Much has already been written and said about the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey. It ranges from naive praise to dismissive disbelief. My purpose isn’t to either defend him or further scorch the earth at his feet; rather, I’d like to offer some perspective to view this within the larger framework of the evolving myth of Lance Armstrong.
The general sentiment of Armstrong among RKP readers, the collective room temperature, isn’t hard to gauge. Many of you are tired of the lies, tired of the myth, tired of him. So why pay attention now? Because Lance Armstrong told the truth to Oprah. Based on what we know, not everything he told was the truth, nor was it all of the truth we want to hear. But he admitted to doping. It’s an important first step. That he wouldn’t roll over on any of his co-conspirators—in particular Johan Bruyneel and Thom Weisel—was the omission I feared would sour an otherwise bold change of heart. His continued denial of a coverup in 2001 at the Tour de Suisse was just as troubling.
When he told Oprah that he wanted to deal with what he had done, it may have seemed a noble move to some, but then he added that he didn’t want to address the actions of others. We all know that the best he could do right now is to be completely forthright.
What’s unfortunate about the first part of Oprah’s interview with Armstrong is that by drawing a line in the sand and telling her that he wasn’t going to discuss the actions of others he eliminated the anticipation that he’d reveal anything surprising, something we didn’t already know. Part two of the interview is a foregone conclusion. He will confess to some things we accept as true and he may deny a couple of details that we also accept as true.
The only surprises in store for us are really those items he continues to deny.
For my part, I was disappointed when Oprah asked him when he began doping and his answer wasn’t immediate, wasn’t detailed. Telling her, “I suppose earlier in my career … mid ‘90s,” is an unacceptably vague answer. The only way I’m willing to believe he doesn’t remember both the month and year he began is if it was some time in the 1980s. Either way, I’m unwilling to accept he doesn’t remember the year he began.
He also told Oprah that he wasn’t a bully before cancer. I call shenanigans on that as well. He’s never not been a rough-hewn character who wanted his way. When I was a race mechanic, USA Cycling staff shared Lance Armstrong stories the way stoners trade arrest stories. Those who told the stories did so with an air of amusement, that while his behavior didn’t conform with the genteel demeanor expected of athletes sponsored by USA Cycling, they were willing to indulge him, a tiny gift for a guy who was destined to make their stock split. Perhaps Lance and I define bully differently, but where I come from, only bullies always get their way, and until very recently, Lance got his way.
I think much of the interview was truly aimed not at the public but at his aforementioned co-conspirators. It was a flare from him to demonstrate that he wasn’t going to rat them out, that he could have, but didn’t. Considering Bruyneel’s appeal looms, it could also be considered a shot across his bow—’I didn’t rat you out, bro. Don’t rat me out.’ CNN is claiming that the interview was a win for Oprah, her biggest “get” ever (which defies comprehension), but backfired on Armstrong.
If indeed Armstrong’s interview is only worsening his situation, there’s a simple reason. What we’ve needed from Lance wasn’t just some truth, we’ve needed what we expect in sworn testimony—the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We, the people, don’t feel we got that from him, and that’s why this was a fail for the average cycling fan, if not the general public as well.
I will say I was relieved to hear Armstrong admit that a single call to Frankie and Betsy Andreu wasn’t going to be enough to undo the damage of nearly a decade of attacks. When asked if he was forgiven, he was bang on the money in his response: “They’ve been hurt too badly … and a 40-minute conversation isn’t enough.”
Still, nothing that he said can overcome the disappointment of hearing him say of his past, “Such a bad story, so toxic … a lot of it is true.” From the jaws of admission—an opportunity for real contrition and reflection—he managed to snatch defense. It’s a shame he doesn’t appreciate what we’ve all come to learn about his story—that it was so fantastic, so mythic in its scope that no one—not Landis, not Hamilton, not the Andreus—ever needed to invent anything about him.
The inventions were his.
When I heard the news that Lance Armstrong was considering a confession, I chuckled. Back in the news already? We shouldn’t be surprised that he’s in the news again, already. Even without a confession to throw into the mix, the Lance Armstrong show isn’t over by a longshot. We’ve still got Johan Bruyneel’s appeal to play out, and that guarantees to make this story more amusing if nothing else. I say amusing, because I suspect Bruyneel’s defense will be as detached from reality as Hein Verbruggen’s suggestion that he knew Armstrong to be clean.
Then there is the possible perjury charge Armstrong faces due to his testimony in the SCA case, not to mention the civil litigation that could siphon off more millions than his lawyers have already swallowed. In short, news regarding Armstrong will continue to keep him in the media spotlight for a few years to come, no matter how tired you are of him.
When I actually considered the notion of a confession, though, my initial thought was that would be like General Electric paying taxes. Not gonna happen. The motivation for his possible confession has been said to be a desire to compete as a triathlete and runner. Could it be that he could have his ban reduced to less than eight years? This would be where we conjure the image of winged simians and sphincters. And unless his ban is reduced to less than eight years, all he would get out of the deal is the opportunity to be the world’s fastest age-grouper; he’s already 41. He’s not going to win Ironman—any Ironman—at 49.
I suspect that competition, while relevant to his desires today, is but a red herring to his longer-term aspirations. First is the issue of income. His net worth is estimated to be $125 million. Some estimates suggest that as much as half that fortune could be erased by lawyers and settlements. Given the expenses associated with flying around on private jets and the fact that he doesn’t have the money fountains of either the Livestrong Foundation or Nike to keep his bank account topped off (or outright cover said travel), Armstrong could be facing a lifestyle downgrade.
Armstrong needs the confession in order to climb out of the box he’s in. Right now, he’s disgraced and essentially unemployable. With a confession—penalties aside—he can begin patching up relationships with the likes of Livestrong and Nike, which would allow him to begin earning again, through a means other than wealth management. Americans love a good confession, and the only thing we love more than a tawdry tale is a story of redemption.
We shouldn’t bank on personal growth for Armstrong as a result of confession. See it for what it is: a business strategy. Confession in this case will simply be another PR effort. Confession may be good for the soul, but we shouldn’t expect that Armstrong’s motivation is a change of heart.
The single greatest motivation for a confession by Armstrong has nothing to do with athletics, though, and this is where a confession of some variety could actually pay dividends. Armstrong has long eyed politics as his next act following the wind-down of his life as an athlete. Should Armstrong be convicted of perjury, because it is considered a crime of moral turpitude, he’ll be unable to hold any elected office other than triathlon club president. A negotiated confession, one that is given in exchange for some variety of plea deal to take the possibility of a perjury case off the table, may be Armstrong’s most compelling reason to confess now, even though the entire world knows enough about his doping to write a Wikipedia entry on it.
Forget for an instant that he definitely perjured himself in his SCA testimony. Forget that we all know that. A plea deal is just that, a negotiated agreement; it is about compromise, not the truth. If Armstrong can avoid being found guilty of perjury, he can run for elected office. Texas governors have a history of colorful nicknames, such as Dubya and Governor Good Hair. What sort of nickname do you suppose Armstrong would receive?
Politics. It always comes down to politics, doesn’t it?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Facebooks and Twitters have been full of apocalyptic references thanks to the easily anticipated fail of the Mayan end-of-the-world prediction. Laughing off the prediction of a 5000-year-old calendar created by a long-extinct people seems easy enough until you think about what cycling has been through this year. Had anyone told me this time last year that Lance Armstrong would be utterly disgraced and bereft of all sponsorship to the point of being dumped by his own eponymous foundation, I’d have laughed until I threw up. Similarly, if you’d told me that half the pro continental cycling teams in the U.S. would be without sponsors for 2013, I’d have laughed, though maybe not to the point of the technicolor yawn. And if you’d told me that there was a revolutionary movement afoot to topple the UCI and replace Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen with people of actual moral fiber, I’d have asked you just which drugs you were taking—and if you’d be willing to share them with me. For cycling, at least, it does seem a bit like end times.
The reality is, this is a year unlike any other the sport of cycling has ever faced. The news has been more bad than good this year, so this year’s awards may have more snark than praise. Herewith are a few things we think are worth remembering. And for good measure, this time around, we’ve asked Patrick O’Grady to sit in with our band.
News of the decade: Even though this one isn’t over, not by a longshot, I think we can call this one now—the actual fall of Lance Armstrong. Not only does most of the rational world believe he doped—a conclusion I didn’t think we’d ever get most folks to reach—sponsors have run from him like cute girls from a leper colony. I had an easier time getting a date in eighth grade than he does finding a sponsor today. That his own foundation wouldn’t shake hands with him with rubber gloves says a lot about how badly everyone wants to distance themselves from him, that is, excepting Johan Bruyneel, Chechu Rubiera and a few other pros who don’t understand that most people see doping the way they see racism—completely unacceptable.
Most believable Grand Tour winner: Ryder Hesjedal. I don’t care what Bradley Wiggins says about how he hates dopers or how the fact that he’s not as fast as Armstrong was proves he isn’t a doper. The fact that he won stage races in March, April, May and June before winning the Tour and then revving up once more to take the ITT at the Olympic Games smells as bad as one of my son’s used diapers. I’m not going to accuse him of doping, but if the press are going to be held to a standard of expectation that we’ll speak up when we’re suspicious, well, then I have to say that Wiggins’ never-before-performed season is highly suspicious. Even Eddy Merckx never swept Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour in the same year. Hesjedal, on the other hand, was vulnerable in the Giro. His win was not the inevitable outcome that sucked the life out of watching this year’s Tour. He’s been riding for a team that I have the utmost belief in as a clean program; while I believe that cycling is probably the cleanest it has ever been, I think Garmin-Sharp has taken the best, most transparent approach to demonstrating their team is clean. Hesjedal, as a product of that team, has earned my respect and admiration.
Most clueless person in cycling: This one’s a tie between Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen. I liken them to the small-town mayors in the Southern states when the civil rights legislation was enacted. Those old boys fought integration for any number of spurious reasons, but the biggest problem with them wasn’t that they couldn’t come up with a solid, objective reason to fight equal rights for all people, it was that they failed to see how public opinion had evolved and, like those who now fight gay marriage, how their opinions were coming down on the wrong side of history. Verbruggen lost any credibility as a leader and even as an administrator once he proclaimed that it was the fans’ fault that doping had taken root, that because we wanted to see fast racing the fans had forced the riders to dope. Their mudslinging agains Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton in the wake of those two deciding to finally tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is shameful on the level of scoutmaster sex abuse. Those two can’t go quickly enough.
Best new piece of gear: I can’t not give this to Shimano for the new Dura-Ace 9000. While my full review will come in the next few weeks, let me say that this group is what we hoped for when 7900 came out a few years ago. It’s a group of such magnificent improvement it reminds me of what I thought when I first heard Metallica’s Black Album: How did I ever live without this?
Biggest mistake award: For this one we have to go back to Armstrong. If he had just been willing to set aside his ire with Floyd Landis and give him a spot on RadioShack, his life would be very different right now. I’m not bemoaning our current situation, but come on, there must have been an epic, “D’oh!” in the shower one morning.
The Commander Omertà award: This one goes to Patrick Lefevre for thanking Levi Leipheimer for confessing his previous doping by firing him. If anyone could have sent a more convincing message to the peloton to shut up, I can’t think who could have accomplished that. ‘Shh, don’t tell mom about the pot brownies.’ I’d pay money to have Lefevre retire the day we put McQuaid and Verbruggen out to pasture so that I could hold a Stevil Kinevil-style party. Hell, I’d hire Stevil to run the thing.
The JFK-style Conspiracy Theorist award: This goes to everyone who is unwilling to believe that Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, et al, told the full truth about their doping. Given that Leipheimer didn’t know what Hamilton, Zabriskie or any of the other riders who were ordered to testify before the grand jury would say, not telling the full truth about their involvement in doping was incredibly risky. If any of them were caught in a lie, they’d face prosecution for perjury and those agreements for reduced suspensions would be unwound. The pressure to be truthful was enormous. We should all be willing to take them at their word in this regard. Besides, so far as USADA and USA Cycling are concerned, this matter has been put to rest. You can second-guess it all you want, but you’re not going to get any new answers. Best just to move on.
Most Disappointing Win: Alexander Vinokourov at the Olympic road race. Based on his statements in the media, he has neither fully confessed nor repented his sins. He harks from a generation and mindset we need behind us. His victory salute was a reminder that even if he was clean on that day, the sport needs to be ever-vigilant in its quest for clean(er) cycling. My lack of confidence that he could/would win clean is the doubt that currently undermines my love for professional cycling. This would be why Vino also gets my Most Relief-Inducing Retirement Award.
Best line in a product introduction: Back in October at the introduction of Giro’s new line of clothing we were told how it was meant to pay homage to a new direction in cycling. Giro’s PR guru, Mark Riedy, uttered the line, “No more heroes.” ‘Nuff said.
The One Fingered Salute Award – Peter Sagan. The grown ups tend not to like it so well when some young whipper-snapper gets above his raising and makes them look foolish. The effect is only exacerbated when the whipper-snapper in question does it day after day after day and with increasingly audacious celebratory flourishes. Thus it was that Sagan more or less made the Tours of both California and Switzerland his bitches, while the grown ups flogged away at their pedals somewhere behind in his dusty trail. More than anything, the shy (off the bike) Slovak announced that not only was he not intimidated in the deep end of pro racing, but that he was capable of much more, that his raw power and top-end speed were wed to a racer’s brain far more mature than his youth would suggest.
The All Business Award – Tom Boonen. When I think of Tom Boonen, I have a hard time not thinking about cocaine and under-age super models. Just as a tornado will destroy the homes of both the rich and the poor indiscriminately, Tornado Tom’s approach to his career has created as much damage off the road as on it. But in 2012, the Belgian veteran was all business and all class, owning the cobbled Classics and inching his way one step closer to the record books in a Spring campaign that left the whole racing world with their mouths slightly agape.
The No Business Award – The Schleck Brothers. Luxembourg’s favorite family act must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder placed by a darkly furred feline carpenter, because 2012 couldn’t have gone much worse for them. Chained to the sinking barge of the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team, there was the early season set to with Johann Bruyneel (remember that guy?), a fractious start to an uncertain partnership, which saw both Andy and his brother Franck underperforming in every race they entered. Eventually Andy was injured in a seemingly innocuous crash and Franck got popped for doping.
The Other Shoe Award – Bjarne Riis. In a season when it seemed to be raining shoes, the painfully serious Dane’s reputation has been called into question more often than an Italian Prime Minister’s. Having confessed to doping during his own racing career, there remain serious allegations that he also facilitated doping in his teams as a manager. Tyler Hamilton says he did. Bobby Julich says he didn’t. It seems that, in pro cycling, where there’s smoke now, there was fire a decade ago. Riis’ persistence should really be seen as the test case for what cycling wants to do with its doping past. Will the worst offenders of the ’90s find a future in the sport? Julich’s own fate (fired by Team Sky) suggests one possible answer, but when/if the other shoe drops for Riis will tell us for certain.
The Most Sleep-inducing Grand Tour: Yeah, I know. Many of my British friends will believe it’s sacrilege to suggest that the first Tour de France to see a Brit’ atop the podium in Paris would rank as the most boring of this year’s grand tours. It was more than that. It was one of the most boring Tours in history. Come on ASO, three mountain-top finishes? Thankfully, this year also offered us the Giro and Ryder Hesjedal’s surprising and impressive win over Joaquim Rodríguez and the Vuelta’s three-way battle between Rodríguez, Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde. Here’s hoping that in 2013 the “world’s greatest bicycle race” lives up to that designation.
Most well-deserved victory lap: It’s clear that most agree that the implosion of Lance Armstrong is the cycling story of the year — or as Padraig points out, the story of the decade. It’s hard to disagree, but it’s important to point out that this was far from a new story. It’s a story that Sunday Times of London journalist David Walsh has been telling since 1999. I know first-hand of Walsh’s skepticism, since I spent the ’99 and ’00 Tours with the tenacious Irishman. It was déjà vu all over again when the USADA “reasoned decision” was delivered to the UCI on October 13, 2012. Sure there was more documentation, but most of the allegations were made years ago, when Walsh and Pierre Ballester co-wrote ”L.A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong” in 2004. At the time, Walsh was demonized by the Armstrong camp — which labeled him “the F#cking Troll” — and even shunned by fellow journalists. Well, he who laughs last …. When the report was released and the UCI soon confirmed its conclusions, Walsh teamed up with Paul Kimmage, John Follain and Alex Butler and quickly released ”Lanced: The Shaming of Lance Armstrong,” on October 31st, and followed that with his own, much more personal story “Seven Deadly Sins: My pursuit of Lance Armstrong,” on December 13. I, for one, hope that “Seven Deadly Sins,” sells more than the many works of apparent fiction shilled to an unsuspecting public by writers who should have known better. Maybe he should change the title to “It’s Not About the Bullshite: The Unmaking of the World’s Greatest Sports Fraud,” eh? Quite frankly, the book should be required reading for anyone hoping to work in sports “journalism.” Without that kind of moral compass; without that tenacity and without that consequences-be-damned attitude, we’re all just – to use an old, sadly accurate term — fans with typewriters. Hats off to the “F#cking Troll.” Enjoy the moment. You deserve it, sir.
Inspiring show of support: In recent years, the aforementioned Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen found that filing lawsuits against critics in a friendly, local court could be an effective tool. They, along with the UCI itself, filed suit against former World Anti-Doping Agency head, Dick Pound, and then against Floyd Landis, after he admitted his own doping and alleged the UCI conspired to cover-up Armstrong’s own infractions. Pound issued a brilliantly word non-apology-apology. Landis pretty much blew them off and lost in a default judgment. Then they went after Paul Kimmage. Ooops. Kimmage decided to put up a fight and he soon got overwhelming support from you, the fans. The folks over at Cyclismas.com and NYVeloCity started promoting the “Paul Kimmage Defense Fund” and readers eventually kicked in more than – get this – $92,000 to help in the fight. Kimmage, laid off from the Sunday Times last year, suddenly had the resources to take on the UCI. And, sure enough, McQuaid, Verbruggen and the UCI, put their suit “on hold.” Kimmage, however, is now pursuing his own case. None of that would have been possible had you, the readers, not stepped up to lend a valuable hand.
My favorite photo of the year: This one comes from Betsy Andreu, who offered up photographic evidence of Frankie Andreu’s reaction to Tyler Hamilton’s detailed confessional, “The Secret Race.”
A personal favorite: When it comes to my work in cycling, I think the highlight of the year for me was finding out that the unique business model of LiveUpdateGuy.com actually worked. Thank you to all of those readers who offered help and support during our Live Coverage of all three grand tours. Because of your support, we may well be able to offer the same in 2013. Those, of course, will appear right here on Red Kite Prayer, as well.
Patrick the Other—
Donna Summer Memorial Disc-O Dance Party Platinum Rotor Medallion: To the bicycle industry for trying to hang disc brakes on everything from road bikes to stick ponies. I can understand why bike companies want to sell discs —after all, some shameless hucksters will try to sell you a rat’s asshole, telling you it’s a pinhead’s sweatband, a Chris King headset or the One Ring To Rule Them All — but I don’t understand why anyone who isn’t a pro racer with a team mechanic needs discs. And some of them don’t even need ’em (see Sven Nys, Katie Compton, et al.). If I want pointless complexity “enhancing” my cycling I’ll look to the UCI or USA Cycling for it. Speaking of which. …
The Salvatore Palumbo Good People Certificate: This honor traditionally goes to the nefarious criminal organization most hell-bent on kneecapping the sport of bicycle racing (either USA Cycling or the UCI). This year, it’s USA Cycling, which this year tried putting the squeeze on the wildly successful activities of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, once again confirming our worst fears — that our national governing body cares as much about grassroots bike racing as did Kid Sally Palumbo, organizer of the six-day bike race immortalized in “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” by Jimmy Breslin. One can practically hear USAC caporegime Kid Stevie Johnson ringing up OBRA executive director Kenji Sugahara to hiss, “You could be dead in a bomb accident.”
The Gov. William J. LePetomane Protecting Our Phony-Baloney Jobs Here Gentlemen Citation for Excellence In Oversight: UCI President Pat McQuaid. I still haven’t gotten a “Harrumph” out of that guy. But what I’d really like is an “Adios.”
Charles Foster Kane Snowglobe of Destiny: Lance Armstrong. As reporter Jerry Thompson said of Citizen Kane, Armstrong was “a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it.” We may never know what his personal Rosebud was, but a sled is a fine thing for going downhill fast, if you don’t mind the bonfire at the bottom, and Armstrong was not the first to build his Xanadu from a drug-induced dream.
The effect of the release of USADA’s “reasoned decision” and the accompanying documents has been rather like a Hollywood special-effects explosion. Debris has been raining down from the sky long after the explosion itself has ceased to reverberate. Some of us continue to wince and duck because we know there’s more in the sky than just blue. With a single download George Hincapie has gone from one of the United States’ most beloved riders, to one of its most vilified. Johan Bruyneel has gone from genius mastermind to evil genius. So many characters from the heyday of American cycling have been thrust into the role of criminal that Tyler Hamilton’s one-time team director Bjarne Riis—an enigmatic figure if ever there was one—has the enviable position of occupying a kind of moral purgatory where people aren’t really sure just how to feel about him.
Reams continue to be written about the USADA case, Travis Tygart and, yes, Lance Armstrong. Some of it, like Charles Pelkey’s recent Explainer, will be reasoned and objective. Some of it, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s piece for Business Insider, will get the conclusion wrong due to a lack of understanding of the facts; simply put, Gladwell doesn’t understand that the public wants a clean sport. Unrestrained doping results in deaths, and deaths are bad for the sponsors. Others, like John Eustice’s piece for TIME, hails from an outlook of such moral ambiguity one would prefer he didn’t speak on behalf of the sport; his attitude is a great example of what got us into this mess. This is no time for more of the same. The biggest surprise came from Competitive Cyclist’s “What’s New” blog, which is the most unapologetically ambivalent piece I’ve been able to find. Unfortunately, cycling fans don’t seem to be willing to entertain negative capability where Armstrong is concerned. As a result, no one I know is ready for nostalgia.
One wonders about the curious silence of Sally “Lance Armstrong is a good man” Jenkins, the Washington Post columnist and Armstrong biographer who has been known to take on a sports icon directly, such as when she wrote, “Joe Paterno was a liar, there’s no doubt about that now.“ And then there’s the astoundingly politician-like flip-flop of Phil Liggett who has been far more effective as a PR agent for Armstrong than Mark Fabiani was. His statement that he finds it “very hard to believe Lance Armstrong did not dope” falls rather short of the more definitive, ‘I believe Lance Armstrong doped’, was nonetheless a shocker for those who watched him on the Four Corners program on Australian television, and re-broadcast by CNN in the U.S.
No matter what faults readers may find with the print media, they cannot compare to the sin committed in the orchestrated slander of Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis by Liggett and co-commentator Paul Sherwen. In allowing Armstrong to join them as an investor in an African gold mine, they gave him their short hairs, and the last vestiges of their objectivity.
The outrage about Armstrong is really understandable. His seven wins in the Tour were a Ponzi scheme that even Bernie Madoff would admire. How Armstrong managed to do what he did, why he did it, why others aided him, all of that is easy to process. It’s a word I keep coming back to: coercion. At some level, everyone who succumbed felt pushed by forces outside their own will. What has been harder to understand is how the reception to the Armstrong story changed over time.
In 2001, almost no one wanted to hear any suggestion that Armstrong wasn’t clean. For a long time, David Walsh was treated as if he was running around in a tinfoil hat. Even in 2005, once the allegations were out there more firmly, the cycling world still seemed to have their hands at their ears, collectively yelling “la-la-la-la I can’t hear you.” But by 2009 it was apparent, based on—if nothing else—comments here on RKP, that a great many serious cyclists had come to the conclusion that Armstrong wasn’t clean. It was also apparent by that time that a great many stories had emerged of just what a domineering personality he was. I’ve often wondered just how much peoples’ dislike of Armstrong greased their ability to conclude that he was a doper. Once a villain, then why not all-in?
So while the Friday Group Ride is a few days away, I’d like to pose a few questions to you readers: When did you come to the conclusion that Armstrong was a doped athlete? If the tipping point for you came before the USADA Reasoned Decision, what served as your personal tipping point? Also, if your change of opinion came before the Reasoned Decision, did the release of those documents change anything for you, even if it was only to cause you to hate Armstrong even more? Finally, for those of you who have been outraged by what was detailed in the Reasoned Decision and its supporting documents, why did it anger you in a way the same allegations made previously did not?
Now, having asked all that, I’ll make a final request: This is meant to be a conversation, not an occasion to vent self-righteous spleen. We want to hear from as many readers as possible, so we ask that you try to keep your comments both brief and civil. Thanks.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
So, what do you think? I am guessing that USADA’s document dump today (Wednesday) must have caught your attention by now.
Do you have any thoughts on the evidence presented? Any surprises? Will it have any impact given that we’re only seeing one side of the whole case?
Do you have any thoughts on what the UCI might do?
Winners? Losers? Who are they?
Let’s start with the winners and losers. Aside from Armstrong, the list of losers is pretty extensive, starting with Johan Bruyneel, who was fired yesterday, Michele Ferrari, who may be facing additional criminal charges in Italian courts and the rest named in the original June 12, 2012 charging document: Dr. Pedro Celaya, Dr. Luis del Moral and Pepe Marti. When all is said and done, the sport will be rid of these guys. Good-frickin’-riddance, gentlemen. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.
To a lesser degree, there is that list of riders who that found themselves in the untenable position of continuing to lie – and risk lengthy suspensions or even criminal perjury charges – or to give up on that whole culture of omerta, the “code of silence” that has long governed the world of professional cycling. I applaud their decisions to “come clean,” but sure do wish it had been 10 years ago.
Also on that list of losers has to be the parade of “journalists” who – for reasons of sycophancy, a desire for profit or both – sang the praises of a man they knew to be a bully and, above all, a cheat. And, no, they can’t claim they didn’t know. The only way they didn’t see the obvious is that their seats on the gravy train were too damn comfortable and they didn’t want to stand up and take a look. They should be ashamed.
Sadly, there is a much larger group of other journo’s – myself included – who, while declining to heap praise on Armstrong, didn’t do nearly enough with the information that we had. We poked around the edges and only did stories when we knew we had our asses completely covered. Few of us took the big risks. Whether driven by fear of lawsuits or losing our jobs, we should, nonetheless, be embarrassed. I know I am.
The winners? That list is a helluva lot shorter. It includes – but is not limited to – Betsy and Frankie Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Dr. Prentice Steffan, Stephen Swart, Christophe Bassons, Greg LeMond, Filippo Simeoni, David Walsh, Pierre Ballester and Paul Kimmage. Each of those people has consistently stated positions that were often contrary to their own interests, risking career, financial security and reputations to pursue what they saw as the truth.
Wednesday’s revelations show they were right.
I’m shocked, shocked, I say
There have been some who said that Wednesday’s revelations were earth-shattering news. Some even declared they were “shocked.”
Look, the evidence was extensive (you can see that for yourselves), but was it surprising? Not so much.
While blowing off most of the work associated with my current “day job” on Wednesday, I had the feeling that I was reading the unabridged version of “L.A. Confidentiel,” which David Walsh and Pierre Ballester wrote eight years ago.
Walsh had his suspicions even longer than that. I had the privilege of meeting Walsh for the first time at the 1999 Tour. It wasn’t just a quick introduction, either. We spent the entire Tour together, as it was Walsh’s tradition to join up with the VeloNews crew, coordinate hotel accommodations and meals and the drive from each day’s village departé to the press room at the finish. I was the driver, riding shotgun was my former boss, John Wilcockson and crammed into the back seat were Walsh and Australian journalist – and world famous Hawaiian shirt aficionado – Rupert Guinness.
That meant hours in the car, often at slow speeds, so we could stay in range of race radio, and then more time in the press room as we all crafted our stories and then dinner and then often late nights at the hotel bar. Shallow and myopic as most sports writers are, our conversations pretty much revolved around a single subject. Yup, that would be cycling.
Do recall, that the 1999 Tour came on the heels of the previous year’s devastating “Festina Affair.” With teams arrested, ejected or simply packing up and leaving the Tour under cover of night, a lot of us pretty much expected that by 1999, the costs of doping far exceeded any benefit and that sport would be clean from here on out.
Certainly, that was the hope of 25-year-old Christophe Bassons, who had earned the reputation as a clean rider when teammates testified that he had been the only member of the 1998 Festina team who refused to dope. Now a member of Francaise des Jeux, Bassons saw the 1999 Tour as an opportunity for the entire peloton to speak out against doping.
The new hero of this “clean era” quickly emerged as cancer survivor Lance Armstrong scored an impressive win in the prologue at Le Puy du Fou.
Within days, though, news broke that none other than Armstrong had tested positive for corticosteroids. There hadn’t been a Therapeutic Use Exemption … but the UCI accepted a back-dated prescription for topical cream that Armstrong said was for the treatment of saddle sores. It was quickly called the “butt cream defense,” by skeptics in the press room. So much for the new and clean era.
Had the UCI handled that first positive properly from the start, Armstrong would have been kicked out of the 1999 Tour right then and there. But no, he went on to dominate the race, beating former Festina rider – and admitted doper – Alex Zülle by nearly seven-and-a-half minutes. Really, following the disastrous crash on the Passage du Gois on stage 2, which took out many of Armstrong’s top rivals, and a dominant performance in the stage 8 time trial at Metz, the GC picture was pretty much settled before the race ever hit the mountains.
So instead, Walsh spent his time working on what he viewed was the “real story” of the Tour, namely that Festina had changed nothing in the sport, other than to drive doping deeper underground.
Walsh spent time interviewing riders like Bassons, who was becoming increasingly frustrated both by the lack of a definitive statement from top GC contenders regarding doping and, more importantly, by the social pressure he was getting from other riders to drop the subject. Chief among those pressuring Bassons was the man in the yellow jersey, who, as Walsh reported, had threatened a cajoled the Frenchman, urging him to “shut up” about doping and efforts to clean up the sport.
Walsh saw Bassons as a lone hero. Documents released this week show Armstrong saw him as an idiot and “a pussy.”
By the time we reached Paris, Walsh was pretty much barred from the Postal camp. He left the Tour “with a bad taste” in his mouth, but he had his sights set firmly on Armstrong.
He would return to the Tour, but his reporting continued to focus not on what he believed was a parade of lies, but on the doping that produced those lies.
In 2002, Walsh uncovered evidence that Armstrong had been working with the notorious Dr. Michele Ferrari and had an article ready to run in the Sunday Times of London. Having learned of that fact, Armstrong did a preemptive interview in which he casually stated in passing that he had worked with Ferrari, as if it were no big deal.
Over the next couple of years, Walsh’s Armstrong file grew. He interviewed the Andreus, who consistently stood by their position that Armstrong had revealed his use of performance-enhancing drugs to doctors before beginning chemo-therapy in 1996. Frankie took some serious career hits, both in cycling and in broadcasting, but he stuck by his story. Betsy was characterized in any number of less-than-complimentary ways by the Armstrong camp, but she stuck by her story.
So, too, did former Postal soigneur, Emma O’Reilly, who, after speaking with Walsh in 2003 had to endure personal attacks on her character. But she stuck by her story.
Steffan, the original team doctor at Postal, was fired after some riders complained that he wasn’t doing enough to give them a competitive edge. Under pressure from Armstrong, Steffan was temporarily dismissed from his job on the Slipstream team. He was threatened, essentially blackmailed about his own personal struggles with substance abuse and he stuck by his story.
Working with French journalist Pierre Ballester, Walsh wrote “L.A. Confidentiel,” which was released on the eve of the 2004 Tour. In retrospect, that book still serves as the essential framework for the document bomb that was released this past week. The evidence made available to all of us just adds to the case and reaffirms that Walsh and Ballester were right from the start.
In response, Armstrong’s legal team filed suit in France and in Great Britain, where a translated summary of the book’s main charges appeared in the Sunday Times. The French suit was dropped, but the Times eventually offered an out-of-court settlement and Armstrong declared victory against the man he and Johan Bruyneel privately called “the Troll.”
On stage 18 of that Tour, Armstrong lashed out at another rider – Filippo Simeoni – who had made the “mistake” of testifying against Ferrari in a 2002 criminal matter. He was the only rider to do so. Simeoni never said anything about Armstrong and only testified as to his own experiences with Ferrari and doping practices.
You will probably recall that the tension between the two was already high before the 2004 Tour. When Simeoni found himself in a relatively unthreatening break on Stage 18, it was the man in the yellow jersey who set off in lone pursuit. Armstrong stayed with the break until Simeoni agreed to wait for the peloton, allowing the other escapees a chance.
Armstrong famously gave Simeoni the zip-the-lip gesture as the peloton approached and the Italian testified that the race leader also threatened him. Threat or no, Simeoni’s career was cut short, even though he did get some joy out of earning the 2008 Italian national champion’s jersey … but even then, he was regarded as something of a pariah. Nonetheless, he stuck by his story.
Is there any value to having access to liars?
I missed the Tour that year, as I was slated to cover the Vuelta and being part of a family with a 10-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl in the house didn’t make doing three-week grand tours all that easy at home. That said, I kinda wish I would have been there.
Walsh, as was his practice of many years, joined the VeloNews crew for the three-week journey through France. Embarrassingly, though, after pressure was exerted from the Armstrong camp, Walsh was informed that he was no longer welcome in the Velo-mobile.
WTF? Given a choice between standing by a friend and colleague or having access to “his Lanceness,” Walsh got the boot.
Later at the Vuelta, where I had the pleasure of taking my son with me, I tracked down Michael Barry for a quick post-stage interview. With young Philip at my side, we chatted about the race and the Postal team’s hopes for the Spanish Tour. We were just getting to the interesting part about the apparent tension between Floyd Landis and team management when Johan Bruyneel walked up, grabbed my press badge, glanced at the name and flicked it back into my chest.
“Pelkey, eh?” he said. “So, how’s your little Irish friend?”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“That fuckin’ troll, Walsh,” Bruyneel growled. “David Walsh … what did you do to get mentioned in the acknowledgments of that piece of shit book of his?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “We’re friends and we trade information now and then, but ….”
Suddenly Philip piped up and said “Mr. Walsh was at our house for dinner! Dad gave him a ride in our Army jeep. Maybe that was it.”
That made me smile. Bruyneel didn’t see the humor of the moment. He grunted, walked away, taking Barry with him. From that point forward, I had no access to Postal riders for the duration of the Vuelta, save for sitting in on press conferences … and it really didn’t matter.
A one-sided story?
As you note, Wednesday’s “reasoned decision” from USADA is pretty much a one-sided presentation of why the agency reached the conclusion that Lance Armstrong should be banned from competitive sport for life and that his results dating back to 1998 should be negated.
It was the “prosecution’s” case, that which would have been presented to an arbitration panel had it ever gone to arbitration. Personally I would have been interested – perhaps amused – to see how the defense would have presented its side. But remember, it’s not USADA’s fault that it didn’t go to arbitration.
The timing was actually kind of funny. Just one day earlier, Armstrong’s attorney, Tim Herman had sent a scathing five-page letter to USADA demanding the agency send its entire file to the UCI, not just a limited report packaged in a way to support its case.
Be careful what you wish for, dude.
Not only did USADA’s “Discovery Team” drop the whole package in the UCI’s lap, they let the rest of us sort through it, too.
As it turns out, the agency had justification for the delay. They produced the entire case as if it were presented at hearing. The reasoned decision itself was a detailed, beautifully footnoted, 200-page document, accompanied by nearly 1000 pages of appendices and supporting materials. Most damning, were the 26 sworn affidavits from witnesses, 11 of whom were former Armstrong teammates.
Herman didn’t even miss a beat.
“I’m not suggesting that they are all lying, but I am suggesting that each witness needs to have confrontation and cross examination to test the accuracy of their recollection,” he declared, with what I assume was a straight face.
And damn, if he isn’t right. The whole arbitration process is governed by Federal law, under 36 USC § 220522 (a)(8), which requires any athlete charged with a violation that might result in a period of ineligibility be provided “with fair notice and opportunity for a hearing.”
Part of that hearing process, of course, is the opportunity to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses. By gum, Herman hit the nail right on the head … but for the fact that his client declined to participate in the hearing.
It’s a little late now, Tim.
The UCI is left in the awkward position of either accepting the USADA case on its face value, or appealing the whole thing to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport where it will likely be defending its own conflicts of interest and apparent disinterest in pursuing the allegations of the sport’s highest-profile rider.
Read the decision. Scan the documents. Combined, they constitute the richest treasure trove of evidence underscoring just how corrupt riders – and governing bodies – can be. My bet is that the UCI will take a pass. They’ve stood up for Armstrong in the past, but there is considerable risk in doing so now … and very little benefit. The UCI isn’t likely to take a big risk.
No, the only people in this story willing to take risks for little or no benefit were those “winners” I mentioned earlier. And, actually, when you come to think of it, that fact alone suddenly makes the list of “winners” a lot longer. The real “winners” in all of this are those who love the world’s most beautiful sport. Fans and riders alike. Hopefully, cycling will emerge from this embarrassment all the better. I, for one, will keep my fingers crossed. I promise, though, never to say that I am “shocked” if it doesn’t turn out that way.
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.
Could it ever have been any other way, with the fall of Armstrong? It seems cycling has been on a collision course with this moment for the better part of its history. From riders dosing up with brandy in the early days, to the scourge of amphetamines, to modern day blood doping, top level racers have always pushed beyond the rules in search of an advantage.
And now we have, arguably the greatest grand tour rider of all-time stripped of his titles and banned from the sport. Looking back at the great champions of the past, each of them with their own sordid side story, can we say this outcome was inevitable?
Perhaps we can forgive the modern day rider for believing that dope is simply a part of the sport. Almost everyone is willing to acknowledge that Lance Armstrong, if guilty as charged, was only doing what everyone else was doing, was only following in a long line of champions before him who had employed the dark arts to stunning effect.
How is it that, after decades of sabre rattling and bluster, an authority finally stepped to the fore to apply the rules, for better and for worse? It should be lost on no one that the UCI was not the authority in question. Perhaps this also was inevitable.
We can ask if where we are now is better or worse than where we have been. We can take issue with Lance, Johan and their cohort of co-defendants. We can impugn the motives and methods of Travis Tygart and USADA, but all of this seems to me to be beside the point.
What has happened has happened. Cycling is a sport that has been rife with dope and cheating. It has been poorly governed. We have tried to find the middle way, managing outcomes, either by the authorities turning a blind eye or by prosecuting infractions. We have tried small penalties, medium penalties and lifetime bans. We have tried selective enforcement.
Cheaters evolve. Tests develop. The rules struggle to contain them both.
Fans are upset when the rules aren’t enforced, and we are upset when the rules are enforced in ways we don’t like or don’t think will be helpful, because we hate to see the sport we love self-immolate.
But if we believe in our rules, if we really think they will produce better cycling, then don’t we have to accept their enforcement, no matter the short or even medium term consequences? It seems, when you subscribe to a plan for the sport, you have to hold firm, even if the result isn’t exactly as you would have wished it.
To be sure, the calculus will be difficult for everyone involved. Some will be able to both accept the penalties levied against Lance and his co-defendants, and still remember his (their) victories fondly. We can know what happened, at least partially, without retroactively revising our enjoyment of that era.
Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The world does not arrange itself in neat packages. Human behavior and emotion are not digital, black/white or right/wrong. We are gray creatures. We are, of necessity, ambivalent, and we should allow ourselves the latitude of inconsistency. Neither, should we fear foolishness. This is only sport, after all.
You can say that, once a rider decides to break the rules, he knows what the consequences of his actions might be. There are sanctions printed in ink in by-laws and on contracts. But this is a short-sighted reading of the decision for there are myriad consequences beyond our knowing.
I would venture that when you first decide willfully to take the wrong path, you very quickly lose control of the narrative. In your mind, there is winning. There is glory. If you are unlucky, you sit out a suspension.
In reality, you are unable to begin to parse the threads of consequence that spin themselves in every direction. Did Lance and his team imagine Travis Tygart and the role he would play? Did they imagine the myriad judgements they were letting themselves in for? Did they imagine court cases and Pat McQuaids and Hein Verbruggens? Did they think of Greg LeMond or Le Monde or l’Equipe? Do you ever race the Tour de France wondering if a plea deal will torpedo your legacy?
All the PR and litigation money can buy will shift a narrative, but clearly, in this case, couldn’t alter the eventual outcome, and that’s true for Lance and for the UCI and for USADA. The chips always fall where they may. They’re funny like that.
Now, we are in the hand-wringing phase of this particular (cycling) life event. And just as the prime players could not have known that they would arrive here, we also can’t know how what has happened over the last week, or over the last decade, will play out in years to come. Is this a death-knell for our sport? Or a birth announcement?
The answer is quite possibly: YES.
The reactions to Lance Armstrong’s decision not to enter arbitration have been as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Their sheer diversity is surprising if only because of some of the emotionally charged comments on Facebook and Twitter (not to mention RKP’s comments section) are as irrational as the number i and even harder to understand. I don’t begrudge anyone their feelings about Armstrong, cycling or this case, but I think it might be helpful to keep a bit of score.
Cleaning Up Cycling
I’ve seen any number of assertions, even some by the mainstream media that this has somehow served as an important step toward cleaning up cycling. Armstrong may have been charged with participating in an organized doping program, but he was only one of the hydra’s many heads. Removing him from that operation didn’t kill it. Amended results notwithstanding, Johan Bruyneel has lost the last two Tours de France and judging from this year’s performances by Team RadioShack, the one-time master of all things grand tour seems to have lost his touch, so the point there may be moot. Even if Bruyneel is banned from the sport, his was only one of many systematic doping programs; he was less an instigator (think Ferrari) than a facilitator, a manager. One can be virtually assured that somewhere on this planet some team manager is attempting an end-run on the system.
Will cycling be cleaner after this case? It’s unlikely. No amount of punishment meted out on the Texan will likely convince any rider who is currently doping to stop the practice. Those riders look at the fact that they haven’t been caught yet and are likely to be able to continue what they do. And riders who aren’t doping, but are wrestling with whether or not to start will mostly likely view this in terms of big fish/little fish. Armstrong was a big fish, they will reason, and subjected to a great deal more scrutiny. They are, by comparison, very small fish, and in their thinking, unlikely to receive the same amount of scrutiny, allowing them to fly under the radar.
The bigger refutation to the idea that cycling will be cleaner is that the techniques being used to accomplish doping are generally not the ones that were used by Armstrong and co. A retroactively produced documentary directed by Martin Scorcese wouldn’t uncover every detail of what was done during Armstrong’s run. More specifically, while transfusions may still be in use, the methods used to mask them have certainly evolved, which brings us back to the point that this case doesn’t fix today’s doping.
Clean Cycling: 0
Knowing the Truth
Many of Lance Armstrong’s detractors have itched themselves into oozing meth sores waiting for Tygart’s inquiry to divulge the full story about Armstrong’s doping. From what was taken, to how much was paid, to the methods used to evade detection, to the bribes paid (and to whom) down to the name and Social Security number of every rider who ever doped on that team, people wanted flesh. While the fat lady hasn’t hit the stage, Armstrong’s decision to forego arbitration means we are unlikely to see full transcripts of the grand jury testimony, particularly the testimony from George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde, which has reportedly resulted in six-month suspensions they will serve after the season ends.
Again, to the degree that the merit of the outcome of this case was based on learning the truth, we’ve been denied that satisfaction. While the cycling world may be convinced that Armstrong used PEDs, there is an even larger population for whom believing Armstrong is a persecuted innocent is as easy as believing that the next Mega Millions jackpot is theirs.
I don’t want to get into a semantic argument on the nature of truth, but it’s worth asking if those who desire the truth be exposed will only be satisfied if the entire world arrives at the conclusion that Armstrong doped—an outcome that may not be possible in a world where we parse the varieties of rape. However, if they can be satisfied if only the cycling world believes Armstrong to be guilty while the prevailing story about him is that he was the victim of a witch hunt, then it’s worth asking if their desire for the full story is meant to satisfy their personal curiosity, which is a less noble motivation.
Clean Cycling: 0
Playing to Lose
There’s a lot of talk that in doping, Armstrong didn’t level the playing field because each rider responds to doping products and methods differently. While that is true, here’s another fundamental truth: Every clean rider is different. Pros have widely varying VO2 maxes, maximum and resting heart rates and lactate thresholds. You line up for a race hoping that your training has been sufficient to overcome any genetic shortcomings you might have. There is no level playing field.
There’s an oddly relevant scene early in Douglas Adams’ book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Adams describes a drinking game played by the character Ford Prefect that involved something called Old Janx Spirit and telekinetic powers. The loser of the game was forced to perform a stunt that was “usually obscenely biological.”
Then came the line, “Ford Prefect usually played to lose.”
I was a teenager when I read this and the thought that someone might want to deliberately lose a drinking game was funnier than a Monty Python movie. However, it started within me a more serious meditation on why someone might enter any contest with the intention of losing. I didn’t come up with an answer for situations that didn’t involve anything “obscenely biological” until I came to appreciate the nomination process in American politics, a place where people with neither the qualifications nor chance of becoming president will run for the office as a way to angle for a job better than the one they have. More recently, though, I’ve come to see riders who chose to race clean during the height of the EPO problem—we’re talking mid-1990s through the turn of the century—in a similar light.
Given that the vast majority of results from that era are dominated by riders who we know doped, riders who lined up for any race big enough to warrant television coverage without veins filled with rocket fuel were bringing fingernail clippers to an air strike. They were playing to lose.
The problem isn’t that they lacked ambition or a work ethic; rather, it seems that those riders brought morality into what has effectively been an amoral system. The only proven way to win during that era was to dope.
Clean Cycling: 0
I’ve seen a few people compare Lance Armstrong to Jerry Sandusky. The comparison goes like this: Lance Armstrong did more good than bad because he gave lots of people hope and sold a bunch of bikes and those people outnumber the riders he cheated out of winning by doping. Similarly, Jerry Sandusky did more good than bad by giving underprivileged kids the opportunity to participate in sports, and those kids outnumber the kids he sexually assaulted. It’s an obscene comparison because you can’t equate the soul-shattering violence of a sexual assault—an event that can destroy a person’s ability to sustain intimate relationships—with cheating. Each of Sandusky’s crimes was personal, committed one-on-one. Conversely, while there’s no doubt that riders like Christophe Bassons were harmed by Armstrong’s methods, they were victimized by more than just Armstrong—most of the peloton, actually—and they suffered more as collateral damage. Events such as Armstrong chasing down Filippo Simeoni are more serious than simple collateral damage, but even that is a light year from sexual assault.
A much greater illusion is the idea that justice has been served. Imagine you live in a neighborhood where nearly every car runs the red light between you and the corner store, making a milk run pointlessly suicidal. Suppose that the police swoop in with a huge dragnet and ticket only one driver. Granted, he drove faster than anyone else through the light, but with only one of hundreds of drivers out of the picture, justice has yet to be served because it’s still not safe to walk to the store.
Justice will be served once the peloton is essentially clean. Essentially is an important modifier here; cycling will never be quit of doping, but a mostly clean peloton is a realistic goal. Until we’re there, we don’t have justice.
Clean Cycling: 0
Following the Money
The majority of the money that floats the cycling teams competing in the world’s biggest races comes from outside the sport. For the most part, the men responsible for sponsoring these teams aren’t cycling fans. Unlike those of us who follow what’s happening in cycling on a daily basis, for them, cycling is an occasional blip on the news radar. When you look at cycling through their lens, most of the news about cycling in the last five years hasn’t been good. In the United States, nearly every occasion that has brought cycling to any sort of headline capacity has been doping. Armstrong has been making headlines lately, but before that it was Contador being stripped of a Tour de France. To give you some idea just how hard it is for cycling to make national headlines, most of the accounts I read barely made the nullification of his Giro performance a footnote. Before Contador the last time cycling made real headlines was in 2011 when Tyler Hamilton appeared on “60 Minutes” and the only reason that merited news was because of his previous relationship to Armstrong.
When you factor out Armstrong, doping and the Olympics, the national media hasn’t found an American cyclist worthy of a headline since Floyd Landis won the Tour de France. Think about that for a moment. That’s six years.
Nike has already signaled that they are standing by Armstrong. They are one of the only companies on the planet with the marketing genius in-house to figure out how to spin this into a “Lance is still the man” ad campaign. Because of their reach and the fact that they sit at the top of the pyramid of sports brands, there are few companies as well-equipped to weather such a storm. That said, don’t think they aren’t gunshy; it’s worth noting that you don’t see them lining up behind Tejay Van Garderen just yet. We may not see Nike sponsor another cyclist as long as Phil Knight lives.
I’ve spoken to people in the hunt for non-endemic (outside the industry) sponsorship for four different teams. They all reported the same challenge: the number one conversation killer is doping scandals. For many companies, the potential damage to their brand that would come as a result of a doping scandal makes the sport too great a risk. Again, these are companies that aren’t in the bike industry.
There is odd relationship at work. Bike companies don’t factor in these considerations; they are all-in as it were. Specialized isn’t about to start sponsoring sprint cars or bass fishermen. Surprisingly, when a sponsored athlete gets popped for doping, their reputation doesn’t take the sort of hit that a company like T-Mobile or Festina did, companies whose names became synonymous with doping scandals. An athlete who tests positive is still an embarrassment, but they get a bye on the image-pummelling that companies outside the industry can’t afford to face.
For all those who think that we’ve already hit the nadir for cycling sponsorship, consider that the Armstrong affair isn’t actually over. There’s still a chance that there could be civil lawsuits regarding Armstrong’s winnings and the names of the US Postal Service (an organization that really can’t afford any more bad publicity) and the Discovery Channel will be buried in more mud than can be found at a monster truck rally.
Not enough? Consider the number of teams that operated with a “this space for rent” status in the last five years: Team Columbia-High Road, Garmin-Slipstream, Cervelo Test Team and Leopard-Trek, just for starters. We can add Liquigas-Cannondale to that list because bike companies—even companies as large as Specialized and Trek—don’t have the kind of cash handy to step into a title sponsor or co-sponsor spot. When you see their names in a title-sponsor spot (e.g. Liquigas-Cannondale), it’s a sign that the team is shy of their sponsorship goals.
But wait, the problem is worse than that. Imagine how executives at Faema would be sweating if WADA decided to go back and retroactively amend the rules so that they could investigate all of that team’s riders, especially Eddy Merckx. Who would want to risk a sponsorship in a sport where you could be embarrassed decades after your sponsorship has ended? I haven’t checked eBay lately, but last I knew there were no active auctions for time bombs.
Clean Cycling: 0 (everyone loses if there’s no sponsorship)
The disparity between the way USADA pursues American athletes and the lengths that the Spanish federation goes to defend its athletes has made a mockery of the judicial process. That no American athletes have moved to Spain and taken out a Spanish license may be the best single argument currently for just how clean the American peloton is. If I were a doped cyclist, I’d have purchased an apartment in Girona and renounced my citizenship by now. It would be my insurance plan against Travis Tygart nuking my life.
While I think it’s a travesty to have a guy like Tygart, who seems to hold a hostility for cyclists, running USADA, I can say that I’d feel a bit differently if he were running WADA. Were every pro cyclist subject to his scrutiny that might help the sport as a whole. I think it would force him to reevaluate his priorities and we might see a different mission in just what he pursued. With more on his plate, I have some small degree of faith that he’d have to chase the present with more verve, which is how cycling will get cleaner.
Clean Cycling: 0
We don’t need a recap to know that clean cycling hasn’t fared well against these issues, which is why even though cycling is significantly cleaner than it has been at any point in its history, it is still easily embarrassed and as a result, underfunded. If professional cycling is going to survive and reach a place where the average member of the public is willing to believe that cycling is a clean sport, some big changes are going to need to take place.
House must be cleaned at the UCI. The organization has been part of too many alleged coverups and has shown too little leadership to hold our faith that they understand what the public and sponsors demand. Pat McQuaid needs to resign and then people who understand the importance of the fight against doping must be hired.
What this really comes down to is that testing must improve. But how? Most of the riders out there make so little they can’t support a family on their income, so asking them to give up more of their income to fund testing is as thoughtful as asking them to give up a finger. Or two. It’s not unrealistic to tax the incomes of the top 200 riders to help pay for more testing for them. Still, that’s not a great source of funding for more testing because a sponsorship drought means that incomes for many riders are depressed. Increasing the ask for potential sponsors is unlikely to achieve the results we seek.
So who can pay? Here’s a suggestion: The Amaury Sport Organization, RCS Sport and other event organizers. They’ve got skin in the game—every time a rider tests positive at one of their races, that’s bad press for the race and the organizer is embarrassed. So far ASO and other race organizers have been intransigent on the point of sharing revenue from TV rights. While seemingly every other sport on the planet shares TV revenue, bike races have had an unusual relationship with television because they have not needed facilities owned by the teams in which to stage races—think stadiums. The use of open roads combined with a notoriously weak riders’ union has allowed ASO and others to keep millions upon millions of euro any other sport would long since have divvied up. No one else has both the pockets and the need to clean cycling up that the ASO does. No one man can do more to help reform cycling than ASO’s head, Christian Prudhomme, pictured above.
By having race organizers pay for more testing we could achieve some of the aim of revenue sharing, without making it an open-ended request for the checkbook. It would be a way to move things in the right direction.
Testing needs to be more frequent for more riders. It’s impossible to say that will fix things, but more testing and better testing will help. And if the sport has fewer doping scandals—in particular, fewer scandals at the very top—then cycling will seem like a better investment and finding sponsors won’t be as hopeless an endeavor as tilting at windmills.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.
Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:
Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself. In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad. And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.
Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012. But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.
American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.
Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.
Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.
As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.
Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.
Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.
Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.
But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.
Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?
Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.
Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
To follow professional cycling in Europe is to be familiar with the machinations of the UCI. The organization’s attempts to do more than just administer the sport, but to, in effect, control the sport have resulted in more disenfranchised stakeholders than you’ll find in an oil spill.
Normally, you’d expect to find an organization with skewed priorities playing favorites. Not so with the UCI. They’ve managed to upset the riders. They’ve upset the race organizers. They’ve upset the teams. One could be forgiven for surmising that even the IOC has their issues with them, once behind closed doors.
Earlier this year Johan Bruyneel made some noise about starting a breakaway organization to replace the UCI. Pat McQuaid responded with his typical bluster.
What McQuaid may not know, and what I can say from first-hand knowledge, is that an investigation has already been undertaken into the requirements necessary to start a new governing body for cycling. The UCI is in people’s cross hairs. Why? Because the accusations that the organization is corrupt and doesn’t have the sport’s best interests at heart have legs.
Just this week Inner Ring reported that letters went out to team sponsors detailing the problems they would have trying to conduct business in China, should the teams they sponsored not show up for the Tour of Beijing. Forget for a moment that McQuaid intimated that the teams themselves would have problems getting their licenses renewed. That’s a pretty standard shakedown. What’s truly disturbing is the mob-style intimidation of suggesting that it will be difficult for the sponsor to do business in China should the team not show. After all, one wouldn’t want to insult the Chinese government, would one?
Ladies and gentlemen, that is good, old-fashioned blackmail. I’m no lawyer, but I play one in the bathtub and around my low-stakes soap dish that constitutes a felony.
The standoff began with the conflict over race radios. Bruyneel, Jonathan Vaughters and several other team managers considered using a boycott of the Tour of Beijing as way to take a stand on race radios. There was another, better reason to boycott the race, a reason still in place: Because the UCI organizes the race, their financial stake in the race constitutes a conflict of interest. As soon as the UCI begins promoting races for profit, races that can conflict on the calendar with other ProTeam events, such as Paris-Tours, then they become a competitor to those race organizers. What’s to stop them from organizing events in other parts of the world in July to undermine the ability of a team to send its A-squad to the Tour de France?
And now we find out that the UCI killed blood tests during the Amgen Tour of California.
Folks, if we can’t count on the UCI to carry out in-competition blood-tests at major races, we might as well take the gloves off and stop pretending that we’re trying to clean up the sport. Let’s just hold all the races in Las Vegas, hand out testosterone patches like jugs of Gatorade and educate the odds-makers on how to handicap a bike race.
When the day comes that McQuaid is ousted from the UCI, he’ll be able to find instant work with a certain family known for running most of Boston. He’d be right at home in Charlestown. I can here him now: “Hey, that’s a real pretty car you got there. It would be such a shame if something was to happen to it. If you want, for a small fee, I could watch it for you, make sure nothing happens while you’re gone.”
The question today is whether anything can be done to reign in the UCI, or what can be done to oust Pat McQuaid. We can’t trust the UCI to act in the sport’s best interest, so we must ask what can be done to resolve their negative impact on the sport.
Today was an example of precisely why the Tour de France is the greatest annual sporting event on the planet. We had a real bike race. While we couldn’t seem to have a day go without at least one significant crash (Andreas Klöden), the real thrust of the day was the racing not some tangential drama.
The biggest surprise of the day was being reminded that this was Samuel Sanchez’ first Tour stage win. He’s a rider of such colossal talent that a Tour stage missing from his palmares felt a bit like an oversight. Yet his ride was hardly the best of the day.
I’ve secretly had my money on Frank Schleck for this year’s race. I think he has the maturity his brother lacks and this year his form seems at least equal to his brothers, maybe even better. To watch him ride up the road and see the weak response reminded me of the sort of glee I feel when the bad guy gets killed in a horror movie, not that I think Cadel Evans or any of the other GC favorites are bad guys, mind you.
Which naturally brings me to Alberto Contador. It is my sincere hope that his performance today wasn’t hampered by his knee. I respect that a rider beaten is a rider beaten, but my personal belief is that whoever wins the Tour—should it turn out not to be him—deserves to know he beat him straight up.
I’ve suspected that Ivan Basso’s near-anonymous performance up until now was the result of him saving himself. Today’s late-race surge supports that. Seeing him work with Evans to try to pull back time on Schleck with Contador struggling to maintain contact and Schleck the younger dutifully playing the scavenger and just sitting on Contador’s wheel was, pardon me, a thrilling bit of racing.
Nearly as great a surprise as today’s win being Sanchez’ first Tour stage was how little time Thomas Voeckler gave up to Schleck and Evans. It was a stunning piece of racing and gave rise to my favorite performance of the day:
Long after every other team’s last domestique had Roman Candled their legs earlier on the mountain, Rolland not only stuck by his charge, but helped pace him back into the lead group following accelerations that were more than Voeckler could handle. It doesn’t hurt, either, that his service was such that the casual viewer of the Tour wouldn’t appreciate the work he put in, the difficulty of the task he accomplished. The finish line hug between the two was one of those private moments between teammates, not meant for our eyes, even if it did happen on the world stage.
As for the mighty RadioShack, they have two riders in the top 20 on GC. It’s not the sort of performance anyone expected from Johan Bruyneel’s team and probably not the sort of performance that would cause RadioShack to renew their contract at the end of this year.
And what would a day at the Tour without a little more love for Johnny Hoogerland? That he took off on the unknown Horquette d’Ancizan (a climb whose difficulty I can attest to) and attempted to build a gap to gain more points in the king of the mountains competition was the best. I don’t mind that he lost the jersey today; that was inevitable. However, I am bummed he didn’t manage to pick up a single point. I’d have loved the statement that would have made. His attempt was more than enough, though.
When Monty Python and the Holy Grail is finally re-made, Hoogerland will play the knight who says, “It’s only a flesh wound.”
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International