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