Everyone agrees that confidence in professional cycling has to be restored after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report revealed the sport’s sordid underbelly: the rampant blood doping within Lance Armstrong’s former U.S. Postal Service team and the ease with which riders fooled the anti-doping authorities (and the cycling community) at the height of the EPO era. And everyone—from the fans to the teams, from the riders to the organizers, from the officials to the media—knows that cycling’s longtime culture of doping has to be eliminated before the sport can truly move forward. The question is: How do we do it?
At the last count, three significant initiatives were on the table: the first, proposed in late October after the UCI’s acceptance of USADA’s decision to suspend Armstrong for life from Olympic sports and give the whistle blowers the minimum, six-month suspensions, was the Manifesto for Credible Cycling (MCC). Launched by five major European newspapers, the MCC focused on restructuring pro cycling, stiffening penalties and adhering to the anti-doping regulations in a similar way to the “clean” teams’ Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC), an association that has gained greater acceptance and more members in recent weeks.
The second initiative was made public last week by Change Cycling Now (CCN), a group founded by Australian Jaimie Fuller, chairman of the Swiss-based compression sportswear company, Skins, and spearheaded by campaigning anti-doping journalists, Irishmen David Walsh and Paul Kimmage. The group’s Charter of the Willing has a similar agenda to that of the MCC, except it first seeks the resignation of UCI president Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen—with CCN putting forward Greg LeMond’s candidature as a potential interim UCI president. The group also posited the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an idea that the UCI Management Committee considered and voted down a few weeks ago.
The third initiative has come from the UCI itself. Its Stakeholder Consultation, first announced a month ago, is now seeking feedback from the sport’s major stakeholders prior to a comprehensive review of the best ideas in the first quarter of next year. The UCI has already approached CCN for its input, and it has sent letters out to riders, teams, race organizers, national federations, administrators, sponsors, industry representatives, anti-doping organizations and sports bodies, asking for comments on a list of topics such as anti-doping, globalization, riders and the racing calendar—including the UCI’s potential joint venture with a group headed by Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala to strengthen the pro cycling calendar that was announced this week. Among the goals are wider participation in cycling and identifying ways to make the sport even more interesting for spectators.
All these initiatives are in addition to the recently formed Independent Commission that is looking into the contentious issues revealed by the USADA report—including allegations that the UCI turned a blind eye to Armstrong’s alleged positive drug test at the 2002 Tour of Switzerland. Sir Philip Otton, an eminent British appeals judge who has extensive experience with similar cases in other sports, heads the commission. He and his two colleagues on the commission’s panel have already begun work and are due to host a three-week hearing in London next April before submitting a report to the UCI by June 1, 2013.
The necessity for a redirection in pro cycling was best summed up by Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport, one of the five journals that launched the MCC, which wrote: “The entire fabric of cycling has been rotten for too long. From the mid-1990s to today more than 400 professional cyclists have been disqualified or embroiled in doping investigations. The Lance Armstrong affair and the disturbing news coming out of the current investigation in Padua (Italy) show that the entire world of cycling has come through an extremely long and dark time. But we believe that the sport can start afresh—as long as a few rules are changed.”
The MCC newspapers opined, “It is impossible to start afresh with the existing structure” and suggested that future drug testing be instigated by WADA and administered by the national anti-doping agencies, and that penalties for doping be made more severe. In fact, WADA has already proposed doubling suspensions for “heavy” drugs and blood doping from two to four years in the draft for its new code that comes into effect in 2015.
As for the MCC’s demand that WADA spearhead future drug testing in cycling (rather than the UCI), that would be difficult to implement because WADA’s mission is to establish its all-encompassing anti-doping code and ensure that there is “a harmonized approach to anti-doping in all sports and all countries.” So if cycling-specific testing were added to its responsibilities that policy would have to apply to every other Olympic sport—which would be too costly for WADA, whose limited funding is split between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and national governments. And its budget already has to cover such things as code compliance monitoring, cooperation with law enforcement agencies, drug-detection research, accreditation of testing labs, maintaining the ADAMS whereabouts database, coordinating regional anti-doping organizations and education programs, and athlete outreach.
Currently, drug testing for the sport of cycling is shared between the IOC, WADA, national anti-doping agencies, and the UCI. It should also be noted that a major part of the UCI’s anti-doping efforts is its pioneering biological passport program, started five years ago, which now monitors a pool of almost 1,000 pro racers—and gleans information from all the relevant anti-doping organizations. And as UCI medical officer Mario Zorzoli said recently, “Essentially, we are moving from the toxicology approach … to a more forensic science approach.” This means that there will be even greater emphasis on collaboration between the IOC, WADA, national agencies and the UCI—while WADA is keen to step up its coordination with international criminal agencies and national police forces in countries where doping is already a criminal offense.
What all this means is that it is getting more and more difficult for athletes who are doping to avoid detection, not just in cycling but also in all the sports that are adopting the passport program. Cheating cyclists had a free run in the 1990s because EPO was undetectable, and the USADA report showed that blood doping was rampant (along with micro-dosing with EPO) prior to the implementation of the UCI’s biological passport program in January 2008. The “forensic approach” is the way forward, and the success of that policy depends on the input of such things as establishing stricter anti-doping codes within every team, self-policing among athletes, and continued (and stepped-up) collaboration between all the various anti-doping agencies.
Considering the discussions that have already taken place between the ProTeams, the major race organizers, the Athletes Commission and the UCI, and the feedback being sought in the Stakeholders Consultation process, it seems that all parties have the intent to work together to rebuild the sport. Obviously, there are some issues that need greater consideration than others, especially the thorny one on whether (or how) to integrate past dopers into a cleaner future. One route toward that goal is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but that could be a gigantic, highly expensive undertaking that might take years to complete.
It so happens that the co-owner and manager of one of the teams affiliated with the MPCC, Jonathan Vaughters of Garmin-Sharp, who also chairs the pro cycling teams association, tweeted this last Friday: “I hear and understand the ‘clean the house out’ argument. Problem is, if we do it, with honesty from all, [there] won’t be anyone left to turn lights off. I might also add that without total honesty from all, instead of ex-dopers running business, you’ll have lying ex-dopers instead.”
Perhaps a better way to go is for teams to renew their clean-up efforts and perhaps conduct their own truth-and-reconciliation processes. That is what is already happening at Team Sky, though some critics (including Vaughters) are saying that the British squad has gone too far in its “zero tolerance” campaign, in forcing staff members to resign if they admit to any past connection with doping.
The major catalyst for restoring confidence in pro cycling has to be the independent Otton Commission, which must fully resolve the unfinished business of the USADA report, including a verdict on whether the UCI administration acted corruptly in regard to ignoring (or not taking seriously) the warning signs that doping in cycling was systemic. The commission’s findings will determine whether the next steps forward should be undertaken by a new, independent entity, the UCI’s current administration, an interim president, or the president who’s elected by delegates from the world’s 170 or so national cycling federations at next September’s UCI congress.
Whatever action is carried out, it’s the hope and expectation of everyone concerned, including proponents of the MCC, MPCC and CCN, that the public’s confidence in cycling will be restored and the sport will be in a position to begin building toward a brighter, cleaner future.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Dear Mr. Pelkey,
I’ve been a follower of LUG, RKP and the social media cycling community for a while, now.
I am really happy about the recent events in pro cycling. Success and openness of Garmin, support for Paul Kimmage and, of course, the USADA report and consequences.
My huge concern is that those running the sport, Hein and Pat, will remain and we risk having the situation of 1998/1999 repeat – big scandal followed by business as usual. UCI leadership has no credibility, is incompetent and very probably corrupt.
Is the UCI election process capable of bringing change? Is there a way for grass roots activists to make a difference?
An Explainer to give us a little hope would be good, really frightened that this opportunity could be missed.
I have to agree with your assessment of the opportunity we lost in 1998 and ’99. I was among those who were convinced that the Festina Scandal of the ’98 Tour had finally proved that the cost of cheating would exceed the benefits and that riders, teams and officials would realize that it wasn’t worth the risk. Well, I was disabused of that Pollyannaish notion by the middle of the ’99 Tour.
This year has presented us with an even bigger opportunity. We have compelling evidence to suggest that not only did the sport not get cleaned up after Festina, it got worse. It appears that there is also enough evidence to suggest that the UCI was, at best, willfully ignorant of those developments or, at worst, complicit. As a result, it’s time for the two most visible and influential leaders at the UCI – Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen – to step down for the good of the sport.
Former – and now “honorary” – president, Verbruggen, has always struck me as having something of a Machiavellian streak, the sort that is intent upon working his way up the hierarchy not just of the UCI, but of the International Olympic Committee. He’s always struck me as one of the “Lords of the Rings,” described in Vyv Simson’s 1992 book.
I have to say that I actually like the current president, Pat McQuaid. He’s personable, bright and he seems to love the sport. Unfortunately, he and Verbruggen – whether by acts of commission or omission – have become part of the problem. Both really should resign from their respective positions and from the management committee for the good of the sport of cycling. But that ain’t gonna happen. And laudable as they might be, reform efforts face an uphill battle, largely because the organization is structured in a way to discourage genuine reform by limiting real power to a very, very small group of entrenched “leaders.” Here’s why:
The antithesis of democracy
First let’s have a look at the election process you asked about. There are two organizations that exercise control over the UCI. Those are the Congress and the Management Committee. Along with the president and vice presidents, the system is truly and example of how power in the organization is progressively distilled into the hands of fewer and fewer and fewer people.
The Congress is, according to the Constitution of the UCI, the “general meeting of members and the highest authority of the UCI.” But what does that mean? Are you, for example, one of those “members?”
Well, not exactly. Let’s assume that you hold a license to race bikes; one issued to you by your national governing body, which is USA Cycling. For purposes of this Congress, that doesn’t make you a “member” under the definition of the UCI Constitution. For purposes of this Congress, the members are the 171 national federations affiliated with the UCI. Member federations may be represented at the Congress by a delegation of not more than three persons.
Article 28 of the UCI Constitution requires that the statutory Congress be held at least annually, although exceptional circumstances could justify an emergency meeting. So, let’s imagine that all 171 member federations send three delegates to the Congress and those 513 representatives of the world cycling community assemble for the mandated annual convention. What do they get to do there?
They can talk to each other. They can listen to speeches. They can pick up gift packs of swag. Oh, and they can vote, right?
Well, not exactly. Let me explain.
Article 29 of the UCI Constitution grants broad authority to the Congress:
1. The Congress shall have the following exclusive powers and duties:
a) Alteration of the Constitution and dissolution of the association;
b) To transfer the registered office of the UCI to another country;
c) Admission, expulsion and suspension of federations, without prejudice to Article 46, d;
d) Setting the annual amount of contributions on a proposal from the Management
e) Election of the President of the UCI and of nine other members of the Management
f) Dismissal of the members of the Management Committee of the UCI;
g) Appointment of the public auditor, on a proposal from the Management Committee and his
2. In addition, the Congress shall each year decide on:
a) the management report of the Management Committee;
b) the auditor’s report on the accounts;
c) the annual accounts of the previous year;
d) the budget for the following year.
So we have up to 513 members of the global cycling community who wield considerable power, right?
Article 36 of the Constitution limits voting rights to just 42 delegates. Those delegates are selected to represent their respective Continental Federations and are distributed in accordance with the following formula:
- Africa: 7 delegates
- America: 9 delegates
- Asia: 9 delegates
- Europe: 14 delegates
- Oceania: 3 delegates
It is those 42 delegates who get to vote on important issues and, more critically, select the president and 10 of the fifteen members of the Management Committee, which, according to the Constitution, is “vested with the most extensive powers as regards the management of the UCI and the regulation of cycling sports.” It’s where the real power in the UCI sits.
As I said, the power is increasingly distilled into the hands of smaller and smaller groups of people. Who are those 15? The Management Committee is composed of the President of the UCI and nine other members elected by the Congress. Of those ten elected members, at least seven have to belong to European federations. They are then joined by the presidents of the five Continental Federations.
In his day, Verbruggen worked that Management Committee like it was an extension of his own personality. He pretty much ran the show and hand-picked McQuaid to be his successor. I am not under the impression that McQuaid exercises as much power as did Verbruggen, but do keep in mind that Verbruggen remains involved in the Management Committee in his capacity as “honorary president.” It’s a non-voting position, but given that Verbruggen is also a vice-president in the IOC, he continues to wield power and influence in the UCI in general and the Management Committee in particular.
It is, by any definition, an old boys club and the old boys want to keep it that way.
Is there a way to change it? It may require a bit of creativity and, as Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein, it will require us to “follow the money.”
Time for reform?
After the USADA document dump in the Armstrong case, we suddenly had an opportunity to attack the way this sport is managed. The revelations were serious enough to even give the UCI, McQuaid and Verbruggen pause to reconsider their lawsuit against Irish journalist Paul Kimmage … at least until an “independent commission” completed a report as to the UCI’s involvement in the scandal.
That independent commission turned out to be structured quite like a normal three-member Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) panel. This one will be led by British appeals judge, Phillip Otton, and will include Australian lawyer Malcolm Holmes and British Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson. The three will meet in April to review evidence and then issue a report by June.
I’ll take a wait-and-see approach with regard to the panel’s independence. Superficially, it looks like a good group. Meanwhile, we won’t see much internal action from the UCI until that report is issued in June.
There is an admirable grass-roots effort underway right now, though. Following the whole Armstrong kerfuffle, Australian clothing entrepreneur Jamie Fuller started Change Cycling Now and the group organized a summit conference in London earlier this month. They are calling for a host of reforms, including the removal the UCI’s authority to administer its anti-doping enforcement and place it into the hands of a truly independent agency. (Do recall that is the model used in the U.S. and is likely the only reason we saw the Armstrong case pursued as it was.)
There were some heavy hitters involved, too, including Kimmage, his friend and colleague, David Walsh, the head of the Association of Professional Cyclists, Gianni Bugno, anti-doping expert Michael Ashenden, Garmin’s Jonathan Vaughters and the only American to win the Tour de France, Greg LeMond.
It may be a good sign that Johan Bruyneel referred to the meeting as “a bunch of douches.” Looking beyond that flash of Bruyneel’s rhetorical brilliance, it is important to remember that the quality of a man – or of an organization – can best be judged not only by the quality of their friends but also by the quality of their enemies. If you’re pissing off Johan Bruyneel these days, you’re probably doing something right. (Note to Johan: Take a cue from that Lance guy. Twitter is not your friend.)
It may well be the start of something good. Indeed, LeMond – who, by the way, is the only American to win the Tour de France (did I already mention that?) – said he was ready to run for the post of UCI president. Frankly, I can’t think of anyone better qualified than LeMond, who, by the way, is the only American to have won the Tour de France.
It will be an uphill battle, though. Again, think back to those 42 voting members of the UCI Congress. We’re not talking about a cadre of committed reformers when we mention those 42. The odds are good that these are people with the same set of skewed priorities and ingrained conflicts-of-interest that caused the problem in the first place.
As I mentioned, it may be time for us to “follow the money,” and come at the UCI from the financial side. It’s time to organize and, yes, even boycott, sponsors whose support is critical to the UCI.
According to its annual financial report, the UCI’s “resources consist of contributions, sponsorship and royalties generated by sports activities.” Indeed, those sponsorships are the biggest single item in the governing body’s list of receivables each year.
Those sponsors include such notable companies as Shimano, Santini, Tissot, Skoda and Swatch. Let those sponsors know that their support of the UCI as it currently stands is not something that necessarily endears you to their product. Don’t necessarily boycott them yet, but do encourage them to use their influence to force reform within an organization that has failed to live up to its obligation.
Yes, we can push for change, but it ain’t gonna be easy.
The Explainer is a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
In the summer of 1989, after Greg LeMond had won his second Tour de France, I received a copy of VeloNews in my mailbox, which was then the “official” publication of the United States Cycling Federation. In it there was a story about an American cyclist who went to the Junior World Championships and took off early in the race, amassing a huge lead, only to see it and him swallowed up shortly before the finish. The writer suggested that the name Lance Armstrong would be one to watch for the future.
I’ve followed Armstrong’s career since that day. I’ve written about him a fair amount, both for RKP and for other publications, and I still count my interview with him the most entertaining I’ve ever done with a professional cyclist. That said, I need to admit to you that it’s been a long time since I thought Armstrong was a clean cyclist.
Though I had read Paul Kimmage’s “Rough Ride,” I’d compartmentalized that as something true yet not terribly applicable to the pro cycling I followed and would eventually write about. As recently as 1996 I thought cycling was a pretty clean sport. Then, at a party at my home, the photographer Mike Powell, a guy who probably knows more about track and field than I know about cycling, shattered my pretty little world. He told me that doping was rife in cycling. When I doubted him, he told me how he’d learned about the doping that goes on in track and field, and how he saw all the same signs when he’d shot bike races, such as that year’s Tour. He talked about miraculous overnight recovery for riders who had been dragged from their bikes.
I began to recall stories of steroid use told to me by a friend who had been a 440 hurdler on a full ride to Alabama. He’d seen plenty of anabolic usage among denizens of the school’s athletic complex and I recalled him once saying how anabolics made athletes unnaturally lean. They had no subcutaneous fat. Sitting in my living room and listening to Mike, I suddenly flashed on my first experience being in the same room with Armstrong. It was at the opening press conference for the 1996 Tour DuPont, which I was covering for Outside. I was sitting along the middle aisle in some hotel ballroom when in walks Armstrong in cycling kit with tennis shoes. I didn’t know it was Armstrong at first, though; I was looking down at my laptop when I caught this calf out of the corner of my eye and then turned to look. It was the most perfect calf I’d ever seen. The muscles were perfectly etched. It was as if skin-colored saran wrap had been stretched across the muscle with no intervening fat to blur the muscles’ definition. At the time I’d thought there was something supernatural about his appearance; later I would amend that to unnatural.
Ah. Two plus two equals … Lance Armstrong dopes.
I wrestled with that conclusion, what it meant for me as someone who made his living writing about cycling (by this time I was working for Bicycle Guide) and how that affected my view of the sport. I figured there was only one thing I could do: No matter what I thought, if Armstrong and other riders weren’t testing positive, then they were clean enough to compete, and if they were clean enough to compete, they were clean.
To the degree that I had lingering doubts about how clean the peloton was, the 1998 Festina Scandal was Mike’s “I told ya so.” Not that he wagged a finger my way, but when the story broke, my first thought was, “Damn, he really was right. It’s everybody.” Initially, I, like many others, thought that the Festina debacle would really clean up cycling. It wouldn’t be too many years before the realists among us realized that things weren’t better, they were worse. I came to the conclusion that the UCI didn’t want clean cycling, they just wanted the appearance of clean cycling. Specifically, what the UCI needed to avoid was anything that embarrassed the sport. That meant no deaths of over-doped riders and no arrests of soigneurs ferrying portable pharmacies. Their anti-doping efforts were as vigorous as my father’s game of checkers was with me when I was a kid—he let me win a lot.
That realization—that the UCI only wanted the appearance of a clean sport—is something that I responded to in the most cynical way possible. To me, the logic was, if the UCI wasn’t really going to do the work to clean up cycling broadly, then a guy like Armstrong should find success.
I opposed the investigation into Armstrong for the simple fact that I didn’t like that one American cyclist would be torn down while so much other doping would go unpunished. Grand Tour racing remains the unlimited class and though the UCI may not have had the resources to get the job done, that’s not much of an excuse; what they have really lacked is the will, and we don’t yet know if that’s a sin the world will ever forgive.
I’ll also admit that I, like many writers, was flat-out afraid of the Armstrong machine. I’d seen the lawsuits, and while I wasn’t trying to break any stories, I didn’t want to get caught in the cross hairs.
I was critical of Greg LeMond in an open letter I wrote, not because I didn’t think he was telling the truth, but because I thought hijacking a press conference to try to grill Armstrong publicly was unseemly and beneath one of the greatest cyclists of all time. It was an event that was just a few ounces of hair gel short of becoming a Jersey Shore-style brawl. I pointed out that LeMond wasn’t part of the enforcement apparatus and then—naively—suggested he should take his conclusions to the UCI or WADA.
I’ve been critical of the USADA investigation, noting on several occasions that they were investigating doping ten years done when doping is happening right now, today. It has always struck me as a ginormous expense for an organization of limited means, Champagne on a water-fountain budget. My fear was less what would happen to Armstrong, it was how the investigation could harm cycling as a whole—for years to come. It’s safe to say we won’t see Nike in cycling again before my son is old enough to turn pro. Plenty of other companies will need even longer to come around again. I had plenty of doubts that the investigation could reveal anything that might surprise me, anything I hadn’t already guessed. There were plenty of surprises in Tyler Hamilton’s story alone.
In short, I lacked the faith necessary to see that the USADA investigation could reach beyond the Atlantic, that it could serve as the catalyst for sweeping, permanent change. On this score, I’m pleased to say I was evolution-denier wrong.
Travis Tygart, I owe you an apology. Your work has proven to be the indictment of the UCI for which I’ve been waiting a good 15 years. I was unwilling to believe that this investigation could illustrate the corruption within the UCI as clearly as it has, that we would ever see the full body of evidence collected by the federal investigation and USADA, that a “true” picture would emerge of how cycling at the top level functioned.
The USADA investigation and some of the subsequent events (such as Rabobank’s indictment of the UCI and Skins’ CEO Jaimie Fuller’s open letter to the UCI) ultimately are unlikely to lead, on their own, to the overhaul at the UCI that is necessary to restore our faith in the institution. Pat McQuaid has signaled that he will commission an independent investigation. I am suspicious of this the way I am suspicious of my son when he says he hasn’t pooped—then why does your diaper droop and the room smell? Apparently, I’m not the only one who views this with a crooked eyebrow. Brian Cookson, the president of the British Cycling Federation, has said that unless the UCI impanels a truly independent investigator, then it will lose what he called its’ “last chance to re-establish itself as a credible organization.”
I have my doubts McQuaid and company understand just how dire the situation is.
Paul Kimmage has hinted that he may file suit against the UCI, even though they have shelved their suit against him. While the UCI’s decision to back off what would almost certainly have been ruled a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) here in the U.S., backing down in the face of $85,800 in contributions (so far) to Kimmage’s defense fund suggests maybe McQuaid and Verbruggen aren’t entirely blind. The fund set up in his name must be used for legal bills, so it stands to reason that he’d go ahead and engage the fight against the UCI. This is civilized society’s version of meeting behind the gym for a bare-knuckle fight. Just because the UCI got the first lick in doesn’t mean the fight is over.
Right now the best opportunity we have to see just how corrupt the UCI has been is a lawsuit by Kimmage. Twenty years ago, had anyone suggested to me that the only way to clean up cycling right to its roots would be a lawsuit by a journalist against the sport’s governing body, I’d have laughed. I’d have said it was as unlikely as the polar ice caps melting.
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
Tuesdays with Wilcockson
In last week’s column, I began to trace my journey in cycling from the 1960s, first as a racer then a writer, in connection with the sport’s escalating problems with illicit drugs. This week, I’ll continue the story from where I broke off, at the 1998 Tour de France, when the French team Festina was thrown out for organized doping. What the Festina Affair revealed was the degree to which EPO had transformed cycling in the worst possible way.
“Before EPO,” the 1988 Giro d’Italia champion Andy Hampsten told me, “we knew we were always racing against guys on drugs, but I don’t think those drugs gave them more of an advantage than the advantage we had knowing they’re gonna come crashing down. We didn’t lose energy worrying about what other people were doing; we just focused on ourselves, and we didn’t need to win every race.”
That “higher ground” attitude of Hampsten’s American team, Motorola, began to change in 1994. “There was a lot of grumbling on the team,” Hampsten said, “and we did get technical data from team doctor Massimo Testa because he’d talk to his colleagues on other teams. He was always straight with me. ‘Sure enough,’ he said, ‘if so-and-so who you raced with for eight years and you always dropped on the climbs, if that guy’s beating you now, his hematocrit is 15 points higher, and he’s gonna kill you in the mountains.’”
Because the new drug couldn’t be detected in anti-doping tests, no one knew for certain who was using EPO—and riders kept that secret to themselves. So, for the best part of a decade, until the Festina Affair, rumors were the only source of what was happening in the peloton. And rumors, without any corroborative evidence, were not things that professional journalists could write about. And when we did ask questions about doping those questions were sidestepped more often than not.
The situation began to change slightly in 1997 when the UCI mandated a maximum hematocrit level of 50 percent. Cyclists who tested above that level were not allowed to compete for at least two weeks, or until their red-blood-cell count returned to a “normal” level. But that couldn’t be translated into knowing a rider had used EPO. In any case, the new “health” regulation was a tiny deterrent because riders soon learned how to use portable centrifuges to test their own blood and keep the hematocrit level below 50—or so it was rumored.
The full extent of doping in the 1990s didn’t emerge until well after the Festina team was busted. First came the 1999 tell-all book, “Massacre à la Chaîne,” by soigneur Willy Voet who was fined and given a suspended prison sentence for his part in the Festina Affair. He wrote the book with French journalist Pierre Ballester, who worked for the Paris sports newspaper, L’Équipe, whose writers were just as shocked as everyone by the Festina Affair, the subsequent revelations in Voet’s book and the facts that later emerged in French courtrooms.
Testimonies at a December 2000 tribunal, which investigated the inner workings of the Festina team, showed that the French squad had engaged in organized doping since 1993. Prior to that year’s Tour de France, the tribunal’s report states, “the team riders who had yet to use EPO were growing impatient to get access to it several days before the start…. The main reason had to be that other teams were already administering this substance.”
Luc Leblanc, a French leader of the Festina team, admitted he used EPO in 1994 at the Vuelta a España and Tour de France, but he denied that EPO helped him win that year’s UCI world road title. But another witness, who worked for the team throughout the 1990s, testified that “all the Festina team riders at the 1994 world championships were given the same preparation: EPO with supplements. Luc did the same as everyone else.”
Riders entering the sport at that time were faced with a much more difficult decision than my racing peers had faced in the 1960s, when popping speed or getting injections of bull’s blood might have given riders a psychological edge but not much of a physical one. The dilemma in the ’90s for new professionals was to accept the use of EPO or risk never making the grade. That’s what Tyler Hamilton says made him begin doping in 1996, according to his new autobiography, “The Secret Race,” written with former Outside magazine journalist Dan Coyle.
Hamilton’s decision to use EPO coincided with his small American team, Montgomery-Bell, getting title sponsorship from the U.S. Postal Service that allowed them to start racing in Europe. By coincidence, I bumped into Hamilton on a flight back from Brussels to the U.S. in April 1996. I’d been reporting the spring classics for VeloNews, and Hamilton, then 25 and in his second year as a pro, told me about events he and the team had raced in the Netherlands, including his winning the Teleflex Toer stage race. Obviously, he didn’t say anything about EPO.
Like most other cycling journalists, I saw Hamilton—who majored in economics at the University of Colorado prior to turning pro—as part of a new generation of young riders from North America who were not polluted by Europe’s doping culture. Clean cut and quietly spoken, Hamilton seemed to be too smart to risk his health by doping, especially with the litany of dugs that appeared to be necessary to maximize the use of EPO.
As a sports journalist, you have to draw a fine line between writing about an athlete’s accomplishments and getting to know him (or her) through interviews and chats at races so that you can put those performances in perspective. Having had friendly working relationships with most of the sport’s successful modern “Anglo” riders—from pioneers Phil Anderson and Jonathan Boyer, followed by Steve Bauer, Greg LeMond, Robert Millar, Sean Kelly and Sean Yates, along with Andy Hampsten, Allan Peiper, Davis Phinney, Stephen Roche and many others—it seemed natural that I should do the same with the next wave, led by Lance Armstrong, Hamilton, George Hincapie, Chris Horner, Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer, Kevin Livingston, Fred Rodriguez and Christian Vande Velde.
It was difficult not to like all these guys. They were all young, intelligent and ambitious. And they were all making their mark in pro racing. When you did a one-on-one interview with those American cyclists you expected them to be truthful. That was the case in nearly all aspects of what they said about their lives, their training and their races—and you hoped it was true when they condemned doping and dopers.
Hamilton says in his book that he lied about his doping practices, even with his close friends and family. He was not the only one. I will write more about doping next week, but for now I’ll end with a quote from Brian Holm, now a highly regarded directeur sportif with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. The Dane wrote about his 13 years as a pro cyclist in his 2002 autobiography, in which he admitted to doping, just as Hamilton has today.
After Holm and many of his counterparts elaborated on their use of EPO at the Deutsche Telekom team, he said this to a Danish publication: “When I turned pro there was not that much talk about doping…and finally it was so normal that no-one thought it was illegal anymore. Many from my generation say that they were never doped, just as I said myself for a long time, because you thought that it really wasn’t doping or cheating. I actually think I could have passed a lie-detector test when I stopped my pro cycling career [in 1998], because I was convinced I was clean. It is only years later that you start realizing that it may not have been the case after all. It had become such a big part of your daily routine.”
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There’s been talk that an amnesty for past doping offenders is the path to a new era in clean cycling. But it’s not that easy to disperse years of pollution from a sport that is, more than ever, haunted by ghosts of doping past. An amnesty may be one step toward the goal of putting the dirty decades behind us, but it’s going to be far more difficult to purge professional cycling of its systemic sins.
We hope that the latest round of riders coming out or being outed is the start of a final phase in the cleansing process; but for it to be a truly effective process it has to be extended to the other tainted players, including team owners, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, coaches, team doctors, rider agents, event promoters, the sport’s administrators, race officials and, yes, journalists.
When I first became immersed in the European racing scene almost 50 years ago, there were no rules against using drugs in cycling (or any other sport). I raced for an amateur team in France and was aware that some teammates popped amphetamines to help them win lap primes in circuit races. I was offered the same drugs but knew that no amount of performance-enhancement would turn me into a Tour de France rider. I also knew that ex-pros with a dicey reputation worked as a mini-mafia in the same amateur races I competed in, and that top British riders I trained with were reluctant to sign for continental pro teams because of those teams’ doping cultures.
The cycling authorities didn’t legislate against performance-enhancing drugs until 1965. The very first tests were carried out at the amateurs-only Tour of Britain Milk Race, and the country was shocked when it was announced before the final stage that race leader Luis Santamarina of Spain and two others had tested positive for amphetamines and were being thrown out of the race. That shock was somewhat tempered when Britain’s Les West won the last stage by a couple of minutes and took the overall title. The fight against doping had begun….
The British public was even more shocked two years later when their former Sportsman of the Year, Tom Simpson, died at the Tour de France on the climb of Mont Ventoux. The coroner said that the amphetamine pills discovered in his racing jersey pockets were only part of the reason he died from heat exhaustion. Simpson was my cycling hero. I met him and saw him race many times, including at the foot of the Ventoux on that tragic day at the 1967 Tour. It was hard to accept that he’d doped and died.
Simpson’s death forced the Tour organizers to introduce daily drug tests, and the 1968 edition was dubbed the “Good Health Tour” by J.B. Wadley, my editor at International Cycle Sport, the magazine where I began my first full-time journalism job. Everyone was hoping that the new testing program would end doping practices, but all it did was make the riders and their teams more secretive as they found ways to elude positive tests. That was confirmed a decade later when Tour leader Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the 1978 race at L’Alpe d’Huez. The anti-doping inspector discovered under Pollentier’s shorts a rubber bulb containing clean urine, with which he’d intended to fill the test tubes at the post-stage medical control.
I was one of a half-dozen journalists who visited with Pollentier the next morning on the balcony of his hotel room. We learned that his actions weren’t much different from what many (most?) riders had been doing for years to avoid testing positive. That candid conversation on doping with the disgraced yellow jersey was the basis of a 2,000-word news story I wrote that week in 1978 for The Sunday Times of London, one of the first mainstream articles to look at the underbelly of pro cycling.
Pollentier’s transgression led to more stringent anti-doping rules, but another 10 years on, at the 1988 Tour, another race leader, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for a steroid-masking agent. He wasn’t sanctioned because the incriminating product (already banned by the International Olympic Committee) had yet to be added to the UCI’s list of proscribed drugs. We again wrote our stories about the hidden depth of cycling’s drugs problems—but when no one would talk to the press about what was actually going on inside the peloton, it was impossible to give details or to know the full extent of doping in cycling.
Yellow jersey Delgado’s escape from disqualification was the highest-profile “doping” incident in the ’80s, when the punishment for testing positive at the Tour was a cash fine plus a 10-minute time penalty. As a result, not much was made of the slap-on-the-wrists doping violations of top Dutch pros Steven Rooks, Gert-Jan Theunisse, Johan Van der Velde and Joop Zoetemelk. It was only years later that they and other Tour riders admitted to their abuse of amphetamines, steroids or testosterone.
For the few English-speaking cycling journalists who traveled to Europe in the ’80s, those were heady times. We wrote about the break-through successes of Sean Kelly, Steve Bauer and Phil Anderson in the classics, Greg LeMond’s and Stephen Roche’s victories at the worlds and Tour, and Roche’s and Andy Hampsten’s wins at the Giro d’Italia. Some skeptics said they couldn’t have achieved those successes without doping, but we never saw anything suspicious in that pre-team-bus era, even though we’d chat with the riders in the showers at Paris-Roubaix, interview them during massage sessions at the Tour, and do extensive one-on-ones at their homes.
The amazing performances of Kelly and Roche in that period made them Ireland’s biggest sporting stars, a fact that encouraged Irish sportswriter David Walsh to move to Paris with his young family to cover their stories. We became friends and followed many Tours together over the following decade or so. Walsh also made friends with journeyman Irish pro Paul Kimmage, who was then racing for a French team and shared some of the doping stories with Walsh that became the basis of Kimmage’s 1990 book, “Rough Ride.”
After that whistle-blowing book was published, Kimmage became a pariah in the European peloton, which remained highly secretive about its use of drugs. But it was clear that athletes and sports doctors had moved on from the haphazard use of amphetamines and other stimulants. I wrote an editorial in VeloNews in 1989 titled “EPO: The scourge of the 1990s?” that pointed out the dangers of the new blood-boosting hormone, which had just been approved for use with cancer patients by the Food and Drug Administration.
The speculation, unfortunately, became a fact. An early, but unconfirmed, indication of EPO use came at the 1991 Tour when, one by one, the high-profile PDM team fell sick and dropped out. The last man standing was Kelly, who a few of us, including Aussie colleague Rupert Guinness, chatted with the morning before stage 11 when he and the rest of the team flew home. Kelly said that they’d all been sick, as if they had food poisoning, though it was later confirmed it was due to injections of a badly stored nutritional supplement, Intralipid, used for recovery … though doping was still suspected.
The wheels started to come off the EPO wagon in 1998, when Belgian soigneur Willy Voet was caught with a station wagon packed with EPO, human growth hormone, artificial testosterone and amphetamines that was destined for the world No 1-ranked Festina team at the Tour. The race took a back seat as revelation after revelation emerged from the Festina camp, and when the French police intervened to arrest team officials, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc held his infamous late-night press conference in Brive to exclude the whole Festina team from the Tour.
I sat up all night to write another doping story for The Sunday Times, this one based around Festina’s Aussie team member Neil Stephens, after he spoke with companion Rupert Guinness about his criminal-like treatment at an overnight questioning session in a French jail. The subsequent riders’ strike, further police raids and a second strike, followed by mass team withdrawals almost ended the Tour—and drowned out a dramatic comeback by eventual winner Marco Pantani to beat defending champion Jan Ullrich.
The Festina Affair began a new wave on the battle against doping, a story that I’ll continue next Tuesday.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: For an American cycling journalist, historic pieces on the Tour de France are our stock-in-trade. There’s nothing easier or more fun to write. And they are even easier to sell. Why? Because the story lines are all so straightforward. You’ve got LeMond vs. Hinault in 1986. Then you’ve got LeMond vs. Fignon in ’89. LeMond vs. Chiappucci in ’90. Armstrong vs. Ullrich in ’00, ’01 and ‘03, just for starters. They are almost boxing matches in their simplicity. Despite the other 190-odd riders present, those Tours were mano-a-mano matches.
The ’86 Tour is king is this regard because of the intra-team rivalry between Hinault and LeMond. On top of the interloping Yank, you’ve got broken promises, the pressure of the media and a team that wasn’t afraid to split along partisan lines. Most burgers aren’t this juicy.
I lay that before you as a backdrop to what I have to say about the ’12 Tour. It is, for me, the most disappointing Tour de France I’ve seen since perhaps ’94 and ’95, which had drama the way Congress has compromise. The most interesting thing happening on the road is Tejay Van Garderen for the simple fact that he’s the most unknown of quantities. And this isn’t just a jingoistic yearning for the next Hampsten, which is to say a climber of such aw-shucks sincerity and tremendous gifts he is realizing he doesn’t know the world before him.
The thing about Van Garderen is that the world is littered with riders who were flashes in the pan, young riders who showed flashes of greatness only to ride anonymously for the rest of their careers. But there are also the stories of LeMond, Fignon and Hinault who showed greatness early on and then delivered over and over and that’s why Van Garderen’s ascension to team leader for BMC is a much more interesting story line than Cadel Evans’ collapse. Did he never really get in shape this year? Has he been sick for most of the Tour and the team has played coy? Whatever. Who really cares enough to read beyond the possible headline: Evans Admits He’s Over the Hill.
Off the course, all the drama is to be found in the interviews with Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. Poor Froome. He deserves credit for sticking to the game plan and pledging his support to Wiggins and his team to any microphone within range. That he has managed to keep his cool despite the obvious provocations from the media, invitations from the world’s biggest media outlets to go rogue isn’t Jesus-in-the-cinnamon-bun miraculous, but it’s as impressive as anything I saw in the recent X Games.
Having said that, let’s take a moment to parse the future, or even a couple of futures. First, once Wiggins wins this Tour, we all know he will start last and wear #1 at the start of next year’s Tour. It’s silly to suggest that he’ll be anything other than Sky’s captain, unless some calamity befalls him during the spring. Any suggestion that maybe next year would be Froome’s turn is laughable. Not if Wiggins is on-form. Now, could Froome leave and assume the leader’s role at another team? Sure. But unless that team has a history of properly supporting a grand tour champion (think Saxo Bank, not Omega Pharma-Quickstep), he shouldn’t buy that yellow watch just yet.
There. I think I’ve covered all the interesting story lines from this year’s Tour, unless you want to include all the message board chatter by American viewers who are tired of Scott Moninger’s interlaced-fingers-jabber and begging for Todd Gogulski.
Back in undergraduate school I wrote a paper for a history class in which I analyzed the rise of Moammar Gadhafi as American enemy #1. I noted that in 1985 he wasn’t much different or doing different things than he was in 1978. The big change was the end of the Iranian hostage crisis. Once Iran stopped being our biggest international problem, once the Ayatollah Khomeni stopped being the villain-at-large, we needed someone new. Qadaffi fit the bill.
What this Tour lacks is a villain. Froome is the best candidate, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to wear the black hat. And he’s smart to beg off. If he went off the res he’d be far less attractive to courting teams. The first question on everyone’s mind would be whether or not he was coachable—capable of sticking to the script. Hell, the Schlecks make it look like they are sticking to the script and they are difficult enough, Frank’s B sample notwithstanding.
Yes, we need a villain, but not everyone is up to the task. Alberto Contador has a thick skin, thick enough to play the villain and play it well. Hinault had an even thicker skin, which is saying something. To play the villain, one must understand that though you may lose the hearts of the fans, there’s a kind of satisfaction in infamy.
It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Most cyclists set some sort of challenge each year to give them an incentive to get into shape. For many years, my challenge has been a long ride in the Rockies west of my adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado, on my May 5 birthday. I began this now annual rite of springtime at age 50, when I mapped out a 50-mile route to ride with a couple-dozen colleagues from the office. It was a day of strong southerly winds and only half the group made it to the final loop through the foothills. I’ve been adding a mile to the ride every year since then, and now most of it is in the mountains rather than on the plains.
That’s probably the wrong way to go about this venture. Friends say, “You should be riding on flat roads.” And they ask, “What are going to do when you’re in your 80s or 90s?” So I remind them of the 100-year-old French cyclist, Robert Marchand, who set a world hour record of 24.25 kilometers for his age group on the UCI Velodrome in Switzerland back in February. My sister tells me that I should switch my ride to kilometers, and that’s a choice I do think about … but not for long. I grew up with miles, so miles it remains.
I did have a few concerns in the lead-up to this year’s birthday ride last Saturday. Although I run three times a week to stay in shape, I didn’t take my first 2012 bike ride until late March — mainly because of some hectic traveling and new work schedules. However, I did manage to get in 10 short rides before May 5, including a longest one of 30 miles that went over a climb destined for this August’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. That gave me the confidence I could again tackle my birthday ride and its 6,000 feet of climbing.
My bike, I have to admit, was in far worse shape than I was. Fortunately, I managed to get a booking with Vecchio’s Bicicletteria, the iconic Boulder bike shop, whose owner Peter Chisholm worked his magic, fitting new pedals, chain, hub bearings and cone, cable housings, inner tubes, brake pads and a bar-end stop. When I took it for a spin the night before the ride, I couldn’t believe how smoothly everything was working. Thanks, Peter!
So my bike was ready, I was ready, and I knew the two (younger) friends coming with me had been riding a lot. Even the weather was looking good: a forecast for partly cloudy skies, high-50s early in the day, high-60s in the high country and high-70s back in Boulder. As for the ride itself, I’d modified the course to include an initial loop on some of the dirt roads used in this year’s Boulder-Roubaix race.
Because cell-phone coverage is spotty in the deep canyons of the Rockies and up on the high-altitude Peak-to-Peak Highway, I knew I wouldn’t get any live coverage of Saturday’s opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia — but I was looking forward to watching the Gazzetta dello Sport video of the stage when I got home. I was of course hoping that local hero Taylor Phinney, who has trained on these Colorado roads for years, would have the form to take the 2012 Giro’s first pink jersey on this Cinco de Mayo.
Besides sharing a birthday with such diverse characters as “Monty Python” comic Michael Palin and singers Adele, Chris Brown and Tammy Wynette, I expect unusual things tend to happen on my birthday. When I did the May 5 ride in 2000 — already a dozen years ago! — I learned that morning that Gino Bartali had died at 85. Later in the day, I heard that Lance Armstrong, on a Tour de France scouting trip, crashed heavily descending a mountain pass in the Pyrenees. And, in the heavens that night 12 years ago, there was a very rare conjunction of the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon. Some day!
This year, besides the start of the Giro in Denmark, May 5 would see a “supermoon” and a meteor shower from Halley’s comet. That would come later. First, there were birthday cards to open, Facebook greetings to read and phone calls to take before I set off on another challenging ride.
My watch read 7:30 when I spotted Steve circling the road near the end of his street. We reached across to shake hands and he wished me “Happy Birthday.” We were soon on our way, heading east, when we were passed (with a quick greeting) by two spin-class coaches from Steve’s gym who were out training on their full triathlon rigs. Seeing dozens of other riders (and generally being passed by them!) became a pattern of the day. That’s because it was a Saturday. When my birthday is on a weekday, I usually ride alone and rarely see another cyclist.
This time, I wasn’t alone. Steve’s a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund and a recreational cyclist. He was wearing his Triple Bypass jersey, reminding me that every July he does the infamous 120-mile mass ride over the 11,000-foot Juniper, Loveland and Vail Passes. It helps to have a strong riding companion! And his wife Martha, who oversees my weight training most weeks, would join us where our route entered the canyons.
But first we pounded along the dirt roads through a springtime paradise of infinite green, riding past rushing creeks, open meadows and an organic farm called “Pastures of Plenty” — which seemed to sum it all up. After a brief connection with Highway 36, busy with groups of cyclists heading north in the bright sunshine, we joined Martha and started up the 16-mile climb toward the Gold Rush-era village of Ward at 9,000 feet elevation.
As my weights coach followed me up the long, long climb’s culminating double-digit grade, with me feeling like a sagging Vincenzo Nibali muscling his way up the Côte de Saint-Nicolas in last month’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I was happy to hear her tell me: “Good job!” Usually, I have the deck at the Ward village store to myself. But on this pleasantly warm Saturday morning, there was a never-ending stream of riders, most of them stopping to eat homemade cookies, pump black coffee from a Thermos and guzzle 99-cent cans of Coke. We joined them.
The three of us then climbed the last little drag up to Peak-to-Peak. I told Martha that this scenic byway was built by “unemployed” workers during the Great Depression, and it was originally planned to link Long’s Peak with Pike’s Peak, but only its northern half was completed before the war started. I’m glad this half was built, because riding the always-curving, roller-coaster road, with close-up views of snow-covered peaks and distant views of the plains, is always the highlight of my ride. Back in the 1980s, I saw the likes of Andy Hampsten and Greg LeMond doing battle on Peak-to-Peak in the Coors Classic, and this coming August their successors Tom Danielson, Tejay Van Garderen, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde will be racing up and down these hills in the USA Pro Challenge.
Martha, Steve and I flew down the last long downhill into Nederland, and continued on, riding against the wind up the dead-end valley to Eldora before returning to Ned and a leisurely al-fresco lunch at the Whistler’s Café. All that remained was a 20-mile dash back to base, descending 3,000 feet in the canyon alongside the fast-flowing Boulder Creek. It was an exhilarating ending to our ride, followed by the excitement of learning that, after two other onetime Boulder residents, Hampsten and Vande Velde, Boulder native Phinney had become only the third American to don the Giro’s maglia rosa.
Thanks, Taylor. Thanks, Peter. Thanks, Steve. Thanks Martha. Good job!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
As far as I know, Maurice De Muer and Jerry Casale never met. But these two men, one French, the other American, shared a love for cycling in very different ways, and each was a mentor to countless numbers of young cyclists. They both died last week.
De Muer, 90, passed away after a short illness. He was best known as a successful directeur sportif from the 1960s through the ’80s. Casale, who lost a long battle with prostate cancer at age 70, was a co-founder of Philadelphia’s CoreStates USPRO Championship (now the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship).
Casale was born in the Chestnut Hill suburb of Philadelphia, where his dad, Gerald F. Casale Sr, owned a bike store, Hill Cycle Shop on Germantown Avenue, which he opened in 1929. Father and son worked together at the shop for some four decades. The Casales saw their business as a place where riders could gather and soak up their atmosphere created by true cycling enthusiasts. One of the teenagers who came to the shop was Dave Chauner, who became one of the country’s best racers before turning to race promotion.
The Casales ran and sponsored Team Hill, an amateur squad that helped young riders get started in the sport. And the younger Casale’s skills as a mechanic saw he make trips to European races. One trip was as chief mechanic for the small U.S. pro team, headed by Greg LeMond, at the 1984 world championship in Barcelona, Spain, and that’s where he had the idea for creating a major road race in his hometown.
Casale said the impressive boulevard at the foot of the Barcelona circuit’s Montjuich hill reminded him of Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway — which is where he and Chauner decided to put the start/finish for the Philadelphia race. They also needed a climb. They “discovered” it in the Manayunk neighborhood, on the route Chauner took to ride from his home to Hill Cycle. Chauner named it The Wall because it climbs at a vicious 17-percent grade up a street of row houses that wouldn’t look out of place in a European classic.
The race was an immediate success and became this country’s biggest one-day classic, where stars such as Davis Phinney, Lance Armstrong, Mark Cavendish and Matt Goss have done battle over the past 28 years. Casale, who closed the bike store after his dad died in 1993, became a fulltime race-operations director with Chauner, who was the smooth-talking promoter. Together, they put on some 200 bike races all over the country, including, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and West Virginia.
I’ve attended nearly every edition of the Philly race, so my indelible memory of Casale is watching him — a short, broad-chested, balding figure, usually dressed in black — doing what he did best: helping other people however many different duties he had on race day. But most of his work was done well before the race, making sure that the logistics were always in place.
According to his official obituary, Gerald F. Casale II is survived by his wife of almost 50 years, Philomena “Cookie” Casale, their three sons Gerald F. Casale III, Nicholas and Joseph, and six grandchildren.
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While Casale helped pro cycling get established in a country that had no heritage for road racing, De Muer came from a land that fomented the sport. Born in Normandy in 1920, De Muer grew up in le Nord (the North), the French region made famous by the cobblestone roads of Paris-Roubaix. He became a racer at the end of World War II, and embarked on a nine-year career with the Peugeot-Dunlop team. His best results came in 1944, a victory at the Paris-Camembert semi-classic, and 1946, second place behind Italian Fermo Camellini at Paris-Nice.
After retiring as a pro, De Muer became a dealer for Peugeot bikes in le Nord, but stayed in touch with his former teammates, who included 1950 Tour de France winner Ferdi Kübler. De Muer returned to the sport by starting a small regional team in 1950 for a rival bike manufacturer, Sauvage-Lejeune, The team went pro in 1961 with title sponsorship from Pelforth, a beer marketed by the local Pélican brewery.
The Pelforth-Sauvage-Lejeune team earned its fame at the Tour de France, and De Muer signed top riders such as Henry Anglade, the brothers Joseph and Georges Groussard and Jan Janssen. In 1969 De Muer moved to the powerful Bic team, following the accidental death of its directeur sportif Raymond Louviot. It was with Bic that De Muer guided French-based Spanish rider Luis Ocaña to victory at the 1973 Tour de France.
But De Muer’s most successful tenure was back with his original team, Peugeot, where he directed Bernard Thévenet to Tour titles in 1975 and ’77. Talking about De Muer, Thévenet said last week: “I remember a man passionate for cycling, having a strong desire for results … whether it was a stage of the Tour de France or the GP de Peymenade in February.” De Muer also directed a new generation of English-speaking riders at Peugeot, including Australian Phil Anderson, Scotsman Robert Millar and Irishman Stephen Roche — all of whom went on to become Tour de France stars.
For all the sport’s current sophistication, De Muer worked in an old-school era, where he and his peers turned a blind-eye to drug-taking and where he worked with his wife Jacqueline to trace race routes on a Michelin map to decide the best places for his team to attack. After retirement, De Muer lived in Seillans, in Provence, the small hilltop town where he took his Peugeot team for training camps in the 1970s.
He was still making daily rides until recently, but after a fire burned down his Seillans house last fall he moved to a nearby retirement home, where he died. Former Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who turned pro with De Muer with the Pelforth team, told Reuters, “He was a little tired in recent months, but he was one of cycling’s great personalities.”
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson