Saturday, 30 June 2007

Tour De Sleaze...?

With the Tour De France now a mere 7 days away, the river of sleaze that runs through the sport is still breaking its banks daily. Last week I wrote about the ‘Men In Black’, and yesterday the first of this mysterious group may well have been named and shamed. Astana rider Matthias Kessler, a strong northern classics specialist who has also won a Tour De France stage, was suspended for a positive testosterone result. Kessler left T-Mobile at the end of last season with Andreas Klöden, and many wondered at the time whether or not their moves, clearly not financially driven, were more to do with avoiding the German team’s stringent new anti-doping regime. Whether or not his story is related to the M-I-B group will no doubt become clearer in time, but the omens aren’t looking good for his troubled Kazakh team.

Potentially far more damaging to the sport’s reputation is the re-emergence of the ‘Drugs for Oil’ scandal in Italy. This year’s Giro winner Danilo Di Luca, along with strong-man Eddy Mazzoleni (Astana), have been called to CONI (the Italian Olympic Federation) to explain themselves. It has to be said that so far this investigation has been spectacular in its failure to produce anything more than circumstantial evidence, but first launched in 2004 it stubbornly refuses to go away. If anything concrete emerges then the impact will certainly be enough to rock this already beleaguered sport.

If that weren’t enough, Alessandro Petacchi, probably the fastest sprinter in the world, tested positive for excessive salbutamol levels following the infamous ‘Swan Lake’ finish at this year’s Giro D’Italia in Pinerolo. Riders slid and crashed across the finish line with choreographed and balletic grace, and the stage was one of five that Petacchi won in total. Salbutamol is widely known as an asthma treatment, and the rider has openly declared his use of the treatment, holding a Therapeutic Exemption Certificate. Exceeding the limits is clearly considered to be something that would enhance performance, though from a lay perspective there seems to be a world of difference between innocently taking a few inhaler puffs too many and allowing your body to undergo a blood transfusion. Nevertheless, gaining illegal advantage from a banned product is a serious matter. He has been suspended until further notice by his team and may miss the Tour. Erik Zabel now looks set to spearhead the Milram charge, and Boonen, Hushovd and McEwen must be licking their lips.

Finally, we get to the coup de grace. German rider Jörg Jaksche announced on Friday that he’ll hold a press conference on Monday and blow the lid on not only his own, but the wider use of doping products in professional cycling. Currently with Russian team Tinkoff Credit Systems, home to more than a few riders with shady pasts, Jaksche is suspended by not only his team but his National Federation has also refused him entry to the German national Road Race Championships. He was one of the riders netted in last year’s Operacion Puerto, and according to the statement by his lawyer he’ll hold nothing back, even going as far as naming names.

If he has something to say than I’d be happier if he just said it without the dramatic build-up, leaving no time for him to change his mind or have his silence bought by those with most to lose. I wonder whether he’s not simply spitting his dummy and hoping to cut some kind of deal to save his career in the face of pretty limited prospects.

Monday should prove to be another interesting day for cycling, and I’m leaving my predictions for who will win this year’s Tour right until the last possible moment. That way I should at least know who is likely to make it to the start line this time next week!!

No comments: