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Tour organizers deny reality in excluding the world champion
By John Wilcockson
In the real world, the choice would have been simple. Do you select a second-rate team with no stand-out riders to start the world’s most important event instead of a squad that’s led by the reigning world champion? Do you select a team that has an outside chance of winning a stage instead of one that will almost guarantee a bunch of victories, along with a likely yellow jersey? The answer doesn’t need to be spelled out.
Mario Cipollini’s Domina Vacanze squad should have been a shoo-in; the Frenchmen from Jean Delatour should have been given the boot. And after selecting The French team, Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc had the temerity to say, “It was a difficult choice … a heartbreaker … after a long and biting discussion.”
Cipollini’s non-selection is even more outrageous in view of the telephone conversation he had with the world champion after the initial 14 team selections were made public in January. “[Leblanc] promised to take me on the condition that I finish the Tour and that my team is competitive.”
What better proof could the Tour boss have had about Cipollini’s and his team’s competitiveness than their repeated demonstrations of power in the stage finishes at this month’s Giro d’Italia, and Cipo’s stage win on Sunday over Robbie McEwen and Alessandro Petacchi?
It seems that Leblanc and his cronies put more credence in gossipy newspaper stories rather than the evidence of their own eyes. Couldn’t Leblanc have called the Italian rider again rather than given excuses like “Cipollini had spoken about going home” after he twice got beaten by Alessandro Petacchi in close sprint finishes in the Giro’s first week?
If Leblanc had bothered calling, he would have gotten a reply from SuperMario something like this: “I prepared especially hard for the this year’s Giro, and the reason I didn’t win any stages in the first week is because I’d done too much work in training and didn’t yet have the zip in my legs. I didn’t say I wanted to give up and go home; I wasn’t serious, I was just reacting to questions asked by reporters looking for a good story. I have a responsibility to my sponsors, my teammates; I owe nothing to those who sell newspapers
“What motivated me after the Giro last year was the world championships. This year, I was banking everything on the Tour. I’m having a special bike built for me [by Specialized] for the prologue in Paris, so I can do a good ride and I’d have a chance of taking the yellow jersey a day or two later. I plan on finishing the Tour and winning the stage on the Champs-Elysées to mark its centennial.”
Instead, there was no conversation with Cipollini, and Leblanc went into the wild-card selection meeting Monday morning with his seven French colleagues having only read the newspapers. Even so, perhaps he could have reads this comment by Cipollini in the morning’s L’Équipe: “My victory today (Sunday) show that I’m capable of some spectacular performances at the Tour. I hope that that [win] is not the things that will influence the organizers, that they will select us because our sponsors have given the team a strong structure, and because I have the rainbow jersey on my back, and that I think, sincerely, that I have already given a lot to cycling.”
On exiting the 90-minute selection meeting, Leblanc said, “We didn’t not want to select Cipollini. In spite of his flamboyant sprints, we asked ourselves: ‘Is this an athlete who’s as motivated as last year? Is he anxious, tired? Lacks confidence? With Jean Delatour, we have given a little gesture to French cycling, considering that Delatour, while being a team without a big star, will figure honorably in the Tour.”
The problem is that Leblanc and his seven “dwarfs” did not treat the world champion with honor.