by Ryland James
BERLIN, July 1, 2009 (AFP) – Tour de France legend Bernard Hinault believes up and coming German cycling star Gerald Ciolek could pose a threat to Britain’s Mark Cavendish when this year’s race starts Saturday.
Frenchman Hinault, a five-times winner of the Tour, is backing the 22-year-old Ciolek to take over from retired sprinter Erik Zabel as leader of Milram having recently joined the German team from Columbia.
Ciolek, a former under-23 world champion, left Columbia last year when it became apparent Cavendish was the team’s number one sprinter.
Since winning an impressive four stages on his Tour debut last year Cavendish has since gone on to become arguably the fastest sprinter in the peloton.
Meanwhile in Germany the sport’s reputation has, because of doping scandals involving stars like former winner Jan Ullrich, Zabel and Patrik Sinkewitz, hit new lows with national broadcasters refusing to screen the event since 2007.
But Hinault, who won the Tour five times between 1978 and 1985, said Ciolek could help provide a tonic by becoming one of the surprise packages of the July 4-26 race.
“How will Milram cope without the central figure of sprinter Erik Zabel? – I think they will do very well,” said Hinault.
“Because they have an excellent rider in Ciolek who is younger than Zabel and almost as fast as (Britain’s Mark) Cavendish.
“He doesn’t have the legs to be the overall winner, but he certainly could worry the leaders and win some stages.
“The team as a whole could cause a few upsets.”
Sprinter Ciolek was crowned world under-23 champion in 2005, while he won the German Road Race title the same year when aged just 18 years old.
Germany badly needs some good news from the Tour in a country where the event’s image has been badly tarnished in recent years.
Zabel retired last season having won the green jersey for the points classification six times in 1996-2001, but in 2007 he admitted to using the banned blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO) earlier in his career while preparing for the 1996 Tour.
Jan Ullrich, Germany’s only Tour winner when he took the 1997 title, was linked to the Spanish doping scandal Operation Puerto in 2006 and sacked by former German team T-Mobile and later retired in February 2007.
Sinkewitz, an ex-team mate of both Ullrich and Zabel, was thrown out of the 2007 Tour for failing a test for the hormone testosterone.
He later admitted to a German Cycling Federation (BDR) disciplinary hearing he had used EPO and blood transfusions in the past.
Sinkewitz’s removal from the 2007 Tour led to the national broadcasters ARD and ZDF pulling the race from Germany’s television screens with no plans to screen the event again in the near future.