News for May 4, 2001

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TdF 2001 fallout - Cipo to jump ship? Pantani orders mutiny

As the repercussions of the dramatic decision by the Societe du Tour de France to omit the teams of the popular and charismatic Italian riders Mario Cipollini and Marco Pantani from the 2001 Grand Boucle has resulted in wild speculation, with an offer for Cipo to change teams mid-season and the Pirate threatening a mutiny.

A Danish newspaper reported this morning that CSC World Online had made an offer to Saeco rider Mario Cipollini to ride for the Danish squad in the Tour. Apparently CSC World Online wants to buy-out the Saeco sprinter for the coming Tour.

Jes Hvid Mikkelsen, spokesman of CSC, was reported as saying: "Technically it's possible and Mario is interested in this option. But we have to wait for Saeco to see if they co-operate." CSC has asked the Italian company Tiscali - the new owner of CSC - to assist in the mid-season transfer. Mikkelsen said: "It's no secret we want to change our name next year to CSC-Tiscali. That's the reason we want to contract a big Italian rider. Cipollini is loved in Italy and he guarantees a few stage victories in the Tour."

Saeco reportedly wants a payment of DKK 4.000.000 (537,000 EURO) before the team will release Cipollini from the contract. CSC team director Bjarne Riis said that if it is only a matter of money, then he is ready to do the deal right away.

Meanwhile, Marco Pantani has called on fellow riders to boycott the Tour this year because his team, Mercatone Uno, was left out of the Tour. Apparently, the Pirate plans to call up both Lance Armstrong and Hein Verbruggen, president of the UCI, to support his protest.

In an interview published this morning in the French sporting daily L'Equipe, Pantani said ``Some of the champions could very well demand that I, and others with me, be at the start of the Tour, otherwise they won't ride. The Tour could find itself with just five or six French teams, maybe with no foreign riders.''

Verbruggen: UCI won't intervene

The UCI will not intervene in the selection of teams for the Tour de France, UCI president Hein Verbruggen said on Thursday. Verbruggen commented that he questioned the choices of the Tour organizers, but they were free to make them. "Selection rules have been respected," Verbruggen said, but added, "It's also true that this conclusion isn't very logical sports-wise -- something is not working properly there."

A break with the past

Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc has said he is trying to make a break with the past in not selecting Marco Pantani and Mario Cipollini to this year's Tour. "We wanted to open the door to a new approach and a new frame of mind," he said. The strong implication is that a Tour organisation still smarting from the 1998 Festina scandal has decided to ease sponsor jitters by excluding two teams with clouds over them: Pantani's guilty verdict for 'sporting fraud' and the current suspension of Saeco rider Salvatore Commesso for suspected possession of controlled substances.

The move is controversial, but French champion Christophe Capelle, of BigMat-Auber, one of the French divisions two teams invited, told Darren Tullet of Bloomberg News that it was time to take a stand against Pantani's Mercatone Uno team and Cippolini's Saeco: "They got what was coming to them," Capelle said. "They're paying for their sins of the past."

Cipollini has never been implicated in drug use, but earned the Tour organiser's ire because he's never completed the entire race. "Sometimes his withdrawals were announced in advance," Leblanc said.

Former rider Ronan Pensec, a member of Greg LeMond's 1990 winning team, said fans who flock to see Pantani's famous mountain attacks would miss out. "The public doesn't care about all the doping stuff, it wants a show," Pensec said. "Pantani brings that and the decision is very hard on him after all he's done in the race."

The organizers may come to regret their decision, Pensec said. "They would look silly if Pantani wins the Tour of Italy next month, and he's going to be extra-motivated now."

The clearest beneficiary of Pantani's absence is Lance Armstrong. Pantani's attacking style in the mountains, and stated desire to "teach Armstrong a lesson" made him the biggest threat to the American's campaign for a third win. Without Pantani, and with 2000 Vuelta winner Roberto Heras on board the US Postal machine, 1997 champion Jan Ullrich is the American's main rival.

"It's a two-horse race," Pensec said. "If anyone's smiling after all this, it's got to be Armstrong."

Armstrong regrets Pantani omission

Lance Armstrong says he regrets the decision of the Tour organisers not to invite Marco Pantani. In a statement on his website, Armstrong said, "The Tour's fans will miss Pantani, as will I. He's an icon in world sport and a true personality - much the way Cipo' is. Having said that, I respect Mr. Leblanc's decision. It's his event, he organizes it, deals with the sponsors, and I feel he ultimately knows what's best for the Tour. Regardless, we're ready to go."

Leblanc refuses to reconsider

Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc will not look again at the organisation's decision not to invite Marco Pantani's Mercatone-Uno team. "The choice was not easy," said Leblanc. "We cannot start to re-examine the decision because that would be like saying our criteria on Wednesday were not exact. Why would we make an exception for Mercatone? And why not for Saeco or Mercury?"

The patron the Tour said he understood Pantani's reaction, "but using the word 'revolting' is perhaps a bit strong. Because, I repeat, we were led to adopt this position by analysing the current situation. We took into account Pantani's performance in the 2001 Tour de France."

Mapei skips Four Days of Dunkirk

Tom Steels come back to racing is further delayed. His team, Mapei, will not start in the Four Days of Dunkirk next week. "We have to many sick and injured riders (Tafi, Bettini, Nardello) to ride three races at the same time", said Directeur sportif Eric Vanderaerden. Mapei will also start in the tours of Romandie and Slovenia. The Dunkirk organizers are now trying to persuade Team Coast into the race.

On Thursday, Mapei rider Andrea Tafi underwent an operation on his left tibia in a private clinic near Pisa. He will have to take 20 days complete rest as part of his recovery and will not be able to ride for about five weeks.

Van Eiden off track for a month

German track sprinter Jan van Eiden has had an appendix operation in Japan. The 24 year old World Champion is now back home in Berlin to get further medical treatment and hopes to be back on the bike within a month.

Bartoli to skip Giro

As if Mapei's other injury troubles weren't bad enough, the team has announced that Michele Bartoli will not take part in the Giro d'Italia, which starts May 19. Bartoli appeared excessively tired after a training session, suffering leg pain, prefers not to risk theGiro. "I had 'cotton legs' and a level of tiredness that usually only comes after several hours in the saddle. My condition does not allow me to guarantee the effort that people expect from me."

Chauvinism & protectionism rules in Tour wild card selection

A Commentary By Tim Maloney, Cyclingnews European correspondent

Chauvinism: chau·vin·ism
Function: noun
Etymology: French chauvinisme, from Nicolas Chauvin, character noted for his excessive patriotism and devotion to Napoleon in Théodore and Hippolyte Cogniard's play La Cocarde tricolore (1831)
1: excessive or blind patriotism -- compare JINGOISM
2: undue partiality or attachment to a group or place to which one belongs or has belonged
3: an attitude of superiority toward members of the opposite sex; also : behavior
Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Hey! OK, it's a new millenium; by next January, Europe will have it's own single currency just like one country. And the last two Tours de France have been won by, — GASP! — an American! But none of that globalized stuff matters much when Jean Marie LeBlanc, directeur general of le Societe du Tour de France re-affirmed the French character of Le Tour de France on Wednesday by naming two backwater French teams to race Le Tour and excluded far more important teams. LeBlanc and le Société had promised to name four wild card teams for a total of 20 teams in early May, but then added five teams for a total of 21 teams of 9 riders: Lotto-Adecco of Belgium; Euskaltel-Euskadi of Spain; CSC-World Online of Denmark; as well as BigMat-Auber 93 and La Française des Jeux of France.

Simply put, Lotto-Adecco had a great spring campaign, winning many races since the season opened in Europe and culminating in Rick Verbrugghe's domination in Criterium Internationale and Fleche Wallonne. Way to go, Lotto. The orange clad Euskaltel-Euskadi Basque boys sure gave their all this spring to show their stuff after winning Div. 2 last year and the efforts paid off with a TDF ticket for '01.

CSC-World Online of Denmark is a more problematic selection; team honch Laurent Jalabert had been laid up since late February with a banal household injury and one wonders if it wasn't more the political connections of CSC-WO team boss Bjarne Riis that got the Danish team into Le Tour '01. With the suspension of "Allez Richard" Virenque from racing, in the end, Jaja is still the most popular French rider out there and after all, M. et Mme. Tout-Le-Monde need their heros just like the rest of us.

As for BigMat-Auber 93 and La Française des Jeux of France, I say ugh. Oh, OK, yeah! Well, BigMat has Stephane Heulot who is popular in, well, France! But Thierry "Beef" Bourguignon has retired due to mad cow so this team now lacks any character whatsoever. And, La Française des Jeux has, uh, oh, I forget… Oh yeah, no one. Go figure.

Meanwhile, Saeco and their oldie but still goodie sprinter Mario Cipollini, who is not only enormously popular in France but has managed to win a few TdF stages over the last few years as well as wearing the Maillot Jaune, was not selected. And worse still, wither Marco 'povero Marcolino' Pantani and his made-to-measure Mercatone Uno team? Come July, we'll see no manic behaviour; no brilliant attacks, no madman riding uphill faster than anything. Marco will be 'al mare' in Cesenatico, piadina in hand, getting a tan. Will this French smiting motivate magic Pantani to win the Giro d'Italia and show Le Tour organizers the error of their ways? Certainly, Italian cycling was dealt a major backhand by le Societe du Tour de France when they excluded the two top transalpine squads on the waiting list in favour of two nothing Frenchy teams.

Oh and let's not forget the disappointment from the Mercury-Viatel corner! Not selected either. Did they deserve it? Well, probabaly not as much as Saeco or Mercatone; both Italian squads have a far more comprehensive and successful history at Le Tour than Mercury-Viatel.

Mercury-Viatel had a respectable spring campaign but they simply didn't win enough or ride fast enough or hire enough Frenchies to get a pass for Le Tour '01. Perhaps had Peter Van Petegem not gotten sick after Paris-Nice and won a classic, things might have been different, but as Kevin Spacey said in Swimming With Sharks, "way it goes". Better luck next time!

After all, Le Tour is, Le Tour... de France. The French are certainly noted for their cocorico attitude; and like Nicolas Chauvin, Jean Marie LeBlanc is a Frenchman and his loyalty to his home country and to the Tour de France as an expression of national pride has become synonomous with this magnificent event. And one must realize that Le Tour de France is simply not "supposed to be the world's best bike race", it is the world's best bike race.

Even with French teams and Pantani and Cipo missing and a Yank as defending champion, I don't buy for one moment the hogwash of revisionism that Le Tour has been damaged. Le Tour's organizers can practice protectionism because it is their prerogative; it may not be right but it is French and that's all that matters in France. The majority of the millions and millions of fans who line the route of Le Tour throughout July are French. Despite the popularity of Cipo, El Pirata, et al, it's that cocorico thing again.

Le Tour de France is still much bigger than some tempest in a teapot controversy over which few teams were invited to fill out the roster 10 weeks before the fact. Come the evening of Saturday, July 7 in Dunquerque, standing next to the start house as defending champion Lance climbs aboard his time trial bike clad in le Maillot Jaune for the prologue TT, I know I will feel that telling, earth-shattering, heart-gripping tension you get from Le Tour de France even though BigMat-Auber 93 got invited and Mercury-Viatel didn't. Because it is still Le Tour.

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