Now that Pat McQuaid has been voted out of the UCI presidency and the troubled institution is being led by Brian Cookson, there is some reasonable hope that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be formed and testimony will take place. Given how cycling has been governed since the UCI was formed, this is a turn of events so surprising and unlikely it is befitting an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
Let’s imagine it for a second: Someone will be willing to pay attention as Jesus Manzano speaks.
Consider that Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton will have an opportunity to sit down in the same room as members of the UCI, tell everything they saw and took part in while members of U.S. Postal and Phonak, and when finished Pat McQuaid won’t be there to call them “scumbags.”
Now that we have the faith that the UCI has a president who will actually do what he says, and that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will convene, we have a question to consider: How far back should the TRC look? Technically, the choice of how far to look back belongs to Cookson or whoever he charges with running the TRC, but that Cookson is president now owes much to public outcry. We do have a voice and the success of a TRC will rest on public satisfaction.
So who should testify? The TRC should do more than just listen to riders and team personnel. We should hear from as many doctors, pharmacists and lab techs as possible. Let’s include the odd motorcycle driver or two. This testimony will be key in corroborating what the riders say. Anyone watching social media has noticed that there’s some suspicion about whether George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer confessed all of their doping to USADA or not. Testimony from medical professionals and coaches will have the ability to confirm their previous testimony or demonstrate that they withheld some activity. It will also show just how fearful riders were of Travis Tygart, or not.
However, if the TRC only looks back as far as 1999, it won’t be far enough. We will have little reason to be satisfied. The TRC needs the freedom, resources and time necessary to take testimony from anyone with a heartbeat. That means we should listen to Belgian soigneurs from the 1950s. We should listen to guys like Lucien Aimar, who was a domestique for Jacques Anquetil. And yes, we should listen to Eddy Merckx.
Why go so far back? Because it will educate the sport’s governing body, riders, team staff, the public and sponsors—in short every stakeholder the sport has—on how entrenched doping and attitudes toward doping have been. Because it was ingrained at an institutional level, it will show that cycling takes doping not just more seriously than any other sport, but as seriously as one may take it. That is what will be necessary to win back sponsor and audience confidence.
The reality is that we won’t hear from everyone we would like to. We must also accept that the UCI is unlikely to allow the TRC to run for five years. They need to focus their effort, concentrate on the biggest part of the problem. To that end, I suggest that we do what we can to encourage testimony from as far back as 1990.
Based on everything I’ve learned about the rise of oxygen-vector doping, I think we can put a date on when doping fundamentally change in pro cycling. That date? May 18,1990. With it comes a specific location: Bari, Italy. That was the day and the location of the prologue for the 1990 Giro d’Italia, which was won by Gianni Bugno. Bugno went on to wear the pink jersey for the 19 days, all the way to the finish in Milan. It was the first time a rider had led the Giro from start to finish since Eddy Merckx did it in 1973. Because we know Bugno worked with Francesco Conconi and testing revealed a high hematocrit—for which he was sanctioned—I think it’s fair to mark this as the date when racing grand tours changed. Fair enough, that is, until we get testimony through a TRC.
Simply put, the 1990 Giro was the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO.
While EPO use changed the whole of racing, it had the greatest effect on the grand tours, where being able to stay out of the red zone thanks to extra red blood cells paid dividends as the race wore on. It was during the 1990 season that Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci stormed to prominence. A year later Miguel Indurain won his first Tour de France, and like Chiappucci and Bugno, Big Mig counted Conconi among his advisors.
The 1990 season was a turning point in that not only did it see the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO (the Giro), it also saw the last clean win in the Tour de France prior to two generations of wins tainted by oxygen-vector doping. Has there been a clean winner of the Tour since Greg LeMond’s 1990 win? Very probably, but certainly not between 1991 and 2006. The possibility of a clean winner seems to have grown more convincing with each year since 2007.
A TRC has the ability to settle this question.
Now, regarding LeMond, it’s easy enough to find comments on Facebook or Twitter from people willing to accuse him of having doped. Even without a TRC, the evidence suggests that in 1989 each of the grand tours was won without oxygen-vector doping. The Vuelta was won by Pedro Delgado, the Giro by Laurent Fignon and the Tour by LeMond. Each of those guys had won a grand tour prior to the availability of EPO. While we know that both Delgado and Fignon doped, we have reason to believe they weren’t using EPO in ’89. What’s interesting about ’89 is that this is the year Chiappucci, Bugno and Indurain began to threaten the GC. In ’89 Chiappucci finished 46th and 81st in the Giro and Tour, respectively. A year later? A remarkable 12th and 2nd. In ’88, Bugno withdrew from the Giro and finished the Tour in 62nd. In ’89 he went 23rd and 11th. In ’90, of course, he won the Giro and finished the Tour in 7th. Indurain’s rise was more gradual, less outwardly suspicious; he finished 97th in the ’87 Tour, but gradually climbed the ranks up to 47th, 17th and 10th before winning.
What makes all three of these riders of a piece is the fact that they started anonymously before rising to prominence. LeMond, Fignon, Merckx and Bernard Hinault all share in common the fact that their brilliance and potential shown early on. LeMond differs only in that he didn’t win his first Tour—he was third.
Lance Armstrong is accused of being at the center of the greatest doping program in history, the greatest sporting fraud ever perpetrated. It’s a charge we can’t really resolve. If there was a greater sporting fraud, it hasn’t been exposed. Ultimately, this isn’t a terribly important question. What the Armstrong fall has done, however, is to open the public’s eyes to the breadth of doping that has taken place. It has introduced suspicion into the cycling fan’s vocabulary. The problem before us is how to put this behind us. We may never put the genie back in the bottle, but a TRC has the ability to educate us on more than just who doped; it has the ability to clear those who did not dope.
Aside from simply dispensing the truth, a TRC will freshly frame the achievement of riders like LeMond, riders who would have accomplished more were it not for the rise of EPO. A TRC that reaches back to 1990 will give us a new way to define courage.
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