Five questions for the close of the cycling season
Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his Tour De France titles (AAP)
With the peloton entering the final few weeks of another roller-coaster season, let’s try and provide the answers to some key questions that may shape both the immediate and long-term future of cycling.
Who will win the Race of the Falling Leaves?
It would take a brave man to bet against the new world champion, Philippe Gilbert, who seems to have fully recovered from his early season blues at BMC.
The Belgian won the Giro di Lombardia in 2009 and 2010 and, judging by the way he blew the field apart on the Cauberg last weekend, he looks likely to deliver an early win in the rainbow stripes.
One man who will be keen to beat Gilbert is Joaquim Rodriguez. The Spaniard came so close to winning both the Giro and the Vuelta, but had to settle for second and third places respectively – plus a hatful of stages.
Purito was outclassed by Gilbert in the Worlds road race but he knows that a strong finish in Lombardia will put him above Bradley Wiggins in the UCI World Tour Ranking.
Third in last year’s Lombardia, Rodriguez is just nine points shy of Wiggins, who is unlikely to race again this year after his recent subdued showing in Limburg.
Who will free Cavendish from the shackles of Sky?
It looks increasingly like the former world champion’s stage win on the last day of the Tour of Britain was a goodbye present for Sky, the British-based team he joined from the defunct HTC-Columbia at the end of last season.
Cavendish notched up more than a dozen wins this season, including hat-tricks in the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Tour of Britain. But it will be the image of his rainbow jersey stuffed with water bottles, rather than a beaming Cav crossing the finish line with his arms aloft, that will linger after what has clearly been a testing season for the Manx Missile.
While Cavendish is under contract at Sky for the next two years, it is practically certain that he will leave the team in a matter of weeks.
Both team manager David Brailsford and the Tour winner Wiggins have effectively suggested he start looking for a new home, while the rider himself readily admits that he will not be able to ride for the green jersey while Sky put all their eggs in the yellow basket.
Rabobank and Katusha both showed early interest, but Omega Pharma-QuickStep are odds-on to snap him up. With Sky reportedly keen on signing the Belgian team’s young Scottish talent Andrew Fenn, some kind of swap deal could well take place, whereby Sky would waiver much of Cavendish’s lofty contract buyout clause.
OPQS makes perfect sense: they have no major GC contender and with Tom Boonen now favouring the classics over the long stage races, they are in need of a Grand Tour sprinter.
What’s more, Cavendish would be reunited with both Brian Holm and Rolf Aldag – mentors from his happier HTC days. “Cavendish has many possibilities but only one – Omega Pharma – really fits,” Aldag said this week.
What other doping bombshells will be dropped in the next fortnight?
Following its decision to strip Lance Armstrong of his record seven Tour de France wins, USADA will hand over its much-awaited report on the American’s lifetime ban to the UCI no later than 15 October, it has been confirmed.
Pressure is indeed mounting on Armstrong, whose alleged doping dalliances are luridly detailed on pretty much every page of Tyler Hamilton’s recent book, The Secret Race.
Speaking to British newspaper The Guardian this week, Hamilton, a former team-mate of Armstrong’s at US Postal, said he believed the code of silence (or ‘Omertà’) that exists in the professional peloton was about to be lifted.
“I believe the pendulum has swung the other way,” Hamilton said. “I’ve heard that the stuff coming out in the next couple of weeks from other riders is going to make front page news in the sports sections.”
So far, what we’ve heard from Hamilton and Floyd Landis, another former team-mate of Armstrong, has confirmed suspicions widely held by many. But the prospect of more riders coming forward and throwing their cards on the table is certainly an appealing one – and it will have ramifications throughout the sport.
Just think of all those current riders who have cosied up to Armstrong and continue to do so: both Wiggins and Cavendish, for instance, have openly talked of their admiration for the American – while Alberto Contador, in an interview with Eurosport conducted as recently as the second rest day on the Vuelta, admitted that the Texan was his biggest idol in the sport.
Cycling is on the verge of a much-needed mass cleansing. This is not only exciting for those who like the soap opera of the pro peloton but, more importantly, it’s a huge moment for the sport and its development.
How far can the Paul Kimmage Defence Fund go?
With cycling at such a crucial crossroads, it is quite frankly lamentable that the UCI, the sport’s governing body, has chosen this moment, of all moments, to pursue a personal vendetta by launching legal action against Paul Kimmage, the Irish journalist who has tirelessly – and sometimes, it must be said, nauseatingly – led the crusade against doping.
The UCI refusing to ratify USADA’s lifetime ban of Armstrong is understandable, given that it has still yet to receive the full dossier (see above). You get the impression, however, that this delay very much suits the sport’s governing body, which is in the spotlight after The Secret Race raised the spectre of its complicity in covering up a failed drugs test by Armstrong.
Kimmage wrote about this alleged Tour de Suisse episode in The Sunday Times via an extensive interview with Floyd Landis in 2010; Kimmage then elaborated on the accusations in an interview with L’Equipe; these allegations have since been corroborated by numerous other publications and books (most recently, Hamilton’s).
And yet the UCI are not targeting any of these publications; nor are they going after Landis or Hamilton. Instead, Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen are suing Kimmage for a total of 16,000 Swiss francs (AU$16,340).
Outraged, the cycling sites www.nyvelocity.com and www.cyclismas.com set up an online defence fund for Kimmage which, at the time of writing, had almost reached $40,000 (AU$38,400).
At this rate, the fund will be so full that Kimmage will have enough excess cash to be able to fly to his court hearing in Switzerland on the kind of private jet favoured by the big cheeses of the UCI.
Anything he has left over he could then perhaps donate to Livestrong?
How long until the UCI back down over Qatar 2016?
It certainly has not been a good month for the UCI, who this week also announced their decision to grant the 2016 World Championships to Qatar. Yes, that’s Qatar, the pancake-flat, petrol-rich, sovereign Arab state where temperatures average at around 35 degrees Celsius during September.
Ever since the World Championships were established in 1927, they have taken place outside Europe – the spiritual home of cycling – on just six occasions. Those occasions include Colombia, Australia and the States – three nations with huge cycling histories.
Qatar is to cycling what Qatar is to football and, like FIFA’s equally lamentable decision to host the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, this is a complete and utter farce.
At least football can be played in air-conditioned stadiums, above which artificial clouds can float. Cycling needs the great outdoors and it thrives on both the landscapes it covers and the spectators it attracts.
Qatar has no local riders and no public interest in cycling. Not only will the organisers have to build mountains to spice up the route, they will have to somehow line the streets with fans.
It’s not going to happen. Look at Limburg and the sea of spectators out on the Cauberg: that is what cycling and the World Champonships should be about.
Having a Tour of Qatar is bad enough – but taking the biggest one-day race of the professional calendar and transporting it to a place that has no right whatsoever to host it is absurd.
Whatever next – giving the Grand Depart of the Tour de France to Qatar? Oh, hang on – there’s already talk of that happening in 2014.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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