No way out

With the third consecutive Grand Tour winner falling under a cloud of suspicion, it's unsurprising...

News feature, August 2, 2006

With the third consecutive Grand Tour winner falling under a cloud of suspicion, it's unsurprising to see sponsors and fans steer away from cycling. However, for some, whose lives revolve around the sport, it's not so easy to pull the pin. Nor do they want to, as Anthony Tan finds with South Australia.com-A.I.S. team manager Brian Stephens.

Even a month before, South Australia.com-Australian Institute of Sport team manager Brian Stephens wasn't sure whether to confirm their trip to the Baby Giro in early June. One of the most important races of the season for aspiring under 23 and under 26 riders, Stephens, brother of former professional Neil, saw his plans come to nought last year when the race was cancelled at the eleventh hour due to financial problems.

"This year, I had a few other options, because I wanted to make sure the boys had some racing to go to," Stephens said. "As it turned out, the race went ahead, it was well organised, the presentations were good, and it was a great race."

"Hopefully, this is a sign that the sport is cleaning itself [up], but I've been proven wrong before." - Brian Stephens isn't so sure if the recent spate of doping infractions is a sign of the sport cleansing itself

However, four days from the conclusion of the race, organisers Egidio Event issued a dire plea: "Il Giro Under 26 e Giro Donne rischiano di morire" (the Giro d'Italia U26 and Women's Giro risks dying).

"We cannot hide our will to supply a [greater financial] contribution to cycling, yet we are in a 'bloodbath' financially," said Mario Poli, executive general manager. "It is true, the technicalities did not allow a [potential] title sponsor after the budgets were closed, but it is equally true the media, and that of television in particular, should have offered greater [financial] consideration."

It would have been a minor catastrophe if the race did not continue, for the penultimate day saw some spectacular racing. After a week in the lead, Italian Dario Cataldo attacked the maglia rosa of Ukrainian Dmitro Grabovskyy on one of the most difficult sections of the famed Alpe Di Pampeago, cancelling his sixteen second deficit and taking the stage and race by just five seconds.

However, the third place on the final podium was perhaps the biggest surprise of all, as Australian Matthew Lloyd, who rode brilliantly the day before to claim second place, moved from tenth to third overall. "If he had a little more confidence in himself and attacked earlier, he might have been fighting for the win," said Stephens. "Still, he continues to amaze me."

With Lloyd's podium place and two other Australians, Matthew Goss and Ashley Humbert (a former A.I.S. scholarship holder, riding for an Italian amateur team this year), notching a stage win apiece, one would think the future's looking very bright for this fledgling Continental team that was borne out of the old Australian Institute of Sport program. Though regardless of the results, says Stephens, it's hard convincing sponsors to stay in a sport that continues to make headlines for the wrong reasons.

"The Pro Continental and Continental teams were already having a tough time [attracting sponsors] with the ProTour. Sure, I understand there needs to be a top level, and a level the everyday person understands as the top and [riders that] set the example of a professional [athlete], but so far that hasn't been the case," he said, rebuking the fact that the past three Grand Tour winners have either been guilty or accused of doping.

"It's not easy for us as coaches, either, trying to motivate ourselves and the young riders in a sport we're passionate about and have spent most of our lives doing. Hopefully, this is a sign that the sport is cleaning itself [up], but I've been proven wrong before."

Stephens said his recruits aren't so naive to know substance abuse doesn't go on at all levels of cycling; they're not asking questions as to what products are been used or how it's been done. More, the questions revolve around the question why, and that is something far more difficult to answer.

For now, one of Australian cycling's key nurturers will focus on getting the most out of his athletes for the upcoming under 23 world championships, held at the same place and time as the elite riders in Salzburg, Austria, at the end of September. According to Stephens, Shaun Higgerson and Mark Jamieson are good prospects for the time trial, while the road race course has Matthew Goss' name written all over it.

"I'm an expert on the course, I know every corner!" Stephens joked. "I haven't selected the riders yet, but Shaun Higgerson won the [2006] national [time trial] championships on a tough, rolling course like this one, and Jamo's also a specialist. In the road race, the two hills are quite hard, but it's a long way from the top of the second hill to the finish, so I'm expecting a group of 20 or 30 riders. I think it's perfect for someone like Matthew Goss."

"All we can do is to continue teaching them the right way, and that is through persistence, dedication and hard work," he said.

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