With the release of the book “Wheelmen” by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell of the Wall Street Journal, Lance Armstrong, the US Postal Service, EPO and Greg LeMond are all back in the news. While I’m enjoying the book so far—Albergotti and O’Connell are fine writers and I’m hoping to pick up a few new details in their narrative—what cycling needs going into the off season isn’t more play on Armstrong. Rather, we would do well to focus on the way forward and what the new president of the UCI, Brian Cookson, is working on.
The trouble is, neither LeMond nor Armstrong are willing call it a day and just move forward. Armstrong is still holding out hope that he can sit down with WADA and weave a tale of doping that will rehabilitate his standing with them such that he’ll be able to compete before President Obama leaves office. Supposing for a second that he’s actually able to get his ban reduced to time served, that misses the larger point. The spell has been broken. No one wants to see Armstrong compete. No one.
I respect that Lance’s plan is get the ban cut, then go to Nike, et al, and secure new sponsorship. Maybe not at the rate he used to get, but get a positive cash flow going. What he doesn’t seem to fathom is that right now he is a guaranteed PR black eye. For anyone, but especially Nike.
It’s fair to wonder why Armstrong won’t just curl up in a corner to lick his wounds. Maybe that speaks to why he won the Tour seven times. And for those who are talking to the screen right now, screaming that he didn’t win the Tour, he did. Maybe not fair—or square—but the top of those fields was dirty. One doper beat all the other dopers. That was the game for those years.
The release of “Wheelmen” has served as the perfect opportunity to quote Greg LeMond on all things Lance. In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN LeMond opined that Armstrong would barely have cracked the top 30 as a clean rider. I’m not sure that anyone is in a position to make such a sweeping statement about him or the riders from that era. Armstrong dropped a lot of weight ahead of his fourth place at the ’98 Vuelta—and we have every reason to believe he was on EPO before the cancer. He only got better after the ’98 Vuelta, so what changed? Dutch estimates hold that 80 percent of the peloton was on EPO. Honestly, no one can say that had the entire peloton been clean that Armstrong wouldn’t have finished in the top ten.
LeMond went on to volunteer that he thought Armstrong ought to be in jail. There’s no doubt that Big Tex wronged a great many people. What he did to Emma O’Reilly and the Andreus has not ceased to trouble me. Losing a job for sticking with the truth under oath (as Frankie Andreu did) must qualify you as a martyr. But of Armstrong’s many sins none currently seem to hold the potential for sending him on an all-expense-paid trip to the big house. So why offer the opinion that he ought to be in jail? Certainly that’s not analysis, not the way his assertion that Armstrong wasn’t capable of winning the Tour clean was.
From the earliest days of the LeMond/Armstrong conflict there has been an unseemly, jealous and petty sense to LeMond’s dislike of Arrmstrong. What has always bugged me about LeMond’s ire for Armstrong was the same thing that disturbed me about David Walsh’s pursuit of him, that it seemed personal, blind to the other dopers. Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins” traces his path and demonstrates the circumstances why Walsh was so focused on Armstrong. Without putting words in his mouth, I think it’s fair to summarize Walsh’s Armstrong quest as synecdoche, wherein one small part serves to stand for the whole—referring to your car as your wheels. For Walsh, Armstrong seems to have been (rightly) the tip of the iceberg.
It’s harder for LeMond to claim that he had an overarching concern for doping unless he’s more naive than anyone else who ever raced the Tour. We know that Miguel Indurain, Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci would never have taken the podium at the ’91 Tour without the aid of EPO. Why has he never called them out?
It’s interesting that when LeMond retired three years later that he didn’t reveal that he understand what had hit him. The reason he gave for his retirement was a pathology, mitochondrial myopathy, which he related to his brother-in-law mistaking him for a turkey. At the time, blaming his inability to kick Miguel Indurain’s ass on lead in his chest seemed the most graceful explanation. It was, however, wrong. The real explanation was simpler. LeMond was getting beat because there were dozens of guys on EPO. He was being forced to race well into the red zone for far longer than he had in previous tours. So why didn’t he say anything then?
Armstrong’s problem with LeMond was that he needed to believe LeMond doped in order to think that he was no worse. Armstrong may never let go of his belief that LeMond doped. There’s still a certain amount of derisive snorting about LeMond’s B12 miracle shot, administered near the end of the ’89 Giro. The stupid thing here is that the obvious doping alternative would be anabolic steroids, which were very easy to catch in the 1980s.
The value to the book Albergotti and O’Connell have written is that it is likely to serve as the functional narrative for the EPO era. Because there are people who dismiss everything Tyler Hamilton says, because he previously lied, and because the USADA Reasoned Decision isn’t packaged as a single story, “Wheelmen” may prove to be the definitive version of this story.
The upshot to this is that any further attempt by Armstrong to confess as a means to rehabilitate his image, which will really only be a pretext to getting back to competition, will have to meet a very high bar of revelation. Not only will he need to reveal the juiciest of details behind everything everyone else has documented, but the days of him denying eyewitness accounts are over. Sure, he can deny all he wants, but the problem he faces is that the days of giving him the benefit of the doubt are over. In a he said/she said, we used to award him the point. What he doesn’t seem to follow is that we no longer give his word any weight. This is a point that can’t be exaggerated. If Charles Manson said he watched Armstrong eat babies, no matter what Armstrong said, any reasonable person would send his toothbrush to the lab.
The problem isn’t that Armstrong doesn’t know what the truth is, it’s that he doesn’t understand that he doesn’t have the ability to shape the story anymore. Until he understands that, there’s no reason for him to speak. Until he really understands what “the full truth” means, he’s useless to cycling.
But what of LeMond? He has all of American cycling at his feet. Oakley and Giro have apologized to him. Who knows how many others have quietly made amends. He’s won three Tours, beaten Bernard Hinault into submission, had a bike line developed, distributed and sold by Trek. He is now working with Time to produce his bikes, while he has taken on the distributorship of Time here in the U.S.
By any measure, it’s a charmed existence. Yet, the feature most common to all his dealings is conflict, most often exemplified by lawsuits.
Game, set, match. They are all his. When will he find peace, happiness?
[Ed. note: We reached out to LeMond with a request for an interview but got no response.]
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
If there’s one thing that we can say with certainty about the UCI and doping, it’s that they have done a dismal job of investigating eyewitness testimony on doping charges. That they never followed up on charges made by eyewitnesses is galling because it makes an end-run on their defense that they lacked the resources to do more. Talking to eyewitnesses requires little more than a phone, though a plane or train ticket is handy.
Their unwillingness to actually investigate allegations by riders is unacceptable the way stripping naked in a restaurant and standing on the table singing Debbie Boone songs is unacceptable. Sure, you may think that Floyd Landis is crazy; you may even agree with Pat McQuaid and think he’s a scumbag. But that doesn’t make what he said untrue. The same goes for Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu, Jorg Jaksche and Jesus Manzano, just to name a few.
Each of these riders gave eyewitness testimony of doping and were then roundly attacked by the UCI. It’s like arresting—and then ignoring—the junkie who is ready to turn over his dealer and his dealer’s dealer. Insert epic “Really?”
And so now Pat McQuaid has announced a confidential hotline for those who wish to “discuss issues or concerns related to doping.”
Hmm … I’m curious about how much nandrolone you have to take to get a full-scale case of bacne. Do you suppose that’s what he’s talking about? In his letter he claims there are riders who reported doping allegations that were not investigated. That’s certainly the case with Andreu, Jaksche and Manzano, who were arguably the highest-profile riders to allege inaction on the part of the UCI for the Armstrong case was blown open by USADA.
McQuaid claims: “I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that the UCI did act on information provided in the past.”
Okay Mr. McQuaid, please tell us what you did, because we’ve not seen a serious investigation on your part into the charges made by the aforementioned riders.
McQuaid goes on to write that amnesty isn’t an option but reduced punishment is an option. Honestly, based on previous behavior, the only intelligent conclusion one can draw from this hotline is that any rider who speaks up will be attacked by the UCI for hurting the sport. And then suspended.
Okay, let’s go over the math here: Make a phone call. Confess your involvement in doping plus whatever you know about the actions of others. Result: You get suspended, ridiculed by the sport’s governing body and the other people involved go un-investigated.
If that’s not a compelling case for the survival of omerta, then I’m a dancing elephant. Jens Voigt’s Army (@jensvoigtsarmy) tweeted that the UCI should staff the hotline with Miss Cleo from the Psychic Friends. This may have been meant as comedy, but I think it’s a terrific suggestion; certainly a psychic has a higher likelihood of finding out the truth than the UCI.
McQuaid says he’ll be meeting personally with all the teams this winter. I’m reminded of the old joke, “Here comes God—look busy.” For McQuaid, we can retell it: Here comes Pat McQuaid—shut up.
Below is the full text of McQuaid’s letter to riders; note that it does not address team staff.
To riders ________
Sent by email only
Aigle, 9 November 2012
I would like to take this opportunity to update you on the latest developments and decisions we have taken in response to the current crisis in our sport.
You will have seen in recent media reports that Philippe Gilbert, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins among many others have been strong voices in telling the world that today’s cycling is cleaner than ever before. Of course, they are right. You, today’s riders not only participate in the most innovative and effective anti-doping programs in sport but above all you have understood which choice to make for your career and for your sport. The result is that our sport is cleaner.
Actually the UCI has always been a pioneer in the fight against doping, a fact recognized by WADA and the IOC among others. We pride ourselves on the fact that we were the first sport to introduce a whole range of scientific measures as tools in this fight. These include the haematocrit test, the EPO tests, the homologous blood transfusion test and the blood passport, which I do not need to tell you about, as you are in the front line and have been overwhelmingly supportive of these initiatives. We are aware that this extensive anti-doping program causes much inconvenience for you, and we thank you for having accepted the hassle for the greater good of cycling.
Nevertheless, when we read in the USADA dossier that Lance Armstrong and others were able to use doping throughout their careers, we have to admit that the tests provided by the scientific community were simply not adequate enough to combat the problem.
Therefore we must all continue to work to keep improving the culture in cycling through education, prevention and as far as you are concerned by making the one choice that counts. At the end of the day it is you the riders who have the ultimate say about whether our sport is clean.
Naturally, we need to do more to ensure that the UCI is as accessible as possible, and in particular to you the riders, should you wish to discuss issues or concerns relating to doping. That is why, during the coming weeks, also after a small time frame to set up the logistical side, the UCI will be looking into establishing a new open line – a confidential ‘hotline’. We will be sending more information about this once in place. I know that it will take some time to build trust and confidence in this new line of communication, but I am confident that, with the best intentions from both sides, we can build that trust. And by doing so, we will accelerate the change in culture that we need in our sport.
We are aware that some riders have complained publicly that despite having shared knowledge with the UCI, there was an inadequate follow up. I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that the UCI did act on information provided in the past and it will always do so in the future, within the bounds of what is legally feasible.
Clearly the UCI has to work within the rules and in particular in accordance with the World Anti-Doping Code. At this time the rules do not allow general amnesties but the current review of the World Anti- Doping Code may provide different possibilities in the future. The rules do currently allow reduced penalties. We are aware, and doing the utmost to address your proposals/needs in the effort to do the best by our sport.
As far as repairing the reputation of our sport, I would like to add that the UCI has listened to the world’s reaction to the Lance Armstrong affair and it has taken – and will continue to take – decisive steps in response to all matters raised.
To make sure that the UCI and cycling can move forward with the confidence of all parties, we are now establishing a fully Independent Commission to look into the findings of the USADA report and make recommendations to enable the UCI to restore confidence in the sport of cycling. John Coates, the President of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (ICAS), has agreed to recommend the composition and membership of the Independent Commission. The UCI has already begun contacting the people Mr. Coates has nominated. The names of the panel members will be announced as soon as the Commission is convened. The Commission’s final report and recommendations will be published no later than 1 June 2013 – and you can be confident that the UCI will take whatever actions are deemed necessary to put cycling back on track. We are confident that the Commission will conclude that the UCI has been one of the strongest of all sporting federations in fighting doping in sport for many years.
As part of the effort to eradicate doping from our sport the UCI has made a considerable investment in education and implementation of the True Champion or Cheat program, the ‘no needle policy’, the ethical evaluation as part of teams’ registration and the modules in the Sports Directors training programme. These are all measures to achieve the necessary changes in the culture of our sport.
Finally, while the Independent Commission carries out its work, I feel it is also important that UCI works on restoring the credibility of our sport. I have decided that, during the first quarter of 2013, the UCI will set in motion a wide-ranging consultation exercise involving all cycling’s stakeholders to tackle issues of concern within the sport and work together to build a bright future for cycling.
The UCI will welcome your participation in this consultation, which will also look at how we can continue the process of globalising the sport, encourage wider participation and take measures to make the sport even more interesting for spectators.
This is not the first time cycling has reached a crossroads. Nor is it the first time it has had to engage in the painful process of confronting its past and beginning afresh. It will do so again with renewed vigour. Its stakeholders and fans can be assured that cycling will find a new path forward.
This summer in London, we saw that cycling is one of the world’s most popular sports. Its future will be defined by you the current generation of riders, who have proved that you can compete and win clean. In December, I will be meeting all first and second division teams to address the issues which will ensure a clean, anti-doping culture going forward.
Together, we can maintain cycling’s popularity and ensure its bright future.
Journalist Paul Kimmage has filed a criminal complaint against the UCI for defamation, slander and fraud.
That’s worth repeating: Paul Kimmage is suing the UCI.
This would be where Wayne and Garth are supposed to say, “Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.”
Lo, see the winged orangutans!
Even though UCI President Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen have always been as fast and easy with insults as the Real Housewives of Orange County are, as recently as a year ago, a defamation suit would have seemed impossible, like unicorn impossible. Of course, Kimmage isn’t suing the UCI because they hurt his feelings. The papers filed on his behalf by Swiss attorney Cédric Aguet cite both slander and defamation, but that’s not what makes the suit earth-shaking. It goes on to include a criminal complaint that there are “strong suspicions of fraud.”
It’s the fraud charge that causes Kimmage’s suit to step beyond what might be merely a civil case and into something with serious teeth. Criminal. Capital C. Jail time. Should the prosecutor the case has been referred to pick it up one can expect a bunch of subpoenas.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned through this process it’s that we aren’t willing to believe the truth until someone gives sworn testimony. Richard Virenque was clean until he was confronted by a prosecutor in court. We’d never have learned Tyler Hamilton’s full story without a subpoena. The eyewitnesses who were Lance Armstrong’s undoing? Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Tyler Hamilton—their stories were mostly ignored until they became sworn testimony attached to the USADA investigation, which, it’s worth noting, was the second time around for Betsy Andreu. Sure Stephanie McIlvain lied on the stand, but she’s maybe the best demonstration of just how important the moral courage of people like Andreu, O’Reilly and yes, even Hamilton were to the process.
It’s why Kimmage suing the UCI for fraud is the best shot we have of finding witnesses who can tell just what happened in Aigle. But we’re going to need more, better, witnesses than the likes of Julian Devries. You may recall that Devries told Kathy LeMond that Nike paid Verbruggen—not the UCI—$500,000 back in 2001 to make Armstrong’s 1999 positive for corticosteroids go Jimmy Hoffa. While I believe LeMond, this case needs a witness closer to the action than Devries.
When Floyd Landis first started spouting off about the corruption within the UCI his charges were long on vitriol and short on specifics. Sure, he was making charges, but he wasn’t doing a lot to tell us how he knew what he knew and what facts he’d seen to support his assertions. After all, the difference between saying “the UCI is corrupt” and “I saw a check for $500,000 drawn on Nike’s checking account and made out to Hein Verbruggen” is the difference between saying “guns can kill” and watching someone shoot your mother.
As important as the testimony from each of the eyewitnesses has been, we would not be in this position without a couple of crucial acts by Mr. Armstrong. There’s a strong causal link between Armstrong’s refusal to give Landis as spot on the RadioShack team and his downfall. That simple act of charity, something alleged to have been suggested to Armstrong by a few different people, would have reinvigorated Landis’ career and life. Could Armstrong have found room in his heart to mend a fence with Landis, there would never have been that legendary tete-a-tete with USADA. And had Landis never met with Jeff Novitzky and Travis Tygart, Tyler Hamilton would never have been deposed. Hamilton was as crucial a witness as USADA ever found. It’s safe to say that if Armstrong hadn’t dropped a dime on him (this is a charge alleged by Landis that I believe to be true), Hamilton’s career would have run its course, with him winning some more big races before sailing off into retirement with us none the wiser.
A portion of Armstrong’s downfall must be attributed to his Machiavellian ruthlessness. Ironic, eh?
In interviews with the media, many witnesses in the USADA investigation made a similar, if crucial, statement: They didn’t want to be talking to investigators, they didn’t want to be on the stand. Some of the riders snared in the investigation have been slagged doing what seemed obvious: telling the truth. Despite what some think, the testimony they gave wasn’t obvious or easy, and while some cycling fans still wonder just how much of what they told was the truth, there are a few details worth noting. First, the riders did have options. They could easily have lied. McIlvain certainly did, despite contradictory eyewitness testimony. Second, they could have remained silent per the Fifth Amendment. While we don’t know for sure, it seems likely that George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and the others were given immunity in exchange for their testimony. Any indication that they had lied to investigators would have nullified the agreement and opened them up to prosecution. Given the sheer number of witnesses, lying to investigators would have been a pretty significant risk, for a rider who lied would be facing charges for both doping and perjury.
A recent piece published by The New York Times pointed to Kayle Leogrande as the catalyst that set the investigation in motion that led to Armstrong’s downfall. The Times rarely ever gets the story wrong, but this is one of those occasions when they did. In calling him “pivotal” to the investigation, Ian Lovett missed the event that deserves remembering.
Lance Armstrong would still be (as he’s been called, occasionally ironically) “the cancer Jesus,” were it not for the efforts of Suzanne Sonye. Sonye is a former professional rider for the Saturn team who worked as a soigneur for Michael Ball’s Rock Racing squad. It was Sonye Leogrande confided in when he feared he was going to test positive following a urine test. Sonye then did the unheard-of: She reported Leogrande’s doping of her own volition.
In a recent phone interview Sonye said, “When he told me [that he might test positive] it was number one, ‘Oh my God! He’s dirty!’ and number two, ‘He can’t race.’ I knew he was going to race the national championships and this was something that was definitely going to affect his performance.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I let this go. It made me sick to my stomach. It was wrong on so many levels I couldn’t let it go.”
Sonye reported him to team management, including Ball.
“When I realized Michael Ball wasn’t going to do anything, I knew I needed to call USADA. I had to call USADA twice. The first time they didn’t respond. The second time I said I had first-hand information about a doping violation. I thought Michael Ball would do the right thing; so did Frankie [Andreu, then the team director], but he didn’t. To his credit, Travis Tygart called me back right away.
“At first I couldn’t decide if I would do it anonymously … it was hard to do because I liked Kayle, but I couldn’t not do it.
What makes Sonye unique among everyone in the Armstrong debacle is that she took action for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. She wasn’t compelled by a subpoena or enticed by an outside entity (such as a newspaper or magazine). She had nothing to gain; self-interest was a motivation that would have steered her away from reporting Leogrande.
For Sonye, the choice was as simple as it was unavoidable.
“I was on the number-one cycling team in the world and I didn’t choose to put a needle in my arm.”
Leogrande would go on to sue Sonye for defamation, and while he lost the suit (and wound up having to pay her legal bills because the lawsuit was deemed a SLAPP), the stress it put her through upended her life.
“I’d been on antidepressants and they were awful for me. I had a nervous breakdown. I went to the hospital for five days. My doctor took me off everything, then I was switched to a really low dose of a mood stabilizer for four or five months. When I came out, I was beaten. I thought, ‘I can’t beat this.’ Eventually I realized, ‘Fuck that, this guy is going down.’ It took two years.
“The mental stress I went through I can never get back. The drain on me, what it took from my life, was enormous.”
The debt cycling owes Sonye for being honest, for acting on her conscience, can never be repaid; there’s no way to make that suffering go away. The least we can do is recognize her for being the person without which Lance Armstrong would be competing as a professional triathlete.
Image: Danny Munson, Cycling Illustrated
Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.
This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.
Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.
At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”
In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.
In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.
Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.
USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.
Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.
Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.
Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.
Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.
In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.
The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.
One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”
If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When we consider the problem of doping it’s easy to look at the issue in terms of black and white. There are the clean riders (white) and the doped riders (black). There are the teams whose management actively work to keep riders clean (white). And there are teams whose management organize and facilitate doping (black).
Such an outlook keeps the problem chopped up in easy to digest chunks. And while it may be easier to organize our thinking and ability to pass judgement on who should be in or out of the sport, such an assessment does little to shed light on the reality of the problem.
Every time we reduce someone to “culprit” or “doper” what we are doing is labeling them “the bad guy.” By reducing them into a two-dimensional role, they become cardboard cutouts, symbols, for what we find offensive. Dressing a guy in a black hat automatically makes him the bad guy. That’s what makes old spaghetti westerns so laughable; you didn’t need to know anything more about the guy than the fact that he had the black hat on.
And remember, in most good/bad conflict movies from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the bad guy only did bad things. They stole. They murdered. They polluted the planet and ate babies for lunch.
The good guys (white hats) were just as laughable. They were saintly in demeanor. They protected babies, fed the poor, fought crime and had nary a carnal thought.
It would seem that Pat McQuaid is a big believer in the black hat. McQuaid wants every former rider who ever had a brush with doping to be banned from roles in team management, banned from the sport. If we consider the example of guys like Jonathan Vaughters, a manager who says he faced some difficult decisions while he was a rider, banning him would mean losing a figure who understands the trials riders face better than most. Who else would better understand the agonies of the riders than someone who was confronted with those very choices.
Now, Vaughters never tested positive, was never banned. However, if we assess some of his more veiled statements about his past, his time with the US Postal team, we might conclude that his grand jury testimony included statements that McQuaid would find sufficient cause to ban him, should the UCI pass such a rule.
Right now, I see Vaughters as one of the best proponents of clean sport. He has seen the dark side of the sport and yet still believes that clean sport is possible and is providing his riders the support necessary to be competitive without resorting to doping.
If we want to understand doping, we need to understand more than the biology behind the drugs. We need to know more than who they got the drugs from, more than their training regimen. We need to know, to understand the riders as people. We must understand what caused them to confront the choices that led to their doping. That means no black hats.
As long as we reduce each cyclist who used performance-enhancing drugs to the black-hatted doper who just wanted to win, we’ll miss the drive for most of the peloton. If Frankie Andreu is to be believed—and I think we should heed his words—he used not to win, but to survive, to keep his job. There are lessons in his effort to survive.
I don’t want to go all Oprah on you, but if we set aside our need to judge, we can listen to stories told by people, people who often faced choices as attractive as rock and hard place.
One of my all-time favorite science fiction novels is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It takes a very provocative look at aspects of Western Civilization that are critical to how we function, such as our notion of citizenship and what entitles us to suffrage. Mind you, I don’t read a lot of science fiction because it has so much in common with the banana—when a banana is good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad, it’s terrible and I toss it in the trash with all possible haste.
Forgetting for a moment Paul Verhoeven’s awful film depiction of Heinlein’s meisterwerk, I still marvel at how Heinlein took ordinary characters, some of them certainly not as bright as the author and placed them in extraordinary circumstances to create a futuristic society. It’s the same basic device that creates farce, which is normal people in odd circumstances—think “Gilligan’s Island”—as opposed to comedy, which is funny people in normal circumstances—think “Seinfeld.” Yet, in Heinlein’s hands, we get a fresh take on Western Civilization, complete with its own slang.
Of these, my clear favorite is “on the bounce,” the phrase used by the starship troopers to allude to both how the soldiers move in their powered armor space suits and when they do things, a kind of “on the move” for the 22nd century.
Recently, I’ve taken to paraphrasing the saying into a cycling-specific version: on the drop. It entered my angst-ridden head recently while I was on a climb and because I wasn’t climbing particularly well (the legs had gone into shutdown mode with 2k left to climb) and I was concerned that the boys wouldn’t be waiting for me at the top. I thought to myself, “I’ll get them on the drop.”
Without time to sit around at the top and finish a bottle, eat a bite or two, pull my armwarmers up and take my glasses off my helmet and put them back on my face, I knew I’d have to do them all on the drop. But that was the beauty of the road turning down; with gravity on my side, I had the opportunity to eat and make up ground at the same time.
Sure, you can drink on a climb. You can pull down armwarmers on a climb. Some riders can even sit up, no hands, and take off a vest or jacket. And sure, there are climbs that are so long you’ve got to keep fueling as you move just to keep the bonk at bay, but the question I often ask myself is when the best time is to GSD*.
Racing has taught me there is a simple answer: the best time to do anything that isn’t in and of racing, is on the drop. Even if the opportunity is only slightly downhill, I know I can relax my pedaling a bit and gravity’s finite pull will do the rest and allow me to ditch a vest, pull food from my pockets, empty a bottle or stuff armwarmers into my jersey pockets.
There was a long period when I thought that descending was descending and downhill was too serious a concern to gum it up with something so frivolous as eating. Then I remembered something I saw while in a Mavic neutral vehicle on a mountain stage of the 1996 Tour DuPont.
Near the top of the biggest climb of the day, a Category 1 mafia-style enforcer, Frankie Andreu lost contact with the second group. Over the final kilometer up to the pass, he lost more than 20 seconds; the group was out of sight. Group three wasn’t far behind and that was as much a concern for us in a Taurus wagon as it was for him.
On the drop, Frankie got into a head-over-stem, butt-in-air full tuck, not one of those crazy Marco Pantani rodeo-style tucks. He grabbed his bottle and tipped it into his mouth with his fingertips while resting the heel of his hand against the handlebar. And he dropped down an intestinal stretch of asphalt through turns I thought surely would require brakes.
We were doing 50 mph just to keep up with him. Those turns I thought would require brakes we were drifting through with all four tires grabbing the pavement with the stunned desperation of a child’s hand for the string of a balloon.
At one point, hearing the car engine race and the roar of rubber on asphalt, Frankie sat up and turned around to look at us. (I asked him about it the next morning and he said he was afraid we were going over the cliff.) Then he put his head back down and before the bottom of the descent, he rejoined group two. Might as well have been the stage win I was so impressed.
Joe Parkin told me a story he has since blogged about a bit. After returning to the United States and joining Coors Light, Joe was at a race and his team leader told him he wanted a Coke. He got the Coke from the team car. Easy enough, right?
The rider wanted it in a water bottle.
Joe sat up, opened the Coke, opened the bottle and while descending he poured the Coke into the bottle. Even Joe was impressed with the move.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of doing things on the drop is what it says of your knowledge of the bike and the degree to which you can control it with just your hips if necessary. So much of cycling comes down to trust—trusting our bodies, our fellow riders, traffic and, yes, the bike—and few of us really trust our bike to do what it is most inclined. Once above 15 mph, it wants to stay upright and the imperative of physics only increases with speed.
Yet, for all its beautiful utility, and any tool properly used is beautiful, what I most love isn’t the GSD*, it’s knowing that anything you might need to accomplish during your ride or race you really needn’t stop, that riding can be as seamless as breathing.
*Get shit done