Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Rebuilding confidence in pro cycling

Everyone agrees that confidence in professional cycling has to be restored after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report revealed the sport’s sordid underbelly: the rampant blood doping within Lance Armstrong’s former U.S. Postal Service team and the ease with which riders fooled the anti-doping authorities (and the cycling community) at the height of the EPO era. And everyone—from the fans to the teams, from the riders to the organizers, from the officials to the media—knows that cycling’s longtime culture of doping has to be eliminated before the sport can truly move forward. The question is: How do we do it?

At the last count, three significant initiatives were on the table: the first, proposed in late October after the UCI’s acceptance of USADA’s decision to suspend Armstrong for life from Olympic sports and give the whistle blowers the minimum, six-month suspensions, was the Manifesto for Credible Cycling (MCC). Launched by five major European newspapers, the MCC focused on restructuring pro cycling, stiffening penalties and adhering to the anti-doping regulations in a similar way to the “clean” teams’ Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC), an association that has gained greater acceptance and more members in recent weeks.

The second initiative was made public last week by Change Cycling Now (CCN), a group founded by Australian Jaimie Fuller, chairman of the Swiss-based compression sportswear company, Skins, and spearheaded by campaigning anti-doping journalists, Irishmen David Walsh and Paul Kimmage. The group’s Charter of the Willing has a similar agenda to that of the MCC, except it first seeks the resignation of UCI president Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen—with CCN putting forward Greg LeMond’s candidature as a potential interim UCI president. The group also posited the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an idea that the UCI Management Committee considered and voted down a few weeks ago.

The third initiative has come from the UCI itself. Its Stakeholder Consultation, first announced a month ago, is now seeking feedback from the sport’s major stakeholders prior to a comprehensive review of the best ideas in the first quarter of next year. The UCI has already approached CCN for its input, and it has sent letters out to riders, teams, race organizers, national federations, administrators, sponsors, industry representatives, anti-doping organizations and sports bodies, asking for comments on a list of topics such as anti-doping, globalization, riders and the racing calendar—including the UCI’s potential joint venture with a group headed by Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala to strengthen the pro cycling calendar that was announced this week. Among the goals are wider participation in cycling and identifying ways to make the sport even more interesting for spectators.

All these initiatives are in addition to the recently formed Independent Commission that is looking into the contentious issues revealed by the USADA report—including allegations that the UCI turned a blind eye to Armstrong’s alleged positive drug test at the 2002 Tour of Switzerland. Sir Philip Otton, an eminent British appeals judge who has extensive experience with similar cases in other sports, heads the commission. He and his two colleagues on the commission’s panel have already begun work and are due to host a three-week hearing in London next April before submitting a report to the UCI by June 1, 2013.

The necessity for a redirection in pro cycling was best summed up by Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport, one of the five journals that launched the MCC, which wrote: “The entire fabric of cycling has been rotten for too long. From the mid-1990s to today more than 400 professional cyclists have been disqualified or embroiled in doping investigations. The Lance Armstrong affair and the disturbing news coming out of the current investigation in Padua (Italy) show that the entire world of cycling has come through an extremely long and dark time. But we believe that the sport can start afresh—as long as a few rules are changed.”

The MCC newspapers opined, “It is impossible to start afresh with the existing structure” and suggested that future drug testing be instigated by WADA and administered by the national anti-doping agencies, and that penalties for doping be made more severe. In fact, WADA has already proposed doubling suspensions for “heavy” drugs and blood doping from two to four years in the draft for its new code that comes into effect in 2015.

As for the MCC’s demand that WADA spearhead future drug testing in cycling (rather than the UCI), that would be difficult to implement because WADA’s mission is to establish its all-encompassing anti-doping code and ensure that there is “a harmonized approach to anti-doping in all sports and all countries.” So if cycling-specific testing were added to its responsibilities that policy would have to apply to every other Olympic sport—which would be too costly for WADA, whose limited funding is split between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and national governments. And its budget already has to cover such things as code compliance monitoring, cooperation with law enforcement agencies, drug-detection research, accreditation of testing labs, maintaining the ADAMS whereabouts database, coordinating regional anti-doping organizations and education programs, and athlete outreach.

Currently, drug testing for the sport of cycling is shared between the IOC, WADA, national anti-doping agencies, and the UCI. It should also be noted that a major part of the UCI’s anti-doping efforts is its pioneering biological passport program, started five years ago, which now monitors a pool of almost 1,000 pro racers—and gleans information from all the relevant anti-doping organizations. And as UCI medical officer Mario Zorzoli said recently, “Essentially, we are moving from the toxicology approach … to a more forensic science approach.” This means that there will be even greater emphasis on collaboration between the IOC, WADA, national agencies and the UCI—while WADA is keen to step up its coordination with international criminal agencies and national police forces in countries where doping is already a criminal offense.

What all this means is that it is getting more and more difficult for athletes who are doping to avoid detection, not just in cycling but also in all the sports that are adopting the passport program. Cheating cyclists had a free run in the 1990s because EPO was undetectable, and the USADA report showed that blood doping was rampant (along with micro-dosing with EPO) prior to the implementation of the UCI’s biological passport program in January 2008. The “forensic approach” is the way forward, and the success of that policy depends on the input of such things as establishing stricter anti-doping codes within every team, self-policing among athletes, and continued (and stepped-up) collaboration between all the various anti-doping agencies.

Considering the discussions that have already taken place between the ProTeams, the major race organizers, the Athletes Commission and the UCI, and the feedback being sought in the Stakeholders Consultation process, it seems that all parties have the intent to work together to rebuild the sport. Obviously, there are some issues that need greater consideration than others, especially the thorny one on whether (or how) to integrate past dopers into a cleaner future. One route toward that goal is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but that could be a gigantic, highly expensive undertaking that might take years to complete.

It so happens that the co-owner and manager of one of the teams affiliated with the MPCC, Jonathan Vaughters of Garmin-Sharp, who also chairs the pro cycling teams association, tweeted this last Friday: “I hear and understand the ‘clean the house out’ argument. Problem is, if we do it, with honesty from all, [there] won’t be anyone left to turn lights off. I might also add that without total honesty from all, instead of ex-dopers running business, you’ll have lying ex-dopers instead.”

Perhaps a better way to go is for teams to renew their clean-up efforts and perhaps conduct their own truth-and-reconciliation processes. That is what is already happening at Team Sky, though some critics (including Vaughters) are saying that the British squad has gone too far in its “zero tolerance” campaign, in forcing staff members to resign if they admit to any past connection with doping.

The major catalyst for restoring confidence in pro cycling has to be the independent Otton Commission, which must fully resolve the unfinished business of the USADA report, including a verdict on whether the UCI administration acted corruptly in regard to ignoring (or not taking seriously) the warning signs that doping in cycling was systemic. The commission’s findings will determine whether the next steps forward should be undertaken by a new, independent entity, the UCI’s current administration, an interim president, or the president who’s elected by delegates from the world’s 170 or so national cycling federations at next September’s UCI congress.

Whatever action is carried out, it’s the hope and expectation of everyone concerned, including proponents of the MCC, MPCC and CCN, that the public’s confidence in cycling will be restored and the sport will be in a position to begin building toward a brighter, cleaner future.


Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti

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  1. scaredskinnydog

    I find myself agreeing with Vaughter’s quote, but I don’t think a committee or initiative is going to be strong enough to clean up cycling. I vote that we take Bernard Hinault and make him Emperor of road cycling. After that its simple, get busted doping….face the Badger!

  2. Pat

    If you look for perfection, or as cycling fans and teams call it, zero tolerance, you will always be disappointed. Pro cycling will remain a exercise in frustration and suspicion until the riders and teams really turn professional and organize to regain their rights as employees, business owners, and human beings. If any fans are doctors or any other occupation where human safety is in jeopardy when they don’t perform well, then they should agree to the same drug testing regimen that pro cyclists undergo, right? Which is more important, the outcome of a bike race or your next surgery? Oh wait, employees have rights don’t they.

  3. Shawn

    It’s hard to call Sky’s approach to clean house one of truth and reconciliation as they left out any sort of chance of reconciliation.

  4. Evan

    Perhaps JW you could begin to stop the puffery of “it is everyone’s intent to work together to clean up the sport” Read David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins. It will be a Rough Ride for journalists.

  5. Evan

    Power and corruption never yield to pleading. Nonviolent social, political, and legal actions with a grassroots beginning, however, does bring down and transform corrupt regimes. JF is like any right minded person of integrity employing these time tested and valid means of change. Corruption, fraud, cheating, and the degradation of sport to serve money and power interests is a marker of a society that has lost one of its most powerful ways to teach children the importance of initiative, challenge, competition, and teamwork. Sports and athletes are role models whether they like it or not.
    It is imperative we succeed here. Cycling is not the world’s major sport nor it biggest money maker, however, it is one of the most spectacular, dramatic, and universal examples of how we can reach our human potential. It can inspire and motivate us in many various ways. We should save it.
    CNN has come up with a very excellent balanced charter and methods to give us confidence in clean winners. This is possible. But we must remake the regulatory body, institute these forgiving but accountable methods, and move forward. Fans, athletes, sponsors, and authorities could embrace this model for all sports, including the olympics!

  6. Alex TC

    I think that cleaning up cycling is one thing. And rebuilding confidence in pro cycling is another. Tehy’re tied but…

    As clean as it may get – and it will never be past a certain level, it’s humanly impossible – it will take a loooooong time without scandals (or at least big scandals) to rebuild confidence. It’s the same with every relationship, be it a marriage, friendship or whatever. It takes a much harder effort and extended period of trust to build, and only a small but serious enough misstep to break the bond. And once broken…

    But of course that should not prevent any and every effort to clean cycling, and why not rebuild confidence in its level of cleanliness too!

  7. Kublai

    It is systemic cheating we need to eliminate. Individuals will always make bad choices for personal gain, but they must never be aided and abetted by the structures of the sport. Take away a rider’s chance to slip through the cracks due to weak oversight and we’ll be nearly home free. Passports, testing, penalites must be rigorously applied. Sponsor contracts (racers and teams) must allow for immediate cancellation in the case of a doping positive, or even failure to properly administer the internal team testing regimen, to keep the teams in line. Finally, POSITIVE rewards must be emphasized for racing clean, we’ve seen that riders like Inga Thompson who had to quit the sport and end her career have never gotten their due for being far more upright and honest than any of the recent confessions from riders who had a gun at their head. And our new crop of clean riders deserve our full support to stay that way.

  8. Kublai

    Journalists, including the RKP team, need to be extra vigilent. No being wishy washy about anything that seems implausible. You are the closest to the action of all of us, we are counting on you to make the stories public and use your influence in the right way.

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