The middle of June. The precipice. The brink. Just a few weeks left to tune up for the Tour de France, which means that all the “just riding this race as training” is almost over. Top Tour contenders will be getting in their last minute collarbone fractures at the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse. Aerodynamic positions are set. The UCI is getting its crack Reject-a-Bike squad ready for the time trials, and the AFLD and UCI are ratcheting up their those-guys-don’t-know-what-they’re-doing rhetoric in anticipation of some really wearisome l’Equipe headlines.
At this stage we are beginning to draw up our list of favorites, a list that must begin with Alberto Contador and include Andy Schleck, but from that point breaks off and meanders through the peloton with a lot of maybes and possiblys.
From last year’s podium there is Lance Armstrong to consider. The now 38-year-old former champion and globe-trotting cancer fighter has had an early season to forget, one in which he made the biggest news by being accused of serial doping. Again. Between injuries, illnesses and general lack of form, you have to wonder if the Lance v. Alberto narrative we’re bound to have crammed down our collective throats is even worth spinning in the first place.
Then there’s Bradley Wiggins. Team Sky’s million dollar baby has thus far flattered to deceive in the black and blue of his new squad. With a nose for the controversial headline, Mr. Wiggins’ 2010 has been remarkable for an utter lack of remarkableness. He can’t possibly sneak up on the competition this year, but could expectations for the Brit be any lower?
And what of the Italians? Ivan Basso won the Giro going away, but could he possibly be strong enough to do the double? Or will he turn super domestique for Vincenzo Nibali, the young talent who served him so well on their native roads?
World Champion Cadel Evans can’t be discounted entirely, but the Giro might have proven that BMC don’t have the riders to support a Grand Tour winner. Evans has done the rainbow stripes proud, but the last time the World Champ won the Tour was Bernard Hinault in 1981, nearly thirty years ago.
You’ve also got riders like Denis Menchov, last season’s Giro winner, moving his focus to the Tour in an attempt to round out his palmares. In a similar situation to Evans, you have to wonder if Rabobank have the riders to deliver Menchov to the top step. The Russian also has an amusing habit of falling off his bike, which is usually a bad idea in July in France. Ask Joseba Beloki.
This week’s Group Ride looks at the favorites for the maillot jaune and wonders who is in the best form and why? Is it one of the riders mentioned above or is there an outsider you think has the goods? Has Contador done too much with wins in Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice and Vuelta a Castilla y León, not to mention his current escapades at the Dauphiné? Will Andy Schleck’s knee be strong enough to let him dual with Contador in the high mountains? Let the pre-race chatter begin.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I back up and look at the news one might file under the heading of “doping in cycling” what has been published in the last six months should give us all pause.
Let’s recap a few of the highlights:
- Christian Prudhomme thinks cycling is clean(er) because there were no positive tests at the Tour de France.
- The AFLD says Astana got a free ride at the Tour even though they were the most controlled team there.
- Some cyclists at the Tour de France were on anti-hypertension drugs and while not banned, no one seems to know why healthy endurance athletes would have dangerously high blood pressure.
- Two new drugs likely to boost endurance athletes’ performance are on the market but have yet to be banned.
- Bernard Kohl gives monthly interviews in which he teases out new details of his doping like the last five minutes of a soap opera episode that airs on Friday.
- Jan Ullrich had Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes’ number programmed into his cell phone.
- In 2009, Danilo DiLuca, Mikel Astarloza, Nuno Ribeiro, Isidro Nozal, Hector Guerra, Gabrielle Bosisio, Christian Pfannberger and Antonio Colom all tested positive for EPO or CERA. That’s eight riders caught.
I now return to Christian Prudhomme and his statement regarding doping. What Prudhomme told Reuters last summer was “Cycling has changed.”
He also said, “I recently confirmed that ‘there were no suspected cases’ (during the 2009 Tour de France). This means that the fight against doping progresses.”
Mikel Astarloza’s positive sample was given during the Tour, so that pretty well kills Prudhomme’s implicit belief that the ’09 Tour was clean. The fact that Astarloza’s non-negative result was announced until weeks after the end of the Tour is an unfortunate blemish on the Tour.
Those anti-hypertensive drugs? What could cause athletes in the top one percent of cardiovascular fitness in the world to be concerned about high blood pressure? Maybe blood that moves like sewage as a result of autologous blood doping, EPO or CERA? Hypertension is a recurring theme of blood transfusions.
Oh, and the fact that Fuentes’ number was in Ullrich’s cell phone? No surprise. No one with their eyes open actually thought there was a kite’s chance in a hurricane that Ullrich raced clean. Move on, nothing to see here.
As I mentioned, eight riders have tested positive for EPO or CERA this year. Some will take this news as a reassurance that WADA is improving in its ability to catch dopers. Unfortunately, there is strong anecdotal evidence that some of the riders who have been caught had been doping for a while, which suggests they had evaded some previous doping controls. If some doping controls are being evaded, then logic dictates that there must be riders who are evading detection as we speak. The question then is, what portion of the number of riders using EPO or CERA are these eight? Are they 90 percent of the doping riders? Not likely. We would be lucky if they are 50 percent of the athletes still using EPO or CERA.
So testing is catching some cyclists who are doping while others are evading detection. How do you improve upon this situation? Well, there’s one easy answer: You test every rider every day. Unfortunately, the combined operating budget of both WADA and the UCI simply couldn’t pay for all that testing. So instead, priorities are set, which means that choices must be made about who is tested.
WADA could break up the total number of tests each year and distribute those tests evenly between all professional riders. If you, like Prudhomme, believe that “cycling has changed” then you will also believe that not everyone is doping. Moving forward with that belief you are likely to decide some riders are targeted more than other riders.
So if some riders are going to be targeted for testing more frequently than their peers, the obvious choice is to go after riders who arouse suspicion. That means testing anyone who wins a race—a tactic already employed with good reason. In some parts, they call this profiling. Call it racing while juiced.
So what’s such a program look like? Well, it looks like Astana gets tested 81 times during the Tour de France and the French teams Cofidis and FdJeux were tested 26 times each and Bouygues Telecom was tested 23 times.
Is that fair? It depends on how you define fair. It certainly isn’t an even distribution of resources, but then this isn’t a resource we want distributed evenly, is it? Shouldn’t it be distributed most heavily to the teams and athletes that appear time after time on the podium? Generally speaking, there’s little risk of seeing a Cofidis, FdJeux or Bouygues Telecom rider atop the podium, whereas Astana and Saxo Bank had stellar seasons.
Johan Bruyneel doesn’t believe that the high level of scrutiny his team received was warranted. We all know otherwise. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the AFLD claiming that Astana received preferential treatment during the Tour.
This may be the single strangest piece of news as regards doping in cycling. It is surprising because it shows that there isn’t a united front involving the UCI, WADA and the AFLD. The AFLD is, in fact, a bit player in the doping fight, a service provider to WADA and the UCI, not an actual portion of the enforcement apparatus.
Allow me a moment to draw an analogy. Lance Armstrong has admitted he can’t beat Alberto Contador mano a mano. So what is his game plan for the 2010 Tour de France? He has already revealed that he plans to beat Contador’s team and leave the Spaniard isolated.
Unfortunately, the doping fight has no one winner. Even though a fractured Astana still won the Tour de France, a rift between the AFLD and the UCI only results in a weakened fight against doping. Stranger still was the fact that samples taken by the AFLD of five French riders on the same French team were sent to the lab with their full identifying information on the samples. That hardly constitutes anonymous and blatantly violates the Code and International Standard of Testing.
If you are a doper, knowing there is unrest in the enforcement camp must bring you satisfaction.
Next: Bernard Kohl and the new generation of dopers
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International