As reported earlier, Rock Racing started only five riders in today's first stage, the 2.1-mile prologue, in the 2008 Amgen Tour of California(AToC). AToC organizers excluded three of Rock Racing's riders supposedly because they had open doping investigations. Rock Racing has maintained that there are no open investigations, but race organizers held firm. Frankly, it is not clear to me that there are any open doping investigations. I haven't seen any public mention that there are any open investigations and none of the Rock Racing riders have been privately notified that they are under investigation.
What is interesting to me is the parallel between what happened earlier this week to Team Astana. In the Astana affair, Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) issued a statement that Team Astana will not be invited to any ASO events, which includes the Tour de France. ASO cited the past history of doping on the team as their reason for the exclusion. However, Team Astana is a completely different team in 2008. Gone are all the riders implicated in any 2007 doping infractions as well as the whole team management.
So, if all the problem riders and team personnel are gone the team should be clean. The only rider on the team with a potential problem is Alberto Contador who has been linked to the same Operacion Puerto affair that AToC organizers used as a reason to exclude the three Rock Racing riders.
I think the decisions to exclude three riders from the AToC and Team Astana from the Tour are unfair. If you are upset that Levi may not get to ride in France, I think to be consistent, you have to also be upset that Tyler, Oscar and Santiago aren't riding the AToC. Would it be fair to allow Team Astana to ride the Tour de France if they don't bring Alberto Contador? How do you all feel about this? Do you all agree that both decisions are unfair?
On to the racing news, which I hope will shortly eclipse all this talk of doping. My pre-race prediction (and I made that prediction on Thursday), Fabian Cancellara, obliterated the competition winning by a substantial four-second margin in the short, 2.1-mile prologue time trial. Levi Leipheimer, who won the first two prologue time trials in 2006 and 2007, finished fourth, six seconds back.
No big surprises in the race for the overall. All the overall contenders finished within 20 seconds of each other. With several big climbing stages and a 15-mile time trial yet to come, the race is still a dead heat. Cancellara could hold the jersey for the next two days which offers only moderate climbing and flat finishes. However, come stage 3 on Wednesday, when both Mount Hamilton and Sierra Road are on the agenda, look for the 2006 Paris-Roubaix Champion and two-time World Time Trial Champion to hopefully transfer the jersey to one of his teammates such as Jens Voigt, Stuart O'Grady or Bobby Julich.
Less than a day before the start of the 3rd annual Amgen Tour of California (AToC) and there is a huge storm on the horizon. At the center of the controversy is Michael Ball and his Rock Racing Team; the issue being whether certain riders on his team roster will be allowed to start the race. Earlier this week, Ball submitted ten riders names as potential members of his team for the AToC. When race organizers published the team rosters, only five of those original ten were listed as potential starters. Somewhere along the way, race organizers left five of Michael's riders off the list.
On Saturday morning, Michael Ball, just back from a training ride with his team, met with the press in downtown Palo Alto, the scene of Sunday's prologue start, to address this issue. The owner of Rock and Republic clothing was adamant that none of the members of his AToC team are involved in any active doping investigation and he provided written documentation to back it up. Also provided to the media was a written letter to race organizers informing them of the same thing, that no rider on his AToC team is involved in an active doping investigation.
The passionate Ball was firm in stating that the riders named to his team, Santiago Botero, Oscar Sevilla, Tyler Hamilton and Kayle Legrande who have been linked to potential doping practices will start the race. Micheal strongly denied that he would accept a reduced number of riders if the race organizers refuse to let the aforementioned teammates participate.
At the heart of Ball's insistence is his belief that under the current conditions in professional cycling, riders need to be given the benefit of the doubt, especially if there is no open doping investigation. Ultimately, he would like to form a rider's union, something which is commonplace in most high-profile professional sports.
At the time of this blog, AToC organizers had not issued any statements as to their plans with regards to this situation. Personally, I think we have to allow riders an "innocent until proven guilty" attitude. This is their job and how they put food on the table. Keeping someone from making a living based on rumor, innuendo or unproven charges is simply not fair.
I am hoping that a solution that is fair to the teams as well as the race can be reached. The AToC has so much to offer to the fans, sponsors and teams that it would be sad to see something like this bring any dark clouds to the race. Hey, it is February in California, we have enough other dark clouds to worry about.
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."