When I turned on my glowing rectangle this morning, the news that Oprah Winfrey will interview Lance Armstrong screamed out at me from every tiny window and rivulet of news feed. I sighed a deep sigh, the same one we reserve, here in New England, for when it snows hard on April 1st.
Am I the only one who is really done with the Armstrong saga? Am I the only one dis-interested in a confession or a continuing prevarication or whatever comes next?
To be clear, I am not angry at Lance Armstrong. I don’t feel he owes me an apology. He’s got to deal with the consequences of his actions, just like anyone else. I am just not that interested in what comes next for him.
I am glad we know much of went on during cycling’s EPO era. The truth is always valuable, if only to reorder the past in our minds, to feel more comfortable with what we’ve seen, and what we will see. But the details of what went on and Lance’s personal story are two separate things. I am not interested in his perspective, his feelings.
I have closure now. I know what happened, and I know why it happened. It is, taken as a whole and in retrospect, a tragically human story, the weaknesses inherit in our collective character producing a tale the Greek’s would have coated in wax and feathers. If only it were fiction, we could all smile at the brilliance of it.
And also, there are things I enjoyed about watching the racing of that lost period, an enjoyment unspoiled by confirmation of what we all (or most of us) long suspected. I am comfortable with the moral ambiguity of the whole story. In a way, I believe, we have to fail this way, we humans. It’s in our nature.
But I feel tired of Lance Armstrong now. It’s that feeling of standing in the driveway during a late season snow storm, the fat flakes lazing down from the sky, having to move it all out of the way yet again before life can go on, unhampered by factors well beyond my control.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
The 2012 season has seen cycling attain some remarkable landmarks, including the first Canadian racer to win the Giro d’Italia, the first Brit to win the Tour de France, and the biggest-ever crowds to watch an Olympic road race. The year has also seen the sport dragged through its most damaging doping scandal in the ongoing USADA case against Lance Armstrong and his longtime team manager and business partner Johan Bruyneel. But with pro cycling now emerging as one of the cleanest sports in the world, there are many more feel-good stories to report than bad-news yarns. I’ve divided my A to Z review of a momentous season into two parts, starting this week from Armstrong to Magni.
A is for Armstrong. That’s the one whose first name is Kristin. The 39-year-old American came back from starting a family to brilliantly defend her Olympic women’s time trial gold medal at the London Games, defeating reigning world champion Judith Arndt by 15 seconds in the 29-kilometer event.
B for Boonen. Belgium’s perennial road star, Tom Boonen, returned to his very best form to ace four of the cobbled spring classics: Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. Later in the year he won the Belgian national road championship, took the first edition of the two-day World Ports Classic, won the semi-classic Paris-Brussels, and helped his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team win gold in the inaugural world team time trial championship for pro squads.
C for Contador. Spanish fans (and his Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis) were ecstatic when Alberto Contador returned from his much-delayed Clenbuterol-positive suspension to win the Vuelta a España for a second time. Whatever others think about his doping ban, the 29-year-old Spaniard earned the Vuelta win with an audacious solo move far from the finish of stage 17 between Santander and Fuente Dé, to dispossess national rival Joaquin Rodriguez from the leader’s red jersey.
D for Dombrowski. Only two years ago, Joe Dombrowski was a skinny teenager from Virginia who was given the chance to try out with the U.S. development team, Trek-Livestrong, by its director Axel Merckx. Today, he’s about to enter the UCI WorldTour with Team Sky after an amazing under-23 season with Bontrager-Livestrong that saw Dombrowski use his climbing skills to win two mountain stages and the overall title of Italy’s GiroBio; and take top-10 finishes at the Tour of the Gila, Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge. Tomorrow: the world.
E for Erythropoietin. Just when we thought we’d maybe heard the last of EPO in cycling, this blood-boosting drug again hit the headlines in 2012. And not just from former U.S. Postal Service team riders in their testimonies given in the USADA investigation (see “U for USADA”). Among those foolish enough to use and test positive for EPO were a wide range of athletes, including Tour of Turkey “winner” Ivailo Gabrovski of Bulgaria; French domestique Steve Houanard of the AG2R team; South African veteran David George, a U.S. Postal team rider 12 years ago; and two Gran Fondo New York prize winners, American David Anthony and Italian Gabriele Guarini.
F for Froome. If you’d told Chris Froome 15 months ago that by the end of 2012 he’d finish second at the Tour de France (and win a mountain stage), place second and fourth at the Vuelta a España, come fourth at the Dauphiné, and win a bronze medal in the London Olympics time trial, he’d have said, “You must be joking.” But that’s what this Team Sky rider has just accomplished. Not bad for a bookish 27-year-old born in Kenya and raised in South Africa who now races for Great Britain.
G for Gerrans. The Australian owners of the brand-new Orica-GreenEdge team could barely believe their luck when Simon Gerrans began their tenure by winning the year’s first two races: the Aussie national title and the Tour Down Under. And it only got better, with Gerrans taking his first monument, Milan-San Remo, in March; placing second at the Clasica San Sebastian in August; and winning the GP de Québec in September.
H for Hesjedal. Ever since he was winning top mountain bike races in his early-20s (he narrowly lost the 2003 world cross-country championship to Filip Meirhaeghe, who would later test positive for EPO), Ryder Hesjedal knew he had exceptional talent for cycling. After years of riding tirelessly for other team leaders, he blossomed at Team Slipstream with sixth overall at the 2010 Tour de France, and this year showed all his exceptional ability, climbing talent and grit to become the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia. He did it with great consistency: Garmin won the early team time trial at Verona; Hesjedal was heroic on the summit finishes at Rocca di Cambio, Cervinia, Cortina, Alpe di Pampeago and the Passo di Stelvio, and he crowned his victory over Joaquim Rodriguez in the final-stage time trial though the streets of Milan.
I for Iglinskiy. For most of his nine years as a pro racer, Maxim Iglinskiy has worked as a domestique for team leader and fellow Kazakh, Alexander Vinokourov, while still winning the occasional race. This spring, he emerged from the Astana veteran’s shadows by placing second to Fabian Cancellara at Italy’s Strade Bianche classic (a race he won in 2010), and then grinding out a late victory over Vincenzo Nibali at the last of the spring classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
J for Jensy. Every bike-racing fan loves the aggressive riding of German veteran Jens “Jensy” Voigt, 40, who out-did himself in 2012 with nine months of solid racing from January to September for RadioShack-Nissan. The highlights included top-three stage finishes at Paris-Nice, the Tour of California and Tour de France—and then a magnificent stage victory on the Aspen-Beaver Creek stage of Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge, riding alone for 150 kilometers in rain and wind over Independence Pass and Battle Mountain.
K for Kulhavy. He wasn’t the favorite to win gold in the men’s cross-country at the London Olympics, but Czech mountain biker Jaroslav Kulhavy, 27, took one of the most exciting wins off-road racing has seen in a sprint finish with Swiss rival Nino Schurter. Kulhavy, the 2011 world champion, hadn’t won a major race all year before the Olympics. He went on to win the biggest French mountain-bike race, the marathon Roc d’Azur, ahead of Specialized teammate Christoph Sauser—and there’s talk that Kulhavy may convert to road racing in future seasons.
L for Lance. Some 18 months after his final bike race, Lance Armstrong was no longer a seven-time Tour de France winner, but merely a former world and U.S. road champion, the first American to win European classics (Flèche Wallonne and Clasica San Sebastian), along with a host of North American victories, after USADA (see “U is for USADA”) stripped him of all his post-cancer results because of doping.
M for Magni. Italian legend Fiorenzo Magni died in October at age 91. Known as the Lion of Flanders for his three consecutive victories at the Tour of Flanders (1949, ’50 and ’51), he also won three editions of the Giro d’Italia (1948, ’51 and ’55) and three Italian road titles. They were amazing accomplishments in an era when Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi were also at their zenith. An accomplished businessman until his death, Magni is also remembered for bringing the first non-cycling sponsor to the sport: Nivea began as his team’s title sponsor in 1954.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson
Boonen image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Contador image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In the time I’ve been penning these personal thoughts about cycling’s problems with doping, starting with the 1960s, I’ve become more conscious of how the cycle of revelations and reactions keeps on repeating itself. And how true breakthroughs in the fight against doping only happen when there’s a combination of scientific advancement and unscripted events.
The death of Danish amateur cyclist Knud Jensen, who was on amphetamines, at the Rome Olympics in 1960 initially woke up the sports world to the need for drug testing. France was the first to enact anti-doping legislation, in 1963, but its implementation was erratic and resulted in a riders’ strike when the gendarmerie descended on a Bordeaux hotel at the 1966 Tour de France and inexpertly took urine samples from a number of athletes, including French star Raymond Poulidor.
But it was only after Professor Arnold Beckett, head of London’s Chelsea School of Pharmacy, finalized a rock-solid test for amphetamines that the UCI became the first sports governing body to introduce testing. The first experimental tests at the 1965 Tour of Britain were so successful that the race leader and two others tested positive and were thrown out of the race. Encouraged, the UCI extended the program, including its own world championships the following year. But, because of those problems with the heavy-handed French government testing, the Tour de France didn’t get any UCI-approved controls until 1968—the year after Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux with amphetamines in his system.
Simpson’s death triggered the International Olympic Committee to set up a medical commission, which Beckett joined, and the first list of banned substances was drawn up before testing began at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As I wrote in a previous column, the early anti-doping controls were not always conducted according to the rules, with pro cyclists finding ways to avoid testing positive (as illustrated by Michel Pollentier at the 1978 Tour). Also, it didn’t help that there was no definitive test for steroids until 1974 (also pioneered by a London laboratory), and even then the riders and their soigneurs learned how to use masking agents, such as diuretics, to beat the system, before they were banned too.
It was widely known in the 1970s and early-’80s that long-distance runners and cross-country skiers from Scandinavia were using blood-boosting methods (by re-infusing their previously stored blood) to improve their performances. In Italy, its Olympic Committee CONI even sponsored sports doctor Professor Francesco Conconi (inventor of the Conconi test for establishing an athlete’s anaerobic threshold) and his biomedical research center at the University of Ferrara to prepare athletes from several sports, including skiing and cycling, using blood-boosting methods. And it’s widely accepted that Conconi and his assistant Michele Ferrari helped Francesco Moser break Eddy Merckx’s world hour record at Mexico City in January 1984.
Blood doping was undetectable and even encouraged until members of the 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team (track and road), under the supervision of the U.S. Cycling Federation coaching staff, blood-boosted in Los Angeles. Some intra-federation memos (this happened before e-mails existed) were leaked to Rolling Stone magazine, which published a salacious article on the affair in its February 1985 issue. The result was several USCF officials being reprimanded. It was regarded as a huge scandal in the United States and resulted in blood doping finally being prohibited, first by the USCF, then the UCI, and eventually by the IOC in 1986.
It was ironic that just as blood doping was being banned a team of scientists at biotech company Amgen in California was researching an artificial, or recombinant, form of human erythropoietin for boosting the red-blood-cell count of anemic cancer patients. FDA approval for the new drug Epogen (EPO) came in 1989, but it was already on the black market in Europe, and EPO eventually became the most widely used doping product in cycling, cross-country skiing and long-distance running.
There was no way EPO could be detected in blood tests because it was a genetic hormone that helped athletes create their own new red blood cells. Scientists in Europe and Australia began research on methods to identify the use of EPO by athletes, but it was a long, difficult (and expensive!) process. In the early-1990s, dozens of athletes, including cyclists, allegedly died because of their hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells) reached levels as high as 60 or even 70 percent. In Italy, CONI again gave money to Professor Conconi, this time to research an EPO test, but this merely led to Italian athletes and Italian cycling teams becoming the leaders in the use of EPO.
That was confirmed when the Gewiss team placed three riders in the first three places at the Flèche Wallonne classic in April 1994, after which their team doctor, Ferrari, told Italian and French journalists in an interview that only the abuse of EPO was dangerous, not the drug itself, and that he wasn’t scandalized by riders using it.
That unscripted incident in 1994 was one that didn’t get the reaction it merited, either from the media or the UCI. It gave Verbruggen an opening to condemn the apparent abuse of EPO in Italy, but he played down Ferrari’s remarks and said that the other teams should work and train harder to challenge the Italians. The press criticized Verbruggen but no real investigative journalism was set in motion, and it should be noted that the publications with the biggest resources, L’Équipe in France and La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, also happened to be the organizers of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia respectively. Conflicts of interest were an obvious factor in the lack of action.
With no detailed investigations by the media or the UCI and no definitive test for EPO on the horizon, the blood-boosting drug became more and more predominant in the European pro peloton. Finally, both the UCI and the international ski federation (FIS) looked at ways of deterring athletes from using EPO. The result was that the UCI, after discussions with sports doctor and the pro teams themselves, implemented a 50-percent hematocrit limit in January 1997. Several medical experts questioned the UCI limit as being too stringent, especially as the FIS limit was much higher (equivalent to some 53 percent before a tested athlete was stopped from competing). UCI president Hein Verbruggen was criticized for saying that the new limit was a “health check” and it did not imply use of EPO, but with no foolproof test yet available he was just stating the facts.
The new blood testing had an immediate effect. In the very first tests before the March 1997 Paris-Nice, three of the 20 riders tested, tested over the 50-percent limit. They were all domestiques: Frenchman Erwan Menthéour (who would write a book detailing his use of EPO and other performance-enhancing products, including so-called Pot-Belge, a mixture of amphetamines, cocaine and heroin that riders, and even some French journalists, got high on at parties); and the Italians Mauro Santaromita (later named on a list of athletes implicated in a police investigation into doping), and Luca Colombo. But the penalties of being excluded from the race, along with a fine and a two-week suspension of their racing licenses, was not a huge deterrent.
It was only after the Festina Affair in July 1998 and the various entities (the IOC, sports federations and federal; governments) came together that the World Anti-Doping Agency was formed in December 1999 and the sports world started to take the modern doping problem far more seriously, with the extra funding needed to institute more testing and to enable more research into definitive drug tests. I’ll conclude this story and comment on other more recent revelations in my column next week.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Early in the 19th Century the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge—famed for his poem Kubla Khan and laudanum—coined the term “suspension of disbelief.” It was his way of codifying the belief that a fantastic story if “infused with human interest and a semblance of truth” could be made believable. It’s what we did to our parents in high school when we lied about our whereabouts. We used the names of friends and familiar locations, places that we frequented in an effort to throw them off the scent. For me, it worked until some time in my senior year.
If my opening paragraph isn’t sufficiently obscure, give me a second. I’m now going to pull in T.S. Eliot, who coined the term “objective correlative” early in the last century. It is an image that explicitly defines something that can otherwise be difficult to describe. To that end, I submit the image above from the film “Blade Runner.” Whether you like science fiction or not, the work has widely been hailed as the finest sci-fi film ever committed to celluloid. And for reasons that may never be fully plumbed, it achieves that element crucial to all science fiction: suspension of disbelief. We don’t question that there are androids, that it never seems to stop raining or that the 21st Century’s version of the car flies, as shown above.
Let’s consider the alternative. Above is a still from the Disney film “John Carter,” arguably one of the biggest flops of this year. Post-mortems on the film have decried the wooden acting, the Swiss-cheese script and the hyperbolic special effects. I can’t say what killed the film, but I know what killed it for me. I had been excited to see the Edgar Rice Burroughs masterpiece made into a film, but was dismayed the moment I saw the first trailer and it was precisely because of John Carter’s ginormous jump contained with said trailer. I recall commenting to my wife, “Okay, I’m out.”
It was that whole suspension of disbelief thing. “John Carter” takes place on Mars and has loads of jumping in it; it’s a thing, as they say, and over there (Mars, that is) to jump is to sak. The problem is that seconds into the trailer comes this jump that looks like Evel Knievel sans motorcycle and, well, it just looks silly. So I didn’t go see it. (As a complete aside, there’s a pretty fascinating discussion of bigger-than-life jumping in the movies in a piece published on Slate, though I think it gets the conclusion exactly wrong, in part because of the dismal box-office take of “John Carter.”)
Suspension of disbelief is crucial not just to science fiction, it’s crucial to all story telling. Imagine if you didn’t think that women really talk to each other and hang out as portrayed in “Sex and the City.” Apparently lots of people believe there are women exactly like them—and why shouldn’t they?
So when Philippe Gilbert stormed to victory at the World Championship Road Race on Sunday, if you’re anything like me you felt relief, the relief of seeing a longstanding omission—the absence of Philippe Gilbert from the podium—finally corrected, and along with it you felt elation, that Dopamine spark of joy at seeing a rider you like spank the field. Gilbert is a rider whose style I like and—more importantly—whose riding I’ve been hoping is clean. But that’s a problem; for suspension of disbelief to work you have to be all-in. The moment you even ask the question about whether or not what you’re seeing or reading is real, the illusion has been busted—metaphorically and literally.
I actively want to believe that a clean rider beat a field that was partially or maybe even mostly clean. Actually, it doesn’t matter just how clean the rest of the field is, so long as Gilbert was clean. That’s the key. In winning, cycling is as clean as the winner.
Which is why I hated the Olympic Road Race outcome with a passion that I (otherwise) reserve for child molesters. Alexander Vinokourov is part of that generation of riders, guys whose knowledge of the sport is so predicated on medical assistance that I suspect they have ceased to believe they can achieve anything remotely like their doped form through clean methods. It’s a kind of worst-case-scenario for institutional memory, dysfunction that persists simply because all other ways have been forgotten. Clearly, Vinokourov’s statements following his suspension and his refusal to talk about his “dark page” and his inability to understand what this issue was when he decried that he had only engaged in the training methods used by everyone else have shown him to be a rider that cycling can do without. Seeing him win the gold medal was a moment that didn’t fill me with the slightest bit of elation. The question I asked myself was, “What are the chances that he’s clean?”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the big problem. But here’s the thing: It’s not Vino’s fault. And that I’m asking questions about guys like Gilbert and Bradley Wiggins isn’t their fault, either. The problem lies with the UCI. I have observed in other pieces that the UCI has long been a status-quo organization. Until recently, they really only ever made efforts to change the sport after colossal embarrassments. And defining those embarrassments is easy; they are any time the sport makes international headlines for a reason not connected with a win. Tom Simpson dies during the Tour de France. International headlines. Bad for business, need drug tests. A few Dutch cyclists die in their sleep because of a little-known drug that turned their blood to pudding. Not even national news? Whew; stay the course. Olympic gold medalist Fabio Casartelli dies after hitting his head in a crash. International headlines complete with color footage. Bad for business; need helmet rule. A soigneur with enough doping products to start a pharmacy is stopped at the border. More international headlines. And now, the biggest name in cycling in the last 30 years has been shown to be playing the game, well, the way it’s played.
Bad for business? Yeah, ya think?
Whether or not the allegations that the UCI covered up positives by Armstrong are true, it doesn’t matter. There is plenty of damning evidence that they only ever acted enough to maintain the appearance of a clean sport. Had they truly been serious about cleaning up the sport they would have gotten serious about testing for EPO in the wake of the death of Bert Oosterbosch, the first of those Dutch cyclists to die in their sleep. They wouldn’t have waited years and years to come up with the half-assed solution of testing hematocrit levels. No, had they been serious, they would have begun investigating a test for EPO before Greg LeMond retired.
But let’s take a moment to consider the situation the UCI was in. Hein Verbruggen had inherited the mantle of a sport that had been doped since the first running of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Up until the 1990s, an approach of making the sport clean enough that no one was dying had more or less worked. If there is one sin for which we should forgive him, it is that he believed he should stay the course, that staying the course was the best approach. What he didn’t anticipate was American society. What he didn’t anticipate was a world where you’re either a saint or a sinner, but never both. What he didn’t anticipate was the perfect storm of Lance Armstrong, Macchiavellian doping and ambitious American investigators.
Verbruggen’s sin, and now by extension Pat McQuaid’s, is that he claims that the sport is clean, the UCI did all it could, all it needed to, that no more could have been done than was. Which is just crazy talk. The first lesson you learn as a bike racer is that just because you won a bike race you should never, ever think that means you are the fastest guy on a bike.
And so I submit to you the de facto evidence that the UCI has not done enough: Every time someone wins a big bike race our response is not to celebrate; rather it is to wonder, to ask the question, “Was that athlete clean?” Why was Bradley Wiggins asked about his training methods at the Tour de France? Simple, because he was wearing the yellow jersey.
We have lost the suspension of disbelief. And given how hard most of us want to believe, how much we love the sport, the heartache is more than some of us can bear.
Mr. McQuaid, Mr. Verbruggen, you haven’t done enough. Not by a long shot, and if you think that suing Paul Kimmage is the answer, then you, sirs, are unfit for your respective offices.
You’re not kings and shooting the messenger is no longer a viable option. The peasantry has risen up and we will defend him.
We’ve asked you for a clean sport. You can’t seem to manage the task. And now the talk is of starting a new federation, one that understands the stakes of the game, the will of the fans. Stay tuned.
Images: Warner Bros. Pictures, Disney Pictures, Fotoreporter Sirotti
This seems to be the week of doping news. First, Armstrong’s investigation is dropped. Then Contador’s case is overturned and the rider is suspended and stripped of wins he accrued while apparently riding clean. Moments ago it was announced that Jeannie Longo Ciprelli’s home was the subject of a doping raid. And what will tomorrow bring? Well, the proverbial other shoe will finally drop in the Jan Ullrich case. Ullrich? Remember him?
Whether you believe Lance Armstrong raced on bread and water or was as supercharged as a Corvette, the case wound to a close with nothing like a conclusion. What we’re faced with is a succession of doping scandals with finishes that can’t be called resolutions. No matter whose side you’re on in any of these cases, you’re probably not happy with the outcome.
In any discussion of doping and cycling the conversation seems to take an inevitable turn. “What if there were no rules against doping?” It’s impossible to discuss the toping without something electing to remove the moral implications of cheating and just asking the obvious question of what the ramifications might be if we simply allowed professional cyclists to take oxygen-vector drugs, anabolic agents, amphetamines, pain killers and—holy cow—even cortisone.
It’s the ultimate parallel universe fantasy for cyclists. No ethical dilemmas. No charges of morally repugnant cheating, just a scenario in which the absolute fastest guy is the winner.
Allow me a brief digression if you will. While I consider myself an athlete and someone interested in many forms of physical fitness, body building has always creeped me out in the same way that shows on surgery do. I’m fascinated at some visceral level, but before I can examine anything truly interesting I get so grossed out I have to flip the channel.
Some years ago I found myself in the curious circumstance of dating someone who worked for a bodybuilder in his 60s. Yes, you read that right. Body builder. Sixties. He could have bench pressed me for an hour, maybe two. He, and his numerous friends, were “naturals.” No, don’t think hippy commune; he and his friends used no anabolic agents. And the funny thing was that they didn’t need testing to tell the difference. It was readily apparent in the physiques of competitors. The “naturals” didn’t have the crazily herniated muscles that seemed to bulge to the point of an unprotected astronaut’s head in outer space. Pop!
Here’s what surprised me, I found the physiques of the naturals interesting to behold. They had arguably done the same amount of work to get to the competition and for the guys in the open categories, you’d see someone rather Incredible Hulk looking alongside a guy who wouldn’t frighten children. It was a juxtaposition on the order of eagle and pterodactyl. Yep, both birds, but….
I could identify with the naturals at some elemental level. I suspect looking at the juiced up guys had the same effect on me that looking at kiddie porn would. It just felt wrong, not something I wanted to continue to gaze at.
Okay, with that out of the way, let me pose a scenario: Suppose that two different Tours de France were run in 2013. Let’s imagine that WADA folds and Pat McQuaid throws in the towel and allows the rise of a top-fuel category. On July 1 there are two different pelotons ready to roll. Both have adequate TV coverage ensured for the three weeks of the race.
And let’s pose yet another hypothetical: Suppose for an instant that you had time enough in your day to watch as much of both different races as you wanted. Say four hours or more.
Would you really watch all of both races? Or would you favor one over the other?
I know what I would watch.
Sure, I’d tune in to the top-fuel race. But I’d do it for the prologue, a couple of sprints and then the odd mountain stage. At a certain level it would be kind of like watching top-fuel dragsters. It’s cool at first, but after a while that straight track gets boring. I find grand prix and touring car racing much more interesting. And World Rally Championship? Whoo-ee! Put real-world challenges in a race and that has a big effect on my interest level.
So, I’d be glued to the natural race. I can identify with those guys. They are me with more talent and discipline. I understand the choices they’ve made. The guys in the natural race have a similar, if not the same, moral compass I do. That matters to me.
You see, I don’t think you can ever completely repeal the taint of doping. There will always be a threshold you’ll have to voluntarily cross. Some of those willing to cross it never saw it in the first place. To some, cheating is a semantic point, a distinction of no great import. Racing, after all, is about winning and losing. Right?
Let’s try this a different way: I couldn’t ride with a guy who was a bike thief. Similarly, someone who will do anything possible to be as fast as possible isn’t someone I understand. That inability to see how respecting a social contract is an important part of how a community derives strength by creating bonds between people means that he and I simply won’t connect. If that part of the social contract is meaningless, then what about the other bits? Is my car safe? Is he going to try to seduce my wife? Where does it end?
So those guys in the top-fuel division? I’ll never really understand that thinking and as a result, I’ll never really understand those riders. But understanding them isn’t even really the issue.
Drug testing, after all, was a response to a PR nightmare that makes the current flaps over Armstrong and Contador seem like spelling bee cheating. The major events that have led to overhauls in drug testing were deaths. No scandal is worse for the sport than a death. One need look back no further than the 2011 death of Wouter Weylandt at the Giro; there wasn’t a news outlet that didn’t cover the tragedy that day. Instantly, our non-cycling friends asked us why we participated in such a dangerous sport.
And that’s the rub. Any time an athlete dies—no matter the cause—sport is scrutinized. This isn’t specific to cycling. In a world where all doping is okay, rider deaths would surely increase. Given the blind eye and lip service Hein Verbruggen paid to the heart-attack deaths of Dutch cyclists in the early 1990s due to EPO, it’s unlikely the UCI would feel any great motivation to address the issue. That leaves the audience, teams and sponsors to deal with the fallout.
When you consider the devastation that a rider’s death plows in his family, his team and through the company personnel at each of his team’s sponsors, it wouldn’t take long before family, fans and sponsors would begin to cry out for an end to the deaths. But as we know from the studies performed by researcher Bob Goldman, more than 50 percent of Olympic athletes have said they would take a drug that would ensure they would win a gold medal—even if it was guaranteed to kill them within five years of taking it.
While we don’t know if you can transpose those results 100 percent to the pro peloton, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that if that drug was available something like half of our living Tour de France champions would be dead today.
Hannah Arendt wrote, “No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes.” And if death is not a punishment, then nothing is. We can’t depend on the athletes to choose sanity, so we must do it for them.
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
If you’d asked me before the Tour started to list ten things that might happen during this year’s race, I don’t think the list would have included Alberto Contador losing time on multiple stages. I wouldn’t have suggested Andy Schleck would pull up timid on a rainy Alpine descent and brake his way out of contention. And I certainly wouldn’t have listed an assertive ride by a yellow-jersey-wearing Thomas Voeckler as perhaps the best single piece of evidence that the peloton is cleaner than it once was. God knows I wouldn’t have envisioned Thor Hushovd winning two mountain stages.
Nope, I wouldn’t have considered any of those as even remotely possible. But every one has come to pass.
With his ride in stage 16 Contador has proven that to count him out is to define foolhardy. I’m doubtful of his chances to win, but one can afford to be nonchalant in his presence the way one can be nonchalant around a cobra. Even if he can manage 15 or 20 seconds on all his rivals over the three remaining mountain stages and the time trial, that won’t be enough to boost him onto the podium.
One wonders whose ambition it was to even dream Contador could sweep all three Grand Tours this year. Was it Contador himself or was it Bjarne Riis? And if it was Riis, what will the repercussions be should Pistolero not pull a rabbit out of his hat before Paris? If Contador can’t pull off this victory, the age of the Giro-Tour double will truly have passed.
With the piece of descending we saw Schleck exhibit on the drop into Gap, the timidity that resulted in him losing 1:09 to Cadel Evans and 1:06 to Contador probably dashed his hopes to win this Tour. Frankly, his riding was so un-PRO that he doesn’t deserve the podium.
Darwin wrote that the story of the world was one of adaptation, descent with modification. Faced with obsolescence at the legs of Mark Cavendish, Hushovd has reinvented himself more thoroughly than any rider since Laurent Jalabert’s phoenix act in the 1990s. I consider him one of the three smartest riders in the race. He is the embodiment of the adage, “le tete et le jambs.”
As to Voeckler, he was already on what is arguably the best season he has ever enjoyed even before arriving at the Tour. So we must grant that he’s a better rider than he was in 2004, the first time he took the yellow jersey at the Tour. That said, in the era of Armstrong et al, sheer combativeness and tenacity weren’t enough to hold on to yellow. To suggest that will alone is enough is to believe that you really can stop a bullet by putting your finger in the barrel of a gun.
French cycling has been very nearly the laughingstock of the peloton since the Festina Affair. I’ve wondered if French athletes didn’t take some lesson from the incident to heart. Following the confessions that came as a result of the Festina Affair only six French athletes have tested positive (many countries have had two dozen or more), and the only one of them who was a notable GC rider was Pascal Hervé (yes, he of the Festina Affair), and that was in 2001.
I’ve often thought the fact that there has been only one prominent French GC rider (Christophe Moreau) in the last 10 years and the fact that French cycling has been curiously devoid of doping scandals weren’t just coincidences. I see it as cause and effect.
There’s an arc to this story. French riders were late to the EPO wagon; the Netherlands and Italy led the way, but they caught up, and in a big way, which is why Richard Virenque was one of the most feared climbers in the peloton during that time. And then we get Willy Voet’s ill-fated border crossing and Virenque’s teary confession in front of a judge.
To me, that past, those details and now Voeckler’s performance en jaune are of a piece. If you’re at your limit because the peloton rides at two speeds, then there’s no way for you to respond to an acceleration by a certified contender like Ivan Basso. That is, not unless everyone’s on the same program.
This is guesswork on my part; educated, but still guesswork. Still, it leads me to say that I find it easier to believe that Basso and Contador are clean than Voeckler is dirty. If we can have guilt by association, then maybe we can have innocence by association, too.
After all the scandals, the mudslinging, the unsubstantiated accusations and crazy revelations, the best possible thing that could happen for cycling right now is for Thomas Voeckler to arrive in Paris, clad in yellow. I’m not willing to put five bucks on that happening just yet, but it’s an outcome I’d cheer for, just the way I cheered in 1999.
Image, John Pierce, Photosport International
By the time 60 Minutes aired Sunday night, I had digested every element of the show I could in advance. I’d parsed quote upon quote and laughed at Lance Armstrong’s attempts to discredit the single most storied broadcast news magazine on the planet.
As the fader brought up the iconic sound of the stopwatch ticking, I leaned forward in my chair and waited. While I knew what I would see in broad strokes, I hoped for two things. First, I wanted to see Tyler Hamilton’s demeanor. Was he contrite? Was he conflicted? Was he vengeful? Second, I wondered if I might hear anything that would surprise me.
Different people saw different things as they watched Hamilton unfold the events of his past. What I saw was a guy who was uncomfortable in front of the camera, uncomfortable telling what he knew. And while I perceived remorse, I saw a man in depression, a man in pain over all he had lost.
I was uncomfortable watching him.
Part of my discomfort stemmed from old anger. Hamilton had represented the best cycling had to offer. He was educated, decent and—we all thought—clean. When he went down he took a number of people with him. People placed faith in him and had all but mortgaged the farm to help him succeed and track that success. He was the anti-Lance and in 2003 we thought we had found in him a story of extraordinary courage and determination. His was a story to rival Lance’s, in part, because he was so polite, so self-effacing.
Most of my discomfort stemmed from wondering just how much punishment is enough. He’s lost everything he built in his career, but he wasn’t doped for the whole of his career. Is that just? And the interview barely glanced at his career-ending positive test for DHEA. I have to ask, Do we really know the full story about him taking DHEA? How could he be so stupid as to take a banned substance as his sole recourse to depression? I struggle with that explanation, but that’s a minor point. The larger question is how much punishment is enough? After stripping a rider of success, should he also be stripped of a future?
Back to that interview: I’ve heard people assess it as a tired re-hash of the accusations we’ve heard against Armstrong for years. It wasn’t. Hamilton made two surprising statements. His first was that he actually saw Armstrong use performance-enhancing drugs. No one has made that claim previously. He second was that his team management worked with the UCI to cover up a positive drug test at the 2001 Tour de Suisse. Armstrong made “donations” to the UCI and the cycling public never heard a word.
For those of you who doubt Hamilton’s ability to tell the truth—any truth—remember, this nugget has been corroborated by the anonymous source 60 Minutes spoke with for the story. The source revealed that the FBI took a sworn deposition from the director of the lab that tested Armstrong’s sample. The lab director said he met with Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel and was informed by the UCI the positive result was to be reported nowhere.
These weren’t garden-variety accusations.
Forgiving riders who doped has nothing to do with justifying their behavior and everything to do with finding out what they took, what they know, the methods they used. We must learn the best doping techniques out there if we are to defeat them in the future. And if unemployment is guaranteed, a rider, coach or whoever has zero incentive to reveal what they know. We shouldn’t tolerate repeated infractions (Riccardo Ricco, anyone?) but the silence of the offenders does us no good.
I used to think of doped riders as broken people, whether the deficit is narcissism, insecurity or sociopathy, they were people who need help. After watching one doping case after another unfold, I have come to believe that most of the athletes who turn to performance enhancing drugs do so out of a sense of coercion. Even though they may be incorrect, they believe the rest of the peloton is on the stuff, so they enter the practice.
My personal life has been punctuated with relationships too torn to rescue. Forgiveness has, at times, been an act of kindness too great for me to summon. But I struggle with that. I know that every religion on the planet and nearly every constitution regards forgiveness and redemption as a central tenet. Hell, half of the reality shows are built around people recovering their humanity after some fall from grace. We obviously love to forgive people.
It’s easy to condemn Hamilton. Too easy. Let’s listen to him. And let’s not abandon him; down that road lay the fallen. Their graves bear names like Pantani, Jimenez.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In American cycling, the proverbial other shoe seems to keep dropping. Tyler Hamilton’s revelation that yes, in fact, he did use EPO, that everyone was using EPO, that he saw EPO in Lance Armstrong’s refrigerator, that he saw Armstrong inject it, ought to be the bombshell of all bombshells.
Instead of being met with gape-mouthed stares of shock, most of the cycling public are scratching their heads. After years of denials, a conviction, a suspension, a return to the sport with lukewarm results followed by a second positive test followed immediately his retirement from the sport, Hamilton has chosen this moment to come clean. Why now?
Hamilton says it was the occasion of testifying before the federal grand jury. His time in the hot seat lasted six full hours and he likened the event to the Hoover Dam breaking; it was the first time he had told anyone the complete truth of his involvement in and knowledge of doping.
Floyd Landis hasn’t had much luck getting the powers-that-be to listen to his tale of woe. Pat McQuaid figures that as a convicted doper, Landis was lying when he defended himself. And because he defended himself, proclaiming his innocence in the wake of his positive test, for him now to admit that he was doping means that he’s a liar. Try not to parse that logic too much, it’s tantamount to saying that if 3 + 5 = 8 then 5 + 3 = 9.
Landis, in spouting off on an ever-more diverse array of events and unprovable accusations, has done himself no favors. He and Hamilton share in common the belief that telling the truth will set them free; they are probably right. Most rehabilitation programs include some form of confession; from the Catholic Church to Alcoholics Anonymous, telling the truth is a fairly universal step in healing. But Landis seems to have confused what be believes to be true from what he has actually seen; whether or not that’s the case, too few people are listening to what he has to say. He has been re-cast as the big boy who cried wolf.
Hamilton has a chance to do what Landis could not. Before his positive test, subsequent defense and ultimate suspension, Hamilton was universally admired. The guy everyone liked, even the Lance haters. He was hailed as unusually bright and polite among pro cyclists, cut from finer cloth.
I can’t claim Hamilton as a friend. He was an acquaintance at best. But he knew my face and remembered me each time we crossed paths, whether I sought him out or not. I believe he’s a guy with a moral compass, a conscience, that the decisions he faced, the choices he made, were hard, soul-rending. Nonetheless, he made them, and as the events of his positive test unfolded, his achievements crumbled.
It’s easy to dismiss him as a doper. The only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, the depth of the coercion is to picture the land from their shoes. And while not everyone was on EPO during that period, more cyclists were than were not. What he knows could be useful in the fight against doping and based on his statements, it sounds like doping wasn’t something he welcomed. Most cyclists see it as a do-or-die choice. That’s no excuse, but listening to those who have faced that choice could help the sport avoid those situations in the future.
Hamilton says it’s time for a change in cycling and that for the reform cycling needs to take place, big changes need to begin at the top. Let’s hope those who need to are listening.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Today, there is only one cyclist on planet Earth, and he’s suspended. Unless you’re dead, you’ve read the story. The Spanish cycling federation has proposed a one-year suspension for Alberto Contador, subsequent to his positive clenbuterol test from last summer’s Tour de France. The rider can appeal the proposal, though who knows what that means, and he has vowed, through his spokesman to fight any sanction.
This week’s Group Ride asks the obvious question: Has Contador been treated fairly?
David Garcia received a two year suspension for an EPO positive at the Vuelta, as the rules stipulate he must. Assuming Contador is guilty (which the UCI and Spanish federation must believe he is) is Garcia’s offense worse than Contador’s?
Of course, EPO isn’t found in beef, as a matter of course, but the anti-doping codes don’t seem to differentiate between substances an athlete has to buy on the black martket versus substances that might be ingested in food or supplements.
Callum Priestley, a young English hurdler, was recently suspended for two years on the back of a Clenbuterol positive. Like Contador, he blamed tainted meat, consumed in South Africa, for his adverse finding. The English didn’t care.
And of course, there’s Li Fuyu, the Radio Shack rider who was suspended for Clenbuterol in the spring of 2010. He too claimed contamination. The UCI didn’t care. He’s out for two years.
On the other side of the ledger, Italian Alessandro Colo of the ISD-Neri team, also tested positive for the stimulant at last year’s Vuelta a Mexico, and he attributed his positive to eating contaminated meat in Mexico. Italian officials gave Colo a reduced, one-year sentence.
To my mind, Contador’s actual guilt seems secondary to the discussion. At this stage, it can seemingly neither be proved or disproved. What remains are the positive tests and the rules governing them.
We might argue that the rules could/should be changed, but that doesn’t get to the issue of whether or not Contador has had a fair shake. Clearly, the process that has brought us to this point in the story has been drawn out in a singular way. None of the other suspended athletes named here had so long to mount a defense or were given the option to respond to a “proposed” ban.
One might believe, however, that the protracted nature of proceedings has actually hurt Contador worse than an expeditious ban.
We leave that all to you though.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International