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Cycling's crisis grows as bitter feud adds to doping problems

Cycling's crisis grows as bitter feud adds to doping problems

The Paris-Nice race traditionally provides the first glimpse of a rider's form ahead of the Tour de France.
This year it's delivering a fresh look at an increasingly dysfunctional sport.
Not only will Alberto Contador, the defending champ of both events, not be there, but a feud between the organizer of the races and the International Cycling Union (UCI) has punctured hopes for a controversy-free year.
Contador, who has never tested positive for doping, cannot participate in either race because the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) banned his Astana team for infractions that occurred before Contador came aboard this winter.
"I am definitely not happy about it and I don't agree with the decision," Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel told The Associated Press. "But we will move on. We will put other objectives in front of us."
The ASO has also thrown down a direct challenge to cycling's governing body by hosting the Paris-Nice race outside of UCI rules.
"It is an illegal race as far as the UCI is concerned," UCI president Pat McQuaid told The AP. "The UCI could ultimately suspend riders. That is not something we want to do, (because) riders should not be the victims of a bad decision by an organizer and their federation."
After an exhausting 2007 Tour battered by doping, the growing split between UCI and ASO has again thrown a dark cloud over the sport barely a week before "The Race to the Sun" begins on March 9.
"Everyone is always talking about the bad image of cycling with the doping scandals, and that is definitely true," said Bruyneel, speaking after the Tour of Valencia in Spain. "But the other image we are giving to the outside world is that cycling is unable to solve (its) problems. I don't know which one is worse."
In response to ASO's decision to race under its own rules, the UCI called for all 20 teams to boycott the event, which will carry no ranking points under the UCI's ProTour calendar.
"That is the weakness of our sport, on no level is there unity," Bruyneel said. "It's complete anarchy and of course you get what you get."
Even so, the UCI's call for a boycott has largely fallen on deaf ears because pressure from sponsors is too great in a sport lacking serious revenue and under permanent danger of losing what funding it has through repeated doping scandals.
"In this open conflict, the riders have no other escape route than to obey orders," Daniel Malbranque, secretary general of the Associated Professional Cyclists group, said. "It is not a corporation that has the means to go on strike."
Riders may have no choice but to race.
The Paris-Nice, the season's first multistage race hints at form, endurance, speed and strength _ so riders know how much work needs to be done before the Tour.
Contador won it and then rode to victory at the Tour under the tutelage of then Discovery Channel team manager Bruyneel, also Lance Armstrong's guide over his record seven Tour wins.
When Discovery ended its sponsorship after the 2007 Tour, the pair joined Kazakh-owned Astana _ whose star rider Alexandre Vinokourov had been kicked off last year's Tour for a blood doping violation.
The year before, Tour director Christian Prudhomme had kicked out Astana because it had riders linked to the Operation Puerto blood-doping probe.
Even though Astana brought in Bruyneel to help repair the team's reputation, Prudhomme has banned the team, and its Spanish champion, from this year's Tour.
It's another area where McQuaid, a former national team cyclist for Ireland, disagrees with Prudhomme and his boss, ASO owner Patrice Clerc.
"I hope both parties will reach an agreement," Credit Agricole sprinter Thor Hushovd told sports daily L'Equipe. "We already have enough problems in this sport with doping."
Because of the worsening relationship between UCI and ASO, a truce is unlikely to be called like it was six days before the start of last year's Paris-Nice.
"One by one the major races in cycling are falling into the hands of a commercial organization," McQuaid said of ASO.
ASO has 4,000 employees and also owns the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Burkina Faso, and is rumored to want to buy the Spanish Vuelta _ one of the world's top-three races along with the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia.
McQuaid issued a warning to teams that planned to race in Paris-Nice.
"By signing the contract you would be joining a private circuit controlled entirely by ASO for the benefit of its commercial interests," McQuaid wrote in a letter to each team.
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The disagreements began four years ago over the UCI's plans for its inaugural ProTour _ a season-long competition with ranking points for each race. The Tour, Vuelta and Giro were supposed to be the pinnacle of the series.
Instead, they formed an alliance to keep control of their own races and stay off the ProTour calendar.
The criticisms, threats and tirades have escalated since.
Prudhomme mockingly once said the UCI should have previously been awarded the "Golden Ostrich" prize because it did not do enough to combat doping. McQuaid demanded an apology from Prudhomme at last year's Tour.
"He (Prudhomme) rang me, and was ranting and raving and would not let me speak," McQuaid said on July 21.
A week later, Clerc asked McQuaid to resign over the Michael Rasmussen affair, because the Danish rider had started the race even though the UCI was aware he had missed doping tests leading up to it.
This led to bizarre scenes at Cognac on July 28, when the head of cycling needed an invitation from a French television station to attend the world's biggest stage race because ASO wouldn't invite him.
The UCI will offer no assistance to ASO at Paris-Nice and has withdrawn anti-doping regulators.
Pierre Bordry, the head of France's Anti-Doping, insists his agency will cope alone.
"I think we will do at least as well (as the UCI), if not better," he told The AP.
Bordry would be happy to oversee all testing at the Tour even if the UCI withdraws its regulators in July.
"If that's the case, yes, of course," Bordry said. "If it comes to that."
McQuaid is trying to apply more pressure by mentioning potential punishment for teams riding at Paris-Nice.
"If we have to sanction riders and federations in the period (after) Paris-Nice, then they would be missing from competition, which would be qualifying for Olympic Games," McQuaid said.
An e-mail to Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee's sport and law commission chairman, did not receive an immediate response.
But even McQuaid's threat might not be enough to scare teams away from ASO.
"I have a responsibility toward my riders and my sponsor. Whatever I'm told or whatever happens to me, I will be at the start line," Francaise des Jeux manager Marc Madiot said on French radio. "The rest does not interest me."
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Associated Press writer Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-07-24 20:29 GMT+08:00