Tales from the peloton, December 19, 2007
After the first part of the season was dominated by politics, court cases and doping revelations, it's a relief to finally reach the business end of the season. Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins looks back at the big races and top news stories in the last year in cycling.
Part II: April to June
The second part of our season's review begins as the first part ended, with relations between the UCI and the organisers of the three Grand Tours no cooler. In fact things begin to heat up again as the UCI threatens to, and then actually does take legal action to force ASO, RCS Sport and Unipublic to comply with the ProTour.
Operación Puerto investigations continue - in some places anyway: in Germany, the media reports that blood in bags marked "Son of Rudy" are confirmed to be Jan Ullrich's, and Ivan Basso (Discovery Channel) agrees to voluntarily stop competing until investigations into the bags of blood allegedly linked to him is carried out. This puts the defending Giro d'Italia champion's participation in next month's race in serious doubt.
Meanwhile, Floyd Landis, finding the process of defending himself against the alleged positive test from the Tour de France in 2006 rather expensive, takes to selling to fans the opportunity to take pictures of themselves with him for $25 a go. L'Equipe reports that synthetic testosterone has been "confirmed" in Landis' Tour urine.
With the Belgian racing season well under way, the Three Days of De Panne-Koksijde sees its four stages split half and half between Belgians and Italians. Lampre-Fondital's Alessandro Ballan doesn't win one himself, but strong finishing all round and a good time trial get him the overall victory going.
Finally, the main event arrives for the people of northern Belgium, as everyone turns up to see local hero and former world champion, Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic) win three Ronde van Vlaanderen in a row. Lanky Italian De Panne winner, Alessandro Ballan hasn't read the script though, and puts in the strongest attack of an uncharacteristically hot spring day to escape the locals just before the Muur. He hangs on to finish solo in Meerbeke.
In the women's race, Nicole Cooke (Raleigh-Lifeforce-Creation) and Zoufila Zabirova (Team Bigla) escape a very select group of favourites - including World champion, Marianne Vos (DSB Bank) - with just a few kilometres to go. The British champion easily outsprints the Kazakh champion on the uphill finishing straight, and the World Champion takes third.
The always-controversial Gent-Wevelgem once again doesn't fail to disappoint, as a massive crash on the descent of Kemmelberg takes out a load of riders, despite its cobbled surface being bone dry. Unibet.com sprinter Jimmy Casper is probably the worst off as he hits the ground face first, adding to Unibet.com's woes. A T-Mobile one-two sees youngster Marcus Burghardt solo away while Roger Hammond beats Oscar Freire (Rabobank) in a small group sprint.
The northern European weather is not matched in north-east Spain as Juan José Cobo (Saunier Duval-Prodir) takes an inclement Tour of the Basque Country. He wins the first stage, but lets Relax-Gam rider Ángel Vicioso take the leader's jersey for a while, before taking it back on Vicioso's birthday (spoil sport!).
The women's World Cup continues at the Ronde van Drenthe in Holland, and as the favourites all watch each other, Adrie Visser, Marianne Vos' DSB Bank team-mate takes the win.
If you thought last weekend's Ronde was uncharacteristically hot, you ain't seen nothin' yet! The hottest Paris - Roubaix in history turns the usual mudfest into a dustbowl. Given the conditions it's no surprise that a guy from South Australia takes the biggest win of his career. CSC's Stuart O'Grady solos away from about 20km out, despite having been in a large breakaway group all day. A small group arrives less than a minute behind him and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) takes the sprint from Weisenhof's Stefan Wesemann.
The Ardennes Classics follow their usual pattern, and the usual suspects are there at the finale of all three. In the Amstel Gold, it comes down to who has the best legs on the final climb up the Cauberg, and Gerolsteiner's Stefan Schumacher takes it from team-mate Davide Rebellin. Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) shows his form is coming together nicely ahead of next month's Giro d'Italia by coming in third.
La Fleche Wallone has an almost identical finish, as the climbers battle it out on the Mur de Huy. This time it's Rebellin who comes out on top, ahead of last year's winner Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne). Once again Di Luca completes the podium. In the women's race, anyone who though that Vos was just a sprinter is sorely mistaken as she does what no one thought possible by beating Nicole Cooke up the Mur!
The final Ardennes race: Liege-Bastogne-Liege comes down to what's becoming the usual battle up the final drag in Ans, and after two third places in the same week, Danilo Di Luca takes victory in his first Doyenne. Valverde and Frank Schleck (CSC) get second and third.
The new month brings continuing woes for Ivan Basso as he and the Discovery Channel team mutually agree to go their separate ways. As more evidence appears he finally admits to the world that he was a client of Fuentes' and that (as everybody had known for ages) his dog's name is "Birillo" after all, but also claims that although he did have blood extracted and stored, he never inhaled - or something - so it was only "attempted doping".
The Landis hearing finally starts, but amongst the legal exchanges, the biggest story to emerge is Landis' business manager Will Geoghegan attempting to "dissuade" former Tour winner Greg Lemond from testifying by calling him up and pretending to be the man who abused Lemond as a child. Jaws drop all over the world, not only because we're all feeling great sympathy for Greg, but also because we're totally amazed that anyone could do something like that! After thinking about it for a moment or two, Landis fires him.
Speaking of dopes, cycling in general - but specifically in Germany and Denmark - takes a beating as most of the mid-nineties Deutsche Telekom team (now T-Mobile) confesses to varying degrees of drug use. The biggest names to 'fess-up are Rolf Aldag, Eric Zabel and Bjarne Riis, who specifically admits to doping on his way to his '96 Tour win and that it now means nothing. Organisers ASO strike him from the record.
And while we're on the subject of the Tour, the wild cards are announced and no one is surprised to see that they don't include Unibet.com.
In the last stage race before the Grand Tours start, American Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto) almost takes the Tour de Romandie, but Dutch Prodigy Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) takes it from him in the final day's time trial.
In Sardegna, one of the most eagerly awaited Giro d'Italia gets underway, without last year's winner. "Dove Vai?" asks Liquigas captain Danilo Dil Luca as Enrico Gasparotto crosses the line first in the team time trial to take the first maglia rosa. Despite appearances, we're told that this was actually planned (yeah, right!) but Di Luca takes it off him the next day by finishing ahead of him at the stage finish.
After a transfer to the mainland, the first week is a mix of sprints and hilltop finishes as the race makes its way north up the leg of Italy. Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) is well and truly back, and Marco Pinotti (T-Mobile) wrests the maglia rosa from Di Luca after the race's first successful breakaway. He doesn't get to keep it for all that long though as the Killer gets it back on the Giro's trip over the Alps to France.
The revelation of race so far has undoubtedly been Andy Schleck (CSC). The 21 year-old younger brother of more famous Frank (also CSC) surely can't last the whole race, can he?
As the course traverses the northern part of the country, Gilberto Simoni (Saunier-Duval) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) battle to take time back in their favoured terrain of the Dolomiti, but Di Luca extends his lead over both of them on mythical climb to Tre Cime di Laveredo. This despite the stage going to a one-two for Saunier-Duval through Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli.
Astana captain Paolo Savoldelli is having a bad time, and Eddy Mazzoleni turns out to be Astana's main man, threatening the top five. Simoni is King of Zoncolon but can't take much time from Di Luca. Amazingly, Schleck is still there!
In the final time trial, Mazzoleni rides a barnstormer to finish just behind a resurgent Savoldelli, and knocks Simoni off the podium. Schleck takes a few seconds out of Di Luca, but more importantly manages to keep his lead over Mazzoleni, and earns a second place to take to Milano where Petacchi gets the final sprint.
While most of the world is watching the racing in Italy, Discovery Channel's Vladimir Gusev wins the five day Ronde van Belgie.
The Women's World Cup continues as a late break at the Berner-Rundfahrt sees Lithuanian former World champion Edita Pucinskaite (Equipe Nurnberger Versicherung) spoil the current World champion's twentieth birthday. Vos takes some compensation by winning the sprint for second over Oenone Wood.
The women then move to the South of France for the Tour de l'Aude - one of the biggest stage races of the year. Stages are dominated by Marianne Vos and various members of the T-Mobile team, but Swedish champion Susanne Ljungskog (Team Flexpoint) takes the victory after being in the decisive break on the penultimate stage.
Meanwhile, in the rarefied air of Bolivia, Great Britain's World and Olympic champion Chris Hoy goes under a minute for the kilometre, but his time of 59.103 seconds is still nearly a quarter of a second outside Arnaud Tournant's record. He consoles himself with a new 500m record of 24.758 seconds, but since it's no longer an Olympic event he'll never ride the kilo again.
June starts badly for the Belgians as it's reported that former prodigy and perennial comeback-kid Franck Vandebrouke has attempted suicide. He denies this at first, but vows to come back. Police raid a number of houses in Belgium and somehow or other a local politician decides to point the finger at the entire Quick.Step-Innergetic team. Could it be that there's an election in a few days?
If Ivan Basso was hoping for leniency after admitting to being one of the names involved in Operación Puerto he'll be disappointed as he gets the maximum two-year suspension.
In a move to avoid more embarrassing scandals at the sport's flagship event, the UCI decides that it's going to insist that all riders taking the start of this year's Tour de France will have to sign a declaration that they won't dope, and will give up their DNA if required for the Puerto investigation. The document also forces riders to agree to give up a year's salary if they're caught doping. Whether it's legally worth the paper it's printed on is up for debate.
In a last ditch attempt to get to the start in London next month, Unibet takes Tour organisers ASO to court.
As the first Grand Tour of the year comes to an end, the peloton starts to look towards the next. The Criterium du Dauphiné Libéré is the usual chance for riders to test their form and check each other out before the Tour, and an important Prologue victory goes to Londoner Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis) who badly wants to win in his hometown next month. The overall eventually goes to French favourite Christophe Moreau (Ag2r-Prevoyance) after an imperious stage victory on Mont Ventoux. This, despite a bevy of stage wins from team Astana - including two from Alexandr Vinokourov, whose form is building nicely for July and his season's big target.
The pre-Tour circus continues at the Tour de Suisse, where the race is topped and tailed by World Time Trial Champion Fabain Cancellara (CSC), who takes the prologue and final time trial stage. He wants to win in London next month almost as much as Wiggins does. Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne) gets the overall victory as the stage wins are shared around the teams - one stage is even taken by Colombian Rigoberto Uran of Unibet! Now where have I seen that team before?
The Eindhoven Team Time Trial has even less significance than usual - if that were possible - as there's to be no TTT at the Tour de France this year. Taking it very seriously though, is Oleg Tinkoff - Russian billionaire owner of the eponymous team - who proclaims that it will be a disaster if his team doesn't take the victory. "Disastrously", CSC beats Tinkoff by 43 hundredths of a second.
The women spend some time in Montreal, Canada for the World Cup race and Tour du Grand Montreal. Italian Champion Fabiana Luperini (Menkini-Selle Italia-Gysko) solos away to take the World Cup race followed home by Mara Abbott (Webcor Builders) and Judith Arndt (T-Mobile).
In the Tour du Grand Montreal former World champion Regina Schleicher (Equipe Nurmburger Versicherung) takes the first two stages, but then T-Mobile takes control in the shape of Arndt who wins the stage three time trial, and Australian Oenone Wood, who takes the final stage and the overall.
Back in Europe, the Raleigh-Lifeforce-Creation team destroys all before them in the Grande Boucle Feminine. They take all six stages, including three for Priska Doppmann, and Nicole Cooke takes the overall.
As the month comes to an end, most riders head home to do battle in their National Championships. British riders don't bother though, as their course is under water.
At the same time, some riders prefer to spend some time with their wife's family, even travelling as far a field as Mexico or do they?
Read Part I and stay tuned for Part Three of Cyclingnews' look back at 2007 soon where we head into mid-summer and the Tour de France.