Hunting the pack

The men who win bike races from the balls-out lunacy of a field sprint are seldom shy or retiring—and Robbie Hunter is as direct, even abrasive, on the telephone as he is hurling his body towards a Tour de France finish at 70km/h.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian during Tuesday’s rest day, before it was announced that his teammate, Moises Duenas, had been suspended following a positive drugs test, the Barloworld leader made it clear he doesn’t have much truck with the anti-doping measures adopted by teams, race organisers and administrators in an effort to end years of scandal-plagued racing.

Some teams, most prominently the American squads, Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle, have made an anti-doping message and rigorous internal testing programmes central to their public image this year, but Hunter bristles at the mention of it.

“It will stop being in the headlines when you guys [in the media] stop asking questions about it. If someone is exceptional it doesn’t mean they are using products,” he insists.

Has he noticed a difference in the racing this year—lower speeds, fewer “unbelievable” performances? “I can’t say there’s been a huge change. At the end of the day people ride at the same speed.
The testing has been there for years and it continues.”

He certainly isn’t going to allow political correctness to get in the way of his personal loyalties.

As a member of the Phonak team during the 2006 Tour he sacrificed his own ambitions to work as a lieutenant for Floyd Landis. Landis, of course, won the race after a spectacular collapse and even more spectacular recovery, but within days of the victory celebrations laboratory results revealed abnormal testosterone ratios, which are regarded as evidence of doping.

After a prolonged legal battle Landis was finally stripped of the title just before the start of this year’s Tour, when his appeal to the Court of Arbitration in Sport failed.

How does Hunter feel about the ruling? “I don’t really give a damn. Floyd is a friend and he will always be a friend, finished.”

He is equally forthright about the exclusion from the Tour of last year’s winner, Alberto Contador, and his Astana team.

Contador followed up his Tour victory by winning the Giro d’Italia in April and is regarded by many commentators as the strongest stage-racer in the world at present.

Astana has been excluded by Tour organisers, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), on the grounds of failed doping tests by former team members. It now has new management—and new riders—and its exclusion shuts out not only Contador, but third-place finisher Levi Leipheimer, the top American contender.

“It’s just wrong,” says Hunter. “Contador has done nothing wrong. It’s a new team and it is being punished just because it has the same name.”

The exclusion of Astana probably had as much to do with the Byzantine politics of cycling as with the efforts to control doping—it was mud in the eye of the sport’s international controlling body, the International Cycling Union (UCI) from the ASO, which owns and runs many of cycling’s showpiece races.

The feud centres on the UCI’s ProTour, a series of races to which organisers are required to invite all teams with ProTour status, leaving only a few slots for wildcards from lower down the league table. So bad is the feud that the Tour de France is being run under the auspices of the French cycling federation, rather than the UCI, this year. Hunter is betting on the ASO to win out. Hours after our interview, 17 of the 18 ProTour teams announced that they would not be renewing their licences with the UCI.

“The ProTour means nothing. It will fall by the wayside in the next year. The people with the money—and that means the ASO—will win out. The UCI aren’t the ones who are making the sport into a spectacle. If they fall by the wayside it will make no difference. If the ASO falls by the wayside there will be nothing to watch.”

Anyone watching for Hunter’s red and yellow jersey in the first days of the Tour will have seen it coming close, but not close enough, to victory. The opening week was uncharacteristically short on the bunch sprints in which he excels, a situation he shrugs off, saying “if it makes for a better spectacle, I suppose it’s a good thing”.

He managed a fifth place on stage two and 10th on stage 10 into Toulouse. As of Tuesday’s rest day, he lay eighth in the green jersey competition for the most consistent sprinter, with a distant hope of closing the gap on leader Oscar Freire.

“It is in the back of my mind and I could close the gap if things go well, but there are a lot of other guys up there. The most important thing now is stage wins,” he says.

“There is one more hard mountain stage and then there will be some opportunities which I hope to take.”

One such opportunity was on Thursday, as the M&G went to press, with two more on Friday and Saturday. Unlike some of his sprint competition, Hunter seems to handle the physical stress of a three-week race well—last year he won stage 11 and showed strongly throughout the latter half of the race.

“I seem to do okay over the full race, so hopefully that will help,” he says. “I’m feeling really good. If I get an opportunity for a stage win I’ll go for it.”

The team’s broader ambitions were set back by the crash that took out their Colombian climbing star, Mauricio Soler, the winner of last year’s King of the Mountains competition, and they have now been further set back by the departure of Duenas, a Spanish climbing specialist. A doping control after stage four found evidence that he had used the banned blood-booster Erythropoeitin and he was immediately suspended from the team. It is not yet clear if he will request a second sample to be tested.

Hunter was sanguine about the departure of Soler, citing Duenas’s strong form.

“[The crash] closed one door, but it opened doors for other riders to win. Duenas has shown he is one of the strongest climbers and he has the condition to win stages.”

But if that form came in a syringe, Hunter may have to rethink the claim that it is the cycling press that is responsible for the damage done to the sport by doping.

Hunter is clearly focused on winning, however, and characteristically unsentimental about the idea that people “back home” are rooting for a South African team.

Asked if he’s aware of the extent to which support has coalesced around the squad that Barloworld markets as “our team”, he says: “To be honest, I’ve been pretty self-contained for the past few weeks, so I haven’t really noticed.”

If that focus produces victories, he will probably be forgiven for a bit of bluntness.

Nic Dawes

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