The Taint of Suspicion

Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.

Robot has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.

Linger. Fester. Spread. Grow.

When you think about the words that are used in conjunction with the noun suspicion they are words used to apply action to sores, smells and cancers. And like a cancer, suspicion can spread in directions surprising and predictable at equal rates.

Alexander Vinokourov’s win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us examples of both. That suspicions linger about what sort of rider he is—that is, how he achieves his success—should surprise no one. What may have surprised you was to hear boos from the crowd as he crossed the line. No matter who’s feed you watched, the crowd’s disapproval was audible.

Was Vinokourov naive to be shocked? No. It was a crowd display that is unprecedented and stands in direct opposition to Richard Virenque’s win in Paris-Tours just months after his return to competition following his suspension for doping. The two situations couldn’t be more similar and yet, the crowd reactions couldn’t have been more dissimilar.

Virenque was hailed by the crowd as if he was a returning war hero. He was lionized in the (French) press as a true champion. He was still and again Richard the Lionhearted, the darling of France.

Vino? Not so much.

To be booed must have hurt. How could it not? That’s got to be defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. And then to be questioned by the press as much about his past vis-a-vis doping as the circumstances that led to his win was obviously infuriating, so much so that he took the unusual step of writing an open letter to the cycling world. You’ve probably seen it, but if not, you can read it here.

Vinokourov asks a fair question: Why can he line up for a race, but not win it? Indeed, the boos took the sweetness of victory from him more certainly than the UCI ever could. Why roll across the line first if you won’t be granted the crowd’s adulation?

Many writers have contrasted Vinokourov with David Millar and wondered why we accept the Scot, but not the Kazakh. It’s a fair comparison and could serve as a very teachable moment for Vinokourov.

So Millar’s apartment in Biarritz is raided by police and they find a syringe with traces of EPO. Millar responds by confessing. He told us not only that he had used EPO, he told authorities exactly how long he had used the drug and how using it weighed on him.

As doping confessions in cycling go, it’s the single best example out there.

Richard Virenque denied, denied, denied and then confessed—tearily—in court at the sharp end of a prosecutor. It worked for the French but anyone without a Gallic soul was left adrift by it.

Bernard Kohl conducted interviews on a monthly basis with German media, teasing out details of his past and his knowledge of doping in what seemed to be a calculated effort to keep his name in the headlines. In the end, it seemed self-serving.

Kayle Leogrande confessed in confidence to soigneur Susanne Sonye and after she testified about what he told her he sued her. That suit was ruled a SLAP and tossed out of court, but not until another cyclist, lawyer Tom Fitzgibbon, came to her rescue. Leogrande? Persona non grata to the cycling world.

Four confessions. Four very different results.

Vinkourov has confessed virtually nothing. We remain suspicious. We suspect much about his past. And because he has done things recently—such as train in Tenerife (the current haunt of doping docs Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes), a place nearly as out-of-the-way as Mexico when considered from the Continent—that smack of present doping practices, we suspect there is more to the story.

In his letter he refers to “the dark years of my career.”

Years. Plural.

Imagine that on the evening Vinokourov was ejected from the Tour in 2007 he had given a press conference. And suppose that during the press conference he had said, “Yes, I used a clinic in (insert name of German town here) to conduct blood doping. Earlier, when I was at T-Mobile, we used EPO and our system was organized by (insert name of dirtbag here). My first drug use was in 199x and that season I won X, Y and Z with its help.

We wouldn’t like the news, but at least we’d know. His suspension, in the wake of a confession could serve as a sort of penance for all of his past doping.

Vinokourov was suspended for a single infraction—not years of drug use—and to this day has confessed nothing directly. He says, “I don’t think cycling needs to reconsider all these dirty stories to move forward.”

Wrong. Worse yet, he adds, “I have nothing to hide.”

Again, he has confessed nothing, though he has referred obliquely to years of drug use, so it is impossible for this one suspension to serve as penance for years of standard practice. He is still hiding much.

Let’s consider how the courts would view this. For pleading guilty and confessing the full extent of the crime(s), a person is almost always rewarded with a reduced sentence. And then there’s the plea bargain, in which the criminal signs a full and complete confession and in exchange is charged with a lesser crime. Very often, it’s a trade to avoid being convicted of a felony. In the United States, the punishment for a felony conviction lasts long after any prison time has been served and any fine paid. The felon cannot vote and will forever have ‘splaining to do in job interviews.

It would seem that Vinokourov is suffering the sort of moral equivalent to a felony conviction. He won the race, but not in the hearts of many present.

In closing his letter he writes, “I can’t do more than what the sport regulations ask me, to prove my honesty. Today, I only wish to be respected as I respect everyone, my colleagues in the peloton as the journalists. I don’t want to be the only and too easy target for all the ills of cycling.”

In this, he misses the point entirely. He has never proven his honesty. Sure, he’s testing clean now, and while we should applaud him for that much, because we don’t know the full extent of his past, we struggle to trust him in the present.

And is he the “only and too easy target”? Not by a long shot. Now would be exactly the wrong moment for him to play the persecution card.

Vino, you have nothing in common with Job.

Let us hear him say, “I did X. I was wrong. I am sorry,” and that, sports fans, truly is a game changer.

Were Vinokourov to hold a press conference on the eve of the Giro d’Italia and finally confess everything he did and knew, I truly believe he could win the prologue the next day and be applauded.

His career is a matter of reputation, something only he can restore.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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22 comments

  1. Pingback: The Vinokourov Letter : Red Kite Prayer

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  3. hr.becker

    Firstly Vino says “I paid two years on suspension for the dark years of my career”. one can interpret this in many ways, why should one do so in the most negative of ways, it can also be read as the dark years he endured before, as an ultimate act of a person in great despair, he looked for dope.
    Secondly, the way he won is stuff of legends, he rode away with 20 to go and then left behind his breakaway companion in an uphill slugfest with sparks flying and muscles rolling. why can’t we just enjoy that?

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  5. Ray

    Padraig,

    I read your posts and pretty much agree with most of them with this particular post on Vinokorouv. Although an American myself, I have always been puzzled by tendency to forgive somebody whether it is a TV preacher or a cheating spouse soon as they shed a few crocodile tears and say I am sorry. Vino not coming out and saying outright that he cheated may have more to do with where he is born (Kazakistan) where naming names is considered snitching and is a big No, No. Personally, I think that the unstated reason that some cyclists are treated better than others has to do with how we identify with the rider in question.

    Millar confessed ONLY after being caught red handed with EPO in his room and he is the golden haired boy of Garmin because he speaks like Hugh Grant and stutters and stammers his confession like a propah brit prep school boy. It doesn’t hurt that he is a good looking guy and Vino could play a bad guy in a B grade flick.

    We should hold off on all cyclists who have paid with being suspended and come back. We can start with the greek chorus of “I told you so” if he gets caught again. It is a shame that a guy who rode a brilliant race and won convincingly cannot enjoy the feeling of beating the best in the world.

  6. randomactsofcycling

    Spot on Padraig. Remorse goes a long way to forgiveness in the public’s mind.
    An all too short suspension probably does not hurt as much as the boos and suspicion of the fans. For a rider that clearly enjoys his popularity, it must come as a shock. I hope it does. I’m not sure whether it worries him though. He clearly doesn’t give a rat’s arse about the sport.

  7. Touriste-Routier

    Riders are given very little incentive to confess; there is no amnesty program. Outside of now admitting that he was guilty of the blood doping incident for which he was convicted (and denied), why should he admit anything else, and risk further suspension from actions that otherwise could not be proven? Satisfying (some of) the public isn’t worth the risk of a lifetime ban. Besides, he may truly believe that he is/was innocent.

    Cycling fans are a fickle bunch. Many believe the denials of some riders (Landis), but immediately convict others (Vino). Some riders are welcomed back (Millar), but others are jeered (Ricco). When past transgressions are admitted by retired riders (Riis, Museeuw, Zabel), few seem to care. It seems to me that this is more a matter of perception of personality than anything else.

    As for moving forward, yes, Vino will always be under scrutiny, but it is almost impossible to prove that you are not doing something… Admitting any prior transgressions might help his credibility, but not by much.

  8. tarik

    My problem with Millar is that he threw all his teammates under the bus prior to confessing to doping. Sure he came “clean” later, but his “I was doping independently” claims seem like he was covering for lying previously, I think a “I was doping, all my teamates were doping (which many were) and here is the team doctor who was helping us and we got drugs from x,y and z” would have been more useful, and probably closer to the truth. I still would love to see him win something, but I think his behavior was neither honorable nor completely truthful.

    That said, I am in the ” you do your time, you can come back and race guilt free” camp. There is no “you need to be contrite, truthful etc.” in the rule book. I would rather Vino just shut up and ride brilliantly as he can without trying to justify his existence. Just racing is enough. Bonus points if he is allowed in the tour and can make it that much more entertaining.

    I have written in the past extensively on doping, but alas, all my sources on velonews on this now are broken links leading back to the homepage. I won’t be using them as e-references any more.
    http://tsaleh.blogspot.com/search/label/doping
    keep scrolling back, for some of the stuff about Millar.

    Bravo for keeping up on the high quality writing on doping, I have not been able to keep up for a while now.

  9. todd k

    Personality plays a role. Oddly, I think cyclists such as Vino could learn from that when looking to re-enter the peloton. In the vein that Millar is widely regarding the exception and given some parallels with Tiger Woods, I often wonder why we don’t see more folks adopting the direct confession approach? It seems the more likely approach to restoring your image. (Though it must be employed with care so as to not appear to be profiting from that approach).

    It may be as Touriste-Routier suggests and the lack of amnesty and number of years of doping produce a dilemma in which most implicated riders cannot extricate themselves without further sanction. So they simply do their time saying as little as possible. How else can we explain something as far fetched as Basso’s “I was just about to dope and got caught” confession?

  10. Le Gimpe

    Good post.

    Served time = cleared to race (and win)
    Refusal to confess (or put up a credible defense) = dissaproving fans & uncomfortable questions

    Despite having liked his kamakazie style, I can’t pull for Vino anymore.

    Look at Floyd, he maintains his innocence and nearly broke himself fighting the charge. That’s what an innocent man does if accused. The fans have more or less forgiven him, even if cycling will not extend him the same opportunites as before. I’m not decided on him and can leave it at that. I’m not sure how many bought it, but he passed the “stand up for yourself” test. I only wish Floyd well at this point.

    Vino wants to serve his time quietly and inexpensively, and then act self rightous to anyone who’s interested in the truth. He doesn’t legally owe anyone an explaination but if he doesn’t like booing, it might be a good idea to fess up.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Everyone: Thank you for the kind words and thoughtful comments. There are a few specific points I ought to respond to.

      Hr.Becker: Good to see you here. Thanks for dropping by. I hope you’ll keep in mind I’m not suggesting that we ought to feel negatively about Vino or his win. Personally, I’m with Robot; I feel deeply ambivalent about his win. I’d like to say a win is a win and let it go at that, but his past does trouble me. The point of the post was to explain why so many people do have a problem with him and suggest why he ought to consider their reactions as relevant. I believe that if he wants to roll to the line for a win and have everyone cheer him, it is within his power to control that.

      Ray: I think forgiveness is a terribly important human quality. Everyone should have the opportunity to make amends and then be accepted back into polite company. Forgiveness is a powerful incentive to someone who has run afoul of laws, rules and sensibilities. Without it, they have no reason to reform in any way. As to Millar, if you’ve read what he has had to say, he felt coerced into doping in the first place. In the blues, they call it the crossroads. He made his deal and it was with the devil. There was no reason to come clean before being caught. Once caught, my read of his comments is that his conscience got the upper hand and he spilled his guts. I liked the outcome all the way around. His team director Vaughters has been more veiled in his comments but it sounds like he felt coerced into it as well.

      Random Acts of Cycling: Thanks much. I do think Vino cares about the sport, but I wonder (as does Robot) if maybe there isn’t a cultural divide that makes his understanding of the sport a little different than mine.

      Mark: Thanks. I know you read with a critical eye.

      Touriste-Routier: You’re right about the dilemma that Vino faces should he decide to confess anything further. I think had he made some broader, fuzzier statements at some point, something about having practiced cycling while at T-Mobile in a manner that didn’t fit with his values, or something along those lines, it would have gone a long way with fans while not giving the UCI anything actionable. As it is, only now, after many denials, is he vaguely backing into some sort of confession. It’s not washing with fans and for that reason he does have some incentive to say more. How many guys can say they’d race their hearts out if they knew they’d never get a single cheer?

      Tarik: Thanks for joining the conversation. I’ve always enjoyed your comments. But regarding Millar, I do differ with you a bit. If what Vaughters has said about French teams, at least his French team, is true, then Millar is to be believed. In the late ’90s and early part of the 2000s French teams other than Festina (while registered in Andorra, they were for all practical purposes a French team) weren’t systematically giving their riders EPO. That he said, “I did it. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” went a long way with me and I think did the same with many other cyclists.

      Todd K: I think Millar is a good deal different than Tiger Woods. Yes, they both confessed, but new details about Woods’ dalliances kept trickling out for weeks after he fessed up. But yes, the confessions are a real mine field. I hated Basso’s confession. In the days after it, I wrote this for BKW:
      http://www.belgiumkneewarmers.com/2007/05/omerta.html

      Le Gimpe: You bring up an interesting point. Mounting an irrationally stout defense is an effective way to counter the need to fess up. Ultimately, as you point out, there is no low-impact approach to dealing with doping. You’ve got to be all-in.

  11. Champs

    Whether the rider is contrite is an important factor, but a number of other things are at play. Personality is important: how many people were saddened when Ricco was suspended? Nationality is another issue: nobody cares what Kazakhs and Danes think, so Vino and Chicken are suspect, and few non-Americans believe Landis.

    Is Ivan Basso is deficient in any of these categories? He’s Italian and he confessed, yet I don’t get the feeling he has full standing and respect.

  12. Champs

    I should add that doping prior to Operacion Puerto is in a historical blind spot. Nobody cares what happened before Puerto, because you were just the best guy on dope. After Puerto…

  13. SinglespeedJarv

    Great piece Padraig.

    @Ray But Millar confessed, without testing positive. Tell me who else confessed when drugs were found in their homes? Most just said they were for the dog/sister/mum/gran/wife/dead uncle. Other than the Festina crew, Basso, Museeuw and Gaumont, I can’t think of many (any?) other riders who confessed without testing positive and of those Festina got away with three month bans and Basso and Museeuw are in the inbelievable bracket of confessions.

    @Tarik my understanding was that Millar stated to the police who was doing what, where the drugs came from (Elli or Lelli?) and who the Doctor was (Eskutel’s). It;s just since then he hasn’t felt the need to repeatedly kick them in the press which won’t benefit anyone.

    @Touriste-Routier But isn’t the sentence, guilt/confession/remorse and rehabilitation all part of a process and without all of those parts there are still questions over his credibility. Had he removed some of that doubt, there may well have been less booing.

    @Le Gimpe do you really believe Landis was innocent and that cycling fans have forgiven him? Perhaps comparing Vino with Landis is better than with Millar. One innocent rider can win the tour and after being banned for two years can’t win a local chipper, but Vino can come back and win a 260km Monument, makes you wonder doesn’t it.

    @Champs I cared what went on before Puerto, because I couldn’t believe most of what I was watching. Puerto should have been a watershed, but it seemed to take the two Telekom affairs to really break the back of doping. There have been clean riders all through this, Bassons and Boardman are two obvious names, was it fair on them?

  14. Aidan

    Great post, a really good summary on the reasons why various riders are regarded differently.

    I agree with folks that personality plays a large part in how riders are treated by fans and journalists when they return to the peloton; I met Riccò several times at Saunier training camps – before he was busted – and he really is a very dislikeable little fellow, he and Piepoli were effectively a ‘team within a team’, they didn’t hang with the other guys much, they kept themselves to each other, so to speak.

    Contrition is another factor – Vino and Basso just come over as saying and doing only what is necessary to get what they want. Basso admitted what he did, simply because it was the minimum he could do faced with the evidence. Had he admitted more, he ran the risk of having umpteen wins stripped off him, which would of course affect his future market value. Like Valv.piti, he’s had excellent legal advice, and the UCI have had to accept his position to try and move forward.

    Lastly, booing a winning rider isn’t a “crowd display that is unprecedented”, as you suggest – Martin Williamson writes on VeloResults.co.uk in his post (http://www.veloresults.co.uk/2008/07/an-incredible-day/) that Rasmussen suffered the same reaction when he beat Contador to the summit finish on the Aubisque a couple of years ago. Just a few hours later, he was out. People aren’t daft, and Vino would do well to read your post and ‘think on’.

  15. Tinpot Dictator

    Another great dialogue Padraig.
    That Vinokourov won is a small victory for cycling, and it’s past.
    That he continues to be such an ass in the light of his history and his secrecy, this is what I consider unforgivable.
    TD

  16. Souleur

    Wow, a 2 for tuesday:-), and deep thoughts at that.

    I appreciate both Padraigs and Robots articles, and side out on Padraigs this go around, albeit, some ambivalence is clearly floating in the tifosi.

    There have been many very good comments, so I won’t repeat the well put points. I would simply add something to the melting pot.

    Forgiveness, as Padraig well said, is an essential virtue in any relationship. In terms of Vino, I thought he would don the maillot-juane one day, but after 2007, after he was found to have transfused, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat. Waiting…waiting and just waiting. But I never heard ‘please forgive me’ because of what I have done. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t seek forgiveness?? If so, what good does it do if afterall, they are not necessarily sorry. Its loaded, but that is where I remain, because until LBL, Vino never conceded an ounce, until indirectly he said ‘now’ I am clean. Believe me, when he went, and he went hard, and dropped 20 others in the last 10k, all I could think of was ‘where did that come from?’

    Nonetheless, then a significant difference comes in with ones who ask for forgiveness. There indeed may be some perception here, some judgement, and its not that we cannot do this, we do it everyday-at every stop sign, at every decision. The point is, are they sorry for being caught, or sorry for a greater reason, in that they hurt the sport, hurt fellow riders reputations/careers and did damage to something bigger than themselves. I do think that this is a reason some are forgiven and others are not. Millar I think recognized this, Kohl has not. Richard Virenque is an interesting, but I think he did realize it in time, how he affected others in the sport, fans included.

    Then, culture. Wow, this screws cycling altogether, because it is a world sport, you throw in the nuances of culture it makes it so much more difficult to work through these situations. Vino may indeed have not confessed as it was mentioned, its not acceptable to do so, plus the eastern bloc mentality is that many things are ‘not really significant’ and patrons in those countries accept wholeheartedly that individuals in rank, are dirty, have skeletons in the closet, and with a bribe….its ok. This makes it very difficult for cyclists to reconcile.

    Then…yes, one more…then cyclists are inherently narcisstic, if we are good. Oh, sure there are a few exceptions, but GC’rs are narcissists. This is ultimately a difficulty for others aspiring to be in the top of the hierarchy, in that, if they dope to be on top, so what. They cannot appreciate anything outside of themselves or the effect it has on things that WE appreciate until they are busted and its a done deal. An eternal conundrum, and one that historically factually has been in cycling since its conception.

    It won’t be solved by july:-)

  17. Esteban

    Vino will restore his reputation by riding his competitors into the ground…. as it should be… I don’t care if he comes out and plays nice…and I don’t think he does either. This is sport not politics. This cycling fan is looking forward not backwards. I hope he whoops ass all year long at which point the public perception will “magically” change.

  18. Alex Torres

    Upon reading Padraig´s article, it struck me a difference between Vino and all these other riders cited (and others): Vino always had “his” team waiting for him. He knew it, just before his suspension expired he made sure everyone else knew too in this same kinda-arrogant way of his(specifically, one Johan Bruyneel and a certain Armstrong – I can only immagine Vino putting up with all this while he was away from “his” Astana…:-p).

    I´m just not sure if, or how, this made any difference in his training while suspended, but I know I would have higher expectations and aspirations and thus stronger motivation to train harder and come back in winning shape. All the other suspended riders were left wondering at least to some point about their future in cycling, I believe it has an effect on the minds and bodies.

    Some did OK and found a top team (Basso) while others not much (Rassmussen) and others just went to limbo (Kayle, Kohl, etc.). But Vino on the other hand always had Astana waiting for him and in decent shape, with Contador as a super-GC rider and a few Grand Tour titles on the resumé. Not bad huh?

    Just for the record, I felt the same bittersweet taste when I saw him winning this sunday. It was kinda weird I admit, though on a second thought it shouldn´t. Like pretty much everyone else, I wasn´t expecting it but then he´s already won it once so…

  19. Brian D

    Interesting, well-reasoned piece Padraig. However, I am not sure that I agree with your assertion that Millar had no reason to confess prior to getting caught, but then spilled the beans due to his conscience. If he felt so badly about what he was doing, perhaps he would have stopped doping prior to getting busted. It’s funny how people (myself included) suddenly find their conscience after getting popped. However, I do agree with the idea that his apparent honesty following the bust was refreshing. Better late than never.

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