In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, author Douglas Hofstadter presents readers with an unsolvable puzzle. Naturally, Hofstadter doesn’t tell the reader that the puzzle is unsolvable. The reader is given four rules and a starting point plus a solution they are supposed to reach. The experience is confounding.
Imagine someone tells you to draw a car route from any location in the United States to the town of Palmer, Alaska. You are given a set of reasonable rules: that cars can be driven on roads, that roads lead from any location in the United States to the state of Alaska, that Palmer is a town in Alaska. Define a route to Palmer. You’d think you could do it, right? Just one problem: Palmer is landlocked; though it has roads, none lead into or out of the town. The only way to reach it is by air or ferry. A route cannot be drawn from anywhere in North American to Palmer. Such is the problem of Hofstadter’s puzzle.
Hofstadter’s treatise on the nature of intelligence won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and turned the field of computer science concerned with artificial intelligence on its head. The lesson of Hofstadter’s puzzle isn’t to defy the reader; rather it’s to teach the reader to think critically … in some applications, it could even be called suspiciously.
When I tried to solve the puzzle I struggled with it for an hour, then I tried to back from the conclusion to the beginning, attempting to reverse-engineer the problem and still couldn’t get from B to A. Only then did I begin to think that a solution wasn’t possible. Such an epiphany is Hofstadter’s introduction to the nature of recursive thought, an ability peculiar to human beings in which, put simply, we think about thinking.
I cite Hoftstadter’s book because reading it was a landmark in my education and taught me the value of thinking critically about information. I began to evaluate statements based not just on the value of the information they contained, but also on the likelihood that the statement was true or false.
I offer that as a backdrop to the revelation by Riccardo Ricco that his illness came as the likely result of a self-administered transfusion.
When Ricco returned to the pro peloton, I was apprehensive. I’m not going to quote him chapter and verse, but the body of his statements previously struck me as those of a person unrepentant in action. I wasn’t the only person to struggle with that issue; Mark Cavendish spoke forcefully of Ricco’s unrepentant nature. Let’s remember, Ricco claimed to Cyclingnews, “When I was found positive, I confessed everything. I was honest.”
Initially, he told RAI, “They searched my bags but only found some vitamins that we all use and so they decided to let me go home.”
Just a few weeks ago Ricco said “And yes, winning the Giro without doping is possible. To do that, you have to work and do your job properly.”
Okay, so we know he didn’t (do his job properly), but the stunner is that as he said that he was sitting on a bag of his own blood, so-to-speak.
This fall, coach Aldo Sassi took Ricco under his wing. Sassi is the man who famously paraphrased the bible passage on Nineveh in which he promised that we could have faith that seven cyclists were clean—his clients. Just two weeks later he added an eighth client: Riccardo Ricco.
If we take Ricco at his word—which ought to be a tenuous proposition at best, but deathbed confessions often seem to lack a certain editor—then the autologous blood transfusion he performed used blood that was just 25 days old. Perhaps this was his first autologous transfusion since re-entering the sport. Surely Sassi’s death was a blow. Perhaps he only returned to doping after Sassi died.
However, Ricco has been winning ever since his return, and this is where my experience with Gödel, Escher, Bach comes to bear: Given how he won prior to his suspension, is it reasonable for us to believe that since his return from his suspension that the only time he doped was in 2011? If we know one detail of cyclists who dope, the pattern of behavior is that those who do it, do it repeatedly. There aren’t many guys who have cleaned up as convincingly as David Millar.
There’s no way to know how tainted Ricco’s results at the Tour of Austria are; there is no just mechanism or reason to strip him of his wins, but his recent off-the-rails transfusion dulls them, but that isn’t the biggest problem with Ricco’s kidney failure.
For those of us who ponder implications, a natural question emerges: If Ricco has been doping all along (and that isn’t implausible), could Sassi have known about it?
Everything we know of Sassi’s career tells us that he coached athletes to succeed without the aid of doping. He was outspoken and principled about his dealings with athletes. Surely, he doesn’t deserve to have his reputation tarnished by Ricco, especially considering that he is unable to rise from the grave to defend himself.
And that’s the problem with Ricco; his doping leaves victims in his wake. The Saunier Duval team imploded following the expulsions of Ricco and teammate Leonardo Piepoli from the 2008 Tour de France, leaving riders and staff unemployed.
What will happen to Vacansoleil? Surely the sponsor won’t be happy about a doping controversy, even if the rider in question did help the team secure entry into the ProTeam division. One wonders just how Ricco thinks or if he considers how his actions could affect others. His seeming inability to consider the harm his actions might bring others fits the definition of sociopath.
Ricco needs to be banned from the sport for life, not because he’s likely to dope again and steal wins from deserving riders, but because another positive test has the ability to wreck careers beyond his own. We may not be able to protect him from his own stupidity, but the UCI has a duty to protect others from it.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Until now there has been an expectation that so goes the team, so goes the bike industry sponsor. As evidenced by comments on this and other blogs, at least some members of the cycling public have viewed a bike sponsor’s lack of repudiation of the team of a convicted doper as a tacit approval of their doping.
Unfortunately, a sponsor such as Trek hasn’t got the ability to elect to sponsor, say, Formula 1 if they decide cycling is just too tarnished by doping. Liberty Seguros’ next sponsorship stop in sports could be golf, but that’s not possible for Specialized or SRAM.
Faust could appreciate such a dilemma.
So Shimano has announced that it will pull its sponsorship of a team if anyone in its management is found to be guiding a doping program for its riders. If a rider is caught doping, Shimano wants an explanation and a future containment plan to prevent a repeat. A second event is grounds for termination of the sponsorship.
Termination would be catastrophic to any team. A return of all Shimano equipment would leave riders unable to train or race until new equipment could be purchased, which could easily take a week or more and could cost upwards of six figures, an amount few ProTour teams (and no Pro Continental or Continental teams) would have lying around.
But let’s be real. While it is possible and maybe even likely that some directors have at least suspicions—if not outright knowledge—of his team members’ activities, the Festina Affair ended any large-scale participation by team management in its riders’ doping. We now have plausible deniability.
Unfortunately, a complete lack of knowledge of riders’ medical programs has a nasty consequence: the director appears clueless. Hans-Michael Holczer’s shock over Bernard Kohl’s and Stefan Schumacher’s positive tests made him look ineffectual.
But what of positive tests by individual riders? The number of teams that have had more than one positive inside of three months is perhaps surprising. Just yesterday the UCI announced the suspension of three riders (three!) riders from Liberty Seguros. Saunier Duval, Phonak and Astana are but three other names that come to mind.
The question is whether Shimano would actually revoke the sponsorship should the possibility come to pass and which teams are actually threatened by such action. Columbia-HTC, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Française des Jeux, Garmin-Slipstream, Rabobank and Skil-Shimano are the ProTour and Pro Continental teams Shimano sponsors. Of these, two (Euskaltel and Rabobank) have had high-profile doping issues in the last few seasons.
While it is fairly certain that most bike industry sponsors have some language in their contracts that allow the termination of a sponsorship as a result of a doping offense, Shimano is unusual in taking such a public stand. Perhaps other companies will have the courage to take a similar stand.
Shimano’s Statement in full:
With this statement, Shimano would like to make clear to all parties involved that we would like to strive for a fair and drugs free sport to protect the future of cycling for next generations. Besides the bad impact to the reputation of the sport, we all know Doping and Drugs are damaging and destroying the health and image of especially young people in and outside of the sport. Therefore we are taking a firm stand against doping in general and in the cycling sport in particular.
Basic guidelines in Shimano’s anti doping policy:
• All our contracts and sponsorship-relations are made under the condition and in the belief that there is no doping involved in the particular team or with the individual athletes.
• If the team management of one of our sponsored teams (no matter in which cycling discipline) is involved in any doping affair, we will stop our sponsorship of this team immediately.
• If an individual rider is involved in any doping affair without the knowledge of the team management, the team will be given the chance to give a clear explanation and a future improvement & control plan to Shimano, upon that it will be decided to continue the sponsoring or not. If another doping incident occurs within the same team, we will keep the option of terminating our sponsorship contract
• Terminating a sponsorship contract means return of all Shimano materials or other contributions that have been supplied to the concerned team immediately. This anti doping policy is already stated in our ongoing sponsorship contracts but Shimano feels it is valuable to emphasize this ones more to make it clear for everybody what is our opinion about the use of doping in sport. For all our future sponsorship negotiations it is essential for us that the teams show us their anti doping policy in advance.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International