Drugs Week in the Ardennes

Looking back over the recent results of the Ardennes classics it’s understandable that cycling fans would become disgruntled by the names that constantly crop up. Well known journalist Lionel Birnie jokingly referred to this week on the cycling calendar as ‘drugs week’. This is due to the number of riders who have put in great performances at these races only to have been subsequently banned for taking drugs. Recent winners of the Amstel Gold race include Alexandre Vinokourov, Davide Rebellin, Danilo Di Luca and Stefan Schumacher. The Kazakh has recently returned from a racing ban while the latter three riders are all banned currently after testing positive for CERA. Damiano Cunego, the winner in 2008, despite being an ambassador for the ‘I’m doping free’ campaign has landed himself in the middle of the ongoing Mantova investiagtion into his Lampre team. Michael Boogerd a winner of Amstel Gold in 1999, now retired, has recently been implicated in the HumanPlasma doping investigation being carried out in Austria.

For Fléche Wallonne  (also won by Di Luca and Rebellin)  we have Igor Astarloa and Alejandro Valverde. Former World Champion Astarloa is one of the few riders who have been singled out as having irregular blood values as a result of the biological passport. Subsequently, Astarloa couldn’t find a team willing to sign him and so he retired. Valverde, who’s blood has been successfully linked to a blood bag seized during the Operation Peurto investigation, is currently banned from racing in Italy but is free to race everywhere else. This has become farcical at this stage, as it seems only a matter of time before his ban is extended worldwide. If this occurs, I’m not sure how many of his race wins he can be stripped of by the UCI, but every time I read of him winning another professional race I cringe. Despite all this, Valverde will be racing this week and will be one of the favourites for the remaining two Ardennes classics.

Davide Rebellin winning Amstel Gold in 2004. He went on to win all three Ardennes classics that year, the only rider ever to do so. He is currently serving a doping ban.

Finally there is Liége-Bastogne-Liége, which has previously been won by Rebellin (who in fact won all three in 2004), Vinokouorv, Di Luca and Valverde as well as Oscar Camenzind and Tyler Hamilton. Camenzind, another former World Champion tested positive for EPO in 2004 and retired shortly after. Tyler Hamilton has a long list of misdemeanours, he was found positive for blood doping in 2004, his name was strongly linked to Operation Puerto and the notorious Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes and most recently in 2009, he tested positive for the steroid DHEA.

There are plenty of other dopers who haven’t won any of the three races but who have had top finishes in some or all of them. Thomas Dekker tested positive for EPO in 2009 and is currently serving a two year suspension. Christian Pfannberger tested positive for testosterone for the second time in his career in 2009 and has now been banned for life. Matthias Kessler tested positive for testosterone use in 2007 and was subsequently fired by his team. Patrick Sinkewitz tested positive for testosterone in the 2007 Tour and was banned for a year. Finally, Ricardo Riccó, everyone’s favourite doper, tested positive for CERA at the Tour in 2008 and has only just returned to racing.

It makes for pretty grim reading. Looking back over the history of any race, there are bound to be dopers who have won, dopers who have finished on the podium and dopers who simply shaped the race, but the Ardennes classics are surely the worst-hit set of races. If the results of all the dopers were to be wiped from the record books, needless to say the history of the Ardennes classics would have a very different look. Andy Schleck would be adding Fléche Wallonne to his victory in Liége-Bastogne-Liége last year. Frank Schleck and Samuel Sanchez would both have won Liége-Bastogne-Liége twice, while Jens Voigt would have won his first monument classic in 2005. Paolo Bettini would have won Amstel Gold twice in 2004 and 2007, a race he never actually won and alarmingly, Lance Armstrong would have won Amstel Gold in 2003 despite finishing only 8th on the day.

But all this what-ifness is a pointless game. Time is better spent looking to the future and to riders who win whilst racing clean. As Lionel Birnie also said this week:

It’d be great if Valverde won none [of the Ardennes classics] and the races were won by riders the sport can be proud to hail as champions.

Well, I think Mr. Birnie got his wish last Sunday as Phillipe Gilbert was first up the final ascent of the Cauberg to claim his first Ardennes classic. In doing so he became the first rider ever to have won Paris-Tours, the Tour of Lombardy and Amstel Gold (this bit of trivia is mostly due to the fact that Eddy Merckx never won Paris-Tours). Gilbert is also only the third rider after Rik van Looy and Francesco Moser to have won the two autumn classics along with any of the Ardennes classics. In a previous post I trumpeted the capability of Gilbert to win every classic, although he has said since that he will never win Paris-Roubaix. He is currently on an incredible run in the classics. Of the last 11 major classics he has competed in, he has finished in the top 10 in all but one of them.

Phillipe Gilbert winning Amstel Gold last Sunday. He has won three of the last six classics on the cycling calendar. He finished 3rd, 3rd and 9th in the other three.

This season he has won Amstel Gold, finished 3rd in both the Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem while also finishing 9th in Milan San Remo. Last year he won back to back classics at the Tour of Lombardy and Paris-Tours, this was preceded by a 6th place finish at the World Road Race Championship, 4th in Liége-Bastogne-Liége and Amstel Gold and another 3rd place at the Tour of Flanders.

This is a phenomenal set of results in races that are very diverse. John Wilcockson recently described Gilbert as one of the “smartest, strongest and nicest guys in today’s peloton”. From reading various interviews over the years I get the feeling that this is a sentiment shared by most. This Wednesday will be Gilbert’s 5th time competing in Fléche Wallonne, his best result was finishing 18th in 2007. He said after winning Amstel Gold on Sunday that “Flèche is not a race for me. It’s a nice race, but the finish is a bit too long and too steep for me”. Could this be a bit of dallamullóg on behalf of the Belgian? Perhaps. His next goal of the year will be Liége-Bastogne-Liége on Sunday but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pushing for the podium in both races.

Of the Irish riders, Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan took part in the Amstel Gold race last Sunday. Roche took a creditable 33rd while Deignan abandoned due to a crash followed by a series of mechanicals. Both will be competing on Wednesday in Fléche Wallonne and will be accompanied by Daniel Martin this time. In interviews with IrishProCycling.com, Roche said his goal is a top 10 finish while Martin will be there to assist team mate Ryder Hesjedal who continues to impress with a 2nd place finish last Sunday. Race numbers on the day will be Roche-88, Deignan-123 and Martin-175. Also keep your eye out for the rider wearing number 181, a certain A. Contador who is racing in the Ardennes for the first time since his first Tour victory in 2007. Also a big congratulations to another Irishman David McCann who has won two stages and the overall of the Tour of the Phillipines. He finished a massive 6’45” ahead of 2nd place on G.C.

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  1. Richard Lee - April 20, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    I’m also eyeing Contador especially after winning Castilla y Leon. He could be the ‘quiet’ guy to come out yelling on the Mur!

  2. irishpeloton - April 20, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    He definitely has the explosiveness the gap everybody on the Mur. He also has a large hole in his race schedule between Sunday and the Dauphiné. So plenty of time for rest and recovery should he decide to exert himself this week. 17-2 for the win at the bookies!

  3. myles - April 20, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    nice article

  4. irishpeloton - April 20, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

    Thanks myles! Who’s your money on?

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