Saturday, December 9, 2006

¿A Vuelta to die for?

La Vuelta one of three grand dramas.

Even before the peloton assembled for the first stage of the 2006 Vuelta a España, it was a race that seemed poised as one that could mark a new beginning. The run up to La Vuelta possessed all the drama required for it to go down in history. Crime, drugs, police, tension, riders with something to prove and a peloton in search of a future. La Vuelta was a minefield of metaphor. It would either be remembered as a decisive turning point, or, as yet another lost opportunity for cycling. La Vuelta could see the sport descend further into the maelstrom of suspicion and lies, allegation and counter claim of innocence, it could be more of the boring old same, or it could be an opportunity for cycling to somehow rise like a phoenix from its own smouldering ashes. There was a hope that this scaled down race, affected by a increasing lack of faith on the part of cycling's fans, and a lack of investment from its sponsors, could be cycling's new start. Hope that this race might just serve to rekindle the interest, and the passion that has been so recently lost.

Unlike any other sporting events the three Grand Tours embody a dramatics of life that is played out over a full three weeks. To those involved in them they seem to be a lifetime. These races embody all the aspects of life in such a way that they are so much more than sporting events. They are above all human dramas of an intense, immense stature. Each of them, are part and parcel of the consciousness of societies, and a search for some truth and meaning to the human condition. All are built in one way or another upon an idea of molding the individual, the land, and peoples through a spectacle of involving superhuman figures that seek to mark out their own territories and conquer the boundaries of their precarious existence. This year's Vuelta reinforced this feeling and in doing so it brought it to a whole generation who had never had the luck to witness such a thing before.

La Vuelta is a different race.

La Vuelta, like Spain itself, with its geography and its cultural history, probably more than anywhere else on the 'continent' trapped halfway between Europe and Africa, has been regarded as the poor Iberian cousin of the tours of France and Italy. Its running has been interrupted by civil war and politics, and this year, if not interrupted, at least affected, by the fallout of the positive EPO test of last year's winner and the police investigation which it sparked.

La Vuelta is a different race, this year and always. Because Spain is a country, of multiple landscapes. A place where regional differences mean a lot - the people, languages, terrain, character, wine and of course food. Much of it is high open plains, there the wind plays havoc and, of course the heat as well. Scattered throughout are barren peaks, a thousand Ventoux's, and on three sides are rocky, hilly, pine covered hinterlands bordering the coasts.

La Vuelta is a different race, as it comes after six months of leg and mind sapping competition. It takes a special, sort of rider to want to fight it out over these three weeks. As such it is a test of endurance, of not only three weeks but of a whole season long. It is nearly always close, and often, even with its mountains, faster than the Tour or Giro. In many ways it is always more exciting than the others and it doesn't deserve any poor Iberian cousin status at all.

The Race - Act I.

But above all else, there was a race, a beautiful, wonderful race with which the young could learn what a Grand Tour was all about. However, out of Andulacia and into Extremaduria, the race covered in its first week two landmarks of recent cycling. Stage 4 to Caceres where two years ago the news of Hamilton's positive test. Stage 5 to La Covatilla, another barren, desert like ski station, nearly 2000m in altitude, was designed as a tribute to Heras. The start of the climb commencing in the home town of the fallen champ.

La Covatilla, was the race's first major appointment, and it wreaked havoc. Favourites by the wayside on the first climb. Menchov, uncomfortable a few days earlier when he was presented with last year's winner's jersey, never to recover. Mayo, down, and as always lowering his sights before the racing really got under way. And even Vinokourov now seemed out of contention. Sastre, with his shiny new teeth, the object of Spanish faith, lost a little time. As did the golden boy, Valverde. Di Luca becomes the first race leader. And Pimiento (the capsicum) Gomez Marchante, and the Eastern connection of Brajkovic and Kashechkin give everyone something to think about. Danielson and Samuel Sanchez just hang in.

From here it was north across the high plains of Castille Leon, where for a change the wind only made people nervous, but never came into play.

ACT II – Stalemate of attacks.

In the week following La Covatilla so much happened. One thing to note was that each day in the mountains was broken by long days in the saddle, either negotiating the winds of the high plains or of the leg breaking toboggan stages of the northern coastal hinterland. The change of rhythm played havoc on the legs. One day a gearing of 53 or 54/11, the next 39/23 or more. One day churning out the power with a huge gear across the flat, the next climbing or surviving up mountains, steeper and steeper. An the heat just continued, never a day under 35 degrees, and the further north, the more humid it became.

Stages 7, 8 and 9 were the days when the duel began. Forget the rest this was a duel between between Valverde, the highest placed favourite, and Vinokourov, still more than a minute and a half behind. It seemed at this point Vino's aim was to threaten, his young, astute partner was much higher up on the general. But the hunt for La Vuelyta, between Valverde and Vino, developed into one of the classic encounters of cycling's modern age. Not in any of the seven years of Lance's domination was anything like this seen. An excitement that has been absent from cycling for far too long. Life (as in Vivir), seemed to be being breathed back into the sport – V, Valverde, Vinokourov, la Vuelta, vitality, visualised, hour after hour, day after day, on the road and the screen.

Stage 7 to Morredero. A narrow brute of a climb on the border between Castille and Galicia. A stage to tell the grandchildren about. A classic day in its own right. Vino away in a small group, a smidgen of seconds ahead of the group of leaders, Di Luca was in the gold at the start of the climb. Then Attack after Attack by Valverde, attack after attack after attack. Other contributed, Mayo, Pimiento, Brakjovic, but none turned the pedals, as if there was no chain, like Valverde. He just didn't seem to stop. With each one the leader's group dwindled until there was only a handful left.

Finally Valverde caught Vinokourov, but then, in a blink of an eye and with just a kilometre to go the blonde, Tartar eyed Cossack attacked again. A devastating burst of speed, he churned up the slope. Behind Valverde towed the others. Forced to do all the chasing, no one was going to help him. Ahead Vino was going too far, he was so strong. With 200 metres to the line he had it won. He had it won! With 150 metres to go he had it won. The chasers were within sight, but the TV always seems to shorten the distances and everyone knew then that Vino had it won.

And then, well then there was a flash. A flash nothing more than a white flash. Up out of the saddle, the white jersey of Valverde. There was nothing left to race. 150 metres to go, less, and less. It was still going uphill and Vino looked so good. “The bloke's got a kick like a track sprinter" O'Grady has said before today. He can win on any terrain.

And on then on the Morredero, a hill to die on, it was then poor old who had Vino to suffer the white bullet. Vino who has suffered playing second and third fiddle at Telekom. Vino who had suffered from being outed from the Tour, after his director was caught paying off the good doctor with a suit case filled with Euros, Swiss Francs and Aussie Dollars. Vino who is suffering from not having a Pro Tour licence for his team. Vino just couldn't believe his luck. The luck of Vino, just when would it change?

Poor Vino he couldn't do a thing, nobody could have done a thing. Valverde closed the gap between them and between him and the finish, in a flash, in no time at all. It is doubtful that something like this has ever been seen before. This was a devastating win, a psychological knock out punch, a classic to stand along the greatest cycling finishes of all time.

And it seemed to start something that just coulldn't be stopped. Attack, attack, attack. Vino and Valverde. A duel, a battle, a fight to the finish, something to breathe life back into cycling. Stage 8. No shell shocked Khazak. Stage 8 into Lugo. The first time in so many years. The first time the TdF virtual winner Oscar Periero has ridden as a pro in his home country. First lap of Lugo, he gets away and soaks up the atmosphere. Here the local hero who's face adorns everything, billboards where he tells you not to speed. The peloton, how many kilometres, at 52 kph plus. fast and hot. The last 8km lap around Lugo, the speed exceeded 80 kph. At the finish the peloton was strung out, broken up over minutes because of this speed. The final stretch, an uphill dig, less than one kilometre, the strong men were heading to fight it out, Paolini, Bettini, the usual suspects for a stage like this. And then Vino jumped, and went. Nobody, would catch him today. Reward for the bitter taste of the day and the season before. And then number 9.

Number 9, La Cobertoria, into Asturias. When have you seen anything like that before? 207 kilometres, six categorised climbs, 5025 metres of climbing. At the first climb, kilometre 35, Horillo and others are already dropped. They form a team, though not teammates to find their way to the finish without being disqualified as too slow. but the stunning thing was the final climb. When, Vino attacked just a little way in to the climb. Vino jumped and then before anyone else could react Kashechkin followed him. Wasn't he meant to stay behind and mark the others? No, the Cossacks meant business and no one was ready for this. The two Cossacks, on their carbon fibre steeds, from the team that bears the name of their capital, mounted a two man time trial up the climb. Actually a one man time trial. Vino ahead pulling his younger teammate all the way, as far as he could go. Kashechkin who was higher on GC, his astute cycling mind sheltered by the raw power of his elder.

Valverde, calm behind, with his praetorian guard having done their work. Valverde pulling the names, Pimiento Marchante, Sastre, new teeth still shining, and others. And then, a kilometre to go, maybe a little more. Valverde jumps. Away, up, up and away, his effortless style, up towards the slipstream of the Kazakh pair. Kashechkin says to Vino, "you go, you go for the win". And so he did. This time glancing over his shoulder every few pedal strokes to check that the Morrederro won't happen again.

This was la Vuelta's intermezzo. Valverde had succeeded Brkjovich in gold, and Spain expected him to go all the way to Madrid as leader. For Vino it was the beginning of the passage from defeat to victory. It was nothing but as series of stunnning attacks that entrenched the duel and excitement even further. Nothing like this has been seen in a recent Tour de France. Each stage, saw, when there was a chance attack, counter attack, and attack. It was attacking without rest. One any one climb you could count on both Vino or Valverde trying to dislodge the other, four, five six times, It was attacking without stop, incessant attacks, whether climbing, or on the technical sections, or even when descending. They were attacks that in normal circumstances, those that we have been numbed into being accustomed to, would provide one rider with a rapid and comfortable result. The boredom of the Tour, of this year's Giro, this was nothing like that, in this year's Vuelta these attacks seemed to only further entrenched positions, they seemed to only further this stalemate of epic proportions.

ACT III - the waves of Cossack attacks.

After the north south again across Castille. A wonderful downhill victory for Samuel Sanchez in the hanging city of Cuenca. A time trial win for Dave Millar, claiming to be a diffferent rider, but with many at this year's race just not prepared to believe in anything anymore. And then back into Andulacia, through the country of the good, the bad and the ugly. Here just like at Stalingrad, it was in the end, the wave after wave of Khazak attacks that finally weakened the enemy.

The monster stage through the mountains that hem spaghetti western country up against the coast. Stage 16, the Velefique, an Alpe d'Huez of the desert, and two ascents of the Calar Alto, in all 3300 metres of climbing squeezed into 145 kilometres. On the final ascent, the two, Vino and Valverde, eye ball to eye ball, the others falling over themselves behind. Only Samuel Sanchez and his young teammate Igor Anton had enough strength to get back to them. Vino telling Valverde to work with him to finally wipe the smile of Sastre's face, Valverde responded: “Que No!”. Anton coming into range read it right, and passed as wide as the narrow tarmac allowed. Anton, Igor Gonzalez-Galdeano's great hope for Euskadi's future ascended to his first major win of his career. Behind the two V's just kept at it, one trying to dislodge the other, the other sticking like glue to their wheel.

Until Granada, that was. On the outskirts of the ancient Moorish capital is another barren rock of a climb. Steep with sections that point to the sky at over a13% gradient. On one side the hill drops away like a desert wall, the other rising up like the ramparts that protect the old town below. A group away, the American hope, named Danielson, the highest placed among them. behind CSC and Caisse mass at the front, increasing the pace to try and dislodge the lone wolve Cossacks. later Kashechkin would tell how they enjoyed the pace.

As the ramps start to bite Kashechkin attacks and makes a gap. He has Paulinho up the road, in the remnants of the day's break. Danielson has gone on alone and the Portuguese waits for the Cossack charge. And it comes! Soon Vino attacks Valverde. Sastre is all over the bike, smile long gone. And for the first time in three weeks Valverde can't respond. The crisis! The effect of those incessant Cossack charges. Ahead the Cossacks link up, Paolinho can't stay with them and the two mount a drive over the hills twin peaks. On the first of them Valverde leaves Sastre behind and flies across the top. Then down, sharp narrow turns, on this side covered in by pines. As the road widens Valverde has them within sight. Two Cossacks and the Pimiento. Vino looks back, he sees whats happening, and as Valverde hooks onto the rear of Kashechkin, Vino is already off on the left hand side, as far away as possible, attacking on the descent, never to be caught again.

This was the point at which la Vuelta was won and lost. Dowhnill, bravery at 90 kms an hour, never giving in, never stopping, attacking, up, across and finally downhill. on the outskirts of Granada Vino catches Danielson, they talk, Vino wants the gold, Danileson wants to recover something. Vino could have just kept going, but he is smart as well as strong, valiant but savvy and fair. he gives the win to Tom and he takes what over two weeks ago, not to far from here it looked like he had lost forever.

On a roll, Stage 18 is an opportunity to rub in the victory. Rub it in the way they started it, a two amn time trial breakaway up the vicious la Pandera. Not too long but steeper than any climb in this year's race. The Cossacks did not taking any prisoners on la Pandera. Vino powered out as many watts as Armstrong did on any day, taking Kashechkin with him tot he finish, holding his head close to his, a bear hug as they crossed the line. the battle had been won, in the cold and mist of yet another barren rocky climb. Spain a land of a thousand Ventouxs conquered by a two man wolf pack from the Cossack steppes. Kashechkin gets a win, Vino will get another in the final time trial. His tally will be 3, one stolen at the line, one given away, it could have been 5. But above all else he gets the gold to take all the way back to Astana.

This year's race had stages colour, passion and quality, stages of such life, that if you have only been watching the sport for a decade or two, that probably you have never witnessed. This year's race deserves a book, many books, a film more. It was a race that can be and deserves to be run over and over again, at home on the TV or simply in your mind while you are out there lonely on the bike. And it is a race which those of us lucky enough to witness will be able to pass down to younger generations long after we have stepped off our bikes for the last time.

Madrid – por fin.

At the end of the race, with Landis not far away, Spanish TV interviews Oscar Pereiro, “the winner of the 2006 Tour” and ever present on the podium on the big stages, congratulating Valverde and Vino is the Spanish Minister for Sport, the man now personally leading the charge to reform the sport. A man himself the subject of legal action, by Manolo Saiz. The Minister aside Vino. Vino the man who sacked Saiz, and took the bold step of taking control of the team himself. Vino, blonde, albino, Tartar eyes, a bundle of muscleno w supported by a whole Cossack nation. Vino beside Kashechkin, the brain, that seems to think hard over every word on and off the bike. Standing tall the Cossack pair as their Soviet style nation anthem blares out in the centre of Madrid. The Cossack pair, holding their flag, with Vino's hastily painted golden bike ready to be sent home to the capital's national museum.

Has cycling, after so many years of creating its own world outside of the state and international organisations, has it finally been brought under control? Are these Cossack ambassadors of a new world order, who speak the peloton's creole of French, English, Italian and Spanish, the one's that might deliver us from evil? Can we, unlike Elvis, overcome our suspicious minds and go on to love again?

Whether or not, one thing is for sure, whatever the reality, the 2005 Vuelta was a race that stands out as the most exciting race in recent history. A million more times exciting than anything we have been treated to in the last decade. It was a Vuelta to die for. One in which cycling could itself either lie, die or live and be loved again.

In search of V - la Vuelta part 2

La Vuelta end of the first Act .....

In search of V

Cycling is a bit like life, well a lot, and writing as well , nobody owns it, it is a matter of things flying back and forth, collaboration, affect, the composition of bodies out of different materials, and so on. Some of the things we do and are at any given time come from outside of us, we fold them up and they become us. The Vuelta is a place where you can make friends, enemies, see and hear the highs and lows of it all. It is a search that continues even when it is over, even before it has started. And not being so big as say Le Tour, not being so big that those considered the biggest have it in their sights, means maybe that it is a little closer to reality. And reality is like everything, a double sided machine, it pulls in two directions at the same time, and the task continually is to find a little space in which to breathe and live. The Vuelta is beyond good and evil, it simply is the Vuelta.

We started off only a week ago with the search for the new Vuelta. Some came to win, some came to prove that they could perform when the going got tough, those ones that wanted to show that they didn't deserve any reputaion for being slack. Others came to do there job and do their daily work as domestiques. The race needed to prove it was beyong the reach of the Guardia Civil, of suspicion, and that it could come out of the maelstrom that the Operacion Puerto investigation had descended it into. It was a search for the new Vuelta and a new sport of the Velociped. A search for V ala Pynchon.

Since La Covatilla which seems already so long ago so much has happened. one thing to note is that the mountains have been cut up each day by long days in the saddle. The change of rythmn playing havoc on the legs. One day a gearing of 53 or 54/11, the next 39/23 or more. One day churning out the power with a huge gear across the flat, the next climbing or surviving up mountains, steeper and steeper. The heat continues, now the race cruises the northern coast of the peninsula some would rather be at the beach than on the bike. Lucklily stage 6 didn't see any wind come into play, the cross winds of Castille Leon that normally cut the peloton to ribbons was a tailwind and helped rather than hindered. There were a few nerves with the road turning here and there, but nerves didn't turn into actual danger.

Stages 7, 8 and 9 were the days la V turned into a duel between V and V. the hunt for V between V and V. Not in any of the seven years of the American's domination have we seen exciotement like this. Life (as in Vivir), vitality, visualised on the road and the screen. I am sorry if you can't get it all on TVE with the wonderful Carlos de Andres and Perico Delgado at the microphone, or by reading El Pais with the more than wonderful and cuddly Carlos Arribas and Pedro Horrillo at the keyboard.

Stage 7 to Morredero a narrow brute of a climb. Vinokourov away in a small group a smidgen of seconds ahead of the group of leaders (on that day it was di Luca in the gold). Attack after attack by Valverde, attack after attack after attack. Then with a kilometre to go Vinokourov again. He went so far, so strong, with 200 metres to the line he had it won. He had it won. I saw it. The chasers were within sight, but come on, he had it won. Then a flash. A flash nothing more. Up out of the saddle, the white jersey of Valverde. There was nothing left to race, there was nothing left of the course. It was still going uphill and Vino, the Khazak looked so good. I saw him do it to O'Grady in Soria two years ago - "the bloke's got a kick like a track sprinter" said O'Grady afterwards. I saw it on the telly last year when he flew past the American at Couchevel (just don't believe the yanks when they say the American gave it to him - most of them can't read a race, only the hype). And then poor old Vino had to suffer the white bullet. Vino who has suffered playing second and third fiddle at Telekom. Who suffered being outed from the Tour by hypocrites who are happy to benefit from the spectacle but not prepared to be honest about it. Vino who is suffering from not having a Pro Tour licence for his team, just couldn't believe his luck. He couldn't do a thing, nobody could has Valverde closed the gap between him, Vino and the finish in no time at all. I doubt this has been seen, ever before. Tell me where and I will look. if you have the stage on video, if you can find it anywhere (google for example) get it and watch it and watch it. It was a classic to stand along Leige, Fleche Wallone and hopefully many more to come.

This started something that just doesn't seem to be able to stop. The duel, yes a real duel. Something to give cycling life with a capital V. Eso es la vida!. Stage 8. No shellshocked Khazak. No American global control. No boredom. No Mayo, I got beat so I'm going home to mum and the mates.

Stage 8 into Lugo. The first time in so many years. The first time the TdF virtual winner Oscar Periero has ridden as a pro in his home country. First lap of Lugo, he gets away and soaks up the atmposphere. the local hero who's face adorns everything now, including road safety signs where he tells you not to speed. The peloton, how many kilometres, at 52 kph - it's fast, and guess what it's till hot. The last lap around Lugo, the speed exceeds 80 kph. The peloton is strung out, for minutes as a result. The final stretch, uphill, one kilomtere, the strong men are heading to fight it out. And Vino jumps, and goes. Nobody,but nobody will catch him today. Reward for the bitter taste of the day before. And then number 9.

Number 9. When have you seen anything like that before? 207 kilometres, six categorised climbs, 5025 metres of climbing. At the first climb, kilometre 35, Horillo and others are already dropped. They form a team, though not teammates to find their way to the finish without being disqualified as too slow. Ahead Discovery (cycling's symbol of multinational globalisation) Channel have the Basque Egoi Martinez, Banesto (I can call them that if I like) have Arroyo, and the hope of Euskadi for the future, Igor Anton. They formed the day's break, all with their eyes on being ahead to help their team leaders when the crunch came (Note to some American viewers, they were not trying to win but this is called tactics and teamwork). They were brought back before the foot of the last climb, too early maybe. But Arroyo was still able to form a part of Valverde's praetorian guard for the long pull up La Coberttoria. Martinez had to help out his ailing leader, Brakjovic (all 53 kilos of him) in his last day in gold. Anton didn't have the legs to help Samu up the hill. And well Mayo, was Mayo, and should be at lunch at his mum's house by now.

The stunning thing was, and this is the thing I ask have you seen such a thing since I don't know when, Vino Attacked just a little way in to the climb. Vino Attacked then nearly immediately Kashechkin followed him. The two Khazaks, from the team that bears the name of of the Khazak capital, mounted a two man time trial up the climb. Well a one man time trial. Vino ahead pulling his younger teammate all the way, as far as he could go. Kashechkin higher on GC after Vino lost time on the first day of La Vuelta's climbing of La Covatilla.

And then. Valverde, calm behind, with his guard having done their work pulling the names, like Pimiento Marchante and Sastre, the tailor of Burgos. And then, a kilometre or so to go, maybe a little more. Valverde jumps. Away, up into the slipstream nearly of the Khazak pair. Kashechkin says to Vino, "you go, you go for the win". And he does. This time glancing over his shoulder every few strokes to check that it won't happen again. That Valverde won't get him and pass him in front of the no less than the Khazak Prime Minister, here all the way from Astana to see his team, Astana, (the lost souls or forgotten soul of Manolo Saiz?), back to wreak havoc. Valverde realises today he can't catch him without giving too much away, too much that might make it impossible another day. He rides himself into gold, but foregoes passing Vino. (Another note to American viewers - he didn't give it to him, he just decided that today was not to be). Vino and Valverde, the twinned V’s, doubleV, not a W, back to give us some life with a capital V - eso es la vida, Vino, Valverde, La Vuelta.

Thankyou lord.
Kafka on Wheels One.

Kafka on wheels, the phrase coined by the doyen of the Spanish cycling media, Carlos Arribas, is a pretty fair description of the state of cycling within which the 2006 Vuelta a España found itself. The race kicked off in the shadow of suspicion and doubt. Like K, la Vuelta was the subject of allegation without detail, nothing positive, just a heavy air of suspicion. Everyone knew something had happened, everyone knew something was happening, everyone knew something was going to happen, but nobody knew exactly what. Everyone had their version, but nobody would say what it was. Whether it was real or not wasn't in issue, all that mattered was that there was suspicion.

In the wake of the 2005 Heras disaster and the subsequent police investigation, sponsors couldn't be found or pulled out. The organisation was forced to slim down and the weekend viewing times were shoved forward to the early afternoon, leaving the bigger moneyed sports to bath in the light of prime time TV. La Vuelta started in the twilight, late one steamy summer afternoon in Malaga. The twilight of a Kafkaesque summer, or more, in which we have yet to have a definitive grand tour winner .....

It started hot, under the twilight skies of Malaga with its beaches lined with restaurants, their fried sardines and anchovies, and their lovely chilled white wine. The days that followed were a furnace, steaming hot, under the Andulacian and Extremadurian sun. Steaming hot as well from the pressure of Operacion Puerto and the post-Tour environment. Suspicion, confusion, doubt were everywhere. When Zabel won the first of his two stages on some self confessed and self produced adrenaline, some wondered aloud whether it was not long before that, along with all pleasure and endorphines, would soon be on the banned list. Nothing in life is black and white, and cycling, like everything else in this life, is simply beyond good and evil.

The Vuelta 2006 – a battle as epic as Stalingrad.

This years Vuelta on its surface had all the overtones of one of history's great battles between good and evil. It was in one way reminiscent of one of military history's great battles and turning point in the fight against the Nazis. Stories passed down to us younger generations, tell of how during the time of the Second World War, people throughout the world sat by radios and waited for newspaper reports of news of this bloody encounter. It was a battle that raged over three separate calendar years, but it was, like the Vuelta, a fight that some believed could be, if won by the forces of good, see a turning point in history.

Whether life can be reduced to good and evil, one things is for sure, the race's three acts, conjure the spectre of the Red Army's fortunes on the eastern Front. Alexandre Vinokourov forced onto the back foot and near defeat in Act One. An intermezzo of wave after wave of attack and counter attack, as the challengers, notably Vino and Alejandro Valverde, firing all they could muster, only managed to further entrench a bloody stalemate. And then, in the final act, wave after wave of devastating Khazak attacks, which finally saw the riders from the East dominate and destroy their opposition, simply through their own will to power, cunning and strength.

Kafka on Wheels Two.

Kafka on Wheels most certainly. Astana the team, not the company, nor the city, is dragged in as many directions as the compass holds. On the road it seems that Vino and Kashechkin ride the pointy ends of the race without any team support. Of the road you wonder if some of their support are sometimes the type that you would better off without.

After Vino disassociated himself from Manolo Saiz, he strengthened his ties with one of the east's growing economies, the State of Kazakhstan and its industrial powerhouses. He looked to Tony Rominger for advice and to negotiate the team's Pro Tour licence. He contacted his ex team Telekom director, Walter Godefroot, and asked him to come out of retirement in order to take over the helm in 2007.

Rominger, seems to be intent on signing all those that he manges, the stories abound, Kloden, as co-leader, Santi Perez back from two years off for, they say, having his blood confused with Tyler's, who of course, he says, had his blood confused with that of his vanishing twin. It is not at all clear that Vino wants to go back to the old days of T-Mobiles confused leadership, where he always played second or Third fiddle to Jan or Klodie, whilst being acknowledges by Armstrong as, the dangerous one.

In another direction Astana is being pulled by the followers, or they say, those indebted to or simply just need Manolo Saiz. They say they are holding out the hope that the Spanish police and judiciary will quietly put their files away in a back room and let them start anew. That it is all a part of a conspiracy against Manolo, some say, for setting up the Pro Tour. Old Liberty riders, not in the race, have been told to keep their mouths firmly shut if they want a job in the future. it was a team which throughout the race was two or maybe three teams all going in different directions at once. Whether this was a factor on the bike as well, we just don't know, but when it mattered the others massed like Banesto, ONCE or US Postal of old, the Khazaks roamed like a two man wolf pack, wild nomads of the steppes, always ready to bite at the heels of the favourites and their praetorian guards.

When Neil Stephens, for now Astana's second in charge on the road, was asked if he was “staying with this mob next year?” His response was “depends who you mean by this mob?” Or maybe, what you mean by the mob? Stevo, a loyal Saiz stalwart, is one of a few who, they say, are putting their bets on the police forgetting about it all. Or than Saiz was just a client, nothing more than a client of the evil doctors.

Astana a team that might next year be one, or two, both or neither with a Pro Tour license. Astana, a team whose liberty is in no way secured. But for now is being driven by the mighty cossacks in their quest to break free of decadent Europe's clutches. Where they go, if they go, well it all depends on The Trial. But which trial is that? The one is Spain, in The hague, in Switzerland or in Astana - a myriad of legal investigations, prosecutions, appeals and disputes in overlapping jurisdictions, blood law, human rights law, company law, team licensing law, drug trafficking and health and pharmaceutical law. Simply more Kafka on Wheels.

But maybe, just as Kafka himself thought, the solution is not one of more law and lawyers from above, but in fact a greater sense of ethics from below.

The Hope of Braver Souls.

There are some brave souls who are willing to speak. Rabobank's Pedro Horrillo, former bike courier and philosophy student, was brave enough to try and jump the peloton in the race's final kilometre in Madrid. Unfortunately, he was only to be run down by Zabel's disciplined train. In the winter you can often see Pedro heading out of town on his mountain bike, with a backpack of full of books, looking for a quite place to read and to ponder the world. So it wasn't surprising that as the race headed out of Malaga, it was philosopher Pedro who was brave enough and happy enough to lay his cards on the table.

In June he took on the role of the peloton's spokesperson at the Spanish National Champs when the riders decided against proceeding as a protest at them becoming the focus of criminal investigation. Pedro doesn't deny a problem, but he is not fond of the strong arm tactics of the police, or for that matter like most, the UCI Vampire wake up calls after 200 kms in 40 plus degree heat. At the moment he is one of the few with the courage and the where with all, to discuss the situation facing cycling in an intelligent and considered manner. He made it it clear that this year's Vuelta was a chance for everybody involved in cycling to make a fresh start. During the race he noted that the days were long and hard, but that some of the incredible craziness of the recent past seemed to have disappeared- thanks he thought to the repercussions of Operacion Puerto.

Recognising that the problem facing the sport was more than a few bad apples, and that the solution requires more than that the heads of a few scapegoats to roll, Pedro called for everyone involved throughout the machine of the cycling industry to end the lies about what really goes on. And it is a problem that won't be solved by simple calls for riders to stop cheating or being clean. Nor will it be solved by criminalising those caught in the machine, or dragging them out of bed at 6 am to await the taking of blood. In Malaga, he said that this Vuelta was a chance for the peloton, and for the cycling industry as a whole, to either win back or lose the love and admiration of the fans forever.

And as if to highlight the current loneliness of the sport, as he rode in 43 degree heat, across the sparse and uninhabited landscape of Extremadura - a landscape that reminds one of being on a solo training ride out somewhere between Bourke and Longreach; he pretended that the stumpy scrub that he could see was really thousands of excited fans whose faith in the sport had been finally restored

Whilst Pedro is not alone, his bravery is still not that of the majority. During those early days of La Vuelta there was much talk of a new start for cycling. Those implicated in Operacion Puerto off the race continued the denials. And the cone of silence still falls wide and heavy over cycling. The calls for a cleaning out of the cheats and their bodies continued, but at times they seemed like mock outrage, the outrage of those in the know, but with a firm eye on the future funding of the sport. Sometimes there just seems to be too many careers, too many companies and too many families and lives that fear what a new age might bring.

Kafka on Wheels Three.

One step forward , three steps back. What an upside down world it is. La Vuelta finished on the streets of Madrid, with the weather starting to turn to autumn. Spain had succumb, just as a degenerate Europe of old had, to wave after wave of assaults from the Cossacks and Tartars of the East. This time the Cossacks came wielding new metals and technology, they came riding carbon fibre horses, one of them hastily painted gold, but they were still ferocious and they still carried their ancient banner to the summit. But still the old ways tried to reassert themselves and claim their place in this new world.

Basking in the autumn light at the start of the final stage, still indignant and unrepentant, still loudly proclaiming his innocence on procedural grounds, was none other than Floyd Landis. Parading himself proudly, accompanied, as always these days, by his mate and rapid recovery adviser, Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero they visited their (now ex?) Phonak teammates and then paid homage to the Cossacks. Landis and his fixer mate, the style merchant, Perdi. Some say they should be regarded as the two, as much as many others, who have put us where we are today. Floyd Landis, smiling, mouthing the lines “I have nothing to hide”, quickly following it up with that of the defendant: “My lawyers have stated that I should make no further comment”. Perdi, mute, playboy glasses, strutting the bantam rooster walk of a man who like so many in the industry think they are untouchable.

Noone is Indispensable.

When the stage to la Covatilla was planned it was meant to be a tribute to the then Vuelta patron. Now it seems like a tribute to something else. And Heras is never seen, never speaks. Heras the Hermit is somewhere around here, holed up, until who knows when.

The banner at the foot of La Covatilla says "A Vuelta without Heras is like a bike without wheels". Pedro Horrillo thinks that ... well in reality nobody is indispensable. Everyone in this world lives a precarious existence. La Covatilla, the first grand encounter, and Perdiguero, confident of Landis at Phonak and not the machine he was not so long ago, climbs off, symbolically at the foot.

The pressure, the continual dope tests, the hypocrisy "I've had enough" he claims. Perdi who had helped Aitor Gonzalez move closer to victory here four years ago, Perdi, who had advised Landis on how to recover after cracking on Stage 16 of this year's Tour, Perdi who had helped so many others make their mark on La Covatilla's slopes: Santi Blanco, Aitor Gonzalez, Santi Perez, Oscar Sevilla,, and of course, Roberto Heras.

Stuey's View

When asked if cycling was able to emerge from the Operacion Puerto and Landis scandals, Stuart 'Grady responded told Bicycling Australia that “Well I think we are. Of course we are going to come out of it, it's just that there is a few heads that need to roll and it's hard for cycling short term, but it's definitely good long term...

O'Grady thinks that one of the problems facing cycling and the reason for the sport being under the thumb more than any other at the moment is a result of there being “too much money involved in football and athletics and you know cycling is the easy target. It is the anyperson's sport, and it is not a rich sport, so it is the easy one to target”.

He continued saying that “it's obviously that there are people in all walks of life, in a job, or whatever, you know who decide to cheat, you are always going to have cheats in the world, you are never going to get rid of that.” He believes that some riders are still “trying to beat the system, so I guess that's cheating, people looking for the easy way out, people looking for more money, there's people looking for fame, there are too many reasons ,and now you know sport is such a big business, and people are prepared to take the risks ... they are not getting hard enough consequences, the consequences are not tough enough ... I mean if someone goes positive, it should be a life ban, your out of the sport ... then you would have a lot less people playing Russian roulette.”