The other shoe has not dropped. It is actually raining shoes now. Tyler Hamilton’s doping confession, grand-jury induced or 60-Minutes inspired, is just the latest drop in the Armstrong-eroding downpour.
I’ll come straight to the (question) point. How do we feel about this?
Hamilton was going to be the next Armstrong, the first Lance domestique to break free of the US Postal orbit. His days at CSC and Phonak were full of promise and gritty almost-wins. We all recall the broken collarbone that Hamilton rode through to fourth place in the 2003 Tour de France. He had broken a shoulder and still finished second in the preceding year’s Giro d’ Italia.
And yet, for all Hamilton’s hard man brilliance and quiet humility, his long history of blood doping violations, suspensions, denials and recriminations turned many of his erstwhile fans against him. In the end, he was banned for eight years for a final doping positive related to DHEA. It was a whimper of capitulation, rather than a bang of vindication.
His marriage dissolved. He was treated for depression. It was all a heavy price to pay for heavy crimes against the sport.
Now a cycling coach living in Colorado, Hamilton appears to be coming out of the dope-fueled haze of his racing career. As with Floyd Landis before him, Hamilton’s motivations will be parsed and questioned. His credibility will be debated. It is hard for a long-time liar to re-establish himself. Ask Landis. But in a room full of liars, where does the truth actually live?
And yet, here is another former-Armstrong aide corroborating the stories and suspicions, impeaching both the greatest American champion and the sport’s governing body with simple confirmations of what many of us have believed for some time. In the end, does this say more about cycling or about Hamilton’s own often bizarre role in the doping soap opera of the last two decades? Is this a turning point, or just another way station on the road to dope-free cycling?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In a departure from recent tradition, Christian Prudhomme released the list of Tour de France team invitations early. Twenty-two teams were on the list, the eighteen ProTeams and four wild cards, all French. The managers of FDJ, Saur-Sojasun, Cofidis and Europcar must have been giggling over their morning croissants. Mauro Gianetti at Geox – TMC, excluded from the race, despite having former Tour winner Carlos Sastre and regular podium finisher Denis Menchov on their roster, was not nearly so pleased.
Prudhomme insisted his team selections were about supporting French cycling, but not everyone bought that explanation.
As John Wilcockson wrote for VeloNews, Geox-TMC’s summer vacation is less about Prudhomme favoring French teams, but rather more about old vendettas against Giannetti. The Italian had managed the Saunier-Duval team of Ricardo Ricco, the Italian climber banned for two years, busted at the 2008 Tour. No matter that Gianetti immediately fired Ricco, the Geox-TMC boss in persona non grata for Prudhomme and ASO.
Is it odd then that BMC rides so many ASO events, despite their connection to the Phonak team, also run by Andy Rihs? Phonak won the 2006 Tour with their leader Floyd Landis. Has there been a more embarrassing event in recent Tour history than Landis’ disqualification?
This week’s Group Ride asks the following: Is Geox-TMC’s exclusion fair? Does the invitation of demonstrably weaker French teams hurt the race? What do you think about ASO punishing teams for the behavior of past riders?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I think it was harder than I imagined it would be to come up with good questions for Floyd Landis, his actions so baffling and absurd as to render a rational approach well nigh impossible. How do you talk to a mad man?
Mark’s early entry, “When will you apologize to Greg LeMond?” got an answer over the weekend, when Landis actually showed up at the Tour of California and made a personal and in-person apology to the former champ. I’d have given half my spare parts to be a fly on the wall for that one.
Interestingly, the bulk of the questions contained more than a tinge of anger, which is, I suppose, understandable given the number of us who bought and read Landis’ book (I did). There is a level of public hypocrisy here seldom encountered, and many of us are still working out how to reconcile the lies with the possible truths on offer now. Is the boy crying wolf? Or is the wolf among the sheep even now?
For all his erratic behavior, the thing that strikes me about this current flap is the consistency of Landis’ approach. He ALWAYS rushes in when a measured approach would be better. He did this as a racer, and he’s done in it his post-suspension life as well. He also seems to traffic in the plausible more readily than the true, which is to say, his statements (including all his denials about doping post-2006) linger, not because they’re necessarily true, but rather because they’re plausible. It’s this combination of impetuousness and manufactured ambiguity that make him such a frustrating figure.
Even those who believe him now are forced to concede that Landis has gone about everything, start to finish, in the wrong way. It’s a difficult position to start from.
Certainly, he could have simply confessed his sins, cleared his conscience and moved on, but instead he’s chosen to scorch the earth, allegedly to help reform cycling, but the lie behind that sentiment is so transparent as to be insulting to those of us who really do wish for a reformed peloton.
The thing I can’t get over (among many, if I’m honest) is how Landis has managed to rally so much support over so many years despite being bat shit crazy. If I had that one question to ask, it would be this: “Floyd, what is it about you that people find so compelling that they’d cast their lot in with yours, not once, not twice, but over and over again?”
Having been a mad man, and having dealt with many of the same over the years, this is the component I find most interesting, the ability of those who would lie and cheat and steal, be they disgraced athletes or still-reigning champions, to continue on in that vein, year after year, decade after decade, lifetime after lifetime, to the consternation of us all.
Image: The Walt Disney Corporation, all rights reserved
I believe that Bjarne Riis holds the keys to the future of professional road racing in continental Europe [Cue the sounds of a needle scratching a record/glass shattering/monkey's rioting at the banana packing plant].
For years we’ve been talking about the impact that each new doping scandal would have on the sport’s ability to attract sponsors able to support teams on the financial level necessary to race the UCI’s evolving, global race calendar. And, certainly, sponsors have dropped out after prolonged exposure to the negative publicity of having their athletes frog-marched out of the Grand Tours, heads hung in shame. What brand benefits from having their name associated with a bunch of anorexic junkies?
And yet, every time we lost a stalwart sponsor like T-Mobile, we gained a Garmin or a Columbia. Even the recent emergence of teams like RadioShack, Sky and BMC suggest that there are still deep-pocketed brands who believe in cycling. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the Shack is built specifically to support Lance Armstrong, a marketing juggernaut independent of cycling. Sky comes out of the British Cycling Federation’s successful track tradition, a group without doping-related baggage to carry around on tour with them. Among those three, only BMC, formerly Phonak, has struggled through years of dope-conjured setbacks, specifically with Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Oscar Camenzind and others. Their survival can be put down, completely, to the iron will of owner Andy Rihs, who loves cycling, perhaps to his own detriment.
On the European continent, things have not gone so well. Formerly dominant Italian teams have self-destructed or soldiered on, shadows of their former selves. Spanish sponsors have fled nearly wholesale, and the French, well, they seem to be underachieving on every front. Milram, the only ProTour team in Germany, will end their sponsorship commitment at the end of this season. Doom? You’re soaking in it.
That brings us back to Bjarne Riis and his Saxo Bank team. Among the ProTour horde, Saxo Bank stands out. They have dominated the Spring Classics through Fabian Cancellara, a rider who will also bring them Grand Tour stage wins in any race against the clock. They also have the Schleck brothers, Andy and Franck, who, in addition to contending for GC honors in the Tours, also represent the fresh, young face of cycling. Few teams bring to the ProTour what Saxo Bank brings, and much of that is down to their owner and manager, Riis.
And now that Saxo Bank is ready to end its sponsorship of the team, it is Riis scrambling around to find funding for what is, arguably, the best team on the continent. The irony is that Riis himself is a repentant former doper, who confessed, without coercion, to having won the 1996 Tour de France with the help of the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO), even offering to give back the yellow jersey he won that year.
A polarizing figure in cycling, Riis is clearly at the forefront of modern team managers, bringing new training techniques and technical innovations to the table more aggressively than any other. Many cycling fans are ambivalent about his influence though, disgusted with his participation in the drug culture of the late ’90s peloton, but intrigued by the performance and tactics of his team. Never a particularly warm presence, Riis has managed his team in the same ruthless way he raced. It wins races, if not always fans.
So now it’s down to this man to find a title sponsor for his team. It’s a proposition that tests the very premises of continental racing. Can a former doper with the best squad on two-wheels secure the funds? There is probably not a more valuable commodity than Team Saxo Bank, not a better end product to sell. But Riis may well be his own albatross. The deal maker might just be the deal breaker.
And this dilemma is not peculiar to this team. Every continental team has baggage to contend with when talking to sponsors. That is what makes Saxo Bank such a clear litmus test for the ProTour.
Let’s not be too dramatic. Pro cycling will not die. Where teams fail, others will spring up, but the new shoots of growth might come from unexpected sources, Australia or Japan maybe. The UCI has undertaken a globalization project for the sport. This can be looked at as either an effort to grow into new markets, or a tacit admission that the peloton has simply poisoned the well in mainland Europe.
Let’s hope this isn’t the case. Whether we like him or not, let’s hope that Bjarne Riis can present a business plan that overcomes the trepidation that must come from shaking hands with a former cheat.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last September I wrote The Elephant, an analysis cum-indictment of Alejandro Valverde, his role in Operación Puerto and the doping shadow hanging over the pro peloton. Since that time, Valverde has won the Vuelta a España. Then, and perhaps still, Valverde represented the modern face of doping controversy, arguably the top rider in the world, at least by UCI ranking, with the strongest circumstantial link to serious foul play. His persistence, both in protesting his innocence and winning big races, seemed to me like the single biggest threat to cycling’s future.
Six months on, my perspective has shifted.
And what caused that shift? Improbably, it was the issue, in France, of an arrest warrant for Floyd Landis on the grounds that the American rider had hacked into the computer system of the French lab that produced his doping positive in 2006 in order to steal documents pertaining to his case. The very notion of the Metallica-quoting, former Mennonite engaging in any sort of international computer skullduggery so amused me that I resolved to read his book, Positively False: the Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, a tome I had, up to this point, disregarded as superfluous to my understanding of how the cycling world works.
Landis’ book isn’t great. It sort of wanders all over the place, basically outlining what a naive, straight shooter its protagonist is and then lambasting the process of appealing a doping ban and indicting the system that convicted him more than the science, though there’s a bit of that too. I’ll save you the blow-by-blow of my reading the book, then turning to the internet and hundreds of additional pages of independent legal analysis as well as USADA memos, etc. as I stopped thinking about Landis mostly and instead sought to understand more fully how the anti-doping effort actually works.
And what I learned is that it’s complicated.
I thought it was complicated before, but mainly from an administrative standpoint. What I discovered is that testing, sanctioning and prosecuting dopers is a Kafka-esque legal undertaking wed to a scientific process that struggles for accuracy, repeatability and consistency from race to race, country to country and year to year. I began, if I’m honest, with a desire to believe that Floyd Landis didn’t cheat, a desire born of liking the public image of the rider more than anything concrete, and I ended with a deep ambivalence about Landis and subsequently my prize elephant, Valverde.
I realized that I had been applying a double standard.
I loved Landis’ performance in the 2006 Tour, the way he seemed to be assuming the mantle of American cycling leadership from a retired Lance Armstrong, his folksiness, and that amazing comeback on Stage 17, the performance that ultimately led to his doping positive and being stripped of the Tour de France victory.
I didn’t like Valverde. Viewed through the prism of the Puerto investigation, I convicted him of cheating, based on the circumstantial evidence available through the press, and then further indicted him for his flamboyant denials and audacity in continuing to compete in the biggest races at the highest level. In my mind, I was watching a cheat who suffered no consequences. He rubbed our noses in it. He imperiled our sport for his own selfish interests.
This is, of course, complete prejudice.
I don’t know Floyd Landis, and I don’t know if he cheated. I’ve heard awfully compelling arguments that he did, and equally strong reasoning to suggest he didn’t. I don’t know Alejandro Valverde, and I don’t know if he cheated either. Maybe yes. Maybe no.
By continuing to ride, and by the UCI and now CAS (the Court of Arbitration for Sport) taking so long to resolve his case, Valverde has remained the elephant in the peloton. But maybe what that elephant points out is not that doping is alive and well, but rather that the UCI’s system for detecting and prosecuting doping cases is nowhere near sufficient to the task. Valverde goes on winning, a path not available to Landis, and by doing so he proves one of two things, possibly both, that he can win races without dope or, in the event he was and is doping, that the tests don’t work nearly well enough.
Today, the Vuelta a Murcia rolls out of its start in Spain. That race’s director, Paco Guzman, barred Italian teams from entering his race to protest, he said, the Italian’s ban on Valverde, who is from Murcia. Ironically, Valverde and his team, Caisse d’Epargne aren’t racing Murcia either, due to a mixup over payments. At time of writing, UCI chief Pat McQuaid had become involved, threatening Guzman with UCI sanction and demanding an apology. It’s an ugly mess.
I see now that cycling’s politics don’t admit of easy resolutions for what, to most fans, seem like straightforward questions. Did a rider dope? Did he not? Are the races clean? Is the process fair? Are the rules applied equally across the sport?
Last September I wrote that Alejandro Valverde was the elephant, but now I see that no one rider can own that distinction. In fact, now that we’ve recognized the doping and the problems it cause, what remains is the UCI’s ability, or lack thereof, to clean things up, to give us a clean competition where we trust the participants, the administrators and the results. This is the elephant who casts its enormous, gray shadow over the races, the sponsorships, the legends and the rising stars. The dope lingers because we don’t know how to stop it. The UCI is as confused as the riders are. And I, as a fan, have to find a way to reserve judgement, for now, and possibly forever.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In every bike race there is a race, and there is a performance, a narrative of sorts that plays itself out over 130 or 150 or 212 kilometers. On occasion, the race and the performance are the same, which is to say that the driving force of the narrative is the winner of the race and the manner in which he or she has won. But then, much of the time the race and its result are distinct from the performance. In fact, sometimes the two diverge later, as when a rider wins a big race, but is later separated from the result by a doping conviction. Reading the order of finish or scanning the standings of the general classification don’t usually tell you, in any compelling way, what happened on the road.
It is this dichotomy that crept into my brain as I continued to ponder the enduring value, the legacy, of Marco Pantani, or, for that matter, Johan Museeuw, Bjarne Riis, Frank Vandenbroucke, Floyd Landis, Richard Virenque, Tom Simpson, or even riders not tainted by allegations of doping like Raymond Poulidor or Gino Bartali. The comments on my last piece here, É Andato da Solo, sent me back to the proverbial drawing board.
The thing is, it is easy to look up a rider’s palmares and think you know what his or her career was like. I do it all the time, especially for those legends of the sport I never got to see race. But then how do you explain why some riders, indeed some individual performances, remain in memory, while others do not?
Bike racing is hard. No other statement, perhaps, has been written so often, by so many, about our sport. It’s hard. Its conflicts and denouement play out at the ragged end of human capacity. It is epic, operatic and internecine.
And this narrative quality explains a lot about the way we see our past as well as our present. For example, on paper, there is no qualitative difference between the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. They are three-week stage races that include difficult climbs, time trials, beautiful scenery, etc. They all attract the very best riders in the peloton. And yet, the Tour remains the most important, I would posit, because it spins the best narrative about itself. Call it history. Call it marketing. The Tour captures the imagination more completely than the other two Grand Tours.
And though Pantani, Museeuw, VDB, Landis, Riis, Virenque, Simpson, et. al. all cheated (either by conviction or by their own admission), they also told us these amazing stories about cycling, about what happens out there at the ragged edge of things, where most of us will never get to go, and so we hang onto them.
You might even argue that the performance is more important than the result. For this reason, we can elevate a rider like Pantani above a rider like Andy Hampsten, though Hampsten is likely more worthy of our reverence. Hampsten was a great champion, but Pantani told better stories. Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi both won five Grand Tours, but we don’t talk about them as much as we talk about other riders of that caliber. Why?
Among those who are ostensibly more pure than the Pantanis and Virenques, Poulidor or Bartali for example, it is still the performance that matters. Poulidor is revered because of the efforts he made and the grace with which he lost, first to Anquetil, and then to Merckx. Bartali’s rivalry with Coppi was itself a great story, but further, the character of Bartali, the devout, working class hero, always plays well, regardless of results, though his were pretty good.
If we tell ourselves that only the results obtained in perfect honesty matter, we retain only a few threadbare icons. Many of us will, however, choose to perform the complex calculus of weighting the manner of cheating against the quality of the performance. Merckx is legend, perhaps, because his use of amphetamines is gauged less egregious than blood-doping AND his performances were bravura, dominating, crushing and relentless. The recently deceased Frank Vandenbroucke was a blatant cheater, but his brilliance on the stage was, perhaps, equally blatant.
It is difficult to express the creation of a legend mathematically. Each of us gives different weight to the performance versus the result, but we all most certainly do it. We have to. In cycling, because of the evolving manner of cheating, a simple asterisk won’t serve to differentiate the pure from the chaste. Our cheating exists on a continuum that starts with a bidon full of brandy and spans the illicit universe to include, in the present day, bags full of oxygenated blood. Shall we create a code to denote all the forms of illegality to which a rider has prescribed? Their names might trail strings of alphanumeric characters, like pscyho-pharmaceutical periodontists with legal degrees.
It is good and right to acknowledge those who have done things the right way, the aforementioned Andy Hampsten, for one. Riders like him deserve a special reverence. Greg LeMond too. But we can’t factor out the quality of the performance either. The opera is full of overblown characters, usually heavyset men and women with lungs like…well…like cyclists. Some of them are good and some are villains.
I love them both.