/ 21 December 2007

Another year of doping leaves cycling tainted

Under a golden sun, Paolo Bettini capped a perfect day for cycling by outracing, outwitting and, finally, outsprinting everyone to win the world road race title. If ever there were a glorious highlight to a season, that was it.

As the Italian crossed the line, though, there was little joy because he had been involved in a doping scandal. He took out an imaginary gun and fired it.

”If anyone felt it was directed at them, they may have reason to think so,” Bettini said.

He might as well have been shooting for all of cycling, because if people thought the sport could not sink lower than 2006, they had not heard about 2007.

At the end of yet another year clouded by doping, Bettini showcased the sport at its best: a veteran, never caught using performance-enhancing drugs, who used every ounce of emotion and power to win a second straight world title.

In a sport where trust is now threadbare, fans want to continue to believe in people like the Olympic champion, and because of him, there is hope for a better time.

Some big sponsors bolted in 2007, most notably the sponsors of Jan Ullrich’s former team, T-Mobile, and of Lance Armstrong’s former team, Discovery Channel. Others keep longing for that bright future, like Rabobank.

The Dutch bank was swept from high to low in one afternoon when Michael Rasmussen first seemingly clinched the Tour de France title, only to be kicked out by his team for lying about his whereabouts — allegedly to avoid drug tests.

Astana will stay, too, despite the expulsion of Alexandre Vinokourov from the Tour when he tested positive for a banned blood transfusion.

”I am telling you straight out. It is not five to midnight; it is five past,” exasperated Rabobank sponsor Piet Van Schijndel said. ”We just cannot continue like this.”

Doping measures

It was another year when the memories of riders scaling pristine peaks of the Tour or clattering over the muddy cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix were blocked out by views of anti-doping stations near the finish line and the hushed corridors of courts.

Hushed, though, was not the appropriate description for the Floyd Landis doping hearing in May, which highlighted the unsavory year.

Nine days of testimony to determine whether the American should be suspended and stripped of the 2006 Tour title dug deep into the underbelly of cycling. But never so deep than when Landis’s manager threatened to reveal that three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond was sexually abused as a child if he testified against his client. LeMond then sent out the news himself and testified.

In the end, Landis lost his expensive and explosive case when an arbitration panel decided the 2006 Tour de France champion used synthetic testosterone to fuel his spectacular comeback victory. But like so many doping cases, this one refuses to go away. Landis’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport is likely to be heard in Lausanne, Switzerland, early next year.

One year late, Oscar Pereiro was named the champion. But Landis was far from the only cyclist linked to doping in 2007.

In June, 2006 Giro d’Italia champion Ivan Basso received a maximum two-year doping ban after acknowledging involvement in the Spanish blood-doping probe known as ”Operation Puerto”.

The Puerto scandal, too, rife with loose ends and mystery, is bound to linger into 2008.

Alberto Contador, however, capped a storybook comeback from a brain aneurism three years earlier to win the sport’s biggest prize — 23 seconds ahead of Cadel Evans for the second-narrowest margin in the Tour de France’s 104-year history.

”I am marked for life by my brain operation and it allows me to savour this moment,” Contador said.

How he got to the winner’s stand, though, was a different story.

First, Rasmussen was kicked off his team while wearing the yellow jersey with just a few days to go. A few days earlier, Vinokourov also had to go. To the uninitiated it seemed the young Spaniard had won by default.

Contador also came under the doping glare since he missed last year’s Tour when his former team were disqualified because he and four other riders were implicated in Operation Puerto. He said his name turned up by mistake.

Doping was also lurking at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. ”Every big event becomes a time bomb,” Bettini said before the race.

As a gesture, the International Cycling Union (UCI) wanted every rider to sign an anti-doping pledge, but Bettini refused for personal reasons. The host city got wind of it and sued to keep him out of the race. It needed a court decision to get the defending champion to the starting line.

At the same time, Giro d’Italia champion Danilo di Luca withdrew from the championships after the Italian Olympic Committee recommended he be banned for doping. That week, the UCI lost a court case and was forced to let Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde race even though it is convinced he is linked to Operation Puerto.

”I thought that after Landis, Operation Puerto, it could not get worse,” UCI president Pat McQuaid said. ”In effect, it has got worse.” — Sapa-AP