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.
Robot has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Linger. Fester. Spread. Grow.
When you think about the words that are used in conjunction with the noun suspicion they are words used to apply action to sores, smells and cancers. And like a cancer, suspicion can spread in directions surprising and predictable at equal rates.
Alexander Vinokourov’s win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us examples of both. That suspicions linger about what sort of rider he is—that is, how he achieves his success—should surprise no one. What may have surprised you was to hear boos from the crowd as he crossed the line. No matter who’s feed you watched, the crowd’s disapproval was audible.
Was Vinokourov naive to be shocked? No. It was a crowd display that is unprecedented and stands in direct opposition to Richard Virenque’s win in Paris-Tours just months after his return to competition following his suspension for doping. The two situations couldn’t be more similar and yet, the crowd reactions couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
Virenque was hailed by the crowd as if he was a returning war hero. He was lionized in the (French) press as a true champion. He was still and again Richard the Lionhearted, the darling of France.
Vino? Not so much.
To be booed must have hurt. How could it not? That’s got to be defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. And then to be questioned by the press as much about his past vis-a-vis doping as the circumstances that led to his win was obviously infuriating, so much so that he took the unusual step of writing an open letter to the cycling world. You’ve probably seen it, but if not, you can read it here.
Vinokourov asks a fair question: Why can he line up for a race, but not win it? Indeed, the boos took the sweetness of victory from him more certainly than the UCI ever could. Why roll across the line first if you won’t be granted the crowd’s adulation?
Many writers have contrasted Vinokourov with David Millar and wondered why we accept the Scot, but not the Kazakh. It’s a fair comparison and could serve as a very teachable moment for Vinokourov.
So Millar’s apartment in Biarritz is raided by police and they find a syringe with traces of EPO. Millar responds by confessing. He told us not only that he had used EPO, he told authorities exactly how long he had used the drug and how using it weighed on him.
As doping confessions in cycling go, it’s the single best example out there.
Richard Virenque denied, denied, denied and then confessed—tearily—in court at the sharp end of a prosecutor. It worked for the French but anyone without a Gallic soul was left adrift by it.
Bernard Kohl conducted interviews on a monthly basis with German media, teasing out details of his past and his knowledge of doping in what seemed to be a calculated effort to keep his name in the headlines. In the end, it seemed self-serving.
Kayle Leogrande confessed in confidence to soigneur Susanne Sonye and after she testified about what he told her he sued her. That suit was ruled a SLAP and tossed out of court, but not until another cyclist, lawyer Tom Fitzgibbon, came to her rescue. Leogrande? Persona non grata to the cycling world.
Four confessions. Four very different results.
Vinkourov has confessed virtually nothing. We remain suspicious. We suspect much about his past. And because he has done things recently—such as train in Tenerife (the current haunt of doping docs Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes), a place nearly as out-of-the-way as Mexico when considered from the Continent—that smack of present doping practices, we suspect there is more to the story.
In his letter he refers to “the dark years of my career.”
Imagine that on the evening Vinokourov was ejected from the Tour in 2007 he had given a press conference. And suppose that during the press conference he had said, “Yes, I used a clinic in (insert name of German town here) to conduct blood doping. Earlier, when I was at T-Mobile, we used EPO and our system was organized by (insert name of dirtbag here). My first drug use was in 199x and that season I won X, Y and Z with its help.
We wouldn’t like the news, but at least we’d know. His suspension, in the wake of a confession could serve as a sort of penance for all of his past doping.
Vinokourov was suspended for a single infraction—not years of drug use—and to this day has confessed nothing directly. He says, “I don’t think cycling needs to reconsider all these dirty stories to move forward.”
Wrong. Worse yet, he adds, “I have nothing to hide.”
Again, he has confessed nothing, though he has referred obliquely to years of drug use, so it is impossible for this one suspension to serve as penance for years of standard practice. He is still hiding much.
Let’s consider how the courts would view this. For pleading guilty and confessing the full extent of the crime(s), a person is almost always rewarded with a reduced sentence. And then there’s the plea bargain, in which the criminal signs a full and complete confession and in exchange is charged with a lesser crime. Very often, it’s a trade to avoid being convicted of a felony. In the United States, the punishment for a felony conviction lasts long after any prison time has been served and any fine paid. The felon cannot vote and will forever have ‘splaining to do in job interviews.
It would seem that Vinokourov is suffering the sort of moral equivalent to a felony conviction. He won the race, but not in the hearts of many present.
In closing his letter he writes, “I can’t do more than what the sport regulations ask me, to prove my honesty. Today, I only wish to be respected as I respect everyone, my colleagues in the peloton as the journalists. I don’t want to be the only and too easy target for all the ills of cycling.”
In this, he misses the point entirely. He has never proven his honesty. Sure, he’s testing clean now, and while we should applaud him for that much, because we don’t know the full extent of his past, we struggle to trust him in the present.
And is he the “only and too easy target”? Not by a long shot. Now would be exactly the wrong moment for him to play the persecution card.
Vino, you have nothing in common with Job.
Let us hear him say, “I did X. I was wrong. I am sorry,” and that, sports fans, truly is a game changer.
Were Vinokourov to hold a press conference on the eve of the Giro d’Italia and finally confess everything he did and knew, I truly believe he could win the prologue the next day and be applauded.
His career is a matter of reputation, something only he can restore.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I back up and look at the news one might file under the heading of “doping in cycling” what has been published in the last six months should give us all pause.
Let’s recap a few of the highlights:
- Christian Prudhomme thinks cycling is clean(er) because there were no positive tests at the Tour de France.
- The AFLD says Astana got a free ride at the Tour even though they were the most controlled team there.
- Some cyclists at the Tour de France were on anti-hypertension drugs and while not banned, no one seems to know why healthy endurance athletes would have dangerously high blood pressure.
- Two new drugs likely to boost endurance athletes’ performance are on the market but have yet to be banned.
- Bernard Kohl gives monthly interviews in which he teases out new details of his doping like the last five minutes of a soap opera episode that airs on Friday.
- Jan Ullrich had Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes’ number programmed into his cell phone.
- In 2009, Danilo DiLuca, Mikel Astarloza, Nuno Ribeiro, Isidro Nozal, Hector Guerra, Gabrielle Bosisio, Christian Pfannberger and Antonio Colom all tested positive for EPO or CERA. That’s eight riders caught.
I now return to Christian Prudhomme and his statement regarding doping. What Prudhomme told Reuters last summer was “Cycling has changed.”
He also said, “I recently confirmed that ‘there were no suspected cases’ (during the 2009 Tour de France). This means that the fight against doping progresses.”
Mikel Astarloza’s positive sample was given during the Tour, so that pretty well kills Prudhomme’s implicit belief that the ’09 Tour was clean. The fact that Astarloza’s non-negative result was announced until weeks after the end of the Tour is an unfortunate blemish on the Tour.
Those anti-hypertensive drugs? What could cause athletes in the top one percent of cardiovascular fitness in the world to be concerned about high blood pressure? Maybe blood that moves like sewage as a result of autologous blood doping, EPO or CERA? Hypertension is a recurring theme of blood transfusions.
Oh, and the fact that Fuentes’ number was in Ullrich’s cell phone? No surprise. No one with their eyes open actually thought there was a kite’s chance in a hurricane that Ullrich raced clean. Move on, nothing to see here.
As I mentioned, eight riders have tested positive for EPO or CERA this year. Some will take this news as a reassurance that WADA is improving in its ability to catch dopers. Unfortunately, there is strong anecdotal evidence that some of the riders who have been caught had been doping for a while, which suggests they had evaded some previous doping controls. If some doping controls are being evaded, then logic dictates that there must be riders who are evading detection as we speak. The question then is, what portion of the number of riders using EPO or CERA are these eight? Are they 90 percent of the doping riders? Not likely. We would be lucky if they are 50 percent of the athletes still using EPO or CERA.
So testing is catching some cyclists who are doping while others are evading detection. How do you improve upon this situation? Well, there’s one easy answer: You test every rider every day. Unfortunately, the combined operating budget of both WADA and the UCI simply couldn’t pay for all that testing. So instead, priorities are set, which means that choices must be made about who is tested.
WADA could break up the total number of tests each year and distribute those tests evenly between all professional riders. If you, like Prudhomme, believe that “cycling has changed” then you will also believe that not everyone is doping. Moving forward with that belief you are likely to decide some riders are targeted more than other riders.
So if some riders are going to be targeted for testing more frequently than their peers, the obvious choice is to go after riders who arouse suspicion. That means testing anyone who wins a race—a tactic already employed with good reason. In some parts, they call this profiling. Call it racing while juiced.
So what’s such a program look like? Well, it looks like Astana gets tested 81 times during the Tour de France and the French teams Cofidis and FdJeux were tested 26 times each and Bouygues Telecom was tested 23 times.
Is that fair? It depends on how you define fair. It certainly isn’t an even distribution of resources, but then this isn’t a resource we want distributed evenly, is it? Shouldn’t it be distributed most heavily to the teams and athletes that appear time after time on the podium? Generally speaking, there’s little risk of seeing a Cofidis, FdJeux or Bouygues Telecom rider atop the podium, whereas Astana and Saxo Bank had stellar seasons.
Johan Bruyneel doesn’t believe that the high level of scrutiny his team received was warranted. We all know otherwise. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the AFLD claiming that Astana received preferential treatment during the Tour.
This may be the single strangest piece of news as regards doping in cycling. It is surprising because it shows that there isn’t a united front involving the UCI, WADA and the AFLD. The AFLD is, in fact, a bit player in the doping fight, a service provider to WADA and the UCI, not an actual portion of the enforcement apparatus.
Allow me a moment to draw an analogy. Lance Armstrong has admitted he can’t beat Alberto Contador mano a mano. So what is his game plan for the 2010 Tour de France? He has already revealed that he plans to beat Contador’s team and leave the Spaniard isolated.
Unfortunately, the doping fight has no one winner. Even though a fractured Astana still won the Tour de France, a rift between the AFLD and the UCI only results in a weakened fight against doping. Stranger still was the fact that samples taken by the AFLD of five French riders on the same French team were sent to the lab with their full identifying information on the samples. That hardly constitutes anonymous and blatantly violates the Code and International Standard of Testing.
If you are a doper, knowing there is unrest in the enforcement camp must bring you satisfaction.
Next: Bernard Kohl and the new generation of dopers
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International