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
All things considered, this has to be the strangest two weeks of my cycling life. A bit over a week ago I had the worst crash I’ve ever suffered on the bike. To give you some idea how radical my impact was, the only image I can conjure to describe the experience is the Looney Tunes short in which the ACME catapult slams Wile E. Coyote into the dirt. My experience would have been just as comical had it not been, you know, me.
It takes a most unusual calculus to figure that 47 stitches is in any way a blessing, but it’s been 13 or 14 years since I was last on the deck courtesy of a road bike. Pardon me, but I kinda feel like my number was up. Not crashing for more than 10 years is its own kind of fortune. Similarly, the fact that I didn’t manage to break my jaw or any teeth, or bite through my tongue is luck on a scale that could make me as superstitious as the entire European peloton. Where’s my rabbit’s foot? Screw that, somebody get me the whole damn bunny, STAT!
But my crash came the day the USADA “Reasoned Decision” on Lance Armstrong was issued and trying to read pieces of that on my iPhone in the ER through the lens of a morphine drip was as comically black as Slim Pickens riding the nuke in “Dr. Strangelove,” just minus the glee. Again, you’ll have to pardon me, but this would be where I think the gods gave me a taste of cosmic irony.
Oh yeah bud? Mid-morning ride? You think you can afford that time away, do you? How ’bout this? WHAP!
Tess of the d’Urbervilles didn’t know how good she had it.
The hand-wringing over the derailment of the Blue Train has been enough to break fingers. The anger burning in cycling fans has hovered like a swarm of Africanized bees, swirling around, looking for its most suitable victim. Here are a few stings for the riders, a few more for the media, a couple for the sponsors who turned a blind eye to the obvious, a dozen more for the UCI. The rest can go to everyone who ever drew a paycheck from Tailwind Management. But wait, let’s save a couple for Chechu Rubiera for being more tone deaf than a whale oil lamp. Speaking to El Diario de Mallorca (link is to the Cyclingnews piece), the newspaper of record of Mallorca (yeah, Chechu, to defend your former team captain make sure to talk to the smallest newspaper possible, preferably one on an island), he said he never saw Armstrong dope. Okay, fine, maybe he didn’t—but that doesn’t do much to rebut the testimony of those who did. Weirder still, he called Michele Ferrari the best coach there is.
Well, I suppose in a way, we can all agree on that.
It’s a shame he doesn’t grasp that his defense did nothing to help Armstrong but did a marvelous job of making him (Rubiera) look like a tinfoil hat.
But that hardly counts as news compared to the fact that the UCI has attempted to distance itself from its once favorite son, Armstrong. It announced that, yes, it will ratify the USADA reasoned decision, thus stripping him of his seven Tour wins, plus every other result he gained since August 1, 1998. This is either but one important step to cleaning up the sport, or it is the sound of the other shoe dropping—in other words, the end of the progress surrounding this case. Previous episodes, such as the Festina scandal, would suggest this is as far as this episode will drive, but other events suggest this car hasn’t hit its tree just yet.
The flight of sponsors from Armstrong in just two days was to watch the inverse of the Titanic. Rather than people jumping off a ship, this was nearly a dozen ships jumping off a person. How many dollars left the bike industry that day? Think of what you could have funded with that! (I mean, aside from the world’s best doping program.) And the LA Times has weighed in now with an editorial—rather than the skewed perspective of Michael Hiltzik (and while he makes some good points, he can’t change the obvious)—that calls for Armstrong to cut all ties to his eponymous foundation, which is a severing of ties so monumental it’s a bit like suggesting all the disgraced banks abandon their office buildings on Wall St. One is synonymous with the other. Gads, he could be forced to fly coach after this.
Finally, we finally have for all to see a true one-to-one correlation between doping and sponsor departure. For years to come Google searches of “Lance Armstrong” and “sponsor” will turn up item upon item about the sponsor diaspora from the one-time marketing goldmine that was Big Tex. If anything will ever demonstrate to cycling just how seriously sponsors dislike doping, no moment is more teachable.
It’s been curious to sit back and watch the incredible flood of negative stories that are now surfacing about Armstrong. The way these stories—take this one for instance—were kept under wraps for so long and yet now are bubbling out like an over-soaped load of laundry is as wondrous as the comeback was itself. Who knew?
It’s into this maelstrom of seething, mama-grizzly rage that Skins chairman Jaimie Fuller issued his open letter to UCI president Pat McQuaid. Incredibly, going to the compression wear maker’s home page brings up Fuller’s introduction to the letter, complete with his picture, which is a fine way to really personalize the message; honestly, it’s a better touch than a signature. It’s a genius move—seriously—someone should have done before now.
Of course the week’s events can’t be as cut-and-dried as that. No, they have to be salted. Rabobank, cycling’s single most loyal sponsor, announced they are ending their sponsorship of their team following a 17-year run. Their official statement cited the USADA investigation into Armstrong and US Postal as their reason for pulling out of the sport, but of course, nothing is ever as simple as it looks. Rather than damn the athlete and his team, Rabobank official aimed a scathing attack at the UCI, writing, “The report shows that the international cycling world is flawed. Doping is supported even within the highest institutions of the cycling world.”
The UCI’s response was so off the mark that crews are working to pull its fuselage out of Lake Geneva. Rather than accept the criticism that most of the cycling world believes the organization to be corrupt they “accepted” that the sponsor was pulling out due to the organization opening disciplinary proceedings against one of its sponsored riders, Carlos Barredo, going as far as to cite, “a more recent action taken by the UCI against a rider of the team, the UCI understands the context which has led to this decision being reached.”
The UCI is the idiot husband whose wife announces she is leaving because he won’t stop cheating, to which he replies, ‘Oh, so you’re upset that I told you your haircut is ugly?’
Previously, I thought if there’s perhaps one constituency that McQuaid might respect and listen to it’s the heads of sponsoring companies. Because the UCI has yet to listen to the riders, the team directors or the fans, it was either natural or naive to think maybe they’ll listen to sponsors. Now we know. Fuller’s grenade over the transom is a great move, a parental, “Get your room cleaned up or there will be no more allowance.” But based on their response to Rabobank I think what the UCI really needs is that ACME catapult, something to knock some sense into them.