Before I begin my assessment of the Lance Armstrong debacle some context is necessary as a preface. I am a fan of Cycling and have been for at least a decade. However this year’s Tour De France was the first year I genuinely felt it was clean. Slower average speeds, lots of the protagonists cracking and on a more regular basis illustrated the point. It wasn’t just because there was a British 1-2 and I now feel cycling is suddenly clean, but there is a scientific argument to suggest cycling is cleaner now than ever (in the last decade). Despite watching the tour every year and enjoying it, there was always suspicion and a feeling, that any one of the men could have been on drugs, yet still I enjoyed it. In hindsight this seems wrong and a bit weird, however the viewers and supporters want stories of brave Thomas Voeckler and the heroic assents of Pantani and Virenque, as well as duels between Schleck and Contandor and the resurrection of a man with Cancer, but at what price? This article examines the ‘acceptance’ of drug taking in Cycling and analyses if there is a case for it, ultimately the conclusion is unequivocal; Taking drugs is cheating and if you cheat, there is no place for you in professional sport.
Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace is not only the biggest decline of a sportsman professionally but also a catastrophic and sad deterioration of a reputation that duped millions of people worldwide. Yellow bands, books, Livestrong products, Discovery Channel and US Postal service bikes and equipment all built upon a reputation of an honest, cancer survivor who propelled himself to worldwide stardom with a rags to riches story of the highest order. It wasn’t the first time a Texan duped a nation but unlike George W Bush, he was likeable and inspirational. The admission of cheating not only takes away from all his achievements but raises important issues about the efficacy of Cycling as a professional sport. It is a phenomenally popular sport in the UK for example. The velodrome sold out before nearly all other Olympic events and 3 of the past 5 Sports personalities have been Cyclists! The market is there, but the sport has to be clean, really clean (that isn’t judged by a lack of positive tests) for it to be valued again. Put simply, Ben Johnson is widely remembered for cheating. He was lambasted and embarrassed for far smaller crimes than Armstrong. His reputation is in tatters and will never recover. The Armstrong scandal is Everest to Johnson’s Snowdon in comparison.
The difference between Wiggins and Armstrong
There are many differences, one has won a Tour De France for Example. People refer to Wiggins as someone who just tells it like it is…honest. That is a far cry from Armstrong who has lied and cheating as a norm for the past decade and for the first time I do genuinely believe a cyclist. Can you imagine the fall out if Wiggins was on drugs? The memories and enjoyment wasted on ‘just another cycling cheat’. He isn’t I am sure of it, but my judgement for what it is worth is based on the same media interviews and behind the scenes footage Lance Armstrong’s success was based on. There is for me however one big difference and that is the schedule, something for which for me was the biggest pointer towards Armstrong’s cheating. A normal sportsman trains for a season, tapering their training to ensure they are at their peak for the biggest event i.e the Olympics, the Tour De France, even horse racing at Cheltenham. Wiggins has his warm weather training in the Canaries, enters in and last year won all of the main stage based prep races; Paris-Nice, Cirterium Dauphine and Tour De Romandie. His training plan incorporated these big races and including the Olympics Wiggins showed his strength all year consistently being tested after each stage. In contrast these were not races that Armstrong took part in – he never won any of them despite these being the best pointers towards who is in the best shape and likely to be high up on GC in the tour. Why? His answer to Oprah was that it was easy to take drugs because out of competition he was never tested. And easy it was, train all year on drugs building up your fitness, never enter the prep races citing that you are gaining an advantage by practicing on the Tour route instead. People called him “clever”. Prep yourself on the main mountains on the tour route so you know what to expect when the race comes around, a step ahead of the game. But alarm bells would ring if Rory Mcllroy said I am not playing in any prep tournaments because I am just playing Augusta this year to ensure I win the Masters! It would appear ludicrous and a bit weird. They are different I accept but either way Armstrongs absence from the regular season of Cycling to then show up and scoop the main prize in France every year in my eyes is what sets Wiggins and Armstrong apart.
It’s not about the bike, its about the drugs
I personally don’t care how sophisticated and extensive the drug scam was. It happened and he cheated. The 80’s was a bad time for drugs in cycling and Paul Kimmage author of the excellent ‘Rough Ride’ has always been one of Armstrong’s avid opponents. Again he was right, the sport he loved still wasn’t clean. But how about this argument ‘well everyone is on it so it is a level playing field’. Firstly it isn’t level unless every single cyclist is cheating, which they weren’t. ’ I did what I had to do to win the tour’. Not acceptable, if you cheat you take away someone else’s glory. Even if that is the person who finished in 20th place. I bet there are some Tour De France’s over the past 15 years where the real winner was placed around 40th – as they didn’t cheat. They are the real winner and subsequently deserve the accolade. Lifetime bans should be enforced, no remorseful sorry and I have changed, people deserve a second chance. Prevention is better than cure. Make the punishment harsh enough that people won’t contemplate cheating. However if it is a level playing field and they are all cheating then similarities can be drawn with formula 1. They all have a car, they have a team with mechanics and engineers. Yet some cars go faster than others. The ones with most money have the best engineers and technology and subsequently out perform the others. Drivers are important but not imperative. Cycling over the past 15 years and in particular in the Armstrong era allowed teams with a lot of money and resources dominate the sport, with Armstrong as a figurehead. Sure his ability was needed for ultimate success just like Vettel’s is in F1 but how different is the comparison? Saying Competitive cycle is uncompetive because of drugs opens up the F1 debate because 75% of the cars that start the race can’t physically win it! I personally don’t accept the idea that being the best cheat is still worthy of recognition and for me sport ceases to become sport when the outcome is so severely tainted by external factors. Football is edging that way with the financial gulf between major clubs and smaller ones however is not in the mire cycling faces. Cycling is a test of stamina, endurance and tactics. Once you take drugs you are a cheat and your professionalism is gone. Armstrong will never get that back.
Whilst there are counter arguments, mainly by cycling fans who aren’t too keen on erasing the fond memories Lance Armstrong brought to their lives sadly this situation is black and white. The UCI has a huge job on its hands to rebrand the sport as one which isn’t exclusive to doping cheats. I dare say had charismatic Bradley Wiggins not emerged the sport would be in even bigger turmoil, certainly in England. The next few years will probably be the making or breaking of one of the world’s most gruelling sports and the UCI need to ensure people aren’t talking about 3 letter words like EPO well unless it’s MOD.
At Ayr this weekend there is a plethora of huge field handicaps to get our teeth stuck into with the Bronze, Silver and Gold Cup (the showpiece event). There are lots of things to consider when trying to negotiate the minefield of horses and for me the most important factor is the going. Ayr was cancelled on Thursday and had an inspection on Friday fue to the very heavy ground so going is going to be tough. A far cry from the good to firm ground at Doncaster last weekend. For that reason I am siding with Mirza and Alben Star in the Gold Cup. Mirza’s form is a bit inconsistent and inevitably for a 25/1 shot there are some frailties however the bulk of his good form has come on soft ground. Recently tried in group company after two wins at this level in a row he is notably down in class and I think his price is too big. Alben Star is pretty unexposed and is also a value each way option at 20/1. He won on soft ground at Haydock over this trip and is also worth keeping on side with a saver
In the Bronze cup it seems ludicrous not to back the stalwart Cheveton. Read More…
A fascinating opening chapter to this TDF leaves a race that is set up for attacking riding in all the jersey competitions. Sagan seems set to dominate the green jersey but he must make it to Paris and this is not a given. Goss, Greipel and Cavendish remain in contention.
The polka-dot jersey is wide open although Schleck remains a decent punt especially as his GC claims now appear to be totally snuffed out. The white jersey is perhaps the most closely contested with Van Garderen, Taramae and Gallopin all turning in great performances. Taramae looks a little less consistent than the other two but is capable of very good days in the mountains.
The GC has become clearer. Sky is holding all the aces (well two of them), Wiggins and Froome are clearly the strongest and this will now illicit attacks from Evans and Nibali. The only slight chink in the Sky armour may lie in descending, an area that Evans and especially Nibali will not be shy in exploiting. So, expect some downhill fireworks and maybe even some big-name spills as the riders take chances. A little further down GC but still in contention I remain impressed by Van Den Broeck whom I expect to show well as the tour progresses – a podium is still possible. Menchov will do what he always does and be there but not right at the front. Roche finds himself trapped yet again between settling for a top ten or hunting stage wins. Frustrating as he looks in great form.
However, unlike Roche we can look a few minutes further down GC and find some quality riders who may just be given the latitude to ride for stage wins in this week’s mountains. The perennial attackers such as Casar and Kiryenka are worth a look, but I would favour the Rabobank pairing of Mollema and Gesink. These are top quality riders with thwarted GC ambitions due to crashes in the first week and slightly below par form. Either is capable of escaping and winning. Another outsider who catches my eye is Peter Weening of Orica Green-Edge. He is a talented rider on a team seeking to make an impact; they have not hit the target yet with Goss or Albasini and will want a result.
Two final names for consideration… Schleck and Chavanel. Schleck must be looking to salvage something from this tour and at the least that must be a stage win. Most people will expect him to wait until the Pyrenees but he may well fancy a surprise to silence the critics. He is now no threat to the GC so could be allowed some slack. Chavanel is slightly different, he remains in touch on GC due to his amazing TT form, so will be marked more attentively. But like Roche he could gamble and be aggressive, and let’s face it he usually is!
Men to Watch….
Wednesday Stage 10 – Nibali @ 5/1
Thursday Stage 11 – Gesink @ 50/1 (projected)
Another interesting parcours for this edition of the TDF and certainly one to favour the TT specialists. However, the hope is that this will force the hand of the mountain men and make them ultra aggressive.
With over 100km of time trialling we must surely look at the GC contenders who excel against the clock. The two obvious candidates are defending champion Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky. Levi Leipheimer is also a proven performer and goes especially well in long, late TT’s such as we will see this July. Of the other GC men many are credible performers in TT’s but a step behind the aforementioned, people such as Vincenzo Nibali, Samuel Sanchez and the improved Robert Gesink. I would also press you to look at Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Tom Danielson.
The green jersey is an interesting one this year. Cavendish will target some week 1 stages but with the Olympics looming will he try to make Paris? He may get more of a train than many are predicting, and I remain sure he is the fastest man out there. So expect some stage wins but no green jersey this year. Perhaps look at Aussie Matt Goss, genuinely fast, can over the mountains and will be well supported. If we are thinking out of the box this year’s route could produce a surprise winner of the Maillot Vert. This would need a rider to shelve top ten GC ambitions to hoover up points on mountain days. Maybe an Alejandro Valverde, Thomas Voeckler or Vasili Kiriyenka? Naturally this could also apply to the polka dot jersey!
Which leads us to the climbers. Frank Schleck knows he must attack hard and for once (without Andy to distract him) I think he will. I also think he is good enough for Stage wins most likely an Alpine one. Yet, with his woeful TT ability I cant see how he can get on the podium let alone win this edition.
Daniel Moreno, Dan Martin and Nairo Quintana are all natural climbers who will surely try to make an impact.
So what of those who will like to make an aggressive showing and pick up stages? We Have Philippe Gilbert who will try to win in the first week but does not have the super form of last year. Peter Sagan is a rising superstar and will surely have an impact. Boassen Hagen has amazing all round ability and could win almost any day! Then we have Voeckler, Chavanel, Roy, Amador, Kern, and the heroic Hoogerland.
Time to draw some conclusions… Barring accidents, illness or injury I think Bradley Wiggins wins this TDF. He has improved steadily in the last couple of years and the SKY team looks incredibly strong (with Porte, Froome and Rogers they could even feasibly have 3 or 4 men in the top ten). That said Evans is super tough and will push Wiggins. Interestingly I think Evans knows Wiggins has his measure in the TT’s so will attack him hard at unexpected times. I expect Evans to get on the second step of the podium. 3rd place is up for grabs. Many are tipping Nibali or Sanchez but I would favour Van Den Broeck who battles well and seems to TT solidly. But don’t rule out Leipheimer, the old dog knows how to limit losses and has a great TT pedigree.
Advice – 1 pt e/w Franck Schleck to win the Polka Dot Jersey @ 20/1
The 2012 turf flat season is finally here and it is an exciting time for racing fans. With the Grand National still on the horizon and the prep races for the early season classics around the corner we have an exciting overlap of jumping and flat racing to look forward to.
The traditional curtain raiser, the Lincoln, run at Doncaster is always a tricky conundrum with the draw as well as a lack of form making punting particularly tricky. Eton Forever who won the spring mile at this meeting last year is a worthy favourite for this blogs favourite flat trainer Roger Varian. Varian produced several winners for us last season however 6-1 seems a low in such a competitive race and despite shorter priced horses having a good record in the recent years 6 of the last 9 winners have been 10-1 or less I think there is more value to be found. Usually the money speaks wonders early season and Penitent the 2010 winner is a classic illustration opening at double figures and cruising home to score by 2 lengths at 3/1 fav. The horse which finished 3rd that year Mull of Killough is however my idea of a likely winner. Back in he winners enclosure already this year over a mile on the all weather and with course and distance form and VC bet still offering 16-1 I think that is a decent bet. There has been a fair bit of money around for this horse and I suspect it may shorten up again in the morning. It is also worth keeping an eye on the market becuase it often speaks volumes in these early season races. Read More…
With David Moncoutie coming second in yesterdays stage at around 33/1 as well as Sammy Sanchez’s win the day before Sports Leviathan’s Cycling wing looks to firing on all Cylinders. Todays stage is trickier to pick the winner as it is likely to come from one of the final selection seen chasing Sanchez home on Luiz Ardiden. The Schlecks, Contador, Evans, Sanchez, Cunego and Basso are all in the mix and I expect one of those to win. There aren’t many great prices knocking around but given how strong Frank Schleck looked the other day and the fact Basso and Evans will be most suited to the final part of the climb I suspect that may be the top 3. Evans and Basso are both about 10-1 and if I was to have a punt Evans could put a serious marker down by winning today and I would probably just shade him as favourite today – unless Sammy comes and spoils the party again, he is probably the most dynamic climber of the the lot. Whatever happens today is going to be a real cracker. Read More…
Wiggins, VDB, Horner, Brajkovic, and Vino – Big names all out. Add to this other GC men such as Leipheimer, Kloden and Gesink who have been badly compromised and we are faced with an attritional, confusing Tour. Contador himself is complaining of sore knees and looking distinctly off colour when he has made the effort. So Evans is emerging as the strongman and perhaps the Schlecks can simply cruise onto the podium at this rate? In terms of challenging these three we must look to someone like Nico Roche stepping up or Sammy Sanchez proving to be in top form in the mountains. Read More…
Whist I haven’t been driving barefoot to Dundee scoffing Toblerone, it has been an odd weekend for me on a sporting front and it seems injuries continue to plague my sporting selections. This, coupled with a bit of punting stupidity/rashness has contributed to the mixed bag of results of late. Read More…
So we progress toward the second week of what is proving an intriguing and innovative route. The revamped intermediate sprint and uphill finishes have sparked the battle for the green jersey. Rojas looks really good and I fancy him to be wearing green inParis. This is a rider who has proven he can ride in the mountains better than nearly all the other sprinters, I think he can outlast the other contenders. Read More…