Posted by: mdegeorge | May 24, 2011

A tale of two American cycling extremes

There’s never a good time to unveil allegations that threaten to undermine the foundation of a sport and its biggest star.

But the accusations by former United States Postal Service rider Tyler Hamilton on 60 Minutes Sunday of systematic doping by Lance Armstrong, valued lieutenant George Hincapie and Armstrong’s well-oiled team under Johan Bruyneel and several sponsorship monikers could not have come at a worse time. The avid cycling fan—otherwise known as none of the major media outlets who gave the Hamilton interview major play—saw the potentially damaging revelation of Hamilton’s grand jury testimony come mere hours after the conclusion of the crown jewel of the American racing calendar, the Amgen Tour of California, an overwhelming success.

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The ATOC was won by Chris Horner, a late American entry to the stable of Armstrong’s lieutenants who plied his trade elsewhere in the European peloton during the period Hamilton alleges doping use and didn’t join Armstrong’s team until after Hamilton’s first doping suspension. Riding for the remnants of Armstrong’s team, Team RadioShack, Horner put in a dominant performance, sealed by a 1-2 finish with American teammate Levi Leipheimer up the slopes of Mount Baldy in the race’s penultimate stage. The tremendous form of the lithe Oregonian who was never put under serious pressure in the mountains bodes well for his chances in the Tour, where the 39-year-old has “free rein” to try and unseat the otherworldly Alberto Contador.

The final standings of the ATOC had a distinctly red, white, and blue flavor. The top five spots in the overall classification were occupied by Americans, no mean feat in a race that also featured seasoned domestic pros like Rory Sutherland, veterans of the European peloton like Ryder Hesjedal, Laurens Ten Dam, Alexander Efimkin and Linus Gerdemann, and, oh yeah, two-time Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck.

Behind the RadioShack duo came Tom Danielson, the former next great American hope who outpaced Schleck up Mount Baldy in a bid to reinvigorate his career on European roads with a berth in the Tour this July. Garmin-Cervelo teammate Christian Vande Velde showed excellent early-season form en route to a fourth-place finish. Finishing the race on his 35th birthday, Vande Velde avoided the spring disaster that has derailed his last two seasons and looks to be primed to be a factor in the Tour. And youngster Tejay van Garderen finished fifth, the 22-year-old taking home the Best Young Rider jersey and showing he has the legs, in the mountains and the time trial, to contend in the big European races very soon.

There were also other glimmers of hope. Taylor Phinney, sans anything resembling a reliable lead-out train from his BMC teammates, finished in the top 10 in each of the four sprint finishes. A major breakthrough looks to be on his horizon. BMC’s Brent Bookwalter took an important step in his early-season preparation, finishing 15th overall, and looks to be in shape for a Tour bid. Andrew Talansky of Garmin turned in a solid ride, finishing 17th overall and hanging tough in the mountains. And David Zabriskie absolutely blistered the field in the final time trial, taking home an ATOC record as he looks to regain his place among the worlds greatest time trialists.

The party didn’t last long, as just hours after the finish rolled into Thousand Oaks, the community was forced to endure yet another USPS-cum-Phonak disgraced doper hurling insults the way of Armstrong and his teammates. The Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” duality to the day is striking.

The new wrinkle to these allegations is the implication that Hincapie, who was rolling into Thousand Oaks in 24th place at the ATOC just before Hamilton’s admissions aired, also allegedly testified as to Armstrong guilt. Undoubtedly Armstrong’s most loyal and capable lieutenant, Hincapie is among the most respected members of the professional peloton, likely to begin his record-tying 16th Tour this summer with his BMC team.

The ramifications of Hamilton’s primetime exposé are still trickling in. The hotel of Team RadioShack was raided by police during the off-day of the Giro d’Italia in what must have been a complete and utter coincidence; participating in that race is Hamilton’s fellow subpoenaed cyclist Yarsolav Popovych, whose home was also searched last fall when he was implicated in this growing mess.

Armstrong’s response has been typically bullish. The combination of a pair of disgraced riders with limited credibility (Hamilton and Floyd Landis) and no positive tests gives Armstrong the legal and popular high ground. The International Cycling Union said as much in a press release Monday about Hamilton’s testimony, a remarkably quick action from the normally phlegmatic organization. But the inclusion of Hincapie’s testimony — a non-scorned former teammate — and the possibility that Armstrong’s people made a positive test go away, take a sizable piece out of that foundation.

It may be the Hamilton’s allegations eventually enter the ether of half-truths and unverifiable hearsay surrounding the sport. They may be the tipping point that sends Jeff Nowitzky and his orchestra of anti-doping grand jury crusaders towards an indictment of Armstrong.

Let’s just hope this is the last time it overshadows a bright, emerging generation of young talent that was still riding their bikes to middle school when these events allegedly happened.

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