code says that a rider is positive only after both their A and B samples have tested positive. In both the cases of Vinokourov and Cofidis rider Cristian Moreni, whose positive test for testosterone was announced on Wednesday, the B sample testing has yet to be conducted. What if, for example, Vino's B sample test comes back negative. Vino's courageous performance and two stage wins, plus the opportunity for his Astana team to shine have been unjustly taken away.
I am all for fighting doping with as much energy and resources as possible, but just like our Bill of Rights, the organizers of cycling must not deny the athletes their rights. The sport needs to win the fight against doping. I am just hoping that a "ends justifies the means" attitude does not descend upon the sport. If that happens we may win the battle, but lose the war.
Bob Stapleton has been on an e-ticket ride in this year's Tour. The head of Team T-Mobile has experienced the full range of emotions, from a stage win to the yellow jersey to the team leader crashing out to a doping scandal. And the Tour still has four days to go! It would be easy to understand if the California resident hopped a plane in Paris and didn't look back. But then, you don't know Bob.
Unlike most team managers, Stapleton didn't come to the sport of cycling as a former professional racer. Though he can definitely ride a bike, including conquering such Tour landmarks as the Col du Tourmalet, Bob is a businessman first and rider second. In the '90s, Bob and two friends, Don and Tim, founded a small cellular telephone company Voicestream which quickly grew into a major player in the American cell phone market. T-Mobile of Germany bought VoiceStream to form T-Mobile USA and Bob suddenly found himself with both a lot of time and money.
Stapleton got his start in team management directing the efforts of the professional women's T-Mobile team, but when the men's professional squad was rocked by major doping scandals last year, T-Mobile corporate HQ asked Bob to step in and straighten things out. T-Mobile wanted someone outside the sport's traditionally inbred culture to make the changes necessary to clean up the team's image.
Bob was instrumental in implementing a comprehensive in-house medical control program and has been working hard at bigger-picture issues such as selling the sport of cycling to new corporate sponsors. However, admissions of doping by such ex-T-Mobile riders as 2006 Tour de France champion Bjarne Riis and super sprinter Erik Zabel have made it seem like three steps forward and two steps back for the soft-spoken Californian's efforts. With rumors that T-Mobile might be pulling its sponsorship of the team, here's hoping that Stapleton gets a fighting chance to clean up the team and the sport. Cycling needs more guys like Bob.
It has been such a crazy last 24 hours at the Tour, I should probably explain yesterday's remarks made to me by Christian Prudhomme that next year the Tour will follow the Tour's rules. Basically, the Tour organization wants complete control over which riders it will allow to participate in its race. If any rider is suspected of not being clean, organizers want to be able to exclude that rider from participating, something they cannot presently do under the guidelines with which the UCI governs the sport of professional cycling. For example, it has come to light that Vinokourov was one of the so-called "men in black," a rider who was suspected of using doping products. If the Tour had been following its own rules and not the UCI's, they could have excluded him solely on suspicion and the current scandal would have been avoided.
As for today's race:
Levi was the man. He did everything he possibly could within himself to distance himself from Cadel Evans and try to climb onto the Tour podium. It was an incredibly gutsy performance. Let's hope he can uncork a great performance in the time trial and take that podium position from Evans, which he so deserves.
Oops! One day I am writing about how I like the Team Astana jerseys and how they look good at the front of the race, and the next day, the whole team has been tossed from the Tour in the wake of Alexandre Vinokourov testing positive for non-homologous blood doping after his win in the time trial in Albi. This is the same offense for which Tyler Hamilton tested positive in 2004; the fact that the doping lab was able to turn around the test in just two days, undoubtedly indicates that the Kazakh rider was being closely watched.
Based on the result of Vinokourov's test, Tour officials asked Team Astana to leave the Tour and they accepted.
The news of Vinoukorov comes on the heels of the morning's press conference where yellow jersey-wearer Michael Raasmussen clarified his situation with the Danish Cycling Federation. As a member of the Danish National Team, Rasmussen is required to be available for out-of-competition testing. This year, he has missed two such tests--which would normally mean that he is disqualified from racing. However, Rasmussen holds a Mexican racing license, an option he has because his wife is Mexican. Rasmussen admitted today that he has not had an out-of-competition test from the Mexican Cycling Federation in two years.
When the Tour organizers heard this new information, their response was quick. "Michael Rasmussen should not have started the Tour. We should have refused him entry into the Tour," noted Tour bosses Christian Prudhomme and Patrice Clerc. But, they were quick to add, "this sport deserves all we can do to save it."
Oh me, oh my! This news is too fresh to completely understand all the implications, but having arguably the two highest-profile riders at the Tour tainted by doping is a sad, sad day for the sport.
ps - after the Tour press conference, I talked with Christian Prudhomme one-on-one and he told me that next year the Tour de France would be run under the Tour's rules, indicating that they would not follow the rules of the Union Cycliste International(UCI) which currently governs the sport of professional cycling. This particular issue has been a bone of contention during the long-standing fued between the Tour organizers and the UCI.
Does the peloton really need race radios? Every rider wears one; they are used to communicate with the team director in the support car. The excitement generated by the likes of Vinokourov, Contador and Rasmussen at the Tour belies the fact that a lot of pro racing has become boring. The riders have become robots, pedaling along waiting for the orders from the team director to attack or chase. Most of the directors have satellite TV in their autos, so they can follow the race and react in an instant. The result is almost always predictable. There are few surprises.
Personally, I would like to ban race radios. Lest you think I am flip-flopping, I first wrote about my dislike of the radios way back in 1993, when they were first introduced by Motorola with its Peloton Communication System. Motorola sponsored a European professional team back then. One of its riders was a 21-year-old Texan named Lance. Unfortunately, Motorola management did not appreciate my stance and when I visited the team on the first rest day in Grenoble, I was politely asked to reconsider my opinion. Well, it has been 14 years and I still don't like radios.
The teams will argue that the radios make riding in the pack much safer. If a rider has a problem he can contact his director over the airwaves rather than go back between all the team cars risking an accident. Yes, this is one valid reason, but the riders still have to go back to their cars to pick-up/drop-off equipment and fetch food and water. So, I am not convinced that it is critical to reduce trips back to the cars.
A lot of the riders don't like the radios either. Back in the day, part of being a pro was reading the race. You had to be at the front to make sure none of the danger men slipped away. Conversely, if you were pretty crafty, you might be able to attack and get away with little notice. Now, information on who is up the road is right there on the TV in the director's car. So, riders just sit in the pack waiting to be told what to do. It's all about horsepower below the waist and not above the neck. How do you all feel about race radios in the peloton?