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
Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.
This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.
Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.
At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”
In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.
In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.
Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.
USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.
Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.
Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.
Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.
Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.
In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.
The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.
One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”
If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I don’t really want to talk about doping in the way that we normally do, debating the merits of lifetime bans or declaring open season for all illicit products, slicing and dicing the moral code riders ought to ascribe to. We’ve done that.
I don’t have the answer to the problem anymore than anyone else does, not Paul Kimmage or Michael Ashenden or Anne Gripper or Andrea Schenk. We, most of us, feel passionately about clean sport, and those who don’t mostly cast themselves of too practical a mindset. Humans will cheat, they argue, and may well be correct.
All of that aside, I have found it interesting over the last few weeks to see dominoes begin to fall across the top level of the sport. Yes, USADA sanctioned Lance Armstrong after he chose not to defend himself against their allegations. The UCI struggled to strike the right tone in response. The whole structure of the sport began to shift.
Tyler Hamilton has a book coming out, which details much of what happened in his own somewhat tragic career, and that implicates himself, many former teammates and major players in the management of the sport at both team level and within the UCI.
One event that shocked me this week was Jonathan Vaughters going on the Cycling News forums and outing some of his riders as former dopers, including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given his own recent confession in the New York Times, but the timing and venue seemed suspect. Were the riders aware he was going to spill the beans?
Is this just where we are in the process of truth telling? Suddenly everyone is talking.
You expect this from characters like Jorg Jaksche, Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni, but we’ve moved into some new territory with recent statements from Johann Museeuw and Sylvia Schenk. Given all the recent information flooding into the open, journalists are turning up the heat on figures like Bjarne Riis, who has confessed his own transgressions as a rider, but has left, perhaps, too much still unsaid.
People are speaking out. More people are asking hard questions like, is the UCI even capable of cleaning up the sport? It is one thing for fans and marginalized journalists to say these things. It is another entirely for people like Schenk, once a member of the UCI management committee and Museeuw, a respected rider from the EPO era, to say them. Now the questions and confessions are coming from the inside. People are emboldened. The calculus is changing. But is it changing enough?
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Have we finally reached the watershed moment in confronting cycling’s doping history? Or is this just a strange conflagration of events, more stumbles down the wrong path, toward the status quo?
Embedded. It’s a funny term. We used to use it to refer to things inserted, usually accidentally, into something else.
I’ve got a stick embedded in my calf.
But with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it came to stand for journalists tethered to military units with all the freedom of a dog on a leash. We even came to distrust that variety of journalism because the reporters and photographers were so controlled in their movements the news came to be what the military wanted us to see and no more.
Yet embedded is a strangely appropriate word to describe Mark Johnson’s book “Argyle Armada: Behind the scenes of the pro cycling life.” I use that term with no pejorative connotation, no irony, no malice. It describes very well his relationship to the Garmin team as he worked on this book. Now, I should mention that the book’s subtitle is not meant to convey that this is in any way a broad look at pro cycling with examinations of many teams. No, it digests the moves and dramas of a single team, but in going deep within that one team it serves up Jonathan Vaughters’ creation as a synechdoche for the whole of the peloton—one operation that represents all of pro cycling.
Johnson’s achievement in this book is two-fold. First, he’s a fine photographer and yet is also a good enough writer that he can provide the whole of a book that stands equally on its photos and the story it tells. Second, as a single guy, rather than a writer/photographer team, he was able to gain the trust of seemingly everyone within the Slipstream organization and shares with the reader looks inside the machinations of a pro team that previously have been either largely imagined or left opaque.
The book is a look at a single year, an arc that covers the 2011 season, beginning with training camp and ends with the team gearing up for another season. There’s not an aspect of running a team that’s left unexamined. There are the races, the failures, the ingredients of the win, the win itself, the preparation, the backstage politics. Believe me, if it’s a piece of news that got mentioned on Cyclingnews at some point during the year, it wasn’t left out of this book, and usually the picture here is filled in with richer detail.
It’s unlikely that Johnson had absolutely free reign to go and see anything he wanted, so in that regard, embedded remains an accurate term. However, because looks this deep within the inner-workings of pro teams are essentially unknown, to the degree that Johnson was tethered and guided as he collected his stories, the reader suffers no disservice.
This book could easily have been just collection of episodes, race journalism in a hard cover. If that were the case, there would be little reason for anyone but die-hardened Argylites to purchase this book. But Johnson has been around the cycling world for long enough that he understands the larger concerns, the great themes that will define the sport for years to come. From the irritating treatment that riders can receive at the hands of doping testers to the financial backflips necessary to keep the program operating at the level of other better-funded teams, Johnson gives the reader a perspective on just how hard it is to be a pro cyclist and what a true believer you have to be to want to run a pro team.
Given the talk (here and elsewhere) of just how difficult the sponsorship situation will be in the near-term, this is an especially apropos read right now because it gives readers a clearer picture of the financial challenges a big team faces than any other book I’ve encountered.
Johnson’s writing style is present-tense, bringing the reader into the events and imparting a breathless anticipation that can build even when a conclusion—Johan Summeren’s Paris-Roubaix win, for instance—is known from memory. I really can’t stress how rare a package a guy like Johnson is. Jered Gruber may be the only other guy working in cycling right now who has the same writing chops, the same eye for action photography and the same sense for intimate portraits and sweeping landscapes—it’s that unusual.
A book like this won’t be in print forever. Do yourself a favor and pick this thing up. Alternatively, send this URL to your sweetie with the subject line: Christmas.
For more info: VeloPress
Top image: Mark Johnson
Most of the cycling world has been abuzz since yesterday when the first links appeared to Jonathan Vaughters’ op-ed piece for the New York Times. It’s rare that we direct readers to another site, but if you haven’t already read the piece by Garmin-Sharp’s director and you follow pro cycling, then this piece is required reading. You can read it here.
What’s notable about Vaughters’ piece isn’t that he openly admits that he doped. It’s simply an item on his resume, a resume that includes lifelong cyclist, former pro and lieutenant for the U.S. Postal Service Team. What is significant is that Vaughters uses those details to establish his bona fides as an authority on how to create an environment where an athlete isn’t forced to confront the choice he faced.
There’s a tendency to immediately sum up any rider found to have doped as a cheater. It’s an easy equivalent to draw. And because doping provokes such a passionate response in cycling fans—me included—it’s easy to reduce the offending rider to a black-hat-wearing villain. As it happens, it’s easier to condemn than it is to understand. Been there, done that, sent the postcard.
Vaughters weaves a deft journey through the many factors that contribute to an athlete’s choice and while there is ample opportunity to dodge responsibility, he acknowledges that it was a choice that he alone made. What his essay best illustrates is a point I’ve written about on multiple occasions, that most doping comes as the result of coercion, either explicit, such as from a coach (it’s worth noting that his callout to “the boss” was a shot across Armstrong’s bow), or implicit, as a result of the sense that one is being left behind by the competition.
Since its inception Slipstream Sports has run what is arguably the cleanest program in cycling. If for no other reason, Vaughters deserves our attention, has earned the right to make the case for how we can clean up cycling. Will the UCI listen? That’s the question.
Image courtesy Slipstream Sports
Ryder Hesjedal takes his career as a professional bike race ultra-seriously. He trains obsessively, he never shirks from working hard for his teammates, and whenever he gets a chance to ride aggressively he grabs it without a second thought. That’s why his magnificent performance in the 95th Giro d’Italia—the first Canadian to finish on the podium of a grand tour, let alone win one—didn’t surprise those who know him well. Even if his victory shocked the European cognoscenti.
So, you may ask, why has the 31-year-old Garmin-Barracuda team man taken so long to reach the top of the cycling world?
The answer to that question is a complex one because Hesjedal has always had the talent to excel at the highest level, though we’ve only seen flashes of his capabilities in a wide range of races over the past decade. But befitting his calm and dignified manner, the British Columbian has shown infinite patience with his career and been quietly confident that one day his time would come. Now it’s here.
The Italians say that men capable of winning grand tours—they call them fuoriclasse—give hints of their great talent at an early age. Hesjedal, whose great-grandparents were farmers who emigrated from Norway in the 19th century, certainly did that. He grew up in the small rural community of Highlands, to the northwest of Victoria on Vancouver Island, where Hesjedal’s father made a meager living selling firewood that he cut in the pine forests. Dad and mom later took jobs with the municipality, while son Ryder showed a penchant for sports, excelling at baseball and lacrosse.
Everyone rode bikes in the Highlands, and young Hesjedal soon developed a love for riding his hard-tail Norco mountain bike on the single-track trails that crisscrossed this hilly region of lakes, woodlands and wilderness. The District of Highlands Web site says that its residents are “both self-reliant and cooperative.” That certainly characterizes Hesjedal, who began competitive cycling in his early teens as part of British Columbia’s booming mountain-bike scene.
Like other cycling journalists, I was first impressed by Hesjedal’s talent when he finished second in the junior men’s cross-country race behind Frenchman Julien Absalon at the 1998 world mountain bike championships at Mont-Ste-Anne in eastern Canada. Three years later, at the mountain bike worlds in Vail, Colorado, we saw the lanky Canadian again place second to Absalon, this time in the under-23 category. That same week, his fellow Victoria resident Roland Green, six years older than Hesjedal, won the pro men’s world cross-country title.
At the time, it seemed a given that Hesjedal would follow in Green’s footsteps, especially when at age 21 he won a 2002 World Cup cross-country at Les Gets in the French Alps, beating a field of champions that included off-road legend Thomas Frischknecht. But, at 6-foot-2 and 159 pounds, Hesjedal was big for a cross-country racer compared with more compact rivals such as Absalon, Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez.
Like Evans before him, Hesjedal was already integrating road racing into his schedule by signing with Rabobank’s espoirs team in 2002. He quickly showed his talent by winning the French amateur classic Paris-Mantes in April that year, making a long solo break to finish more than three minutes ahead of the field. And in September, shortly after that World Cup victory at les Gets, Hesjedal showed his stage-race strength by winning Spain’s four-day Volta a Cataluña de l’Avenir.
But mountain biking remained first on his agenda, knowing he had a chance of Olympic glory in Athens. He won the prestigious NORBA national series in 2003 (and again in ’04) and placed second in the pro men’s cross-country at the ’03 worlds in Lugano, Switzerland—only beaten by Belgian veteran Filip Meirhaeghe, who would admit to using EPO prior to the ’04 Olympics.
Hesjedal was also preparing his post-Athens career by joining Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team in 2004. So he debuted in European pro road racing that spring. I chatted with him in Bruges before the start of his first classic, the Tour of Flanders, where he told me how pleased he was to play a part in helping new teammate George Hincapie win the previous week’s Three Days of De Panne. Hesjedal didn’t finish Flanders, but a week later, in Spain, he got into the winning, eight-man breakaway at the extremely hilly Klasika Primavera in the Basque Country: He placed fifth behind winner Alejandro Valverde, and ahead of the Italian stars Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni.
That early success was almost forgotten in a year dedicated to winning an Olympic gold medal — a dream that ended when he flatted five minutes into the dusty Athens cross-country. He didn’t finish the race and dropped out of the worlds a couple of weeks later, and never started another mountain bike race.
So, in essence, Hesjedal’s road career didn’t really begin until age 24 as a domestique with Discovery Channel in 2005. He worked for Hincapie in the northern classics and, in stage racing, for Italian Paolo Savoldelli at the Tour de Romandie (placing 32nd, only two minutes behind his team leader) and at his first grand tour, the Giro, which Savoldelli won. Hesjedal valiantly did his team duty at that Giro, even after a bad crash on stage seven in the south of Italy; but he eventually pulled out (with 15 others) on a savage stage 13 over five passes in the Dolomites.
Hesjedal did enough that season to be recruited in 2006 by the ambitious Phonak team, whose leader would be Floyd Landis. I interviewed both of these North Americans at their pre-season training camp in Majorca. Hesjedal said he hadn’t given any interviews since dropping out of mountain biking, and I found him to be quietly ambitious about the year ahead. He was hoping to return to the Giro, a race he said he really liked, but Phonak put him on another program — which included taking fourth overall at May’s Volta a Cataluña (thanks to fourth place on the mountaintop finish in Andorra) and 17th overall at the Dauphiné.
His only grand tour in 2006 was the Vuelta a España, where he was lying a promising 21st before he abandoned the race on the 11th stage, with a view to riding a strong world championships in Salzburg, Austria. Perhaps he should have finished the Vuelta because he placed only 22nd in the worlds’ time trial and didn’t finish the road race, and when the doping-scandalized Phonak team folded at year’s end, Hesjedal was left without a team.
His career in limbo, he spent 2007 with HealthNet-Maxxis on the U.S. domestic scene, with 10th place at the Amgen Tour of California the highlight. The ever-optimistic Canadian didn’t give up his apartment in Girona, Spain, confident that he would be back on the Continent before too long. And that was the case. He was signed by Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin-Chipotle and so his European road career finally received its real beginning in 2008, just four years ago.
Since then, Hesjedal has improved every year, growing in confidence at the grand tours and performing at the highest level in the spring classics. The highlights have been diverse: aiding teammates Christian Vande Velde and Brad Wiggins place fourth overall in the Tours de France of 2008 and 2009 respectively; placing fifth at the 2009 Clasica San Sebastian before winning stage 12 of the Vuelta in a summit finish at Alto de Velefique; and, in 2010, placing second to Philippe Gilbert at the Amstel Gold Race, winning a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, placing sixth at the Tour de France (after team leader Vande Velde crashed out and including brilliant rides on the cobblestones of northern France and the mountaintop finish on the Tourmalet), and third at the GP de Montréal behind Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan.
His 2011 season was something of a transition year, the highlight being Garmin’s victory in the Tour de France team time trial and overall team prize, while Hesjedal rode support for sixth-place Tom Danielson. Perhaps 2012 would have seen similar results, but in the winter team manger Vaughters and new team director Allan Peiper persuaded the British Colombian to be the Garmin team leader at the Giro.
Now, with his astounding victory in Italy, Hesjedal can truly say his career has taken off!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
[Editor's note: Due to an extraordinary amount of travel with little to no down time for posting, we've been a bit quieter than usual the last couple of days. It's why this post is a day late. Thanks for your patience.]
Over recent years, scientific training methods have brought a sort of parity to pro cycling that allows more and more riders to finish races together, even tough ones. As a result, to avoid too many mass finishes, organizers are making race finales ever more difficult. Just look at the two major stage races taking place this week and the number of riders finishing together at the end of difficult days in the saddle.
In Italy, after 10 stages and more than 40 hours of racing at the Giro d’Italia — including three summit finishes in the past four days — twenty-odd riders are still within two minutes of each other at the top of the overall standings. And here in the Amgen Tour of California, after two days and more than 20,000 feet of climbing, some 50 riders sit within a minute of race leader Peter Sagan.
Even hardened race followers felt that the California organizers had made their courses too tough this year, but the rugged climbs they included in Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties the first two days have failed to deliver the desired results. As Garmin-Barracuda team manager Jonathan Vaughters tweeted Monday night after 63 riders sprinted to the line in stage two at the Amgen Tour: “I anticipated a smaller group than that today.”
Over in Europe, the three Giro stages with uphill finishes have seen groups of 27, 25 and 33 battling for the win on the final climb. The only rider who has been able to separate himself (a little) from the group of race leaders is Domenico Pozzovivo — whose solo attack midway up the second-category Colle Molella on Sunday went virtually unopposed by the favorites who, like the Italian media, have marginalized the pocket-sized climber on the modest Colnago-CSF squad as a GC threat.
On Tuesday’s stage 10 finish in Assisi, the organizers made the hardest-possible finish, with the 15-percent grades of the San Damiano wall preceding the 11-percent climb on narrow, stone-paved streets into the heart of the medieval hilltop town. Even that spectacular finale didn’t produce huge time gaps, though the tough finish did its job of producing a new race leader in Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez — with Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal hanging tough in second place.
Sometimes, finishes can be too tough too frequently. The former Giro race director Angelo Zomegnan partly lost his job because he sought out ever-more spectacularly steep finishing climbs—which actually led to a too-tough course and a too predictable result last year. But even the normally conservative promoters of the Tour de France are inserting steeper climbs that they once considered too risky. At the upcoming Tour, race director Christian Prudhomme has decided to include for the first time in race history the Col du Grand-Colombier on stage 10 and the Col de Péguère on stage 14.
The Grand Colombier, just to the east of the French Alps, was used several times at the Tour’s “junior” race, the Tour de l’Avenir, in the 1970s when it was the springboard used by the legendary Soviet amateur Sergei Soukhoroutchenkov in his multiple overall victories. At 17km long and with an average gradient of 7.1 percent, it doesn’t sound too difficult, but it has long stretches of double-digit grades that make this tougher than many climbs in the Alps themselves.
The Péguère “wall” is even steeper, with the final 3.4km of its 9.4km tilting up at almost 14 percent, with pitches of 18 and 16 percent. There was talk of including the Péguère in the Tour route as long ago as the mid-1960s — and it was withdrawn after initial inclusion in 1973 — but the organizers considered this Pyrenean climb too steep and narrow and the road surface unsuitable. It will be the last climb of the day on July 15 and comes 39km from the stage 14 finish in Foix.
And, as last year, the Tour organizers are again spicing up the opening week of their race with three summit finishes. In 2011, those uphill endings saw stage wins for Philippe Gilbert on the Mont des Alouettes (stage one), Cadel Evans on the Mûr de Bretagne (stage four) and Rui Costa at Super-Besse (stage eight).
This year, the opening road stage into the Belgian city of Seraing was originally scheduled as a flat finish for sprinters, but Prudhomme changed it to a 2.5km climb, partly on cobbles, that will suit Gilbert. The next uphill finish comes on stage three at Boulogne-sur-Mer, where five climbs of around 10 percent each precede a 700-meter-long ramp to the line where Sylvain Chavanel won the 2011 French national championship. And stage seven’s finish on La Planche aux Belle Filles is completely new to the Tour, with its 6km climb at 8.5 percent featuring three double-digit sections that are likely to see an intriguing battle between the overall contenders.
The racing in California and Italy this week shows that the parity between riders is a fact of modern pro racing, and that closeness will only become stronger in future years. That’s bad news for sprinters, who will be getting fewer opportunities to unleash their high-speed skills, but good news for the fans, who will delight in more finales like that spectacular arrival in Assisi on Tuesday.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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.
When we consider the problem of doping it’s easy to look at the issue in terms of black and white. There are the clean riders (white) and the doped riders (black). There are the teams whose management actively work to keep riders clean (white). And there are teams whose management organize and facilitate doping (black).
Such an outlook keeps the problem chopped up in easy to digest chunks. And while it may be easier to organize our thinking and ability to pass judgement on who should be in or out of the sport, such an assessment does little to shed light on the reality of the problem.
Every time we reduce someone to “culprit” or “doper” what we are doing is labeling them “the bad guy.” By reducing them into a two-dimensional role, they become cardboard cutouts, symbols, for what we find offensive. Dressing a guy in a black hat automatically makes him the bad guy. That’s what makes old spaghetti westerns so laughable; you didn’t need to know anything more about the guy than the fact that he had the black hat on.
And remember, in most good/bad conflict movies from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the bad guy only did bad things. They stole. They murdered. They polluted the planet and ate babies for lunch.
The good guys (white hats) were just as laughable. They were saintly in demeanor. They protected babies, fed the poor, fought crime and had nary a carnal thought.
It would seem that Pat McQuaid is a big believer in the black hat. McQuaid wants every former rider who ever had a brush with doping to be banned from roles in team management, banned from the sport. If we consider the example of guys like Jonathan Vaughters, a manager who says he faced some difficult decisions while he was a rider, banning him would mean losing a figure who understands the trials riders face better than most. Who else would better understand the agonies of the riders than someone who was confronted with those very choices.
Now, Vaughters never tested positive, was never banned. However, if we assess some of his more veiled statements about his past, his time with the US Postal team, we might conclude that his grand jury testimony included statements that McQuaid would find sufficient cause to ban him, should the UCI pass such a rule.
Right now, I see Vaughters as one of the best proponents of clean sport. He has seen the dark side of the sport and yet still believes that clean sport is possible and is providing his riders the support necessary to be competitive without resorting to doping.
If we want to understand doping, we need to understand more than the biology behind the drugs. We need to know more than who they got the drugs from, more than their training regimen. We need to know, to understand the riders as people. We must understand what caused them to confront the choices that led to their doping. That means no black hats.
As long as we reduce each cyclist who used performance-enhancing drugs to the black-hatted doper who just wanted to win, we’ll miss the drive for most of the peloton. If Frankie Andreu is to be believed—and I think we should heed his words—he used not to win, but to survive, to keep his job. There are lessons in his effort to survive.
I don’t want to go all Oprah on you, but if we set aside our need to judge, we can listen to stories told by people, people who often faced choices as attractive as rock and hard place.
Last week several media outlets carried an open letter that UCI President Pat McQuaid wrote to the union of professional cyclists, the CPA. Published on the UCI’s site as well as VeloNews, McQuaid explained the problems with riders’ desire to use radios and how the riders’ voices have been heard.
He did this in a sprawling, at times rambling, nearly 2000-word letter. His bottom line came less than 400 words in the letter, effectively eliminating the need for three-quarters of his communiqué. So why are radios banned and why is the point beyond negotiation? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look a bit at the document he drafted.
In McQuaid’s opening sentence he previews what I’ll go ahead and call a bit of cowardice. He says, “The discussions are heated….” How about give us a simple declarative statement. We know where the discussions stand. We don’t need him to set the scene. He should tell us something of his views and not passively. Take a stand. How about instead of “That is why I feel it is necessary to address you collectively to try to clarify some points in the debate that is unfortunately no longer calm and constructive.” just write, “I write to you today to clarify the UCI’s decision to ban race radios.”
McQuaid refers to the “progressive banning of earpieces”; just how he uses the modifier “progressive” is a bit of a mystery. Is he saying that the decision marks a progressive improvement in the sport, or is he referring to the fact that the ban wasn’t enacted all at once. Similarly, he states the debate is “no longer calm and constructive.” I’m not sure who he has been listening to, but points made by AIGCP President Jonathan Vaughters have been in my reading both respectful and entirely rational.
He ratchets up the rhetoric congratulating “most of you” for the ability to “up until now … remain reasonable.” By not calling out just who isn’t “remaining reasonable” he casts a broad net, damning many with his faint praise.
The letter is plagued with a series of undefined referents. The next one that troubled me was, “our sport has been susceptible to wide criticism.” Um, who are we discussing? Are we discussing stakeholders within the sport, or people outside the sport? I define stakeholders as riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, equipment manufacturers, governing bodies and even fans. If we’re discussing “wide criticism” from within, define which stakeholder is leveling the criticism. If it’s from outside anyone we define as a stakeholder, who gives a shit? Obviously it’s unwise to govern the sport in a way that alienates potential sponsors, but if you don’t have any skin in the game, why should we care what you think?
Further confounding the reader’s search for clarity he refers to “this attitude.” Just what attitude is that? I’m guessing it’s the one that leveled “wide criticism,” but we have no idea who was doing the criticizing or just what that criticizing was. That said, he uses this vague reference to rhetorically wonder just what will set of the next conflict—presumably with the riders, though he doesn’t make that clear.
McQuaid finally reveals who the boogeyman in the race-radio ban scenario is: France Television. Apparently, executives at the network gave the UCI an ultimatum: get rid of radios or “television would be reduced.”
Where I come from this is colloquially referred to as blackmail.
Up until now we have all been led to believe that the decision to ban race radios was one made by the UCI and the UCI alone. Not only is this not the case, but McQuaid revealed a terrible weakness: He demonstrated that it is possible to blackmail the UCI and win, if what he says is true.
His next point concerns how German television (ARD and ZDF) have both dropped all cycling coverage because of doping. What he is attempting to do here is to draw an equivalency between race radios and doping. The logic goes: Doping caused two networks to drop cycling coverage. Less television coverage is bad; therefore doping is bad. Another network is threatening to drop cycling coverage because of race radios. Therefore race radios are bad. If race radios can do the same thing doping did—result in less cycling on television—then race radios are just as bad as doping.
People, I’m not making this up. McQuaid wants us to think of race radios as a no less a threat to cycling than doping.
Perhaps most disturbing is the second comparison he draws to doping. He writes,
“I would have preferred to leave doping out of this discussion, but I realise that I can’t resist pointing out a few facts on this subject …
“I don’t think that the riders are in the best position to remind us of the seriousness and the urgency of certain situations: if doping still exists, it’s is only because there are still riders who dope! And if it is true and undeniable that the habits of a large number of you have changed, it is also true that we are still confronted with a fairly high number of cases, which, despite the remarkable progress of our anti-doping results, means we are constantly in an environment of suspicion and tension faced with the public opinion.”
No one suggested he need refer to doping. There is no rational connection between the use of race radios and doping. By comparing the two, McQuaid unfairly paints many riders as dopers. Note his use of “large number” and “fairly high number.”
Just as insulting is his observation that the riders’ indignation, as evidenced by Jens Voigt’s and Grischa Niermann’s open letters, should be reserved for doping scandals. The suggestion here is that by not speaking out more forcefully when riders test positive they have somehow lost the right to complain.
McQuaid insists the UCI has listened to the riders, the teams, indeed anyone who believes race radios are helpful when he writes, “you have been falsely led to believe that the opinion of riders was never taken into consideration….”
What McQuaid and the whole of the UCI doesn’t understand is that riders don’t want a submission form for a newspaper-style letter to the editor. They want a seat at the table and a vote. When decisions are made about the competition they provide, they deserve a seat at the table and what is meant by a “voice” is a vote.
In short, a decision regarding race radios would be more easily viewed as democratic, and not unilateral, if each of the major stakeholders in the sport—riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, networks and governing bodies—had a vote.
I’m surprised that no one has drawn a comparison between the Boston Tea Party and the ban on race radios. While the race radio ban isn’t a tax, both conflicts arise from the same dissatisfaction—no voice in the affairs that most concern them. Until you have a vote, you don’t have a voice. Period.
Suppose the UCI said, “We have come to realize that the speeds of the races are too great. To reduce speeds we will limit professional riders to a maximum gear of 40×17 to preserve their health; we have also determined that a flat bar will give riders a better vantage to see road hazards, thereby cutting down on accidents. Both these changes will give fans a greater opportunity to see their heroes as they ride by.” Would it be reasonable to expect the riders to compete in Milan-San Remo knowing their average speed might only be 33kph, making the race a nine-hour affair. Such a decision would affect the riders (by changing the nature of the racing), equipment manufacturers (think of the changes to bikes), team directors (changes in strategy), networks (changes in airtime) and race organizers (the length of road closures). Do you think each of those stakeholders would simply accept such a change made by the UCI?
Even if you dislike race radios, and I’ll admit that I was ambivalent on them for a while, I expect you can agree that riders deserve to vote on any decision that concerns them.
For now, though, that desire, no matter how reasonable some of us think it is, will remain unattainable. McQuaid’s patrician attitude demonstrates that he has no intention of giving riders a seat at the table. No matter; he has undermined his own authority with this letter, showing he is unwilling to take responsibility for decisions, and susceptible to blackmail. Even if McQuaid isn’t listening to the CPA, the CPA is listening to him.
Cycling can survive without the UCI, but the UCI can’t survive without cyclists.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International