When I woke this morning, the first thought I had was, “What other bad news will be revealed today?” I’m not one to experience ennui, but this morning, I didn’t have any energy to go for a ride, didn’t want to look at the news and really only wanted to hang out with my family and enjoy a leisurely morning.
None of those things happened, mostly because I did look at the news. For those who aren’t keeping score:
1) The Tour de France champion tested positive.
2) The president of the UCI denied that Contador was being investigated the day before he admitted the existence of said investigation.
3) The Vuelta’s second place and a teammate tested positive.
4) The home of Riccardo Ricco has been raided and unless Italian police don’t know what aspirin looks like, something suspicious was found in a cabinet belonging to a guy who has been convicted of doping once before.
5) Oscar Sevilla has tested positive yet again.
6) The sister of the winner of the Giro d’Italia isn’t permitted to attend sporting events because of her role in the distribution of doping products.
7) Ex-Oakley employee Stephanie McIlvain put her finger in the dike against the many accusations against Lance Armstrong.
8) Allen Lim told a grand jury that he wasn’t hired to help Floyd Landis dope.
9) Operacion Puerto is to be closed and all the evidence destroyed. The truth won’t out.
The only good news for a jingoistic Yank rests on the shoulders of the world’s third-most-popular Taylor (let’s not forget Swift and Lautner), a 20-year-old who we all must hope never comes to the attention of the Eugenics movement. (If you can breed dogs, you can breed people, right?) Taylor Phinney’s gold and bronze medals in the U23 World Championships aren’t news, they are simply confirmations of his talent. With two more years in that category at the world championships, he could wind up the most-medaled U23 rider in history.
Let’s cover this in reverse order: The blood bags are going to be destroyed and we’ll never know the true depth of Fuentes’ business, but it a way, it’s such old news suspending a rider now based on that case seems kind of irrelevant. What’s significant here is the lack of institutional will to get to the truth and clean up sport. This is going to haunt us like a drunken kiss at a New Year’s Eve party.
How often does a job description reflect the job as performed? Who hasn’t had additional had additional duties thrust upon them out of necessity. The subtext here is that Allen Lim may not have admitted all the ways that he assisted Landis. Lim told ESPN.com, “When I worked with Floyd, I repeatedly told him that he didn’t need to dope and should not dope, and I was absolutely not hired to help him to do so.” Okay, so you weren’t hired to help him dope … but did you? Landis may seem kinda desperate and crazy, but no one has suggested that he’s trying to slaughter innocents. Are we really to believe that Landis would screw saint? That doesn’t fit the bill.
Despite the existence of an audio tape made my Greg LeMond in which Stephanie McIlvain reveals that she did hear Armstrong admit to using performance-enhancing drugs, the former Oakley employee—whose husband is Oakley’s VP of sports marketing—testified to a grand jury that she had no knowledge of Armstrong’s use of drugs or that she heard him admit to using them during a meeting with doctors at which Frankie and Betsy Andreu were present and which they claim she was present as well. One wonders what other questions she was asked besides those two; presumably it shouldn’t take seven hours on the witness stand to say “no” twice. While McIlvain has certainly protected Oakley’s (and by extension, Armstrong’s) interests, investigator Jeff Novitzky has secured perjury convictions against athletes who lied to a grand jury.
Elisa Basso, sister of Giro winner Ivan Basso and wife of former pro Eddy Mazzoleni was snared along with her husband as part of Operazione Athena. Mazzoleni was given a suspended sentence for his role in the drug dealing, while Elisa received a ban that stopped just shy of saying she can’t watch sports on television. Not only can she not work for CONI or any of the national governing bodies for sport in Italy, she can’t attend the events or even enter a place frequented by athletes or their coaches. And competing herself? No chance.
Oscar Sevilla, who tested positive for the EPO masking agent hydroxyethyl starch (HES) has been allowed to return to racing until his B-sample analysis is returned. Technically, the product isn’t banned, but its only use is to mask doping and it can only be administered by transfusion, which itself, is not permitted. Sevilla told Cyclingnews.com, “Let’s say that justice is done because there is no reason to suspend me. There can be no direct doping case, as with a forbidden substance, since hydroxyethyl is not on the banned list.” Even weirder, he added, “I take all the steps and face the situation. Ideally, the B sample will be negative. But if not, then the cycling federation will meet to decide on my case.” Ideally? Methinks the rider protest too little.
Some 50-odd tablets of unknown composition were found by Italian police in a cabinet at the home of Riccardo Ricco. Naturally, Ricco—let us not forget Ricco’s previous suspension for CERA use—claims they are nothing elicit.
Ezequiel Mosquera—the darling of the 2010 Vuelta—and his teammate David Garcia have both tested positive for HES—the same stuff Sevilla tested positive for—a substance of use exclusively to cyclists trying to hide evidence of transfusions or EPO use. Hmm, every positive for HES happens to be with a Spanish cyclist. Coincidence?
Credit or blame (depending on your outlook) that we know anything about Alberto Contador’s positive test can be given to German journalist Hans Joachim Seppelt with the news organization ARD. He specializes in doping stories and learned of Contador’s positive (presumably from the Cologne lab that did the testing) before the UCI had announced anything. When he approached Pat McQuaid, the UCI president denied knowing anything, yet less than 24 hours later a press release was issued. Based on what we know of the case—that clenbuterol and traces of a plastic used in transfusion bags were found in Contador’s urine—there seems to be ample evidence that a suspension is in order while the case is adjudicated. The question is why two months passed since the end of the Tour de France and the public is just now finding out; even Contador knew of the test result in late August.
Of course, the big news of the week is how Alberto Contador not only tested positive at the Tour de France, but the UCI gave him time to prepare a defense. While Mosquera and Garcia found out about their positives through the media, Contador got the bro’ heads-up.
Add to this the just-announced positive of Margarita Fullana for EPO. Fullana would have us believe she only used EPO this year, in which she got virtually no results, and not in previous years when she was blowing by the competition like the Road Runner going by the Coyote. Totaled, we have four positive tests announced in less than a week. Curiously, all of them are by Spanish riders. This little detail seems to suggest that Spain has a bigger problem with doping on a cultural level than any other nation in cycling. While it’s impossible to say that there is a permissive attitude toward doping in Spain, that nation is the highest ranked in cycling according to the UCI with 1868 points, compared to Italy’s 1071 and Belgium’s 882—and that’s even after points were subtracted following Alejandro Valverde’s suspension.
According to a poll in the Spanish paper Marca 78.5 percent of the Spanish people believe that Alberto Contador is innocent of doping. But that figure isn’t quite right. Newspaper polls are notoriously unrepresentative of the actual population; it’s much safer to say that of cycling enthusiasts who read Marca 78.5 percent believe Contador is innocent. Theoretically, this group is better educated about doping and ought to feature a higher percentage who accept that it’s very likely Contador received a transfusion during the Tour de France. Given the number of American cycling enthusiasts who can’t even contemplate the possibility that Mr. Big Shot doped, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised by this.
Based on last week’s news, I’ve drawn three conclusions:
1) Clenbuterol is the red herring in Contador’s doping case. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that Contador didn’t intend to dope using clenbuterol, as well as a reasonable argument that strict liability is an absurd standard by which to judge an athlete. However, the plasticizer present in Contador’s sample cannot occur from an unintended source. He got a transfusion and this, ladies and gentlemen, should not surprise us. This is how the game is played currently. I hate re-writing record books and results, but if we want a clean sport, chasing brilliant leads like this is how we’ll get there.
2) McQuaid is a bigger problem than I thought and the UCI needs to clean house. Of course, that’s like suggesting to a hoarder that what they should do is toss out the junk and sweep the floor. There’s a fundamental problem with the UCI’s mission. It is charged with governing the sport by overseeing the promotion of races. If the sport of cycling suffers as a result of poor race promotion, the responsibility is the UCI’s. However, it is also charged with disciplining athletes who dope. Punishing your biggest stars is a conflict of interest if ever there was one. Clearly, WADA should have jurisdiction over informing the riders of positive tests and disciplinary proceedings should be turned over to CAS. After all, if WADA was charged with disciplining the athletes they tested, there would never be another false positive or flawed administration of a test. They would bat 1.000 against riders, which is pretty much where things stand.
3) Something’s rotten in Spain. Again, it’s impossible to say where the root of the problem lies, but it strikes me as cultural on some level. Writing that troubles me. I’m not a bigoted guy, but we’ve seen statements from the head of the Spanish federation defending Valverde, an unwillingness by the Spanish judiciary to get to the bottom of Operation Puerto, Spanish cyclists testing positive at a rate far higher than cyclists from any other country. Of course, while it’s nice to have someone call out the Spanish federation, even if it is Pat McQuaid, what we need is a dog with some teeth to go after them.
And now Alberto Contador is threatening to quit the sport. Isn’t that like saying you hate the movies after being grounded? Seriously, though, has he read the Wikipedia entry on Jan Ullrich? Changing nationalities and retiring didn’t really end the scrutiny of his activities.
Lingering in the background of all this doping news is a thought I hadn’t been willing to articulate until now. The French are the only nation of cyclists incapable of producing a rider able to stand on the podium of their national tour. I’ve come to the conclusion that French cycling (ranked 14th among nations) sucks because they—more than any other cycling superpower—really took to heart the whole no doping thing. Remember, we haven’t seen a Frenchman on the podium of the Tour since the Festina Affair.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The British have given us this expression “Elephant in the room” (also, according to Wikipedia, “elephant in the sitting room”, “elephant in the living room”, “elephant in the parlor”, “elephant in the corner”, “elephant on the dinner table”, “elephant in the kitchen”, and “elephant on the coffee table”). And regardless of which room or on what piece of furniture the aforementioned pachyderm has chosen to rest his weary bones, the point is that the elephant is there, obvious, in plain sight. And yet, no one wants to talk about the elephant.
For a century, doping has been the elephant in cycling’s living room. In the early years of continental competition, riders were frequently charged with having cheated by drinking brandy during stages of grueling races. Later, amphetamines and cortisone crept in, and many of cycling’s greats were believed to be “doped” in these ways, including Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil. In the 1967 Tour de France, Tom Simpson died on the side of the road on Mont Ventoux, after mixing amphetamines with alcohol; his witches’ brew foreshadowed the even crazier concoctions such as pot belge that were to come. The sense that doping is a problem in modern cycling only is a misconception.
This elephant has always made himself comfortable, either on the chaise longue or perched happily next to the ottoman.
The British gave us the expression, and the Spanish have given us Alejandro Valverde, the top-ranked cyclist in the world last year by the UCI. Valverde is that rarest of riders, a strong climber who can time trial AND sprint. To earn his top UCI ranking, he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the 2008 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Spanish National Road Race Championship. He won Grand Tour Stages and the Vuelta a Murcia. In 2009, he won the Dauphiné again.
Valverde, at 29, is at the peak of his powers. He may well win the Vuelta a España, where he is, at time of writing, wearing the leader’s golden jersey. But what will it mean for the rider known as the Bala Verde(Green Bullet) if he does win? What will it mean for his team, Caisse d’Epargne? And what will it mean for pro cycling? There remains an elephant in the peloton.
What follows are facts: 1) Valverde rode for the Kelme team from 2002-2004. 2) During that time, Kelme’s riders were being cared for by Dr Eufemiano Fuentes. 3) In 2006, Fuentes was arrested after a large cache of blood bags, suspected to contain the blood of doped athletes, was found in his Madrid clinic. 4) The resulting scandal, known as Operación Puerto, implicated dozens of riders in the pro peloton. 5) In 2009, the Italian Olympic Committee professed to have linked one of the bags of blood, labelled “valv.piti” to Valverde, and subsequently brought the Spaniard to Italy to face doping charges. 6) Valverde maintained his innocence, but was banned from competing in Italy for two years anyway, which caused him to miss the Tour de France. 7) Valverde has filed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sport with the hope of overturning his Italian ban and clearing his name. 8) A Spanish judge has sealed the evidence in the Operación Puerto case, preventing both Italian and cycling authorities from moving forward with prosecutions of any implicated riders.
Judge Antonio Serrano, who has presided in often controversial fashion over the Puerto case, has hewn closely to the letter of the Spanish law. It seems that at the time of the raid on Fuentes’ clinic, the substances allegedly found in only a handful of the blood samples, were not in fact illegal in Spain. Serrano has, for that reason, closed the case against Fuentes and his co-defendants repeatedly. That the alleged doping agents are illegal under the laws of the UCI doesn’t trouble Serrano in the least. The thinking is that, since no laws were broken prior to the collection of the evidence, the evidence was seized unlawfully. Further, the handling of the blood by authorities has been problematic in its own right. The Italian Olympic Committee claims it has a bag of blood from Fuentes’ clinic and has matched it to Valverde. Quite how they got that blood, how it was handled and what jurisdiction they have over a Spanish rider involved in a closed Spanish court case are all questions hanging heavy in the air.
We know the following for sure: 1) The case against Valverde is largely circumstantial, because the blood in the bag alleged to be his has not been matched to a DNA sample submitted by the rider, and whether you believe his denials or not, he continues to ride, confident that he can clear his name. 2) While the Italian Olympic Committe, who take an active role in doping investigations in Italy, have banned him, the Spaniard has challenged their jurisdiction over his case, as any offenses purportedly occurred in Spain.
What follows is conjecture: 1) The UCI is said to be disappointed that the Spanish courts have sealed the case records, but it is entirely possible that they simply want to appear disappointed, because if, as suspected, the number and caliber of riders (close to 50) involved were all suspended, it would decimate the ProTour. 2) It is possible that Valverde was storing blood with Fuentes without having used it. He may have done what Ivan Basso eventually admitted to in the same Puerto case, which is “intending to dope.” 3) By continuing to ride and be tested, Valverde may be building a case for his innocence based on “clean” wins, that is, wins without positive dope tests. 4) If the Italians had actual proof, i.e. a DNA sample they could match to the bag of blood, then they presumably would have turned that evidence over to the UCI, which would effectively end Valverde’s efforts to clear himself. That the Italians haven’t done so, implies that their case is, in fact, only circumstantial.
If Valverde wins the Vuelta, there are two possible scenarios that could play out, each with drastically different consequences. First, it’s possible that a Valverde win will force all of this to be rehashed in the press, and perhaps more pressure will mount on the Spanish courts to release the case material, which would, of course unleash pandemonium, a pandemonium that’s been hibernating since 2006. This chain of events would take us back to Floyd Landis being stripped of his Tour de France win, of Michael Rasmussen being kicked out of the Tour while wearing the yellow jersey. It would indict the sport anew and quite possibly end Caisse d’Epargne and Valverde all in one fell swoop. It might put paid to the idea that the current testing program is sufficient. If Valverde, a rider many believe to have doped, can win without a positive, in competition test, then it’s fair to ask how effective the testing regime really is. Regardless, this is not what pro cycling needs, in what all of us hope is a new era of transparency and fairness.
Or, perhaps winning a Grand Tour without testing positive for EPO or CERA or testosterone or excess Nutella, will convince both the authorities and the fans that digging into the Puerto vault serves no real purpose. Valverde’s taken his lumps. Maybe he can move on now. Maybe we can all move on, forgiving dopers their past and celebrating the techniques and results of the teams who have taken on programs built around racing clean.
To be sure, someone, somewhere, at some point, is going to have to comprehensively address this latest elephant in the room. It remains to be seen whether the elephant will stand up and make his own presence felt, or whether he’ll simply slink out the back door leaving nothing but a vague odor and a deep dent in the couch.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International