So HTC-Highroad is no more. Technically, that’s not quite accurate; the team will come to an end with the close of this season. But it feels like the team might as well be mothballed now. Any wins that come will carry a certain lame duck pointlessness as they won’t have the ability to attract a sponsor or serve as confirmation that an incoming sponsor made a good choice.
How bad is Bob Stapleton’s inability to find a new title sponsor for his program? It’s the worst thing that will happen to cycling this year, perhaps for years to come. Here’s why: There’s not a single doping revelation that can confirm potential sponsors’ worst fears about the sport the way the dissolution of this team does.
We’ve already had the Tour de France champion test positive twice in the last five years. Stapleton’s failure to secure a sponsor is directly due to that. In a conference call with journalists, Stapleton admitted that doping scandals were a topic of conversation in “every negotiation.”
Compounding matters was Stapleton’s refusal to be confined to irrelevance by racing on a shrunken budget while battling Sky and Katusha—teams that each have an estimated annual budget of $20 million. After all, if part of your raison d’etre is to lead the sport into a new, cleaner era characterized by better management, you can’t do that from the back of the bus.
The end of HTC-Highroad is the corollary to the Leopard-Trek dilemma. It proves (at least for the court of public opinion) that doping is what prevented Brian Nygaard’s formation from landing a real title sponsor (or co-sponsor, for that matter). Worse, the fact that Katusha, Sky and Leopard are funded by ultra-rich businessmen who could use the tax write-off makes the sport that much less relevant. It could be argued that BMC is no better given that few people seem to believe that BMC is selling enough bikes that Andy Rihs could fund the team exclusively out of the operating capital of that one company.
If bicycle teams become the playthings of oligarchs, it will be hard to sell the public on the idea that the sport carries the moral mantle of doping-free athletic achievement. There is a general perception that billionaires play by a different set of rules than the rest of us, and the recent phone-hacking scandal in London that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and killed his play to become majority owner of bSkyb is all the proof many people need to come to the conclusion that cycling lacks a moral compass. After all, if Murdoch’s businesses will run roughshod over the most basic elements of privacy, why would anyone think his cycling team is any more ethical?
I’ve met a number of principled people in cycling. I’ve met plenty of truly ethical people in the sport as well. I don’t think I’ve ever met a smarter, more decent person in cycling than Bob Stapleton. I’ve met no one with higher aspirations for helping the sport to function in a cleaner, more transparent manner—in other words, to be its best—than Stapleton. He brought credibility that simply can’t be purchased elsewhere and served as the ever-reasonable counterbalance to the ill-considered pronouncements of the UCI. He was a sort of sanity constant.
As I mentioned before, losing Stapleton and his team isn’t just the worst thing that will happen in cycling this year. It’s the worst thing that will happen in cycling for years to come. If the sport can’t keep a man universally respected and admired, then it will be no better than the cesspool of politics because it may only draw people we’d rather not have dinner with, figures like Bernard “Dr. Mabuse” Sainz.
Sainz’ nickname comes from the Fritz Lang film of the same name. The film was a commentary on post World War I German society, a time of amoral criminality. Dr. Mabuse, “the gambler,” was a megalomaniac who ruled—via hypnosis—an organized crime syndicate of counterfeiters, thieves and murderers. I can’t think of an uglier thing for cycling to be compared.
We’ve lived through that once, or something thereabouts. If the riders don’t get the idea that they need to clean up their acts, there won’t be a sport left to employ them. But we can’t place all the responsibility on the riders. The UCI has an obligation to make sure that testing is performed in a rigorous manner and justice handed out promptly and equally. Until John Q. Public sense we’ve turned that corner, it will be hard to attract leaders like Stapleton and sponsors like HTC.
So Omega Pharma has announced it will merge with another team. L’Equipe is reporting that there will be no Belgian superteam merger with QuickStep. Rather, the merger is likely to take place with Dutch formation Vacansoleil.
Why no announcement has been forthcoming from Vacansoleil is curious. If the deal is done enough for Omega Pharma to announce that there will be a merger, one wonders why Vacansoleil needs to wait.
Regardless, the merger is unfortunate. Any team merger—such as this season’s merging of Garmin and Cervelo—invariably results in a game of musical chairs that leaves a number of people without seats. From riders to mechanics to soigneurs, there are always some good people who are left scrambling looking for paychecks when one formation ends, and that happens even if they don’t act like Trent Lowe.
The two best Belgian climbers in a generation (or two), Jelle Vanendert and Jurgen van den Broeck are said to be headed to the new Lotto formation, and that—quelle surprise (exclaimed with not even a hint of irony)—Philippe Gilbert is headed for BMC. That’s great for Gavin Chilcott, Jim Ochowicz and Andy Rihs, but I mean, dude.
I began today thinking that today’s FGR would speculate on just what formation would join forces with Omega Pharma, but with these latest revelations, the question has changed.
If you have Philippe Gilbert, who is unquestionably the finest one-day rider of this season, at your disposal, would anything short of your personal, professional and moral bankruptcy allow Gilbert to slip from your clutches? There’s no denying that Vanendert and van den Broeck are gifted climbers but nothing signs sponsors like a win, which is something Gilbert can do against anyone, any day.
And while we’re at it, you can’t help but wonder what else BMC has up their sleeve. Are BMCs selling that much faster than Cervelos that Rihs can fund a formation with some of the world’s top riders out of his pocket without suffering the same fate as the Canadian frame maker? Not to put too fine a point on it, but multiple sources told me that team nearly bankrupted the company. Do you think Rihs is really funding the team strictly out of BMC’s operations or is he feeding it with his own money?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
What a difference four years makes. Had Floyd Landis woken up on July 28, 2006, and called a press conference to announce to the world all the things he detailed in his e-mail to USA Cycling’s Steve Johnson, we might have hailed him as a sort of fallen hero.
An Icarus of the pedals.
As fate would have it, Landis’ non-negative result for was synthetic testosterone, essentially the one drug he claims, now, not to have taken in 2006. So he believed what almost anyone else would have believed—that he could beat the rap.
He didn’t count on a few details. First, he didn’t count on the Machiavellian nature of USADA, which pursued the case with a ‘win at all cost’ mentality. As I wrote in my BKW post “At All Cost,” had this case been tried in the American judicial system, Landis would have won the case because the lab performing the work did such a lousy job. However, USADA’s zero-tolerance policy toward doping also happens to be a zero-loss policy as well, and clearly Landis didn’t understand that actual innocence didn’t matter.
He also didn’t count on the details of a phone conversation he had with Greg LeMond would become public. LeMond’s recounting of the conversation will seem entirely more believable for anyone who previously doubted his testimony. Four years hence, one wonders if Landis comes up with a different answer to the rhetorical question he put to LeMond when urged to confess. He asked, “What would it matter?”
While we don’t know the exact details of what Landis confessed to Johnson and the UCI, we have the substance in broad strokes.
1) He did drugs, lots of them, beginning in 2002.
2) Lance Armstrong did more drugs and told him who to work with.
3) George Hincapie did all the same drugs.
4) Former roommate David Zabriskie did drugs.
5) Levi Leipheimer did drugs.
6) He has no proof.
7) Those closest to him didn’t know what he was up to.
8) He confessed to his mom.
We should note that Landis has only implicated American riders. One wonders why he has implicated only Americans. Could his full and complete confession be leaving something out?
After four years of his strenuous denial and seven-figure defense that was, in part, paid for by fans who believed his innocent plea, for him to come out now and say, ‘Okay, now I’m telling the truth,’ credulity strains. UCI President Pat McQuaid said Landis’ statements were “scandalous and mischievous.”
Even if we believe everything his says lock-stock-and-barrel, in this case, his truth-telling comes a little late. As a means to restore respect and reputation, his confession is a failure. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen. On this point, McQuaid has it wrong.
“These guys coming out now with things like this from the past is only damaging the sport,” McQuaid told The Associated Press. “If they’ve any love for the sport they wouldn’t do it.”
Come again? We don’t want dopers to confess? Please tell us you’re kidding.
I’ve heard from several sources that Landis has been drinking heavily, heavily enough to affect his fitness and relationships. It’s a tragic turn of events given what he has already experienced. It’s easy to connect the drinking with the events he says he is now confessing, the truth he needs to get off his chest. In 12-Step programs, you are directed to confess your wrongs, but there follows quickly one caveat: except when to do so would hurt others.
Which brings us to the meat of his confession. Most of what he has confessed involves others. To clear his conscience, he need only to confess his own deeds. Whatever motivation he has to tell what he says Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie have done, it isn’t his conscience; it sounds more like retribution—‘If my ship is going down, I’m taking yours with me.’
Backing this up is the fact that Landis pointed out the eight-year statute of limitations, which is due to run out on some of the alleged acts, as a motivating factor to come forward.
“Now we’ve come to the point where the statute of limitations on the things I know is going to run out or start to run out next month,” Landis said. “If I don’t say something now, then it’s pointless to ever say it.”
He wants cases opened into the acts of Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie while there’s still time, which means his confession is less about his acts than the acts of others. He wants to see others punished.
But he says he has no proof. Naturally, Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie will have to defend themselves and because Landis detailed them in e-mails, meaning they were written, not spoken, they rise from slander to libel. Because these are public figures, the odds are against any of them meeting with success in a court room following a civil suit.
Landis may have a tougher time defending himself than they do.
Federal investigator Jeff Novitzky, the man who headed the investigation into Victory Conte and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) is one of the investigators involved in checking out Landis’ claims.
One of the first questions Novitzky and other investigators will have for Lanids will be who his sources were. Where did he buy his stuff? His suppliers may have sales records. If they have sales records that can substantiate his claim that he was a customer, then it is also possible they would have sales records detailing their relationship with other clients, and it’s a safe bet that if it is true Landis was taking his cues from others, then he was probably shopping at the same market, so-to-speak.
Armstrong has pulled out of the Tour of California following what sounds like a minor crash. Cynics will probably surmise that it was a strategic decision to avoid media scrutiny.
And what of Landis’ actual confession? That is, what of what he claims he did? These would be new infractions worthy of their own case. While I have advocated a truth and reconciliation commission to encourage athletes to come forward and tell what they know, this case is ugly and really perverts the way you hope justice will work.
Should Landis get a slap on the wrist in exchange for his cooperation? Or should he get the proverbial book thrown at him yet again? It may be that he has already come to the conclusion that his return to the pro ranks won’t be what he had hoped and that he is ready to depart.
If that’s the case, then his confession is 200-proof revenge.
This case may well make it to a grand jury, which will be much more likely to result in actual justice than any action USADA takes. Getting at the real truth should be the goal, rather than just handing out punishment.
But what of Landis’ original case? He was within his right to defend himself and we should never forget that. However, his defense built a sham identity that wasn’t enough to escape conviction. Hopefully, that will be a sobering thought to the new generation of dopers, a la Bernard Kohl and Riccardo Ricco. However, Landis’ defense turned into the most costly prosecution ever for USADA. In mounting such an expansive defense he cheated not just those who contributed to the Floyd Fairness Fund, but all those of us who follow cycling and depend on the anti-doping authorities to uncover and prosecute doping. One wonders who escaped prosecution because USADA was mired in a more than year-long case with Landis.
I have often thought that there will come a day where we look back on the EPO era with different eyes. We should never condone doping, but there may come a point when we understand that during the time when EPO use was rampant, there were no heroes and very, very few villains, that these men were flawed, like all of us, and a product of their time.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International