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Nibali headlines Giro amid mechanical doping concerns

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ROME (AP) Too many parties and too many extra pounds.

Vincenzo Nibali knows exactly why he struggled so much last year, and this year the Sicilian is determined to return to cycling’s pinnacle when he lines up as the main attraction in the Giro d’Italia, which begins Friday in the Netherlands.

Nibali’s 2014 Tour de France title made him the sixth rider to win all three of cycling’s Grand Tours – the others being Jacques Anquetil, Alberto Contador, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx.

That’s when the trouble began.

“At this time a year ago I was struggling,” Nibali said. “As the veterans say, `You make the rider in the winter.’ And I didn’t do the right things in winter. There were too many parties after the Tour, too much carelessness and too many extra kilos. Already at the opening training camps I realized that my teammates were ahead of me.”

Nibali finished a distant fourth in last year’s Tour, then was disqualified from the Spanish Vuelta for holding on to his team car.

Now he’s returning to the Giro for the first time since winning the Italian race in 2013. Depending on how the Giro goes, he may also enter the Tour, perhaps as a support rider for Astana teammate Fabio Aru.

“I like the Giro this year because it’s similar to the 2013 edition,” Nibali said. “There are some nervous stages at the start but of course everything will be decided at the end in the big mountains.”

Here are some things to know about this year’s Giro:

THE ROUTE

The 99th edition of the race opens with three stages in the Netherlands and a rare Friday start.

The opening leg is a flat 9.8-kilometer (6-mile) individual time trial in Apeldoorn followed by two sprint stages before an early rest day.

The real action should start upon the return to Italy in Stage 4, a hilly leg beginning in the southern city of Catanzaro.

The first of six mountain finishes comes on Stage 6 from Ponte to Roccaraso in the central Apennines.

The second individual time trial in Stage 9 features a hilly 40-kilometer (25-mile) route from Radda to Greve in Chianti – which could have a big impact on the general classification.

Another key stage is the 14th leg, which has six classified climbs – including the Passo Pordoi, the Passo Sella and the Passo Giau – on the 210-kilometer (131-mile) route through the Dolomites from Alpago to Corvara. After the so-called queen stage, there are two other legs which have been given the maximum difficulty rating of five stars – the 19th and the 20th.

The race ends in Turin on May 29.

VALVERDE’S DEBUT

At 36, Alejandro Valverde is making his Giro debut and the Spaniard is expected to be Nibali’s top challenger for the overall title.

In 2009, Valverde was banned for two years by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) for his involvement in the Operation Puerto blood-doping scandal. CONI took samples from Valverde during a rest day in Italy during the 2008 Tour and matched them to blood sacks confiscated in Spain.

While Valverde contested CONI’s jurisdiction in the case, the ban was upheld.

“The past remains in the past,” Valverde said. “I don’t have anything against Italy or Italians.”

After winning the Spanish Vuelta in 2009, Valverde finished third in last year’s Tour.

Other overall favorites include Mikel Landa, Tom Dumoulin, Rigoberto Uran and Esteban Chaves.

The top sprinters include Marcel Kittel, Arnaud Damare and Andre Greipel.

MECHANICAL DOPING

Giro director Mauro Vegni is taking UCI president Brian Cookson’s word that cycling’s governing body has the definitive test for mechanical doping.

The UCI maintains that its use of a tablet device producing magnetic resistance scans is more effective than “flawed” heat-seeking tests, which it says are only effective if bikes are filmed up close by motorcycles on the road.

Rumors of riders using motors have circulated for several years, and were fueled by a French broadcaster last month using thermal imagery.

“President Cookson assured us that a lot of attention will be paid to this issue,” Vegni said. “We had offered to help buy thermal-imagery equipment. … But I trust (the tablets).”

CHIANTI CLASSICO

Wine lovers will appreciate Stage 9, a time trial dedicated to Chianti Classico.

The May 15 leg features a hilly 40.5-kilometer (25-mile) route from Radda to Greve in Chianti – the heart of the Tuscan red wine-making region.

The route will also pass through Castellina in Chianti, Madonna di Pietracupa, Sicelle, Panzano in Chianti before ending in Greve’s triangular Piazza Matteotti.

Wine was also the theme for a time trial in last year’s race from Barbaresco to Barolo.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Ferdy Kuebler, 1950 Tour de France champion, dies at 97

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LONDON — Ferdy Kuebler, who came back from injury and the interruption of World War II to win the 1950 Tour de France, has died. He was 97.

The Swiss won an epic battle with French rider Louison Bobet in the 1950 race, and became world champion the following year.

Andre Haefliger, the chief reporter at Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte, said from Kuebler’s home in Switzerland on Friday that he could confirm the death on behalf of Kuebler’s widow, Christina. Kuebler died Thursday at a Zurich hospital. He had been suffering from a cold.

Switzerland’s national cycling association, Swiss Cycling, paid tribute to Kuebler and offered its condolences to his family. “We are taking leave of one of the greatest cycling legends of our time,” it wrote on its website.

For many, his biggest achievement was winning the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege races, then held on successive days, in both 1951 and 1952.

In an era of marathon races on poor roads, Kuebler also won the 1953 Bordeaux-to-Paris after 570 kilometers (356 miles) and more than 14 hours in the saddle.

Born July 24, 1919, into a poverty-stricken family near Zurich, Kuebler knew as a child that he wanted to be a professional cyclist.

Forced as a teenager to find work to support his family, he got a job delivering bread by bicycle.

“I had to climb the mountain up to four times a day. That was how I trained for my career. I told myself: one day you will be a cyclist,” Kuebler said in a 2003 television documentary.

Later, as a Zurich office worker, Kuebler cycled the 100-kilometer (63-mile) round trip from home.

World War II broke out as he was starting to make his name as a cyclist. Kuebler was drafted into the Swiss army.

“I lost five or six of my best years,” he said.

An accident in 1946 that hospitalized him for two months almost ended his postwar career.

He came back in 1947 and started his first Tour, aged 28. He won the first stage, becoming the first post-war wearer of the famed yellow jersey.

In 1950, third-placed Kuebler took over the race lead when Italy’s team of riders withdrew, accusing spectators of assaulting them.

He finished the 4,773 kilometers (2,983 miles) 9 minutes, 30 seconds ahead of Belgium’s Stan Ockers, with Bobet third.

Kuebler chose not to race another Tour until 1954. He finished second, behind Bobet.

After retiring at age 38, Kuebler trained as a ski instructor and worked on the Swiss slopes for 25 winters. In summer he did publicity for the Tour de Suisse and traveled with the race as an official for 35 years.

Kuebler said there was never any other career for him except cycling.

“I always said if I came back to earth – which I hope will happen – I would be a cyclist again,” he said.

New Zealanders join Lance Armstrong in early morning ride

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Several hundred cyclists turned out Tuesday for an early morning ride with Lance Armstrong, who is in New Zealand to film a commercial for a local brewery.

Armstrong issued an invitation by social media to join him cycling around Auckland’s waterfront and a crowd estimated at up to 1,000 turned out.

Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from cycling in 2013 after admitting he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.

Armstrong told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that he was glad to know he still has some support.

New Zealand’s Lion Breweries has confirmed it brought the 45-year-old Texan to New Zealand. In an internal staff email, the brewer said “we are using Lance to tell a cautionary tale called `The Consequence’, which depicts how much you stand to lose when you pursue success at all costs.”

“We wanted to highlight that actions have consequences and we couldn’t think of anyone better to demonstrate that than Lance,” the email said.

Armstrong arrived in Auckland on Sunday from Houston, telling reporters he is in New Zealand on business but has bought his bike and golf clubs.

He took part in a ride later that day with a small group including New Zealand Ironman triathlon champion Cameron Brown.