The Elephant II

Last September I wrote The Elephant, an analysis cum-indictment of Alejandro Valverde, his role in Operación Puerto and the doping shadow hanging over the pro peloton. Since that time, Valverde has won the Vuelta a España. Then, and perhaps still, Valverde represented the modern face of doping controversy, arguably the top rider in the world, at least by UCI ranking, with the strongest circumstantial link to serious foul play. His persistence, both in protesting his innocence and winning big races, seemed to me like the single biggest threat to cycling’s future.

Six months on, my perspective has shifted.

And what caused that shift? Improbably, it was the issue, in France, of an arrest warrant for Floyd Landis on the grounds that the American rider had hacked into the computer system of the French lab that produced his doping positive in 2006 in order to steal documents pertaining to his case. The very notion of the Metallica-quoting, former Mennonite engaging in any sort of international computer skullduggery so amused me that I resolved to read his book, Positively False: the Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, a tome I had, up to this point, disregarded as superfluous to my understanding of how the cycling world works.

Landis’ book isn’t great. It sort of wanders all over the place, basically outlining what a naive, straight shooter its protagonist is and then lambasting the process of appealing a doping ban and indicting the system that convicted him more than the science, though there’s a bit of that too. I’ll save you the blow-by-blow of my reading the book, then turning to the internet and hundreds of additional pages of independent legal analysis as well as USADA memos, etc. as I stopped thinking about Landis mostly and instead sought to understand more fully how the anti-doping effort actually works.

And what I learned is that it’s complicated.

I thought it was complicated before, but mainly from an administrative standpoint. What I discovered is that testing, sanctioning and prosecuting dopers is a Kafka-esque legal undertaking wed to a scientific process that struggles for accuracy, repeatability and consistency from race to race, country to country and year to year. I began, if I’m honest, with a desire to believe that Floyd Landis didn’t cheat, a desire born of liking the public image of the rider more than anything concrete, and I ended with a deep ambivalence about Landis and subsequently my prize elephant, Valverde.

I realized that I had been applying a double standard.

I loved Landis’ performance in the 2006 Tour, the way he seemed to be assuming the mantle of American cycling leadership from a retired Lance Armstrong, his folksiness, and that amazing comeback on Stage 17, the performance that ultimately led to his doping positive and being stripped of the Tour de France victory.

I didn’t like Valverde. Viewed through the prism of the Puerto investigation, I convicted him of cheating, based on the circumstantial evidence available through the press, and then further indicted him for his flamboyant denials and audacity in continuing to compete in the biggest races at the highest level. In my mind, I was watching a cheat who suffered no consequences. He rubbed our noses in it. He imperiled our sport for his own selfish interests.

This is, of course, complete prejudice.

I don’t know Floyd Landis, and I don’t know if he cheated. I’ve heard awfully compelling arguments that he did, and equally strong reasoning to suggest he didn’t. I don’t know Alejandro Valverde, and I don’t know if he cheated either. Maybe yes. Maybe no.

By continuing to ride, and by the UCI and now CAS (the Court of Arbitration for Sport) taking so long to resolve his case, Valverde has remained the elephant in the peloton. But maybe what that elephant points out is not that doping is alive and well, but rather that the UCI’s system for detecting and prosecuting doping cases is nowhere near sufficient to the task. Valverde goes on winning, a path not available to Landis, and by doing so he proves one of two things, possibly both, that he can win races without dope or, in the event he was and is doping, that the tests don’t work nearly well enough.

Today, the Vuelta a Murcia rolls out of its start in Spain. That race’s director, Paco Guzman, barred Italian teams from entering his race to protest, he said, the Italian’s ban on Valverde, who is from Murcia. Ironically, Valverde and his team, Caisse d’Epargne aren’t racing Murcia either, due to a mixup over payments. At time of writing, UCI chief Pat McQuaid had become involved, threatening Guzman with UCI sanction and demanding an apology. It’s an ugly mess.

I see now that cycling’s politics don’t admit of easy resolutions for what, to most fans, seem like straightforward questions. Did a rider dope? Did he not? Are the races clean? Is the process fair? Are the rules applied equally across the sport?

Last September I wrote that Alejandro Valverde was the elephant, but now I see that no one rider can own that distinction. In fact, now that we’ve recognized the doping and the problems it cause, what remains is the UCI’s ability, or lack thereof, to clean things up, to give us a clean competition where we trust the participants, the administrators and the results. This is the elephant who casts its enormous, gray shadow over the races, the sponsorships, the legends and the rising stars. The dope lingers because we don’t know how to stop it. The UCI is as confused as the riders are. And I, as a fan, have to find a way to reserve judgement, for now, and possibly forever.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. sophrosune

    Da Robot, I agree with your final conclusion that the UCI remains one of the biggest problems in cleaning up the sport. This has long been the case, I believe.

    Like you, I also have been inclined to wish that Landis was innocent of his doping charges. However, I don’t and never have shared your dislike for Valverde. Not sure really what prompts that, is it some US rider: good, Spanish rider: not good type of thing?

    Anyway, it seems you have really become set on the idea that anything short of complete omniscience leaves you unprepared to offer any kind of conclusion on the guilt or innocence of anyone or anything, “Maybe yes. Maybe no.” Sometimes we have to take the facts we have and use our common sense and reasoning to reach some kind of conclusion. We certainly don’t always have to do this, but in an opinion piece on the problem of doping in cycling, you might want to come down on one side or the other and explain why.

    1. Padraig

      I’m with Da Robot on this. I think we’ve been too quick to render verdicts. I’ve got riders I don’t like and riders I do like, and I do what I can to set that aside as I write. My suspicions really have no business entering into what I write about a guy. But his point is more about how we look at the sport as we watch the racing. And I do struggle to let the jury remain in the next room when some young upstart gets a surprising win. Thomas Dekker is a great example of a fresh talent who proved to be less than meets the eye.

      I wrote a fair amount about Landis and his appeal to CAS for BKW. I read every page of the proceedings. By the end, what troubled me was that the judiciary was not impartial as we expect in most governments. The prosecution and the jury were part of the same apparatus, so Landis’ appeal was essentially being made to prosecutors. We have exactly the opposite approach in Spain, where the Spanish federation appears to be actively defending riders. Both systems are wrong By the end of the proceeding I believed that even though it was possible and maybe even likely Landis doped, I don’t think they caught him at it. The proceedings’ lack of transparency is what caused many to believe a kangaroo court was held.

      Finally, I do think Landis’ treatment would have been different had he been from another country. I think parts of his prosecution were payback for too many victories by Armstrong and part of it was USADA feeling it needed to appear really tough on doping.

  2. SinglespeedJarv

    Over the past four years I have variously wanted Valverde banned or pardoned, the want for a ban – other than for the year after Puerto – usually coincided with another news story/legal case about/against him and the fact that I was fed-up with him pissing on our sport. The times I’ve wanted him pardoned though, is more because he quite clearly isn’t the rider he once was. I may be wrong – but I can’t bring myself to check endless results – but he seems to have done better in the past season or season and a half than he did for the couple of years after Puerto. Come the final CAS descision I might actually find myself feeling sorry for Valverde. But probably not.

    Either way, the UCI should have long drawn a line in the sand one way or the other about all this.

    As for Landis, he rates slightly lower than Hamilton (mainly due to Hamilton’s admission to depression) on my scale of loathing due to the way they both flogged every possibly dubious legal, scientific and medical angle and got their fans to pay for it.

  3. souleur

    All good points, and thanks fellas for it.

    There are more variables at play here than Einstien rolling the rubik’s cube of relativity and coming up w/E=mc2. The good point about our judiciary & our legal assumptions are one thing, but those assumptions are different depending on which country takes the helm. Not to mention just adding in motives & intentions of each body/country.

    Then the science and the UCI’s impotence is well pointed out by Robot, and I agree. Sadly, the dopers, their docs and all will always have a headstart if you will and its a logical approach if you think about it, that indeed the pursuer cannot out run the offenders, else they just take a turn or dive into an alley way. Its a real conundrum without a doubt.

    In terms of Landis, knowing the science behind everything as I do, I tend to allow him a little room on this to save himself, but I also gave Valverde the same. I did not ever see the same in Valverde as a GC’r as many others did, but I didn’t condemn him either. That is just me.

    If we could get the UCI, and other bodies such as WADA, ASO, heck-throw in the Olympic doping agency too (they are very good) and have them all to stop having territorial pissing contests, come together in a more unified way (ha) with the common purpose (ha), to monitor, enforce, and try offenders, perhaps dopers would have a harder time. But as is, the fragmented concerns allow them to run and hide in shadows to some degree.

    However, wouldn’t it just change to something else?? Isn’t that just part of cyclings long history, cheating, catching cheaters…only to find more cheats?? I think it would just change to a novel new approach of cheating, maybe like bionics or something??

  4. Matt Walsh

    For me, Alejandro Valverde is the biggest black eye in the sport and a profound embarrassment for the UCI which seems incapable to policing anything but time trial bikes.
    But I agree with your opinion on him and Landis. I too loved Landis’ unique style and personality. I so wanted to believe he was innocent. But his strange and angry behavior ever since has lost him many fans and believers.
    I hope CAS finally resolves this and suspends Valverde. I’ll always miss Floyd in the Tour de France but that will clearly never happen.

  5. Robot

    My like for Landis and dislike for Valverde had nothing to do with country of origin. There are plenty of American cyclists I don’t root for and plenty of Spaniards I do. These biases are all personal, as I said above, based on nothing concrete really.

    With Valverde, I don’t like that he’s trying to escape the ban, not by protesting his innocence, but by protesting CONI’s jurisdiction. He makes a fair point jurisdictionally, but it would sound better to my ears if he came up with a plausible denial.

    In the Landis case, I am left without a strong feeling either way. If someone like Don Catlin, who ran the lab at UCLA, were to tell me that Landis cheated, then I’d buy it. As it stands, the WADA and USADA system doesn’t actually judge whether or not the athlete doped. It only decides whether or not it followed its own protocols in finding the doping offense to begin with. It calls itself as expert witness to testify to its own competence. In my mind, that doesn’t pass the smell test.

    Having said that, Landis may have doped. I just don’t think the system designed to catch and convict him works very well to establish the truth. And, I think it’s easy to say that the French lab who tested his piss was VERY sloppy. In the end, WADA’s ruling against Landis amounted to acknowledging all the sloppiness but still maintaining the results of the tests were valid, but then they’ve got every motivation to say that. It doesn’t sound good to say, “Well, yeah Floyd. Our work was a shambles, so we’ll let you off the hook.” Gives a bad impression. Sets a bad precedent.

    Again, Landis could have doped, but I don’t think USADA or WADA or the UCI really established that he did so in anything other than the most cursory fashion. Their evidence (and the process) would never hold up in a court of law, and I think it’s a shame to ruin a guy’s career over that.

    And so, once you’ve decided that the WADA system is geared to convict dopers, rather than actually determining whether the accused is guilty, it’s hard to shift your gaze onto Valverde and say, “That guy’s a cheater.”

    I’m also inclined to say that if you can ride under the doping accusations that Valverde rides under, win a Grand Tour and not test positive by the UCI system, you might as well be innocent.

    This is all a long-winded way to say, I’m not sure we’re any closer to a cleaner (or dirtier) sport than we were in 2006, so I’m just going to stop worrying about who the dopers MIGHT be and enjoy the racing.

  6. OnTheRivet

    Padraig, you last paragraph has always been my contention also. It was almost like USADA was making Landis a sacrificial lamb as some form of contrition to the WADA/UCI/AFLD for previous sins, pissed me off they weren’t in his corner, Steve Johnson is a tool.

  7. sophrosune

    Well said, Da Robot. I think with the Valverde case the problem in Spain is that a criminal judge has said that no crime on the books was committed so that the Guardia Civil’s confisication of all this blood could itself have been illegal and nobody can do anything with it until they figure out what to do. Italy didn’t like that very much after one of their star riders confessed to a crime that could never have been proven.

    That said, I think there is a big difference between a positive in-competition test (albeit with the shoddy handling) and having a bag of blood that may or may not be yours found at a doctor’s office and never testing positive. It seems odd that the general sentiment is that Landis was railroaded and Valverde is stonewalling. Strange.

  8. Lachlan

    Problem is, as you say: its complicated.

    And the UCI has neither the sole man power, money nor more importantly the jurisdiction in sporting and legal terms over the whole process.

    I personally think the UCI does a lot of strange things and is too political, but in doping matters they can’t be held solely to blame for the procedures, and they’re sure as hell not to blame for cheating. I know riders in the 90’s felt tacit endorsement of doping due to UCI inaction, but today that is not remotely so.

    I don’t blame cops in ability to stop / return bike thefts, I blame the guys that steal the bikes. Likewise dopers.
    Yes we need a better system, but the mess is the cheats fault to start with, don’t stop giving them a hard time when they are caught / implicated. Nail ’em for ever column inch of bad publicity you can give ’em please.

  9. Robot

    @lachlan I don’t hold the UCI solely responsible, but they’ve done a lot to vilify some riders who they don’t then proceed to properly convict of having done anything wrong. I blame the dopers, but the legal system is poorly designed to drive them out. It seems to take a baby-with-the-bath-water approach.

    This is the problem with leaking the names of riders who test positive. It completely corrupts the process, damages the rider, damages the team and damages the sport. The UCI seems to want to shift all the burden for cleaning the sport onto the riders, and that alone is not going to work.

    I think the fundamental point the UCI misses is one of public perception. They want to be perceived to be driving the dope out, but all they’re really doing is driving suspect riders into the public eye. They create bad publicity where sometimes it doesn’t exist.

    One thing that I believe would help is a statute of limitations for doping offenses and a compacted timeline for dealing with and prosecuting positive tests. These controversies can’t be allowed to drag on and on. It’s the cure that’s killing the patient.

  10. Robot

    @Sophrosune I think the reason that Valverde is perceived as stonewalling is that he could very easily submit to DNA testing that would either connect him to the blood bag labeled ‘valv.piti’ or confirm that he’s not involved. Instead, he’s just saying that CONI have no jurisdiction over the evidence or the prosecution.

    I agree with him on that, but it doesn’t leave him looking like an innocent bystander.

    Still, that he hasn’t tested positive argues pretty strongly that he’s been racing clean, or at least clean enough.

  11. Doug

    And yet no reliable test exists for those who design their whole training program around the need to stockpile little bags of (their own) blood. Makes me wonder why certain racers have such a short season and seem to win or place well in ONLY the races they obviously want to win.

  12. Souleur

    Doug, there is actually a test, called ‘flow cytometry’ that detects the autologous blood dope. Its a very technical and very specific test initially used in oncology diagnostics but carried over to the doping arena as well now, and when used will bust dopers for this.

    they literally line up the individual blood cells, flow them through a line if you will and measure them one by one and can extrapolate the similarity or lack there of in sampling. If one never self infused, the cell sizes are very uniform. If one autologously dopes, the extraction and holding and re-donating will alter a good number of the fragile cells, they shrink, they expand, some pop. They can’t get around that.

    just for info.

  13. Lachlan

    @ robot some of that’s definitely true, but didn’t the leaks of riders names have more to do in Valverde’s case with the Spanish authorities and the media? (honest question) I maybe missed that suspects are being outed to the media by the UCI, not others.
    And I had the impression the UCI were gagging to go after Valverde legally but can’t due to the Spanish court system’s retention of evidence and jurisdiction… (country laws trumping sporting ones of course!!)

    The systems is definitely screwed, and it seems like either the normal legal system has to step up OR get out of it completely and let sporting bodies deal with it. Sadly, today, neither seem capable of doing a good job.

    1. Padraig

      A few more things to add to the conversation …

      Sophrosune: Regarding the Valverde stalling/Landis railroaded thing, as had been mentioned, Valverde’s defense is based solely on jurisdiction; it hasn’t filled many of us with confidence that he’s innocent. Regarding Landis, a big problem there is that most of the scientists in the world that understand the tests involved in his case do work for WADA. They have a clause in their contract that if you do work for them, you cannot testify on behalf of an athlete. Landis’ team had to go to Ireland to find a scientist who could help them.

      As to the criticism of Steve Johnson, I came away with fewer problems with him than with Travis Tygart’s adversarial nature. He seemed more concerned with getting his man than with learning the truth and that always boggled my mind. I can’t understand why USADA would place a higher priority on conviction than discovering the truth.

      And to Souleur’s point of flow cytometry, so far it has only been used to test for homologous transfusions, which is what got Hamilton and his teammate Santi Perez. I’ve always wondered what their blood types were and if their blood bags were simply confused. Currently, the big indicator for autologous blood doping is the biological passport. The body responds to a transfusion by essentially turning down production of EPO, among other things. As Paul Scott told me, anything you do in the blood has a feedback mechanism and the body will respond.

      Lachlan: Yes, the news came about because the Spanish police leaked the info to the media. The real problem in Spain is a lack of will. Several legal scholars have shown how certain laws could be applied to the case to pursue prosecution. The Spanish cycling federation has fought this and seems to be defending the riders, rather than showing an interest in the truth. It’s as mystifying a position as USADA’s.

  14. jza

    If it looks like a monkey, smells like a monkey and goes up a hill like a monkey driving a Ferrari…..and then the only other ones at the top are also Ferrari driving monkeys….It is most likely indeed a monkey.

  15. Robot

    @Lachlan Usually the leaks come from the labs. L’Equipe has been particularly good at infiltrating labs to get the dope (see what I’m doing here) on the latest positive tests.

    In the Landis case, I might add, the lab tech who tested his sample admitted to knowing that it was his sample, despite those things being “blinded” by sample codes.

    @jza If you’ve got video of monkeys driving Ferarris, don’t hold out on us, man. That sounds better than the Super Bowl Halftime Show®.

  16. Mike

    I am not a Landis fan. I did follow the case with interest in the process and it has been comprehensively analyzed in multiple outlets. As a researcher I have to be critical of the methodological shortcomings identified in the case. Landis’ defense team (based on both observations and admissions of the lab personnel) had good cause to question the results. Putting it simply, if I tried to publish a study in a legitimate professional journal with methods as flawed as those in the Landis case, that manuscript would be summarily rejected. This being said, my skepticism of the process is grounded in a much simpler issue. Nothing in this world is perfect. However, (and please correct me if my information is inaccurate) my understanding of WADA/USADA “trials” is that they ALWAYS win (100%). So, if a cyclist is charged it becomes a foregone conclusion that the cyclist will be found guilty. Again, no system/process is that perfect (especially when science is involved). A final note, I read that during the Landis hearing the French Open tennis tournament held in Paris (less than an hour from the lab) opted to send their samples to a lab in Toronto, Canada. When questioned why, the official said it was a matter of convenience. I am not sure how sending samples across the ocean is more convenient than sending them less than an hour away. This struck me more as a vote of no confidence in their own lab. Anyway, the system and processes within the system are flawed and, while guilty cyclists are being caught, I am afraid that others who are not guilty are being/will be caught in the net as well.

  17. Souleur

    @Padraig, good point, I suppose I should have clarified that the tool is there if they would use it in all cases, both homologous/autologous. It would detect the differences. It is costly, perhaps limiting in that. Its true, the body maintains homeostasis and thus in a negative feedback loop the EPO will fall, naturally, but with a shot of EPO, will stay perfectly up;-)

    The biologic passport was the smartest thing running.

  18. Randomactsofcycling

    Yes, let’s not all forget the Elephant is the dope. Or is it the temptation to dope? How many guys (and girls for that matter…) are racing around wondering “will I get caught if I try it?”. This is where the Biological Passport will be (and is being) effective. It is the highest level deterrent we have come up with so far. Goodness knows the health side effects of doping don’t seem to deter.
    And with the ability to go back and re-test when a profile looks suspicious (gotcha, Mr ‘i only doped once in the winter’ Decker), surely the Elephant is losing weight…..please tell me the elephant is losing weight…..please.

  19. Taterboy

    Here is what has helped me get my head around the mess that is the WADA system – a realization that it is only a cold calculating effort to protect the Olympic brand. If you stop confusing yourself that it has some roots in legality or some moral / ethical agenda, and simply dissect the proceedings as an entity which has accrued an immense amount of global influence and wealth working to protect its image, it will invariably make sense.

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