Blazin' Saddles

Cyclist collared by chopper as Tinkov eyes Sagan

Blazin' Saddles

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Less than a week after Matti Breschel was floored by a flying mattress in Oman, another fellow pro has been hospitalised after an unlikely run in with a race helicopter in Malaysia.

Unheralded Russian rider Pavel Kochetkov of Katusha was kochetkoffed his bike during a stage of the Tour of Langkawi after a low-flying helicopter blew the 27-year-old off the road as he edged clear of the peloton in pursuit of an attacking rider from Singapore.

Kochetkov was forced to abandon the race with a broken collarbone while the pilot was subject to the same fate as the driver who careered into Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland in the 2011 Tour de France, and was promptly ejected from the race by officials.

It is not the first time in the history of cycling that a helicopter has proved controversial.

In quite outrageous scenes during the final day's deciding time trial of the 1984 Giro d'Italia a helicopter flew between Laurent Fignon and his home favourite Francesco Moser, creating a fierce headwind for the Frenchman and a handy tailwind for his rival.

Despite Fignon shaking his fist in anger on numerous occasions, the TV chopper held its position and the ponytailed Professor lost the maglia rosa to Moser.

During the prologue of the 2007 Tour de Suisse, the mushroom-headed Stefan Schumacher complained that his performance was adversely affected by a helicopter landing in a nearby field during his ride. Of course, in hindsight this was a worthy handicap for the Austrian given the shed-load of performing-enhancing drugs he had running through his veins around that time.

Two years later, an ESPN news helicopter crashed near the finish of a stage in the Tour of San Luis, narrowly missing toppling off a cliff in the process. Luckily both pilot and passenger walked away unscathed.

And last year, towards the business end of a brutal Vuelta a Espana that required the riders to take numerous long transfers between stages, Alejandro Valverde got in a fluster when it emerged that race favourite Vincenzo Nibali had access to a helicopter.

"He took just half an hour to get to his hotel off the mountain and we took nearly three hours to get here by bus," the Spaniard harrumphed.

As for getting blown off bikes, Kochetkov is not the first. In 2010, Belgian classics specialist Gert Steegmans broke his own collarbone after being caught in a whirlwind during the Paris-Nice prologue.

In scenes that conjure up images of cartoon characters Roadrunner and the Tasmanian Devil, Steegmans' RadioShack directeur sportive saw his rider get lifted from the ground as he reached a speed of 75 km/h on a fast downhill segment.

"Tree branches flew into the air and a second later Gert was lifted into the air too," said Dirk Demol. "He was blown away from the road and tumbled over and over many times. I've never seen such a thing in my life."

This was not the last time RadioShack were involved in such an incident: two years later, Andy Schleck was floored by strong winds during the time trial of the 2012 Criterium du Dauphine. The Luxembourg whippet rounded a sharp right-hander and saw his rear disk wheel caught in a sudden gust of wind. The resultant fall saw Schleck aggravate an old knee injury as well as fracture his sacrum.

It is these factors which can probably be to blame for Schleck's lack of form since the start of the 2012 season, when Schleck was awarded the 2010 Tour de France title after his sparring partner and close friend Alberto Contador was finally fingered for Clenbuterol.

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The Oleg Tinkov soap opera continued this week with the Russian entrepreneur - as opinionated as he is wealthy - penning his first monthly "fun, entertaining and serious" blog for Cyclingnews.

By his standards, the inaugural missive was rather tame; when Tinkov stated that his mobile data roaming charges would have been very high after a week in Dubai following his team, the suggestion was that of a shoulder-shrugging "meh" given that, well, Tinkov owns his own telecommunications empire.

Instead of slandering star rider Alberto Contador, Tinkov praised the Spaniard's opening win of the season in Algarve and relayed his excitement at seeing him take on Chris Froome in the up-coming Tirreno-Adriatico.

There was a word of warning to Fernando Alonso and the expected launch of his cycling team in 2015. If the Formula 1 star hadn't sorted out his cash flow for a main sponsor, then "it'll be a disaster".

The extra funds and interest that Alonso should bring cycling may make certain riders seek more favourable contracts, Tinkov said.

"Because agents saw that I floated Tinkoff Credit Systems on the London Stock Exchange, they think I'm going to pay huge wages to the riders I want to sign for 2015. They think I'm stupid and that I'm going to throw my money around. Obviously they're the stupid ones because I'm not going to pay what they want."

Just two days later, Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Slovak sensation Peter Sagan had reached an agreement with Tinkov to join his team at the end of the current season. The deal will also involve Cannondale, who will replace Specialized as Tinkoff-Saxo's choice of steed.

In fact, Cannondale could well become the team's second sponsor - replacing the outgoing Saxo Bank and delivering its €6.5m budget after it ceases to sponsor its current WorldTour team in 2015.

All in all, the whole episode serves to show just how shrewd Tinkov really is. The Russian playboy may be seen through a prism of mirth - largely thanks to his colourful Twitter persona - but he didn't get where he is today by mistake, nor did he piggy-back his nation's rich oil reserves like so many of his contemporary oligarchs.

Perhaps it's time that we all started taking Tinkov a bit more seriously.

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Sagan won't be worrying about his mid-term future so much this weekend as he bids to beat the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins and Valverde to take the Strade Bianche crown on Saturday.

Sagan finished second in Siena last year after team-mate Moreno Moser took the spoils over the white dirt roads of Tuscany. But Sagan will be keen to take centre-stage in a bid to get his spring classics season off to a flying start and stem the series of bridesmaid appearances he clocked up last year (which also included Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke and Flanders).

Although only in its eighth year, Strade Bianche is a hugely popular race for fans and riders alike, fast growing a reputation for being the Paris-Roubaix of Italy. The race itself was inspired by the legendary L'Eroica amateur sportive where all riders are required to turn out in vintage clobber and pre-1984 steel bikes.

While it's one of the most entertaining races in the spring calendar, it's a shame that the Strade Bianche professional race has not maintained the retrospective zeal of L'Eroica. How great would it be to see a peloton of Merino wool-clad riders rip along the Tuscan dirt tracks in a haze of dust before discarding their saddles for a bare-back finish in the Piazza il Campo in the style of the annual Palio horse race?

On Sunday focus shifts to the Roma Maxima one-day race where, last year, Filippo Pozzato won in the shade of the Coliseum. Or that's what he thought - for the victory actually went to Blel Kadri some 30 seconds earlier, but Pozzato had no idea the lone escapee had evaded capture so celebrated accordingly after winning the bunch sprint for second place.

Let the gladiatorial battles commence...

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