Tales from the peloton, December 9, 2007
After an annus horribilus in 2006 with the biggest doping scandal for many years and the winner of the Tour de France apparently testing positive, surely 2007 could only get better. Or could it? Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins looks back at the big races and top news stories in the last year in cycling.
Part 1: January to March
Sadly the New Year brings no new progress in any of the issues that plagued much of 2006. We still don't know who won the Tour last year, and the big pre-Tour scandal of Operacion Puerto still rumbles along, implicating certain names but still no concrete evidence can be linked to anyone.
The conflict between the UCI and the organisers of the three grand tours continues. No one quite knows if new team Astana (for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan) and expanded former ProConti team Unibet.com are actually in the ProTour, and even less if they'll be invited to any races.
Meanwhile, the nation of Belgium is rocked by the admission from Flemish legend Johann Museeuw that he did indeed use doping products at the end of his career. Suddenly nothing else matters in Flanders.
Out on the road, the Tour Down Under is becoming the traditional season opener, and proving to be way more than just the chance for Italian riders to top up their tans so early in the year that it used to be. There is the usual flurry of success from the domestic peloton, who are in the middle of their season where the Europeans are right at the beginning of theirs. There is bad news for home riders though, as Swiss Martin Elmiger (Ag2r) takes the overall from Aussie Karl Menzies, by picking up bonus seconds in the last two stages. Will the race be in the ProTour next year? Will it be the only race in the ProTour next year?
The other recently developing tradition sees the peloton stop off in the Gulf for the Tour of Qatar on its way back to Europe. Former World Champion Tom Boonen takes four of the five road stages and his Quick.Step-Innergetic team takes the team time trial as the Belgian super team shows that it's unbeatable on flat roads with crosswinds. Wilfried Cretskens takes overall by virtue of being the Quick.Step-Innergetic rider in the race's only breakaway - which is incidentally the only stage that his team doesn't win.
The 2006-07 Track World Cup continues with round 3 in Los Angeles. Over the three days, events are dominated by the visitors, with teams from Europe and Australia taking most of the medals. Salvaging a great amount of pride for the home nation is Sarah Hammer (OUCH Pro Cycling), who takes gold medals in the women's points, individual pursuit and scratch races.
Meanwhile, it's still winter in Belgium, and in the mud of Hooglede-Gits, fate and the tumbling bike of his main rival Bart Wellens (Fidea) (taken out by a plastic barrier that is nudged into his path by a TV camera's quad bike) once again conspires to prevent Sven "Cannibal" Nys from crowning another dominant cyclo-cross season with a rainbow jersey. Wellens manages to finish fourth, despite a sore neck and a fractured wrist, and ends the season threatening to sue the organisers. Oh, and the jersey is taken by Wellens' Fidea team-mate, reigning champion Erwin Vervecken, almost by virtue of the fact that he manages to stay upright for the entire race.
A full month into the season and the ProTour debate shows no sign of being solved. Neither for that matter does Operacion Puerto, as a team-less Jan Ullrich who still denies any knowledge of anything, decides to retire from the sport.
The hearing into whether or not Floyd Landis did or did not actually fail a dope control last July gets postponed. Unable to fight their cases in court for a while, various parties decide to do it in the media instead.
In an on-again-off-again saga of arguments, politics and unpaid bills, the 2007 Tour de Langkawi finally gets under way in Malaysia. The flat stages see Alberto Loddo (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Selle Italia) and Maximiliano Richeze (Ceramiche Panaria) do battle in an all-Italian ProConti sprint-fest. Loddo wins 4-2. Anthony Charteau (Credit Agricole) takes the overall thanks to his stage winning ride to Cameron Highlands and then managing to hang on under pressure from José Serpa (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Selle Italia) who takes the stage win on the mythical climb to Genting Highlands.
The European season openers - the GP d'Ouverture La Marseillaise and the Etoile de Besseges - in southern France give us what prove to be rare glimpses of the white and green strip of Unibet.com. Despite a win in the Marseillaise for Britain's Jeremy Hunt and a Besseges stage win for Aussie Baden Cooke, they'll rarely be seen in France again as the team finds itself caught in the middle of a power struggle between the UCI and the organisers of the grand tours. The big question marks on Jezza's and Cookie's jerseys will prove to be more appropriate than anyone can know. The question mark replaced the team's name as a compromise to avoid breaking the French law that outlaws the advertising of non-state owned gambling companies that French people will be able to access - a law that no one seemed to notice last year when Unibet was a ProConti team… Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) took the overall for his new team, sending the message to his old Quick.Step-Innergetic team that he's going to be a force to reckon with this spring.
In the Tour of California, local boy Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) does a "la course en tête" after taking the Prologue and holding the jersey all the way to the end. This, despite being brought down and delayed in a crash ten kilometres from the line on stage 1. Luckily the race commissaires decide to give the sizeable group he was in the same time as the winner, despite them being fully seven kilometres short of the point that this is supposed to happen. The Tour of California also sees the first major race action for 2007 for a certain Ivan Basso in his new Discovery colours.
As the men move into the northern hemisphere, the women stay behind for a while, and Nicole Cooke (Raleigh-Lifeforce-Creation) - who'd gone south for some winter training miles - kicks off what looks like another Merckx-like season with overall victory in the Geelong Tour.
The Track World Cup's final round takes place in Manchester and is a triumph for the British hosts. Victoria Pendleton (Science in Sport) leads the individual standings and proves that her preparations for the worlds are on target by matching Hammer's three medals in LA with three of her own in the 500m, the Sprint and the Keirin.
After nine months of investigation, rumour, innuendo, counter-rumour, accusation and ruined careers it almost looks as though the unthinkable is going to happen: Operacion Puerto may be shelved when it turns out that no Spanish laws were broken! The UCI and the press aren't going to let this lie though and the investigation carries on - but still only into the fifty-odd cyclists on the two hundred strong list of athletes…
In Belgium, the classics season opens in the old fashioned way with the Omloop Het Volk/Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne double weekend. Italian Pippo Pozzzato (Liquigas) spoils the traditional Belgian day in Het Volk though. By using a bit of grinta and being the most focused rider in an escape group, he sneaks away on his own as the local boys Tom Boonen and Nick Nuyens watch each other. Honour is restored the following day though as Boonen is launched at the line by his team in Kuurne.
Finally, the 2007 ProTour kicks off in Issy-les-Moulineaux with the start of Paris - Nice. Or does it? No one can quite decide whether the race will be part of the season long series or not and it almost loses UCI accreditation entirely. One thing is certain: Unibet.com are not invited. French ProConti team Agritubel prove worthy replacements - mostly because they also wear white and green - and set about justifying their inclusion and proving themselves deserving of a Tour de France spot by constantly taking part in suicidal breakaways and failing to make any of them stick. The race also sees the emergence of a new trend: celebrating second place. Occasionally it happens when a sprinter doesn't realise that a breakaway rider hasn't been caught and celebrates what he thinks is a win, so it's no great surprise (although we all had a good laugh) when Tom Boonen does it on stage 3 into Maurs. What is a great surprise is that Milram's Mirco Lorenzetto repeats the act a few days later at the finish of stage 6 in Cannes. The race? Oh that is taken by a young Spanish chap called Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel), stealing the win from Gerolsteiner's Davide Rebellin on the final day after a powerful attack on the Col e'Eze. With this victory, Contador proves that he could one day be an overall contender in the Grand Tours. Who knows maybe even a top five in the Tour de France will be possible one day. You read it here first!
On the other side of the Alps, the race of the two seas, Tirreno-Adriatico, proves once again to be an annual early-season crash-fest. Crashes take out many stars including World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step-Innergetic) (twice!), Michele Scarponi (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo), Ivan Basso and Tinkoff Credit Systems' Tyler Hamilton (remember him?). Not to be outdone by those racing in France, T-Mobile's Austrian sprinter Bernhard Eisel celebrates his fifth placed "victory" in Marsciano on stage 2. The red and yellow leader's jersey plays musical shoulders for a while, before settling on Astana's Andreas Klöden when the music stops. This despite two powerful stage wins from emerging star Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Prodir).
The year's first monument, the Milano-Sanremo, sees the usual late attack on the Poggio from Riccardo Riccò and Philip Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux). They almost make it too, and Italy's newest prodigy can almost see his first win at la classicissima, but the pair is reeled in almost in sight of the Via Roma. The Milram team of Alessandro Petacchi gives him a near perfect lead out and three-time World Champion Oscar Freire obliges by nipping past to take his second win at la Primavera. Petacchi himself is swamped on the line and Australia's Alan Davies (Discovery Channel) and Tom Boonen take the remaining podium places. Milram goes back to drawing board.
Back up north, Tom Boonen takes his fourth successive victory in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, and at the Criterium International, Jens Voigt (CSC) takes his third win in the mini Tour de France by virtue of an imperious ride in the hilly second stage.
Meanwhile, the women are continuing to enjoy the summer weather in Australia, none more than Nicole Cooke who carries her Geelong Tour form over to take the World Cup race of the same name, and with it an early lead in the competition that is her main season goal.
On the boards at Mallorca, the form of last month's final World Cup round gets carried over to the World Championships, particularly for Great Britain's Victoria Pendleton who takes three gold's. The only women's sprint event not taken by the Briton goes to Australia's Anna Meares who breaks the 500m world record. Briton Chris Hoy takes the kierin and does another sub-1:01 kilo to take his fourth title in the event before he goes to Bolivia for a tilt at Arnaud Tournant's world record. The French edge out Great Britain by two thousandths of a second in the team sprint, and Dutchman Theo Bos takes another individual title.
In the pursuit events it's the British who take both the team title and the men's individual through Bradley Wiggins, but American Sarah Hammer manages to keep hold of the condition she enjoyed in LA in January to take the women's.
The rest of the men's endurance events have a real six-day feel to them as Swiss pair Bruno Risi and Franco Marvulli take the Madison. Spain's Joan Llaneras takes an emotional points race, riding with the strength of his former six-day partner Isaac Galvez who died during the Gent Six last November. In the women's points race, Aussie Katherine Bates goes two better than her 2005 bronze medal to take the title.
Stand by for Part Two of Cyclingnews' look back at 2007 soon where we reminisce about this year's spring classics and the Giro d'Italia.