With his sweep of the Ardennes Classics Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Alejandro Valverde managed to keep alive what is both the most troubling and least interesting question in cycling. Is he doping? Even when we think we have an answer (see Team Astana) there are no easy or conclusive answers. And simply waiting for these guys to retire is going to take a lot longer than one would have expected back in the days of Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon, considering the Energizer Bunny routines being performed by the likes of Chris Horner and Davide Rebellin.
The result of the CIRC was so inconclusive and murky one could be forgiven for confusing it with swamp water, a point reinforced by the adoption of Jens Voigt as a few brand’s favorite ambassador of HTFU, the lesson being, admit nothing and keep your reputation with the public.
So while it seems that Astana could keep its license even if they hired Willy Voet to drive an entire pharmacy from Nigeria to Spain by way of Aigle, there are fresh signs the sport is making progress.
First among these is an off-the-record conversation I had with someone who works with a number of pro riders. He shared that while there was peer pressure to dope at the top echelon of the sport back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the social aspect of doping has shifted 180 degrees. Now there’s peer pressure not to dope. The thinking is that if you dope and are caught, the penalties will extend to your teammates because of the possibility that your team won’t be invited to certain races or, worse, the team will lose sponsors. It’s a point that Ivan Basso spoke to last year when he noted that while young riders used to ask for advice on doping, they have since stopped asking.
Now, it might seem that raising the specter of motorized doping with devices like the Vivax Assist (formerly Gruber Assist) is a bit like adding one too many clowns to the circus … and you’d be right. We have yet to encounter a single instance of mechanical doping. That is, not only has no one won a race with one of the devices, no one has even been caught with one of them. Cracking down on mechanical doping before it happens may seem tantamount to starting a stop-and-frisk program in Beverly Hills. However, it’s worth noting that when we first heard about EPO, the UCI did nothing. They did nothing for years. Look where that got us.
So, yes, the prospect of mechanical doping right now is as laughable as a career resurrection by Debbie Boone. While the UCI hasn’t made any statements on their larger strategy, what the evidence suggests is that they are buying pesticide before they have a pest problem. Such a proactive approach has the potential to summon comparisons to Monsanto and Roundup-treated seeds, but pro cyclists aren’t nearly as delicate as bees.
However, the big news of late is the decision by USA Cycling to name Derek Bouchard-Hall its next CEO. He will replace Steve Johnson whose legacy is perhaps best characterized by his claim that David Zabriskie never told him about doping on the U.S. Postal Service Team. Ignoble is a fair way to describe his tenure.
Bouchard-Hall arrives at USA Cycling from the UK-based online cycling retailer Wiggle, where he directed international markets, a $100m/year business. And while that’s impressive, Bouchard-Hall’s pedigree goes deep, all the way to the bone you might say.
I’ve followed his career since his days racing in the collegiate A ranks as a Princeton undergrad. My race was always earlier in the day than the A category, so I was on the sidelines to see him do battle against my UMASS teammates. Even then he was considered smart, tactically savvy, respected and well-liked. After he graduated from Princeton he did something especially rare; he went on to graduate school at Stanford while continuing to rise through the amateur ranks. I continued to follow his career, first with VeloNews, then on TV.
As an amateur he raced with Shaklee and went on to the U.S. National Team, for whom he competed at the Pan Am Games and took a gold medal in the team pursuit in ’99, then was named to the 2000 Olympic Team. He moved on to the pro ranks with Mercury and rode Ghent Wevelghem and Paris-Roubaix, among other races.
Once he retired from the pro ranks he went back to school, this time to Harvard, where he earned an MBA. His is the most storied and credible background of any chief executive to run the organization.
My belief in his ability to reset the organization was confirmed by the posts I read on social media by my teammates who actually raced against him. The reactions have been not just positive, but exuberant. Adam Myerson tweeted, “Derek Bouchard-Hall as head of @usacycling has me nearly in tears. I can not think of a smarter, more ethical, more experienced candidate.”
When Bob Stapleton was named Chairman of USA Cycling I was hopeful that he would begin the process of steering the federation in a more credible direction. With Bouchard-Hall’s hiring, it’s fair to say he’s done exactly that.
In USA Cycling’s announcement he said, “After an extensive search process, we are thrilled to have chosen Derek for the remarkably unique and relevant experience he brings to USA Cycling. He has deep insight into cycling enthusiasts and a track record of successful customer engagement as an executive at Wiggle. He has also proven to be a highly effective leader of change, both as a consultant at the world’s leading management consulting firm, McKinsey, and as the Director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s HUBZone Program. His outstanding personal cycling experience and ability to relate to elite athletes is a bonus.”
Every athlete I know who has raced on behalf of the US National Team has said that to correct that organization’s flaws, heads needed to roll, beginning with those at the top. Naming Stapleton Chairman and Bouchard-Hall CEO of USA Cycling are the two biggest, most important moves necessary to convince the world that cycling will be clean, at least in the U.S.