In light of the reports regarding Alberto Contador’s imminent, one-year vacation, we’re thinking double extra hard about different ways to clean up the sport. The other day we discussed the need for greater decisiveness from the UCI and more draconian application of the rules.
Who really has the power in pro cycling? It’s an imprecise question. It yields some obtuse answer about the various parties involved, the UCI, the state federations, the Pro and Pro Continental teams, the sponsors and the race organizers. Assign percentages. Divide and debate.
A more precise question is: Where’s the money?
It is true that the UCI, federations, teams and sponsors all have an interest in clean racing, but it is also true that each of those stake holders has some motive for winning, regardless of the methods. The UCI needs champions in order to grow the sport. More than that, they need spectacle and drama. They need superhumanity. Obviously, doping scandals hurt their brand, but what weapons have they got? We’ve already talked about how ineffective their current approach has been, suspend and litigate.
The federations also want champions, riders from their countries standing atop podiums. They want clean athletes, but they only really need their athletes to be cleaner than the others. They also have no real power, just a smaller player in the suspend and litigate system.
The teams are the most compromised. They need to appear to be clean, but if they don’t win races, it doesn’t matter much whether they’re clean or dirty as a dormant coal mine. They lose sponsorship either way.
The sponsors have money, it’s true, but they’re in the same boat with the teams. They want the publicity that comes from winning races. They want a spot in the Tour caravan. Doping scandals may or may not hurt them. Festina reported selling more watches in the year following their team’s expulsion from the 1998 Tour.
That brings us to the race organizers. It brings us to the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO).
As most folks know, the ASO runs the Tour de France, the biggest cash cow in the sport. What they may not know is that they also own and/or operate the Tour of Qatar, Tour of Oman, Paris-Nice, Critérium International, Paris-Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Vuelta España, Tour de l’Avenir and Paris-Tours. In short, ASO is the gatekeeper. More than anyone else, they have the power.
So what if the ASO implemented its own anti-doping policy, some more clearly stated variation on what they do now. Yes, Tour director Christian Prudhomme has been sending the teams messages for years. Embarrass the Tour and you become persona non grata in France, in July. But the rules aren’t written, and they’re not hard or fast.
If the ASO made the simple policy of barring riders who had tested positive from competing in any other of their races, it would send a shock wave through the peloton. Gone would be David Millar, Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, et. al. It would be a loss, but it would be a tolerable one to get our sport back from middle pages of scandal-addicted newspapers.
Not being able to race in ASO races would decrease even the most talented rider’s value so significantly as to virtually end their careers. Am I really going to pay Vinokourov’s salary only to have him compete in the Giro and some subsection of the rest of the season? And what if Giro director Angelo Zomegnan buys into this approach? To borrow and phrase from another sport, game, set, match. Over.
I am sure that the deal hammered-out between the UCI and race organizers to guarantee selection to the biggest races for the entire list of ProTeams contains some provision for teams who harbor convicted dopers. I would argue that there is almost no way, under law, for the ASO to be compelled to allow the participation of riders whose presence might devalue their primary assets.
The ASO could make this happen. But will they?
Over the last decade, the ASO has acquired a number of big races, expanding their cycling portfolio to its current size, and glancing down the list you will see three of the seven spring classics, two of the three grand tours, the most prestigious one week stage race (Paris-Nice) and one of the big fall classics (Paris-Tours). How many more races would they need before they could effectively take cycling private, marginalize the UCI, and run their own show? It seems outlandish, but … outlandish is what cycling does, isn’t it? Perhaps it will take a paradigm shift like this, a breakaway if you will, to win the race against doping. Perhaps this is our last, best hope.