By Andrew Hood
The hyped first confrontation of the season between Lance Armstrong (U.S.Postal Service) and Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) didn’t last long.
The pair was all smiles as they posed with race favorite Alejandro Valverde(CV-Kelme) before the start of Wednesday’s opening stage of the Tour ofMurcia in Spain.
But strong crosswinds forced a split in the peloton and Ullrich rolledacross the finish line with 42 other riders more than seven minutes behindArmstrong.
José Antonio López (Illes Balears) was the day’s main protagonist, going on a solo move that held out until 30km to go despite the strong winds blasting the bunch. The lead bunch rolled over a Category 3 climb midway through the stage and stormed into San Pedro del Pinatar for the mass gallop.
Armstrong’s Postal teammate Max Van Heeswijk squeaked past José Ivan Gutiérrez(Illes Balears) in a photo finish to claim his third win of the 2004 seasonand took the overall leader’s jersey. Valverde came through sixth whileArmstrong was tucked safely in the main bunch at 57th.
T-Mobile’s sprint ace Erik Zabel came through third but it seemed the German thought he had won the sprint and was already easing off before the line when Van Heeswijk edged past him to take the flowers.
Neither the five-time Tour de France champion nor the four-time runner-upsaid Murcia is one of their top goals. That, of course, comes in July.Wednesday’s stage was little more than another training day.
Thursday’s 21.3km time trial at Lorca, however, should be an interestingtest of wills.
Armstrong won his first time trial of the season at the Tour of theAlgarve nearly two weeks ago and will be keen to tweak his new time trialposition, inspired in part by his defeat to Ullrich at last year’s Tourtime trial at Cap Decouverte.
Vuelta a Murcia (UCI 2.3)
Stage 1, Murcia to San Pedro del Pinatar, 177km
1. Max Van Heeswijk (Ned), USPS, 4:20:51
2. José Ivan Gutiérrez (Sp), Illes Balears
3. Erik Zabel (G), T-Mobile
4. Jan Svorada (Cze), Lampre
5. Isaac Gálvez (Sp), Illes Balears, all s.t.Others
19. Michael Barry (Can), USPSst
57. Lance Armstrong, USPSst
84. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile+7:35
French doping official alleges cover-up
A leading French doping expert claims sports authorities are covering upthe real reasons for a recent spate of deaths which have been ascribedto heart failure, AFP reported Wednesday.
Ten athletes, including six cyclists, have died in Europe over the lastsix months but Jean-Paul Escande, former head of the French National DopingCommission, says he is staggered by the way their deaths have been “sweptunder the carpet” as fate.
“I am appalled by the explanations for these sudden deaths,” Escandetold Le Monde. “Why, for example, have no studies been carried outon the effects of human growth hormones on an athlete’s heart? I’ll tellyou why. It is because we don’t want to know.”
Heart surgeon Alain Cohen-Solal said anabolic steroids and cortisonesdistort the heart and that an autopsy doesn’t allow you to distinguishif ventricular hypertrophy was due to doping substances or heavy training.
The biggest sporting death involved former Tour de France and Giro d’Italiawinner Marco Pantani who was found dead in a hotel room in Italy on February14 after apparent heart failure, although investigators now believe itmight have been caused by a cocaine overdose.
The spate of deaths started last June when Cameroon footballer Marc-VivienFoe collapsed and died while playing against Turkey in the ConfederationsCup in France.
Some of the more obscure names include Fabrice Salanson, a 23-year-oldFrench professional cyclist who died in his sleep in a German hotel room.French prosecutors have opened investigations into the death.
Cycling’s governing body has been forced to bring in an Australian-pioneeredtest to detect illicit blood transfusions this season.
The International Cycling Union’s move comes in the wake of a new dopingscandal in France which has already led to the arrest of several currentand former members of the Cofidis team, whose Polish soigneur Bogdan Madejakis still being held by police in connection with distributing banned substances.
Santoni sanctioned over ‘Cipollini Affaire’
Domina Vacanze manager Vicenzo Santoni won’t be watching the springclassics from behind the team car after the UCI slapped him with a onemonth ban and 1,000 Swiss franc fine for “incorrect and dishonest behavior.”
The spat dates back to the 2003 Vuelta a España, when race organizersinvited the Domina Vacanze team on Santoni’s word that world champion MarioCipollini would race. When word leaked that the Lion King had no intentionof going, the Vuelta threatened to yank the team.
Santoni convinced Cipollini to make the start, but Super Mario was lessthan enthused and abandoned after the opening team time trial. Vuelta officialswere left pie on their face and vowed never again to invite Domina Vacanzeto the race (a promise they’ve kept: see below for 2004 Vuelta team invites).
Santoni is banned from April 8 to May 7, the day before the Giro d’Italiastarts.
In its ruling handed down last week in a disciplinary hearing, the UCIruled: “In fact, in view of obtaining a wild card for the Vuelta a España,Vicenzo Santoni had assured the organizer of the presence of Mario Cipollini,without in fact obtaining previously the agreement of the Italian champion.In order to ensure that the trade team Domina Vacanze-Elitron could takepart in the Vuelta a España, Mario Cipollini was compelled to startin the prologue (a team time trial) of this cycling race, abandoning rightafter due to a poor physical condition.”
Beloki seeing doctor over ankle pain
Joseba Beloki skipped Wednesday’s start of the Tour of Murcia in Spainto visit a doctor for further exams over pain in his Achilles heel that’sdelaying his return to racing.
Jean-René Bernaudeau, sport director of La Boulangère,notified the French media about Beloki’s continuing problems with tendonitis.
“He’s suffering tendonitis that’s causing pain and we want to know whatis going on,” Bernaudeau said.
Beloki hasn’t raced since his spectacular crash in last year’s Tour deFrance, that left him with a broken leg and elbow. He was supposed to makehis season debut at the GP La Marsellaise in early February then at theVuelta a Valencia last week, but enduring pain has prompted further delays.
Beloki had hoped to return in time for Setmana Catalana later this month,but now the team is not so sure.
“For the moment, we don’t know when he’ll start racing. The importantthing is that he recovers,” Bernaudeau said. “The primary objectives forthe season are the Tour and the Vuelta.”
A Tour of Benelux?
UCI president Hein Verbruggen is floating the idea of a Benelux tourto be part of the new Pro Tour set to debut in 2005. The Belgian wiresreported Verbruggen thinks the idea would generate more interest than existingnational tours in Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland.
“The tours of Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland are three weeks togetherbut they have little interest on the international level,” Verbruggen said.“Why not join them together. We could have a few stages in each countryas well as some of the parcours from Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.”
TdF inks deal with Skoda
The Tour de France will have new vehicles this year following the announcementthat Skoda, a Czech car-maker that’s part of the Volkwagen group, has signeda four-year deal worth an estimated 3.5 million euros.
Skoda takes over for the troubled Italian carmaker Fiat, which has beenthe official vehicle of the Tour since 1989. Skoda joins other top Toursponsors including Credit Lyonnais (yellow jersey), Champion super markets(KOM jersey) and Nestle’s Aquarel water (stage winner). Skoda will nowalso sponsor the best young rider’s jersey.