Tuesday, 24 July 2007

In Vino Veritas...?

Many of my other predictions for this year's Tour de France may have gone awry, but I remember predicting on the eve of the race that Alexander Vinokourov may not complete the race, given the dark clouds that were already hanging over him.

Today came the news that he has tested positive for an homologous blood transfusion following Saturday's time trial in Albi, which he won by a crushing margin. The rider then had an off day on Sunday, losing almost 30 minutes, but powered to victory yesterday in the mountainous stage to Loudenvielle for his second stage win of this year's event.

The team he rides for, Astana, have been asked to leave the race, and they have suspended the rider even before the results of his 'B' sample are known. Vino is famous for his gutsy never say die style of riding, and as well as being the pre-race favourite for victory in Paris he is also the rider that most fans identify with.

What this now means for cycling is anybody's guess, but at the moment you could be forgiven for thinking that the only positive will be Vino's test results. Some would say that the sport can't really sink any lower - this is the equivalent of David Beckham being found guilty of match fixing. Fellow riders and commentators alike will be shocked, if not truly surprised, but it is the impact it has on sponsors, the lifeblood of the sport (bad pun intended), that I feel will be critical.

If the sport's financial backers lose their nerve and patience - a not entirely unreasonable reaction - then the Pro Tour circus as we currently know it is almost unimaginable. Without the exposure and publicity of international TV coverage, the sport may become largely the preserve of amateurs racing in events organised by their domestic Federations. At best it would slide to the level currently occupied by the Continental Pro-teams, that little known feeder route into the big time.

Ironically it is Vinokourov who has done as much as anybody in recent times to attract sponsorship into the sport, making Astana almost the state sponsored team of Kazakhstan, with backing recently secured for the next ten years. It was widely assumed that Vino would move upstairs into management, but he's even less likely to be welcomed back at the moment than Bjarne Riis, who at least admitted his offences and is impressively making amends.

My own feeling is that the sport needs to go on the offensive, spreading the message that their anti-doping measures are bearing fruit. No matter how big a rider's reputation, if found to be cheating it's 'game over'. I'm not sure that the sport can rely on weathering the storm, as it has done so often in the past. The slow and painful process of healing its wounds needs time and stable sponsorship. If the UCI fail to put a positive spin on this dark episode then the truth of Vino's positive may well prove to be that it was the straw that finally broke the camel's heavily overloaded back.

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