Every week, it seems like there’s bad news on the pro team sponsorship front, a steady drumbeat that began with the announcement in August that team Highroad/HTC was unable to land a sponsor. In their wake, Leopard-Trek, the hot new team of 2010 merged with Team RadioShack. Then Team Geox, fresh of their surprise Vuelta victory lost their title sponsor. Garmin-Cervélo apparently secured and then lost a French co-sponsor, BigMat, which may or may not take a leading role on the French team FdJ. There are rumblings that Saxo Bank-Sungard (about to be Saxo Bank) isn’t on sound financial footing, but there have always been rumblings about Bjarne Riis’ formations. And Euskaltel-Euskadi, a reliable formation if there ever was one, is allegedly on shaky ground after next season.
It can be depressing. But we’re going about it as the cycling fans, like the cyclists, we are. We’re worried about doping; we think it might be the state of the world economy. Rational responses, and concerns I share. But I can’t help but feeling that we’re sane people in the psychiatric ward. There’s comfort in feeling right in crazytown, but it probably isn’t the way to success.
I see this most strongly when looking at how we beat ourselves up over doping. And how we let the world beat cycling up over doping. I have no doubt that doping is a problem in cycling. I want to get rid of the dopers, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. At the same time, I am certain that doping is a problem across the entire spectrum of sports, and cycling is doing more to root out doping than other sports. Yet when doping in sport comes up, cycling seems to get more attention than other sports, which work mightily to sweep their doping problems under their rugs. Look at how pro baseball tipped off their players when testing was first initiated. Look at how professional football barely gave a penalty for doping, and is now backing away from their pledge to test for human growth hormone. And this is before anyone discusses what seems to be common use of cortisone in pro football, something that is supposed to be strictly limited in cycling. The notorious Dr. Fuentes of Operacion Puerto fame claims he worked with football (soccer) and tennis players, yet nothing has been heard of that.
Look at sponsors in other sports. It’s easy to see that businesses have no trouble backing tainted athletes. Tiger Woods wrecked his carefully-cultivated public persona on his own, yet most of his sponsors stood by him. Accenture didn’t, but Rolex came on board. There has been no exodus of advertisers from The Super Bowl broadcast over drug use in football. Mark McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger was caught with steroids by a reporter in his big home run chase in 1998 (the reporter who noticed it in his locker): McGwire denied it, admitted it, and is still popular and employed by the team he “disgraced.” I don’t think sponsors care about perfect actors, but a patina of cleanliness and plausible deniability.
Doping isn’t a real issue. Nor is the world economy. There’s high unemployment, but corporate profits are at record levels. Products always need to be marketed. There’s a oft-repeated story told by marketers about how going in to The Great Depression, cereal manufacturers Kellogg’s and Post were about even in market share. Post decided to cut back on marketing, while Kellogg’s increased their marketing budget. At the end of the depression, Kellogg’s was the dominant player, a position they’ve held ever since.
Companies need to advertise their goods and services. Sometimes it’s something new; sometimes it’s reminding the public of something that’s already around. Some products always have a need to be marketed. Cars, banking, insurance, telecommunications, beverages, and lotteries are some of the evergreen advertisers. Massive companies with huge operating expenses and big advertising budgets. HTC, a mobile phone company, the most recent sponsor of Highroad, doubled their profits from $20 billion to $40 billion between 2010 and 2011. Whether or not this was a result of Highroad’s success is never discussed. Their advertising budget in the United States alone was $50 million per quarter, or $200 million dollars a year, starting in 2009. It’s easy to imagine their worldwide advertising budget was over a billion dollars annually. And that would make a $10 million dollar budget, probably much more than what Highroad received, for strong ProTour team is less than 1% of HTC’s advertising budget.
Highroad’s owner, Bob Stapleton claims that his team offered an amazing Return On Investment (ROI). HTC either disagreed or didn’t care. This plays against a core belief for the cycling fan: that their demographic is valuable. Let’s assume that Highroad had impressive data that showed investing in the team yielded an incredible ROI. It wasn’t enough.
American tifosi look at the growing popularity of the Tour de France in the U.S, with daily reports in major newspapers, dominating cable TV presence, and then add in the fact that the Tour is the most-watched sporting event in the world, eclipsed only by the quadrennial events of the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, and figure that there must be advertising gold to be made out of camera time at the Tour. Mix that in with the growth of cycling both for commuting and recreation. It seems to herald a consumer who is tech savvy, spends on her health, and has plenty of disposable income.
For better or worse, perception plays a big part in determining value. Almost a decade ago, the ABC television network was poised to bring Late Night with David Letterman to their channel, which would have meant canceling Nightline. Funny thing was, Nightline had more viewers, but they were seen as less important than the Letterman viewers. And Nightline viewers made more money. They were deemed less important because they were older. Cycling could be suffering from a similar problem. Maybe cycling eyeballs aren’t important enough. Frustratingly, they will remain probably not important enough until they are.
But the reason our eyeballs might not be important enough is that ProTour-level racing has grown to cost sponsors something. It’s not nothing, but it’s not big money like a Formula One team (probably over $100 million) or an ad buy at the Super Bowl ($3 million every 30 seconds). This could put sponsoring a ProTour team out of reach for a passionate company chief, who might have sway in terms of how his company’s marketing budget is used, but not to the tune of several million dollars. At the same time, $10 million might be too small for the biggest companies to consider, as the impact might be hard to see, and consequently measure, as making a difference.
This could be why at least half the ProTeam organizations seems to have angel investors backing them. It also could be why many Pro Continental outfits have their jerseys littered NASCAR-style with small sponsors, many of whom get a benefit out of sponsorship, but the benefit is tied up with seeing themselves as good citizens or promoting their passion. These sponsors like the ROI, but it probably isn’t what drew them to get involved, nor is it what’s keeping them involved.
And this is the big place where being the rational person in the psych ward cannot only be counter-productive but self-defeating. We’re providing data that proves investing in a cycling team is a smart business decision. It makes us feel good that we can prove the value of bike racing. But in so doing, we’re giving out a means for potential sponsors to not only turn us down, but dismiss us. We’re telling potential sponsors we’re good for them, like we’re telling them to eat vegetables when they want to be sold on the idea that it’s a juicy steak.
While I’m sure there’s data demonstrating to potential sponsors of big time sport in the U.S. the value of sponsoring commercials during baseball games and the benefits of having a company name next to the scoreboard or any number of proposals involving businesses putting money into sports, I doubt the data is what sells the companies on putting their dollars behind a sport. I bet they’re sold on the passion, and yes, they have the data.
They way we’ve dealt with this reminds me of how cyclists advocate for cycling in the U.S. It makes sense on an environmental level, on a health level, on an economic level, and most cyclists are happy about that. Then a non-cyclist points out that a person riding a bike might get sweaty and the discussion is over.
We’ve tried rational. Rational doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe it’s time to roll out crazy, an attractive crazy, and start focusing on that.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
To follow professional cycling in Europe is to be familiar with the machinations of the UCI. The organization’s attempts to do more than just administer the sport, but to, in effect, control the sport have resulted in more disenfranchised stakeholders than you’ll find in an oil spill.
Normally, you’d expect to find an organization with skewed priorities playing favorites. Not so with the UCI. They’ve managed to upset the riders. They’ve upset the race organizers. They’ve upset the teams. One could be forgiven for surmising that even the IOC has their issues with them, once behind closed doors.
Earlier this year Johan Bruyneel made some noise about starting a breakaway organization to replace the UCI. Pat McQuaid responded with his typical bluster.
What McQuaid may not know, and what I can say from first-hand knowledge, is that an investigation has already been undertaken into the requirements necessary to start a new governing body for cycling. The UCI is in people’s cross hairs. Why? Because the accusations that the organization is corrupt and doesn’t have the sport’s best interests at heart have legs.
Just this week Inner Ring reported that letters went out to team sponsors detailing the problems they would have trying to conduct business in China, should the teams they sponsored not show up for the Tour of Beijing. Forget for a moment that McQuaid intimated that the teams themselves would have problems getting their licenses renewed. That’s a pretty standard shakedown. What’s truly disturbing is the mob-style intimidation of suggesting that it will be difficult for the sponsor to do business in China should the team not show. After all, one wouldn’t want to insult the Chinese government, would one?
Ladies and gentlemen, that is good, old-fashioned blackmail. I’m no lawyer, but I play one in the bathtub and around my low-stakes soap dish that constitutes a felony.
The standoff began with the conflict over race radios. Bruyneel, Jonathan Vaughters and several other team managers considered using a boycott of the Tour of Beijing as way to take a stand on race radios. There was another, better reason to boycott the race, a reason still in place: Because the UCI organizes the race, their financial stake in the race constitutes a conflict of interest. As soon as the UCI begins promoting races for profit, races that can conflict on the calendar with other ProTeam events, such as Paris-Tours, then they become a competitor to those race organizers. What’s to stop them from organizing events in other parts of the world in July to undermine the ability of a team to send its A-squad to the Tour de France?
And now we find out that the UCI killed blood tests during the Amgen Tour of California.
Folks, if we can’t count on the UCI to carry out in-competition blood-tests at major races, we might as well take the gloves off and stop pretending that we’re trying to clean up the sport. Let’s just hold all the races in Las Vegas, hand out testosterone patches like jugs of Gatorade and educate the odds-makers on how to handicap a bike race.
When the day comes that McQuaid is ousted from the UCI, he’ll be able to find instant work with a certain family known for running most of Boston. He’d be right at home in Charlestown. I can here him now: “Hey, that’s a real pretty car you got there. It would be such a shame if something was to happen to it. If you want, for a small fee, I could watch it for you, make sure nothing happens while you’re gone.”
The question today is whether anything can be done to reign in the UCI, or what can be done to oust Pat McQuaid. We can’t trust the UCI to act in the sport’s best interest, so we must ask what can be done to resolve their negative impact on the sport.
For reasons unknown, this past Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on crashes in pro racing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this year’s Tour ended. Mostly because the reasons that most proffer don’t really explain what’s going on.
The Times article is here.
The biggest problem of all is that we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, and the Times is no different. The reporter gathered his anecdotes and offered them up. Ten deaths since 1995, though few mentioned because, they apparently aren’t worth mentioning. Thankfully, he does point out that no one is investigating. Seems to me that this is a matter for the UCI and the professional rider’s union (CPA) to investigate, but he doesn’t ask Pat McQuaid, nor CPA chief Gianni Bugno what they’re doing about it.
If racing my bike was my job, I’d want them investigating. At the very least, maybe an investigation of the reported crashes at the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. The three big stage races. Maybe looking at them can help point to things that might merit further research.
With the Tour, the biggest cycling stage in the world, every team has an incentive to ride aggressively, everyone wants an opportunity to get in front of the camera, everyone wants a dig at a stage win, just about every racer is probably thinking, no matter what their assignment is, if they just do one more thing, they might be able to score yellow, just for a day, and it won’t derail their team leader’s chances at his stated goal. Seems like a recipe for lots of crashes.
Stakes are highest for most riders and teams at the Tour, no doubt. But there are big crashes at the Vuelta and Giro as well, and they often take out a favorite, or two. And every year, there are crashes at the Tour, and crashes at every race. Every year at the Tour, and other big races, favorites are either caught up in the crashes and drop out or are caught behind them and are knocked out of contention before the critical stages or sectors begin. We’re not always paying attention in other races. But somehow, this year seemed different. There were lots of explanations; the most interesting I read was a cleaner peloton is both more evenly matched and more fatigued.
Maybe more evenly-matched causes some problems, but more fatigued I find hard to believe. It strikes me that such a comment assumes that every last cyclist was doping, because otherwise, the clean cyclists would probably have been more fatigued ten or fifteen years ago than they are now. Even if every last cyclist was doping, there is plenty of evidence that there are both high-responders and low-responders to doping products, EPO in particular, and the low-responders would presumable be at a greater disadvantage than they are today, assuming a cleaner peloton.
I think it’s safe to rule out road conditions as being a big problem, as road conditions are generally better today than they were in the past. I also think it’s safe to rule out “road furniture” on the transitions in and out of towns for most crashes. I know the road furniture theory is a popular one, and the awful Craig Lewis-Marco Pinotti crash at this year’s Giro has been attributed to road furniture, but even their crash deserves at least a little questioning. Was there any footage of it? I couldn’t find any. Maybe road furniture is responsible, but maybe it was just what they hit and the cause was something else. Maybe the crash would have been worse had it not been for the road furniture. I have no reason to doubt either person’s sincerity, but unless we have a better idea of what happened it seems premature to assign blame.
To me, another strike against the road furniture theory is that at this year’s crash-ridden Tour, it didn’t seem like any crashes were the result of road furniture; most of the heavily-reported crashes seemed to have happened on straight roads or in the mountains. There’s also evidence that the Tour and other big races work with local governments to remove some traffic circles and speed bumps where they think their removal will improve safety. I noticed what appeared to be traffic circle modifications during the World Championships as well. I think it’s safe to rule out narrow roads, as not only were wider roads once seen as a culprit, but narrow roads were once all the peloton used.
I’d like to offer up a few alternative explanations to the common cries.
It’s possible that crashes are as common as they’ve always been, but that broken bones are more common today than they used to be, making the crashes more serious and more frequently race-ending. As such, I think one potential culprit is osteopenia. If you haven’t heard of it, consider it osteoporosis lite: bone mineral density is lower than normal. I think it should be considered a factor in all crashes where bone breakage occurs, whether it is in training or racing. Anecdotally, there seem to be more and more stories about guys breaking bones in training crashes the past several years. Even “normal” cyclists can have reduced bone density as a result of all the miles they put in, so a Tour rider, particularly a climber who has meticulously starved himself down to his ideal race weight, probably has thinned his bones beyond what the average mileage-hound has done. I heard physiologist Allen Lim discussing hearing about crashes and thinking that every crash has the potential to break bones during a Grand Tour. When I put it to Dr. Michael Ross, a former team doctor, he unhesitatingly said, “yes.” It also could be a sign of cortico-steroid abuse, something Dr. Ross pointed out, as the result is same. Yes, these guys are racing hard, yes, they’re going fast, yes, they’re hitting the ground hard, but looking at how emaciated riders like Brad Wiggins and Chris Horner are at their Tour weight, I have to imagine their bodies catabolized bone matter to keep going. It strikes me as an evolutionary strategy that certainly helped early humans survive famines, but it also could be how crashes are breaking collarbones, ribs, pelvises, wrists, hips, and so on. For all the discussion about injuries resulting from race crashes, lots of guys seem to be breaking bones training; Dutch rider Robert Gesink had his season ended for him shortly before the World Championships when he fractured his leg while out training.
Some have suggested the culprit could be the machine itself. The bikes don’t seem to be the problem as catastrophic failures from normal riding have largely disappeared, and it’s hard to believe that a bike breaking after hitting the ground is injuring riders. Others point to stiffer wheels and too-light bikes, but I doubt those lines of thinking. I’ve seen little evidence that wheels are vertically stiffer than they used to be, which would be where the problem would lie in straight-line crashes. Tires are just about the same today as they were 25 years ago, and bikes still flex and tire pressure can be adjusted to account for stiffness. Steve Tilford speculated on his blog that some of the sketchy downhill riding was due to racers not training on their race wheels. He may be right. But I think the problem might extend to all racing. Not all carbon-fiber braking surfaces brake equally well. Some are grabby, some pulse, some give the unsettling feeing they’re not slowing down, even in the dry, some work fine in the dry but are questionable in the wet. Most pros can only ride the wheels they sponsors want them to ride, so they could be stuck between taking the risk of crashing or taking the risk of getting dropped more easily. I think many amateur racers would take the same risk, at least in the dry. People might suggest disc brakes, but I even with discs, tire traction, or lack thereof, will be a problem in the wet.
Another potential culprit is the training schedules of racers. At one time, pros probably raced much, much more before showing up to the Tour—the Tour came after both the Vuelta and the Giro and racers typically raced from February into June with smaller training blocs in between. Yes, they might not have been as fast as racers today, their training and nutrition wasn’t as precise, but by racing, they were training themselves to be more skilled in the peloton. And now the peloton is bigger. Riding in a pack takes skill, a skill that is honed by practice, unless there are some Wii games I don’t know about. Some weekend warriors in the US race more than Tour contenders between the start of their season and the Tour. Consider that this year, Chris Horner didn’t race at all between his victory at the Tour of California in May and the start of the Tour. Alberto Contador didn’t race at all between his Giro victory and the Spanish nationals, where he raced the time trial and road race, and then came to the Tour.
Or maybe the converse is true. Cadel Evans barely raced all spring and seemed to be able to race his few races with no crashing issues, though his preference is to race at the front. Maybe the pack as a whole are better bike handlers today and more comfortable riding closer to one another which makes it easier to crash several riders at once when one thing goes wrong.
The biggest issue is probably randomness, volume, and the nature of riding in the peloton. Just take an assembled group of cyclists, 189 riders is 21 teams worth, and have them ride an average of 100 miles a day for three weeks. Even if they were all riding solo, there would be crashes. Knowing how many riders go down in training and how frequently would be interesting to know, and something to compare to all the race crashes.
Some point to the packs being bigger as a culprit in crashes. There could be something to this, though the phenomenon of large fields began in 1986 when 210 riders started. And this time probably is when the super-large fields started occurring at the top races throughout cycling. Previous to this, it seems that races were in the range of 30-50% smaller and largely composed of teams racing in their home country—the Tour with French riders on French teams, the Vuelta with Spanish riders, the Giro with Italian and so on.
For riders, racing is their job and they owe it to themselves to demand research to determine what the real issues and culprits are. At the same time, they probably shouldn’t push for any changes until serious research is done. As a response to the extreme length of the 1987 Tour (22 teams of nine riders apiece riding 25 stages totaling 4231km), there was a movement to standardize the lengths of Grand Tours and shorten stages. This was seen as doing, among other things, reducing the incentive to dope. We know how that worked out.
Race radios are sure to come up as a safety thing. There’s no easy answer with them. Yes, directors can alert their riders to dangers up ahead, but there are downsides to trusting the voice in your ear. What if the director is wrong? What if riders interpret silence to mean everything is safe ahead? When hard helmets were first mandated by the USCF in the 1986, there was an argument that people would take more risks because they knew their head was safe. That never made sense. But I read a story about Erik Zabel’s role for the HTC-Highroad team. Supposedly he’d preview the stage finish and then relay what he saw to the team car, and Ralf Aldag or Brian Holm would then tell the riders. He apparently saw a turn that looked tricky but was convinced the leadout train could take it without braking. Hincapie lead through, didn’t touch his brakes, and Cavendish won the stage. Did this make for safer racing? The first guys made it through and probably so did the entire field. But what if he had been wrong? Is it good for the riders to trust such judgements?
It’s situations like these when I’m glad I’m not a pro bike racer. But it also makes me wonder how safe conditions are for all bike racing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When we consider the problem of doping it’s easy to look at the issue in terms of black and white. There are the clean riders (white) and the doped riders (black). There are the teams whose management actively work to keep riders clean (white). And there are teams whose management organize and facilitate doping (black).
Such an outlook keeps the problem chopped up in easy to digest chunks. And while it may be easier to organize our thinking and ability to pass judgement on who should be in or out of the sport, such an assessment does little to shed light on the reality of the problem.
Every time we reduce someone to “culprit” or “doper” what we are doing is labeling them “the bad guy.” By reducing them into a two-dimensional role, they become cardboard cutouts, symbols, for what we find offensive. Dressing a guy in a black hat automatically makes him the bad guy. That’s what makes old spaghetti westerns so laughable; you didn’t need to know anything more about the guy than the fact that he had the black hat on.
And remember, in most good/bad conflict movies from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the bad guy only did bad things. They stole. They murdered. They polluted the planet and ate babies for lunch.
The good guys (white hats) were just as laughable. They were saintly in demeanor. They protected babies, fed the poor, fought crime and had nary a carnal thought.
It would seem that Pat McQuaid is a big believer in the black hat. McQuaid wants every former rider who ever had a brush with doping to be banned from roles in team management, banned from the sport. If we consider the example of guys like Jonathan Vaughters, a manager who says he faced some difficult decisions while he was a rider, banning him would mean losing a figure who understands the trials riders face better than most. Who else would better understand the agonies of the riders than someone who was confronted with those very choices.
Now, Vaughters never tested positive, was never banned. However, if we assess some of his more veiled statements about his past, his time with the US Postal team, we might conclude that his grand jury testimony included statements that McQuaid would find sufficient cause to ban him, should the UCI pass such a rule.
Right now, I see Vaughters as one of the best proponents of clean sport. He has seen the dark side of the sport and yet still believes that clean sport is possible and is providing his riders the support necessary to be competitive without resorting to doping.
If we want to understand doping, we need to understand more than the biology behind the drugs. We need to know more than who they got the drugs from, more than their training regimen. We need to know, to understand the riders as people. We must understand what caused them to confront the choices that led to their doping. That means no black hats.
As long as we reduce each cyclist who used performance-enhancing drugs to the black-hatted doper who just wanted to win, we’ll miss the drive for most of the peloton. If Frankie Andreu is to be believed—and I think we should heed his words—he used not to win, but to survive, to keep his job. There are lessons in his effort to survive.
I don’t want to go all Oprah on you, but if we set aside our need to judge, we can listen to stories told by people, people who often faced choices as attractive as rock and hard place.
In American cycling, the proverbial other shoe seems to keep dropping. Tyler Hamilton’s revelation that yes, in fact, he did use EPO, that everyone was using EPO, that he saw EPO in Lance Armstrong’s refrigerator, that he saw Armstrong inject it, ought to be the bombshell of all bombshells.
Instead of being met with gape-mouthed stares of shock, most of the cycling public are scratching their heads. After years of denials, a conviction, a suspension, a return to the sport with lukewarm results followed by a second positive test followed immediately his retirement from the sport, Hamilton has chosen this moment to come clean. Why now?
Hamilton says it was the occasion of testifying before the federal grand jury. His time in the hot seat lasted six full hours and he likened the event to the Hoover Dam breaking; it was the first time he had told anyone the complete truth of his involvement in and knowledge of doping.
Floyd Landis hasn’t had much luck getting the powers-that-be to listen to his tale of woe. Pat McQuaid figures that as a convicted doper, Landis was lying when he defended himself. And because he defended himself, proclaiming his innocence in the wake of his positive test, for him now to admit that he was doping means that he’s a liar. Try not to parse that logic too much, it’s tantamount to saying that if 3 + 5 = 8 then 5 + 3 = 9.
Landis, in spouting off on an ever-more diverse array of events and unprovable accusations, has done himself no favors. He and Hamilton share in common the belief that telling the truth will set them free; they are probably right. Most rehabilitation programs include some form of confession; from the Catholic Church to Alcoholics Anonymous, telling the truth is a fairly universal step in healing. But Landis seems to have confused what be believes to be true from what he has actually seen; whether or not that’s the case, too few people are listening to what he has to say. He has been re-cast as the big boy who cried wolf.
Hamilton has a chance to do what Landis could not. Before his positive test, subsequent defense and ultimate suspension, Hamilton was universally admired. The guy everyone liked, even the Lance haters. He was hailed as unusually bright and polite among pro cyclists, cut from finer cloth.
I can’t claim Hamilton as a friend. He was an acquaintance at best. But he knew my face and remembered me each time we crossed paths, whether I sought him out or not. I believe he’s a guy with a moral compass, a conscience, that the decisions he faced, the choices he made, were hard, soul-rending. Nonetheless, he made them, and as the events of his positive test unfolded, his achievements crumbled.
It’s easy to dismiss him as a doper. The only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, the depth of the coercion is to picture the land from their shoes. And while not everyone was on EPO during that period, more cyclists were than were not. What he knows could be useful in the fight against doping and based on his statements, it sounds like doping wasn’t something he welcomed. Most cyclists see it as a do-or-die choice. That’s no excuse, but listening to those who have faced that choice could help the sport avoid those situations in the future.
Hamilton says it’s time for a change in cycling and that for the reform cycling needs to take place, big changes need to begin at the top. Let’s hope those who need to are listening.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We saw this coming. Anyone who didn’t see a suspension looming for Alberto Contador probably didn’t think the worldwide real estate bubble would burst, that the summer of love would end or that drugs would continue to be a problem for cycling. The Spanish Cycling Federation really didn’t have many choices. Even though some media quotes suggest that certain members of the federation would have acted to protect Contador, it would have been suicidal for the federation to absolve him of any infraction.
Even if it was conclusively proven that a team of rogue ninjas mugged Contador, strapped him down and then placed a cookie jar over his hand, his hand was not allowed in the cookie jar under any circumstances. Strict liability. The rules really didn’t allow for another outcome.
American cyclist Scott Moninger mounted mounted the most rigorous defense ever presented to show that the presence of a banned substance in his body got there unintentionally. Moninger tested positive for 19-norandrosterone due to a tainted supplement. He bought up other containers of the dietary supplement and had them tested to demonstrate how the substance entered his body. He still got a one-year suspension.
By comparison, Contador has floated theories that have mostly involved tossing the whole of the Spanish beef-producing industry under the bus. It may be that he genuinely doesn’t know where the Clenbuterol came from, how it entered his body. He has, however, a problem that Moninger didn’t have. His test sample showed evidence of plasticizers that are used to keep equipment used in blood transfusions soft and pliable. Think of plasticizers as lotion for plastics.
While there is no rule specifically against plasticizers, the UCI’s ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ view of the world suggests they are unlikely to be satisfied with a single year’s suspension for el Pistolero.
The issue here is not whether Contador deserves a more significant suspension, it’s that by not handing him a more significant suspension, the Spanish Federation may have actually prolonged Contador’s agony. Should the UCI appeal his suspension, the fighting could go on longer than the current length of his suspension.
It’s hard to think that a cycling story could eclipse the current Sports Illustrated piece concerning the investigation into Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service cycling team by Jeff Novitzky, but here we are. Current Tour de France champion stripped of title and suspended for doping beats story of 10-year-old allegations into Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping.
Should the UCI accept the one-year suspension and not appeal for something longer, we are still within our right to ask about the suspension as determined. How useful is a one-year suspension?
Contador is 28. Suspended for one year, he’ll come back to compete in the Tour de France at the ripe old age of … 29. And after all, 29 is generally considered to be roughly the peak of a cyclist’s powers.
Had Contador tested positive for, say, heroin, I would have been suspicious that something odd had happened. I would be hesitant to believe that he took that drug. However, the Clenbuterol and plasticizer fit precisely within the logic of what a Grand Tour rider would take. To the degree that there’s been a rush to judgement on Contador, it’s been because the substances found in his sample fit within what we know of doping practices by those attempting to win stage races.
I’ve tried, from time to time, to suspend not disbelief, but belief. If I’m honest, I was suspicious of Contador’s success during the 2009 Tour. Certainly his performance in the final time trial at Lake Annecy strained my credulity. It couldn’t have been less believable to me even if director Michael Bay had added machine guns, car crashes and explosions.
It is because I have trouble believing that he’s only accidentally guilty that I wonder if a single year suspension is enough. Perhaps his suspension as recommended by the Spanish Federation won’t matter, even if the UCI doesn’t appeal it. It seems possible that the Amaury Sport Organization will just refuse to invite any team he’s on—in perpetuity.
And if they do that, could we blame them?
It’s easy to wonder just what’s on the mind of Pat McQuaid. I honestly don’t know how his mind works. However, I do wholly believe that Christian Prudhomme wants the Tour de France competed in and won by clean athletes. And I think part of the ASO’s issue with the UCI is that they don’t see the Aigle Cabal as doing enough to protect their interests.
Twelve months from now we may be saying, “Woe be unto thee who hires Alberto Contador.”
It may be that hiring him doesn’t ensure victory; instead it may only ensure what races you’re not doing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Bashing Floyd Landis has become something of a past time for cycling fans. Even before his first implosion he was a rough-hewn character, the Crocodile Dundee of the cycling world. Within the US Postal Service Team he was Oscar to Lance Armstrong’s Felix in the boys in blue’s production of “The Odd Couple.”
From his first explanation for his positive test (Jack Daniels) he showed a capacity for the unexpected that could take even a fortune teller by surprise. His book, “Positively False” showed a rebellious, impish spirit designed almost perfectly to clash with Armstrong’s iron fist management. As an expression of spirit, it was an entertaining read and fairly complete in its examination of his career—with one not-so-small omission: his pharmacy.
I wrote several posts concerning Landis’ defense and read the entire transcript of the CAS appeal at Pepperdine University. While the UCI acted on an understandable “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” premise, I’m convinced they never actually caught Landis. The initial test was so poorly performed that the case against him should have been dropped. My problem with the case wasn’t that I wanted a cheat to win, it was that I didn’t want to see the same tactics result in the suspension of an innocent rider.
In a spectacular variation on the “guilty but not responsible” defense, I can see how he might have thought, “I’m accused of something I didn’t actually do. I can beat this, because they didn’t catch me at what I did do.”
Who wouldn’t think that?
Landis’ career and life were utterly destroyed as he pursued his defense. Many people are angry that a guilty man took money from them to mount an extraordinarily expensive, but ultimately fruitless, defense. Viewed through the mindset outlined above, an argument can be made that he wasn’t cheating anyone.
But for those who didn’t provide for his defense, an understandable outrage remains: Landis’ doping case cost USADA so much to prosecute that they ran other efforts on reduced budgets. In short, Landis’ defense impinged on other anti-doping efforts.
Since changing his story, cycling fans and the media have seized upon his story as either the raving of a lunatic or the smoking gun necessary to bring down Big Tex. What’s amazing is how often I encounter people who didn’t believe he was innocent when he first tested positive and yet don’t believe him now that he has confessed to doping.
Which is it, people? It can’t be both.
While it is logically possible that both stories could be complete fabrications, that’s highly unlikely. A lie is told to serve a larger purpose and if Landis is lying now, we have to ask the question: ‘To what purpose?’
If what he says isn’t true, the ramifications for him could include jail time, which is perhaps the only meaningful deterrent for him as he is essentially without assets at this point and what lawyers frequently refer to as “judgement-proof.” And I don’t think Landis would willingly choose jail as an alternative to unemployment.
Still, Landis hasn’t made this easy for himself. While he has given investigator Jeff Novitzky a variety-pack of allegations that the dogged and successful investigator is chasing, he has also handed us gems like the suggestion that the UCI protected some riders.
While I can name instances—for which I was present—where the UCI’s application of its own rules was highly irregular, I never saw anything that bordered on protecting a doped rider. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened; Landis has yet to provide anything stronger than a rumor and his other allegations suffer for it.
Now, Landis has asserted that cycling is the Superfund Site of sports, an endeavor in which doping is so inextricably entwined that cleaning it up is less likely than man traveling at the speed of light. His solution? Open a top fuel division: allow doping.
Look, I believe that Landis has seen things and knows things that could help to shed light to investigators on the doping front. Think of him as first mate on the Santa Maria. His eyewitness accounts of Columbus’ voyage to the west would be invaluable. We need him to talk.
However, every time he opens his mouth on something he didn’t personally do or see, he gets into trouble. What he doesn’t understand is that his usefulness to cycling does not extend, currently, to suggestions such as eliminating the doping code.
Here’s something that is not a newsflash: Doping will never be eliminated. In any population there will be those who cut corners, push the bounds, cheat. Those few should not cause an entire society to capitulate. Just because people are murdered, should we all carry guns?
Because so much of what Landis has to say seems to be based in the same variety of nuttiness that led the Octomom to become the world’s only single mother to 14 children, many people simply write him off. It’s understandable, if tragic.
Years ago I knew someone who would buy Lucky Charms cereal and pour small bowls of it and pick the marshmallows out, leaving behind the cereal, which was just Alphabits. I always thought of it as a waste of cereal. Landis has given me the capacity to see the merit in just extracting the tiny bits of gold that are presented. Maybe it’s unfair to compare him to a marshmallow, but not everything that comes out of his mouth is crazy. In dismissing everything he says as a fabrication from whole cloth, we lose an opportunity to learn from his experiences as a rider, and we do that at our own peril.
What he knows could provide an invaluable education to both the UCI and to WADA.
What Landis doesn’t seem to understand is that the UCI can’t be treated as an adversary if your purpose is to help expose the doping problems inherent in cycling. Unfortunately, Pat McQuaid is Floyd Landis’ doppelgänger, and in that he is no less likely to make statements of such sweeping irresponsibility that we have little use for them except to fertilize the whole of the plains states.
This week, with little surprise, Landis announced his retirement, effective immediately. It’s easy to turn his announcement into a joke about the obvious—that he really had no career currently—but the sadder truth is that it was an admission on his part that it was time to let go of a dream.
Landis knows things, helpful things. We should hear him out and we should show him some compassion. He’s lost everything he worked for. Is that really the just result for his transgressions?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Okay, so we couldn’t leave a whole week without a post. It’s been a year of stories often as fascinating as they are frustrating. Robot and I have picked our five most significant (if not favorite) story lines.
1) Fabian Cancellara’s Roubaix/ Flanders Double—Few riders are able to completely dominate their competition quite the way Fabian Cancellara can when he’s in top form. His astonishing attack on the Muur in the Ronde, while seated mind you, is a move I will never forget. Then his turn of speed at Roubaix, with main rival Tom Boonen momentarily asleep at the switch, was thrilling. To ride off the front of a group containing Boonen, Thor Hushovd, Juan Antonio Flecha and a select crew of Classics specialists, demonstrates a power and quality we seldom see. Those two wins made Cancellara’s April my top highlight of the 2010 season.
2) The Rise and Fall of Contador—The American press tried to make the 2010 Tour about the duel between Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, but Armstrong never had a chance, crashing out of contention early and then fumbling along to the finish. The real match was between Contador and Andy Schleck and that story served up all the drama and controversy of the very best Tours, with Contador standing on the top step in Paris to confirm his inheritance of the Armstrong/Indurain/Hinault/Merckx/Anquetil/Coppi legacy.
Oh, but then soaring so close to the sun, waxen wings melting in the bright light, Contador tests positive for Clenbuterol. And with this positive test, confirmed with a B sample reading, and hurled into judicial purgatory for the rest of the year, we see an abrupt end to the building legend, an end that tarnishes the futures of both the rider and the race.
3) Thor Hushovd’s World Championship—Coming off a World Championship year that saw 2009 winner Cadel Evans represent the rainbow jersey with grit, bravery and aplomb, the talismanic championship seemed open to sprinters and roleurs alike. In the end, the sprintingest roleur won the race, riding a smart tactical race with a short-handed team, only flexing his considerable muscle when it mattered most. Hushovd’s win was big for a hard-working rider, but also big for the jersey itself, as we are now almost guaranteed a second consecutive year of class from the world champ.
4) The First Biological Passport Suspensions—The UCI might have taken a more expeditious path to this stage of the fight against doping, but despite their missteps and the blundering press comments of president Pat McQuaid, the biological passport program finally produced some results in 2010. It remains to be seen how its parameters and administration will evolve as tools against cheaters, but with the first suspensions, we are finally seeing an adjunct program to in-race testing that seeks to catch the dopers who slip through the first net. Love it or hate it, the Passport must have dishonest riders worried that they’re running out of options, and that is, unquestionably, a good thing.
5) The SaxoBank Exodus/Luxembourg Project—It is hard for me to fathom how so many riders (and managers) whose careers were built and fostered by Bjarne Riis would be so willing to jump off the SaxoBank ship to join a fledgling team, regardless of the pedigree of its component parts. That Riis can be prickly, stubborn and aloof is beyond argument, but the mutiny of nearly his entire team is an outcome I never foresaw. Heap on top that insult, the injury of Contador’s doping problems, and it becomes very hard to argue that the Dane will land on his race-winning feet in 2011.
1) Cancellara’s Flanders/Roubaix Double—I have to echo Robot here. Not only were Cancellara’s back-to-back victories the wins of the year for me, I have to say that Cancellara’s attack on the Muur de Grammont—seated and spinning the 25 while Boonen looked to be standing on a 21—was absolutely the attack of the year for me. Both rides had me standing up and cheering.
That anyone would accuse the four-time time trial World Champion of using an electric motor is like asking about Kobe Bryant’s rocket boots he uses to get his jump shot. We should ignore the birthers. They’ll go away faster this way. We have real problems to contend with, as evidenced by number two.
2) The Contador Doping Case—From a standpoint of rules, I don’t see how Contador will escape a suspension due to his positive test for Clenbuterol. American rider Scott Moninger went to incredible lengths to demonstrate that what he tested positive for was as a result of supplements tainted by sloppy manufacturing. He purchased stock made in the same lot as the supplements he took and submitted sealed containers for testing. His defense was rigorously scientific … and he still got a one-year suspension due to strict liability. Contador’s defense has been far less methodical, which makes me far less sympathetic. His claims have, for me, smacked of the ‘dog ate my homework’ variety.
However, the bigger question on my mind has to do with testing for plasticizers. The detection of plasticizers in Contador’s sample suggests that officials may soon be able to prosecute riders more effectively for autologous blood transfusions. This seems to have been the preferred doping method for GC hopefuls for more than five years, but catching these riders has been less than successful. I don’t care who the rider is, if they’re transfusing, I want them caught and suspended as a result of a rigorously scientific prosecution.
3) The UCI’s Technical Criteria for Bike Approval—Bike companies have been screwed like an Ikea entertainment center by the UCI’s technical commission. Cinelli was nearly bankrupted due to the Spinacci fiasco. Their implementation of rules ahead of schedule sparked a seething rant from me that I ultimately deemed too angry to publish. I’m glad that a procedure to approve bicycles is in place. Unfortunately, the fee schedule to get a bike approved is expensive enough that some companies might think twice before submitting a design. Viewed within the larger expense of sponsoring a ProTeam team, it’s not so bad, but for companies that stretch to sponsor a Continental team, this could be a deal killer; after all, $12k is the cost of some riders. Leave it to the UCI to create a system that would scare bike companies from sponsoring a racing team. While this story will make more waves in 2011 than it did in 2010, that the criteria were decided and announced is huge. It’s an important step in the right direction.
4) The SaxoBank Exodus—Once Fabian Cancellara announced that he, too, would depart SaxoBank, I had a Sixth Sense moment. If you recall the Bruce Willis thriller, when you reach the end of the film and realize that he is the dead guy, you must reanalyze the entire picture—better yet, just watch it again. I began to wonder if all the praise riders had heaped upon Bjarne Riis was all Hollywood kiss-kiss, “Love ya, babe.” Presented with a viable option every rider worth anything jumped like passengers from the Titanic. It’s little surprise Richie Porte stayed behind; there’s nothing like watching the heirs apparent abdicate. ‘You say I’m king?! Cool!’
I can’t help but wonder what skeletons rattle in Riis’ closet.
5) The Fall of Lance Armstrong—Long before investigator Jeff Novitzky became interested in Tailwind Sports and Lance Armstrong, many cycling fans rebuked him like a banana republic reformer-cum-dictator. Allegations of doping swirled around him, proven sufficiently to some, while others simply saw the allegations as typical efforts to besmirch a hard-working athlete. Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France seems to have been more than disenfranchised Floyd Landis could bear. My read is that Landis believes he played by the same set of rules Armstrong did, won, and got a very different result. Forgetting for a moment how Landis has conducted himself (the most conclusive thing I can say is that some of his choices seem to have been based on fuzzy logic), it doesn’t seem hard to see how a man who has lost everything he worked for—wife, home, stepchild, a father-in-law, savings—decides he’ll burn the rest down. History is replete with examples of figures who refuse to go down alone, people who want others in the boat with them when the gunwales swamp.
Armstrong’s story has a lot of unfolding left to do. We knew the comeback would be a fresh chapter in the athlete’s career, but no one expected this turn. Novitzky’s reputation indicates that if he tires of his work as an investigator he could teach graduate seminars in tenacity. Armstrong is anything but convicted, but the allegations all point to a conclusion that will change the world’s opinion of him, and probably his foundation. The tragedy is that if he is convicted of charges associated with doping, most casual followers of cycling will think of Armstrong as a dirty athlete in a dirty sport and simply write off cycling as a force for good. Lost will be the story of an athlete who returned from the grave, played by the standard of the day and won the Tour de France … again and again and again and again and again and again.
And so we put the question to you: What were the biggest stories of the year in your eyes?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
In movie making, writers of thrillers and mysteries will often use a device to heighten suspense and keep viewers from guessing too much of the plot. That element is called a Red Herring. Formally, a Red Herring is a kind of fallacy. It’s an argument introduced to distract the audience from the topic by inserting irrelevant information.
The “Miss Lonely Hearts” character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is one of cinema’s great Red Herrings. Her personal drama of a loveless life that deteriorates into a suicide attempt is completely unrelated to the disappearance (and murder) of Mrs. Thorwald. Similarly, the stolen money, and what ultimately becomes of it, is utterly unrelated to the real plot of Psycho. They are distractions of a grand order.
Cycling now has its own Red Herring. It is being called “motorized doping”—using a bicycle with a tiny motor hidden from view to potentially offer the user an extra 60-100 watts at critical times. It comes at a truly inopportune time. The fight against real doping, that is, the scourge presented by engine-enhancing blood transfusions and EPO has proven to be more than the UCI is equipped to deal with.
Even though this story is really just coming to light now, it has been a topic of discussion, even concern, for months. According to the UCI, some bikes were checked at both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Enrico Carpani, of the UCI’s technical commission, says they found no unusual bikes.
And yet, the story persists. One of the problems is that former pro Davide Cassani, who inadvertently alerted the world to Michael Rasmussen’s Italian training regimen (when he was allegedly training in Mexico), carries great credibility and impact due to the fact that he has the distinction of being a television commentator who unmasked a doper. Cassani demonstrated such a bicycle on TV and then boasted how he could win the Giro with its help, despite being 50 years old.
How is it that Pat McQuaid couldn’t dispatch this rumor—it is, after all, only a rumor at best—with a single knee-slapping guffaw? You know, the melting-into-the-couch, uncontrollable, tears-down-your cheeks laugh you’d do if someone told you straight-faced that Barack Obama wasn’t American or even Kenyan, but an alien and he controlled the drug trade on behalf of other aliens who were preparing for an invasion of Earth.
It is more than my vivid imagination can conjure. I have an easier time believing in something that took place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” than I do in the idea of a secret e-bike powering the world’s reigning Olympic and World Champion in the time trial to victory at Flanders and Roubaix. After all, if Cancellara wasn’t strong enough on his own to get the job done at those two monuments, then please, Captain Skeptical, how did he manage a gold medal and rainbow stripes?
Perhaps he’s been on an assisted bike all along? Yeah, that’s it.
And wouldn’t such a bike have required not just complicity, but cooperation on the part of Specialized? Morgan Hill’s favorite employer was ready to sell its Shiv to consumers in the wake of its UCI ban. Joe Cyclist doesn’t have to worry about UCI bans. How many consumers would say ‘yes’ to a road bike equipped with a jet pack? What are the chances that if Specialized actually managed to create a mechanical assist to the crowd-favorite Tarmac that they’d really keep quiet about it? Okay, so they couldn’t really publicize something that offered an illegal advantage. But the cost of developing a frame to handle such an addition (and today’s carbon fiber frames aren’t engineered to have extra stuff crammed in them) would be significant, too significant for most bike companies to do without trying to trickle that technology into other bikes.
So what we have is a Red Herring, a distraction. Perhaps a magician’s sleight of hand. Because certainly the more important question about Cancellara’s performances is whether or not he executed them with no biological doping. All indications are that he was clean, and he’s been tested a fair amount, which is encouraging.
The only question regarding motorized doping worth asking is who started the rumor and what possible motivation they might have to do so.
But instead, we have UCI technicians working to develop a scanner that will tell them whether or not a bicycle is equipped with a motor.
Really? Is that the only way they can dispel this nonsense? How about look for control wires? How about weigh the bikes? How about look for control buttons? Given the current state of e-bikes and the amount of engineering Shimano employed to develop its Di2 group, you are safer assuming there is no motorized doping going on than asking a boy scout to escort you across the street.
Why aren’t we laughing? Why aren’t in tears begging the mongers to stop—that if we laugh any harder or longer, we’ll throw up? This is funnier than Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Every euro the UCI spends developing a motor scanner is a euro that ought to be going to the fight against the real doping.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International