In the time I’ve been penning these personal thoughts about cycling’s problems with doping, starting with the 1960s, I’ve become more conscious of how the cycle of revelations and reactions keeps on repeating itself. And how true breakthroughs in the fight against doping only happen when there’s a combination of scientific advancement and unscripted events.
The death of Danish amateur cyclist Knud Jensen, who was on amphetamines, at the Rome Olympics in 1960 initially woke up the sports world to the need for drug testing. France was the first to enact anti-doping legislation, in 1963, but its implementation was erratic and resulted in a riders’ strike when the gendarmerie descended on a Bordeaux hotel at the 1966 Tour de France and inexpertly took urine samples from a number of athletes, including French star Raymond Poulidor.
But it was only after Professor Arnold Beckett, head of London’s Chelsea School of Pharmacy, finalized a rock-solid test for amphetamines that the UCI became the first sports governing body to introduce testing. The first experimental tests at the 1965 Tour of Britain were so successful that the race leader and two others tested positive and were thrown out of the race. Encouraged, the UCI extended the program, including its own world championships the following year. But, because of those problems with the heavy-handed French government testing, the Tour de France didn’t get any UCI-approved controls until 1968—the year after Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux with amphetamines in his system.
Simpson’s death triggered the International Olympic Committee to set up a medical commission, which Beckett joined, and the first list of banned substances was drawn up before testing began at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As I wrote in a previous column, the early anti-doping controls were not always conducted according to the rules, with pro cyclists finding ways to avoid testing positive (as illustrated by Michel Pollentier at the 1978 Tour). Also, it didn’t help that there was no definitive test for steroids until 1974 (also pioneered by a London laboratory), and even then the riders and their soigneurs learned how to use masking agents, such as diuretics, to beat the system, before they were banned too.
It was widely known in the 1970s and early-’80s that long-distance runners and cross-country skiers from Scandinavia were using blood-boosting methods (by re-infusing their previously stored blood) to improve their performances. In Italy, its Olympic Committee CONI even sponsored sports doctor Professor Francesco Conconi (inventor of the Conconi test for establishing an athlete’s anaerobic threshold) and his biomedical research center at the University of Ferrara to prepare athletes from several sports, including skiing and cycling, using blood-boosting methods. And it’s widely accepted that Conconi and his assistant Michele Ferrari helped Francesco Moser break Eddy Merckx’s world hour record at Mexico City in January 1984.
Blood doping was undetectable and even encouraged until members of the 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team (track and road), under the supervision of the U.S. Cycling Federation coaching staff, blood-boosted in Los Angeles. Some intra-federation memos (this happened before e-mails existed) were leaked to Rolling Stone magazine, which published a salacious article on the affair in its February 1985 issue. The result was several USCF officials being reprimanded. It was regarded as a huge scandal in the United States and resulted in blood doping finally being prohibited, first by the USCF, then the UCI, and eventually by the IOC in 1986.
It was ironic that just as blood doping was being banned a team of scientists at biotech company Amgen in California was researching an artificial, or recombinant, form of human erythropoietin for boosting the red-blood-cell count of anemic cancer patients. FDA approval for the new drug Epogen (EPO) came in 1989, but it was already on the black market in Europe, and EPO eventually became the most widely used doping product in cycling, cross-country skiing and long-distance running.
There was no way EPO could be detected in blood tests because it was a genetic hormone that helped athletes create their own new red blood cells. Scientists in Europe and Australia began research on methods to identify the use of EPO by athletes, but it was a long, difficult (and expensive!) process. In the early-1990s, dozens of athletes, including cyclists, allegedly died because of their hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells) reached levels as high as 60 or even 70 percent. In Italy, CONI again gave money to Professor Conconi, this time to research an EPO test, but this merely led to Italian athletes and Italian cycling teams becoming the leaders in the use of EPO.
That was confirmed when the Gewiss team placed three riders in the first three places at the Flèche Wallonne classic in April 1994, after which their team doctor, Ferrari, told Italian and French journalists in an interview that only the abuse of EPO was dangerous, not the drug itself, and that he wasn’t scandalized by riders using it.
That unscripted incident in 1994 was one that didn’t get the reaction it merited, either from the media or the UCI. It gave Verbruggen an opening to condemn the apparent abuse of EPO in Italy, but he played down Ferrari’s remarks and said that the other teams should work and train harder to challenge the Italians. The press criticized Verbruggen but no real investigative journalism was set in motion, and it should be noted that the publications with the biggest resources, L’Équipe in France and La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, also happened to be the organizers of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia respectively. Conflicts of interest were an obvious factor in the lack of action.
With no detailed investigations by the media or the UCI and no definitive test for EPO on the horizon, the blood-boosting drug became more and more predominant in the European pro peloton. Finally, both the UCI and the international ski federation (FIS) looked at ways of deterring athletes from using EPO. The result was that the UCI, after discussions with sports doctor and the pro teams themselves, implemented a 50-percent hematocrit limit in January 1997. Several medical experts questioned the UCI limit as being too stringent, especially as the FIS limit was much higher (equivalent to some 53 percent before a tested athlete was stopped from competing). UCI president Hein Verbruggen was criticized for saying that the new limit was a “health check” and it did not imply use of EPO, but with no foolproof test yet available he was just stating the facts.
The new blood testing had an immediate effect. In the very first tests before the March 1997 Paris-Nice, three of the 20 riders tested, tested over the 50-percent limit. They were all domestiques: Frenchman Erwan Menthéour (who would write a book detailing his use of EPO and other performance-enhancing products, including so-called Pot-Belge, a mixture of amphetamines, cocaine and heroin that riders, and even some French journalists, got high on at parties); and the Italians Mauro Santaromita (later named on a list of athletes implicated in a police investigation into doping), and Luca Colombo. But the penalties of being excluded from the race, along with a fine and a two-week suspension of their racing licenses, was not a huge deterrent.
It was only after the Festina Affair in July 1998 and the various entities (the IOC, sports federations and federal; governments) came together that the World Anti-Doping Agency was formed in December 1999 and the sports world started to take the modern doping problem far more seriously, with the extra funding needed to institute more testing and to enable more research into definitive drug tests. I’ll conclude this story and comment on other more recent revelations in my column next week.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.
Robot has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Linger. Fester. Spread. Grow.
When you think about the words that are used in conjunction with the noun suspicion they are words used to apply action to sores, smells and cancers. And like a cancer, suspicion can spread in directions surprising and predictable at equal rates.
Alexander Vinokourov’s win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us examples of both. That suspicions linger about what sort of rider he is—that is, how he achieves his success—should surprise no one. What may have surprised you was to hear boos from the crowd as he crossed the line. No matter who’s feed you watched, the crowd’s disapproval was audible.
Was Vinokourov naive to be shocked? No. It was a crowd display that is unprecedented and stands in direct opposition to Richard Virenque’s win in Paris-Tours just months after his return to competition following his suspension for doping. The two situations couldn’t be more similar and yet, the crowd reactions couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
Virenque was hailed by the crowd as if he was a returning war hero. He was lionized in the (French) press as a true champion. He was still and again Richard the Lionhearted, the darling of France.
Vino? Not so much.
To be booed must have hurt. How could it not? That’s got to be defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. And then to be questioned by the press as much about his past vis-a-vis doping as the circumstances that led to his win was obviously infuriating, so much so that he took the unusual step of writing an open letter to the cycling world. You’ve probably seen it, but if not, you can read it here.
Vinokourov asks a fair question: Why can he line up for a race, but not win it? Indeed, the boos took the sweetness of victory from him more certainly than the UCI ever could. Why roll across the line first if you won’t be granted the crowd’s adulation?
Many writers have contrasted Vinokourov with David Millar and wondered why we accept the Scot, but not the Kazakh. It’s a fair comparison and could serve as a very teachable moment for Vinokourov.
So Millar’s apartment in Biarritz is raided by police and they find a syringe with traces of EPO. Millar responds by confessing. He told us not only that he had used EPO, he told authorities exactly how long he had used the drug and how using it weighed on him.
As doping confessions in cycling go, it’s the single best example out there.
Richard Virenque denied, denied, denied and then confessed—tearily—in court at the sharp end of a prosecutor. It worked for the French but anyone without a Gallic soul was left adrift by it.
Bernard Kohl conducted interviews on a monthly basis with German media, teasing out details of his past and his knowledge of doping in what seemed to be a calculated effort to keep his name in the headlines. In the end, it seemed self-serving.
Kayle Leogrande confessed in confidence to soigneur Susanne Sonye and after she testified about what he told her he sued her. That suit was ruled a SLAP and tossed out of court, but not until another cyclist, lawyer Tom Fitzgibbon, came to her rescue. Leogrande? Persona non grata to the cycling world.
Four confessions. Four very different results.
Vinkourov has confessed virtually nothing. We remain suspicious. We suspect much about his past. And because he has done things recently—such as train in Tenerife (the current haunt of doping docs Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes), a place nearly as out-of-the-way as Mexico when considered from the Continent—that smack of present doping practices, we suspect there is more to the story.
In his letter he refers to “the dark years of my career.”
Imagine that on the evening Vinokourov was ejected from the Tour in 2007 he had given a press conference. And suppose that during the press conference he had said, “Yes, I used a clinic in (insert name of German town here) to conduct blood doping. Earlier, when I was at T-Mobile, we used EPO and our system was organized by (insert name of dirtbag here). My first drug use was in 199x and that season I won X, Y and Z with its help.
We wouldn’t like the news, but at least we’d know. His suspension, in the wake of a confession could serve as a sort of penance for all of his past doping.
Vinokourov was suspended for a single infraction—not years of drug use—and to this day has confessed nothing directly. He says, “I don’t think cycling needs to reconsider all these dirty stories to move forward.”
Wrong. Worse yet, he adds, “I have nothing to hide.”
Again, he has confessed nothing, though he has referred obliquely to years of drug use, so it is impossible for this one suspension to serve as penance for years of standard practice. He is still hiding much.
Let’s consider how the courts would view this. For pleading guilty and confessing the full extent of the crime(s), a person is almost always rewarded with a reduced sentence. And then there’s the plea bargain, in which the criminal signs a full and complete confession and in exchange is charged with a lesser crime. Very often, it’s a trade to avoid being convicted of a felony. In the United States, the punishment for a felony conviction lasts long after any prison time has been served and any fine paid. The felon cannot vote and will forever have ‘splaining to do in job interviews.
It would seem that Vinokourov is suffering the sort of moral equivalent to a felony conviction. He won the race, but not in the hearts of many present.
In closing his letter he writes, “I can’t do more than what the sport regulations ask me, to prove my honesty. Today, I only wish to be respected as I respect everyone, my colleagues in the peloton as the journalists. I don’t want to be the only and too easy target for all the ills of cycling.”
In this, he misses the point entirely. He has never proven his honesty. Sure, he’s testing clean now, and while we should applaud him for that much, because we don’t know the full extent of his past, we struggle to trust him in the present.
And is he the “only and too easy target”? Not by a long shot. Now would be exactly the wrong moment for him to play the persecution card.
Vino, you have nothing in common with Job.
Let us hear him say, “I did X. I was wrong. I am sorry,” and that, sports fans, truly is a game changer.
Were Vinokourov to hold a press conference on the eve of the Giro d’Italia and finally confess everything he did and knew, I truly believe he could win the prologue the next day and be applauded.
His career is a matter of reputation, something only he can restore.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Trek and Greg LeMond have been ordered by the judge presiding over their case to hold a settlement conference in a last-ditch effort to avoid going to trial. U.S. magistrate judge Janie Mayeron ordered that the two parties to meet at a St. Paul, Minnesota, courthouse on January 28 for the purpose of perhaps negotiating a settlement.
As a prelude to the meeting, counsels for both parties are to meet on or before January 18 for a “full and frank discussion of settlement.”
However, if Trek and LeMond do not come to a settlement at the settlement conference, each attorney is required to submit a confidential letter to the judge. In it the attorneys must each give a progress report including outstanding issues and analyze their case’s merits and weaknesses.
While the roots of the conflict began with LeMond criticizing Lance Armstrong’s association with Dr. Michele Ferarri, a known proponent of EPO use for cycling, for business purposes, the conflict began when Trek informed LeMond that it would not renew its 13-year licensing agreement with him when it expires in 2010. LeMond filed suit on March 20 claiming that Trek had promoted Armstrong ahead of his brand and asked the court, essentially, to require Trek to continue to make and promote LeMond bicycles. On April 8, Trek sued to sever all ties with LeMond.
Trek cited multiple reasons for severing the relationship including dilution of the LeMond brand name due to mass-merchant line of parts bearing the LeMond name. And while there has been wide-spread belief that the brand never sold well, industry statistics show LeMond was the fifth largest road bike line in the U.S. in 1999.
Whether the case settles out of court seems to be up to LeMond and what his greatest priority is. If protecting his brand and his income is his greatest priority, then the case will get settled behind closed doors; terms of the settlement are likely never to be known. If LeMond’s greater desire is to attempt to expose Lance Armstrong as sporting fraud, then this case is bound for a jury and the fireworks will be considerable.
LeMond’s choice may be pivotal. Should he pursue an open trial, the number of companies will to do business with him will shrink considerably. Certainly any players that consider themselves risk-averse would shy away from any association.
An out-of-court settlement would end the mudslinging and let LeMond get back to his mission of marketing a line of bicycles bearing his name. The business climate has changed significantly for the bike industry since LeMond negotiated his deal with Trek in 1995. The market consolidation taking place then has largely dried up. However, there is one notable exception.
Dorel, the parent company for Pacific Cycle and Cycling Sports Group, is the cockroach that ate Cincinatti of the bike industry. Dorel’s cycling brands include Mongoose, Schwinn, GT, Cannondale, Pacific, Roadmaster, Dyno and Sugoi.
And they are still buying. Recent purchases have included Australian distributor Gemini Bicycles as well as UK distributor Hot Wheels and Circle Bikes. Dorel also acquired the Iron Horse at auction for a measly $5.2 million following the bike brand’s demise amid multiple lawsuits and finger-pointing. Oak trees aren’t a shady as the deals made to try to keep the brand operational.
If LeMond were to go quietly, it wouldn’t take a science fiction author to imagine a deal with Dorel that could place the LeMond name in the mass market, the sporting goods chains or the IBD before the end of 2010.
Some things in this world are unlikely. Finding Bigfoot is pretty unlikely. So is peace in the Middle East. Other things are just impossible. Finding Bigfoot eating dinner at a diner with Elvis, safe to say, is impossible.
Somewhere in the middle of these two poles lies the possibility that the suit Greg LeMond has filed against Trek Bicycles and their countersuit against him will be settled out of court. LeMond, for better or worse, seems to want his day in court.
In broad strokes, the cases are pretty simple. LeMond is suing Trek for failing to “exert best efforts regarding the LeMond brand.” In realpeople speak that’s, ‘They didn’t sell enough of my bikes.’ Following LeMond’s suit, Trek countersued and terminated its licensing agreement in April of this year. Today, the Lemond Bicycles web site is a single page allowing purchasers to register their bikes for warranty.
The real issue here isn’t sales figures, it’s LeMond’s mouth. It’s roots are in a report that LeMond read in 2001 that revealed Lance Armstrong’s relationship with Michele Ferrari. To LeMond, who was very familiar with Ferrari’s past vis-à-vis doping, that relationship could only mean one thing: Lance was doping. There was a certain sort of logic to it. Say your best friend is John Gotti. And say you tell a newspaper that he has a great mind for business and he has helped you with some of your business dealings, a reasonable person could understandably come to the conclusion that you, my friend, are a mobster.
Does that give anyone the right to accuse you of being a mobster in public? Not unless he is a prosecutor preparing to bring charges under RICO against you. To be fair, LeMond hasn’t actually said, “Armstrong is on dope,” but if you take the body of statements LeMond has made, his belief is clear. Consider: “If Armstrong’s clean, it’s the greatest comeback. And if he’s not, then it’s the greatest fraud,” and “In the light of Lance’s relationship with Ferrari, I just don’t want to comment on this year’s Tour. This is not sour grapes. I’m disappointed in Lance, that’s all it is.”
Would you say that about an athlete you thought was clean?
So LeMond thinks Armstrong is a doper. Newsflash: he’s not alone. There are plenty of cycling fans, competitors and members of the media who think so as well. The difference is, with the exception of a guy named Walsh, they all have the good sense not to accuse someone of something if they lack proof.
This was LeMond’s downfall. Word on the street is that Armstrong placed Trek CEO John Burke in the unenviable position of needing to mediate between the only two American Tour de France winners. Burke asked LeMond to temper his statements and confine them to speaking generally about doping. LeMond was unable to.
The case before Judge Richard Kyle has gone far afield. LeMond is notoriously unpleasant to do business with (an inside source pegs him as the downfall of the Clark Kent brand and the near failure of the paint and restoration company CyclArt), in part because he is unafraid of litigation. One former business associate who asked to remain anonymous used a single word to describe him: “Nightmare.”
Were the case really about the bikes, Lance Armstrong’s ex-wife, Kristin Armstrong would not have been deposed, nor would he have showed up at an Armstrong press conference to question him about his planned anti-doping program. In short, LeMond is attempting to make the case about Armstrong rather than his dissatisfaction with Trek’s efforts to sell his brand.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, LeMond attempted to cast his concern about doping in general and EPO in specific as a concern for athletes. He cited the deaths of more than 100 cyclists who are believed to have been taking EPO. However, LeMond never brought up his concern before the controversy with Armstrong. Put another way, have you ever heard LeMond mention the name of Johannes Draaijer, a Dutch cyclist on EPO, who had a heart attack and died in his sleep?
Trek claims it has done right by LeMond and that the relationship was lucrative for both. Since 1995, Trek reports it has earned more than $100 million, delivering some $5 million to LeMond’s coffers. LeMond points to a meager $10,393 in sales (possibly fewer than five bikes) in France between 2001 and 2007. Given the success of Bernard Hinault’s line of bikes in the United States, one can ask if LeMond could reasonably expect to do more in France.
What’s that you say? Hinault isn’t a household name in America? True, but nearly anyone willing to spend more than $2000 on a bicycle (only one bike in the LeMond line retailed for less than $2000) knows the Hinault name. And while LeMond may have had a large fan base in France, it can’t compare to the legions that adore Hinault in his home country. Fair comparison.
The point? LeMond’s case seems rather weak. I’ve written on this once before, for Slowtwitch. And while I’d rather see LeMond leave Armstrong alone—and addressed an open letter to him on Road Bike Action’s site—that’s really what this case is about.
But, you ask, what does Armstrong’s alleged doping have to do with LeMond’s bike business? LeMond will tell you it has everything to do with it. If LeMond can demonstrate to the court that Armstrong has doped, then he can demonstrate that Armstrong had motivation to have LeMond silenced. But what could silence LeMond? How about the threat of the shelving of his brand?
In short, LeMond will turn this case into an accusation of extortion against John Burke and Lance Armstrong. His legal team has already deposed Armstrong’s ex-wife; don’t think for a second that he won’t at least try to depose Mr. Seven.
The real question isn’t what LeMond and his legal team will reveal about Armstrong and his alleged doping but rather what LeMond’s actual motivation is. While it is conceivable that LeMond and his team could find a person or persons to allege doping on Armstrong’s part, finding definitive proof that Armstrong doped is as likely as finding Buggs Bunny sharing a slice of pie with Elvis and Bigfoot at our aforementioned diner.
Given the difficulty of the challenge facing LeMond, one must wonder what his motivation truly is. It can’t be exposing the danger of EPO, otherwise he would have been speaking out against EPO use more forcefully earlier. LeMond didn’t have a lot to say during the Festina Affair in 1998, yet just three years later, he had a lot to say about the second American to win the Tour de France three times.
That’s the rub: LeMond’s legacy. While this is pure conjecture on my part, no other explanation makes sense of the energy and money LeMond has sunk into this case. While the psychic toll this case has taken on his family can’t be calculated—it was enough, though, that Kathy LeMond sat across from Kristin Armstrong during her deposition (one wonders who was more unnerved by Mrs. LeMond’s presence)—the cost in legal fees can, and is said to be at or above seven figures.
If LeMond can impeach Armstrong and demonstrate a strong likelihood that he doped during his seven Tour de France wins, LeMond could win two things. First, he could show that in silencing LeMond and dropping his line, John Burke wasn’t acting in the best interest of the LeMond line. Second, by tearing down America’s most successful cyclist, LeMond will regain his rank as the best American cyclist.
But what’s the chance he’ll succeed, and even if he does, in whose eyes will he have won?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International