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It was a slow day at work today, the first day of the NCAA tournament. Everyone was abuzz with anticipation for the games at hand. The radio was tuned loud to AM 1320, KSCR here in Eugene... live broadcasts of the Michigan State win over Temple, the tight Xavier-Georgia and Marquette-Kentucky contests, and the beginning of the Stanford-Cornell brainiac-fest mixed with the acrid scent of oven cleaner to permeate the senses on this slow day at the University of Oregon's Catering kitchen...

Milan-San Remo... Freire pips Zabel @ the lineBut my heart wasn't really in the spirit of the tournament. Sure, I filled out my bracket (okay, BRACKETS), but my mind really was elsewhere. The season is getting kick-started in the hotbeds of cycling, with the 300-kilometer Milan-San Remo set to start its 99th running on Saturday. Before everyone begins harping that cycling is not a real sport, that it is rife with doping and hardly legitimate, think solely of the sheer endurance required to keep turning the legs over from... well, for all the Americans in here, it would be the equivalent of riding a bicycle from Boston to New York City, all in the span of seven hours...

As I said, cycling is quick to receive a bum wrap... but these athletes are tested more stringently for performance-enhancing drugs than any other athletes on earth. Because the sport has had such a long history of doping (from the post-war flood of amphetamines into the peloton to the rampant use of EPO in the nineties and the homologous blood doping of today), it has been at the forefront of the fight to eradicate the problem. THAT is why you hear more cyclists testing positive than athletes in any other sport...

But the race at hand this weekend will surely feature great competition, and CLEAN competition. And if it isn't, the cheat will be exposed in a timely fashion. Will last year's champion Oscar Friere defend his victory and win his third title? Will Alessandro Petacchi claim his second crown? Will Filippo Pozzato claim another without the dynamo that is Quick.Step backing his ambitions? Will another rider be pipped at the line a la Erik Zabel in 2004? Will wunderkind Tom Boonen recover from a dismal (by his standards) showing last season in the classics?

Petacchi was on form at the warm-up stage race Tirreno-Adriatico, winning a stage... but thrice world champion Freire was hotter, winning two stages -- including the Castelfidardo climb to finish stage six. This will come in handy as the riders attack the Poggio and Cipressa climbs near the finish line in San Remo. Davide Rebellin, the first person to claim all the races in the Ardennes weekend in April (Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallone, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege), won the final stage at the other warm-up, Paris-Nice... while Tornado Tom Boonen failed to claim a stage...

So the smart money says to double down on Freire. The Spaniard is on form, hungry to prove that his victories on the Via Roma haven't been flukes, and has placed his injury woes several seasons behind. Boonen will miss out once again on his chance; defending world champion and teammate Paolo Bettini will likely have as good a shot as his younger co-captain. And Petacchi should be on good enough form to round out the podium...


Meanwhile, we learn that David Beckham has been given the option of buying a Major League Soccer team when his five-year contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy expires in 2011. Certainly having some of the flow of cash reversed in regards to Beckham would be a boon to Don Garber and the MLS brass. But the precedent being continually set with the ongoing Beckham experiment is indeed portentous for the direction in which the 12-year-old league is headed. With the Designated Player Rule overworking the saliva glands of MLS owners, the ability to overspend on talent could easily doom America's second attempt at professional soccer in much the same manner as the first -- the North American Soccer League of Frans Beckenbauer and Pele. And if the precedent where these high-profile, highly-wealthy name players continue migrating to America with the hopes of someday owning their own franchise, the overexpansion of the MLS will saturate the market past the demand point, rendering the league obsolete...

Well, back to seeing if Belmont can pull off the upset against Duke, causing the Blue Devils to kill my bracket as they do every year. Enjoy the slew of basketball games, certainly... but don't forget about that wide wide world of sports spanning the globe out there...


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