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