Sunday, 29 July 2007

Contador takes Yellow, but where next for Pro Cycling?

As far as media coverage goes, this has been one of the most visible editions of the Tour de France for many years. That the race set out from London and then travelled through Kent before hitting France gave things a head start. Let’s be honest though, we all know the real reasons why the media have latched on to the sport, and surely don’t need any reminders.

Leaving aside the sensationalism for a moment, this has in many respects been a Tour like any other. The main difference has been that the doping control systems seem to have been one step ahead of the riders for a change. Doping in the ranks of the pro-peleton is hardly anything new, although some of the overnight experts in press seem to have seized on the sport’s misfortunes like hungry dog discovering a bone. Some of the more hysterical reactions calling for the sport to be banned are almost as depressing as the doping its self.

I have to say that the one thing that has made me optimistic in these troubled times has been the calm and measured response of Tour de France organisers ASO, who seem to be usurping the sport’s governing body in the fight for the sport’s future. Their insistence that failed drugs tests are a necessary part of the cleansing process is a bold stance, and while others lose their heads and spread doom and gloom, ASO go about their job with steely determination.

This newfound confidence has even led ASO President Patrice Clerc to re-open the war of words with the UCI, calling for top officials to resign their posts for allowing Michael Rasmussen to be available for selection before the race. Race director Christian Prudhomme went even further on Saturday, suggesting that the UCI were either totally incompetent or deliberately trying to damage the reputation of his race with their dilatory handling of the cases of Patrik Sinkewitz and Rasmussen.

The UCI’s own written rules and regulations state clearly that any rider receiving a written warning within 45 days of the start of a race, as was the case with Rasmussen, should not be allowed to start. Rasmussen received a second written warning on 29th June, just 8 days before the Grand Depart in London. UCI President Pat McQuaid has even gone on record as saying that the rule in question will be scrapped because it is ‘too harsh’ on riders. Is this really the kind of positive lead that the sport so desperately needs at the present time? I think not.

The gap between ASO and the UCI now seems to be irreconcilable, at least for as long as the current regime remains in place at the head of the UCI. The hopes of McQuaid that the Tour and other ASO races can rejoin the Pro Tour series in 2008 look like pipe dreams. Hardly the united front that will pull the sport through a crisis, but ASO can’t be blamed for trying to fill what they see as a leadership vacuum.

The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) are involved in a battle of words with the UCI every bit as fierce ASO’s. At odds with the organisers of the biggest races in the calendar, the body that oversees drugs testing, the opinion of the vast majority of the sport’s fans, and, if recent evidence is anything to go by, a sizeable and growing number of riders, what legitimacy can the UCI claim? The tide is changing, and the UCI seem to be missing the boat.

With 24 year-old Alberto Contador taking home the yellow jersey, I hope that his involvement in the Operacion Puerto enquiries really are as benign as has been suggested. The thought of a re-run of last year’s Landis shambles is too much to bear, and with six Spanish riders in the top 10 of the General Classification, you can be forgiven for raising an eyebrow. The process of restoring credibility to this battered sport now looks like a hors categorie challenge, and if the major players can’t pull together in the months ahead, success is far from certain.

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