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
Back in July, Team Astana was clearly not only the strongest team in the 2009 Tour de France peloton, but also one of the most powerful teams that had been put together in recent years. La Gazzetta dello Sport called it “Fortress Astana”. This caused Padraig to ponder about which team might be the best Tour de France squad of all time. He suggested the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer and Jean-François Bernard as the greatest.
I offered the 1908 Peugeot squad, which won all 14 stages in the 1908 Tour and took the top four GC places as the finest Tour de France team ever. I still hold by that view.
So who is number two on my list? Team France between 1930 and 1934.
Until 1930, the Tour as contested by trade teams, as it is today. Alcyon-Dunlop, Alleluia-Wolber and Lucifer-Hutchinson were the Cofidis’, Columbia-HTCs and Garmin-Transitions of their time. But, not surprisingly, loyalties could cross trade team lines and riders from a country could unite to help a fellow compatriot. Also, trade teams could combine to try to bring about an outcome that had been decided in a hotel room. Of course, this still goes on today.
At that time the Tour was run by its founder, an iron-fisted dictator named Henri Desgrange, who wanted his race to be a pure test of an athlete’s will and power. He made the race stupefyingly hard, even forcing the riders to perform their own repairs. As late as 1929 riders still had to fix their own flat tires. Desgrange loathed trade teams and felt they corrupted his race. Since the race’s inception he had tried to negate the effect of teams and domestiques (a term Desgrange invented) but in the end he had to surrender to the fact that massed-start bicycle road racing is a sport contested by teams and won by individuals.
It all came to a head in the 1929 Tour. Maurice Dewaele took the Yellow Jersey after the 323-kilometer stage 10 trip through the Pyrenees. His lead of nearly 15 minutes looked nearly unassailable. But as the Alps loomed, Dewaele fell ill. He was so sick that at one point he couldn’t eat solid food. He was pushed and dragged over the remaining stages by his teammates. More importantly, it seemed that a fix was in. Dewaele in his fragile state was extremely vulnerable to the attacks that never came. Astonishingly, he arrived in Paris still in yellow.
“A corpse has won,” lamented a miserable Desgrange who was convinced that something had to be done to protect the fundamental honesty of the Tour.
What he did was extraordinary. He dispensed with the detested trade teams and instead, put the riders in national squads. There was a French team, an Italian team, one for Belgium, etc. Since the bike makers had a 3-week publicity blackout, they refused to pay the substantial expenses of housing, feeding and transporting the riders. Again, Desgrange did the unexpected. He came up with the publicity caravan. Companies would pay the Tour for the privilege of driving their logo’d trucks and cars in front of the race. The national teams are gone, but the publicity caravan remains.
The effect of this realignment was huge. Instead of being scattered among many teams, the best French riders were now on one team. In 1930, the best stage racers in the world were the French, with the Belgians and Italians formidable but on a slightly lower level.
The early 1930s Team France has to be considered one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. They won 5 straight Tours with 3 different riders. That is a bench with depth. In 1930, the national team format’s first year, they not only won the Tour, they put 6 riders in the top ten in the overall, and team member Charles Pélissier won 8 stages.
Here’s the core of the team:
André Leducq: He won 5 stages in the 1929 Tour and went on to win a total of 25 stages. That remained the record until Merckx won 34. He won the Tour in 1930 and 1932. This was a man with talent. He had been world amateur champion and had won Paris-Roubaix in 1928 and would take Paris-Tours in 1931.
Antonin Magne: He won the tour in 1931 and 1934. Magne was the world pro road champion in 1936 and won the Grand Prix des Nations, then the unofficial world time trial championship, in 1934, ’35, an ’36.
Charles Pélissier: Charles was brother to 1923 Tour winner Henri and the capable but not outstanding Francis (who found later that he was a far better team manager than racer). Pélissier won those 8 stages in the 1930 Tour, which included the final 4 legs of the race. In 1931 he won 4 stages. Pélissier wasn’t part of the 1932 team (he would return in 1933) but Georges Speicher was. Speicher won the Tour and the world road championship in 1933 as well as the 1936 Paris-Roubaix. Also a member of the 1932 squad was Roger Lapébie. He won 5 stages in the 1934 Tour before going of to win the 1937 edition.
We can’t forget some of the other French team members:
Maurice Archambaud: magnificent against the clock but too heavy to win the Tour. He wore yellow but could never seal the deal, losing too much time in the high mountains. Nevertheless, he was an important contributor to the team’s success.
René Vietto: His story of giving up his wheel to allow Magne to win in 1934 when Vietto might very well have won the race himself is one of the legends of the Tour. This was a team that acted as one for a common goal. Vietto ended up wearing Yellow more than any man who didn’t win the Tour. He was one of the greatest climbers in the history of the sport, but both his knees and his time trialing would let him down when it mattered.
The French team was not only talented, it had a magnificent esprit de corps. When Leducq crashed descending the Galibier and thought his chances of winning the 1930 Tour were over, they rallied his spirits and dragged him up to the leaders and led him out for the stage win.
1934 was Team France’s last year of glory when it won 19 of the 23 stages. That is dominance writ large.
Cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier thinks the 1933 French team was the greatest assemblage of pre-war cycling talent ever. I think one could pick any or all of the 1930’s Tour teams as the best, and with the exception of the 1908 Peugeot team, one could hardly go wrong.
And then the magic ended. In 1935 Magne crashed out of the Tour and although Pélissier raced the 1935 edition, it was as an independent rider, not part of Team France. With the absence of the leadership these two riders gave the team, the magnificent cohesion that had allowed the French to steamroller their opposition evaporated. Romain Maes of Belgium mercilessly took the French and the rest of the peloton apart. Second-place Ambrogio Morelli of Italy finished almost 18 minutes behind. The best-placed French rider was Speicher, at 54 minutes and 29 seconds.
The only time the French would win the Tour again before the war was in 1937, and the tainted officiating in favor of the French and Lapébie still smells.
The French would come back to dominate the Tour de France during golden age of racing, the 1950s (and beyond), with Louison Bobet ( winner in 1953, ’54, ’55), Roger Walkowiak (1956) and Jacques Anquetil (1957, ’61, ’62, ’63 and ’64).
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International