Tying Off the Past

IndurainChipVL91 @PhSport

Now that Pat McQuaid has been voted out of the UCI presidency and the troubled institution is being led by Brian Cookson, there is some reasonable hope that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be formed and testimony will take place. Given how cycling has been governed since the UCI was formed, this is a turn of events so surprising and unlikely it is befitting an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.

Let’s imagine it for a second: Someone will be willing to pay attention as Jesus Manzano speaks.

McQuaid won’t be there to say that he wished Jorg Jaksche had ‘handled things differently.’

Consider that Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton will have an opportunity to sit down in the same room as members of the UCI, tell everything they saw and took part in while members of U.S. Postal and Phonak, and when finished Pat McQuaid won’t be there to call them “scumbags.”

Now that we have the faith that the UCI has a president who will actually do what he says, and that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will convene, we have a question to consider: How far back should the TRC look? Technically, the choice of how far to look back belongs to Cookson or whoever he charges with running the TRC, but that Cookson is president now owes much to public outcry. We do have a voice and the success of a TRC will rest on public satisfaction.

So who should testify? The TRC should do more than just listen to riders and team personnel. We should hear from as many doctors, pharmacists and lab techs as possible. Let’s include the odd motorcycle driver or two. This testimony will be key in corroborating what the riders say. Anyone watching social media has noticed that there’s some suspicion about whether George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer confessed all of their doping to USADA or not. Testimony from medical professionals and coaches will have the ability to confirm their previous testimony or demonstrate that they withheld some activity. It will also show just how fearful riders were of Travis Tygart, or not.

However, if the TRC only looks back as far as 1999, it won’t be far enough. We will have little reason to be satisfied. The TRC needs the freedom, resources and time necessary to take testimony from anyone with a heartbeat. That means we should listen to Belgian soigneurs from the 1950s. We should listen to guys like Lucien Aimar, who was a domestique for Jacques Anquetil. And yes, we should listen to Eddy Merckx.

Why go so far back? Because it will educate the sport’s governing body, riders, team staff, the public and sponsors—in short every stakeholder the sport has—on how entrenched doping and attitudes toward doping have been. Because it was ingrained at an institutional level, it will show that cycling takes doping not just more seriously than any other sport, but as seriously as one may take it. That is what will be necessary to win back sponsor and audience confidence.

The reality is that we won’t hear from everyone we would like to. We must also accept that the UCI is unlikely to allow the TRC to run for five years. They need to focus their effort, concentrate on the biggest part of the problem. To that end, I suggest that we do what we can to encourage testimony from as far back as 1990.

Based on everything I’ve learned about the rise of oxygen-vector doping, I think we can put a date on when doping fundamentally change in pro cycling. That date? May 18,1990. With it comes a specific location: Bari, Italy. That was the day and the location of the prologue for the 1990 Giro d’Italia, which was won by Gianni Bugno. Bugno went on to wear the pink jersey for the 19 days, all the way to the finish in Milan. It was the first time a rider had led the Giro from start to finish since Eddy Merckx did it in 1973. Because we know Bugno worked with Francesco Conconi and testing revealed a high hematocrit—for which he was sanctioned—I think it’s fair to mark this as the date when racing grand tours changed. Fair enough, that is, until we get testimony through a TRC.

Simply put, the 1990 Giro was the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO.

While EPO use changed the whole of racing, it had the greatest effect on the grand tours, where being able to stay out of the red zone thanks to extra red blood cells paid dividends as the race wore on. It was during the 1990 season that Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci stormed to prominence. A year later Miguel Indurain won his first Tour de France, and like Chiappucci and Bugno, Big Mig counted Conconi among his advisors.

The 1990 season was a turning point in that not only did it see the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO (the Giro), it also saw the last clean win in the Tour de France prior to two generations of wins tainted by oxygen-vector doping. Has there been a clean winner of the Tour since Greg LeMond’s 1990 win? Very probably, but certainly not between 1991 and 2006. The possibility of a clean winner seems to have grown more convincing with each year since 2007.

A TRC has the ability to settle this question.

Now, regarding LeMond, it’s easy enough to find comments on Facebook or Twitter from people willing to accuse him of having doped. Even without a TRC, the evidence suggests that in 1989 each of the grand tours was won without oxygen-vector doping. The Vuelta was won by Pedro Delgado, the Giro by Laurent Fignon and the Tour by LeMond. Each of those guys had won a grand tour prior to the availability of EPO. While we know that both Delgado and Fignon doped, we have reason to believe they weren’t using EPO in ’89. What’s interesting about ’89 is that this is the year Chiappucci, Bugno and Indurain began to threaten the GC. In ’89 Chiappucci finished 46th and 81st in the Giro and Tour, respectively. A year later? A remarkable 12th and 2nd. In ’88, Bugno withdrew from the Giro and finished the Tour in 62nd. In ’89 he went 23rd and 11th. In ’90, of course, he won the Giro and finished the Tour in 7th. Indurain’s rise was more gradual, less outwardly suspicious; he finished 97th in the ’87 Tour, but gradually climbed the ranks up to 47th, 17th and 10th before winning.

What makes all three of these riders of a piece is the fact that they started anonymously before rising to prominence. LeMond, Fignon, Merckx and Bernard Hinault all share in common the fact that their brilliance and potential shown early on. LeMond differs only in that he didn’t win his first Tour—he was third.

Lance Armstrong is accused of being at the center of the greatest doping program in history, the greatest sporting fraud ever perpetrated. It’s a charge we can’t really resolve. If there was a greater sporting fraud, it hasn’t been exposed. Ultimately, this isn’t a terribly important question. What the Armstrong fall has done, however, is to open the public’s eyes to the breadth of doping that has taken place. It has introduced suspicion into the cycling fan’s vocabulary. The problem before us is how to put this behind us. We may never put the genie back in the bottle, but a TRC has the ability to educate us on more than just who doped; it has the ability to clear those who did not dope.

Aside from simply dispensing the truth, a TRC will freshly frame the achievement of riders like LeMond, riders who would have accomplished more were it not for the rise of EPO. A TRC that reaches back to 1990 will give us a new way to define courage.


Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Patrick O'Brien

    I have no idea what the different country’s statutes of limitation are on the illegal distribution or use of prescription drugs, not to mention fraud, conspiracy, and other crimes involved with doping. You don’t have to be a lawyer to come up with a litany of charges for anyone involved with the international smuggling and distribution of prescription drugs. Without immunity from criminal prosecution, it will be interesting to see who shows up at a TRC and just what questions they will answer, especially in a public forum. Am I the only one who sees this as an issue? Has Mr. Pelkey looked at this problem from a lawyer’s point of view?

    1. Author

      Patrick: The statute of limitations in the U.S. has run out for everyone from the Armstrong era and before. While I haven’t checked each of the statutes in the other major cycling nations, what I’ve read from other sources runs along the same lines; anything that happened in 2005 or before is in the clear. (There are some exceptions, but they are rare, such as if the Armstrong was prosecuted under the RICO Act.) Really, only current riders and staff have anything to worry about concerning the law in their home countries. And for them, I think one of the biggest tasks for the TRC would be to negotiate immunity from prosecution for everyone prepared to testify. That’s not an impossible task.

  2. SusanJane

    I’ve been thinking a lot about not so much who and when, but why. Anyone who needs to come forward already know who they are. Having nothing left to prove makes for an easy confession. I am watching as riders who are being condemned by their pasts and not getting hired. Is it the sponsors? Is is some evil taint? A team does not have to hire anyone. Will the UCI force teams to offer a new contract after someone confesses? Could someone sue if they suspect they are being unfairly treated after testifying? Is it retroactive?

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  4. MarkB

    We do need to remember in all of this that doping has not always been illegal. Before Tom Simpson died in Le Tour, I believe that there was no illegality attached to drug taking by professional cyclists, it was simply never discussed outside the sport and most were not aware that it went on. Furthermore, my impression from talking to people involved in the sport in the forties and fifties is that cyclists were never compelled to take drugs and that the top teams did not use doping almost as a standard training practice. Therefore, I think that there is a point at which we should stop looking to apportion blame; when doping was made illegal in the sport. I do not know the exact date but am certain that someone else does.

    1. Author

      MarkB: Doping goes back in cycling as far back as racing does. If you think that a TRC is meant to apportion blame, then you’ve completely misunderstood the point of the TRC. It is meant as a way for us to learn from the past, but we can’t learn from the past unless we know it. That is why it should look as far back as possible. And if you doubt that doping was rife in the ’40s and ’50s, please consider this famous exchange by Fausto Coppi with an interviewer:

      Question: Do cyclists take la bomba (amphetamine)?
      Answer: Yes, and those who claim otherwise, it’s not worth talking to them about cycling.
      Question: And you, did you take la bomba?
      Answer: Yes. Whenever it was necessary.
      Question: And when was it necessary?
      Answer: Almost all the time!

  5. Full Monte

    Horner, as Tygert and USADA were almost finished with the Reasoned Decision, prior to its release, said: “I don’t think Armstrong cheated.”

    By then, pretty much everyone knew what was coming. Fans and reporters scratched their heads. Certainly, Horner didn’t have his head that far in the sand.

    But it’s interesting that Horner didn’t say: “I don’t think Armstrong doped.”

    In Horner’s mind – and in most EPO generation riders’ minds – if everyone does it, it’s not cheating. It’s doping, sure. But not cheating. (Even while he claims not to have done so himself.)

    If Cookson holds a TRC, he’ll be asking dopers – who don’t feel they “cheated” – to testify. Some of whom have not been caught. And if they keep quiet, never will. Not a great deal of incentive for them to open up, only to face fans and family after a career of denials.

    Others, like Lance, have implied that what he’s admitted to so far is just the beginning. Just the tip of the iceberg. He’s said that if there is a TRC, and he gets complete immunity, he’ll tell all – far more than he admitted to in the Oprah interview. He’ll name names.

    So far, the discussion of doping in cycling has been limited to A) riders, B) doctors, C) team directors and managers and support staff. But what if, given Armstrong’s connections in every corner of cycling, the tentacles of doping goes much deeper?

    What if Lance implicates major sponsors as being complicit or of aiding and abetting doping (since Motoman the motorcycle riding dope courier was mentioned above, it’s worth noting that the former Armstrong landscaper has been tracked down – he owns a Trek dealership in Europe now. Hmmmm.)

    What if Lance shows that governing bodies also had their finger in doping (look at the connections of the top moneymen in Tailwind, all the way to USA Cycling and the money behind major American pro races, and don’t forget Armstrong’s “bribe” to the UCI)?

    Right now, most of the doping/cheating damage to cycling is being borne by Lance. He’s the poster boy for the EPO Generation, and he’s out, so everything’s much better now (so the storyline goes). And right now, he gets to play cycling’s Christ, bearing all the sport’s sins (something I think his twisted mind somehow relishes). But a TRC opens up the floodgates. It has the potential to put major players and organizations on display. For an already damaged sport, perhaps the TRC may be too much for it to bear at this time.

    Cookson is between a rock and a hard place. He needs the TRC to move forward, cleanse the sport. But the sport may not survive the fallout once its over. It may dry up the last of any fan support and send remaining corporate sponsors running for the hills. Given the world economic climate and the shuttering of teams and the withdrawal of sponsorship already, the timing from a financial standpoint is also perilous.

    And if a TRC takes place, and some of the greatest names in the sport come up, what then, of Armstrong? Do we wipe every winner since Greg LeMond off the Grand Tours? Do we give Lance his titles back?

    So careful what we wish for, everyone. If we get it, the law of unintended consequences may come crashing down upon us.

  6. Quentin

    It’s been clear to me for a long time that everyone post-Indurain was suspect, but I was never quite sure what to think of Indurain. I find your analysis pretty convincing that he was an early pioneer in the use of EPO. You are also correct to put oxygen vector doping in a completely different category from all of the other stuff out there, at least as far as cycling is concerned. This probably doesn’t change the conclusion of your analysis, but if I recall correctly, Chiapucci’s result in the 1990 Tour was partially thanks to gaining significant time in a breakaway early in the race (similar to Oscar Pereiro in 2006).

    I also agree with you that we’ll gain more from a T&R commission that is as broad as possible and goes as far back as possible rather than just rehashing things we (think we) already know about the Armstrong era.

  7. Bikelink

    I don’t think anything can “kill” cycling. If 100% of sponsor money dried up, amateur teams would compete for free. I know everyone would be heartbroken if specific races like the grand tours and monuments didn’t happen for a couple years, but they aren’t cycling…cycling is what makes them great. And then it would grow back. So I vote yes for a TRC, however imperfect it will be…I’ve lost faith. I don’t know what is needed for me to have faith in current int’l pro riders (I know there is “less” doping, but that’s not enough), but maybe I’ll hear it in the TRC or something similar.

  8. Wsquared

    “…a TRC has the ability to educate us on more than just who doped; it has the ability to clear those who did not dope.”

    Naw, I don’t think so.

  9. jg

    “Based on everything I’ve learned about the rise of oxygen-vector doping, I think we can put a date on when doping fundamentally change in pro cycling. That date? May 18,1990.”

    You are way off by at least six years. Blood doping was going on during the LeMond/Hinault/Fignon era.


    I seriously doubt that our 1984 Olympic team invented the practice of blood doping or were the only ones to use it prior to the invention of EPO.

    Eddy B spearheaded the blood doping program for the 84 Olympic and was a coach of LeMond.

    In 1986, didn’t LeMond and Hinault beat the third place rider up Alpe D’Huez by over five minutes? Fantastical results, n’est-ce pas? Think there might of been some blood doping going on at La Vie Claire?

    The TRC needs to go back a lot farther than 1990.

    1. Author

      JG: While there was some blood doping in the early to mid-1980s, it was not a widespread practice in professional cycling. From what I’ve been able to learn, it seems to have been more popular with the states-sponsored programs of Eastern Bloc countries, though the U.S. team’s use of it in the ’84 Olympics was a notable exception. That said, Eddie B. did not spearhead the program. It was initiated by Ed Burke, and this is well-documented in the new book “Wheelmen” by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell. And while LeMond did work with Eddie B., he did so only as a junior, never as a professional. There has never been any evidence that the La Vie Claire team used blood doping; indeed your accusation is the first time I’ve even encountered something so preposterous.

  10. jg

    Whether it was Burke or Eddy B.’s idea, every source I’ve seen indicates that Eddy B was involved in the ’84 doping scandal. And Eddy B. was LeMond’s coach at one time. I don’t think it’s right, but guilt by association certainly seems to be an accepted form of doping proof these days.

    LeMond can likely say he never cheated since blood doping was legal during much of his career. I certainly do not know for certain whether or not LeMond blood doped, but I do think some of his results and associations bear further examination. Do you remember his amazing recovery from anemia during the ’89 Giro? Are B12 shots capable of fueling that sort of a turnaround? Take his name off of the facts of his career and examine it with the same lens used on other cyclists who were suspected of doping but were never objectively proven to have doped.

    If this is the first time you have encountered such skepticism of LeMond, I think you may have a blind spot for him. Eastern Bloc usage of doping was rampant at the ’76 Olympics, so to believe that it was uncommon in the pro peloton in the 80’s, I feel, is naïve. My whole point, and a point on which you and I agree, is that the TRC needs to go back to the beginning of oxygen-vector doping. We just disagree when that started.

  11. Jake

    This is a compelling argument for truth and reconciliation.

    But do you have an answer to Mr. Inrng, who argues that a Truth and Reconciliation Commision won’t work”? In other words, what makes you think that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would yield either truth or reconciliation? I’d love to air the details of doping from Anquetil to Merckx to Indurain to present, but how do we convince the few people who possess that knowledge to share?

  12. Rod

    @Full Monte

    Yeah, the “you can’t handle the truth” defence. You know what? I’m a big boy with my big boy pants.

    Baseball survived the Black Sox. Skating survived the rigged score exchanges in the olympics. Athletics survived the infamous ’88 100 m. race.

    I’d rather know and learn from these situations. And you know what? I can live with cheating athletes. It’s a fact of life. There will always be robbers and criminals. What is the equivalent of a saddle sore is having corrupt authorities overseeing these situations.

  13. Full Monte

    Rod, you can handle the truth. I can handle the truth. I’ve come to grips with doping in cycling from the athletes’ perspective. Know what, if I’d had the physical gifts to be on the cusp of a pro career, and a coach or teammate handed me some PEDs and said, “Take these,” I’da downed ’em like pop rocks.

    There are many cycling fans, like you, like me, that’ve long known doping exists in the sport. Many of us suspect that the doping culture runs much deeper than has been acknowledged so far. Call us the 10%ers. The Inside-Baseball fans.

    For the rest of those more loosely following the sport, the Lance Armstrong story is pretty much the extent of their doping knowledge. Cancer Jesus turned out to be a fraud and dang it, I wore that yellow baller band so I feel cheated! Cheated I tell you!

    These fans, if they found out things like there’s another fan-favorite cyclist who began his racing career in East Germany right around the time Mr Brady is referencing, and has long claimed his purity, turned up being named in a TRC: “No way, him too?” And another fan-favorite, who just pulled off one of the biggest feats in pro cycling: “Can’t be him as well?”

    If these fans also find out their favorite corporations also knew, and perhaps, aided cyclists’ cheating, things really start to erode for cycling. It would undoubtedly cause a chilling affect for other companies already sponsoring or considering sponsoring the sport. See Rabobank, and the folding of pro teams just this month. See Nissan, who honored their contract and paid Leopard this entire past year to NOT have their logo on team kit and NOT drive their vehicles as team cars.

    You cite the White Sox – one team, not all of baseball. You cite the French judges in one Olympics, not the entire Olympics. The closest thing to cycling you mention are the entire field of sprinters in the 100 meter event in the 88 Olympics — right exactly when EPO became the equivalent of vitamins for pro cycling.

    Imagine a TRC revealing that the testing organizations within many nations worked for years to hide doping in cycling, not expose it. That those responsible for policing the sport were corrupt themselves. Imagine that most all the beloved riders, some still on bikes, get named, including multiple past champions. Imagine the organizers of the sport in the USA being revealed to have full knowledge of the practice, and probably tacitly endorsing it.

    You wouldn’t be surprised by such findings. I wouldn’t be surprised.

    CMO’s at major corporations would be, and they wouldn’t like it. In today’s economy, companies are being pretty frugal with their marketing dollars.

    Casual fans would be as well. In a sport already badly tarnished by its biggest star, to lose almost all the rest of its heroes would be disastrous.

    A lot of people would be shocked by the Truth part of a TRC process. The Reconciliation part for many might end up being years in coming. My question: Can pro cycling, at this moment in time, withstand it and financially survive as we now know it?

  14. Wsquared

    Ha, ha and you know what? High & mighty Rabobank was just fined $1 billion for manipulating interest rates & CEO is resigning. Oh the irony! And do you think maybe they knew a big fine was in the offing when they cut their cycling fundingas unnecessary & used doping as an excuse?

  15. Full Monte

    J P Morgan Chase is facing a $15 billion judgment against them for manipulating mortgage securities, facilitating the housing bubble and financial crisis of 2008.

    When that agreement hit a snag in the last couple days, JPMC shed stock value as trading experts knew the $15b was a drop in the bucket — getting off light.

    Bank of America is facing fines and pending lawsuits that are several times more than the JPMC hit.

    Rabobank is just one of many banks that played fast and loose during the last decade. $1b is a small fraction of the profits they reaped due to questionable practices. And the dumping of their CEO is largely a PR move. (I’m not alone, though, in wishing to see Jamie Dimon’s head on a plate.)

    If anything, in the wake of this ruling, Rabo could stand to have some feel good presence in the market – something positive. Like sponsoring a professional bike racing team. Oh, wait. Scratch that.

  16. jaimie fuller

    we should go back as far as those want to testify. if someone from the 50’s wants to come in, let ’em.
    this is a cathartic moment not just for the sport but for those who have participated in doping. some of those will consider the issue irrelevant, as is their right, whilst others will carry a degree of guilt and they should be afforded the opportunity to speak.
    what an amazing opportunity and one where cycling gets to lead the rest of the world sports in confronting and addressing its problems.

  17. TucsonMTB

    “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” huh? Sounds Orwellian.

    Recent new reports indicate that the UCI and WADA have granted your wish. Whatever, dude. To me, it seems likely to do more damage than good.

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