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Continental Drift with Andrew Hood: Lion King redux; Yanks at CSC; LA and the hour

Editor’s note: In his new weekly web column, VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood takes you behind the headlines. This week he looks at Mario Cipollini’s comeback attempt, how Bobby Julich helped secure Dave Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde contracts at Team CSC, and Graeme Obree’s remarks on Lance Armstrong’s talk of making a run at the world hour record. Check back each Tuesday for more. Will the Lion King roar again?Mario Cipollini couldn’t have hoped for a better start to the 2005 season with his stage victory last week in the Tour of Qatar. After two lackluster seasons, a

By Andrew Hood

The Lion King has roared once already in 05, in Qatar

The Lion King has roared once already in 05, in Qatar

Photo: Graham Watson (file photo)

Editor’s note: In his new weekly web column, VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood takes you behind the headlines. This week he looks at Mario Cipollini’s comeback attempt, how Bobby Julich helped secure Dave Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde contracts at Team CSC, and Graeme Obree’s remarks on Lance Armstrong’s talk of making a run at the world hour record. Check back each Tuesday for more.

Will the Lion King roar again?
Mario Cipollini couldn’t have hoped for a better start to the 2005 season with his stage victory last week in the Tour of Qatar. After two lackluster seasons, a dazzling debut is just what cycling’s most flamboyant sprinter needs to recapture his mojo.

Cipollini, who turns 38 just three days after his beloved Milan-San Remo, faces a tough battle to regain the top spot as sprinting’s alpha male. Archrival Alessandro Petacchi has firmly entrenched himself as leader of the pack, scoring an impressive 15 Giro d’Italia stage wins in the past two editions compared to Cipo’s rather meager two.

In fact, Cipollini’s last major wins came when he tied – then broke – the Giro’s all-time win record with 42 stages in May, 2003. Since then, he’s won a stage in each of the Tour de Georgia and Tour Mediterranean; hardly the stuff of legend.

Many cynics rolled their eyes when the Lion King signed on to join upstart Liquigas-Bianchi. After many threats at retirement and pouts about not being allowed in the Tour de France, many thought the best years were behind the Tuscan terror.

The 2002 world champion is out to prove the critics wrong. Whether or not he can pull it off in the coming months will be one of the more interesting story lines of the 2005 season.

Cipollini knows if he wants to leave cycling on a high note, he can’t rest on his laurels anymore. With 189 career victories and counting, the Lion King yearns to roar one more time on the world’s stage. Cycling fans can only hope so.

Here are the key factors to Cipollini’s revival:

Desire: Just how bad does the Re Leone want it? There’s no doubt that Cipollini thrives in the spotlight. At the posh Liquigas-Bianchi team presentation last month in Milan’s East End studios, Super Mario eclipsed an impressive lineup that includes a former Giro winner and the reigning Paris-Roubaix champion. While the evening’s festivities weren’t anywhere near the now-legendary bacchanalia of the Domina Vacanze’s team launch in Sharm El Sheik in Egypt in 2003, there’s no doubt Cipo remains cycling’s most charismatic star. To be the dominator once again, Cipollini will have to forget about living la vida loca and rediscover his sharpness.

Train: Cipollini says he’s already feeling comfortable at Liquigas-Bianchi, a team where he’s not the only superstar, something that will take the pressure off him as he tries to regain his edge in the sprints. A big question mark will be the efficiency of his set-up train. Gone are integral members of his once-feared Cipo Express, including the freshly-retired Mario Scirea and Giovanni Lombardi, now at Team CSC. It can take months, even years, to build the confidence, personnel and experience for a set-up train to perform effectively, but Cipollini believes he has a solid foundation with Marco Zanotti, Nicola Loda and even Paris-Roubaix champ Magnus Backstedt.

Age: There were a lot of big-name sprinters who won in the season’s first week – Tom Boonen, Robbie McEwen, Petacchi and Oscar Freire – but none of them were born in the 1960s. Boonen was 8 years old when Cipollini won his first Giro stage in 1989. How much of a factor will age be? Cipollini said he overtrained in the two seasons following his 2002 world title, but insists he’s found the right balance between training and resting for his aging engine. Crashes and injuries took their toll on Cipo the past two seasons. Staying healthy will be key.

Goals: Cipollini has set his sights on three races he knows and loves: Milan-San Remo (which he won in the magical 2002 season), Gent-Wevelgem (a three-time winner at the “sprinters” classic) and the Giro. Right now, there’s no talk of the Tour or of the world championships. Success in any of these three marquee events will mean the Lion King is back.

Zabriskie, Vande Velde can thank Julich for CSC spot
David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde are riding for Team CSC this season thanks in large part to a rousing endorsement from Bobby Julich.

Last fall, Team CSC boss Bjarne Riis approached the Olympic bronze medalist about American riders he was considering to sign to bolster the U.S. presence on the squad. After all, team sponsor CSC is a U.S.-based computer software giant and Julich was the lone American rider on the 2004 roster.

Here’s how Julich tells the story:

“The first thing was total disbelief was that Postal Service wouldn’t sign David Zabriskie. I was blown away and I had to ask (Riis), are you sure that he’s available? Absolutely, 100 percent, this is the guy you want because by far he is the top American talent under the age of 25. I saw him race, he’s a great time trialist, great worker. He is one of the future stars of American cycling.”

“With Christian, that’s not a risk either,” Julich continued. “I said, ‘Bjarne, here’s your next American challenge.’ No one questions Vande Velde’s ability. What he did to help Heras in the Vuelta was impressive. He’s been thrown a few curveballs. He made his best decision of his life to come here. If this team can’t help him, no one can. I expect to see a resurrection of his career at Team CSC as well.”

So far, both riders seem happy with their choice. Both have already earned the trust of Riis and team captain Ivan Basso to be pre-selected to ride the Giro d’Italia, where Basso is gunning for the overall win.

Riis said he’s confident Vande Velde’s back problems are on the mend and he’s more than impressed with Zabriskie’s early season form. The lanky Utahan was among the strongest at the team’s training camp last month on the hilly roads outside of Florence.

“Zabriskie has proved he’s good in time trials and you see him climbing very strong,” said team manager Bjarne Riis. “You can see he’s a real talent. On the time trial bike, he’s got a great position, but we’ve been pleased with how well he’s climbing. Let’s see what we can bring out of him.”

Not everyone believes Armstrong can break hour mark
While six-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong mulls an attempt at the world hour record, one keen observer is not convinced that the Texan can pull it off.

Graeme Obree – the 40-year-old Scotsman who turned convention on its head with technological advances to set the world hour record twice in the early 1990s – says it’s not that he doesn’t believe Armstrong has the muster to crack the hour record.

Instead, he thinks Chris Boardman’s record simply might stand the test of time.

“I think it’ll be fantastic if he goes for it,” Obree said in an interview last week in The Scotsman Sunday newspaper. “But I think he’s taking a big risk, because I don’t know if it’s breakable. If he’s going to break it, he’ll just do it.”

Obree’s unconventional style and aerodynamic innovations helped usher in a rash of record attempts in the 1990s. By 2000, the UCI decided there should be two world hour records – one the now-official “UCI Hour Record,” using a conventional bike-frame set-up, and the other the “best hour performance,” set on a high-tech, aerodynamic frame. Chris Boardman holds the record in both categories. He used the “Superman” position to set the record of 56.375km at Manchester in September 1996, which is still the fastest, and bested Eddy Merckx’s “official” record by just 10 meters with 49.441km before retiring in October 2000.

Obree put an interesting twist on the Armstrong factor, saying if the Texan wants his record attempt to hold any water against skeptics, he should insist on thorough medical checks.

“But if Lance does go for it I think he has to demand retrospective drugs testing, so that everything – blood, urine, hair – can be checked in five years against what we know then. If I ever try or achieve anything of significance again, I will ask for that.”