Saturday, 23 May 2009

Giro d'Italia

For anyone who is not particularly a fan of cycling, you probably think that Chris Hoy spinning around a velodrome is the pinnacle of the sport. You would, of course, be wrong. The professional road racing circuit are where the world’s best cyclists do battle over hundreds of miles, Europe’s highest mountains, and in front of hundreds of thousands of fans every week.

It’s quite a mess – there is no unified series to compare to the Formula One World Championship, or even the Athletics Grand Prix series – as the various race organisers and teams argue among themselves. And then there is the constant spectre of drugs, hanging over cycling more than any other sport like a cloak of doubt.

There is a very real sense of generational change in the sport at the moment. With dozens of old stars failing tests and being banned, it has been a very painful process, but there are many younger stars coming through the ranks, winning races, and taking a very public and very vocal stand against drugs – a direct contradiction to the conspiracy of silence which characterised previous generations.

Everyone has heard of the Tour de France, but that is only one of three grand tours. The other two are the Vuelta a Espana and the one which is running right now, the Giro d’Italia. It’s a three week race of 21 stages which takes in two mountain ranges.

The old guard are represented by a resurgent Lance Armstrong. Racing in a supporting role for his team-mate Levi Leipheimer, there is no chance of him winning the tour, but he had stated he would like a stage or two. So far, he hasn’t made the impact we are so used to seeing but, in the last week, we will see whether his legendary stamina has survived the two years of retirement.

But it’s the new generation’s finest prospect that is catching my eye. Mark Cavendish is the best sprint cyclist in the world, and, in my opinion, the most exciting young sportsman in Britain.

By way of comparison, Chris Hoy got a knighthood for being the best in the world at riding three laps of a track, Cavendish does that after a hundred and fifty miles. I am being a little unfair to Hoy, who is very good at what he does, and seems to be a thoroughly likeable man, but it frustrates me that he is hailed for what he does at the Olympics live on the BBC, whereas Cav’s achievements are hidden away in the North of Italy, and on Eurosport.

Last year, he won four stages of the Tour de France – no other British cyclist has ever won more than two. This season, he won the prestigious Milan-San Remo one-day classic, and now he has won three stages of the Giro.

He was the only member of Britain’s glorious Beijing cycling team to return without a medal so, for the BBC, he’s a failure. He should be in the House of Lords.

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