Giro D’Italia

Operation Puerto still hangs over cycling ten years later

June 29th 2006. As the cycling world prepares for the centre piece Tour de France, their biggest race returned to the dark days of it’s recent past. Operation Puerto would prove to be a scandal which brought huge change to the sport, and it’s impact is still being felt today, ten years later.

The world was looking forward to the most open Tour de France since 1998, yet sadly the race would be mired in the same controversy that dogged the notorious 1998 edition of the great race. Just as the words ‘Festina affair’ became as much a part of the cycling lexicon as ‘peloton’, so too would ‘Operation Puerto’.

After years of speculation throughout professional cycling as to widespread doping, the ball would finally be set rolling several years before. Spanish rider Jesus Manzano had detailed to the media the intricate doping practices on his previous Kelme team. This kick started a Spanish police investigation into the allegations made by Manzano.

Their investigation made the headlines two years later in May 2006, when police raided the offices of former Kelme team doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, arresting him and several other key members from two of Spain’s professional teams, Liberty-Seguros and Comunidad Valenciana.  What would be found would shock the professional peloton and have wide reaching consequences.

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Eufemiano Fuentes arriving for his Operation Puerto trial. He was originally found guilty of public health laws violations but this was later overturned. Photo copyright Associated Press.

Police found 186 blood bags with code names, along with the equipment needed to freeze and ultimately transfuse the blood. They also found huge quantities of performance enhancing drugs such as EPO,HGH and steroids along with race schedules and information for payments from a large client list of professional athletes. Whilst athletes from other sports were linked to Fuentes, it was cycling that was the most damaged by the scandal.

Almost immediately Liberty Seguros withdrew their sponsorship, leaving the team struggling to find a new sponsor so they could carry on competing past 2006. Very quickly information trickled through to the media concerning the cyclists involved. The big name riders began to fall very quickly, with the Phonak team quickly suspending Santiago Botero, a former world time trial champion and Jose Enrique Gutierrez, who had finished 2nd in the 2006 Giro D’Italia.

The Spanish national road race championship was abandoned after only 500 meters when the riders boycotted the race in protest of the media information detailing the riders who were working with Fuentes. With the sport in the midst of another major doping scandal, the real hammer blow would be delivered only two days before the start of the Tour de France.

The Spanish authorities released their summary into the investigation, formally detailing all 56 professional cyclists known to be linked with Fuentes. The unofficial total was said to be much higher, as it increasingly became clear that Fuentes and his employees were working with seemingly over half of the professional peloton, once again exposing how doping in cycling was pervasive and widespread to the extreme.

The implications were both widespread and immediate. Top riders such as superstar 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich and promising climber Oscar Sevilla were immediately suspended by their T-Mobile team. Other riders soon followed. 2006 Giro D’Italia winner Ivan Basso was suspended by Team CSC, whilst GC contender Francisco Mancebo was also dropped by his AG2R team. A large portion of other riders were removed from the race, especially from the former Liberty Seguros team.

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Jan Ullrich riding at the 2006 Giro D’Italia. A few months later his illustrious career was effectively ended by Operation Puerto. Photo sourced from cyclingweekly.co.uk.

The timing could not have been worse for the sport, with their greatest race marred with yet another doping scandal which cast a shadow over the entirety of the 2006 edition. The race was suddenly blown open as none of the top five from the 2005 Tour de France were competing a year later, therefore it was a relatively new cast that took on the mantle of competing to win the race.

The 2006 edition would prove a compelling race with an intense battle for the maillot jaune(yellow jersey) right up until the final stages. Whilst the fans and organisers would have wanted the attention switched to the exciting fight for the lead, yet again the 2006 race would find itself a victim of a doping scandal. American Floyd Landis emerged from the shadow of Lance Armstrong to win the 2006 race, only to be stripped of victory in disgrace a few days later after testing positive for testosterone after his remarkable victory in Stage 17.

The reputation of the sport was once again taking a battering, as Landis became embroiled in a court battle to claim back his victory. After the dust had settled Landis admitted to micro-dosing EPO and taking blood transfusions during the race, but always denied taking testosterone. After the initial denials the riders soon changed their tune. Over the next year the likes of Basso, Jorg Jaksche and Michele Scarponi all admitted to working with with Fuentes, whilst Ullrich was also strongly linked to him.

Fast forward to 2016 and this case is still hanging over professional cycling. Riders linked with Fuentes such as Alberto Contador(cleared),Basso and Scarponi they are still involved with sport as they reach the final stages of their careers. Fuentes himself was originally found guilty, although he has since has his conviction and suspended one year prison sentence overruled.

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Floyd Landis celebrating on the podium after winning the 2006 Tour de France. A few days later and he would be stripped of his victory in shame after testing positive for testosterone. Photo sourced from velonews.com .

In June of this year Spanish authorities ruled they would hand over the blood bags found in Fuentes possession to anti-doping authorities for evaluation. It’s unclear at this present moment whether these authorities will make public their findings, but with roughly 200 bags to sort through, it’s clear the sport of cycling may well be rocked again if the full influence of Fuentes and his doping practices on the sport are revealed to the public.

In the last ten years the sport of cycling has appeared to have worked very hard to eliminate doping from it’s realm. There have been widespread changes to improve anti-doping testing, and since then there have not been any further major doping scandals within the sport. How much of this can be attributed to Operation Puerto and it’s impact cannot be quantified, but for sure it will have had an effect on enforcing change in the sport.

Cycling is still in the process of recovering from it’s past demons, and for some people they will never again be able to trust the athletes and the sport after years of lies and denials. It’s debateable whether Operation Puerto was the metaphorical straw which broke the camel’s back, but the fact this was the last major scandal before significant change was implemented would seem to support this argument. It was ten years ago, but the sport and the characters involved are still struggling to recover from it’s impact. For American Floyd Landis, it took until this year’s race to return to Paris to watch it in person. It ended the careers of high profiles names in the sport both in terms of riders and team principals. Who knows whether the true impact will only become known in the coming years, if the anti-doping authorities decide to publish their findings. For the sport of cycling, it will undoubtedly open some very old and raw wounds should that happen.

By Jordan Wilkins

Feel free to comment on this article with your thoughts and a huge thank you for reading. If you want to find me I’m on Twitter @brfcjordan95.

 

 

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End Of An Era For Marcel Kittel And Giant-Alpecin

Last Friday the end of one of the most successful recent partnerships was formally announced, as Team Giant-Alpecin and Marcel Kittel announced they would split at the end of this season. For four years both supported and helped each other grow from unknown’s to contenders in all three grand tours. Now this morning it was announced Kittel will instead join the Belgian team Etixx-Quickstep, but what is the legacy being left behind from this split?

Who could have predicted when the young German U23 time trial champion Marcel Kittel joined the small Skil-Shimano in 2011, that within three years they will have won 11 stages in grand tours, including eight in the Tour de France. During his junior career Kittel excelled in the time trial, yet once he moved up to the professional ranks he blossomed into the fastest sprinter in the peloton.

Wins in smaller development races such as the Four Days of Dunkirk showed his talent, however his ultimate potential was not known. That was until Stage 7 of the 2011 Vuelta a Espana. One of cycling’s three major grand tours, it’s a race known for it’s extreme difficulty. Yet Kittel was able to out sprint notable rivals Peter Sagan and Oscar Freire to claim the stage win in his very first grand tour.Now it was clear to the cycling world that Kittel was a man to watch in the coming years.

The upward trend continued into 2012, with a flurry of victories which led up to his and the team’s debut at the 2012 Tour de France. Kittel would spearhead the team as he looked for stage wins and the green points jersey. Sadly, this dream would turn into a nightmare as he failed to win a stage before being forced to abandon the race early in stage five thanks to a viral infection.

Whilst 2012 was a relative disappointment for Kittel and Skil-Shimano, 2013 would be the coming out party for both. With a change of name to Argos-Shimano and a step up to the premier WorldTour of cycling, the pressure was on to prove their worth. Winning stages of warm up races such as Paris-Nice and the Tour of Oman showed that he and the team would be firing on all cylinder’s come July and the Tour de France.

With an expert sprint train comprising team mates John Degenkolb, a very quick sprinter himself, Tom Veelers and Tom Dumoulin to name a few, Kittel was put in the perfect position to win the first stage going into Corsica. A bizarre incident with the Orica-GreenEdge team bus and the finish line banner created confusion, however in the end Kittel out sprinted rival Alexander Kristoff to claim a momentous maiden Tour de France stage win for both Kittel and the Dutch Argos-Shimano team.

The team’s joy is captured brilliantly in the riveting documentary on the team, Clean Spirit, which is well worth a watch. The win also signaled Kittel’s first leaders yellow jersey. This prestigious honor is usually the domain of general classification riders, yet Kittel was able to steal it early on.

Kittel celebrates his yellow jersey at the 2013 Tour de France. Photo credit thanks to Getty Images.

Kittel would go on to completely dominate the sprinting stages of the Tour, effortlessly showing up noted sprint supremo Mark Cavendish to record stage victories on stages 10,12 and 21. His last stage win on the Champs-Elysees was the realizing of a dream come true for the young German, who broke Mark Cavendish’s four year streak of stage wins on the Champs-Elysees.

Victory in the world’s most famous sprint stage completed a fairy tale Tour de France for Marcel Kittel and his Argos-Shimano team. The success in their first year at the world tour level and second Tour de France was staggering, with the joy of their incredible Tour being captured in the film Clean Spirit. The film is well worth a watch for anyone interested in cycling.

With the majority of the team being retained for 2014, and a healthy new sponsor in bike manufacturer Giant, the only question was if Kittel and the team could repeat their feats of a year before? This question would be answered only a few months into the season.

Victories in several early season races were cemented with two stage wins early on in the 2014 Giro D’Italia. The season’s first grand tour saw Kittel dominate the early sprints, before abandoning the race at the end of stage three to fully concentrate on the Tour de France. With a similar team of talented domestiques supporting him, much pre-race attention was focused on the impending battle between the likes of Mark Cavendish, Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan and Kittel for the sprint honors.

Mark Cavendish suffered the worst possible start and was forced out of the Tour before stage one even finished, a crash in the bunch sprint leaving him with a seperated right shoulder and broken dreams of Tour de France success. Kittel went on to win the opening stage and claim the first yellow jersey for the second consecutive year.

Whilst he lost the leaders jersey on the next stage, Kittel could console himself with wins on stages three and four. A long struggle ensured over the next two weeks as Kittel used all the support of his team to haul himself up the iconic French mountains, steeling himself for the final stage and the sprint on the famous Champs-Elysees. Unofficially known as the world championship for sprinter’s, Kittel was intent on repeating his landmark victory from a year before.

Both of Kittel’s victories on the Champs-Elysees were almost identical, both times narrowly defeating Alexander Kristoff at the line. Finishing off the year with two stage victories in the Tour of Britain cemented Kittel’s most successful year yet in cycling. His star was rising, the question what heights could he reach in his career?

Kittel celebrating his Champs-Elysees victory in 2014. Photo sourced from cyclingweekly.co.uk .

Whilst the past two years were a dream for Marcel Kittel, 2015 was a reminder that real life isn’t a fantasy but sometimes a nightmare. A race win in January indicated this year would be another successful one, however a virus destroyed the rest of his season.

Initially he was set to make several comeback’s in the months leading up to the Tour de France, but when these were postponed his Giant-Alpecin team were forced to admit defeat on the matter. Kittel was not selected for the Tour de France team, instead forced to watch his team mates at home as he still recovered from his virus.

The rest of the year proved difficult for Kittel, although he did manage to win the opening stage of the Tour of Poland. Whilst Kittel slowly returned to the peloton in the later months of the season, a shift amongst his Giant-Alpecin team was brewing.

His team mate, close friend and fellow sprinter John Degenkolb demonstrated his talents early in the year, taking on some of Kittel’s success as he won both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. Both make up a group of cycling’s classics, and are highly prestigious races to win.

Following on from this the team also achieved some success at the Tour de France, despite missing Kittel, as German mountain domestique Simon Geschke won stage 17, and Degenkolb challenged for several sprint finishes. The real shift for the team occurred during the Vuelta a Espana. The young Dutchman Tom Dumoulin emerged from the shadows of his domestique support duty to win two stages and seriously challenge for the overall win.

Tom Dumoulin celebrating with the leaders red jersey in this year’s Vuelta a Espana. Photo sourced from cyclingweekly.co.uk .

This general classification ride from Dumoulin showed his incredible talent and shocked the cycling community, as he stated his claim for the future. The effect of this on the Giant-Alpecin team has been significant, as it now appears the team have switched their mentality from that of a sprinters team to a general classification team.

Tom Dumoulin will likely now lead the team in the GC, whilst John Degenkolb will assume the sprinters duties vacated by Kittel. After some talks with the team, the breakdown of their relationship was established as Kittel was granted a release from his contract a year early.

This has left him free to sign for the Etixx-QuickStep team, where he will hope to return to his top form next year. The Belgian team are primarily a sprinters team, therefore Kittel will receive the maximum support from established riders such as great friend Tony Martin.

Unfortunately, it simply seems that whilst both Marcel Kittel and the Giant-Alpecin team achieved a lot of success, once both were established on the world tour, they were destined to move apart in their future goals. For their fans they will now have the memories of the two year period where both Marcel Kittel and the Giant-Alpecin team rocked the cycling establishment.

Dominant Chris Froome Win Sign Of Things To Come?

On Sunday evening Britain’s Chris Froome came across the finishing line on the Champs-Elysee’s to confirm his dominant Tour de France victory, his second overall. He held the leaders yellow jersey for the majority of the three week tour, and with the best team supporting him could this victory be repeated in the next few years?

Whilst of course Froome and his fellow Team Sky colleagues will insist that winning the biggest bike race in the world was anything but easy. Of course it was anything but easy, with a team that looked to be in control of the race throughout the majority of it’s three week running. Whilst the Spanish Movistar team and it’s two pronged attack of the peloton’s best climber Nairo Quintana and the experienced Spaniard Alejandro Valverde troubled Froome in the final few days, he always had just enough to retain his race lead.

Chris Froome celebrates his second overall victory in the Tour de France on the podium last Sunday. Picture credit goes to Sirotti.

The penultimate stage’s heroics from Quintana as he surged up the famous Alpe D’Huez mountain climb and took 1 minute 26 seconds out of Chris Froome’s lead, he was able to ride into Paris with a winning margin of 1 minute 12 seconds in hand. Plenty of experts and fans have spent this week stating where Froome won this year’s Tour. The popular consensus is that he won the race on Stage 2 into Zeeland, where Froome used crosswinds to his advantage to take 1 minute 28 seconds out of Quintana. The other popular answer for where he claimed his victory is his dominant stage victory on Stage 10 going into La Pierre-Saint-Martin, the first climbing stage of the tour. He attacked late on and claimed a further 1 minute 4 seconds over Quintana in just over 6km of climbing.

Froome’s Team Sky have constantly spoke since the team’s inception in 2010 about the importance of marginal gains, which has meant the team is now widely known in professional cycling for being the major innovators of the WorldTour peloton. This intense focus on every detail of professional bike racing, no matter how small, has helped the team now win three Tour de France titles in four years.

Famous examples of their innovation this year alone are new suspension designed to help firstly Bradley Wiggins in the Spring classic Paris-Roubaix, and Froome with the infamous cobbled stages that were the danger point in the first week of this years tour. Another example is the teams decision to bring a large motorhome for team leader Richie Porte in this years Giro D’Italia. It gained a lot of press attention, although the UCI have now insisted riders stick to the tradition of staying with their team in designated hotels throughout long stage races.

Of his current rivals it appears the young Colombian Nairo Quintana is his strongest rival in the coming years. Quintana is only 25 years old and has already amassed an impressive palmares in Grand Tour races, with two 2nd places in his two Tour de France races, and an overall victory in the Giro D’Italia last year. His climbing ability in unmatched in the current peloton, therefore this years Tour de France presented a perfect opportunity for him. The layout favoured specialist climbers, with a lack of time trials or flat stages that he struggles with in comparison with his rivals.

Quintana after the race remarked that he felt he possibly lost the Tour de France in the opening week of flat stages, and the strategic errors his Movistar team made in the opening week will need to be rectified if Quintana is to seriously challenge for the Tour de France in the future. On the other hand, his innate climbing ability and the strength of his team mean he will never be discounted in future Tours.

The talk before the race was of four major victory contenders battling it out for overall victory this year, although in reality it came down to a straight fight between Froome and Quintana. The other two contenders, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, looked out of sorts during the race. For Alberto Contador this will have been because of the supreme effort he had already put himself through earlier this year as he attempted to complete a double victory in the Giro D’Italia and Tour de France in the same year.

Whilst Contador dominated the Giro in May, the effort that he put into that hard fought victory meant he looked weakened throughout the tour, although put in remarkable efforts to remain in contention, he eventually finished 5th overall and 9 minutes 48 seconds down on victor Chris Froome. Contador finished his season with the Tour de France, and will now likely fully focus on preparation for the Tour de France next year, as he looks for one last tour victory in the last years of the remarkable Spaniard’s career at his current age of 32.

Alberto Contador celebrating his Giro D’Italia victory in May. Photo sourced from CNN.com

For Vincenzo Nibali, his lackluster tour form was more puzzling, as the defending champion competed in very few races prior to the tour, with his only success being in the Italian national road race championships in late June. Therefore he should have been fresh and raring to go over the tour, although from early on he looked out of sorts. His form raised the ire of his Astana team boss Alexandre Vinokourov. At one point in the opening week the team looked to have switched it’s focus to team mate Jakob Fulsang, before Nibali raised his game in the second and third weeks of the race.

He even showed a glimpse of the form that led him to dominate last years tour, with a brilliant solo breakaway towards the end of the stage 19 in the mountains, taking the stage victory and 1 minute 14 seconds out of Froome. His strong third week meant he eventually recovered to finish 4th overall, 8 minutes 36 seconds behind Froome. Nibali announced this week he will ride the Vuelta de Espana later month, as he looks for victory in the final Grand Tour of the year.

Next years Tour de France will now be crucial for Nibali, as it will be the litmus test that determines whether he deserves to be seen as one of the great Tour de France riders, or whether his dominant victory in 2014 was a perfect result for him thanks to the eliminations of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome and the no-show of Nairo Quintana. He has little left to prove in cycling having won all three Grand Tours, although his legacy may be slightly tainted if he fails to reach the heights of his tour win last year.

Some Chris Froome detractors may point to the fact that with the effective cycling transfer window opening today, that some of Froome’s loyal lieutenants may seek pastures new as they looks to establish their own Grand Tour credentials. Key domestique this year and good friend Richie Porte has today had his long awaited move to Team BMC confirmed. Whilst losing the talented Australian is a big blow for Froome and Team Sky, another key domestique for him this year in Dutchman Wout Poels looks to be a more than adequate replacement for Porte within Team Sky.

Another key domestique for Chris Froome this year was the Welshman Geraint Thomas, who for a long time was within the top five of the overall standings, before losing 10 minutes on the leaders on stage 19. His eventual 15th overall however is still a best for him at the Tour de France, and in an interview afterwards stated he has thought about becoming a Grand Tour contender in the future. Whether this will be with Team Sky for the Giro of Vuelta or whether he will be forced to leave the team to achieve this should he want to is currently unknown.

Although Team Sky will lose some riders this year, the transfer window also means they can re-stock or even improve their roster for next year. Two high profile names consistently linked with Team Sky are current world road race champion Michael Kwiatkowski and the Spaniard Mikel Landa. Both are out of contract with their current teams, Etixx-QuickStep and Astana respectively, and both are strongly rumored to have already signed deals with Team Sky. Both are hugely talented riders, with Kwiatkowski a key man for Etixx this year and Landa showing his class with a strong third overall in this years Giro D’Italia.

Both Landa and Kwiatkowski would be huge signings for Team Sky, and would mean the team would go into the 2016 season with an even stronger Grand Tour roster than this year, which is a formidable thought for their rivals. Other riders have been linked with Sky, including the likes of strong Movistar climbers Benat Intxausti and the Izagirre brothers Gorka and Ion will join the team next year. Intxausti would be a likely key mountain domestique for Froome should he join the team, whilst the Izagirre brother would be key domestiques on the flat stages for Team Sky.

In overall terms, Team Sky showed this year they had the strongest overall team in the race, as they looked the dominant team throughout all stages of the Tour de France, backed up by Froome’s dominance in the yellow jersey from stage 7 until the final 21 in Paris last Sunday. The teams potential was realised this year, and if any of the rumors of riders joining the team prove to be true, the team would be even stronger at next years Tour de France.

For Froome’s rivals Quintana, Contador and Nibali and their Movistar, Tinkoff-Saxo and Astana teams respectively, this should have them very worried about the strength of Froome and Team Sky. With the off bike distractions around doping allegations and a small minority of fans shameful actions towards Froome not likely to be repeated next year, his rivals will have to come to the tour in peak condition, or for a strategic error or other ailment to halt what will likely be a very tough to beat Chris Froome and Team Sky.

What are your thoughts on this article? Please feel free to comment below and give your opinions. Hope you enjoyed it!

Giro Perfect Appetiser For Le Tour

If this year’s Tour de France is anything like the recent Giro D’Italia, the cycling community is in for one hell of a Tour this July. The constant unpredictability and excitement kept cycling fans hooked throughout the three weeks of racing as a top line peloton raced around the picturesque scenery of Italy. What did we actually learn from the Giro going into the Tour however?

Firstly we were reaffirmed that Spaniard Alberto Contador will go down as one of the greatest ever grand tour cyclists when his career is all said and done. He cooly showed his own strength with incredible rides, particularly in the last week with his Stage 16 performance riding up the Mortirolo climb. He also had to rely on his own strength a lot in the mountains to hold off the hugely formidable Astana team. It wasn’t all plain sailing however, as he showed with a dislocated collarbone in a late crash on Stage 6 in the first week. He also showed some weakness when he was dropped on the penultimate day on the Colle Delle Finestre mountain, which was granted the Cima Coppi status this year, awarded  to the highest mountain of the Giro in honour of Italian cycling legend Fausto Coppi.

Alberto Contador has achieved the first portion of his much heralded attempt at a Giro-Tour double, aiming to be the first since 1998 to achieve it. Him and his Tinkoff-Saxo team already began talking of preparing for the Tour de France from the moment Contador crossed the line on the penultimate Stage 20. They will now begin an intense month of preparation before the Tour, as the team looks for the famous double.

Contador celebrates winning the Giro. Photo credit goes to Graham Watson.

Astana showed themselves to be a very formidable team going into the Tour, despite team leader and reigning Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali absent at an altitude training camp, the team showing it’s strength by frequent attempts to dominate the race by force with the sheer number of riders they could use at the front of the peloton throughout the race.

Whilst team leader Fabio Aru will not be racing at the Tour, the Giro’s breakout rider Mikel Landa looks certain to be a key domestique for Nibali if he’s selected for the Tour. For Astana they will have to make re-signing Landa a priority this year, although with Nibali at the Tour and Aru at the Giro and Vuelta it’s difficult to see where Landa lies in their puzzle. If he carries over his form in the next few years, Landa will become a great grand tour contender for sure.

Team Sky suffered with a disappointing Giro, as team leader Richie Porte suffering first from a hugely controversial two minute time penalty for accepting from fellow Australian Simon Clarke, who rode for the Australian Orica-GreenEDGE team. With further accidents and poor showings, one of Chris Froome’s likely key domestique’s now has some question marks over his form going into the Tour, despite and impressive year before the Giro.

There were some positives for Team Sky however, with the Czech Leopold Konig taking up the GC reigns admirably, as he finished sixth overall and will also likely be a key domestique for Froome next month. The team can also take heart from it’s Italian sprinter Elia Viviani. He won stage two early on and was in contention for the red points jersey throughout the race. He looks to be a potential top line sprinter, as he will look to pit himself up against the current benchmarks Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel.

Simon Clarke helps Richie Porte after the infamous wheel change. Photo credit goes to Tim de Waele and Corbis.

2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal overcome a difficult first week, as he recovered in the mountains. He was a regular presence at the front in the mountains, and was unlucky not to get several stage wins. His fifth place will provide some form of consolation, although at this moment it’s not known whether Hesjedal will also compete in the Tour for Cannondale-Garmin. If he does, expect the Canadian to show well in the iconic French mountains.

Another rider who surprised the cycling world in the Giro was the Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider also overcome a rough first week to share the plaudits with Hesjedal as the race got tough in the mountains during the second and third weeks. He steadily rose up the general classification, eventually finishing a very creditable seventh overall. He also wore the mountain leaders jersey for three days in the third week. Kruijswijk finished 15th in the Tour last year, and if he’s selected it seems likely he will improve on that placing this year. He is definitely a rider to watch during the Tour.

 Kruijswijk in action during the difficult mountain stage 20. Photo credit goes to Graham Watson.

For the Spanish Movistar team, the Giro provided plenty of hope going into the Tour next month. Despite team leader and last year’s winner Nairo Quintana absent this year, he can take hope from the showing of several likely key domestiques during the Giro. Firstly the Costa Rican Andrey Amador showed his strength with a very impressive fourth place finish overall. It not clear if he will indeed ride his first Tour de France since 2013, although he will prove a strong team mate to Quintana if he’s selected.

Other Movistar stand out’s were the Spaniard Benat Intxausti, winner of stage 8. Both he and Italian team mate Giovanni Visconti were serious contenders for the blue mountains classification jersey, with Visconti eventually coming out on top after a brilliant solo break away ride on stage 19. If all three are selected to support Nairo Quintana next month, Movistar will have a team that will be very strong throughout the three week Tour.

Lampre-Merida were another team to surprise in the Giro, with the team building a young and talented roster as they will look to make their impact known during the three week Tour. The young Czech Jan Polanc announced himself with a breakaway win on the first mountain stage in week one, with the team’s sprinters Diego Ulissi and Sacha Modolo combining to take three stage wins. If all three are selected, the team will be confident of it’s chances in the Tour, especially when it comes to the sprinters stages.

 Modolo celebrating his second stage win on stage 17. Photo sourced from Cyclingweekly.co.uk .

The final man to impress in this year’s Giro was Ilnur Zakarin. The young Russian has already been through a lot in his career, which now appears to be getting back on track with the Russian team Katusha. He won stage 11 in Imola, and proved he could ride with the best of them in the break away during the fierce mountain stages. He could prove to be a key young rider for the team if he’s selected for his first Tour de France, as he looks to continue his good form. His name is definitely one to watch our for in cycling over the next few years.

Whilst some may argue that it’s difficult to take much from the Giro D’Italia going into the Tour de France, mostly because of the lack of heavyweight GC favourites aside from Alberto Contador. Plenty however can be taken from the showings from the likes of Richie Porte, Leopold Konig, Mikel Landa, Giovanni Visconti, Ivan Basso and Mick Rogers. These men are important because their form as domestiques could be the difference between victory and defeat for the favourites such as Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali,Nairo Quintana and Contador.

If anything, the biggest thing cycling fans can take from this year’s Giro is hope for the Tour. This hope is that the Tour de France provides the excitement and drama which the Giro provided every day, whether from unlikely breakaway’s holding off the peloton or the drama from the GC contenders. If the upcoming Tour de France can provide half the excitement of the Giro during it’s three week running, then we as cycling fans are in for one hell of a Tour de France this year.

If you have any thoughts on this article please feel free to comment any feedback is appreciated. Also thank you for reading my article and making it to the bottom of the page. Thanks.

Cycling’s Dark Era Part 3 2006-2010

After several years whereby a number of riders had been suspended after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, including high profile riders such as Grand Tour contenders David Millar, Tyler Hamilton and Roberto Heras, the cycling world was engulfed in another major doping scandal during the 2006 season.

The Operacion Puerto scandal had began innocently enough when vengeful ex-rider Jesus Manzano voiced to the public the doping practices of his Kelme team, of which the Spanish Dr Eufemiano Fuentes was the team doctor. This prompted an investigation into the allegation by the Spanish Guardia Civil, which led to the arrests in early 2006 of several key players in the organised doping ring including Fuentes.

From here the investigation rocked cycling to it’s core on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France, with numerous contenders for victory being suspended after being implicated in the Puerto investigation. It became clear Fuentes had been working with a large majority of professional riders as it was revealed he was officially linked with 56 cyclists, with numerous others likely to have been associated with Fuentes but not implicated in the investigation. Fuentes also appeared to work with tennis players and footballers, remarking at his trial “If I would talk, the Spanish football team would be stripped of the 2010 World Cup.”

Those sent home included Team CSC team leader and 2006 Giro D’Italia winner Ivan Basso, who was later sacked by the team later on in the year. Three time Tour de France podium finisher Joseba Beloki was also sent home after being implicated, although he was soon cleared by Spanish officials in 2006. Team Telekom leader and 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich was sent home and this investigation effectively ended his illustrious career. Other top line riders implicated included the already suspended Tyler Hamilton, Jorg Jaksche and Alejandro Valverde.

Jan Ullrich was a constant thorn in the side of Lance Armstrong between 2000 and 2005, although Ullrich’s career would end in shame as he was implicated in the Operacion Puerto doping investigation on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France. Photo credit goes to REUTERS and was sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/cycling/lancearmstrong/9604956/Lance-Armstrongs-seven-Tour-de-France-victories-wont-be-re-attributed-to-other-riders-says-Christian-Prudhomme.html

From here the UCI and organisers of the Tour de France were hoping for a scandal free Tour de France as Operacion Puerto dominated the headlines in the build up and first few days of the 2006 Tour. Of the contenders left American Floyd Landis shocked everyone with a phenominal Stage 17 effort to recover almost all of eight minutes he had lost the previous day to Oscar Pereiro.

It was therefore no surprise that in the initial testing after that stage Landis tested positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone, eventually leading to him being fired by his Phonak team  and being stripped of his Tour de France victory a year later. Oscar Pereiro inherited the victory as cycling licked it’s wounds after a disastrous 2006 season.

Landis celebrating his 2006 Tour de France triumph, although a positive drug test would soon be revealed and Landis would be both fired from his Phonak team and stripped of his Tour victory a year later. Photo credit goes to unknown.

2007 was similar to the year before with several doping cases in the build up to the 2007 Tour de France. The 2007 Giro D’Italia winner Danilo Di Luca was under investigation for doping and would later join 2006 Giro winner Ivan Basso in being suspended from cycling.

From here T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz was found to have tested positive for EPO in the build up to the Tour and was soon fired by the T-Mobile team before admitting to using EPO and blood transfusions in the past. From here the next scandal broke when pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov and his Astana team were forced to withdraw from the Tour after it was revealed Vinokourov had tested positive for receiving a blood transfusion before stage 13 individual time trial, a stage he won. Team mate and top 10 contender Andrey Kashechkin later also tested positive for the same offence, leading some to speculate a mix up amongst the team led to each rider being transfused with each other’s blood.

The final and most dramatic scandal of the Tour occurred late on race leader Michael Rasmussen was withdrawn by his Rabobank team after it was revealed the Dane had lied to the team and doping officials by claiming he was in Mexico in June when he was spotted by an Italian cycling journalist training in Italy. This was to avoid being tested before the Tour and therefore led to his dismissal from the race and the team.This left Alberto Contador to claim victory in a hugely tumultous 2007 Tour de France, whereby several high profile doping cases once again battered the credibility of cycling’s greatest race.

Dane Michael Rasmussen celebrates after claiming a stage victory in the 2007 Tour de France, although he would later be removed from the race by his Rabobank team after lying to avoid doping tests before the Tour when only days away from winning the race. Photo credit goes to Peter Dejong and AP.

Thankfully for the UCI and cycling fans 2008 was a quiet year for doping within the pro peloton, although there was still a motley crew who were found to have tested positive during the year. The majority were found to have tested positive during the Tour de France, with many testing positive for MIRCERA, a third generation form of EPO. Of those to have tested the most high profile was stage 10 winner Leonardo Piepoli, although the Liquigas team were also forced to leave the race after one of their riders tested positive for EPO.

It appears that the new anti-doping regulations implement by the UCI have began to make a difference within the peloton, as the new, far more invasive measures leave riders little room to use performance enhancing drugs. Riders now have to give base values for things such as their hematocrit and blood levels, therefore it’s now a lot easier to detect when a rider has enhanced these levels unnaturally through performance enhancing drugs.

Alongside this riders now have to provide quarterly information to the UCI detailing their whereabouts every day and inform the UCI if there whereabouts changes during this period. It has become impossible for riders to successfully dope for a long period of time without being caught, and the public are now finally renewing their faith in cycling.

The last two years of the decade passed relatively free from scandal, although some riders were falling foul of the biological passport initive, leading to mandatory two year suspensions from the sport. Whilst the highly controversial Lance Armstrong returned to cycling in 2009, even his presence wasn’t enough to start a doping scandal, although a later USADA (United States Anti-Doping Association) report made it clear based on their evidence that Armstrong had completed a blood transfusion during the 2009 Tour de France.

From here the only major scandal to hit pro cycling during this period concerned the 2010 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. It later became known after the Tour that Contador had tested positive for a small amount of Clenbuterol, which provides breathing assistance, with Contador claiming to have ingested the drug through contaminated meat he ate during the Tour.

Whilst he protested his innocence and raced on whilst a verdict on whether to suspend him was made, Contador was eventually suspended in 2012 and his results between 2010 and 2012 would be annulled, which meant he would be stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro D’Italia victories.

Alberto Contador celebrates his victory on the 2010 Tour de France podium, although he would later be stripped of this victory. Photo credit goes to Graham Watson and GrahamWatson.com.

In this later period of the first decade of the new millenium, it appears cycling has finally turned a corner with riders no longer being found to have tested positive en masse. Whilst the opening year of this period began with the Operacion Puerto investigation, by 2010 it appeared the cycling community can finally hoist the winners of it’s great races as true winners, instead of seeing them through the eyes of suspicion as to how they won. Despite Contador being found to have tested positive for Clenbuterol in 2010 it appears this was an honest mistake. From here every Tour de France winner since has been free of doping scandal during their victories, something which is both refreshing and much needed within the cycling community, as it looks to recover from a very dark era for cycling and it’s credibility.

Cycling’s dark era

Professional cycling and performance enhancing drugs. For almost two decades these went hand in hand as the sport was ravaged by a wild west era of professional doping programmes, in which the sport lost almost all it’s credibility and those who cheated prospered whilst those who chose to remain clean rotted on the outer reaches of success in the sport they loved.

Doping has always been a problem in professional cycling, as athletes faced with three weeks of immense physical pain have always looked for ways to numb or dull the pain. In the early days cyclists would use alcohol to numb the pain, however from the 1950’s onwards recreational drugs such as amphetamines become the latest technology in doping. Amphetamines were common place during the peloton for the next 30 years, although whilst they would give riders extra energy they would also alter their thinking and often led to ridiculous breaks which were never successful.

During the 1980’s amphetamines were prevalent in the pro peloton, although not every one was using performance enhancing drugs. One of those include ex-pro rider Theo de Rooij, who states in an interview with http://www.theouterline.com his own experiences with amphetamines ” That stuff made me do crazy things; it made me feel strong, but I also realized that the stuff was very addictive, so I decided to stay away from it.” (ed: For more information on doping check out their amazing article series called Perspectives on doping!)

De Rooij in action during his pro career in the 1980’s.

The game changer in performance enhancing drugs was the development and abuse of EPO. This drug which boosted red blood cells in blood and designed for people with anaemia (low blood count), it was tailor made for endurance athletes such as professional cyclists. Pioneered by Italian riders during the early 1990’s it’s use quickly became widespread, with a sworn secrecy over it’s use leading to increasing doses as riders became paranoid of other riders using more doping products to enhance their performance and gain an advantage on the peloton.

During the 1990’s it truly was the wild west in terms of doping as huge quantities of EPO were used and abused to enhance performance. EPO was a game changer not only because of it’s ability to greatly enhance your own performance, but because it was impossible to be caught using it as throughout the 1990’s there was no test available to detect EPO. EPO quickly became the holy grail of doping as a large majority of professional team set up an organised doping programme using highly sophisticated and knowledgable doctors, alongisde high tech equipment to give them an edge over the rest.

At the time the UCI, cycling’s governing body, both seemed to have little resources and interest in properly investigating systematic doping in cycling. By the mid-1990’s the first obvious signs of doping distorting race results became clear, with examples being the “miracle” three man break from the Italian Gewiss-Ballan team, that simply powered away from everyone else on the final portion of the race to claim a 1-2-3 at Fleche Wallone in 1994. After the race team doctor Dr Michele Ferrari made his infamous quote about EPO “EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink 10 liters of orange juice.” It’s probably no coincidence that Dr Michele Ferrari later became synonymous with EPO and doping, as he was a major factor behind the dominance of Lance Armstrong and the United States Postal Service team as they won 7 straight Tour de France title between 1999 and 2005.

Youtube Footage of the infamous Stage 16 Hautacam climb made famous by Bjarne Riis in 1996.

Another example is the apparent ease with which Danish rider Bjarne Riis was able to tackle the infamous Hautacam climb in 1996. During the later stages of the 1996 Tour de France the riders approached the notoriously tricky Hautacam, known as one of the most challenging climbs in world cycling, yet TV footage showed Bjarne Riis riding it like a Sunday afternoon relaxing training ride. He repeatedly launched himself from the peloton before slowing and allowing the group to catch him again before repeating the process several times. Eventually Riis broke away for good and claimed the stage win comfortably, although his actions were peculiar to many cycling experts as his process of riding hautacam defied convention. 11 years later the public discovered his secret to victory that day as Riis announced he had used performance enhancing drugs including EPO during his career.

Bjarne Riis shows the pain of his 1996 Tour de France victory.
Sourced from https://leagueofbikes.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/bjarne-riis-hautacam-1996/3acdc4b4a3184a59956bbd432998c716_400/

By 1997 the UCI finally took action against rampant doping in cycling, by implementing a 50% limit for riders hematocrit, a.k.a the amount of red blood cells they have in their blood. Some counter however that infact the teams themselves came to the UCI pleading them to implement some measure as they deemed the riders doping to be getting out of control. Whoever implemented the measure it did have an affect in curbing doping slightly, as gone were the days of Bjarne Riis winning the Tour de France with a hematocrit of 60% and over.

Hematocrit is vital to cyclists and endurance athletes as the more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen you have being carried to the muscles. This means your less likely to fatigue or get lactic acid build up in your muscles. Therefore, if you can perform at your peak for longer than your rival it’s likely you’ll be able to beat them. For cyclists this became the holy grail in the 1990’s, with a normal persons hematocrit likely to be between 40-45%, however for cyclists before 1997 regular use of EPO and other performance enhancing drugs such as testosterone, Human Growth Hormone and Cortisone would boost their figures to between 55-65%.

The UCI implemented the 50% ruling as a “health measure”, therefore when riders were caught with a hematocrit over 50% they were simply suspended for two weeks before being reinstated. From here the status quo remained until July 1998. The Tour de France was eagerly anticipated like any other Tour, however in the days prior to the start in Ireland, a chain of events began which would lead to a complete change in the doping culture of professional cycling. The most successful team in the 1998 Tour de France was the Festina team. Packed with top line riders it was likely one of their riders would win the Tour de France. This would soon change however as team soigneur, effectively a team helper, Willy Voet was stopped by French customs in Belgium as he tried to enter France through a small border crossing by Lille.

A routine check of his Festina team car found an insane amount of doping products within, which included 234 capsules of EPO, 82 vials of Human Growth Hormone, 160 capsules of testosterone and various other doping products. After the team at first distanced themselves from Voet, it soon became clear everyone from the team would be questioned once they returned to France. Once it became clear French police had uncovered a systematic doping programme on the Festina team, directeur sportif Bruno Roussel and team doctor Eric Rijckaert were forced to end their denials and admit to a systematic doping programme on the team, which was later discovered to have been funded by the riders. From here all the key players from the Festina team were questioned by police, including star riders Alex Zulle, Richard Virenque and Laurent Dufaux.


Virenque clearly bewildered at the 1998 Tour de France.
Sourced from http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/virenque-hopes-french-senate-list-includes-festina-riders

The team would be subsequently thrown out of that year’s Tour de France and all riders apart from Virenque would admit to doping. From here French police searched other teams at the tour and found doping products at almost all the teams. In turn the riders protested about their harsh treatment by police and stage several protests during stages whereby the riders would deliberately ride slowly or even stop for several hours. In the end the incredible victory for the Italian Marco Pantani, who also won the Giro D’Italia that year also, was overshadowed by the ongoing Festina affair.

From here things settled down again, with the next major storm surrounding the Italian Marco Pantani. After winning two of cycling’s biggest races in the Giro D’Italia and Tour de France in 1998, Pantani looked for a repeat in 1999 as he dominated the Giro. Only days before the end however, he fell foul of the 50% limit of the UCI and was suspended for two weeks. Although this created many news headlines, the significance in the story was whether he had been set up and did center on doping like the Festina affair had.

http://blogs.as.com/.a/6a00d83451bf7069e201a5116e3fb0970c-450wi
Pantani being led away by police after his expulsion from the 1999 Giro D’Italia.
Sourced from an AS blog http://blogs.as.com/pedaladas/2014/02/las-ense%C3%B1anzas-del-pantani-valiente-y-del-pantani-oscuro.html

After the Public Relations disaster that was the 1998 Tour de France over, the UCI and Tour organisers were eager to renew the public’s faith in the race for 1999. They both promised a slower race to show they were curbing doping in cycling. Little did they know however that their biggest problem around doping were just about to begin as Lance Armstrong was coming back to the Tour and was determined to claim victory, whichever way possible. For more on this story please view my second part to this blog entry which will be posted in the next few days. Hope you enjoyed it!