Saturday, 14 July 2007

Proof positive that doping is on the run?

How symbolic it is that on the day on which Erik Zabel was stripped of his 1996 green jersey for admitting his use of EPO during that year’s Tour, his German compatriot Linus Gerdemann should find himself in yellow after a thrilling attack on the Col de la Colombiere.

Gerdemann, at just 24 years of age, is a leading light of the new generation of riders that have shunned the doping culture to trust in their innate talent to win races. T-Mobile is now a very different animal to the outfit that Zabel raced with a decade ago. Their much publicised anti-doping policies are rivalled only by those of Bjarne Riis’ CSC. Riis himself is of course another of the old guard and was part of the same 1996 team as Zabel. He has also been stripped of his winner’s jersey following his recent and still controversial confessional, and his rehabilitation looks far from complete.

Tour organisers ASO haven’t even allowed him to attend the race in an official capacity as CSC team manager. That is in many ways understandable, given the way in which he has tarnished their cherished brand. Yet their decision also smacks of naivety about cycling in the 80s and 90s. Given that the UCI don’t punish riders for events that occurred more than eight years previously, it also seems inconsistent. Applying their logic, shouldn't Zabel also be thrown out of this year's race? ASO need to realise the fact, however unpalatable, that it is repenting sinners like Riis who are now the best hope of saving the sport from meltdown, and that the Dane has done far more than most in fighting this particular fight.

So can we now say that we’ve finally reached some kind of a turning point in professional cycling? Certainly there are signs of a cleaner sport already starting to filter through. The closeness and unpredictability of much of the racing in the first week suggests that the playing field is far more level than in previous years. No one rider or team seems to be able to dominate, and the relative anonymity of a lot of riders from Spain and Italy who at one time adopted the kind of buccaneering style that in hindsight can only be viewed with a healthy scepticism is also a good sign.

Of course we’ve been prevented from yet seeing just how strong the Astana team actually are, their two leaders picking up severe injuries in nasty but unrelated crashes last Thursday. The whispering campaign against their ethical code hasn’t yet silenced, and although they earlier dismissed Matthias Kessler for his recent testosterone positive, it seems too early to talk of proof positive that the Promised Land has been reached.

The coming days in the Alps may not decide the race, but now would seem to be the ideal time for the likes of Valverde, Evans and Karpets to attack Astana. Give the Kazakh outfit time to lick their wounds and regroup and they’re sure to bounce back in the last third of the race, where the Pyrenees and two tough individual time trials await. I hope that in the coming days we do see riders actually trying to win the race, as opposed to not losing it. It isn’t good enough for riders like Evans to stay in the pack and arrive at the end of each stage content not to have lost time to their rivals.

Cancellara, another hugely gifted rider under the tutelage of Riis, deserved his week in yellow. Subject to an unprecedented number of independent doping controls in and out of competition, you just have to believe that he’s for real. I predicted last week that he’d win the prologue, but little did I realise how convincingly he’d destroy the opposition. That made up for my implausible prediction that Markus Fothen would be leading the white jersey competition as best young rider – of course Fothen recently turned 25 so is no longer eligible to score points in that particular competition!

As Gerdemann showed on the road to Le Grand-Bornand, fortune really can favour the brave in cycling, and predictions are the province of the foolish. Whilst it is too much to ask that he’ll be able to defend the jersey – there I go with another rash prediction - his victory is exactly the type of good news story that the sport needs at the present time. The near certainty that young Linus is doing it clean makes his achievement all the more satisfying. Roll on week 2…

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