måndag 8 september 2008

Beware of the dope pedaller: An unreformed drug cheat has a chance to win the Tour of Britain

Published Date: 07 September 2008

By Richard Moore

THE TOUR of Britain, which starts today in London and visits Scotland on Saturday, is likely to be the most competitive of the five previous editions of the round-Britain cycle race, but also, before a wheel has turned, easily the most controversial.

A high-quality field has been attracted, including British double Olympic gold medallist Bradley Wiggins, but it is the appearance of an American team, run by a fashion entrepreneur, that is set to divide opinion, and, in some quarters, spark outrage and indignation.

Rock Racing, run by Michael Ball as a vehicle to promote his Rock & Republic fashion label, includes in its six-man line-up three riders synonymous with cycling's tarnished image. Tyler Hamilton, who just weeks after winning the 2004 Olympic time trial tested positive for blood doping, for which he served a two-year ban, is merely the most notorious.

With Hamilton, who has steadfastly, and in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, protested his innocence, are Santiago Botero of Colombia and Spain's Oscar Sevilla, both of whom were implicated in the "Operacion Puerto" investigation into a blood-doping ring in Madrid. Hamilton was named in connection with that, too.

And there are rumours that Ball's next signing will be Floyd Landis, stripped of the 2006 Tour de France after testing positive for testosterone but eligible to race again next year. On Landis, Ball has said: "Things obviously haven't worked out too well for him thus far, but his career is not over. He's not done."

"As I have said before, I support guys who have been vilified," continued Ball. "At the end of the day, we are all human beings, and we all deserve a second chance. This guy didn't go murder anybody. He's an athlete, who is competing at the highest level. He's been accused of things, and he's tried to defend himself. Whether he is able to do that in the environment that is cycling today is a tough call."

This appears to be Ball's creed, though there is suspicion that he is motivated not just by a sense of justice, but also by the publicity that is inevitably generated by his "vilified" riders. When the Tour of California invited his team, but barred Hamilton, Botero and Sevilla, Rock Racing responded by parading the terrible trio at every stage, and having them ride the route for training.

For the organisers of the Tour of Britain there is the very real, and perhaps dreaded, prospect that Hamilton, the team's leader, will win. Last weekend the 37-year-old won the American road race title; clearly he is coming to Britain in fine form.

Responding for the organisers, Sweetspot, Paul Rowlands says: "We were approached by Rock Racing and thought long and hard about it before deciding to invite them. At the end of the day they have a UCI (International Cycling Union] licence; they are not a rogue team. All of the teams in the Tour of Britain are committed to anti-doping, and Tyler Hamilton and everyone else on the race will be subject to dope testing. In cycling there's a broad issue of what you do with athletes who have served doping bans, or with teams who have people in their staff who have been implicated. Where do you draw the line?"

This point is a valid one – another former offender, David Millar, is riding; and Alberto Volpi, who manages the Barloworld team, is another with a sketchy past – but what has incensed most people is Hamilton's continued refusal to admit to his misdemeanours.

Millar is at the opposite end of the spectrum, having confessed fully and committed himself to leading the fight against doping, not least through his team, Garmin. The Scot has consistently criticised those such as Hamilton and Ivan Basso for their refusal to admit to their misdeeds.

Rock Racing won't be the only team at the Tour of Britain to raise eyebrows, with the Italian LPR squad containing last year's Giro d'Italia winner, Danilo Di Luca and Allesandro Petacchi, who recently returned from a doping ban, also invited.

In the absence of Mark Cavendish, who has been withdrawn by his team to ride the Tour of Missouri, Petacchi is likely to be the best sprinter in the eight-day race, which, after today's opening stage in central London, takes a circuitous route around the country, arriving in Glasgow on Saturday morning for the 95-mile penultimate stage, finishing against the stunning backdrop of Drumlanrig Castle.

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