In light of the reports regarding Alberto Contador’s imminent, one-year vacation, we’re thinking double extra hard about different ways to clean up the sport. The other day we discussed the need for greater decisiveness from the UCI and more draconian application of the rules.
Who really has the power in pro cycling? It’s an imprecise question. It yields some obtuse answer about the various parties involved, the UCI, the state federations, the Pro and Pro Continental teams, the sponsors and the race organizers. Assign percentages. Divide and debate.
A more precise question is: Where’s the money?
It is true that the UCI, federations, teams and sponsors all have an interest in clean racing, but it is also true that each of those stake holders has some motive for winning, regardless of the methods. The UCI needs champions in order to grow the sport. More than that, they need spectacle and drama. They need superhumanity. Obviously, doping scandals hurt their brand, but what weapons have they got? We’ve already talked about how ineffective their current approach has been, suspend and litigate.
The federations also want champions, riders from their countries standing atop podiums. They want clean athletes, but they only really need their athletes to be cleaner than the others. They also have no real power, just a smaller player in the suspend and litigate system.
The teams are the most compromised. They need to appear to be clean, but if they don’t win races, it doesn’t matter much whether they’re clean or dirty as a dormant coal mine. They lose sponsorship either way.
The sponsors have money, it’s true, but they’re in the same boat with the teams. They want the publicity that comes from winning races. They want a spot in the Tour caravan. Doping scandals may or may not hurt them. Festina reported selling more watches in the year following their team’s expulsion from the 1998 Tour.
That brings us to the race organizers. It brings us to the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO).
As most folks know, the ASO runs the Tour de France, the biggest cash cow in the sport. What they may not know is that they also own and/or operate the Tour of Qatar, Tour of Oman, Paris-Nice, Critérium International, Paris-Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Vuelta España, Tour de l’Avenir and Paris-Tours. In short, ASO is the gatekeeper. More than anyone else, they have the power.
So what if the ASO implemented its own anti-doping policy, some more clearly stated variation on what they do now. Yes, Tour director Christian Prudhomme has been sending the teams messages for years. Embarrass the Tour and you become persona non grata in France, in July. But the rules aren’t written, and they’re not hard or fast.
If the ASO made the simple policy of barring riders who had tested positive from competing in any other of their races, it would send a shock wave through the peloton. Gone would be David Millar, Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, et. al. It would be a loss, but it would be a tolerable one to get our sport back from middle pages of scandal-addicted newspapers.
Not being able to race in ASO races would decrease even the most talented rider’s value so significantly as to virtually end their careers. Am I really going to pay Vinokourov’s salary only to have him compete in the Giro and some subsection of the rest of the season? And what if Giro director Angelo Zomegnan buys into this approach? To borrow and phrase from another sport, game, set, match. Over.
I am sure that the deal hammered-out between the UCI and race organizers to guarantee selection to the biggest races for the entire list of ProTeams contains some provision for teams who harbor convicted dopers. I would argue that there is almost no way, under law, for the ASO to be compelled to allow the participation of riders whose presence might devalue their primary assets.
The ASO could make this happen. But will they?
Over the last decade, the ASO has acquired a number of big races, expanding their cycling portfolio to its current size, and glancing down the list you will see three of the seven spring classics, two of the three grand tours, the most prestigious one week stage race (Paris-Nice) and one of the big fall classics (Paris-Tours). How many more races would they need before they could effectively take cycling private, marginalize the UCI, and run their own show? It seems outlandish, but … outlandish is what cycling does, isn’t it? Perhaps it will take a paradigm shift like this, a breakaway if you will, to win the race against doping. Perhaps this is our last, best hope.
G’day, mates! In case you’ve not been enduring the latest barrage of pro cyclist tweets from Down Under (Fabian Cancellara said the food at “Swiss Haus” was just like home), the World Championships are nigh. The 45.8km time trial is Thursday on a course departing from Geelong, and the men’s elite road race is Sunday in Melbourne.
In the time trial, Cancellara, aiming for his fourth TT World Championship, is clearly the man to beat. Anyone naming worthy challengers would have elicited a hearty guffaw from this writer prior to the ITT on Stage 17 of the recently completed Vuelta a España. Cancellara finished third that day, a show of mortality we’ve not seen from the Swiss chronometer in a long time. So Michael Rogers now officially has a shot. Richie Porte’s name has been bandied about. Tony Martin can’t be written off, nor, perhaps David Millar.
In the road race, all the big favorites have been very busy this week accusing each other of being the big favorites. Cadel Evans thinks Pippo Pozzato or Phil Gilbert will win it. The pundits and punters all have their eyes on Oscar Freire. Somewhere, off in a corner, Mark Cavendish is trying to summon the confidence (poor lad is always lacking for self belief) to have a tilt at it. Some say it’s a sprinter’s course. Others say the hilly part of the circuit that reaches down into Geelong makes it one for the classics men.
I love the tension that builds before a race like this, every rider playing down his chances, trying to lay low enough to be able to spring a surprise when the right moment comes.
Another distinct possibility is that Cancellara will win the TT and the road race, making everyone else look silly and giving his new Luxembourgish team the opportunity to make a combined World Champion’s jersey before they’ve even turned a pedal in anger.
You know how these Group Rides work though. We want to hear your predictions. Sticker pack to the first one who names both winners first.
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.
Padraig has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Yesterday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us almost everything we look for from a Spring Classic, crashes, attacks, splintering chase groups, breakaways, and an unlikely winner. The name of that improbable champion was the one thing that left something to be desired in the minds of many cycling fans. You could tell from all the booing at the finish line and the wave of articles questioning the result, based on that rider’s checkered past. Despite a stunning and classy win, cycling just isn’t sure about Alexander Vinokourov.
There seem to be two strains of thought as regards the ongoing exploits of Mr. Vinokourov. There are those who view him as an unrepentant doper, a rider who cheated, never confessed and then came back at the top level to plunder anew. Then there is an admittedly smaller group who say the Kazakh has paid his dues, served his suspension and is, therefore, entitled to continue with his career.
I find myself curiously caught between the two. Ambivalent.
Certainly, I have sympathy with the skeptics. I have always been a believer that how you do something is at least as important as having done it. And so, when I ponder the growing field of convicted dopers returning from suspension, I am able to draw some distinction between David Millar, honest, contrite, outspoken and humble, and someone like Vinokourov, who has been seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of his transgressions. He has been neither contrite nor humble. Having served his time, he is back to feed at the trough. Full stop.
But is that a valid distinction?
Millar and Vinokourov both cheated. Both served suspensions. Both have, theoretically, changed their behavior to that prescribed by the governors of the sport. Those are substantive changes, no matter how they’re effected.
Does it matter that Vinokourov has not become an outspoken critic of doping within the sport? If each returning rider cast himself in this role, would the gesture become hollow? And is the sword not, in fact, double-edged? Would the same people who pillory the Astana rider for not being contrite enough, call him a hypocrite if he spent too much time extolling the virtues of clean sport? Quite how Millar has turned this trick for himself is a bit of a mystery, but, by all accounts, the British rider has always been more charming than his Kazakh counterpart.
At root, are we, as fans, entitled to more bowing and scraping? Or are the sport’s laws and punishments enough?
I don’t know. I ask myself if I’m not maybe simply biased toward riders I like better on the bike. I can forgive Pantani his transgressions, to some degree, because he gave us such drama. Danilo DiLuca also falls into this category maybe. But the less emotionally compelling riders like Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde (unconvicted) or Jan Ullrich suffer a greater wrath. They cheated, AND they failed to entertain properly. This double transgression may be the real problem.
Today, Vinokourov has come forth with an open letter that seeks to address his situation more fully. It’s hard to read it and not feel an ounce of compassion for the man, who, at 36, is only trying to salvage something of a damaged career.
Would we prefer that he simply go away? For doping to go away, do the dopers all have to go, permanently? If so, we need to change our rules and procedures. Now. Before this dynamic plays itself out into absurdity.
The whole situation brings to the forefront some of the central challenges for the UCI going forward, how to reintegrate the sport’s transgressors and how to convince cycling fans that the punishments doled out are proportionate to the crimes being committed.
What we are seeing with Vinokourov is that, though the UCI has sanctioned his return, the tifosi have not, and neither have the cycling press. Perhaps these are just the consequences. You can cheat, and you can go away for two years, and you can come back, but all that will be left for you are these begrudged victories. You can stand on the podium and kiss the girls and hold the bouquet. You can even pocket the prize money, but you will never be allowed to win again.
Is that fair? I have no idea.
Valentine’s Day marked the 6th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. And in light of Padraig’s recent post “Reclaiming Our Past” and a tweet forwarded by Joe Parkin questioning why some idolize Pantani while reviling other dopers, I wanted to do a little writing. That’s how I think through a question like that. It is interesting how we process our cycling idols (not just their performances) after we know they were cheaters, and Pantani occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart, so…
First of all, let’s be entirely clear. Marco Pantani cheated. He did it systematically, repeatedly and seemingly without remorse. As cheaters go, Pantani laid the blueprint for how not to do it. Through this prism, perhaps David Millar lends the best example of how to cheat well, i.e. with subsequent apology, outspokenness and openness, but that’s another post. Not only did Pantani dope, but he also led a rider’s strike at the ’98 Tour to protest police raids on team hotels aimed at rooting out the dope. Bold. Brazen. Shameful. Full stop.
So, on some level, Pantani was a bad guy. He dazzled on the bicycle, thrilling us with monster mountain breakaways executed with panache and merciless cruelty toward fellow racers, but it was all a lie. Here was this improbable, little guy with a pirate’s beard and kerchief crushing the legs of all comers. He was a star, if an awkward one, that would eventually burn out.
We all know the story by now. Pantani was broken by the revelations of his cheating. He retreated into drug-use and the resulting paranoia. He isolated himself, one last breakaway, in a hotel room, and did cocaine until his heart refused to go on.
How do you idolize a man like that?
The answer is: I don’t. I think making heroes of people is cruel. It puts them up on a pedestal they will eventually fall from. Pantani fell hard. He died, and don’t think the fame and shame didn’t play a part. I think it’s fair to ask: Did Pantani kill cycling, or did cycling kill Pantani? The answer, to both questions, is probably yes.
So then, backing away from idol worship, what is it that endears a rider and a person like Pantani to a rider and a person like me?
Well, like me, Marco Pantani was an addict. I empathize with that trajectory of self-importance to deep shame to self-destructiveness. His highs were high (winning the Giro and the Tour), and his lows were low (six-feet below sea level to be exact). He did amazing things, but remained all too human. He could never win enough or do enough coke to quite escape that doomed trajectory. Here was a master of the sport to whom I could relate directly.
As I climbed in the mountains of Southern Vermont, I thought of Pantani. I tried (and failed) to dance in the pedals like the little Italian. When I got off the bike, I had nothing further to live up to. To me, Pantani is and was just a man, with all the frailty and failings attendant thereto. Unlike the untouchable idols of pelotons past, Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and LeMond, Marco Pantani didn’t ever demand more of me than I could provide. He let me ride and be who I am, not more, not less.
I believe there is a flawed genius in each of us. If you tick back through that list of bike racing heroes, you will be able to hang faults on each of them. Coppi and Anquetil doped. So did Merckx. Hinault is an asshole, a graceless winner, a poor loser, and a lout. LeMond, for all his charm in victory, has been an unhappy legend, a dour presence in the cycling universe. None of this makes them unworthy winners in my mind. It just makes them men. Like you. Like me.
When we talk about the legacy of our sport, doping is one of the unavoidable subjects. It may be the one thing that keeps us from getting too carried away with idol worship, and that is, in my humble judgement, probably a good thing. I don’t mean that as an absolution for dopers or an acceptance that doping goes on and is ok. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, and where riders are systematically cheating and by extension tearing the sport down, that is clearly a bad thing. But, and this is important to me, it is just a sport, and we are just riders.
Image: Spray paint on canvas board by the author, inspired by this AP photo.