Belfast in pink hosts Grand Tour

Last year's winner, Vincenzo Nibali, celebrates in the Maglia Rosa (pink jersey). Picture: AFP
Last year's winner, Vincenzo Nibali, celebrates in the Maglia Rosa (pink jersey). Picture: AFP
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IT WAS one of those “And finally” items at the end of the nightly highlights show. Phil Liggett, the TV commentator, speaking in Dublin at the end of day one of the 1998 Tour de France, mentioned that a staff member from the Festina team had been stopped on the Belgian border with banned drugs, enough, as it turned out, to stock a small hospital.

It caused barely a ripple. How little did we know then what was about to be unleashed – the Festina Affair, a tsunami that hit the race a few days later, on its return to France, and whose after-shocks are still felt.

Sixteen years later and one of cycling’s Grand Tours is preparing to visit Ireland once again. The sport’s second biggest stage race, the Giro d’Italia, gets under way in Belfast on Friday evening with a team time trial, to be followed by two road stages, Saturday’s starting and finishing in Belfast, Sunday’s from Armagh to Dublin.

The Giro build-up has highlighted one change between 1998 and now, in attitudes to doping. Back then, when Willy Voet, the Festina employee stopped on his way to Dubin in his car-come-mobile pharmacy, explained that the drugs were for his personal use, many seemed prepared to accept that – or at least willing to not give it too much thought.

This week, the drugs-in-cycling story has concerned Tramadol, a painkiller that is not on the banned list and is said to be popular in the peloton. In his book published on Thursday, Michael Barry, the former Team Sky rider, writes that he and his team-mates used it and that, in his opinion, as well as having potentially dangerous side-effects, it was more effective than some banned drugs (Barry was one of the ex-US Postal riders who testified against Lance Armstrong and admitted his own use of EPO and other doping products).

A statement from Team Sky confirmed that the team “do not give it to riders whilst racing or training, either as a pre-emptive measure or to manage existing pain”. This, they added, “has been our firm position for the last two seasons” – which suggests that, prior to 2013, Tramadol was, as Barry has alleged, at least tolerated.

Informed sources say that the painkiller became popular during the 2008 and 2009 seasons when the biological passport was introduced and the net began to close on hardcore doping practices. Tramadol was even used, say these insiders, by teams that professed to be firmly anti-doping.

Perhaps there is no contradiction here, since, whatever the ethics of using a prescribed drug as a performance-enhancer, Tramadol has never been banned. But such is the sensitivity around the issue now that Barry’s revelations created more of an immediate splash than Willy Voet’s car-full of drugs in 1998. Tramadol is being monitored by the UCI and WADA and seems likely to be added to the banned list.

Chances are this cloud will have passed by Thursday evening, when Belfast City Hall hosts the opening ceremony to the ‘Big Start’ (a twist on the Tour de France’s Grand Départ), though it is equally likely that another one will be along shortly. At last year’s Tour de France the preoccupations were power data, therapeutic use exemptions (the rumoured abuse of legal drugs) and supplements; today it is Tramadol; next week it will be something else.

The Giro has been especially battered by doping scandals since 1998, starting with Marco Pantani’s expulsion the following year. Pantani’s subsequent downfall and death in 2004 is a parable for the state of Italian cycling: it has never really recovered. With defending champion Vincenzo Nibali prioritising the Tour de France this year, there is no Italian among the pre-race favourites (Domenico Pozzovivo is a very long shot, while Ivan Basso, even though he believes he can win a third Giro, is surely over the hill).

The Irish, however, are another story. One of the ironies in 1998 was that the Dublin start, intended as belated recognition for the great Irishmen of the 1980s, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, came along during a fallow period. Not a single Irish rider was there in Dublin.

In Belfast next weekend the days of Kelly and Roche will be revived. Three Irishmen will start – the most in a Grand Tour since 1991. Philip Deignan, who took up cycling after going to watch the 1998 Tour in Dublin as a 14-year-old, rides for Team Sky while two of Roche’s relatives, his son Nicolas and nephew Dan Martin, line up for Tinkoff-Saxo and Garmin-Sharp. (There might have been a fourth: Christopher Juul Jensen was born to Danish parents in County Wicklow, lived there until he was 16, speaks with an Irish accent, but represents Denmark.)

Roche Senior, the Giro winner in 1987, thinks that his son and nephew are capable of “basically anything. They’re both capable of winning stages, they’re both capable of finshing in the top five overall. Top three is something else, but the possibilites are there if they get into the right break, or catch the other favourites out on a flat stages. There are a lot of possibilities for both of them.”

Roche reflects that Irish cycling is in better health than 1998. “It’s definitely in a better place than it was then. As well as the three lads who are riding the Giro we have Sam Bennett doing very well and there are others coming through.

“The Giro coming to Ireland will be very good for cycling,” Roche continues. “After all the negative publicity in 1998 we’re on a huge up.” Roche points to “Irish Corner” on Alpe d’Huez during last year’s Tour. “That came from a guy on Facebook saying, ‘I’m going to the Tour de France – anyone coming?’ But it’s typical of the Irish – they are great at coming out to support, as they did when I was riding. When the Irish are doing well they really get behind them.”

Apart from the Irish challenge, two Colombians, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, second at last year’s Tour de France and Giro respectively, are among a small number of Giro favourites, who also include Australia’s 2011 Tour champion Cadel Evans.