Hopefully it is just because the pro cycling season is winding down and there is not much racing to report, but it seems that the only thing happening is more doping news. Recently, the French anti-doping laboratory (AFLD) completed it's testing of all the 2008 Tour de France samples. They were looking for CERA a new version of EPO that is time-released and appears to be more effective than the older versions. I guess you could call it 'new and improved'. Anyway, four cyclists have been caught using CERA at the Tour, Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli were tossed during the Tour, Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl were found positive during the AFLD's most recent testing.
The problem here is that all these guys are big names. Between them they won a total of five of the Tour's toughest stages, the King of the Mountains jersey and third place overall. That's a very sobering fact and shows that while the fight against doping is starting to work, there are still riders taking drugs.
There are a number of ramifications to these revelations. First off, UCI President Pat McQuaid has recently revealed that the UCI is seriously considering raising the length of time of a doping infraction from the current two years to four years. McQuaid indicated that the four year ban would only apply to deliberate acts of doping and not to those testing positive for accidentally taking a banned substance such as something in a cold medication or supplement.
A four year ban is basically a life sentence for a rider not to mention that with the current glut of professionals, most banned riders, unless they are a legitimate Tour de France contender, would be too much baggage to a team.
Another development arising from the recent doping scandals is that the two German television networks ARD and ZDF which broadcast the Tour have decided to drop the Tour from their programming schedule next year. Also, the Tour of Germany, a race won by Levi Leipheimer in 2005, has folded citing lack of sponsorship in the wake of the recent doping positives.
And you thought the financial markets were in crisis.
One of my favorite riders in the peloton is Jens Voigt of Team CSC Saxo Bank. To me he exemplifies everything that it takes to be and act like a professional cyclist. He can be counted on to go and do whatever the team director asks whether it is to go to the front to reel in a late race breakaway, or set pace in the mountains to launch their team leader. He does these tasks with little hesitation and his pounding style on the bike when he is going hard is visible evidence that he is sacrificing himself for his team.
Just when you thought you had seen him do it all, there he is climbing with all the favorites on the Col du Tourmalet. Make no mistake, Jens is not built to be a climber. The man has some meat on his bones, you won't see him getting blown over in a strong wind. It is almost as if he simply wills himself up the road. On the Tourmalet, pre-race favorites Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego had been dropped, but there was Jens still in the lead group doing his job. He had company in his uber-teammate Fabian Cancellara and when the lead group hit the flats to the base of the final climb, the two Team CSC Saxo Bank riders drilled it to bring back all the breakaways and set up the exciting finish which saw their teammate, Frank Schleck, miss the yellow jersey by the slimmest of margins.
It was mission accomplished for Jens and Fabian. Just another day as a domestique at the Tour. To be fair, Jens wins his share of races during the year. This past March he won the Criterium International for the umpteenth time with an audacious breakaway on the race's hilly second stage. Last year, he won the week-long Tour of Germany, his home tour for the second time.
I got the chance to hang out with Jens this past February at the Team CSC training camp. We chatted about a number of things. Jens' wife had just given birth to their fifth child, he remarked that he is 37, but he needed to get a five-year extension on his contract as he had a lot of mouths to feed. We talked about the immigration problems facing the US and Jens remarked that Germany had similar problems, having imported a lot of cheap labor from Turkey. He was surprised at his popularity in the USA, recounting the story of being out on a training ride in Southern California only to have a UPS driver pull over, stop, lean out of his cab and yell, "Go Jensy!"
Personally, I hope Jens gets that extension. The pro peloton wouldn't be the same without him.
You might be wondering why, with four stage wins, Mark Cavendish isn't wearing the green jersey of the race's best sprinter. The reason is simple, he doesn't contest every sprint and the ones he is absent from the front he is way back just hanging out. A rider like Thor Hushovd or Oscar Friere may not be winning as much, but the points they are scoring for their top-5 and top-10 finishes each stage are enough to offset the 35 points Cavendish gets for each win. If you really want the green jersey, you have to try and contest all the sprints.
Gerlosteiner's Sven Krauss was involved in a horrifying crash in the closing kilometers when he hit a metal traffic sign in the middle of the road at the entrance to a roundabout. Somebody in the Tour organization wasn't doing their job. There is usually a gendarme waving a flag and blowing a whistle at such dangerous signs. Luckily for Krauss, his bike, which was broken in two, appeared to suffer the majority of the damage.
Today, Scott-Saunier Duval Team management fired both Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli. They accounted for all three of the teams stage wins at the Tour.
For those of you who were unable to see the photo of the Euskatel-Euskadi rider giving his bottle to a young fan at a stage finish, check the previous blog "Tour of Surprises Continues" it should be visible now. BTW, the kid's father gave me his E-mail address and I mailed him a copy of the photo.
There is so much going on at the 2008 Tour de France, I just don't know where to begin. One huge development is the positive test by Riccardo Ricco for EPO. Actually, he tested positive for a very new version of EPO which has only been commercially available since the beginning of the year. This new version of EPO known as CERA or Micera is so new that there is no accepted test for the drug. Remember that this Tour, unlike years past, is not run under the sanction of the UCI. The French Cycling Federation is the sanctioning body and it was their lab who returned the positive test.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that Ricco has a medically-documented high hematocrit level so unless he was over that limit, it is not clear, in the absence of a valid test that he could be found positive. Regardless, the entire Scott-Saunier Duval team has withdrawn from the Tour, shades of 2007 which saw the exits of both Astana and Cofidis when their riders tested positive. However, this time, the decision to remove the team came from Scott-Saunier Duval management and not from the Tour organizers.
This is a very sticky mess that has left a lot of those in the sport shaking their heads. Ricco has been on the watch list since the start of the Tour. When he shot out of the lead group on the Col du Aspin, I joked to one of my colleagues in the press room that it was not a very wise move and now Ricco would clearly be in the spotlight for a doping offense.
On a completely different matter, but slightly related, on the rest day in Pau, 17 of the 18 Pro Tour teams (Astana was not invited to the Tour) announced that they would not be renewing their UCI ProTour license in 2009 effectively killing the ProTour. I don't know too many people who are losing sleep over the demise of the ProTour. While the UCI has stated various reasons for its inception, it appears that the only real reason for starting it was for the UCI to be able to get its hands on the Tour De France's TV money. The UCI should get back to its original charter of sanctioning races and teams. That's what they seem to do best.
How do you all feel about Ricco's positive and/or the demise of the ProTour?
When you are on a roll you are on a roll. Team Columbia looked to have the leadout train dialed to perfection as they gave Mark Cavendish an armchair ride to the finish for win number three. In his post race interview on France 2 TV with Gerard Hotlz he remarked about the victory. "Three wins in very different conditions. It just shows how strong the team is. Even if we don't win another stage we can be very content." Commenting on the exclusion of Riccardo Ricco he remarked, "It is bad for the organization, but it is good for me that the tests do work."
Cadel Evans retains the yellow jersey. He rode very smartly today always being in the front of the peloton in order to avoid any crashes. He commented to Holtz,"it is hard to stay in the first 20, but on days like this it is critical." Looking forward to the difficulties to come, he told Holtz, "Jausier and l'Alpe d' Heuz will be difficult as will the time trial. Last year the final time trial played out like a Hollywood script." And lastly, we learn of the philanthropy of the Australian, "all of my jerseys from the Tour are donated to charities or to people who have helped me in my career." Pretty cool.
OK. On a day when the Tour seems to only be about bad things, I thought this photo would lighten things up a bit. Everyday as the riders come across the finish line and head to the team buses the fans are there to cheer support. In this photo, a rider from the Basque team Euskaltel-Euskadi team gives his bottle to one of his Basque fans who will not soon forget this day.
We all know who the Texas Tornado is and his chief rival Der Kaiser. How about 'the Cannibal' or 'Pou-Pou'? It is a pretty common practice in the sporting world to give our favorite athletes nicknames. Some, like the aforementioned Cannibal, describe the way they ride a bike while others like 'Chechu' Rubiera are named for for their mother's favorite character in a Spanish radio soap opera.
Sometimes it is easy to figure out where the nickname came from. Eddy Merckx is pretty much considered the best professional rider to ever throw a leg over a bike. He won an amazing one-third of the races he entered and would simply destroy his competition when he saw fit. He was given that name by a journalist in the early 70's and it stuck. The cannibal is a totally appropriate name to describe Merckx's riding style.
There have been some other pretty good nicknames in the past. Bernard Hinault was the badger for his fierce competitive nature. The diminutive, two-time World Champion Paolo Bettini is known as the cricket. Rouler exceptionale Fabian Cancellara was given the moniker 'Spartacus' by a teammate from his days on the Italian Fassa Bortolo team. The winner of the 2006 Paris-Roubaix, which closely resembles a chariot race, could easily be mistaken for a Roman gladiator.
Scott-Saunier Duval rider Riccardo Ricco is known as the Cobra, a name given to him by a friend. It is not known what prompted that name, but his consistently aggressive riding style in the past two Giro d'Italias certainly seem to indicate that it's a pretty good call. And if you saw him launch his searing attack today on the Col du Aspin there is no doubt that he name is well-deserved. Ricco launched with such absolute fury that the lead group simply had no response.
Do you have any favorite rider nicknames to share or have you made up a nickname or two you would like to propose for a rider?
It was great to see Christian Vandevelde finish in the lead group which moved him up to 3rd overall. He looked relaxed and content as he crossed the finish line. Here's hoping that Christian continues to show his climbing form tomorrow on the Col du Tourmalet and Huatacam. He is clearly capable of being there.
Will Frischkorn stopped by after the finish and remarked that he was loving the grupetto days such as this when he could just ride tempo and not worry about going up the road. He called his move on Stage 3 'the suicide breakaway which never succeeds' and was pleased that all four riders in the group wanted to work hard enough to take it to the finish.
The big guns will be firing on the Col du Tourmalet and Huatacam tomorrow. Both these climbs have the capability to rip the race apart. Look for the majority of the action to come on the 8-mile 3700' climb of Huatacam to the finish.