It’s about more than the contents of Alberto Contador’s urine.
In an 1817 letter to his brother, the English poet John Keats expressed the idea of negative capability, which he described as the capacity for accepting uncertainty and the possibility that certain questions might never be resolved. The great writers of our time, according to Keats, are those with the greatest negative capability. Not surprisingly, he credited Shakespeare with the deepest talent in this regard, and thought that the dynamic tension created by perpetual uncertainty made for the most compelling art.
The story cycling has told us over the last century or so has broached several questions, which we, as fans, are still struggling to answer. One of them, perhaps my favorite, is, “what is the value of suffering?” Another is, “what are humans capable of?” This latter question takes in, not only the realms of diet, training and maximum performance, but also the dark side of the sport, including doping.
It is well document that, as long as there have been bicycle races, there has been dope. What began with brandy, evolved to cocaine, amphetamines, steroids and blood boosters. As fans, we have always been aware, to one degree or another, of the things our heroes did to achieve super human ends, but, as the riders themselves aspired to some level of discretion with their “treatments,” as much to gain an advantage over their competitors as to deceive the fans or the authorities, we have been able to suspend disbelief, to maintain that uncertainty we needed to keep our legends on their pedestals.
If it is natural for professional racers to want to dope, then it is equally natural for fans to want to believe that doping is rare or exceptional in some way. And if both of these things are essentially true, then isn’t it also possible that the tension between these inherent contradictions makes cycling all the more interesting, and all the more human?
The sad truth is that our heroes aren’t superhuman. They are men and women with iron lungs and clay feet. In as much as we are disappointed in those who cheat, do we not also have to acknowledge complicity, for it is we, the fans, who have asked them to be so much more than they are?
I have come to believe that the great sin of the doping cyclist is a lack of discretion. Like the Great Oz, allowing an open curtain to betray the secrets of the Emerald City, the pro cyclist is duty bound to keep his secrets better. We often hear repeated the trope that the dopers are always years ahead of the testers, but if that were true, we wouldn’t be asking ourselves who the last clean cyclist to win the Tour de France might have been. If that were true, the back seats of soigneur‘s cars wouldn’t be locations of such great interest for the gendarmerie of France. If that were true, we wouldn’t have such a hard time believing in the ability of man to transcend himself on two wheels.
This may sound a bit like the classic ‘their real crime is getting caught,’ but it’s actually more than that. Their real crime is being mere mortals, not what they were hired for. They were hired to transcend, but, in the end, only managed to transgress.
With the micro-analysis of Alberto Contador’s urine, cycling’s negative capability, its artistic value, is at an all-time low. We’ve been taught over these last decades, not to marvel, but to suspect. More and more our admiration and esteem are conditional. We are less comfortable with our uncertainty than ever. We still want to believe, but it’s hard to maintain that level of willful stupidity.
I hope that doping, in its current incarnations, has very nearly reached its end stage. Sure, the current techniques still seem to be effective, but their continued application destroys the sport, limits its ability to hold us enthralled to the spectacle. Once you know the rabbit was always in the hat, there’s not much point in clapping when the magician pulls it out.
This is bigger than Alberto Contador. Whether he’s guilty or not, the mercurial Spaniard has not killed professional cycling. In the end, he may just be, to paraphrase John Kerry, the last man to die for a failed strategy. Perhaps that’s a vain and naive hope on my part, but hope is like that, the belief that things can get better and the willingness to wait, wait, wait for them to do so, the willingness to remain in tension, uncertain.
It is, in the end, its own kind of art.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The 2010 winner of the Tour de France has tested positive for a banned substance. Doping authorities have revealed Alberto Contador tested positive for clenbuterol on July 21. Clenbuterol is a bronchodilator—a stimulant used to treat asthma.
The defense has already spun into high gear. Dr. Douwe de Boer, an “independent expert,” has concluded that the clenbuterol must have come from contaminated meat. The concentration level of clenbuterol found in Contador’s system was at trace levels, meaning there hadn’t been enough in his system to aid his performance the previous day. However, Contador was also tested the two days prior to the positive test, on July 19 and 20. Tests from those days show no trace of clenbuterol.
Permit me a moment of suspicion: Are we really meant to believe that clenbuterol routinely contaminates meat but of the thousands of test samples cyclists give each year only Alberto Contador consumed enough contaminated meat to result in a positive test—and it just happened to occur during the Tour de France?
Even though we’re just finding out about this in the last week of September, Contador has known of the finding since August 24 and WADA has known even longer. It’s fair to ask: Why did it take so long for the news to come out? It didn’t take this long with Landis.
We have several possibilities to consider:
1) Contador is innocent. He just got really unlucky and ate something (maybe meat) that was accidentally tainted.
2) Contador really did use clenbuterol. The lab employed by WADA did crappy work and didn’t find clenbuterol that was in his system on July 19 and 20.
3) Contador is being framed. Someone tried to sabotage Contador by spraying an asthma inhaler on his food.
Of these three options, the one that would surprise me the least is #2. Contador would hardly be the first cyclist to use asthma medication to dope. But while #2 would be the least surprising explanation, I cannot say that I think #1 or #3 are out of the realm of possibility.
I’d really like to know why it took so long for the news to come out. There’s more to this part of the story than meets the eye. Was there some sort of effort at a coverup that only proved untenable after several weeks’ consideration?
This is bad for cycling. No matter what the reason, this is precisely the attention cycling doesn’t need. And while I want the truth to come out, no explanation can remove the black eye this event will leave. The horse is out of the barn: another Tour de France champion is positive for dope. That story line will follow this year’s Tour de France for good.
The final Grand Tour of the season is upon us and that can mean only one thing: You’ve planned your Labor Day Weekend. Wait, no, that’s not it. Your kids are back in school. Hmm, maybe, but still not quite right.
Oh, right, your TV is about to get monopolized.
Frank Schleck says he can win the Vuelta, but to do so, he’s going to have to go chainring-to-chainring with all of Spain, including Giro second place David Arroyo and Joaquin Rodgriguez. We’ve got Carlos Sastre, Oscar Pereiro and Carlos Barredo. Garmin-Transitions has brought Christian Vande Velde, though their actual GC guy is Tom Danielson. After Schleck, Arroyo and Rodriguez, how many of those guys really look like anything other than dark horses?
Given the current, tarnished finish on Grand Tour podiums, the real question at stake may be how long it will be before this year’s Vuelta podium is ensnared in a doping scandal. For where the Tour goes in doping scandals, the Vuelta seems to lead by a year or two. When we ask, “Who will win the Vuelta?” we mean now … and after the dust settles.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. When Lance Armstrong announced he was coming out of retirement in September of 2008, many presumed he would take up his career where he left off—winning the Tour de France.
Popular speculation was that Johan Bruyneel’s protege, Alberto Contador, by dint of his young age could conceivably rack up a longer streak of wins at the Tour de France than Armstrong. And if there’s anyone who hates to be beaten, it’s Mellow Johnny.
Some took a more cynical view. At the point of Armstrong’s retirement, Team Tailwinds, the company behind the US Postal and Discovery Channel Team was facing a fair amount of investigation related to doping. Dissolving the formation took the heat off all involved. And with the investigations into the various scandals sufficiently exhausted, Armstrong returned to the sport with a seemingly fresh start.
But 2009 wasn’t 2005. Armstrong was accustomed to being boss, getting his way—and was willing to use whatever tricks it took such as intimidation or outright firing to get his way. The peloton has more than a few riders who got crossed up with Armstrong and saw their careers suffer for it. Anyone remember Chad Gerlach?
But Alberto Contador didn’t step aside. With three Grand Tour victories under his belt, it’s not surprising. By any reasonable standard, Contador had come of age and was within his right to believe that Armstrong had had his time and should stay retired.
History is full of examples of wars in which one side fought by conventional means while the other battled back by guerilla tactics. It’s what the American colonists did during the Revolutionary War, what the Vietnamese did during the Vietnam War and what the insurgents are doing in Irag and Afghanistan. Guerilla tactics are the object lesson of the story of David and Goliath.
Armstrong always liked to portray himself as David in his matchups against Jan Ullrich, but with Alberto Contador, he was the proverbial Goliath: slow to adapt and inadequately defended. While Armstrong appreciated Contador’s physical strength, he underestimated the Spaniard’s force of will. Contador is certainly not the first rider to go rogue within a team in a bid to win the Tour, but he is arguably the rider who had to fight the hardest to do so and succeed.
Of course, Armstrong fans reacted to his third place with a “not bad” and waited for the 2010 Tour like a bunch of fanboys waiting for the next Spiderman film. The Lance would be back and he would whoop some ‘Murkin-style ass.
What he didn’t count on was that his return to the pro peloton would coincide with Floyd Landis’ snub by same. The crazy math going on inside of Landis’ brain believes light speed travel is totally doable and that the U.S. government was behind the fall of Troy. Most of us learned long ago not to mess with crazy. What Armstrong didn’t know was that Landis was at the breaking point. How could he? And while he didn’t go looking to lock horns with Landis, his return to the ProTour seems to have been read by Landis as insult to injury. It’s fair to wonder if Landis’ e-mail screed would have taken place if Big Tex was still banging one of the Olsen twins and surfing with Matthew McConaughey; after all, what else could have squarely placed a bullseye on Armstrong than his resumption of the very thing Landis wanted most and was being denied.
And while Landis may seem to be crazier than Amy Winehouse, bat-shit crazy doesn’t preclude what he says from being true.
Running high is media speculation that Armstrong’s crash-filled spring and summer is as a result of distracted riding. Conventional wisdom is that he’s so preoccupied with Landis’ allegations and defending himself that his mind just isn’t in the game. No matter what the cause, at this Tour de France, we seem to have seen an old Armstrong, not the old Armstrong.
The latest twist in this unfolding saga is Armstrong’s retention of Brian D. Daly as his defense attorney. Daly, a former federal prosecutor is an ideal choice for a vigorous defense. He is intimately familiar with the techniques and strategies used by prosecutors, and while that is certainly useful, the long list of ex-teammates who have been subpoenaed and are alleged to have agreed to cooperate with the investigation could be … well, let’s just say that throwing one very good attorney at this problem could be like trying to hold back flood waters with a stop sign.
Complicating matters is Greg LeMond, who seems eager to step from the wings. What LeMond can contribute to these proceedings beyond a he said/he said mudslinging with Armstrong is unknown at best and even somewhat doubtful at worst. But it is LeMond’s participation that has brought about what is one of the ugliest statements Armstrong has made.
He told France 2, “We will have the opportunity to tell the truth to the authorities, and Greg LeMond will tell the truth about 1989 I hope.”
So far as I can find, this is the closest Lance Armstrong has ever come to calling another rider out as a doper. For a guy who has been notoriously mum on the activities of other riders, even those convicted of doping, it seems oddly incongruous that he would suggest that LeMond has a hidden doping past.
The moment we choose to believe a rider is clean we make a leap of faith. However, unlike the irrational leap necessary to believe in God, the demise of Greg LeMond’s career coincides neatly with the rise of EPO.
LeMond’s attitude toward doping has always seemed so Boy Scout, in part because his career has been marked by betrayals perpetrated due to his naivete, that considering whether or not he doped smacks of thinking Pete Townshend took up guitar just to get chicks.
LeMond’s victory in the 1989 Tour de France was very likely the next-to-last Tour de France won by a clean athlete.
It’s ironic that the one cyclist Armstrong would seem to suggest doped is one who could easily be accepted as clean.
Stranger still is the fact that Armstrong’s comeback may ultimately do more to damage his legacy than strengthen it.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Now that we’ve been given the gift of mechanical doping, I am thinking about all of the little bits of gear that help me along my way every day, the gloves, the helmet, the shorts and jerseys and gloves. The socks! Don’t forget the socks.
Are gloves manual doping? Does anyone ever actually read the manual? IKEA could stand to dope their manuals a little. I bought a couch from them, but could only manage to manufacture a chaise longue from the kit they gave me. Now who’s the dope?
Is Gatorade electrolyte doping? What is an electrolyte? Who was in the Electrolyte Orchestra other than Jeff Lynne? What is the future of symphonic rock? I hope it’s not these guys, cause they’re six kinds of awful.
If a motor is mechanical doping, is having a high VO2 Max or high lactacid metabolism, talent doping? Should Greg LeMond give back his three yellow jerseys because damn it, his natural capacity for processing oxygen is just way beyond anything I can compete with? My answer: yes. Perhaps cycling could develop a biological handicapping system so that schlubs like me could compete in Grand Tours and have our times adjusted (from days down to hours) to keep us competitive with the extraterrestrials who actually win those things. Who’s in? Where’s the petition?
Rather than getting into a long, tortured discussion of seat tube motors, torque, battery life and the dark side of the human spirit this week, I’d like this Group Ride to focus the stuff that helps us enjoy the ride. The question is: What is your favorite piece of gear/kit and why? Don’t start waxing rhapsodic about your new carbon fiber frame or a wheel set. Like the Lance’s autobiography, this is not about the bike.
It’s about not-the-bike. What not-the-bike do you like best … while you’re on the bike?
Image courtesy Robert Wise Productions
We’re featuring another tag-team pair of posts regarding doping and our views on how well sanctions are working … and what might be done to improve the situation. What follows is Robot’s post. You can find my post here.—Padraig
Last night I was finishing Graeme Fife’s excellent Inside the Peloton, published in 2001, when I read the line “We have now, I think, won the battle against EPO…” I chuckled aloud. My wife looked at me askance. So did the dog.
The fact is that EPO, it’s younger cousin CERA, and an array of other doping practices are still alive and well in the pro peloton. Apparently even my dog knows that.
So, what to do about it?
The UCI’s current system of “justice,” provides one set of punishments for “non-negative findings” from anti-doping tests conducted both in and out of competition. The first offense earns a two-year ban from competition, the second a life sentence.
In our discussion, last week, here and here, we mostly agreed that there is a difference between a rider who is caught and then confesses and repents, like David Millar, and a rider who denies everything, simply serves his time and then comes back, a la Alexander Vinokourov. The problem with the UCI’s one-size-fits-all approach to convicted dopers is that it sees no difference between the two, and so offers no incentive for riders to cooperate or formal ways for them to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of cycling fans. Today’s regime is simply one of punishment, not rehabilitation.
Here in the US, in many states, they punish murderers with the death penalty. As a punishment, there is no stronger sanction allowed under law. And yet, people continue to kill each other at more or less steady rates, year after year, decade after decade. What is apparent is that the punishment is not a deterrent. There is an amoral portion of the populace who just don’t respond to punishment. Padraig makes excellent points about these folks, and their representation in top level sports in his post today.
The way most modern justice systems deal with transgressors is through a sort of remediation process. For example, if you’re caught with a pound of cocaine, you’re charged with a crime. If then, you are willing to say where you got that cocaine from, you may receive an offer of reduced sentence, an acknowledgment that your cooperation will remove more than just that one pound of cocaine from circulation. It’s a way of using a small conviction to gain a larger one.
As Padraig suggests in his post, a sort of amnesty deal, a truth and reconciliation process, would be one way to cull dopers from the pro ranks. Another might be to apply this same principle of remediation to convicted dopers.
My proposal would be to instate an initial three-year ban, but to offer a reduction of up to two years if the rider explains how he or she doped, who provided them with the drugs and which other riders are involved. Failure to cooperate on that level leaves the ban at three years. A subsequent conviction would lead to a lifetime ban that would extend, not just to racing, but also to pro-level coaching and management. A rider who dopes and gets caught, and then dopes again, can reasonably be assumed to fall into that amoral category, that group that simply won’t respond to sanction or rehabilitation.
The point of raising the initial ban to three years is to make the prospect of comeback just that much more tenuous for an athlete who doesn’t wish to cooperate. The ability to mitigate that sanction to as small as one year’s absence from the peloton gives the athlete a real incentive to participate in cleaning up the sport, because it incorporates a strong element of self-interest.
To be sure, there is still some code of silence in the pack. A rider who implicates a teammate is in for a rough ride upon his or her return. By formalizing the process by which this information is drawn from convicts, the peloton‘s embrace of the omerta is loosened. Any one of them would be able to see why a sanctioned rider had cooperated. In a group dominated by that self-serving ethos, self-interest is one motivator that is widely accepted. In other words, it’s one thing to rat out a teammate and still sit on the sideline for two years. It’s quite another to cooperate in order to gain a swifter return to racing. Further, by using each conviction to gain others, the UCI can remove more riders who are involved in doping at one fell swoop, thereby reducing the influence of the doping tolerant riders in the peloton considerably.
The UCI can continue with their punishment only approach, but I believe this is something like the kids’ game Whack-a-Mole. You hit one doper with your hammer, and another pops up, ad infinitum, ad absurdum. If, instead, you cut the dopers out, and their doctors, the managers who participate, and the soigneurs who traffic in these things, then you stand a better chance of ridding the sport of its worst sickness, that thing that erodes public support and interest, that drains away sponsorship dollars, and even the confidence of the most ardent fans.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.
Padraig has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Yesterday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us almost everything we look for from a Spring Classic, crashes, attacks, splintering chase groups, breakaways, and an unlikely winner. The name of that improbable champion was the one thing that left something to be desired in the minds of many cycling fans. You could tell from all the booing at the finish line and the wave of articles questioning the result, based on that rider’s checkered past. Despite a stunning and classy win, cycling just isn’t sure about Alexander Vinokourov.
There seem to be two strains of thought as regards the ongoing exploits of Mr. Vinokourov. There are those who view him as an unrepentant doper, a rider who cheated, never confessed and then came back at the top level to plunder anew. Then there is an admittedly smaller group who say the Kazakh has paid his dues, served his suspension and is, therefore, entitled to continue with his career.
I find myself curiously caught between the two. Ambivalent.
Certainly, I have sympathy with the skeptics. I have always been a believer that how you do something is at least as important as having done it. And so, when I ponder the growing field of convicted dopers returning from suspension, I am able to draw some distinction between David Millar, honest, contrite, outspoken and humble, and someone like Vinokourov, who has been seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of his transgressions. He has been neither contrite nor humble. Having served his time, he is back to feed at the trough. Full stop.
But is that a valid distinction?
Millar and Vinokourov both cheated. Both served suspensions. Both have, theoretically, changed their behavior to that prescribed by the governors of the sport. Those are substantive changes, no matter how they’re effected.
Does it matter that Vinokourov has not become an outspoken critic of doping within the sport? If each returning rider cast himself in this role, would the gesture become hollow? And is the sword not, in fact, double-edged? Would the same people who pillory the Astana rider for not being contrite enough, call him a hypocrite if he spent too much time extolling the virtues of clean sport? Quite how Millar has turned this trick for himself is a bit of a mystery, but, by all accounts, the British rider has always been more charming than his Kazakh counterpart.
At root, are we, as fans, entitled to more bowing and scraping? Or are the sport’s laws and punishments enough?
I don’t know. I ask myself if I’m not maybe simply biased toward riders I like better on the bike. I can forgive Pantani his transgressions, to some degree, because he gave us such drama. Danilo DiLuca also falls into this category maybe. But the less emotionally compelling riders like Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde (unconvicted) or Jan Ullrich suffer a greater wrath. They cheated, AND they failed to entertain properly. This double transgression may be the real problem.
Today, Vinokourov has come forth with an open letter that seeks to address his situation more fully. It’s hard to read it and not feel an ounce of compassion for the man, who, at 36, is only trying to salvage something of a damaged career.
Would we prefer that he simply go away? For doping to go away, do the dopers all have to go, permanently? If so, we need to change our rules and procedures. Now. Before this dynamic plays itself out into absurdity.
The whole situation brings to the forefront some of the central challenges for the UCI going forward, how to reintegrate the sport’s transgressors and how to convince cycling fans that the punishments doled out are proportionate to the crimes being committed.
What we are seeing with Vinokourov is that, though the UCI has sanctioned his return, the tifosi have not, and neither have the cycling press. Perhaps these are just the consequences. You can cheat, and you can go away for two years, and you can come back, but all that will be left for you are these begrudged victories. You can stand on the podium and kiss the girls and hold the bouquet. You can even pocket the prize money, but you will never be allowed to win again.
Is that fair? I have no idea.
The other shoe has finally dropped. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has, finally, upheld Alejandro Valverde’s Italian suspension, imposed by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), finding that, not only does CONI have jurisdiction to impose the ban on the Spanish rider for races taking place in Italy, but further, that the evidence used by CONI to ban Valverde, may well be enough to expand the ban worldwide. The origin of the ban is a connection made between a bag of blood seized by Spanish police as part of the Operación Puerto investigation and a sample given for an Italian race, confirming, according to CONI, that Valverde participated in the doping program run by Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes AND that traces of EPO could be connected to Valverde’s DNA.
This decision alters the pro cycling landscape in a number of curious ways. First, it calls into question Valverde’s results from 2006, and the beginning of the Operación Puero scandal, up to his second place finish in the just completed Paris-Nice race. If, and this is a great big if, the UCI chooses to vacate Valverde’s results, then Samuel Sanchez suddenly becomes the winner of the 2009 Vuelta a España and Ivan Basso, himself a Puerto alum, climbs up onto the podium. Should the UCI back out all those results, the peloton will be full of new winners.
Beyond the rider’s individual results, the CAS decision demonstrates several things: First, the wheels of justice turn very, very, very, very slowly in cycling. We are years from the Puerto revelations, and though this process was slowed considerably by complications with the Spanish justice system, the fact remains that the national organizations overseeing the anti-doping efforts in Europe are NOT all together on procedures and protocols.
Second, it shouldn’t escape our notice that the Spanish police were actually the instigators of this entire episode, raiding Fuentes’ lab on a pretext not related to blood doping, which was not illegal in Spain at the time. Alejandro Valverde has never tested positive for banned substances in an in-competition screening. If it’s true that the Caisse d’Epargne rider made a practice of doping, then the testing the UCI is doing has not been effective in catching him, despite a string of wins that saw him end 2009 as the top-ranked pro rider.
Third, Caisse d’Epargne has already planned to end their sponsorship of the cycling team at the end of the 2010 season. If it’s most salable asset is banned from competition for two years, finding a new sponsor for a team that contains a wealth of Spanish cycling talent might be even more difficult. in light of recent sponsorship withdrawals by entities like Saxo Bank and Milram (though this is still up in the air) Valverde’s ongoing troubles signal yet another major blow against the sport in public perception.
Insiders will tell you that cycling is the most transparent sport, due to the high level of testing and prosecution of doped athletes. Outsiders will see just another big name rider convicted of cheating.
Now that CAS has exhausted Valverde’s appeals, we can look forward to the slowly unfolding drama of the UCI moving to expand the Italian ban to worldwide competition with the rider rushing around Europe trying to squeeze in as many races as possible before the hammer falls.
Last September I wrote The Elephant, an analysis cum-indictment of Alejandro Valverde, his role in Operación Puerto and the doping shadow hanging over the pro peloton. Since that time, Valverde has won the Vuelta a España. Then, and perhaps still, Valverde represented the modern face of doping controversy, arguably the top rider in the world, at least by UCI ranking, with the strongest circumstantial link to serious foul play. His persistence, both in protesting his innocence and winning big races, seemed to me like the single biggest threat to cycling’s future.
Six months on, my perspective has shifted.
And what caused that shift? Improbably, it was the issue, in France, of an arrest warrant for Floyd Landis on the grounds that the American rider had hacked into the computer system of the French lab that produced his doping positive in 2006 in order to steal documents pertaining to his case. The very notion of the Metallica-quoting, former Mennonite engaging in any sort of international computer skullduggery so amused me that I resolved to read his book, Positively False: the Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, a tome I had, up to this point, disregarded as superfluous to my understanding of how the cycling world works.
Landis’ book isn’t great. It sort of wanders all over the place, basically outlining what a naive, straight shooter its protagonist is and then lambasting the process of appealing a doping ban and indicting the system that convicted him more than the science, though there’s a bit of that too. I’ll save you the blow-by-blow of my reading the book, then turning to the internet and hundreds of additional pages of independent legal analysis as well as USADA memos, etc. as I stopped thinking about Landis mostly and instead sought to understand more fully how the anti-doping effort actually works.
And what I learned is that it’s complicated.
I thought it was complicated before, but mainly from an administrative standpoint. What I discovered is that testing, sanctioning and prosecuting dopers is a Kafka-esque legal undertaking wed to a scientific process that struggles for accuracy, repeatability and consistency from race to race, country to country and year to year. I began, if I’m honest, with a desire to believe that Floyd Landis didn’t cheat, a desire born of liking the public image of the rider more than anything concrete, and I ended with a deep ambivalence about Landis and subsequently my prize elephant, Valverde.
I realized that I had been applying a double standard.
I loved Landis’ performance in the 2006 Tour, the way he seemed to be assuming the mantle of American cycling leadership from a retired Lance Armstrong, his folksiness, and that amazing comeback on Stage 17, the performance that ultimately led to his doping positive and being stripped of the Tour de France victory.
I didn’t like Valverde. Viewed through the prism of the Puerto investigation, I convicted him of cheating, based on the circumstantial evidence available through the press, and then further indicted him for his flamboyant denials and audacity in continuing to compete in the biggest races at the highest level. In my mind, I was watching a cheat who suffered no consequences. He rubbed our noses in it. He imperiled our sport for his own selfish interests.
This is, of course, complete prejudice.
I don’t know Floyd Landis, and I don’t know if he cheated. I’ve heard awfully compelling arguments that he did, and equally strong reasoning to suggest he didn’t. I don’t know Alejandro Valverde, and I don’t know if he cheated either. Maybe yes. Maybe no.
By continuing to ride, and by the UCI and now CAS (the Court of Arbitration for Sport) taking so long to resolve his case, Valverde has remained the elephant in the peloton. But maybe what that elephant points out is not that doping is alive and well, but rather that the UCI’s system for detecting and prosecuting doping cases is nowhere near sufficient to the task. Valverde goes on winning, a path not available to Landis, and by doing so he proves one of two things, possibly both, that he can win races without dope or, in the event he was and is doping, that the tests don’t work nearly well enough.
Today, the Vuelta a Murcia rolls out of its start in Spain. That race’s director, Paco Guzman, barred Italian teams from entering his race to protest, he said, the Italian’s ban on Valverde, who is from Murcia. Ironically, Valverde and his team, Caisse d’Epargne aren’t racing Murcia either, due to a mixup over payments. At time of writing, UCI chief Pat McQuaid had become involved, threatening Guzman with UCI sanction and demanding an apology. It’s an ugly mess.
I see now that cycling’s politics don’t admit of easy resolutions for what, to most fans, seem like straightforward questions. Did a rider dope? Did he not? Are the races clean? Is the process fair? Are the rules applied equally across the sport?
Last September I wrote that Alejandro Valverde was the elephant, but now I see that no one rider can own that distinction. In fact, now that we’ve recognized the doping and the problems it cause, what remains is the UCI’s ability, or lack thereof, to clean things up, to give us a clean competition where we trust the participants, the administrators and the results. This is the elephant who casts its enormous, gray shadow over the races, the sponsorships, the legends and the rising stars. The dope lingers because we don’t know how to stop it. The UCI is as confused as the riders are. And I, as a fan, have to find a way to reserve judgement, for now, and possibly forever.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
So Joe Papp is back in the news. This time it’s for a guilty plea in connection with selling doping products. Specifically, he plead guilty to two counts of conspiracy to sell EPO and HGH over the Internet.
As much as I’d like to ignore this and hope he fades into forgettable obscurity, I don’t think that will happen just yet. And because RKP has written so much about doping, we are rather obliged to give this more of a once-over than two Tweets about the subject.
Papp netted more than $80,000 between September 2006 to September 2007 selling these drugs. That’s a tidy income, especially for what I suspect wasn’t a lot of work. After all, he didn’t have any of the traditional marketing costs associated with a sales enterprise, so people found him, 187 of them, to be precise.
The income isn’t the issue. It’s the time period. It was during this same time period that USADA trotted him out as a star witness at the Floyd Landis hearing. His purpose? To testify on the remarkable recovery that one can enjoy when using synthetic testosterone. That Travis Tygart (then counsel, now CEO) of USADA didn’t vet Papp more thoroughly is deeply troubling.
Papp disputed VeloNews’ contention that he testified against Landis. He told them, “The matter for which I publicly acknowledged my guilt today in Pittsburgh had nothing to do with my appearance at the Landis hearing. I didn’t testify against Floyd Landis in that hearing,” Papp noted. “My testimony was about my own personal experiences with the drug testosterone and how it is generally perceived within the peloton. That was it. I told the story of how testosterone works and can help you as a cyclist by enhancing recovery.”
Papp’s point splits hairs. Semantically, he may be correct, but he was an instrument in the process of convicting Landis. The problem I have with this is that he was presented as a reformed doper, someone who would be candid as a result of his changed ways. Candor is an important part of establishing credibility, and Papp presented himself as someone for whom performance enhancing drugs were strictly past tense. We have learned that was not the case.
So what should Papp’s sentence be? He could be banned for life from cycling, and that ought to happen; he shouldn’t be allowed to coach or advise other cyclists given his recent industry. He also stands to serve as much as five years in federal prison when he is sentenced on June 25. Hopefully, that June date gives him enough time for him to finish his graduate degree at Chatham University, where he is a student, and (we hope) not focusing on exercise physiology. No one should be forced to starve and Papp needs a good way to reinvent himself in order to stay away from the racing end of the sport.