The reactions to Lance Armstrong’s decision not to enter arbitration have been as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Their sheer diversity is surprising if only because of some of the emotionally charged comments on Facebook and Twitter (not to mention RKP’s comments section) are as irrational as the number i and even harder to understand. I don’t begrudge anyone their feelings about Armstrong, cycling or this case, but I think it might be helpful to keep a bit of score.
Cleaning Up Cycling
I’ve seen any number of assertions, even some by the mainstream media that this has somehow served as an important step toward cleaning up cycling. Armstrong may have been charged with participating in an organized doping program, but he was only one of the hydra’s many heads. Removing him from that operation didn’t kill it. Amended results notwithstanding, Johan Bruyneel has lost the last two Tours de France and judging from this year’s performances by Team RadioShack, the one-time master of all things grand tour seems to have lost his touch, so the point there may be moot. Even if Bruyneel is banned from the sport, his was only one of many systematic doping programs; he was less an instigator (think Ferrari) than a facilitator, a manager. One can be virtually assured that somewhere on this planet some team manager is attempting an end-run on the system.
Will cycling be cleaner after this case? It’s unlikely. No amount of punishment meted out on the Texan will likely convince any rider who is currently doping to stop the practice. Those riders look at the fact that they haven’t been caught yet and are likely to be able to continue what they do. And riders who aren’t doping, but are wrestling with whether or not to start will mostly likely view this in terms of big fish/little fish. Armstrong was a big fish, they will reason, and subjected to a great deal more scrutiny. They are, by comparison, very small fish, and in their thinking, unlikely to receive the same amount of scrutiny, allowing them to fly under the radar.
The bigger refutation to the idea that cycling will be cleaner is that the techniques being used to accomplish doping are generally not the ones that were used by Armstrong and co. A retroactively produced documentary directed by Martin Scorcese wouldn’t uncover every detail of what was done during Armstrong’s run. More specifically, while transfusions may still be in use, the methods used to mask them have certainly evolved, which brings us back to the point that this case doesn’t fix today’s doping.
Clean Cycling: 0
Knowing the Truth
Many of Lance Armstrong’s detractors have itched themselves into oozing meth sores waiting for Tygart’s inquiry to divulge the full story about Armstrong’s doping. From what was taken, to how much was paid, to the methods used to evade detection, to the bribes paid (and to whom) down to the name and Social Security number of every rider who ever doped on that team, people wanted flesh. While the fat lady hasn’t hit the stage, Armstrong’s decision to forego arbitration means we are unlikely to see full transcripts of the grand jury testimony, particularly the testimony from George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde, which has reportedly resulted in six-month suspensions they will serve after the season ends.
Again, to the degree that the merit of the outcome of this case was based on learning the truth, we’ve been denied that satisfaction. While the cycling world may be convinced that Armstrong used PEDs, there is an even larger population for whom believing Armstrong is a persecuted innocent is as easy as believing that the next Mega Millions jackpot is theirs.
I don’t want to get into a semantic argument on the nature of truth, but it’s worth asking if those who desire the truth be exposed will only be satisfied if the entire world arrives at the conclusion that Armstrong doped—an outcome that may not be possible in a world where we parse the varieties of rape. However, if they can be satisfied if only the cycling world believes Armstrong to be guilty while the prevailing story about him is that he was the victim of a witch hunt, then it’s worth asking if their desire for the full story is meant to satisfy their personal curiosity, which is a less noble motivation.
Clean Cycling: 0
Playing to Lose
There’s a lot of talk that in doping, Armstrong didn’t level the playing field because each rider responds to doping products and methods differently. While that is true, here’s another fundamental truth: Every clean rider is different. Pros have widely varying VO2 maxes, maximum and resting heart rates and lactate thresholds. You line up for a race hoping that your training has been sufficient to overcome any genetic shortcomings you might have. There is no level playing field.
There’s an oddly relevant scene early in Douglas Adams’ book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Adams describes a drinking game played by the character Ford Prefect that involved something called Old Janx Spirit and telekinetic powers. The loser of the game was forced to perform a stunt that was “usually obscenely biological.”
Then came the line, “Ford Prefect usually played to lose.”
I was a teenager when I read this and the thought that someone might want to deliberately lose a drinking game was funnier than a Monty Python movie. However, it started within me a more serious meditation on why someone might enter any contest with the intention of losing. I didn’t come up with an answer for situations that didn’t involve anything “obscenely biological” until I came to appreciate the nomination process in American politics, a place where people with neither the qualifications nor chance of becoming president will run for the office as a way to angle for a job better than the one they have. More recently, though, I’ve come to see riders who chose to race clean during the height of the EPO problem—we’re talking mid-1990s through the turn of the century—in a similar light.
Given that the vast majority of results from that era are dominated by riders who we know doped, riders who lined up for any race big enough to warrant television coverage without veins filled with rocket fuel were bringing fingernail clippers to an air strike. They were playing to lose.
The problem isn’t that they lacked ambition or a work ethic; rather, it seems that those riders brought morality into what has effectively been an amoral system. The only proven way to win during that era was to dope.
Clean Cycling: 0
I’ve seen a few people compare Lance Armstrong to Jerry Sandusky. The comparison goes like this: Lance Armstrong did more good than bad because he gave lots of people hope and sold a bunch of bikes and those people outnumber the riders he cheated out of winning by doping. Similarly, Jerry Sandusky did more good than bad by giving underprivileged kids the opportunity to participate in sports, and those kids outnumber the kids he sexually assaulted. It’s an obscene comparison because you can’t equate the soul-shattering violence of a sexual assault—an event that can destroy a person’s ability to sustain intimate relationships—with cheating. Each of Sandusky’s crimes was personal, committed one-on-one. Conversely, while there’s no doubt that riders like Christophe Bassons were harmed by Armstrong’s methods, they were victimized by more than just Armstrong—most of the peloton, actually—and they suffered more as collateral damage. Events such as Armstrong chasing down Filippo Simeoni are more serious than simple collateral damage, but even that is a light year from sexual assault.
A much greater illusion is the idea that justice has been served. Imagine you live in a neighborhood where nearly every car runs the red light between you and the corner store, making a milk run pointlessly suicidal. Suppose that the police swoop in with a huge dragnet and ticket only one driver. Granted, he drove faster than anyone else through the light, but with only one of hundreds of drivers out of the picture, justice has yet to be served because it’s still not safe to walk to the store.
Justice will be served once the peloton is essentially clean. Essentially is an important modifier here; cycling will never be quit of doping, but a mostly clean peloton is a realistic goal. Until we’re there, we don’t have justice.
Clean Cycling: 0
Following the Money
The majority of the money that floats the cycling teams competing in the world’s biggest races comes from outside the sport. For the most part, the men responsible for sponsoring these teams aren’t cycling fans. Unlike those of us who follow what’s happening in cycling on a daily basis, for them, cycling is an occasional blip on the news radar. When you look at cycling through their lens, most of the news about cycling in the last five years hasn’t been good. In the United States, nearly every occasion that has brought cycling to any sort of headline capacity has been doping. Armstrong has been making headlines lately, but before that it was Contador being stripped of a Tour de France. To give you some idea just how hard it is for cycling to make national headlines, most of the accounts I read barely made the nullification of his Giro performance a footnote. Before Contador the last time cycling made real headlines was in 2011 when Tyler Hamilton appeared on “60 Minutes” and the only reason that merited news was because of his previous relationship to Armstrong.
When you factor out Armstrong, doping and the Olympics, the national media hasn’t found an American cyclist worthy of a headline since Floyd Landis won the Tour de France. Think about that for a moment. That’s six years.
Nike has already signaled that they are standing by Armstrong. They are one of the only companies on the planet with the marketing genius in-house to figure out how to spin this into a “Lance is still the man” ad campaign. Because of their reach and the fact that they sit at the top of the pyramid of sports brands, there are few companies as well-equipped to weather such a storm. That said, don’t think they aren’t gunshy; it’s worth noting that you don’t see them lining up behind Tejay Van Garderen just yet. We may not see Nike sponsor another cyclist as long as Phil Knight lives.
I’ve spoken to people in the hunt for non-endemic (outside the industry) sponsorship for four different teams. They all reported the same challenge: the number one conversation killer is doping scandals. For many companies, the potential damage to their brand that would come as a result of a doping scandal makes the sport too great a risk. Again, these are companies that aren’t in the bike industry.
There is odd relationship at work. Bike companies don’t factor in these considerations; they are all-in as it were. Specialized isn’t about to start sponsoring sprint cars or bass fishermen. Surprisingly, when a sponsored athlete gets popped for doping, their reputation doesn’t take the sort of hit that a company like T-Mobile or Festina did, companies whose names became synonymous with doping scandals. An athlete who tests positive is still an embarrassment, but they get a bye on the image-pummelling that companies outside the industry can’t afford to face.
For all those who think that we’ve already hit the nadir for cycling sponsorship, consider that the Armstrong affair isn’t actually over. There’s still a chance that there could be civil lawsuits regarding Armstrong’s winnings and the names of the US Postal Service (an organization that really can’t afford any more bad publicity) and the Discovery Channel will be buried in more mud than can be found at a monster truck rally.
Not enough? Consider the number of teams that operated with a “this space for rent” status in the last five years: Team Columbia-High Road, Garmin-Slipstream, Cervelo Test Team and Leopard-Trek, just for starters. We can add Liquigas-Cannondale to that list because bike companies—even companies as large as Specialized and Trek—don’t have the kind of cash handy to step into a title sponsor or co-sponsor spot. When you see their names in a title-sponsor spot (e.g. Liquigas-Cannondale), it’s a sign that the team is shy of their sponsorship goals.
But wait, the problem is worse than that. Imagine how executives at Faema would be sweating if WADA decided to go back and retroactively amend the rules so that they could investigate all of that team’s riders, especially Eddy Merckx. Who would want to risk a sponsorship in a sport where you could be embarrassed decades after your sponsorship has ended? I haven’t checked eBay lately, but last I knew there were no active auctions for time bombs.
Clean Cycling: 0 (everyone loses if there’s no sponsorship)
The disparity between the way USADA pursues American athletes and the lengths that the Spanish federation goes to defend its athletes has made a mockery of the judicial process. That no American athletes have moved to Spain and taken out a Spanish license may be the best single argument currently for just how clean the American peloton is. If I were a doped cyclist, I’d have purchased an apartment in Girona and renounced my citizenship by now. It would be my insurance plan against Travis Tygart nuking my life.
While I think it’s a travesty to have a guy like Tygart, who seems to hold a hostility for cyclists, running USADA, I can say that I’d feel a bit differently if he were running WADA. Were every pro cyclist subject to his scrutiny that might help the sport as a whole. I think it would force him to reevaluate his priorities and we might see a different mission in just what he pursued. With more on his plate, I have some small degree of faith that he’d have to chase the present with more verve, which is how cycling will get cleaner.
Clean Cycling: 0
We don’t need a recap to know that clean cycling hasn’t fared well against these issues, which is why even though cycling is significantly cleaner than it has been at any point in its history, it is still easily embarrassed and as a result, underfunded. If professional cycling is going to survive and reach a place where the average member of the public is willing to believe that cycling is a clean sport, some big changes are going to need to take place.
House must be cleaned at the UCI. The organization has been part of too many alleged coverups and has shown too little leadership to hold our faith that they understand what the public and sponsors demand. Pat McQuaid needs to resign and then people who understand the importance of the fight against doping must be hired.
What this really comes down to is that testing must improve. But how? Most of the riders out there make so little they can’t support a family on their income, so asking them to give up more of their income to fund testing is as thoughtful as asking them to give up a finger. Or two. It’s not unrealistic to tax the incomes of the top 200 riders to help pay for more testing for them. Still, that’s not a great source of funding for more testing because a sponsorship drought means that incomes for many riders are depressed. Increasing the ask for potential sponsors is unlikely to achieve the results we seek.
So who can pay? Here’s a suggestion: The Amaury Sport Organization, RCS Sport and other event organizers. They’ve got skin in the game—every time a rider tests positive at one of their races, that’s bad press for the race and the organizer is embarrassed. So far ASO and other race organizers have been intransigent on the point of sharing revenue from TV rights. While seemingly every other sport on the planet shares TV revenue, bike races have had an unusual relationship with television because they have not needed facilities owned by the teams in which to stage races—think stadiums. The use of open roads combined with a notoriously weak riders’ union has allowed ASO and others to keep millions upon millions of euro any other sport would long since have divvied up. No one else has both the pockets and the need to clean cycling up that the ASO does. No one man can do more to help reform cycling than ASO’s head, Christian Prudhomme, pictured above.
By having race organizers pay for more testing we could achieve some of the aim of revenue sharing, without making it an open-ended request for the checkbook. It would be a way to move things in the right direction.
Testing needs to be more frequent for more riders. It’s impossible to say that will fix things, but more testing and better testing will help. And if the sport has fewer doping scandals—in particular, fewer scandals at the very top—then cycling will seem like a better investment and finding sponsors won’t be as hopeless an endeavor as tilting at windmills.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International