The Teachable Moment

Tour of California - Stage 8

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.

How refreshing.

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.

, , , , , , , , , ,

34 comments

  1. Rick Vosper

    Way back in the ’50’s when The Beats popularized the phrase “morally bankrupt,” they were actually referring to the UCI. They just didn’t know it.

  2. Rich

    This is exactly why I can’t bother to get interested in cheering for any rider. How can I ever know they are riding clean?

  3. paul

    Thank you for calling out Voigt. I’m not sure why so many fans and critics give him a pass. Refreshing article for RKP.

  4. Buck

    even with the doubts that you express, you give Voigt too much credit.
    aside from questions about his past, there is his (occasionally quite vocal) dismissal and derision towards those speaking out against doping. look at the scornful and dismissive attitude displayed when asked about Hamilton’s book. that’s not questionable history, but current behavior.

    a scumbag continuing the tradition of omertà while hiding behind his fanboys’ chuck Norris fantasies.

  5. Champs

    I still like Voigt, but his Sgt. Schultz “I saw nothing” routine gave me pause. Repentant or not, I’ll forgive a rider for doping, but perpetuating a lie ranks with the cowardice of retiring like Hincapie, Leipheimer, and (likely) Menchov.

    There is nothing that Tejay or anyone else can do to prove a negative, but riding for BMC doesn’t help. Team riders have not been squeaky clean. Management continues to let Alessandro Ballan float from one provisional suspension to the next. Jim Ochowicz still isn’t forthcoming about his role in doping’s past. He doesn’t have to pray with saints, but running with a different crowd might do him some good.

  6. Peter lin

    Doping or not, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jens sneak a win. I would love to see every single professional athlete that ever juiced/doped come clean, but I seriously doubt that will happen.

    I can cheer for Jens without elevating the guy to god status. No professional athlete deserves that. Above all else athletes are human. I personally don’t understand the culture of building some one up to be a deity and then breaking them down.

    Anyone else could have tried to sneak in a win like Jens, but no one else did that day. It took a lot of courage to go for it at 5K. Seeing him collapse at the finish line made me laugh with joy. Some days we fail and other days we succeed. Self righteous scorn of others sucks no matter who is doing it. Lying and cheating also sucks, but that’s life.

  7. Aar

    “…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…. ”

    As unlikely as it is, THAT would make me a fan of professional cycling again.

  8. Hoshie99

    Hm – two very different topics here. Another “did they dope” article – how novel? Simply a consequence of too much evidence.

    Padraig, as soon as you realize cycling has more in common with the WWF than a typical day job, the better of you will be. My cycling glasses have no rose tint left yet I still enjoy the sport. Like many, I’m less fond of the pro aspect than I once was.

    On race radios, well that is a good topic for debate in my estimation as there are many cases for and against. Any new thing has unintended consquences. Sometimes you gain things and sometimes you lose them. In this case, radios do appear to limit a certain type of exploratory and spontaneous aggression in a lot of races.

    j

  9. Full Monte

    It is impossible that Jens gets popped for doping because everyone else’s dope is made from the sweat squeezed from his chamois after every race. Other riders may, however, get popped for Jensing.

  10. SusanJane

    Jens?
    He has so much fun on the bike! No big ego, no pretenses. The GC and jerseys are not the only contests in a race. I’ve still got some rose tint in my glasses because the riders who race and suffer with such shear elemental joy will always get me cheering. We’re seeing them at the Giro and ToC this year. They keep trying and I keep hoping they win. Doping sucks but I’m a fan because I love watching all of you race your bikes.

    Tejay?
    It’s not a fun time to be reaching the top of this sport. Yet he still has a type of innocence in spite of it all. And this is where I draw a comparison to Jens. No big ego, no pretenses. They aren’t the same type of rider. They didn’t ride on the same type of teams. But when Tejay puts his head down I want him to win because it’s not about the expensive car or the rich girl friend. He’s an immensely talented athlete. And as far as I can tell he rides with the same fire that Jens does. Not as expressive or flamboyant but certainly as passionate.

  11. scaredskinnydog

    Race radio-I agree on no race radio. I think the riders should have ear pieces but only for emergency information. It seems to me that the races that exclude race radio are always more exciting.
    Dope- I’m like Mr Hand in Fast Times. I think everyones on dope.
    Jens- Camp Jens will be back better then ever at this years US Pro Challenge. Anyone’s invited to stop by for a beer and brat and a heated game of bocce ball.
    Tejay- I think his Amgen Tour of Cali win is just the beginning.

  12. Team Brioschi

    I agree wholeheartedly with your feelings about current riders deserving better.

    Talk about the past is important, and I hope that a lot more truth comes out about the past, but every stakeholder in cycling should have as their main priority improving the testing scheme today and for tomorrow. We can’t change the past but we can have better testing tomorrow.

    Need (1) a totally independent body that has no stake in the success of the sport to conduct the testing, and (2) a lot more money from teams and race owners to go toward testing/research.

  13. Lovedawg

    thanks for the honest assessment of one of the most likeable riders in the peleton Richard! I agree lifetime is a brutal ban, especially for someone who has accidentally injested a PED, but also ask that another issue is considered…that of the latent physiological benefits of doping. If someone dopes, especially for years, with artificially improved recovery rates and regeneration capabilities, there can be long lasting latent benefits to doping, long after the athlete has taken the banned substance. would love to hear Michael Asheden’s view on the lasting physiological effects of doping…if deemed significant this holds the basis of a strong argument for lifetime bans after one offense.

  14. Patrick O'Brien

    Every single professional rider of Voigt’s age, plus or minus a few years, has doped sometime in their career. It is up to them to prove us wrong. So, the old man wins one, we cheer, and then we read he is suspect and probably a cheater sometime in the past. Scumbag. So, flush the sport down the toilet, they are all dirty, RKP comes off the bookmarks. I’ve had it.

  15. Alan

    I am certain Tejay is clean. I don’t care to elaborate how I know this, but I am comfortable in stating this.

    I can’t guarantee Jens and Thor were clean, but I bet they are now. They’ve each failed to live up to expectations and have won a few things mostly by sniping them. Dopers in the old days won often and (usually) lived up to expectations.

    Even Tejay has failed to keep up with the Sky Train, not winning where I thought he might. Rather than cast aspersions on Tejay and Jens, I’d rather see the serious questions go elsewhere.

    Disappointing Padraig.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Alan: Had you read a little more carefully, what you’d notice is that I take but a glancing blow at Jens. And I’m not indicting Tejay, it’s an indictment of the UCI.

  16. Peter lin

    Reading the comments reminds of a conversation I had with my son last year. He said “why can’t people think and act logically?” In his young mind, it makes sense to govern ones actions purely by logic. My response to him was the question “why do you sometimes get mad and then act out?”

    As much I would love to see homo-sapiens act and behave logically, “we” mostly fail at it. Even then, logic is not the final solution to all problems either. We still need compassion. If some professional athlete lies to us, we are complicit in the act. If something looks too good to be true, then it probably is. Look at the 2012 summer Olympics swimming results.

    At the end of the day, it’s just a sport. We shouldn’t treat it as a religion, or raise winners as pantheons of human excellence. For me, finding that balance on a day to day basis is challenging, but that’s what makes life interesting for me.

  17. JP Partland

    Jens’ French team, Credit Agricole, deserves mention as one of the cleaner outfits in a dirty era. They had very, very few doping positives between their incarnation as Z (taking over from Peugeot), to Gan, to Agricole, almost 20 years in the sport. And almost none from the mid-90s to when they folded in 2008.

    Jens is part of what I refer to as “the softer side of Omerta.” He was teammates with Jonathan Vaughters on Credit Agricole, and Vaughters reported that who was doping and with what was one of hte hottest table topics among racers. He was teammates and close friends with Bobby Julich. Certainly Jens knew of their doping. I don’t know if his pronouncements are about protecting himself or his friens. I think that Omerta is about protecting friens as much as anything else

    http://jralong.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-softer-side-of-omerta.html

  18. Q

    With the usual caveats about the possibility of my glasses being too rose colored, I agree with Alan about it being at least plausible that Jens didn’t dope back when everyone else did. Jonathan Vaughters described an environment at Credit Agricole where the management seems to have wanted to avoid scandal just as much as they wanted cycling success, and while I think JV says he continued to dabble in the doping, it didn’t sound like it was institutionalized by the team in any way. Similarly, while CSC clearly didn’t have a clean record, I’m not aware of any claims that the non-GC guys on that team were all doping. Bobby Julich was on that team during the same era and claims to have quit doping earlier, which I find believable since he was no longer contending for grand tours at that point in his career. When I look at Jens Voigt’s accomplishments, I see a guy who if he’s riding clean now, probably should have been on Tour podiums 10 years ago if he had been doping. In many ways, I see a lot of similarity between him and a certain Texan of the same age, both of whom had demonstrated a lot of talent early in their careers, but not necessarily for winning GC of 3 week races. When I think of what Lance Armstrong might have been able to achieve if he had chosen to forgo doping, I think his results may have looked something like those of Jens Voigt. A lot of good riders had to choose between doping and not winning, and a lot of domestiques had to choose between doping and doing something else for a job, but were’t there at lest some riders who were strong enough on their own merits to at least stay in professional cycling? There seems to be a consensus that David Moncoutie was one such rider, but surely he wasn’t the only one.

  19. Patrick O'Brien

    Now that I have calmed down, I still have the question, when does the suspicion of all pro riders being, or have been, dopers end? Is it wise to carry this suspicion from one generation of riders to the next?

    Padraig, you will never know for sure. None one ever will. So, is it wise to continue to scratch open this old wound? Using an extremely tired cliche, it is like the death of a thousand cuts.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Patrick: What is at stake here is the difference between certainty and perception. Only one of those is necessary, achievable.

  20. Nick

    I think there’s an interesting question here about what an individual loses when a rider they like falls from grace.

    I used to love Jens but simply cannot believe his claims that he was clean as he rode away from hard-charging pelotons during what seem to be the dirtiest years of the sport. I feel disappointed, no longer cheer for him, and am frustrated when Velonews says he “affirmed his legendary status again” with his ATOC win, but I don’t feel the anger, betrayal, or vitriol that others do. Of course it’s different for different riders, and I’m sure in some cases it really it as simple as “I didn’t like them before and now I really don’t like them.” But maybe there’s a point for self reflection here about why we, in whatever capacity we follow the sport (fans, jouros, promoters, etc.) have the reactions that we do.

    Comments sections can be hard because maybe it’s just a person who’s always angry that gives an angry response, or a person who’s always compassionate saying forgiving things, and both responses have far more to do with the person than the topic.

  21. Patrick O'Brien

    Perception is good for me. But, you ask for solid proof in the last sentence to change the mind of a skeptical world. Cycling will only become a main stream sport when the average person rides a bike for daily transport, exercise or recreation. Until then, it seems the only ones that need to change their minds are us, your readers. You got me thinking hard again, and for that I thank you. Keep pulling my chain. Time for a beer.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Nick: Thanks much for that contribution to the conversation. That was meaningful.

      Patrick: We can ask for a lot, but it doesn’t mean we’ll get it. It’s important to be able to let go and enjoy a beer. Cheers.

  22. Bikelink

    Got tired of hearing after someone got popped for doping that they were suspected before but I never heard that. Am tired of hearing that blood tests are confidential since they are medical though they are anything but (why not a complete publication of every test as it happens). Am tired of everyone who was involved in the big doping era still involved in the sport and not coming clean. Am tired of wanting to believe in athletes like Tejay and Taylor but not being able to because of what came before. As long as the fan support/$ still flows in there is no incentive to change. I like watching race highlights to see how team/individual tactics play out but try not to get invested in any individual racers/teams.

  23. RPD

    All that and DiLuca gets popped for EPO… again! Why he wasn’t given a lifetime ban after he got caught last time is beyond me, but it’s proof you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

  24. Pingback: Friday Group Ride #168 : Red Kite Prayer

  25. RayC

    Padraig:

    I began reading your story due to the title and picture of Tejay. However, you morphed from one topic into another discussion on unfounded suspicions….if you don’t have proof, then keep your opinion to yourself.

    I’d like to comment on the first part of your story, as well as the “radio” issue, and what I think was the best piece of racing at this year’s ATOC. That great Stage-5 finish highlighted one of the things that peeves me about the skill set being developed/coached to young American racers, or rather the skill that’s apparently NOT being taught. And that’s the skill of an echelon. When the peloton turned into the crosswind, it was instantly obvious that 2 things were happening; the ProTour squads went the front (with the addition of Alex Candelario – Optum/Kelly), and the rest of the peloton was slow to react for some unknown reason. The obvious strength at the front was a calculated maneuver, however, the rest of the peloton spent an inordinate amount of time grovelling/fighting in the gutter before forming additional echelons. This highlights a huge gap (IMO) in what our young riders are not learning. Forming an echelon should be the 3rd skill taught to a developing rider, just behind cadence and paceline/drafting. If you are not in the front echelon, you must instantly form a second (or 3rd, or 4th….) echelon. I didn’t see that happen. It took several miles for the echelons to form while the wind just kept getting stronger and those in the gutter suffered. Also, the front group’s reaction to the wind (and everyone else’s inaction) was due in part to their knowledge of the course. The use of radios for an entire generation of racers has created a system where the riders didn’t have to study the course maps/technical guide. Although I believe that radios do more good than bad (at the Professional level), there is still a group of racers that have left the “course recon/local knowledge” skill off of the table when it comes to the race course. Unless you have the strength to make up for your mistakes, you are going to be left behind.

    To be a successful racer you need three things; strength, skill/talent, and information. For the past 15 or so years, a good D.S. could fill-in any gaps in the skill and information via radio, with instructions, course changes and changes to the team’s game plan. The ability to race on a riders’ own instincts may have been lost. As beautiful as this year’s ATOC Stage-5 was, I believe that it highlighted some shortcomings in the preparations undertaken by domestic racers. You must be self-sufficient and have the ability to race at/near the front so that you are actually seeing and participating in the race, and, you must have the skills to adapt to the changing conditions (especially wind) that you can use to your advantage. You must also be familiar with the course so that you can mitigate any advantage that your opponents may have, with respect to utilizing those weather conditions. I believe that these skills are not being properly developed, as evidenced by the delay in reacting to the conditions by our domestic squads. I hope that I’m wrong, but the commanding action taken by head of the peloton tells me differently.
    RC


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Ray: Thanks for dropping by. Rather than go into a deep point-by-point response to your lengthy comment, I’ll encourage you to go back and reread the post. I’m not accusing Tejay van Garderen of doping. I do think he’s clean. My point is that the UCI is so ineffective at their mission that for anyone who might be suspicious, they aren’t credible at convincing us that a rider is clean. As to keeping my opinions to myself should I suspect a rider is doping, I can appreciate that your experience with the fallout from the Armstrong debacle has been quite different from mine. The media has come in for an incredible amount of anger from readers because we didn’t report more about credible stories and/or suspicions where Armstrong is concerned. I’ve been included in this even though I wasn’t actively reporting on Armstrong and his racing for most of his Tour de France wins. Readers today want our judgment, not just our ability to collect facts.

      As the former director of the Navigators team I have a great respect for your tenure in the sport, but I’m going to do my job how I see fit and that means pointing out that even though I believe that Tejay is clean, I don’t think that the UCI has the moral fiber to convince me of it.

  26. RayC

    Padraig:

    I too have no reason to believe the current crop of young talent (Tejay included) is anything other than clean. They have a different mindset thanks to education and other fair-play initiatives.

    Actually, with my “suspicions vs. proof” comment I was referring to your assessment of Voigt. Although the jury is still out with respect to complicity between cheaters and administrators, this debate will likely continue until a more effective system is in place. There are too many loopholes and ineffective actions that are being taken by too many parties. Let’s review Contador……..

    It is painfully obvious that while the Lance/USADA decision was able to put a lot of “suspicions, innuendo, rumors, etc.” to rest, it is still vitally important that a rider is not convicted on anything other than verifiable proof. Unfortunately, for the past decade+half some have been able to avoid detection. I have my own opinions regarding where the blame for that lies, but statistics show a real problem when Lance & Co. were tested some 343 times in the U.S. and every test was negative.

    As I’ve said to any rider that mentioned it, my response to the rumors, innuendo and suspicions was always: “we’ll know in 2 weeks if you got beat by a cheater when his positive test comes back”. Well, that 2 weeks never came. My opinions today don’t matter, as I am not currently earning a living from cycling. However, we still have to respect the process (even with its shortcomings) and not just say someone is “suspicious” just because of his former teams or teammates…..the media also has a responsibility to provide facts. We still need definitive proof. There are 2 places that the proof should have been found for the Lance/USADA decision, and to date, has not been. My beef with your story was that it propagates the “suspicion” factor needlessly. We need more hard evidence, investigative journalism and better testing methods, or perhaps more legal/criminal actions to get the bad apples out of the sport. Currently, no single body (ADAs, DOJ, UCI, Spanish court, Italian court, etc) has provided me with any sort of confidence in the rooting out of the cheaters. As a fan, I find it difficult to believe any results — and that’s downright disgusting. We deserve better than that.

    Now, getting back to the beginning of your story: why did the domestic riders/teams not react effectively and efficiently to the course conditions? That, to me is the “Teachable Moment”.

    RC

  27. Papo

    “…it is still vitally important that a rider is not convicted on anything other than verifiable proof.”

    Yes, all of the adults in the room seem to agree on this point. So where is the focus on improving the methods by which people gather the *verifiable proof*?

    Why is the conversation too often about one’s feelings about Jens, or litigating what might’ve been at Credit Agricole?

    Why do stakeholders (fans included) that want to see change not stick to a very simple narrow message: (1) teams and races put up more funding for testing & research, and (2) an unconflicted independent body take responsibility for testing and sanctions.

  28. Theoldmtneer

    The sad part about all of your conversations is that you act like doping is a recent happening and now that Armstrong is caught it’s over. Well I’m sorry to tell you’all that doping has been going on since WWI. One small example Coka Cola used to have cocaine in it. Most WWI soldiers were issued amphetamines and after the war they used the stuff for cycling and mountaineering. It was a multitude of decades before testing started. Every sport is guilty for at least the last 100 years. This isn’t cheating its human evolution. One thing is for sure, there isn’t a drug that gives skill, that comes from the desire to be better. I wish for everyone to just wake up. The real problem is the MD’s who are handing out Rx drugs in the name of money, their killing your folks and grand folks enmass. We will evolve out of this, but for now enjoy the sport. One last thing, if Hamilton, Andreau and Landis were never caught in the first place it would still be underground.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Theoldmtneer: Actually, I’ve never written anything to suggest that doping is new. Only oxygen vector doping is “new,” if we can call something done for 20 years new. And for the record, doping has been going on as long as there has been bike racing. As to your comment that doping is just a part of human evolution, that would be true if doping was something unavoidable, like stereo vision or hearing, but because we do have the ability not to take PEDs, doping isn’t just human evolution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>