Thursday, 27 September 2007

World Championships Preview...

Cycling’s FA Cup Final takes place on Sunday – the Men’s World Championship Road Race, held this year in Stuttgart. The race can make a rider’s career, earning them the right to wear the distinctive rainbow jersey for the following 12 months. Taking place on a different course in a different city each year, the race always has a distinctive atmosphere and is always highly competitive. With teams organised along national rather than trade team lines, it also provides a glimpse of a type of racing many have suggested should be adopted at the Tour de France.

Yet before this year’s race has even started it has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Defending champion Paolo Bettini, who refuses to sign the UCI’s anti-doping declaration, and Giro d’Italia winner Danilo Di Luca, who is subject to two separate doping investigations, have both been prevented from taking part by a court injunction. This follows the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) deciding on Wednesday to reinstate Spain’s Alejandro Valverde to the race after the UCI and the Spanish Federation had earlier tried to block the rider because of his links to Operacion Puerto. A podium finisher on several previous occasions, the UCI seem to be reacting to criticism levelled after allowing Michael Rasmussen to ride the Tour de France in July. Time is running out for Bettini and Di Luca to be granted a similar reprieve.

A cynic might suggest that the UCI don’t want, and can’t afford, to see a TV blackout. You may remember the Germans’ strong stance against doping during this year's Tour , pulling the plug on live TV coverage as soon as T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz’s positive test had been announced. They certainly mean business, and there has even been talk in some quarters that the national federation would cancel the Worlds at short notice.

Ahead of Sunday’s race the German Authorities have set up the most stringent and ambitious testing controls ever seen. Minds in the sport's corridors of power are undoubtedly being focused by threats from TV broadcaster ZDF to pull out at slightest whiff of another further scandal. Put simply, if Germany doesn't get the pictures, neither will anybody else. Are the UCI merely reacting to the German lead, or are they already in a similar place?

Whatever the real reasons behind the UCI’s remarkably unequivocal stance, it is clear that neither they nor bodies like ASO can ignore the pressure from sponsors, the media and the public to bring about change. With Floyd Landis finally stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after losing his appeal last week, who can't be longing for a time when races can be fought out on the roads rather than in the courts? The sport’s governing body, already reeling from the haemorrhaging of teams from its Pro Tour, is at last facing up to the inevitable, which gives us hope.

Dennis Menchov’s victory in this year’s Vuelta a Espana was certainly more satisfying than his victory two years ago. That victory in many ways mirrored the Landis affair, coming after ‘winner’ on the road Roberto Heras was stripped of his title after a positive test for EPO. This year’s race rather incredibly was missing all three podium finishers from 2006 - Alexandre Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde and Andrej Kasheckin all either sacked or under suspicion. Much of the racing had a real air of credibility, and once again Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre made courageous efforts to secure their first elusive Grand Tour victories. This was exactly the kind of racing most fans would surely want to see, although apathy in Spain once again saw plummeting live and TV audiences for the event.

However bad things may appear at the moment, I sense that the process of rebuilding has now begun. Perhaps things will get even worse before they start to get better, but the balance of power is shifting. No big name is too big to take a fall, and mindful of the dangers, the UCI are now steering a careful course that balances both commercial and rider interests. I just hope that nothing else will happen before Sunday to turn off the TV cameras at one of the biggest days in this beleaguered sport’s calendar, but in cycling you just never can tell. Who would bet against Valverde to take the honours on a hilly course like Stuttgart? That would be ironic indeed.

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