News for March 23, 2000

Freire backpedals

After his third place in Saturday's Milan San Remo, Mapei's Oscar Freire revealed in an interview with Spanish paper, AS that he would have liked more team support in the finale. The Spaniard, who withdrew from this week's Setmana Catalana with pains in his left leg, said today that he did not mean to criticise his team.

"A lot of emphasis was placed upon those four words [abandoned in the sprint]," he said. "The team trusted me for the finish, because they made available all the resources to allow me to examine the route [refer to helicopter ride]...I am very proud and thankful to be in Mapei."

Mapei had several other cards to play: Bartoli and Bettini and possibly suffered from this at the finish. However, that is the way that racing tactics work out, and third place in a classic is not bad work even for the number one team in the world.

Freire is very happy with himself so far this season, as he has already won four races. He intends to defend his World Champion's jersey in Plouay later this year, and has also nominated the Olympic Games as big targets. He knows as well that he will not always be the designated leader in Mapei, despite his sprinting success and is comfortable with the way things are working out. "I always had a good top speed and an above average sprint. What I did not have was the fortune and experience, but now I am getting it and winning certainly helps the confidence," said Freire.

He doesn't want to be compared with Poblet or Saronni, two greats who have won Milan-San Remo,especially as the Spanish have a tendency to completely idolise their heroes. He is a little different though from his countrymen in that he is not a tour rider. Indurain, Delgado, Escartin, Jimenez, Olano, Gonzalez de Galdenano...the list goes on, are all good multi-day riders, whereas Freire is one of the few "one dayer's".

He believes that Spanish cycling is improving again, especially with riders like Olano performing well in the early season, wheras before he had just concentrated on major events. This sort of all-or-nothing attitude came about during the Indurain years, and was not particularly healthy according to Freire. He thinks that riders should try to win at many points during the year.

"The best rider now is Jalabert. Every year he does the same: he starts off by winning, and he keeps on winning. For me, that is more important than winning one Tour de France. The best cyclist of the year is number one on the UCI list, not the one that wins the Vuelta, the Giro or the Tour," he said.

Freire doesn't want to contest these major tours just yet, "first it is necessary to have the experience to overcome the problems of a three week race," he said. The Tour of the Basque Country, the Fleche Wallone, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Amstel Gold race are Freire's targets for the first half of the season.

Leblanc optimistic

The director of the Tour de France, Jean-Marie Leblanc, said today that "no-one speaks any more about cycling at two speeds" in his presentation of the races organised this season by the Société du Tour de France. He was optimistic of the future of professional cycling, and believes that the unification of the French health tests and those of the UCI is in part responsible. "The harmonization of the procedures contributes, as well as unexpected blood tests carried out by the UCI - they all reinforce dissuasion," he said.

He also defined his position on the selection of the last three teams for the Tour, scheduled for May 31 to make up the twenty allowable teams. He said that he felt pressures from certain sporting directors, riders and journalists but under no circumstances will there be more than twenty teams entered. Of course, this means that the French teams will be favoured, as he said that: "We will not have a Tour de France with 180 riders in which there will not be at least 30 French riders."

He reinforced the point that all teams will be tested before the start of the Tour, and any of the twenty that fail may be excluded at Leblanc's discretion. Last year, this rule was a little inconsistent with Vini Caldirola not getting a start (Gontchar went over 50%, and several others had question marks), but Mercatone Uno did (after Pantani's Giro exclusion). Recording a hematocrit of over 50% does not necessarily imply doping but surely, teams would wish to be eligible to compete under a similar set of rules.

Leblanc also commented on the reduction of the number of teams in the first division, proposed by the CCP recently. Prompted by a move from Manolo Saiz, they wish to reduce the number from 22 to 20 in 2001, and 18 in 2002. It has already been criticised by Yvon Sanquer, representative of the French teams who claims that he wasn't consulted (he was not present at the meeting where it was discussed). Leblanc said that he is in favour of the reduction, although there will be further discussion held. "The situation is not closed," he said.

He finished with a thank you to Jean-Claude Killy, president of the Société, who said he would resign at the end of this year. "We spent eight good years with him, and I will regret his departure which, for my part, I did not expect."

Paris Roubaix wildcards

Only French second division teams will get the five wild cards for the 98th Paris-Roubaix on April 9. The teams are BigMat, Bonjour, Crédit Agricole, Jean Delatour and Saint-Quentin- Oktos. Three of the automatically qualified first division teams, Banesto, ONCE and Mercatone Uno, will not take part.

Of the wild card teams, St Quentin-Oktos must be considered a bit of a surprise with Lithuanian Saulius Ruskis as front man, ranked 204 by the UCI. The only ranked French riders in the team are Stephane Ravaleu and veteran Jean-Michel Thilloy at 650 and 691 respectively. The team is sponsored by the town of St Quentin, on the road from Paris to Roubaix and also by the département of Aisne in the region of Picardie. St Quentin raced last year in the third division and has ten riders. The team is ranked 32nd in the second division and has acquired 16 points so far this season.

Of the other teams, newcomers Jean Delatour and Bonjour-Toupargel have showed strength and Big Mat is usually invited to the major French events, even the Tour de France. Then there is Crédit Agricole, a top team "bought out" from the first division by other teams that acquired new riders with a lot of UCI-points. CA got hold of good riders with less points and thus were left out of the first division and consequently from the World Cup races.

The teams:

AG2R              Jean Delatour           Polti
BigMat            Kelme                   Rabobank
Bonjour           La Française des Jeux   Saeco 
Cofidis           Lampre                  Saint-Quentin
Crédit Agricole   Liquigas                Telekom
Farm Frites       Lotto                   US Postal
Fassa Bortolo     Mapei                   Vini Caldirola
Festina           Memory Card             Vitalicio

Bruylandts' future

After Farm Frites rider, Dave Bruylandts (Bel) was excluded from the Setmana Catalana yesterday for a high hematocrit, his team management said that they would fire him if followup tests revealed similar results. He will have to wait a week before the results are in, however and another week before he is allowed to race again.

All is not lost for Bruylandts should he be sacked. His former team, Palmans-Ideal said today that they would be happy to have him back. Team director Walter Planckaert said that he trusted Bruylandts and that while he was with them "I don't think that he took EPO. His hematocrit was always ok. He may come back to Palmans if he wishes," said Planckaert to Belgian Radio 1-Sport today.

Watt tried for NZ

It was interesting at the first day of the senior Australian track championships yesterday, not just as far as the racing was concerned. While teenager Ben Kersten managed to upset Shane Kelly in winning the kilo time trial, Australian sprinter Michelle Ferris showed her form is improving by qualifying fastest in the 200 TT (11.681 seconds).

However, a report in today's Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Kathy Watt, scheduled to compete on Saturday in the 3000m individual pursuit, approached cycling New Zealand to ask to compete for them in the Olympic Games. Michelle Ferris told the Herald that "she had heard months ago" that this was the case, and was "surprised that the story had not got out earlier." However, she doubted that this would have any effect on team morale leading up to the Games.

Watt would have followed Anthony "Weapon" Peden in competing for New Zealand, and the latter is one of the favourites for the keirin event, having beaten his former countrymen on several occasions. According to Ray Godkin, CA president, Cycling New Zealand had never contacted him on the matter and that it was a "dead issue" although New Zealand officials confirmed it. However, Watt would have had to had kiwi citizenship, requiring her to live in the country for at least 18 months. This was not going to happen from October 1999 to September 2000 without a substantial rift in the space-time continuum.

It was also revealed yesterday that Alex Fulcher, who had resigned as a vice president of Cycling Australia and from the board of national selectors had been persuaded to come back to his head selector position.

Milano bids for World's on track - and road

Milano, and the legendary Vigorelli velodrome, are putting in bids for the 2002 track World Championships and, according to regional secretary for sports, Guido Bombarda, Milano will also apply for the 2004 road World Championships. The Vigorelli velodrome has been the arena for five hour records from 1926 to 1962 with riders like Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil setting new records. The old velodrome was destroyed by a snow storm in the eighties but a new was opened in 1996.