New Age Racing
With the Giro now behind us we are well into the high point of the season. Last m onth in our feature article “A Vintage Spring” we predicted that should the rest of the season continue as it began then we would be in for a ‘Grand Cru' season. The Giro certainly did more than its part in contributing to the crop of fine races.
As we noted last month the racing this year has had a very different feel to it. We have seen the great champions peak, win and then trail off. It has been a rare sight to see an entire squad controlling the peloton. Every race, large and small, has seen very aggressive attacking and for the first time for many years we are seeing escapes survive to take the day 's victory laurels. Perhaps most welcome of all is that we have seen a whole slew of young new riders emerge to not only challenge the established stars, but also to beat them.
Just two days after the final Classics race (the Liege-Bastogne-Liege) of the spring campaign the racing focus abruptly shifted towards the stage race season with Switzerland's Tour of Romandie (29th April - 4th May). Amid the spectacular scenery of the Swiss Alps we saw yet another race crammed packed with action. As the experienced Andreas Klöden (Astana) was diligently slaying all-comers in his quest for overall victory, it was not the usual story of a giant team (Astana in this case) putting a strangle-hold on the peloton.
Stage 4 from Sion to Zinal was relatively modest at 126.5kms. However with four Category 1 climbs on hand it was justly promoted as the “ queen stage ”. In the mould of 2008 ‘new age racing' a small break of 11 riders escaped at 10kms. As they rode up one mountain after the other the peloton settled into agonising attrition as the highly experienced Andreas Klöden stayed cool with ever fewer of Astana team mates maintaining a controlled tempo. Last year's Romandie champion, the young Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) succumbed to the pace, lost contact and with it his (at that point in the race) second place on GC.
Meanwhile up front the break was eating up the kilometers but the incessant climbing and descents rearranged the composition of the break as some riders dropped back and others were able to bridge up. Eventually Francesco De Bonis (Gerolstiener), who had joined the first break of the day, was alone in the lead with just a few seconds lead on Manuel Beltran (Silence-Lotto) as they headed up the tortuous final climb to the finish. Beltran latched on to De Bonis with just 3kms remaining and looked to have the race in the bag as De Bonis briefly lost Beltran's back wheel. Unbelievably De Bonis went after him, shot past him, and claimed a fantastic victory.
At 26 years of age, Francesco De Bonis joins the growing list of new faces appearing at the top of the sport this year. The word is often used in describing bike races, but De Bonis's ride was of epic proportions and we can be sure of seeing much more of him.
If the opening week of this year's Giro is anything to go by then we have seen that ‘new age racing' has also become the formula for the Grand Tours. In recent history it has been rare to see stage-long breaks succeed. Typically a brave group of riders will strike out but almost invariably, and with almost robot-like precision, highly organised teams would drag the break back often within agonising sight of the finish line.
As De Bonis and his break companions showed us at the Tour of Romandie, there is now a new game in town. And it is not just the new bloods that are showing the way. On Stage 4 the highly experienced Rik Verbrugghe attacked from the gun and survived about 160 of the 183kms stage alone. Had other riders joined him it is a good bet that Verbrugghe's escape would have survived.
The very next day (Stage 5), five riders escaped 19kms into the race. They survived and many will remember Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff) ‘pedalling squares' up the endless drag to the finish line to take a fine lone win just ahead of his break companions. Such was his effort that he was barely able to raise his arm in the traditional victory gesture.
Still not comprehending the new game, the peloton again let a break rule the race on Stage 6. This time 11 riders escaped and at the finish (although no longer a compact group) the winner Matteo Priamo from the second division CSF Navigare team came home just over 11 minutes ahead of the main peloton. Just behind Priamo, Giovanni Visconti (Quick Step) rolled over the line to become the new surprise wearer of the pink ‘Maglia Rosa' race leaders jersey.
Although not a break in the traditional sense, even the Giro's opening Prologue Time Trial established a break in tradition. Run as a team time trial, it was second division Slipstream-Chipotle who vanquished all.
The Slipstream team is well known to be a leader in the ‘war on drugs' as they not only subscribe fully to the UCI's new anti-drug programs but have also implemented their own stringent internal team controls. On the same note it was interesting to hear Stage 6 winner Priamo make a point of stating that the second division teams like his (CSF Navigare) are under as much (UCI) drug control as the first division Pro Tour teams.
The undeniable excitement and emergence of new names and even a new style of racing may in fact prove over time that Giro 08 was another major stepping stone towards restoring credibility that cycling is at last a ‘ clean ' sport.
Thankfully the 2008 racing season has thus far been devoid of major scandals. However the work to suppress the cheats continues unabated. The latest champion to fall foul of the system is Alessandro Petacchi (Milram). His case is interesting in that he was not accused of blood doping or for taking any of the usual slew of illegal drugs. Petacchi has a well documented problem with asthma and is permitted to use Salbutamol to combat it. However the (UCI/WADA) dosage levels which match those recommended by physicians treating such cases were apparently exceeded by Petacchi. A routine drug test showed that Petacchi had exceeded his dosage levels and he was suspended. He appealed claiming that it was not intentional. The CAS ruled that he did not cheat or abuse his medication but that he was nevertheless in breach of UCI anti-doping regulations.
With the new wave of “zero tolerance” policies being adopted by the teams, Milram terminated Petacchi as he starts a UCI 12-month suspension. It is clear that the numerous cases of champions and lesser riders to have their racing careers ruined over the past few years has finally shocked the peloton into some form of common sense. The wonderful racing witnessed during this first half of 2008 is clearly the result. Clean racing is great racing and over time it will pay huge dividends for the riders and the sport in general.
At CyclingRevealed.com we have often been highly critical of the UCI, ASO, WADA and other organisations that rule our sport. Currently the stand-off between the UCI and the ASO seems to have developed into an acrimonious parting of the ways. In spite of threats of fines and suspensions towards organisers, teams and riders for not complying with UCI rules and regulations. The racing has gone on as though the UCI did not exist.
Ironically the UCI may be damaging the very sport that it is trying to protect through misguided political fights. But to their eternal credit they may also be on the brink of capturing a major victory in the ‘war on drugs'. This year they introduced the so-called “ Biological Passport ” which in essence maintains a long term record of an athlete's medical parameters.
We are convinced that the 2008 racing season is shaping up to be very different than any in recent history. The fundamental difference is that we believe that at long last the greater majority of the peloton is riding ‘clean'. It will take a few seasons with a consistent pattern to prove this.
At this point in time the ‘Biological Passport' is the most important document/process within the sport of cycle racing. The future of our sport depends on the success of this and related programs combating the scourge of drugs and blood doping.
Read our commentary and the UCI document “Biological Passport for Pro Cyclists” here
A New Age
While the fight between the UCI and Grand Tour organisers may still be unresolved it should be realised the central issues revolve around power, ego and money. Fortunately they all seem to agree on dealing with the scourge of drugs.
The UCI has its testing programs and the ‘Biological Passport', the race organisers have given themselves a free hand to choose who ever they like to participate in their races regardless of Pro Tour rules or any other UCI rulings.
For their part many teams are now investing in their own drug control programs and applying zero-tolerance sanctions to any rider suspected of trying to cheat the system.
History tells us that the 1968 Tour de France was dubbed as the ‘ Tour de Sanite ' (Tour of Health) following the shocking death of Tom Simpson at the previous year's Tour through drug usage. Everyone believed that the reality of facing death by using drugs had scared the peloton away from them. Sadly no such thing happened and the drug culture continued. The 1998 ‘Festina Affair' was another drug related watershed and this time everyone believed that the ensuing witch hunt had finally broken the back of drug in cycling.
Almost every year since then the sport has been wracked with shocking drug scandals. Although this year has so far been devoid of such problems it is with caution that we wait and see how the year plays out. If the work of the UCI drug testing programs is creating the difference then we should all be highly appreciative for this outcome. But of course this is not the end of the road. There are those always seeking to beat the system and just as your computer anti-virus software needs daily updating so will the UCI and others need to be working full time to keep ahead of the cheats.
Big time sponsors and others that invest in our sport will be slow to believe that the sport has finally sanitised itself. It will take several years of consistent, scandal free racing to get to that point. 2008 has many big races yet to come but it is the Beijing Olympics that will once again thrust cycling onto the world stage. We trust that the sport of cycling will present itself without the blemish of drugs at that event. Hopefully in a few years time we will be able to look back and say that 2008 was the beginning of New Age Racing.
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