By Andrew Hood
The 2003 European road racing season wraps up Saturday with the 97thGiro di Lombardia in northern Italy.Also the final leg of the 10-round World Cup series, the “Race of the Falling Leaves” is traditionally the season’s last major race. Series leader Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) has an untouchable advantage and will win his second consecutive overall title.The 250km course follows tradition, starting in Como, hitting such steep climbs as the Madonna del Ghisallo, the Colle del Gallo and the Colle Aperto before the finish in Bergamo.Returning champion Michele Bartoli (Fassa Bortolo) will be motivatedfor a strong performance after being snubbed for the second straight year from the Italian world’s team. Other contenders for victory include Bettini,Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Francesco Casagrande (Lampre).‘World’s Affair’ growing despite denials
Europe’s press kept chasing the “world’s affaire” Friday despite the insistenceof UCI officials that there’s no doping scandal.Newly crowned world champion Igor Astarloa and three other riders – Spanish riders Manuel Beltrán and Aitor Osa and Italian Danilo Di Luca — will likely be under a cloud of suspension at least until next week when test results are known on urine samples taken from the riders on the eve of last weekend’s world championships.Their names were published in Thursday’s editions of L’Equipe after it was confirmed that the four riders had “abnormal parameters” in a routine blood test taken Oct. 10. They were cleared to race, but officials returned the next day to take urine samples to test for the presence of EPO, a banned performance-enhancing hormone.UCI president Hein Verbruggen continues to insist there’s no scandal– at least until the samples are thoroughly evaluated.“It is ridiculous to be talking about positive cases,” Verbruggen told the AFP. “The official in charge of our medical commission has told me that the Lausanne laboratory only received the samples on Wednesday. And already there are rumors of a positive (doping) case. I want to repeat, it’s ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.”Saeco, where Astarloa and Di Luca both ride, came to the defense ofits riders in a press conference called Friday in Italy. Saeco team managerClaudio Corti strongly defended his riders (even though Astarloa switchesto Cofidis next season) and blasted what he called a sensationalistic “assumptionof guilt.”Astarloa — set to make his debut as world champion at Saturday’s Girodi Lombardia – shrugged off suggestions that bad news looms.“I’m absolutely tranquil. There’s no shadow of doubt over my rainbowjersey,” Astarloa said. “If there had been something wrong with my tests,I would not have been allowed to ride the world championships. I’ve takenseveral tests this year and all of my results are within the limits. I’venever had a problem with doping.”UCI officials confirmed that results won’t be known at least until nextweek. If a test comes back positive, officials conduct a “B-sample” testto reconfirm the test results. Then the rider and his federation are notifiedbefore a possible sanction if the test is positive.Kelme eyes Casero, signs other riders
Still fuming from the departure of star rider Oscar Sevilla to Phonak,Kelme is looking to 2001 Vuelta a España champion Angel Casero asa possible new team leader.The Spanish daily AS reported that the team is in negotiationswith the Spanish rider, who’s raced with injuries and mediocre resultsin two seasons at Coast/Bianchi.Meanwhile, Javier Pascual Rodriguez and Eladio Jimenez are both setto join Kelme for the 2004 season.Both riders were part of iBanesto.com during the team’s final season.After efforts to find a replacement sponsor with the Balearic Islands fellshort for the Banesto team, riders are anxious to secure rides for nextyear.Pascual Rodriguez (not to be confused with Javier Pascual Llorente,who tested positive for EPO at July’s Tour de France) has signed a two-yearcontract while Jimenez has a verbal agreement to join Kelme.Pascual Rodriguez, 31, rode with Kelme from 1997-2000 and joined iBanesto.comin 2001, where he won two races. Pascual Rodriguez was also an ex-teammateof American riders Jonathan Vaughters and Chann McRae in 1996 on the SpanishSanta Clara team.RAGT wants Tour spot
The top for new French team RAGT (formerly Jean Delatour) is to earna spot in the 2004 Tour de France, team officials announced in a pressconference Friday.The team said it wants to try to earn a podium place at an importantpre-Tour race such as the Dauphiné Libéré or the former Midi Libre race (now called Tour du Languedoc) to help prove its worth.The team has signed on such riders as Christophe Rinero, fourth overall and best climber in the 1998 Tour, Frédéric Finot, Eddy Seigneur and Guillaume Auger, but lost many of its star riders, including Tour de France stage-winners Patrice Halgand and Jean-Patrick Nazon.Transfer news: More signings all over
It’s signing season: here’s a quick run-down on some of the latestmoves. Tenax, the Division II Italian team, has signed veteran NicolaLoda, Renzo Mazzoleni, rising star Radoslav Rogina and Australianneo-pro David McPartland.The new Belgian team Chocolade Jacques has signed veteran Chris Peersto join Bart Voskamp and Raivis Belohvosciks, both already signed on. Theteam is also reportedly eyeing Dave Bruylandts and Jurgen Vande Walle.The new Spanish team Saunier Duval has signed Juan Cobo, David dela Fuente and promising young Colombian Javier Gonzalez.