The Elephant

Tour de France

The British have given us this expression “Elephant in the room” (also, according to Wikipedia,  “elephant in the sitting room”, “elephant in the living room”, “elephant in the parlor”, “elephant in the corner”, “elephant on the dinner table”, “elephant in the kitchen”, and “elephant on the coffee table”). And regardless of which room or on what piece of furniture the aforementioned pachyderm has chosen to rest his weary bones, the point is that the elephant is there, obvious, in plain sight. And yet, no one wants to talk about the elephant.

For a century, doping has been the elephant in cycling’s living room. In the early years of continental competition, riders were frequently charged with having cheated by drinking brandy during stages of grueling races. Later, amphetamines and cortisone crept in, and many of cycling’s greats were believed to be “doped” in these ways, including Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil. In the 1967 Tour de France, Tom Simpson died on the side of the road on Mont Ventoux, after mixing amphetamines with alcohol; his witches’ brew foreshadowed the even crazier concoctions such as pot belge that were to come. The sense that doping is a problem in modern cycling only is a misconception.

This elephant has always made himself comfortable, either on the chaise longue or perched happily next to the ottoman.

The British gave us the expression, and the Spanish have given us Alejandro Valverde, the top-ranked cyclist in the world last year by the UCI. Valverde is that rarest of riders, a strong climber who can time trial AND sprint. To earn his top UCI ranking, he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the 2008 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Spanish National Road Race Championship. He won Grand Tour Stages and the Vuelta a Murcia. In 2009, he won the Dauphiné again.

Valverde, at 29, is at the peak of his powers. He may well win the Vuelta a España, where he is, at time of writing, wearing the leader’s golden jersey. But what will it mean for the rider known as the Bala Verde(Green Bullet) if he does win? What will it mean for his team, Caisse d’Epargne? And what will it mean for pro cycling? There remains an elephant in the peloton.

What follows are facts: 1) Valverde rode for the Kelme team from 2002-2004. 2) During that time, Kelme’s riders were being cared for by Dr Eufemiano Fuentes. 3) In 2006, Fuentes was arrested after a large cache of blood bags, suspected to contain the blood of doped athletes, was found in his Madrid clinic. 4) The resulting scandal, known as Operación Puerto, implicated dozens of riders in the pro peloton. 5) In 2009, the Italian Olympic Committee professed to have linked one of the bags of blood, labelled “valv.piti” to Valverde, and subsequently brought the Spaniard to Italy to face doping charges. 6) Valverde maintained his innocence, but was banned from competing in Italy for two years anyway, which caused him to miss the Tour de France. 7) Valverde has filed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sport with the hope of overturning his Italian ban and clearing his name.  8) A Spanish judge has sealed the evidence in the Operación Puerto case, preventing both Italian and cycling authorities from moving forward with prosecutions of any implicated riders.

Judge Antonio Serrano, who has presided in often controversial fashion over the Puerto case, has hewn closely to the letter of the Spanish law. It seems that at the time of the raid on Fuentes’ clinic, the substances allegedly found in only a handful of the blood samples, were not in fact illegal in Spain. Serrano has, for that reason, closed the case against Fuentes and his co-defendants repeatedly. That the alleged doping agents are illegal under the laws of the UCI doesn’t trouble Serrano in the least. The thinking is that, since no laws were broken prior to the collection of the evidence, the evidence was seized unlawfully. Further, the handling of the blood by authorities has been problematic in its own right. The Italian Olympic Committee claims it has a bag of blood from Fuentes’ clinic and has matched it to Valverde. Quite how they got that blood, how it was handled and what jurisdiction they have over a Spanish rider involved in a closed Spanish court case are all questions hanging heavy in the air.

We know the following for sure: 1) The case against Valverde is largely circumstantial, because the blood in the bag alleged to be his has not been matched to a DNA sample submitted by the rider, and whether you believe his denials or not, he continues to ride, confident that he can clear his name. 2) While the Italian Olympic Committe, who take an active role in doping investigations in Italy, have banned him, the Spaniard has challenged their jurisdiction over his case, as any offenses purportedly occurred in Spain.

What follows is conjecture: 1) The UCI is said to be disappointed that the Spanish courts have sealed the case records, but it is entirely possible that they simply want to appear disappointed, because if, as suspected, the number and caliber of riders (close to 50) involved were all suspended, it would decimate the ProTour. 2) It is possible that Valverde was storing blood with Fuentes without having used it. He may have done what Ivan Basso eventually admitted to in the same Puerto case, which is “intending to dope.” 3) By continuing to ride and be tested, Valverde may be building a case for his innocence based on “clean” wins, that is, wins without positive dope tests. 4) If the Italians had actual proof, i.e. a DNA sample they could match to the bag of blood, then they presumably would have turned that evidence over to the UCI, which would effectively end Valverde’s efforts to clear himself. That the Italians haven’t done so, implies that their case is, in fact, only circumstantial.

If Valverde wins the Vuelta, there are two possible scenarios that could play out, each with drastically different consequences. First, it’s possible that a Valverde win will force all of this to be rehashed in the press, and perhaps more pressure will mount on the Spanish courts to release the case material, which would, of course unleash pandemonium, a pandemonium that’s been hibernating since 2006. This chain of events would take us back to Floyd Landis being stripped of his Tour de France win, of Michael Rasmussen being kicked out of the Tour while wearing the yellow jersey. It would indict the sport anew and quite possibly end Caisse d’Epargne and Valverde all in one fell swoop. It might put paid to the idea that the current testing program is sufficient. If Valverde, a rider many believe to have doped, can win without a positive, in competition test, then it’s fair to ask how effective the testing regime really is. Regardless, this is not what pro cycling needs, in what all of us hope is a new era of transparency and fairness.

Or, perhaps winning a Grand Tour without testing positive for EPO or CERA or testosterone or excess Nutella, will convince both the authorities and the fans that digging into the Puerto vault serves no real purpose. Valverde’s taken his lumps. Maybe he can move on now. Maybe we can all move on, forgiving dopers their past and celebrating the techniques and results of the teams who have taken on programs built around racing clean.

To be sure, someone, somewhere, at some point, is going to have to comprehensively address this latest elephant in the room. It remains to be seen whether the elephant will stand up and make his own presence felt, or whether he’ll simply slink out the back door leaving nothing but a vague odor and a deep dent in the couch.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Larry T.

    A touchy subject but I’ll step in the swamp anyway–hard to believe the Italians don’t have a DNA sample from testing conducted on Valv-Piti on Italian soil as he raced there in recent years. Matching this to a bag with a “Valv-Piti” label would pretty much indicate the contents belonged to Valverde–the argument would be how and where the bag was obtained. If proof exists it came from the Puerto raids it oughta be game over for Valverde. Maybe not in a legal/criminal sense but the UCI is supposed to enforce the sporting rules all license holders agree to respect, so he should get at least a two-year ban like Basso served. UCI should pressure the Spanish cycling federation to obtain the rest of the Puerto evidence, not for criminal prosecution but simply to enfore the rules of the sport. The threat of tossing the Spanish federation out of cycling might be enough to get this done but the UCI doesn’t seem to have the cojones or perhaps the authority to actually do it. If Valv-Piti and all the rest of the Spanish folks on the Puerto list were forced to get licences elsewhere, (as long as it’s not Luxembourg or Kazakstan)they might come under scrutiny like the French and Italian riders face. The rules should be changed to the UCI determining and handing down suspensions and penalties rather than the individual federations, who have a reverse incentive to sanction their riders since other countries don’t seem to care that one of their license holders secretly wired a pile of euros to Fuentes and Co for “training advice”. Perhaps some of this will be prevented in the future if they can finally devise a test to catch transfusers using their own blood. As long as this is undetectable this 40+ year old technology seems to be the choice of cheaters now that so many other blood-improvement schemes are detectable– though it seems some still slip through that net. While cheating will never be eliminated entirely, I believe a reliable test protocol to catch those using their own banked blood will do a lot to clean things up–how long before they have one? Sadly, Mr. Green Bullet will likely have won the Vuelta and possibly the World’s before real action is taken against him—and at that point will the rulers of cycling really want to do this to a guy wearing the rainbow jersey? There would be a pretty big elephant in the UCI office if Valv-Piti is cycling’s World Champion. I’ll hope Damiano Cunego can prevent this terrible scenario in Mendrisio and somehow, some way, Valv-Piti (and the rest of the Puerto clients) eventually face the sanctions they deserve.

  2. Darren

    If you dope with your own blood (homologous blood transfusions) I would guess that it would help by increasing your hematocrit/hemoglobin so. For STARTERS, how about posting the biopassport of every rider in the pro tour (or that are willing to sign up for a particular grand tour)? At least we could see where someone like Valverde is in the usual spectrum of hematocrits…like teetering around 50 or lower. If significantly lower then we wouldn’t really be that suspicious. I don’t know why there is some charade of about ‘personal medical information’ since these are pro riders and this is to me the same as weighing their bike to make sure it’s not 13 lbs (not that I think that’s an important rule but it is a rule that would give you an advantage if you broke it). Sure lay folks and press could incorrectly jump to all sorts of conclusions but if this is about public trust why are they hiding things? Clearly we don’t trust the testing authorities…

  3. Josh

    ever heard of chain-of-custody? if the Italion OC obtained a bag of blood (an awesome image, by the way) without being able to explain how it came into their possession, there’s no way of knowing how it was handled or who may have contaminated it. basic scientific procedure.

  4. BBB

    It’s all a bit of a joke really. One rider gets named in the press for allegedly doping to win a big race and the UCI appoints an ‘independent’ lawyer to investigate and hey presto a 100 page report is bashed out clearing the rider in question, or at least questioning the testing procedure. The following year 50 plus riders get implicated in a sting in Spain, including some of the sports biggest names. In response, the UCI merely requests a copy of the court file from the Spanish. Any action taken is mirred in federation politics. Three years down the track and the ramifications are still being felt. How more blatant does the said elephant have to be than a prominent team manager walking into a cafe with one suitcase and leaving with another, with one containing money and the other refridgerated blood?

  5. Larry T.

    The UCI needs to make a decision–is cycling a SPORT with rules and regulations or ENTERTAINMENT (like pro wrestling) where anything goes as long as it results in a good show for the fans? There should be clear distinctions about violations and sanctions of the sporting rules vs criminal activity. The Spanish claim of no laws against blood doping on the books at the time of the Puerto raids is OK, nobody should go to jail, but everyone involved in the scheme should find something else to do outside cycling for two years (at least) and their victories and prize monies ought to go to the guys below them on the results sheet who were not found to be cheating. One wonders about Gilberto Simoni back when Basso so easily wiped the floor with him and the other Giro contenders a few years ago. There was a Spanish guy, nicknamed “Buffalo” in second place on the podium who later was nabbed as a doper as I recall. Did Simoni get declared the winner of the Giro since it seems both Basso and this Spaniard cheated and were (later) sanctioned? It’s easy to see how the riders could get jaded and cynical when guys they are pretty sure are doped get away with it time after time while others get sanctioned despite no positive dope tests (as in Basso’s case) while another fellow gets heralded as the savior of cycling while allegations swirl around about his long-time involvement with doping, including positive EPO tests from 1999. Hard to believe there’s been not a single postive dope test from LeTour 2009. I guess all the big-time cheaters nowadays are simply transfusing–they’re too clever to be caught in any substance tests.

  6. Sophrosune

    I think the Spanish government and its courts may come under increasing pressure in the coming weeks to comply with international pressure to release all of the materials on this case. This is due to the fact that Madrid desperately wants to win 2016 Summer Olympic Games and be the host city. The biggest obstacle it appears to this happening is their rather poor rules governing doping (read: Valverde case). I think what we might see is that next Monday, after the Vuelta is over and Valverde has won, the Spanish courts will make a stunning reversal and release all of the Operacion Puerto materials in the hope (and I believe vain hope) that Madrid will then be rewarded the status of host city for the Olympics in 2016. I am not certain of this, but I put it out there as a possible scenario.

  7. Da Robot

    @Sophrosune – You may well be right. The machinations of Olympic bid politicking are beyond my tine processor’s capacity to understand. If there are humans involved, and a lot of money, it’s a safe bet that corruption, skullduggery and the martyrdom of world-class cyclists are all on the table as strategies.

    The overarching point, I think, is that these things don’t go away. The Spanish courts can sit on the evidence, but to borrow a famous phrase, “Doping will out.” This is why Valverde has put himself in such a perilous situation. To further his career he has to try to win races, but the more races he wins the greater the scrutiny of his past behavior. Winning a Grand Tour, and really, how can he lose at this point, is only going to make it worse.

  8. Larry T.

    Valv-Piti’s PAST behaviour? I guess you mean creating evidence that could come back to haunt him for I doubt seriously that his actual behaviour (ie topping up his own blood supply with pints banked earlier) has changed much. Is this the first Grand Tour he’s done (barring any meltdown or drug raids before Sundays’ finale) without the “jour sans” as the French say? I would hope the Olympic angle would be enough to get the Spaniards to be serious about doping, but I fear it won’t come before the World’s next weekend and Valv-Piti’s sure to be a contender there. If I believed in higher powers I’d be praying he doesn’t go home from Mendrisio in a rainbow jersey! IOC and WADA could put pressure on UCI to shape up in general or face exclusion from the Games..but I wonder if Verbruggen/McQuaid would even care?

  9. Alex Murray

    I thought that the Italian authorities had matched the blood bag via blood samples legitimately taken during the rest day after stage 15 (?) of the 2008 TDF in Italy.

    One version has it that CONI waited until Judge Serrano was on holiday and then put in its request for the relevant evidence to the interim judge. This was made via the Italian Police (using Interpol evidence-sharing agreements) on the ground of their laws covering sporting fraud/deception.

    It’s interesting to note that Valverde may not be trying to clear his name on the grounds that it wasn’t his blood but on the ground that the Italian authorities were acting beyond their jurisdiction. Cycling Weekly has certainly reported as much:

  10. Marc L

    This is a very interesting post with excellent comments. My take on the current situation with the “elephant in the room” is that the UCI is trying to (1) sit on existing cases until things die down, (2) obstruct any efforts to pursue strict anti-doping tests and protocol by the AFLD or others and (3) work with the teams to put in place aqnd legitimize the biopassport scheme so as to MANAGE performance enhancement in the pro peloton. The issue seems to be that the main players involved in pro cycling – primarily the UCI, teams and organizers – know that performance enhancement is essential for the cyclists to perform at ever increasing levels. Thus the key thing is to manage and control how this is done to avoid scandals and obvious cheating. I’d also got as far as saying that the IOC backs up the UCI in these efforts as that seems to be the modus operandi of the IOC for other olympic sports that also have doping problems but keep them under wraps.

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