Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Martin, Evans burnish their clean-racing images

While Tony Martin and Cadel Evans were the headliners this past week for their overall victories at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico respectively, the biggest news was the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to uphold two-year suspensions on Italian racers Franco Pellizotti and Pietro Caucchioli.

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This fifth installment focuses on biological passport and the big winners.

While Tony Martin and Cadel Evans were the headliners this past week for their overall victories at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico respectively, the biggest news was the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to uphold two-year suspensions on Italian racers Franco Pellizotti and Pietro Caucchioli. Pellizotti was also fined $160,000 and lost his major 2009 results that included a stage win and a podium finish at the Giro d’Italia and the KOM title at the Tour de France.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through March 14)
1. HTC-Highroad 13 (six riders)
2. Rabobank 12 (five riders)
3. Garmin-Cervélo 10 (five riders)
4. Liquigas-Cannondale 7 (three riders)
5. Team RadioShack 6 (five riders)
6. Lampre-ISD 6 (three riders)
7. Sky 5 (four riders)
8. Saxo Bank-SunGard 5 (three riders)
9. Movistar 4 (three riders)
10. Vacansoleil-DCM 4 (two riders)
Omega Pharma-Lotto 4 (two riders)
12. AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)
13. BMC Racing 2 (one rider)
14. Quick Step 1 (one rider)
Katusha 1 (one rider)
Leopard-Trek 1 (one rider)
Astana 1 (one rider)
(The stage wins by Astana’s Rémy Di Grégorio at Paris-Nice and BMC’s Cadel Evans at Tirreno-Adriatico leave Euskaltel-Euskadi as the only ProTeam yet to register a victory.)

Both riders’ suspensions were based on suspicious blood numbers in their biological passports (they never tested positive), and so the CAS decision fully confirms the scientific and legal efficacy of the UCI’s pioneering bio passport program. The outcome was a huge breakthrough in the fight against doping because it further limits the opportunities of would-be cheaters and adds to the credibility of a sport that is working harder than any other to eliminate their curse.

That curse didn’t stop the Italian tifosi from flocking to the dramatic hilltop stage finishes of Tirreno-Adriatico this past week; but at Paris-Nice, where HTC-Highroad’s German phenom Martin and his veteran countryman Andreas Klöden of Team RadioShack finished 1-2, their country’s media was virtually absent other than the German commentator for the shared television images of Eurosport.

The German national TV stations ARD and ZDF have stopped broadcasting cycling, and say they will even be absent from this year’s Tour de France — where both Martin and Klöden could play prominent roles. When asked to comment on the Germans’ apparent lack of interest in cycling, despite his victory in Europe’s first UCI WorldTour race, Martin told the press, “What do you want me to say? There haven’t been any journalists here from my country … because cycling in Germany remains scarred by old doping scandals. It’s up to us, the German riders, to rebuild our image, to create more confidence (in us).”

Tony Martin wins the stage and moves into the lead. | Graham Watson photo <a href=There have never been any doping question marks against the 25-year-old Martin in his four seasons with Bob Stapleton’s Highroad program, just as the 34-year-old Evans has maintained a clean image throughout his 16 years at the highest levels of first mountain biking and now road racing.

For almost a decade, Evans was coached by Aldo Sassi at Italy’s appropriately named Mapei Sport Center for High Sporting Performance and Wellness, whose overall company boss Dr. Giorgio Squinzi has been stridently decrying drug cheats since he stopped sponsoring the world No. 1-ranked Mapei team in 2003.

When coach Sassi died from brain cancer at age 51 last December, there was speculation whether the training center would be able to continue coaching Evans (and his fellow clients) at the same high level. That question was answered by the Australian’s brilliant success in Tirreno-Adriatico, in just the second week of his 2011 season that he hopes will culminate with victory at July’s Tour.

Asked about his good form after he spectacularly won Tirreno’s stage 6 on the cobblestone streets of Macerata on Monday (BMC Racing’s first victory of the year), Evans said, “The program developed with the Centro Mapei this year has been slightly different and now I am seeing the results.” That program has included spending the winter at his new home in southern Switzerland (instead of Australia), getting in more base training and motor-paced sessions (behind the scooter driven by his Italian wife Chiara), and starting his racing season two months later than 2010.

Evans’s renewed appetite for competition was apparent when his performances steadily improved through the weeklong stage race — in which his BMC teammates (especially George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan) enthusiastically stepped up their efforts to deliver their team leader in the best possible shape to the decisive finales of the three toughest stages.

In Saturday’s stage 4 to Chieti, after 240km of racing over six hours, Evans had to respond when big rival Michele Scarponi of Lampre-ISG made a leg-killing acceleration halfway up the city’s famous muro (“wall”). Classics king Phil Gilbert tried to follow but couldn’t match him on the ultra-steep grade; and then, on the climb’s toughest 19-percent pitch, Team Katusha’s Danilo Di Luca did all he could to get close to the leader as Scarponi’s teammate Damiano Cunego clung to Di Luca’s wheel.

2011 Tirreno-Adriatico stage 6
Evans and Visconti bump elbows in the final corner of stage 6. Photo: Brad Kaminski © VeloNews

Evans, who’d had to chase back after losing his position at the front of the peloton on the previous downhill, now began to close with fellow Mapei Center client Ivan Basso of Liquigas-Cannondale. Once onto the hilltop town’s upper streets, Evans was the strongest, mopping up Cunego and Di Luca and then pursuing Scarponi around the final corners. Scarponi hung on to win by a couple of meters from a jubilant Cunego with Evans in third, while Robert Gesink lost 12 seconds but just hung on to the blue-and-white leader’s jersey — which he’d earned thanks to his Rabobank team winning the stage 1 team time trial.

Gesink, fresh off his excellent Tour of Oman victory last month, admitted he spent a lot of nervous energy defending his lead on the Chieti stage.

The lanky Dutch climber again struggled the next day, when he couldn’t follow the best climbers on an 11-percent climb 7km from the end of another 240km stage (that took almost seven hours to complete). Riding with Italian champ Giovanni Visconti of Farnese-Neri, the anxious Gesink didn’t close a 10-meter gap on an 11-man group just after the summit and he steadily lost ground, finally conceding 15 seconds to the Evans group at the finish in Castelraimondo.

That quarter-minute deficit saw Gesink drop to fifth on GC, but still only five seconds down on new leader Evans. Then came the palpitating stage 6 finale in Macerata, where Evans’s stage win netted him a 10-second bonus that gave him a big enough buffer to keep the jersey by 11 seconds over final runner-up Gesink in Tuesday’s closing time trial at San Benedetto del Tronto.

“Every time I get on the bike my thoughts go out to Aldo Sassi,” Evans told the media at the end of the race. It was a fitting epitaph to a week when the sport’s continuing battle against doping inched a little closer to success.