Long considered the orphan child of European cycling, Great Britain has finally established itself as a leading international force thanks to the brilliant 1-2 by Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome at this year’s Tour de France, the stunning string of gold and silver medals won by the country’s track and road teams at the London Olympics, and the burgeoning status of the sport within the British media and general public.
Newcomers to cycling tend to think that the recent successes by British cyclists represents a sudden breakthrough, but it’s more as if the sport has come full circle. Britons developed the first modern bicycles (along with chain drive and pneumatic tires), won the world’s first organized bike races in the 19th century, and staged the first six-day track races and road time trials. There was a bleak period for British cycling in the first half of the 20th century, mainly due to a ban on road racing and professional cycling, but the country has since gradually shed its orphan status to re-emerge stronger than ever in this 21st century.
Countless individuals have contributed to Britain’s cycling revival over the past several decades, including all those who won world championships in the second half of the last century: Beryl Burton, Tom Simpson and Graham Webb on the road, and Reg Harris, Cyril Peacock, Hugh Porter and Tony Doyle on the track. And even before this year’s explosion of British victories, the upward path was accelerated in the past 10 years by a slew of British world champions headed by Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Wiggins on the velodrome, and Nicole Cooke and Mark Cavendish on the road.
While massive publicity was being given this year to Tour winner Wiggins and the home country’s Olympic medalists, three of the men who paved the way for them quietly passed away. Track racer Tommy Godwin died earlier this month two days short of his 92nd birthday; time trialist Ray Booty died from cancer three months ago at age 79; and road racer Brian Haskell died in March at 83.
Godwin, who won bronze medals in the kilometer time trial and 4000-meter team pursuit at the London Olympics of 1948, was honored as an ambassador and torchbearer at the 2012 London Games three months ago. He was working as an electrician when he won his two bronze medals, and he went on to own and run a bike shop for 36 years in Birmingham, England’s second largest city. During that time Godwin became his country’s first paid national coach (he was in charge when Burton and Webb won the women’s and amateur men world road titles in 1967), and he later served as president of the British Cycling Federation.
Last year, in a televised Olympic preview, the nonagenarian rode his 1948 Olympic track bike around the Herne Hill track and showed off the knitted-wool Great Britain team jersey he raced in 64 years ago. Godwin clearly remembered the enthusiasm generated by his bronze-medal rides, telling the BBC: “It was unbelievable. The crowd was fantastic. After we won the race for the bronze medal in the team pursuit, a cycling magazine reported, ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
The team pursuit was the one track event that remained from that previous London Olympics, and Godwin was on hand this past August to see the British quartet annihilate the world record with their winning time of 3:51.659—which was just about a minute faster than the time set by Godwin and his British teammates when they took bronze at the 1948 Olympics!
While Godwin’s various positions made him one of the most influential people in the development of British cycling, Booty was a pure amateur cyclist who could have made as big an impact on the world scene as Wiggins had times been different. Instead, Booty did his national service in the army before becoming a chartered electrical engineer, first with Ericsson, then Westinghouse and Rolls Royce—and always riding his old race bike to work until retiring at 60.
Booty came to national prominence in August 1956 when, two years after Roger Bannister became the first athlete to run a four-minute mile, he became the first cyclist to race 100 miles in less than four hours in an out-and-back time trial. The day before his record performance in the classic Bath Road 100, to the west of London, Booty rode his bike the 100 miles from his Nottingham home. He raced the time trial on the same bike, using a fixed gear of 84 inches (50×16), to record a time of 3:58:28 and beat runner-up Stan Brittain, a British international, by almost 12 minutes.
A month later, right after his 24th birthday, Booty used a hub gear to break the point-to-point 100-mile record, taking advantage of favorable winds to set a time of 3:28:40, a record that stood for 34 years.
Booty was also an adept road racer. In 1954, he won the top British one-day event, the hilly Manx International; in 1955, he raced for the GB team at the prestigious, two-week Peace Race in eastern Europe, helping teammate Brittain finish third overall; and in 1958, on wet day in Cardiff, Wales, he rode away from a strong field at the Commonwealth Games road race to take the gold medal by some three minutes.
Brian Haskell was a contemporary of Booty and Brittain, and raced for the same cycling club in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, as Brian Robinson—who went on to become the first Brit to win a stage of the Tour de France. Haskell had similar ability, being a strong climber and stage race specialist. He twice won the Tour of Ireland, he was national hill climb champion multiple times, and he won the King of the Mountains titles at both the Peace Race and Tour of Britain.
Haskell competed as a semi-professional for the Viking Cycles team that dominated domestic racing from 1957 through 1961, and he raced another 30 years as an a amateur, winning national veterans titles in both road racing and time trialing. In 1973, he founded a precision sheet metal contracting firm that grew to employ 35 workers, and he was still working as company chairman until his death eight months ago.
Godwin, Booty and Haskell are not be names as well known as those of Hoy, Wiggins and Froome, but without their lifelong love of cycling, memorable performances and continued inspiration, Britain’s modern heroes may not have even emerged.
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In the time I’ve been penning these personal thoughts about cycling’s problems with doping, starting with the 1960s, I’ve become more conscious of how the cycle of revelations and reactions keeps on repeating itself. And how true breakthroughs in the fight against doping only happen when there’s a combination of scientific advancement and unscripted events.
The death of Danish amateur cyclist Knud Jensen, who was on amphetamines, at the Rome Olympics in 1960 initially woke up the sports world to the need for drug testing. France was the first to enact anti-doping legislation, in 1963, but its implementation was erratic and resulted in a riders’ strike when the gendarmerie descended on a Bordeaux hotel at the 1966 Tour de France and inexpertly took urine samples from a number of athletes, including French star Raymond Poulidor.
But it was only after Professor Arnold Beckett, head of London’s Chelsea School of Pharmacy, finalized a rock-solid test for amphetamines that the UCI became the first sports governing body to introduce testing. The first experimental tests at the 1965 Tour of Britain were so successful that the race leader and two others tested positive and were thrown out of the race. Encouraged, the UCI extended the program, including its own world championships the following year. But, because of those problems with the heavy-handed French government testing, the Tour de France didn’t get any UCI-approved controls until 1968—the year after Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux with amphetamines in his system.
Simpson’s death triggered the International Olympic Committee to set up a medical commission, which Beckett joined, and the first list of banned substances was drawn up before testing began at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As I wrote in a previous column, the early anti-doping controls were not always conducted according to the rules, with pro cyclists finding ways to avoid testing positive (as illustrated by Michel Pollentier at the 1978 Tour). Also, it didn’t help that there was no definitive test for steroids until 1974 (also pioneered by a London laboratory), and even then the riders and their soigneurs learned how to use masking agents, such as diuretics, to beat the system, before they were banned too.
It was widely known in the 1970s and early-’80s that long-distance runners and cross-country skiers from Scandinavia were using blood-boosting methods (by re-infusing their previously stored blood) to improve their performances. In Italy, its Olympic Committee CONI even sponsored sports doctor Professor Francesco Conconi (inventor of the Conconi test for establishing an athlete’s anaerobic threshold) and his biomedical research center at the University of Ferrara to prepare athletes from several sports, including skiing and cycling, using blood-boosting methods. And it’s widely accepted that Conconi and his assistant Michele Ferrari helped Francesco Moser break Eddy Merckx’s world hour record at Mexico City in January 1984.
Blood doping was undetectable and even encouraged until members of the 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team (track and road), under the supervision of the U.S. Cycling Federation coaching staff, blood-boosted in Los Angeles. Some intra-federation memos (this happened before e-mails existed) were leaked to Rolling Stone magazine, which published a salacious article on the affair in its February 1985 issue. The result was several USCF officials being reprimanded. It was regarded as a huge scandal in the United States and resulted in blood doping finally being prohibited, first by the USCF, then the UCI, and eventually by the IOC in 1986.
It was ironic that just as blood doping was being banned a team of scientists at biotech company Amgen in California was researching an artificial, or recombinant, form of human erythropoietin for boosting the red-blood-cell count of anemic cancer patients. FDA approval for the new drug Epogen (EPO) came in 1989, but it was already on the black market in Europe, and EPO eventually became the most widely used doping product in cycling, cross-country skiing and long-distance running.
There was no way EPO could be detected in blood tests because it was a genetic hormone that helped athletes create their own new red blood cells. Scientists in Europe and Australia began research on methods to identify the use of EPO by athletes, but it was a long, difficult (and expensive!) process. In the early-1990s, dozens of athletes, including cyclists, allegedly died because of their hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells) reached levels as high as 60 or even 70 percent. In Italy, CONI again gave money to Professor Conconi, this time to research an EPO test, but this merely led to Italian athletes and Italian cycling teams becoming the leaders in the use of EPO.
That was confirmed when the Gewiss team placed three riders in the first three places at the Flèche Wallonne classic in April 1994, after which their team doctor, Ferrari, told Italian and French journalists in an interview that only the abuse of EPO was dangerous, not the drug itself, and that he wasn’t scandalized by riders using it.
That unscripted incident in 1994 was one that didn’t get the reaction it merited, either from the media or the UCI. It gave Verbruggen an opening to condemn the apparent abuse of EPO in Italy, but he played down Ferrari’s remarks and said that the other teams should work and train harder to challenge the Italians. The press criticized Verbruggen but no real investigative journalism was set in motion, and it should be noted that the publications with the biggest resources, L’Équipe in France and La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, also happened to be the organizers of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia respectively. Conflicts of interest were an obvious factor in the lack of action.
With no detailed investigations by the media or the UCI and no definitive test for EPO on the horizon, the blood-boosting drug became more and more predominant in the European pro peloton. Finally, both the UCI and the international ski federation (FIS) looked at ways of deterring athletes from using EPO. The result was that the UCI, after discussions with sports doctor and the pro teams themselves, implemented a 50-percent hematocrit limit in January 1997. Several medical experts questioned the UCI limit as being too stringent, especially as the FIS limit was much higher (equivalent to some 53 percent before a tested athlete was stopped from competing). UCI president Hein Verbruggen was criticized for saying that the new limit was a “health check” and it did not imply use of EPO, but with no foolproof test yet available he was just stating the facts.
The new blood testing had an immediate effect. In the very first tests before the March 1997 Paris-Nice, three of the 20 riders tested, tested over the 50-percent limit. They were all domestiques: Frenchman Erwan Menthéour (who would write a book detailing his use of EPO and other performance-enhancing products, including so-called Pot-Belge, a mixture of amphetamines, cocaine and heroin that riders, and even some French journalists, got high on at parties); and the Italians Mauro Santaromita (later named on a list of athletes implicated in a police investigation into doping), and Luca Colombo. But the penalties of being excluded from the race, along with a fine and a two-week suspension of their racing licenses, was not a huge deterrent.
It was only after the Festina Affair in July 1998 and the various entities (the IOC, sports federations and federal; governments) came together that the World Anti-Doping Agency was formed in December 1999 and the sports world started to take the modern doping problem far more seriously, with the extra funding needed to institute more testing and to enable more research into definitive drug tests. I’ll conclude this story and comment on other more recent revelations in my column next week.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Early in the 19th Century the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge—famed for his poem Kubla Khan and laudanum—coined the term “suspension of disbelief.” It was his way of codifying the belief that a fantastic story if “infused with human interest and a semblance of truth” could be made believable. It’s what we did to our parents in high school when we lied about our whereabouts. We used the names of friends and familiar locations, places that we frequented in an effort to throw them off the scent. For me, it worked until some time in my senior year.
If my opening paragraph isn’t sufficiently obscure, give me a second. I’m now going to pull in T.S. Eliot, who coined the term “objective correlative” early in the last century. It is an image that explicitly defines something that can otherwise be difficult to describe. To that end, I submit the image above from the film “Blade Runner.” Whether you like science fiction or not, the work has widely been hailed as the finest sci-fi film ever committed to celluloid. And for reasons that may never be fully plumbed, it achieves that element crucial to all science fiction: suspension of disbelief. We don’t question that there are androids, that it never seems to stop raining or that the 21st Century’s version of the car flies, as shown above.
Let’s consider the alternative. Above is a still from the Disney film “John Carter,” arguably one of the biggest flops of this year. Post-mortems on the film have decried the wooden acting, the Swiss-cheese script and the hyperbolic special effects. I can’t say what killed the film, but I know what killed it for me. I had been excited to see the Edgar Rice Burroughs masterpiece made into a film, but was dismayed the moment I saw the first trailer and it was precisely because of John Carter’s ginormous jump contained with said trailer. I recall commenting to my wife, “Okay, I’m out.”
It was that whole suspension of disbelief thing. “John Carter” takes place on Mars and has loads of jumping in it; it’s a thing, as they say, and over there (Mars, that is) to jump is to sak. The problem is that seconds into the trailer comes this jump that looks like Evel Knievel sans motorcycle and, well, it just looks silly. So I didn’t go see it. (As a complete aside, there’s a pretty fascinating discussion of bigger-than-life jumping in the movies in a piece published on Slate, though I think it gets the conclusion exactly wrong, in part because of the dismal box-office take of “John Carter.”)
Suspension of disbelief is crucial not just to science fiction, it’s crucial to all story telling. Imagine if you didn’t think that women really talk to each other and hang out as portrayed in “Sex and the City.” Apparently lots of people believe there are women exactly like them—and why shouldn’t they?
So when Philippe Gilbert stormed to victory at the World Championship Road Race on Sunday, if you’re anything like me you felt relief, the relief of seeing a longstanding omission—the absence of Philippe Gilbert from the podium—finally corrected, and along with it you felt elation, that Dopamine spark of joy at seeing a rider you like spank the field. Gilbert is a rider whose style I like and—more importantly—whose riding I’ve been hoping is clean. But that’s a problem; for suspension of disbelief to work you have to be all-in. The moment you even ask the question about whether or not what you’re seeing or reading is real, the illusion has been busted—metaphorically and literally.
I actively want to believe that a clean rider beat a field that was partially or maybe even mostly clean. Actually, it doesn’t matter just how clean the rest of the field is, so long as Gilbert was clean. That’s the key. In winning, cycling is as clean as the winner.
Which is why I hated the Olympic Road Race outcome with a passion that I (otherwise) reserve for child molesters. Alexander Vinokourov is part of that generation of riders, guys whose knowledge of the sport is so predicated on medical assistance that I suspect they have ceased to believe they can achieve anything remotely like their doped form through clean methods. It’s a kind of worst-case-scenario for institutional memory, dysfunction that persists simply because all other ways have been forgotten. Clearly, Vinokourov’s statements following his suspension and his refusal to talk about his “dark page” and his inability to understand what this issue was when he decried that he had only engaged in the training methods used by everyone else have shown him to be a rider that cycling can do without. Seeing him win the gold medal was a moment that didn’t fill me with the slightest bit of elation. The question I asked myself was, “What are the chances that he’s clean?”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the big problem. But here’s the thing: It’s not Vino’s fault. And that I’m asking questions about guys like Gilbert and Bradley Wiggins isn’t their fault, either. The problem lies with the UCI. I have observed in other pieces that the UCI has long been a status-quo organization. Until recently, they really only ever made efforts to change the sport after colossal embarrassments. And defining those embarrassments is easy; they are any time the sport makes international headlines for a reason not connected with a win. Tom Simpson dies during the Tour de France. International headlines. Bad for business, need drug tests. A few Dutch cyclists die in their sleep because of a little-known drug that turned their blood to pudding. Not even national news? Whew; stay the course. Olympic gold medalist Fabio Casartelli dies after hitting his head in a crash. International headlines complete with color footage. Bad for business; need helmet rule. A soigneur with enough doping products to start a pharmacy is stopped at the border. More international headlines. And now, the biggest name in cycling in the last 30 years has been shown to be playing the game, well, the way it’s played.
Bad for business? Yeah, ya think?
Whether or not the allegations that the UCI covered up positives by Armstrong are true, it doesn’t matter. There is plenty of damning evidence that they only ever acted enough to maintain the appearance of a clean sport. Had they truly been serious about cleaning up the sport they would have gotten serious about testing for EPO in the wake of the death of Bert Oosterbosch, the first of those Dutch cyclists to die in their sleep. They wouldn’t have waited years and years to come up with the half-assed solution of testing hematocrit levels. No, had they been serious, they would have begun investigating a test for EPO before Greg LeMond retired.
But let’s take a moment to consider the situation the UCI was in. Hein Verbruggen had inherited the mantle of a sport that had been doped since the first running of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Up until the 1990s, an approach of making the sport clean enough that no one was dying had more or less worked. If there is one sin for which we should forgive him, it is that he believed he should stay the course, that staying the course was the best approach. What he didn’t anticipate was American society. What he didn’t anticipate was a world where you’re either a saint or a sinner, but never both. What he didn’t anticipate was the perfect storm of Lance Armstrong, Macchiavellian doping and ambitious American investigators.
Verbruggen’s sin, and now by extension Pat McQuaid’s, is that he claims that the sport is clean, the UCI did all it could, all it needed to, that no more could have been done than was. Which is just crazy talk. The first lesson you learn as a bike racer is that just because you won a bike race you should never, ever think that means you are the fastest guy on a bike.
And so I submit to you the de facto evidence that the UCI has not done enough: Every time someone wins a big bike race our response is not to celebrate; rather it is to wonder, to ask the question, “Was that athlete clean?” Why was Bradley Wiggins asked about his training methods at the Tour de France? Simple, because he was wearing the yellow jersey.
We have lost the suspension of disbelief. And given how hard most of us want to believe, how much we love the sport, the heartache is more than some of us can bear.
Mr. McQuaid, Mr. Verbruggen, you haven’t done enough. Not by a long shot, and if you think that suing Paul Kimmage is the answer, then you, sirs, are unfit for your respective offices.
You’re not kings and shooting the messenger is no longer a viable option. The peasantry has risen up and we will defend him.
We’ve asked you for a clean sport. You can’t seem to manage the task. And now the talk is of starting a new federation, one that understands the stakes of the game, the will of the fans. Stay tuned.
Images: Warner Bros. Pictures, Disney Pictures, Fotoreporter Sirotti
There’s been talk that an amnesty for past doping offenders is the path to a new era in clean cycling. But it’s not that easy to disperse years of pollution from a sport that is, more than ever, haunted by ghosts of doping past. An amnesty may be one step toward the goal of putting the dirty decades behind us, but it’s going to be far more difficult to purge professional cycling of its systemic sins.
We hope that the latest round of riders coming out or being outed is the start of a final phase in the cleansing process; but for it to be a truly effective process it has to be extended to the other tainted players, including team owners, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, coaches, team doctors, rider agents, event promoters, the sport’s administrators, race officials and, yes, journalists.
When I first became immersed in the European racing scene almost 50 years ago, there were no rules against using drugs in cycling (or any other sport). I raced for an amateur team in France and was aware that some teammates popped amphetamines to help them win lap primes in circuit races. I was offered the same drugs but knew that no amount of performance-enhancement would turn me into a Tour de France rider. I also knew that ex-pros with a dicey reputation worked as a mini-mafia in the same amateur races I competed in, and that top British riders I trained with were reluctant to sign for continental pro teams because of those teams’ doping cultures.
The cycling authorities didn’t legislate against performance-enhancing drugs until 1965. The very first tests were carried out at the amateurs-only Tour of Britain Milk Race, and the country was shocked when it was announced before the final stage that race leader Luis Santamarina of Spain and two others had tested positive for amphetamines and were being thrown out of the race. That shock was somewhat tempered when Britain’s Les West won the last stage by a couple of minutes and took the overall title. The fight against doping had begun….
The British public was even more shocked two years later when their former Sportsman of the Year, Tom Simpson, died at the Tour de France on the climb of Mont Ventoux. The coroner said that the amphetamine pills discovered in his racing jersey pockets were only part of the reason he died from heat exhaustion. Simpson was my cycling hero. I met him and saw him race many times, including at the foot of the Ventoux on that tragic day at the 1967 Tour. It was hard to accept that he’d doped and died.
Simpson’s death forced the Tour organizers to introduce daily drug tests, and the 1968 edition was dubbed the “Good Health Tour” by J.B. Wadley, my editor at International Cycle Sport, the magazine where I began my first full-time journalism job. Everyone was hoping that the new testing program would end doping practices, but all it did was make the riders and their teams more secretive as they found ways to elude positive tests. That was confirmed a decade later when Tour leader Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the 1978 race at L’Alpe d’Huez. The anti-doping inspector discovered under Pollentier’s shorts a rubber bulb containing clean urine, with which he’d intended to fill the test tubes at the post-stage medical control.
I was one of a half-dozen journalists who visited with Pollentier the next morning on the balcony of his hotel room. We learned that his actions weren’t much different from what many (most?) riders had been doing for years to avoid testing positive. That candid conversation on doping with the disgraced yellow jersey was the basis of a 2,000-word news story I wrote that week in 1978 for The Sunday Times of London, one of the first mainstream articles to look at the underbelly of pro cycling.
Pollentier’s transgression led to more stringent anti-doping rules, but another 10 years on, at the 1988 Tour, another race leader, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for a steroid-masking agent. He wasn’t sanctioned because the incriminating product (already banned by the International Olympic Committee) had yet to be added to the UCI’s list of proscribed drugs. We again wrote our stories about the hidden depth of cycling’s drugs problems—but when no one would talk to the press about what was actually going on inside the peloton, it was impossible to give details or to know the full extent of doping in cycling.
Yellow jersey Delgado’s escape from disqualification was the highest-profile “doping” incident in the ’80s, when the punishment for testing positive at the Tour was a cash fine plus a 10-minute time penalty. As a result, not much was made of the slap-on-the-wrists doping violations of top Dutch pros Steven Rooks, Gert-Jan Theunisse, Johan Van der Velde and Joop Zoetemelk. It was only years later that they and other Tour riders admitted to their abuse of amphetamines, steroids or testosterone.
For the few English-speaking cycling journalists who traveled to Europe in the ’80s, those were heady times. We wrote about the break-through successes of Sean Kelly, Steve Bauer and Phil Anderson in the classics, Greg LeMond’s and Stephen Roche’s victories at the worlds and Tour, and Roche’s and Andy Hampsten’s wins at the Giro d’Italia. Some skeptics said they couldn’t have achieved those successes without doping, but we never saw anything suspicious in that pre-team-bus era, even though we’d chat with the riders in the showers at Paris-Roubaix, interview them during massage sessions at the Tour, and do extensive one-on-ones at their homes.
The amazing performances of Kelly and Roche in that period made them Ireland’s biggest sporting stars, a fact that encouraged Irish sportswriter David Walsh to move to Paris with his young family to cover their stories. We became friends and followed many Tours together over the following decade or so. Walsh also made friends with journeyman Irish pro Paul Kimmage, who was then racing for a French team and shared some of the doping stories with Walsh that became the basis of Kimmage’s 1990 book, “Rough Ride.”
After that whistle-blowing book was published, Kimmage became a pariah in the European peloton, which remained highly secretive about its use of drugs. But it was clear that athletes and sports doctors had moved on from the haphazard use of amphetamines and other stimulants. I wrote an editorial in VeloNews in 1989 titled “EPO: The scourge of the 1990s?” that pointed out the dangers of the new blood-boosting hormone, which had just been approved for use with cancer patients by the Food and Drug Administration.
The speculation, unfortunately, became a fact. An early, but unconfirmed, indication of EPO use came at the 1991 Tour when, one by one, the high-profile PDM team fell sick and dropped out. The last man standing was Kelly, who a few of us, including Aussie colleague Rupert Guinness, chatted with the morning before stage 11 when he and the rest of the team flew home. Kelly said that they’d all been sick, as if they had food poisoning, though it was later confirmed it was due to injections of a badly stored nutritional supplement, Intralipid, used for recovery … though doping was still suspected.
The wheels started to come off the EPO wagon in 1998, when Belgian soigneur Willy Voet was caught with a station wagon packed with EPO, human growth hormone, artificial testosterone and amphetamines that was destined for the world No 1-ranked Festina team at the Tour. The race took a back seat as revelation after revelation emerged from the Festina camp, and when the French police intervened to arrest team officials, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc held his infamous late-night press conference in Brive to exclude the whole Festina team from the Tour.
I sat up all night to write another doping story for The Sunday Times, this one based around Festina’s Aussie team member Neil Stephens, after he spoke with companion Rupert Guinness about his criminal-like treatment at an overnight questioning session in a French jail. The subsequent riders’ strike, further police raids and a second strike, followed by mass team withdrawals almost ended the Tour—and drowned out a dramatic comeback by eventual winner Marco Pantani to beat defending champion Jan Ullrich.
The Festina Affair began a new wave on the battle against doping, a story that I’ll continue next Tuesday.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It can be fun working as a journalist in cycling. Not only do you get to travel to distant lands, interact with different peoples and witness amazing feats, you also get to know the athletes who make cycling the most beautiful sport in the world. One of the more intriguing characters I’ve met is Bradley Wiggins, a fellow Brit, who celebrated his 32nd birthday this past weekend by winning his third major international stage race in less than a year: It was the Critérium du Dauphiné last June, Paris-Nice in March and now the Tour de Romandie.
I first interviewed Wiggo—as his countrymen like to call him—over lunch at an English pub, The Flask, near North London’s Hampstead Heath on a grey December day in 2000. The tall, pale-faced Brit was then 20 years old and still an amateur track racer. He’d already traveled the world and was dressed like an American college kid in khaki pants, dark-blue turtle-neck sweater and a baseball cap; but he gave away his Englishness with a broad, monotone London accent.
I’d been intrigued by Wiggins for some time because his dad, Gary Wiggins, was an Australian racer I’d seen compete with Falcon, a British pro team, in the mid-1970s, and later in a bunch of European six-day races that I reported. Gary had a useful sprint in both road races and on the track, but he was never more than a journeyman professional. After he married in 1979, he and his English wife Linda moved to Ghent, Belgium, where Bradley was born. But his parents split a couple of years later and their son was only five when he and his mother returned to London.
“I wasn’t in contact with me dad for 17 years really,” Wiggins said at the London pub, “but me mum always spoke about him, and has obviously got a lot of pictures and stuff. I tried [cycling] out at 12 years of age … and it went from there.”
With cycling in his blood, young Brad “tried it out” at London’s venerable Herne Hill velodrome. He learned the ropes from the other members of the Archer Road Club, the same cycling club his father joined when he arrived from Australia at age 23. As a schoolboy racer, Brad won a national championship in the points race at age 15, soon stepped up to the national junior track team, and placed fourth in the points race at the 1997 junior worlds in South Africa.
It was the following year, at age 18, that Wiggins made his true breakthrough at the junior worlds in Havana, Cuba. After qualifying fastest in the 3000-meter individual pursuit, he raced Germany’s Daniel Palicki in the final. “It was an exciting final but I was totally in control,” the confident Wiggins told me. “He was still two seconds in the lead going into the final two laps. It was just the style I rode … pulling out a sprint at the end.” That victory over Palicki by almost three seconds gave Wiggins the incentive to shoot for glory at the Sydney Olympic Games, which were two years away.
“The Olympics is what I’ve set my aim at since ’92 when I watched Chris Boardman win the [pursuit] gold in Barcelona,” he said. “I’d just started cycling, and watching that was pretty inspiring. I thought I’d love to do that. So I thought Sydney, at 20 years old, should be a realistic goal.”
Wiggins rode two events at those Games, taking fourth in the Madison with Rob Hayles and a bronze medal in the team pursuit — a disappointment after he led the British foursome to the fastest time in the qualifying round. For me, that was a reminder that at about the same age, my boyhood hero Tom Simpson also won an Olympic bronze medal in the team pursuit in Australia — at Melbourne in 1956.
As a result, after that first interview with Wiggins a dozen year ago, I wrote in VeloNews: “Not since Simpson died in 1967 has Britain produced a young rider with the potential of Wiggins. … This soft-spoken Englishman has had a start to his career that’s as every bit as precocious as Simpson’s. And besides following a similar path to the former world road champion, Wiggins even looks and races like him.”
Unlike Simpson, who went to Europe to focus on road racing and ditch track racing (other than lucrative six-day contracts), Wiggins’s goal at age 20 was to win three track gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He did win the individual pursuit, while taking silver and bronze in other events, and he stayed with the Great Britain national track program through 2008 in Beijing (where he won two more golds).
By being part of Britain’s most successful Olympic team, in any sport, Wiggins achieved domestic fame and earned enough money through the Sky-sponsored track program to buy a farmhouse in northwest England, where he lives with wife Cathy and their two children Ben and Isabella. Perhaps he needed to do that, because it helped gave him the confidence he’s now showing as the leader of Team Sky at the world’s leading stage races. But Wiggins might have followed a path similar to Simpson’s and achieved the status he now has in road racing much sooner in his career.
In the season after that 2000 interview, Wiggins raced with his national road team and won two European stage races, Luxembourg’s Flèche du Sud (where Fränk Schleck was in the field) and Spain’s Cinturon de Mallorca. He then spent six seasons with French pro teams, focusing on winning prologue time trials; but the muscle weight he put on training for track pursuits stopped him making much progress in road racing. The only road win he took (other than short time trials) came in September 2005 when he took the hilliest stage of the Tour de l’Avenir, finishing three minutes ahead of the field after a long breakaway with his then Crédit Agricole teammate Saul Raisin.
Wiggins has always been outspoken in condemning riders who dope, and when his Cofidis team withdrew from the 2007 Tour de France after one of its riders tested positive, the Englishman threatened to quit the sport. That led him to signing in 2008 with America’s Team High Road because of its fiercely anti-doping policy, and then to the equally clean team, Garmin-Slipstream, the following year.
With the Beijing Olympics behind him, Wiggins finally focused on the road and through the winter and spring of 2009 he shed 7 kilos (about 15 pounds) from his track-racer’s body. The result was the skinny bike racer we see today who has applied his former skills to his new ones—during his brilliant fourth-place finish at the 2009 Tour, Wiggins described his method of riding the mountain passes as “mentally tackling them like a pursuit.”
In switching to Team Sky in 2010 (after prolonged and sometimes painful negotiations to buy him out of his Garmin contract), Wiggins returned to the to the coaching personnel at British Cycling, led by team boss Dave Brailsford, with whom he’d trained for all those pursuit medals. It’s taken them awhile to discover the best schedule to bring Wiggins to peak form when he needs it, but by alternating high-altitude training camps in Tenerife with high-profile stage races it seems like they’ve discovered a winning formula.
After that London pub lunch back in 2000, I wrote: “You may not have heard of Bradley Wiggins, but unless something drastic halts his current progress, his name will be one that resonates through the cycling world in the upcoming decades.”
Perhaps this decade (or even this year!) will see Wiggins achieve the dream that Simpson had in the 1960s: become the first Brit to win the Tour de France.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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Hi. My name is Robot, and I am an alcoholic. Fortunately, for me, I’ve been able to stay sober for the past seventeen years, much of that time with the help of a bicycle and the myriad benefits that particular piece of machinery bestows upon its frequent users.
I bring up my alcoholism to make a point about doping that I think escapes most who would judge a young rider harshly for straying down the garden path of EPO, CERA, Ozone, transfusions and testosterone trickery.
And that is, the dope can be addictive.
Bear with me now. When I was thirteen I was small, in fact the smallest kid in the class, and filled with social fear, much of which was based in the bullying I received at school. That same summer I drank a six pack of beer. Alcohol had the effect of doubling my size, sharpening my tongue and lowering my tolerance for the aforementioned bullying. Suddenly I was fearless, and fearlessness can be very compelling to an adolescent. Girls began to take interest in me. Boys began to respect me. I was crazy and funny and willing to abuse myself chemically to prove my mettle in the teen peloton.
Very quickly I developed a mental addiction to alcohol, rather than the physical addiction to alcohol marked by the shakes, hallucinations and possible cardiac arrest. I was in love with the feeling of being drunk and that feeling led me to all sorts of bad decisions with a burgeoning pile of consequences I struggled to contend with. At the end of my drinking I was blacking out for weeks at a time. Eventually, that loss of consciousness scared me badly enough to do what I needed to do to get clear of the demon liquor.
Right. Now lets run through that same story, but rather than the protagonist being a disaffected teen lets try a promising young cyclist, an amateur. He rides for a small but not insignificant club team that serves as a feeder to continental pro teams. Many of the club’s riders have made the jump to the pros after good results in kermis races or in amateur classics events.
One day this young pedaller is approached by his team’s manager or physio and offered an injection prior to a big race. The young rider is curious and acquiesces. He takes the shot, pulls up his bibs and murders his competition. When normally he might flag in the fourth hour of racing, relegating him to a pack finish, on this day he has the juice to follow the day’s final break, and he finishes third.
Encouraged by his finish and thrilled by the feeling of strength, he begins to make regular use of shots and potions, eventually settling into a pattern that catapults him up the amateur rankings and onto the radar of a number of pro teams.
At this point, he’s addicted to the feeling of power, speed and strength the dope gives him. He knows it’s wrong, but he fears that if he races clean he’ll get crushed, slip off the radar, slip out of cycling. Now he’s bouncing back and forth between the thrill of speed and power and the fear of crashing out of the sport. He continues on, and as he climbs the ladder from amateur to neo-pro to pro, he engages in more and more sophisticated doping programs.
Now his drug use is multi-faceted. He uses so he can feel strong, but he also has to maintain and mask his drugs. His body can’t simply stop being doped without serious risk to his health. On certain drugs, like EPO, riders run the risk of their blood thickening and clotting if they simply stop their program. They’re constantly being injected with anti-coagulants and being monitored for blood pressure issues.
Now our young rider has ALL the hallmarks of addiction. He is physically dependent on his program. He is mentally addicted to the results it produces and fearful of losing those results. And finally, his slow, steady descent into nefarious racing has caused him to lose sight of the ethical barriers that once would have kept him from ever taking that first step. Addiction is a gradual process. It rarely announces itself directly, but rather makes itself known by the accumulation of its consequences.
In my view, the great paradox of addiction is that you are at once powerless over that slow steady descent AND simultaneously, completely responsible for it. No one makes anyone stick a needle in their arm. And once you start down that path, as I did when I was thirteen, no one can make you stop except yourself.
Cycling has done a lot of positive things by creating a set of consequences for its wayward athletes. It has become more transparent and more interested in helping riders ride clean.
But, as I can attest, recovery is a slow, steady process. There are no silver bullets. There is no one test that will clean the dope out of the peloton. There is no one protocol. Recovery for cycling is rooted in our continuing to talk about that recovery, and our continuing to support even those riders who have made some mistakes as we move forward with what are, at the end of the day, just a bunch of bike races.
Images: 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