We’re more than a third of the way through the racing season and only last week did we experience what I consider to be a truly important day of bike racing, one worth remembering. The race in question was stage 5 of the Amgen Tour of California. A few different things happened that day, notable things, things that might teach us a lesson or two.
The first detail from the stage worth recalling was that a group of riders went to the front and waited, waited for a stiff headwind to shift to a crosswind. And when the turn came that shifted the wind 90 degrees or so, they hit the afterburners. The mayhem that caused further back in the pack held me breathless the way the last 5k of any Paris-Roubaix does. I kept waiting for someone to take over, some team to get organized, someone to make an effort that causes us to evoke all those phrases of machine-assisted work: drilled it, laid down the wood, gunned it, hit the jets. You get the idea.
And the move, the move we expected to come from race leader Janier Acevedo’s Jamis-Hagens Berman team—we certainly didn’t expect the bantam-weight climber to do the work himself—well, it never came. There’s been a lot of speculation that the lack of race radios and the resulting choke on extra-peloton communication was the deciding factor. Had Acevedo been on a Colombian team surrounded by like-abilitied teammates, the more likely answer would be that they simply didn’t have the fire power necessary to close the gap. But considering the number of first-rate domestic pros on the squad which includes guys like Ben Jacques-Maynes, you begin to wonder if perhaps they weren’t hiding in the pack and saving their matches for bigger fireworks to come. It’s the rare team that can police the front of a race for five or six days.
Would have a race radio changed matters? Very likely. The commissars will report who is at the front of the peloton and the fact that BMC was massing at the front is the sort of thing that usually gets communicated. Had they had race radios, the Jamis-Hagens Berman team would likely have made their way forward in the pack before the split occurred, or at least before the situation became completely irreversible. The result? We got real racing that day and the GC changed some place other than a time trial or mountain.
That group that got away included the oldest guy in the race, the oldest on a big team, easily the fastest guy over 40, Jens Voigt. His attack and subsequent solo effort were terrific fun to watch. It gave us a storyline we like: Guy everyone likes wins bike race. Bike fans go home or turn off the TV feeling satisfied.
Jens Voigt is the Chuck Norris of cycling. He’s old enough to be the father of some neo-pros; he’s tougher than gristle; he’s fast as email; and he’s fertile as the Mississippi delta. Who wouldn’t want to be all that?
But Voigt is also an East German who rode for Bjarne Riis at CSC in the mid 2000s and won some notable races; it’s hard to conclude that he’s always been a clean rider. Did he dope his entire career? I doubt it. I’d be willing to believe that he was clean in ’97 while he raced for the Australian Institute for Sport. Was he clean while on GAN from ’98 to ’03? That seems a little less likely. He won the Criterium Internationale in ’99. The problem we’ve had with doping is that while not everyone did it, those who won with any regularity have mostly been demonstrated to have doped.
What about his years at CSC—’04 to ’10? He won the Deutschland Tour twice, the Tour Mediterranean once and the Criterium Internationale four (4!) more times.
Do I think he has always ridden clean? No. Is Voigt clean today? Maybe. Maybe even probably. It’s worth adding that Voigt is a great example of how liking a rider may blind us to unsettling questions about a rider’s success during a particularly dirty period in the sport’s history. Voigt is the perfect example of a rider whose likely former doping we would prefer not to contemplate. It’s too messy, too ugly a thing to unpack. It’s perhaps the best argument for why all the riders from that generation should retire. It’s easier not to deal with it. We like him and if he retires with no confession in place, we can keep one of the final, remaining façades up.
I put that idea forward because what ought to happen—a full, unexpurgated history of who used what, when—grows increasingly unlikely with the prospect of McQuaid continuing as UCI president. And because the UCI is too compromised to be trusted, Voigt remains a nagging question mark. This is where a truth and reconciliation commission could really help, but I don’t think we’re going to get that unless McQuaid stipulates that anything revealed about Hein Verbruggen and him includes amnesty. And McQuaid doesn’t deserve it.
I believe that riders who have doped ought to afford the same opportunity for rehabilitation as other professionals who have broken rules. They do their time and then they return to their profession. We may not like it, but we’ve put a system of justice in place we profess to support. I’ll also add that I don’t have a problem with a four-year suspension for a first offense, but I think societies need to be able to show compassion and forgiveness and lifetime bans should only be warranted in extreme circumstances.
But this not knowing gnaws at me. It eats at my enjoyment of the sport.
Which brings me to the ultimate winner of the Amgen Tour of California, Tejay van Garderen. Van Garderen is of a generation of American cyclists who have been outspoken about drug-free racing. They speak in a way that suggests credibility and ethical behavior.
Here again, the UCI’s credibility is so undermined that it’s hard to celebrate van Garderen to the degree he deserves. I believe he’s a clean rider, but I don’t trust the system and that leaves a mild stain on him. I’d like a report issued once a month by Michael Ashenden in which he spells out who he has every confidence is clean and which riders are under suspicion. Van Garderen deserves better than what he’s getting. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent, and likely the next guy who could induce another bike boom in the U.S. But the moment people suggest he’s the next big thing for American cycling, he’ll be compared to Armstrong, which will cause him to be painted with the same doper brush, which is why it’s so important that if this guy is as clean as I think he is, we need solid proof to convince what will be a rightfully skeptical world.