Thursday July 17th, 2008

Mark Cavendish is going down in history. Riccardo Ricco is going home. It's been a Good News-Bad News kind of Tour de France, with today's Stage 12 perfectly capturing the Hope vs. Dope dialectic of this grand and haunted race.

Two of cycling's brightest young stars, each with a pair of wins in this Tour, had markedly different days.

There was Ricco, aka The Cobra, being pulled off Saunier-Duval's team bus this morning, having tested positive for CERA (Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator), a "third-generation" version of that old standby blood booster. The 24-year-old Italian, who made no secret of idolizing the late, great Italian climber (and EPO abuser) Marco Pantani, had dropped the hammer on his elders in the final meters of the climb to Super-Besse in Stage 6.

If that victory had been stunning, Ricco's performance three days later was downright extraterrestrial. After slingshotting himself from an elite group of climbers on the Col d'Aspin, he roared past a small breakaway as if it did not exist, spinning to his second victory in four days. That the Cobra carried a doctor's note, certifying that he has a naturally high hematocrit level, did not prevent French officials from targeting him. (His positive test came from the sample he gave after Stage 4). Now Ricco is gone, along with his entire team, which has voluntarily pulled out. They will not be missed by fans of clean sport.

The third drugs-related expulsion of this Tour could not eclipse (for me) the continued rise of the sport's biggest rising star. Is there a field sprint Mark Cavendish cannot win? There, as usual, was his formidable, American-based team, Columbia, surging to the front in the final kilometers of today's stage into Narbonne, jacking the pace up so high that attacks from other squads were simply not feasible. The word going into today's stage was that Cavendish, 23 and riding in his second Tour, was knackered from the Pyrenees, and still bruised by a scary spill in Stage 10 that left him in a ditch. (A spectator's soccer ball had ended up amidst the wheels of the bunch: Cavendish nailed it, and went down).

As Columbia director Rolf Aldag told Velonews before the stage, "He's tired after the mountains, but when he sees the 1km flag, he comes back to life."

So he did. Deprived of a teammate's lead-out, Cavendish displayed a scrambler's ability to ham-and-egg it, throwing down a world-class acceleration in the final 200 meters that none of planet's most elite sprinters could touch. Even relaxing before he got to the line, he won by a bike length, holding three fingers in the air. Thus did the man from the Isle of Man take his third stage of this Tour, something no Brit has ever done. His timing was excellent -- had he launched earlier, he may have been walked down by Sebastien Chavanel or Gert Steegman.

The heroics of this immensely talented Briton provided the Tour with a kind of sorbet, cleansing its palate of that morning's ugliness. Many will see it differently.

Ricco's bust, rather than Cavendish's hat trick, will lead sports sections. I'm feeling rather more hopeful. As the 2008 Tour makes its way from the Pyrenees to the Alps, I believe there are more reasons to celebrate than despair. If anything, the three arrests so far highlight the fact that the sport is healing.

In truth, that healing began a year ago. While the multiple ejections that rocked the '07 Grand Boucle were mortifying for cycling, they also demonstrated that the sport's governing body, the UCI, was serious about going after dopers. Yes, three riders have now been yanked from this Tour for positive EPO tests. (Ricco joined Moises Duenas of Barloworld, and Manuel "Triki" Beltran, a Liquigas rider better known for having chaperoned Lance Armstrong through the high mountains enroute to three of the Texan's Tour victories.)

Here was the AP's lead after the Beltran bust came down: "Doping is back at the Tour de France. It didn't stay away very long. The peaceful lull that had observers feeling optimistic is gone, and the showcase race that was plunged into depths of despair last year sank right back down again ..."

Well, no. Not exactly. Not even close, actually.

While it can be inconvenient to chronicle the actual nuances of a story, those brushstrokes are especially helpful in understanding what's going on at this Tour and in this sport. Confessions and scandals and depositions and books have revealed that, until recently -- with the advent of biological passports, targeted testing, third party testing -- cycling was awash in doping products. And always had been, apparently.

Is it so shocking then, that three riders out of the 180 who took the start for the 2008 Tour have been bounced? No. But it's much easier to write about the Tour being "plunged into the depths of despair" than it is to provide a bit of extra context.

Small wonder, then, that Garmin-Chipotle's David Millar spanked some members of the press, the day of Beltran's ejection, for their Chicken Little reactions in the wake of every positive test. "We've been decades getting to this point," he reminded a scrum of reporters. "If everybody's naïve and foolish enough to think that we're never going to have a positive control again, then you might as well go home and not cover this race. You in the media have a responsibility to understand that this is nowhere near the last-ever [positive test] we're going to have. It's going to go on for years -- that's just professional sport. There's always gonna be doping. As long as there are doping controls, there [are] going to be positives."

While the sport is definitely "going in the right direction," with the third-party testing conducted by his team, CSC-Saxo Bank, and Columbia, there will always be cheats, Millar continued. "But it's up to us to do it the right way. And eventually we will be -- I think we already are -- the majority."

That's the good news. No matter what headlines you read tomorrow, the good guys are winning. I found myself oddly moved by Phil Liggett's sign-off this morning. The proper old Brit, who along with Paul Sherwen provides Versus with matchless analysis, got a bit more emotional than I recall hearing him, flashing a bit of anger while bidding us adieu:

"So it's been a good day for Team Columbia, a good day for yellow jersey and Cadel Evans. But it's been a sad day for cycling: another rider who still believes he can beat the system. Well, we've got news for you guys, Riccardo Ricco. The system is getting better than you, and we are going to catch you out!"

Nicely put, Mr. Liggett. Good on you, sir.

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