By Andrew Hood
In what’s sure to be one of the most-watched comebacks in recent racing history, David Millar is expected to roll down the start ramp for the opening prologue of the 2006 Tour de France on July 1, just days after his two-year racing ban ends.
Some think the former world time trial champion – who admitted to French police in June, 2004, he took the banned blood booster EPO en route to some of his biggest victories – should never race again.
Others, however, believe Millar can return to the elite of the sport as a clean rider. Millar has promised as much in a pair of emotional testaments at January team presentations in Spain and Italy.
One person who’s betting on the reformed Millar is Saunier Duval-Prodir team manager Mauro Gianetti, who penned him to a contract set to begin as soon as his racing ban concludes in late June.
“In life, everybody deserves a second chance,’ Gianetti told VeloNews in a phone interview. “He paid for his error, but he doesn’t need to pay for the rest of his life.”
The 29-year-old Millar is slowly riding back into racing shape. In January, he tagged along in team training camps in Spain and then traveled to the United States last month with select teammates for wind-tunnel testing.
After admitting to French police he took EPO, Millar was stripped of his 2003 world time trial title, stage-wins at the Dauphine Libere and Vuelta a España, fined 2000 Swiss francs and slapped with a two-year racing ban set to end June 23.
That ban ends just days before the July 1 start of the 2006 Tour in Strasbourg and Gianetti insists it’s all but certain Millar will be on the nine-man Tour team.
“He will race the Tour, because he needs a big goal like this for his motivation to come back from everything he’s been through,” he said. “This will be a big moment for Dave. It will be the first day of the rest of his career.”
Millar’s return is sure to get lots of ink, and Gianetti says the contract is not some sort of publicity stunt. Rather, he admits he’s taking a risk with Millar, but he’s confident Millar can return to his best without the help of banned performance-enhancing products.
“A talent is a talent,” Gianetti said. “His mentality is all about the comeback. He doesn’t need products to win a race. He wants to help the young guys not to make the same errors he made. The price is too high.”
Di Luca to play helper at TA
Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) said he doesn’t expect much from next week’s Tirreno-Adriatico.
The defending ProTour champion is eyeing a run at the overall Giro d’Italia title in May, so he’ll be content to help teammates when he can in early season racing. He’s set to debut his 2006 campaign at Milano-Torino and then race again in the Giro della Provincia di Lucca and Tirreno-Adriatico.
“I like the route of Tirreno-Adriatico very much, but this year’s edition is scheduled too early for my objectives. I’m expected to reach the peak of my fitness in two month’s time, so I can’t be a favorite,” Di Luca said in a team release. “I could claim a stage win, but my first goal is decidedly to help Stefano Garzelli. He seems to fly and will surely aim at the overall victory.”
Garzelli seems full of confidence after joining Di Luca in a three-week training camp at altitude in Mexico in February.
“That’s a tough route, but I trained excellently during the long training camp in Mexico,” Garzelli said. “The race will already be fought in stage one to Tivoli, but only the time trial in Servigliano and the finish on the climb to Monti della Laga will decide the race. There, I’ll do my best.”
Botero holding off before starting Euro-season
Don’t expect to see Santiago Botero (Phonak) on European roads any time soon.
The Colombian admits he hates the unpredictable weather of Europe’s spring and will stay in South America well into the 2006 racing schedule.
Botero told El Mundo newspaper he won’t be back to defend his title at the Tour of Romandie in late April or try to best his runner-up position from last year’s Dauphine Libere in early June because he’s afraid he’ll enter the Tour de France too tired, as he did last year.
Instead, Botero will make his season debut at the Clásica de Alcobendas on May 6-7 near his home in Madrid, then tackle the Vuelta a Cataluyna in mid-May and finally the Tour de Suisse ahead of the Tour de France.
Botero, the 2002 TT world champion, also said he will make a run at another world time trial championships as well.
New race to replace Primavera Rosa
Italy lost its women’s World Cup race – the Primavera Rosa – when organizers pulled the plug on the 2006 edition, but there’s hope of seeing a return of World Cup racing in 2007.
A new race, called the Coppa dei Laghi, will take the place of Primavera Rosa on the international calendar and likely be promoted to World Cup status for 2007, race organizers said.
The race will start in Salò and wind up the Sabbia Valley, hitting 6km climb at Lodrino before finishing in Brescia. The top Italian and international teams are expected to start.