When I was a boy, I had a thing for Porsche. I thought their cars were sexy in ways almost nothing other than lingerie models can achieve. I loved their engineering, their racing success, their emphasis on driver experience. At some point in high school I was confronted with a documentary that went into genetic detail on how companies like Porsche, BMW and Mercedes enriched themselves through their contracts with the Third Reich.
I found myself struggling with how I could admire a company that had prospered as a supplier to an empire that killed more than 10 million people. It had been my dream to one day buy a Porsche of some variety—a desire that has never left me—but that desire was upended with the moral dilemma that they had (perhaps unwittingly) aided and abetted the Third Reich as they did their best to exterminate all the Jews in Europe. How could I support that?
Fortunately, I’ve never had the cash at hand to force the question. I’ve told myself that more than 50 years have passed, that whatever punishment was theirs has been meted. Still, I’ve contemplated buying a used BMW wagon and the question bumped elbows with my conscience. It wasn’t comfortable.
I offer that as a prelude to the nuclear winter we are now entering following the release of USADA’s “reasoned decision.” The initial casualties were all the riders whose doping activity was detailed in the voluminous files released by USADA. They are tantamount to the initial deaths caused by a nuclear blast. Now, the fallout.
Already I’m seeing people bringing up the issue of boycotts of brands. Nike, because of their ongoing support of Lance Armstrong in the face of the allegations was coming off worst. Then, the news this morning that Nike has dumped Armstrong, at least publicly. Still, there’s the allegation reported by the NY Daily News that Kathy LeMond was told by ex-Postal mechanic Julien Devries that he heard that Nike paid $500,000 to hush up Armstrong’s 1999 positive for corticosteroids, that the money was wired not to the UCI, but to Hein Verbruggen himself.
It is the most damning allegation against Verbruggen ever, a charge that weighs like murder on the long rap sheet of an otherwise petty criminal. However, even though Mrs. LeMond testified to this under oath, she was not an eyewitness to the allegation, the way Tyler Hamilton was an eyewitness to Armstrong receiving transfusions. Put another way, her testimony qualifies as hearsay, something that is routinely stricken from testimony in court rooms. It’s not an allegation that appears to have been investigated by Novitzky or Tygart, at least, not based on the released documents.
The trouble for Nike is that the allegation comes sliding down a pile of so many other proven charges that many are willing to believe almost any bad deed claimed to have been perpetrated by Armstrong or his backers. Led by ex-pro and one-time Armstrong teammate Paul Willerton, people are mobilizing for a boycott of Nike; it remains to be seen if it will still go forward now that they’ve severed ties with the former seven-time Tour victor. Whether or not they’ve tossed Armstrong overboard, this could turn out to be the biggest PR black eye they have suffered in decades.
Also announced this morning, Armstrong has stepped down from Livestrong as its chairman. This is an obvious and understandable effort to save the charity; who knows if it will work?
As it turns out, Armstrong himself is proving to be radioactive. For better or worse, he’s poisoning everything he touched.
But the fallout doesn’t end with Livestrong. It extends to Trek. Riders are contemplating a boycott of Trek as a result of their unwavering support for Armstrong. I doubt that a boycott would be particularly visible, but I can see the possibility that some people simply won’t buy a Trek when they go to buy a bike. It might be enough to allow Specialized to finally retake that spot as the #1-selling bike brand.
The fallout also extends to George Hincapie and his company Hincapie Sportswear. People are wondering how they feel about doing business with his company, a company that wouldn’t be as big or popular without his success riding alongside Armstrong.
Then there’s Allen Lim, who Floyd Landis outed as having aided his and Levi Leipheimer’s doping efforts. Back when Landis was believed to be a lunatic running through the streets complaining that he was being chased by a purple unicorn, he was easy to dismiss, at least for those who wanted to dismiss him. Some of us didn’t dismiss him.
Lim denied Landis’ charges at the time and at that time, the weight of innocence was on his side. But USADA’s report has demonstrated that essentially everything contained in Landis’ confession was true; we have learned there were purple unicorns aplenty. It may not have proven every statement he has made was true, but I’m unaware that any of his assertions has been proven demonstrably false. And that’s the gray netherworld in which Lim’s denial resides. Nothing in the USADA documents addresses this and the affidavits by Landis and Leipheimer make not mention of Lim, so his ongoing denials are not rebutted by sworn testimony.
Conversely, people are asking questions about Chris Carmichael’s coaching company, Carmichael Training Systems, and whether or not they should support a company that was really only a cover for Armstrong. The charge is that Carmichael didn’t actually coach him. The objection here is that CTS’ greatest testimonial is built on a lie, even if it’s a lie of a different sort.
Of course, we need to consider bicycle racing’s retailer: USA Cycling. The sport’s governing body here in the U.S. has had a long and cozy history with Thom Weisel and his Champions’ Club, not to mention Tailwind Sports, the owners of the US Postal team. Indeed, two of Weisel’s cronies continue to sit on the USA Cycling board, David Helfrich and Matt Barger, who are both Development Foundation Representatives. Should they be immune?
It is likely that no company benefitted more from Armstrong’s meteoric rise to the top of the cycling heap than Trek, not Nike, not Oakley, not Powerbar, FRS or (more recently) Honey Stinger. They have the most to lose now. In a world where people vote with their dollars, they may well see a falloff in sales that registers in the fourth quarter of 2012.
But what of companies like Hincapie Sportswear and Skratch Labs? Should they take a hit? Their growth, their popularity, their products have hinged less on endorsement by Armstrong than their founders’ association with him. Should not those companies fair the storm better than Trek?
What each of these companies has in common—other than an association with Armstrong—is a product that is good by any objective measure. From good reviews to races won while using these products, not to mention the voluminous testimonials from Carmichael’s thousands of clients, each of these companies sells something that has been borne out in the market. However, there is a fundamental difference between the culpability of companies like CTS, Hincapie Sportswear and Skratch Labs (which didn’t even exist until well after Armstrong’s comeback began) and that of Nike and Trek.
In helping to build the Armstrong brand and support the US Postal team, Nike and Trek exerted considerable might. Without them, without their support, the Postal machine would have had fewer resources and may not have attained the level of success they did. In a way, what they did was help build a nuclear weapon. The more direct a participant’s knowledge of the situation, the closer they were to the blast. Those who worked for companies that benefited from Armstrong’s success are going to be in for a rough ride. And what of the riders who walked away from US Postal rather than cheat? They simply found the minimum safe distance. There are no winners in nuclear war, only losers.
For reasons unknown, this past Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on crashes in pro racing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this year’s Tour ended. Mostly because the reasons that most proffer don’t really explain what’s going on.
The Times article is here.
The biggest problem of all is that we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, and the Times is no different. The reporter gathered his anecdotes and offered them up. Ten deaths since 1995, though few mentioned because, they apparently aren’t worth mentioning. Thankfully, he does point out that no one is investigating. Seems to me that this is a matter for the UCI and the professional rider’s union (CPA) to investigate, but he doesn’t ask Pat McQuaid, nor CPA chief Gianni Bugno what they’re doing about it.
If racing my bike was my job, I’d want them investigating. At the very least, maybe an investigation of the reported crashes at the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. The three big stage races. Maybe looking at them can help point to things that might merit further research.
With the Tour, the biggest cycling stage in the world, every team has an incentive to ride aggressively, everyone wants an opportunity to get in front of the camera, everyone wants a dig at a stage win, just about every racer is probably thinking, no matter what their assignment is, if they just do one more thing, they might be able to score yellow, just for a day, and it won’t derail their team leader’s chances at his stated goal. Seems like a recipe for lots of crashes.
Stakes are highest for most riders and teams at the Tour, no doubt. But there are big crashes at the Vuelta and Giro as well, and they often take out a favorite, or two. And every year, there are crashes at the Tour, and crashes at every race. Every year at the Tour, and other big races, favorites are either caught up in the crashes and drop out or are caught behind them and are knocked out of contention before the critical stages or sectors begin. We’re not always paying attention in other races. But somehow, this year seemed different. There were lots of explanations; the most interesting I read was a cleaner peloton is both more evenly matched and more fatigued.
Maybe more evenly-matched causes some problems, but more fatigued I find hard to believe. It strikes me that such a comment assumes that every last cyclist was doping, because otherwise, the clean cyclists would probably have been more fatigued ten or fifteen years ago than they are now. Even if every last cyclist was doping, there is plenty of evidence that there are both high-responders and low-responders to doping products, EPO in particular, and the low-responders would presumable be at a greater disadvantage than they are today, assuming a cleaner peloton.
I think it’s safe to rule out road conditions as being a big problem, as road conditions are generally better today than they were in the past. I also think it’s safe to rule out “road furniture” on the transitions in and out of towns for most crashes. I know the road furniture theory is a popular one, and the awful Craig Lewis-Marco Pinotti crash at this year’s Giro has been attributed to road furniture, but even their crash deserves at least a little questioning. Was there any footage of it? I couldn’t find any. Maybe road furniture is responsible, but maybe it was just what they hit and the cause was something else. Maybe the crash would have been worse had it not been for the road furniture. I have no reason to doubt either person’s sincerity, but unless we have a better idea of what happened it seems premature to assign blame.
To me, another strike against the road furniture theory is that at this year’s crash-ridden Tour, it didn’t seem like any crashes were the result of road furniture; most of the heavily-reported crashes seemed to have happened on straight roads or in the mountains. There’s also evidence that the Tour and other big races work with local governments to remove some traffic circles and speed bumps where they think their removal will improve safety. I noticed what appeared to be traffic circle modifications during the World Championships as well. I think it’s safe to rule out narrow roads, as not only were wider roads once seen as a culprit, but narrow roads were once all the peloton used.
I’d like to offer up a few alternative explanations to the common cries.
It’s possible that crashes are as common as they’ve always been, but that broken bones are more common today than they used to be, making the crashes more serious and more frequently race-ending. As such, I think one potential culprit is osteopenia. If you haven’t heard of it, consider it osteoporosis lite: bone mineral density is lower than normal. I think it should be considered a factor in all crashes where bone breakage occurs, whether it is in training or racing. Anecdotally, there seem to be more and more stories about guys breaking bones in training crashes the past several years. Even “normal” cyclists can have reduced bone density as a result of all the miles they put in, so a Tour rider, particularly a climber who has meticulously starved himself down to his ideal race weight, probably has thinned his bones beyond what the average mileage-hound has done. I heard physiologist Allen Lim discussing hearing about crashes and thinking that every crash has the potential to break bones during a Grand Tour. When I put it to Dr. Michael Ross, a former team doctor, he unhesitatingly said, “yes.” It also could be a sign of cortico-steroid abuse, something Dr. Ross pointed out, as the result is same. Yes, these guys are racing hard, yes, they’re going fast, yes, they’re hitting the ground hard, but looking at how emaciated riders like Brad Wiggins and Chris Horner are at their Tour weight, I have to imagine their bodies catabolized bone matter to keep going. It strikes me as an evolutionary strategy that certainly helped early humans survive famines, but it also could be how crashes are breaking collarbones, ribs, pelvises, wrists, hips, and so on. For all the discussion about injuries resulting from race crashes, lots of guys seem to be breaking bones training; Dutch rider Robert Gesink had his season ended for him shortly before the World Championships when he fractured his leg while out training.
Some have suggested the culprit could be the machine itself. The bikes don’t seem to be the problem as catastrophic failures from normal riding have largely disappeared, and it’s hard to believe that a bike breaking after hitting the ground is injuring riders. Others point to stiffer wheels and too-light bikes, but I doubt those lines of thinking. I’ve seen little evidence that wheels are vertically stiffer than they used to be, which would be where the problem would lie in straight-line crashes. Tires are just about the same today as they were 25 years ago, and bikes still flex and tire pressure can be adjusted to account for stiffness. Steve Tilford speculated on his blog that some of the sketchy downhill riding was due to racers not training on their race wheels. He may be right. But I think the problem might extend to all racing. Not all carbon-fiber braking surfaces brake equally well. Some are grabby, some pulse, some give the unsettling feeing they’re not slowing down, even in the dry, some work fine in the dry but are questionable in the wet. Most pros can only ride the wheels they sponsors want them to ride, so they could be stuck between taking the risk of crashing or taking the risk of getting dropped more easily. I think many amateur racers would take the same risk, at least in the dry. People might suggest disc brakes, but I even with discs, tire traction, or lack thereof, will be a problem in the wet.
Another potential culprit is the training schedules of racers. At one time, pros probably raced much, much more before showing up to the Tour—the Tour came after both the Vuelta and the Giro and racers typically raced from February into June with smaller training blocs in between. Yes, they might not have been as fast as racers today, their training and nutrition wasn’t as precise, but by racing, they were training themselves to be more skilled in the peloton. And now the peloton is bigger. Riding in a pack takes skill, a skill that is honed by practice, unless there are some Wii games I don’t know about. Some weekend warriors in the US race more than Tour contenders between the start of their season and the Tour. Consider that this year, Chris Horner didn’t race at all between his victory at the Tour of California in May and the start of the Tour. Alberto Contador didn’t race at all between his Giro victory and the Spanish nationals, where he raced the time trial and road race, and then came to the Tour.
Or maybe the converse is true. Cadel Evans barely raced all spring and seemed to be able to race his few races with no crashing issues, though his preference is to race at the front. Maybe the pack as a whole are better bike handlers today and more comfortable riding closer to one another which makes it easier to crash several riders at once when one thing goes wrong.
The biggest issue is probably randomness, volume, and the nature of riding in the peloton. Just take an assembled group of cyclists, 189 riders is 21 teams worth, and have them ride an average of 100 miles a day for three weeks. Even if they were all riding solo, there would be crashes. Knowing how many riders go down in training and how frequently would be interesting to know, and something to compare to all the race crashes.
Some point to the packs being bigger as a culprit in crashes. There could be something to this, though the phenomenon of large fields began in 1986 when 210 riders started. And this time probably is when the super-large fields started occurring at the top races throughout cycling. Previous to this, it seems that races were in the range of 30-50% smaller and largely composed of teams racing in their home country—the Tour with French riders on French teams, the Vuelta with Spanish riders, the Giro with Italian and so on.
For riders, racing is their job and they owe it to themselves to demand research to determine what the real issues and culprits are. At the same time, they probably shouldn’t push for any changes until serious research is done. As a response to the extreme length of the 1987 Tour (22 teams of nine riders apiece riding 25 stages totaling 4231km), there was a movement to standardize the lengths of Grand Tours and shorten stages. This was seen as doing, among other things, reducing the incentive to dope. We know how that worked out.
Race radios are sure to come up as a safety thing. There’s no easy answer with them. Yes, directors can alert their riders to dangers up ahead, but there are downsides to trusting the voice in your ear. What if the director is wrong? What if riders interpret silence to mean everything is safe ahead? When hard helmets were first mandated by the USCF in the 1986, there was an argument that people would take more risks because they knew their head was safe. That never made sense. But I read a story about Erik Zabel’s role for the HTC-Highroad team. Supposedly he’d preview the stage finish and then relay what he saw to the team car, and Ralf Aldag or Brian Holm would then tell the riders. He apparently saw a turn that looked tricky but was convinced the leadout train could take it without braking. Hincapie lead through, didn’t touch his brakes, and Cavendish won the stage. Did this make for safer racing? The first guys made it through and probably so did the entire field. But what if he had been wrong? Is it good for the riders to trust such judgements?
It’s situations like these when I’m glad I’m not a pro bike racer. But it also makes me wonder how safe conditions are for all bike racing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I woke this morning, the first thought I had was, “What other bad news will be revealed today?” I’m not one to experience ennui, but this morning, I didn’t have any energy to go for a ride, didn’t want to look at the news and really only wanted to hang out with my family and enjoy a leisurely morning.
None of those things happened, mostly because I did look at the news. For those who aren’t keeping score:
1) The Tour de France champion tested positive.
2) The president of the UCI denied that Contador was being investigated the day before he admitted the existence of said investigation.
3) The Vuelta’s second place and a teammate tested positive.
4) The home of Riccardo Ricco has been raided and unless Italian police don’t know what aspirin looks like, something suspicious was found in a cabinet belonging to a guy who has been convicted of doping once before.
5) Oscar Sevilla has tested positive yet again.
6) The sister of the winner of the Giro d’Italia isn’t permitted to attend sporting events because of her role in the distribution of doping products.
7) Ex-Oakley employee Stephanie McIlvain put her finger in the dike against the many accusations against Lance Armstrong.
8) Allen Lim told a grand jury that he wasn’t hired to help Floyd Landis dope.
9) Operacion Puerto is to be closed and all the evidence destroyed. The truth won’t out.
The only good news for a jingoistic Yank rests on the shoulders of the world’s third-most-popular Taylor (let’s not forget Swift and Lautner), a 20-year-old who we all must hope never comes to the attention of the Eugenics movement. (If you can breed dogs, you can breed people, right?) Taylor Phinney’s gold and bronze medals in the U23 World Championships aren’t news, they are simply confirmations of his talent. With two more years in that category at the world championships, he could wind up the most-medaled U23 rider in history.
Let’s cover this in reverse order: The blood bags are going to be destroyed and we’ll never know the true depth of Fuentes’ business, but it a way, it’s such old news suspending a rider now based on that case seems kind of irrelevant. What’s significant here is the lack of institutional will to get to the truth and clean up sport. This is going to haunt us like a drunken kiss at a New Year’s Eve party.
How often does a job description reflect the job as performed? Who hasn’t had additional had additional duties thrust upon them out of necessity. The subtext here is that Allen Lim may not have admitted all the ways that he assisted Landis. Lim told ESPN.com, “When I worked with Floyd, I repeatedly told him that he didn’t need to dope and should not dope, and I was absolutely not hired to help him to do so.” Okay, so you weren’t hired to help him dope … but did you? Landis may seem kinda desperate and crazy, but no one has suggested that he’s trying to slaughter innocents. Are we really to believe that Landis would screw saint? That doesn’t fit the bill.
Despite the existence of an audio tape made my Greg LeMond in which Stephanie McIlvain reveals that she did hear Armstrong admit to using performance-enhancing drugs, the former Oakley employee—whose husband is Oakley’s VP of sports marketing—testified to a grand jury that she had no knowledge of Armstrong’s use of drugs or that she heard him admit to using them during a meeting with doctors at which Frankie and Betsy Andreu were present and which they claim she was present as well. One wonders what other questions she was asked besides those two; presumably it shouldn’t take seven hours on the witness stand to say “no” twice. While McIlvain has certainly protected Oakley’s (and by extension, Armstrong’s) interests, investigator Jeff Novitzky has secured perjury convictions against athletes who lied to a grand jury.
Elisa Basso, sister of Giro winner Ivan Basso and wife of former pro Eddy Mazzoleni was snared along with her husband as part of Operazione Athena. Mazzoleni was given a suspended sentence for his role in the drug dealing, while Elisa received a ban that stopped just shy of saying she can’t watch sports on television. Not only can she not work for CONI or any of the national governing bodies for sport in Italy, she can’t attend the events or even enter a place frequented by athletes or their coaches. And competing herself? No chance.
Oscar Sevilla, who tested positive for the EPO masking agent hydroxyethyl starch (HES) has been allowed to return to racing until his B-sample analysis is returned. Technically, the product isn’t banned, but its only use is to mask doping and it can only be administered by transfusion, which itself, is not permitted. Sevilla told Cyclingnews.com, “Let’s say that justice is done because there is no reason to suspend me. There can be no direct doping case, as with a forbidden substance, since hydroxyethyl is not on the banned list.” Even weirder, he added, “I take all the steps and face the situation. Ideally, the B sample will be negative. But if not, then the cycling federation will meet to decide on my case.” Ideally? Methinks the rider protest too little.
Some 50-odd tablets of unknown composition were found by Italian police in a cabinet at the home of Riccardo Ricco. Naturally, Ricco—let us not forget Ricco’s previous suspension for CERA use—claims they are nothing elicit.
Ezequiel Mosquera—the darling of the 2010 Vuelta—and his teammate David Garcia have both tested positive for HES—the same stuff Sevilla tested positive for—a substance of use exclusively to cyclists trying to hide evidence of transfusions or EPO use. Hmm, every positive for HES happens to be with a Spanish cyclist. Coincidence?
Credit or blame (depending on your outlook) that we know anything about Alberto Contador’s positive test can be given to German journalist Hans Joachim Seppelt with the news organization ARD. He specializes in doping stories and learned of Contador’s positive (presumably from the Cologne lab that did the testing) before the UCI had announced anything. When he approached Pat McQuaid, the UCI president denied knowing anything, yet less than 24 hours later a press release was issued. Based on what we know of the case—that clenbuterol and traces of a plastic used in transfusion bags were found in Contador’s urine—there seems to be ample evidence that a suspension is in order while the case is adjudicated. The question is why two months passed since the end of the Tour de France and the public is just now finding out; even Contador knew of the test result in late August.
Of course, the big news of the week is how Alberto Contador not only tested positive at the Tour de France, but the UCI gave him time to prepare a defense. While Mosquera and Garcia found out about their positives through the media, Contador got the bro’ heads-up.
Add to this the just-announced positive of Margarita Fullana for EPO. Fullana would have us believe she only used EPO this year, in which she got virtually no results, and not in previous years when she was blowing by the competition like the Road Runner going by the Coyote. Totaled, we have four positive tests announced in less than a week. Curiously, all of them are by Spanish riders. This little detail seems to suggest that Spain has a bigger problem with doping on a cultural level than any other nation in cycling. While it’s impossible to say that there is a permissive attitude toward doping in Spain, that nation is the highest ranked in cycling according to the UCI with 1868 points, compared to Italy’s 1071 and Belgium’s 882—and that’s even after points were subtracted following Alejandro Valverde’s suspension.
According to a poll in the Spanish paper Marca 78.5 percent of the Spanish people believe that Alberto Contador is innocent of doping. But that figure isn’t quite right. Newspaper polls are notoriously unrepresentative of the actual population; it’s much safer to say that of cycling enthusiasts who read Marca 78.5 percent believe Contador is innocent. Theoretically, this group is better educated about doping and ought to feature a higher percentage who accept that it’s very likely Contador received a transfusion during the Tour de France. Given the number of American cycling enthusiasts who can’t even contemplate the possibility that Mr. Big Shot doped, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised by this.
Based on last week’s news, I’ve drawn three conclusions:
1) Clenbuterol is the red herring in Contador’s doping case. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that Contador didn’t intend to dope using clenbuterol, as well as a reasonable argument that strict liability is an absurd standard by which to judge an athlete. However, the plasticizer present in Contador’s sample cannot occur from an unintended source. He got a transfusion and this, ladies and gentlemen, should not surprise us. This is how the game is played currently. I hate re-writing record books and results, but if we want a clean sport, chasing brilliant leads like this is how we’ll get there.
2) McQuaid is a bigger problem than I thought and the UCI needs to clean house. Of course, that’s like suggesting to a hoarder that what they should do is toss out the junk and sweep the floor. There’s a fundamental problem with the UCI’s mission. It is charged with governing the sport by overseeing the promotion of races. If the sport of cycling suffers as a result of poor race promotion, the responsibility is the UCI’s. However, it is also charged with disciplining athletes who dope. Punishing your biggest stars is a conflict of interest if ever there was one. Clearly, WADA should have jurisdiction over informing the riders of positive tests and disciplinary proceedings should be turned over to CAS. After all, if WADA was charged with disciplining the athletes they tested, there would never be another false positive or flawed administration of a test. They would bat 1.000 against riders, which is pretty much where things stand.
3) Something’s rotten in Spain. Again, it’s impossible to say where the root of the problem lies, but it strikes me as cultural on some level. Writing that troubles me. I’m not a bigoted guy, but we’ve seen statements from the head of the Spanish federation defending Valverde, an unwillingness by the Spanish judiciary to get to the bottom of Operation Puerto, Spanish cyclists testing positive at a rate far higher than cyclists from any other country. Of course, while it’s nice to have someone call out the Spanish federation, even if it is Pat McQuaid, what we need is a dog with some teeth to go after them.
And now Alberto Contador is threatening to quit the sport. Isn’t that like saying you hate the movies after being grounded? Seriously, though, has he read the Wikipedia entry on Jan Ullrich? Changing nationalities and retiring didn’t really end the scrutiny of his activities.
Lingering in the background of all this doping news is a thought I hadn’t been willing to articulate until now. The French are the only nation of cyclists incapable of producing a rider able to stand on the podium of their national tour. I’ve come to the conclusion that French cycling (ranked 14th among nations) sucks because they—more than any other cycling superpower—really took to heart the whole no doping thing. Remember, we haven’t seen a Frenchman on the podium of the Tour since the Festina Affair.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International