After a year of alternately surprising and unseemly revelations, truths that are unsettling or perhaps only half-so, we finally seem to have arrived at our great test. The recent nomination of Pat McQuaid to another term as UCI President by the governing board of Cycling Ireland is the great denouement of this era in cycling. Should he succeed in achieving another term as the president of the UCI, McQuaid will be the unassailable impediment to cleaning up cycling. Having shut down the investigation into his organization’s past and derailed what could have been a transparent exposure of the sport’s true nature with a truth and reconciliation commission, McQuaid has demonstrated nothing so much as how much more he prizes his ass than our sport.
Fortunately, Cycling Ireland has put his nomination on hold and will reconsider its vote. But holding my breath isn’t a variety of hope I’ll permit myself.
McQuaid’s tenure has left me with the feeling I had a few weeks ago when the opportunity to increase background checks for prospective gun buyers was shot down in Washington. It may be that only 90-percent of the American people want to see a change in gun laws. I have, however, yet to meet a single cyclist who believes that meaningful change in cycling is possible while McQuaid heads the UCI. Somehow, after a shocking torrent of new details that have disappointed every serious fan the sport has, we are poised to enter yet another grand tour with the status quo not only intact, but inviolate.
This isn’t just disappointment. This is the ache of depression, that deep resignation to futility that leeches color from life.
While I oppose McQuaid’s involvement in cycling down to my last fingernail, I’m unable to summon any more outrage for doped riders. With or without the man behind the curtain, we must address the future of the riders themselves. I suppose I might be able to ferret out some moldy snark should Riccardo Ricco choose to infest a two-wheeled conveyance in public, but that Al Pacino-style bellowing apoplexy found on the Interwebs eludes me at this point. A great many years ago a wise person told me that resentment is a cup of poison you pour for someone else, but drink yourself. I repeated those words to myself for nearly 20 years before I was able to put them into action by pouring out the metaphoric glass of hemlock. And it’s not that I lack compassion for what guys like Tilford suffered at the legs of a doped peloton—I get it. But now I have to ask, where is all this anger getting us?
Lest you think I simply wish to sweep all this dishonesty under the rug so that we can just jump into some new chapter of cycling, the way BP has tried to tell the people of Louisiana and Mississippi, “Bygones …” I must point out that I don’t see a simple reset button. There was a time when, emotions aside, I calculated that once a rider has served a suspension—even ones we believe to be to woefully inadequate to fit the infraction committed—they ought to be permitted to ride again, period.
This spring I went for a ride with a friend who works in the tech sector, one of the smartest guys I know, and arguably the most impressive self-made success I have ever encountered, a guy who also happens to be an ex pro. It was he who re-framed the problem of the “recovering” doper for me. Suppose for a second that every cyclist ever popped for doping was suspended for long enough to return them to their pre-doping form. It was his contention that was not sufficient discipline. It is his belief that the form gained from doping is actually less important than how once you have achieved that form once, in knowing that it is possible it redefines what the doping rider believes is possible about him or herself. The logic here is that once you’ve broken that psychological barrier once, it’s easier to do the second time.
The flip side to this argument is that riders who have doped often develop a psychological dependence on the stuff, coming to believe that they can’t achieve the form they had without it. It’s easy to see the logic behind this: I wasn’t that fit before the dope, so how can I reach that fitness without it?
Corollaries to both arguments abound. Skateboarding shows how once one guy figures out a move others learn it quickly because they know it’s possible. Once something enters the realm of the possible the challenge is merely learning, not invention. On the other side, the arts are full of talents who clung to drugs long after they had become self-destructive, because they believed the dope was braided into their talent, that one could not survive without the other. The tragedies of Marco Pantani and José Maria Jimenez remind us to what dark road doping may lead.
So this is my acknowledgement that there are no easy answers to what sort of riding careers ex-dopers should lead. However, the riding careers, that is the actual racing, of these riders isn’t nearly the source of irritation as the recent announcement of side projects by some of these riders. The outrage I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter in response to the release of a strength training book by Tom Danielson and the announcement of George Hincapie’s new bed and breakfast could send a nuclear sub around the seven seas at least until we solve climate change.
The rub is, of course, that they wouldn’t be famous enough to be authors, clothing company or hotel owners had they not doped their way to success. Surprisingly, the solution to this issue might be the simplest of all. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Backlash is the force opposite what the Lance Effect was. Sure, Danielson got an advance for the book, but if it doesn’t sell, he won’t see any royalties. And if it doesn’t sell, there won’t be another book. The market isn’t moral, but it can be absolute.
I’ve got friends out there, reasonable people whose intelligence is beyond question, but because they are cyclists are men of passion, men for whom the ex-doper dilemma has riled them to bulging-eyed, steam-eared fulminants. It’s hard to say whether their principles or their passions have led them to conclude that no ban short of lifetime is enough for these riders.
I can’t tell people not to be angry. Well, I can try, but it won’t work, so there’s no point. But I think it’s time we begin thinking about how to move forward, with or without Pat McQuaid. Every justice system on Earth makes some attempt to match the punishment to the crime. Bernie Madoff is the only person I can think of who has effectively received a death sentence—both professional and personal—for crimes he committed in his profession. Does anyone out there really think that the offenses committed by Tyler Hamilton, Christian Vande Velde, Levi Leipheimer, et al, merit professional death sentences? Actually, I know the answer to that question is yes, but what I’m asking is for people to really consider the question in a rational way. In the grand scheme, considering the number of Wall Street villains who did their country-club stints and are now plying their trade once again, do these guys really deserve lifetime suspensions or is this just our passion quitting the game and taking the ball home?
Finally, while I suspect that there are guys like Ricco who have the recidivist streak of skid-row addicts, I submit that there is merit to looking for acts of repentance, that in allowing a rider to make amends and in accepting that apology we both heal. I think accepting Tyler Hamilton as repentant is more about my growth than his. I don’t think every former doper deserves forgiveness, but Hamilton strikes me as worthy a candidate as we might find.
Forgiveness isn’t something that can be ladled out to the masses, like sunshine, but in this regard, maybe we can take a page from skateboarding and show one another what’s possible.
Cycling is a sport in which I’ve learned a great many lessons about life. As a life philosophy, it will fall short of what I want to teach my sons if it can’t include forgiveness, reconciliation. The mythology of cycling is better for me if I can point to Hamilton as cycling’s prodigal son.
It’s time to find a way to move on. Forgiveness is less a gift you give the person who hurt you than a peace you give yourself.
In refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks unwittingly ignited a revolution in how the United States treated African Americans. It was a pretty simple act of defiance as things go, but by staying seated, Parks ripped the scab off long-simmering tensions between blacks and whites in the U.S.
In the decade that followed President Lyndon Johnson signed into law what was arguably the most radical and sweeping civil rights legislation since the Nineteenth Amendment—which gave women the right to vote—was ratified in 1920. African Americans were given the right to vote, protected from discrimination based on their skin color or national heritage and protected from discrimination in housing. What gave the civil rights movement its power was a societal epiphany, a collective dawning of consciousness about the inherent wrong of discriminating against anyone for their skin color. For reasons that we may never fully understand, sufficient numbers of Americans made their voice heard, a voice that said in effect, ‘This doesn’t work; we’re not going to accept this anymore.’
Of course, the road to equal rights wasn’t smooth or easy. There were murders, boycotts, riots, more murders and deployments of the National Guard to keep the status quo when the cops couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves.
I offer that as a backdrop to the recurring themes of today’s news. A majority of the American people have concluded they’re okay with gay marriage. What they’re not okay with anymore are priests and school teachers sexually abusing minors. They’re not okay with the Boy Scouts discriminating against gays. And they don’t seem to be okay assault weapons on the streets. The public not only wants change, they see it as necessary.
In our collective rejection of this old status quo I see a parallel to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. We aren’t willing to turn a blind eye to these crimes. My sense is that we’re approaching another societal epiphany, a large-scale sea change, one that will define us as a society that rejects discrimination of any form. Naturally, I hope that this movement isn’t marked by the violence that threatened to overshadow all the progress we were making.
So what’s this got to do with cycling? That’s easy: I see cycling confronting the same issues. I now think Travis Tygart’s pursuit of Armstrong affair is the precipitating event to wake cycling fans from their complacency about the problem of doping, much the way Parks’ defiance was the precipitating event in sparking the civil rights movement. I’ll admit, it took me a long time to see the case in this light, but there can be no doubt that the public at large is now aware of just how deeply ingrained doping has been in the sport.
Most of the cycling public ignored nearly all of the accusations against Armstrong and instead chose to believe the fairytale until the release of USADA’s Reasoned Decision. Through that I hear echoes of white America’s tacit approval of segregation. Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen are little different from the Southern politicians and police chiefs who resisted the new laws, insisting they weren’t going to change how things had been done for generations. Indeed, considering how McQuaid and Verbruggen denounced both Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton once they decided to unburden their consciences by confessing the details of their doping, they are no better than Bull Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner who directed the fire and police departments to turn fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s demonstration in the spring of 1963. Connor, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, became the public face of Southern bigotry, the quintessential example of the old guard that was standing in the way of the equality we all now take for granted.
If it seems like a stretch to compare segregation with doping, consider that there was a time when seemingly reasonable people saw nothing wrong with separate facilities for blacks and whites—it was the law of the land thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Similarly, there was a time when taking performance-enhancing drugs just to get through a bike race wasn’t the least bit scandalous. Times change.
Could it be that the new generation of riders are analogous to what my generation was to the acceptance of African Americans as equals in school and on the playground? I think so. In their outspoken denunciation of doping, Taylor Phinney, Tejay Van Garderen and Mark Cavendish are a lot like the whites who linked arms with blacks and staged protests in the South. It may also be that riders like Levi Leipheimer and Thomas Dekker aren’t terribly different from Southerners who went with the flow until they recognized the tide had turned.
In shutting down the investigation by their independent commission, McQuaid and the UCI have proven to all but those with the most reptilian of brains that learning the full scope of doping in the sport has never been their primary interest. They lack the vision, the institutional spine and sufficient love for the sport to show real courage by allowing the commission to do the job they were charged with. After being booed by the crowd assembled at the recent Cyclocross World Championships, it seems impossible that McQuaid could somehow be unclear on the will of the people, yet he persists with the obstinate bearing of a smoker who won’t give up his cigarettes even after learning he has lung cancer. In that regard we can draw yet another comparison, this time to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. It was Faubus who called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. You can’t help but wonder what he was thinking as he tried to prevent school integration.
It would be obscene to suggest that the issues cycling faces are as serious as the fundamental issues of equality that the United States wrestled with 50 years ago. But because sport is aspirational, a place in which we invest our loftiest dreams, the drama unfolding as a result of doping has held many of us in a disproportionate crisis. Sport is supposed to be a realm free of the clutches of corruption.
Democracy has a way of pushing aside tyrants in favor of more reasonable forms of engaging the citizenry. History remembers Faubus and Connor as villains who stood in the way of equality for all Americans, men who clung to outdated ideas and refused to change with the times. McQuaid and Verbruggen have denied any wrongdoing during their tenures, instead pointing crooked fingers at the riders, the teams and even the fans. They are our Faubus and Connor. History will show them no quarter.
So what might we expect from the future? It’s not unreasonable to conclude the UCI will be freed of the misguided leadership of McQuaid and Verbruggen following their next election. Of course, that is no more likely to put an end to doping than the civil rights movement put an end to the Ku Klux Klan. The difference is that the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t a fringe organization in the first half of the 20th Century, while today it is far outside of the mainstream of social thought. Likewise, drug use was a once widespread practice, but the day is coming when athletes will see doping for what it really is—
the most basic of lies.
Much has already been written and said about the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey. It ranges from naive praise to dismissive disbelief. My purpose isn’t to either defend him or further scorch the earth at his feet; rather, I’d like to offer some perspective to view this within the larger framework of the evolving myth of Lance Armstrong.
The general sentiment of Armstrong among RKP readers, the collective room temperature, isn’t hard to gauge. Many of you are tired of the lies, tired of the myth, tired of him. So why pay attention now? Because Lance Armstrong told the truth to Oprah. Based on what we know, not everything he told was the truth, nor was it all of the truth we want to hear. But he admitted to doping. It’s an important first step. That he wouldn’t roll over on any of his co-conspirators—in particular Johan Bruyneel and Thom Weisel—was the omission I feared would sour an otherwise bold change of heart. His continued denial of a coverup in 2001 at the Tour de Suisse was just as troubling.
When he told Oprah that he wanted to deal with what he had done, it may have seemed a noble move to some, but then he added that he didn’t want to address the actions of others. We all know that the best he could do right now is to be completely forthright.
What’s unfortunate about the first part of Oprah’s interview with Armstrong is that by drawing a line in the sand and telling her that he wasn’t going to discuss the actions of others he eliminated the anticipation that he’d reveal anything surprising, something we didn’t already know. Part two of the interview is a foregone conclusion. He will confess to some things we accept as true and he may deny a couple of details that we also accept as true.
The only surprises in store for us are really those items he continues to deny.
For my part, I was disappointed when Oprah asked him when he began doping and his answer wasn’t immediate, wasn’t detailed. Telling her, “I suppose earlier in my career … mid ‘90s,” is an unacceptably vague answer. The only way I’m willing to believe he doesn’t remember both the month and year he began is if it was some time in the 1980s. Either way, I’m unwilling to accept he doesn’t remember the year he began.
He also told Oprah that he wasn’t a bully before cancer. I call shenanigans on that as well. He’s never not been a rough-hewn character who wanted his way. When I was a race mechanic, USA Cycling staff shared Lance Armstrong stories the way stoners trade arrest stories. Those who told the stories did so with an air of amusement, that while his behavior didn’t conform with the genteel demeanor expected of athletes sponsored by USA Cycling, they were willing to indulge him, a tiny gift for a guy who was destined to make their stock split. Perhaps Lance and I define bully differently, but where I come from, only bullies always get their way, and until very recently, Lance got his way.
I think much of the interview was truly aimed not at the public but at his aforementioned co-conspirators. It was a flare from him to demonstrate that he wasn’t going to rat them out, that he could have, but didn’t. Considering Bruyneel’s appeal looms, it could also be considered a shot across his bow—’I didn’t rat you out, bro. Don’t rat me out.’ CNN is claiming that the interview was a win for Oprah, her biggest “get” ever (which defies comprehension), but backfired on Armstrong.
If indeed Armstrong’s interview is only worsening his situation, there’s a simple reason. What we’ve needed from Lance wasn’t just some truth, we’ve needed what we expect in sworn testimony—the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We, the people, don’t feel we got that from him, and that’s why this was a fail for the average cycling fan, if not the general public as well.
I will say I was relieved to hear Armstrong admit that a single call to Frankie and Betsy Andreu wasn’t going to be enough to undo the damage of nearly a decade of attacks. When asked if he was forgiven, he was bang on the money in his response: “They’ve been hurt too badly … and a 40-minute conversation isn’t enough.”
Still, nothing that he said can overcome the disappointment of hearing him say of his past, “Such a bad story, so toxic … a lot of it is true.” From the jaws of admission—an opportunity for real contrition and reflection—he managed to snatch defense. It’s a shame he doesn’t appreciate what we’ve all come to learn about his story—that it was so fantastic, so mythic in its scope that no one—not Landis, not Hamilton, not the Andreus—ever needed to invent anything about him.
The inventions were his.
The Facebooks and Twitters have been full of apocalyptic references thanks to the easily anticipated fail of the Mayan end-of-the-world prediction. Laughing off the prediction of a 5000-year-old calendar created by a long-extinct people seems easy enough until you think about what cycling has been through this year. Had anyone told me this time last year that Lance Armstrong would be utterly disgraced and bereft of all sponsorship to the point of being dumped by his own eponymous foundation, I’d have laughed until I threw up. Similarly, if you’d told me that half the pro continental cycling teams in the U.S. would be without sponsors for 2013, I’d have laughed, though maybe not to the point of the technicolor yawn. And if you’d told me that there was a revolutionary movement afoot to topple the UCI and replace Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen with people of actual moral fiber, I’d have asked you just which drugs you were taking—and if you’d be willing to share them with me. For cycling, at least, it does seem a bit like end times.
The reality is, this is a year unlike any other the sport of cycling has ever faced. The news has been more bad than good this year, so this year’s awards may have more snark than praise. Herewith are a few things we think are worth remembering. And for good measure, this time around, we’ve asked Patrick O’Grady to sit in with our band.
News of the decade: Even though this one isn’t over, not by a longshot, I think we can call this one now—the actual fall of Lance Armstrong. Not only does most of the rational world believe he doped—a conclusion I didn’t think we’d ever get most folks to reach—sponsors have run from him like cute girls from a leper colony. I had an easier time getting a date in eighth grade than he does finding a sponsor today. That his own foundation wouldn’t shake hands with him with rubber gloves says a lot about how badly everyone wants to distance themselves from him, that is, excepting Johan Bruyneel, Chechu Rubiera and a few other pros who don’t understand that most people see doping the way they see racism—completely unacceptable.
Most believable Grand Tour winner: Ryder Hesjedal. I don’t care what Bradley Wiggins says about how he hates dopers or how the fact that he’s not as fast as Armstrong was proves he isn’t a doper. The fact that he won stage races in March, April, May and June before winning the Tour and then revving up once more to take the ITT at the Olympic Games smells as bad as one of my son’s used diapers. I’m not going to accuse him of doping, but if the press are going to be held to a standard of expectation that we’ll speak up when we’re suspicious, well, then I have to say that Wiggins’ never-before-performed season is highly suspicious. Even Eddy Merckx never swept Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour in the same year. Hesjedal, on the other hand, was vulnerable in the Giro. His win was not the inevitable outcome that sucked the life out of watching this year’s Tour. He’s been riding for a team that I have the utmost belief in as a clean program; while I believe that cycling is probably the cleanest it has ever been, I think Garmin-Sharp has taken the best, most transparent approach to demonstrating their team is clean. Hesjedal, as a product of that team, has earned my respect and admiration.
Most clueless person in cycling: This one’s a tie between Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen. I liken them to the small-town mayors in the Southern states when the civil rights legislation was enacted. Those old boys fought integration for any number of spurious reasons, but the biggest problem with them wasn’t that they couldn’t come up with a solid, objective reason to fight equal rights for all people, it was that they failed to see how public opinion had evolved and, like those who now fight gay marriage, how their opinions were coming down on the wrong side of history. Verbruggen lost any credibility as a leader and even as an administrator once he proclaimed that it was the fans’ fault that doping had taken root, that because we wanted to see fast racing the fans had forced the riders to dope. Their mudslinging agains Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton in the wake of those two deciding to finally tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is shameful on the level of scoutmaster sex abuse. Those two can’t go quickly enough.
Best new piece of gear: I can’t not give this to Shimano for the new Dura-Ace 9000. While my full review will come in the next few weeks, let me say that this group is what we hoped for when 7900 came out a few years ago. It’s a group of such magnificent improvement it reminds me of what I thought when I first heard Metallica’s Black Album: How did I ever live without this?
Biggest mistake award: For this one we have to go back to Armstrong. If he had just been willing to set aside his ire with Floyd Landis and give him a spot on RadioShack, his life would be very different right now. I’m not bemoaning our current situation, but come on, there must have been an epic, “D’oh!” in the shower one morning.
The Commander Omertà award: This one goes to Patrick Lefevre for thanking Levi Leipheimer for confessing his previous doping by firing him. If anyone could have sent a more convincing message to the peloton to shut up, I can’t think who could have accomplished that. ‘Shh, don’t tell mom about the pot brownies.’ I’d pay money to have Lefevre retire the day we put McQuaid and Verbruggen out to pasture so that I could hold a Stevil Kinevil-style party. Hell, I’d hire Stevil to run the thing.
The JFK-style Conspiracy Theorist award: This goes to everyone who is unwilling to believe that Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, et al, told the full truth about their doping. Given that Leipheimer didn’t know what Hamilton, Zabriskie or any of the other riders who were ordered to testify before the grand jury would say, not telling the full truth about their involvement in doping was incredibly risky. If any of them were caught in a lie, they’d face prosecution for perjury and those agreements for reduced suspensions would be unwound. The pressure to be truthful was enormous. We should all be willing to take them at their word in this regard. Besides, so far as USADA and USA Cycling are concerned, this matter has been put to rest. You can second-guess it all you want, but you’re not going to get any new answers. Best just to move on.
Most Disappointing Win: Alexander Vinokourov at the Olympic road race. Based on his statements in the media, he has neither fully confessed nor repented his sins. He harks from a generation and mindset we need behind us. His victory salute was a reminder that even if he was clean on that day, the sport needs to be ever-vigilant in its quest for clean(er) cycling. My lack of confidence that he could/would win clean is the doubt that currently undermines my love for professional cycling. This would be why Vino also gets my Most Relief-Inducing Retirement Award.
Best line in a product introduction: Back in October at the introduction of Giro’s new line of clothing we were told how it was meant to pay homage to a new direction in cycling. Giro’s PR guru, Mark Riedy, uttered the line, “No more heroes.” ‘Nuff said.
The One Fingered Salute Award – Peter Sagan. The grown ups tend not to like it so well when some young whipper-snapper gets above his raising and makes them look foolish. The effect is only exacerbated when the whipper-snapper in question does it day after day after day and with increasingly audacious celebratory flourishes. Thus it was that Sagan more or less made the Tours of both California and Switzerland his bitches, while the grown ups flogged away at their pedals somewhere behind in his dusty trail. More than anything, the shy (off the bike) Slovak announced that not only was he not intimidated in the deep end of pro racing, but that he was capable of much more, that his raw power and top-end speed were wed to a racer’s brain far more mature than his youth would suggest.
The All Business Award – Tom Boonen. When I think of Tom Boonen, I have a hard time not thinking about cocaine and under-age super models. Just as a tornado will destroy the homes of both the rich and the poor indiscriminately, Tornado Tom’s approach to his career has created as much damage off the road as on it. But in 2012, the Belgian veteran was all business and all class, owning the cobbled Classics and inching his way one step closer to the record books in a Spring campaign that left the whole racing world with their mouths slightly agape.
The No Business Award – The Schleck Brothers. Luxembourg’s favorite family act must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder placed by a darkly furred feline carpenter, because 2012 couldn’t have gone much worse for them. Chained to the sinking barge of the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team, there was the early season set to with Johann Bruyneel (remember that guy?), a fractious start to an uncertain partnership, which saw both Andy and his brother Franck underperforming in every race they entered. Eventually Andy was injured in a seemingly innocuous crash and Franck got popped for doping.
The Other Shoe Award – Bjarne Riis. In a season when it seemed to be raining shoes, the painfully serious Dane’s reputation has been called into question more often than an Italian Prime Minister’s. Having confessed to doping during his own racing career, there remain serious allegations that he also facilitated doping in his teams as a manager. Tyler Hamilton says he did. Bobby Julich says he didn’t. It seems that, in pro cycling, where there’s smoke now, there was fire a decade ago. Riis’ persistence should really be seen as the test case for what cycling wants to do with its doping past. Will the worst offenders of the ’90s find a future in the sport? Julich’s own fate (fired by Team Sky) suggests one possible answer, but when/if the other shoe drops for Riis will tell us for certain.
The Most Sleep-inducing Grand Tour: Yeah, I know. Many of my British friends will believe it’s sacrilege to suggest that the first Tour de France to see a Brit’ atop the podium in Paris would rank as the most boring of this year’s grand tours. It was more than that. It was one of the most boring Tours in history. Come on ASO, three mountain-top finishes? Thankfully, this year also offered us the Giro and Ryder Hesjedal’s surprising and impressive win over Joaquim Rodríguez and the Vuelta’s three-way battle between Rodríguez, Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde. Here’s hoping that in 2013 the “world’s greatest bicycle race” lives up to that designation.
Most well-deserved victory lap: It’s clear that most agree that the implosion of Lance Armstrong is the cycling story of the year — or as Padraig points out, the story of the decade. It’s hard to disagree, but it’s important to point out that this was far from a new story. It’s a story that Sunday Times of London journalist David Walsh has been telling since 1999. I know first-hand of Walsh’s skepticism, since I spent the ’99 and ’00 Tours with the tenacious Irishman. It was déjà vu all over again when the USADA “reasoned decision” was delivered to the UCI on October 13, 2012. Sure there was more documentation, but most of the allegations were made years ago, when Walsh and Pierre Ballester co-wrote ”L.A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong” in 2004. At the time, Walsh was demonized by the Armstrong camp — which labeled him “the F#cking Troll” — and even shunned by fellow journalists. Well, he who laughs last …. When the report was released and the UCI soon confirmed its conclusions, Walsh teamed up with Paul Kimmage, John Follain and Alex Butler and quickly released ”Lanced: The Shaming of Lance Armstrong,” on October 31st, and followed that with his own, much more personal story “Seven Deadly Sins: My pursuit of Lance Armstrong,” on December 13. I, for one, hope that “Seven Deadly Sins,” sells more than the many works of apparent fiction shilled to an unsuspecting public by writers who should have known better. Maybe he should change the title to “It’s Not About the Bullshite: The Unmaking of the World’s Greatest Sports Fraud,” eh? Quite frankly, the book should be required reading for anyone hoping to work in sports “journalism.” Without that kind of moral compass; without that tenacity and without that consequences-be-damned attitude, we’re all just – to use an old, sadly accurate term — fans with typewriters. Hats off to the “F#cking Troll.” Enjoy the moment. You deserve it, sir.
Inspiring show of support: In recent years, the aforementioned Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen found that filing lawsuits against critics in a friendly, local court could be an effective tool. They, along with the UCI itself, filed suit against former World Anti-Doping Agency head, Dick Pound, and then against Floyd Landis, after he admitted his own doping and alleged the UCI conspired to cover-up Armstrong’s own infractions. Pound issued a brilliantly word non-apology-apology. Landis pretty much blew them off and lost in a default judgment. Then they went after Paul Kimmage. Ooops. Kimmage decided to put up a fight and he soon got overwhelming support from you, the fans. The folks over at Cyclismas.com and NYVeloCity started promoting the “Paul Kimmage Defense Fund” and readers eventually kicked in more than – get this – $92,000 to help in the fight. Kimmage, laid off from the Sunday Times last year, suddenly had the resources to take on the UCI. And, sure enough, McQuaid, Verbruggen and the UCI, put their suit “on hold.” Kimmage, however, is now pursuing his own case. None of that would have been possible had you, the readers, not stepped up to lend a valuable hand.
My favorite photo of the year: This one comes from Betsy Andreu, who offered up photographic evidence of Frankie Andreu’s reaction to Tyler Hamilton’s detailed confessional, “The Secret Race.”
A personal favorite: When it comes to my work in cycling, I think the highlight of the year for me was finding out that the unique business model of LiveUpdateGuy.com actually worked. Thank you to all of those readers who offered help and support during our Live Coverage of all three grand tours. Because of your support, we may well be able to offer the same in 2013. Those, of course, will appear right here on Red Kite Prayer, as well.
Patrick the Other—
Donna Summer Memorial Disc-O Dance Party Platinum Rotor Medallion: To the bicycle industry for trying to hang disc brakes on everything from road bikes to stick ponies. I can understand why bike companies want to sell discs —after all, some shameless hucksters will try to sell you a rat’s asshole, telling you it’s a pinhead’s sweatband, a Chris King headset or the One Ring To Rule Them All — but I don’t understand why anyone who isn’t a pro racer with a team mechanic needs discs. And some of them don’t even need ’em (see Sven Nys, Katie Compton, et al.). If I want pointless complexity “enhancing” my cycling I’ll look to the UCI or USA Cycling for it. Speaking of which. …
The Salvatore Palumbo Good People Certificate: This honor traditionally goes to the nefarious criminal organization most hell-bent on kneecapping the sport of bicycle racing (either USA Cycling or the UCI). This year, it’s USA Cycling, which this year tried putting the squeeze on the wildly successful activities of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, once again confirming our worst fears — that our national governing body cares as much about grassroots bike racing as did Kid Sally Palumbo, organizer of the six-day bike race immortalized in “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” by Jimmy Breslin. One can practically hear USAC caporegime Kid Stevie Johnson ringing up OBRA executive director Kenji Sugahara to hiss, “You could be dead in a bomb accident.”
The Gov. William J. LePetomane Protecting Our Phony-Baloney Jobs Here Gentlemen Citation for Excellence In Oversight: UCI President Pat McQuaid. I still haven’t gotten a “Harrumph” out of that guy. But what I’d really like is an “Adios.”
Charles Foster Kane Snowglobe of Destiny: Lance Armstrong. As reporter Jerry Thompson said of Citizen Kane, Armstrong was “a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it.” We may never know what his personal Rosebud was, but a sled is a fine thing for going downhill fast, if you don’t mind the bonfire at the bottom, and Armstrong was not the first to build his Xanadu from a drug-induced dream.
If there’s one thing that we can say with certainty about the UCI and doping, it’s that they have done a dismal job of investigating eyewitness testimony on doping charges. That they never followed up on charges made by eyewitnesses is galling because it makes an end-run on their defense that they lacked the resources to do more. Talking to eyewitnesses requires little more than a phone, though a plane or train ticket is handy.
Their unwillingness to actually investigate allegations by riders is unacceptable the way stripping naked in a restaurant and standing on the table singing Debbie Boone songs is unacceptable. Sure, you may think that Floyd Landis is crazy; you may even agree with Pat McQuaid and think he’s a scumbag. But that doesn’t make what he said untrue. The same goes for Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu, Jorg Jaksche and Jesus Manzano, just to name a few.
Each of these riders gave eyewitness testimony of doping and were then roundly attacked by the UCI. It’s like arresting—and then ignoring—the junkie who is ready to turn over his dealer and his dealer’s dealer. Insert epic “Really?”
And so now Pat McQuaid has announced a confidential hotline for those who wish to “discuss issues or concerns related to doping.”
Hmm … I’m curious about how much nandrolone you have to take to get a full-scale case of bacne. Do you suppose that’s what he’s talking about? In his letter he claims there are riders who reported doping allegations that were not investigated. That’s certainly the case with Andreu, Jaksche and Manzano, who were arguably the highest-profile riders to allege inaction on the part of the UCI for the Armstrong case was blown open by USADA.
McQuaid claims: “I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that the UCI did act on information provided in the past.”
Okay Mr. McQuaid, please tell us what you did, because we’ve not seen a serious investigation on your part into the charges made by the aforementioned riders.
McQuaid goes on to write that amnesty isn’t an option but reduced punishment is an option. Honestly, based on previous behavior, the only intelligent conclusion one can draw from this hotline is that any rider who speaks up will be attacked by the UCI for hurting the sport. And then suspended.
Okay, let’s go over the math here: Make a phone call. Confess your involvement in doping plus whatever you know about the actions of others. Result: You get suspended, ridiculed by the sport’s governing body and the other people involved go un-investigated.
If that’s not a compelling case for the survival of omerta, then I’m a dancing elephant. Jens Voigt’s Army (@jensvoigtsarmy) tweeted that the UCI should staff the hotline with Miss Cleo from the Psychic Friends. This may have been meant as comedy, but I think it’s a terrific suggestion; certainly a psychic has a higher likelihood of finding out the truth than the UCI.
McQuaid says he’ll be meeting personally with all the teams this winter. I’m reminded of the old joke, “Here comes God—look busy.” For McQuaid, we can retell it: Here comes Pat McQuaid—shut up.
Below is the full text of McQuaid’s letter to riders; note that it does not address team staff.
To riders ________
Sent by email only
Aigle, 9 November 2012
I would like to take this opportunity to update you on the latest developments and decisions we have taken in response to the current crisis in our sport.
You will have seen in recent media reports that Philippe Gilbert, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins among many others have been strong voices in telling the world that today’s cycling is cleaner than ever before. Of course, they are right. You, today’s riders not only participate in the most innovative and effective anti-doping programs in sport but above all you have understood which choice to make for your career and for your sport. The result is that our sport is cleaner.
Actually the UCI has always been a pioneer in the fight against doping, a fact recognized by WADA and the IOC among others. We pride ourselves on the fact that we were the first sport to introduce a whole range of scientific measures as tools in this fight. These include the haematocrit test, the EPO tests, the homologous blood transfusion test and the blood passport, which I do not need to tell you about, as you are in the front line and have been overwhelmingly supportive of these initiatives. We are aware that this extensive anti-doping program causes much inconvenience for you, and we thank you for having accepted the hassle for the greater good of cycling.
Nevertheless, when we read in the USADA dossier that Lance Armstrong and others were able to use doping throughout their careers, we have to admit that the tests provided by the scientific community were simply not adequate enough to combat the problem.
Therefore we must all continue to work to keep improving the culture in cycling through education, prevention and as far as you are concerned by making the one choice that counts. At the end of the day it is you the riders who have the ultimate say about whether our sport is clean.
Naturally, we need to do more to ensure that the UCI is as accessible as possible, and in particular to you the riders, should you wish to discuss issues or concerns relating to doping. That is why, during the coming weeks, also after a small time frame to set up the logistical side, the UCI will be looking into establishing a new open line – a confidential ‘hotline’. We will be sending more information about this once in place. I know that it will take some time to build trust and confidence in this new line of communication, but I am confident that, with the best intentions from both sides, we can build that trust. And by doing so, we will accelerate the change in culture that we need in our sport.
We are aware that some riders have complained publicly that despite having shared knowledge with the UCI, there was an inadequate follow up. I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that the UCI did act on information provided in the past and it will always do so in the future, within the bounds of what is legally feasible.
Clearly the UCI has to work within the rules and in particular in accordance with the World Anti-Doping Code. At this time the rules do not allow general amnesties but the current review of the World Anti- Doping Code may provide different possibilities in the future. The rules do currently allow reduced penalties. We are aware, and doing the utmost to address your proposals/needs in the effort to do the best by our sport.
As far as repairing the reputation of our sport, I would like to add that the UCI has listened to the world’s reaction to the Lance Armstrong affair and it has taken – and will continue to take – decisive steps in response to all matters raised.
To make sure that the UCI and cycling can move forward with the confidence of all parties, we are now establishing a fully Independent Commission to look into the findings of the USADA report and make recommendations to enable the UCI to restore confidence in the sport of cycling. John Coates, the President of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (ICAS), has agreed to recommend the composition and membership of the Independent Commission. The UCI has already begun contacting the people Mr. Coates has nominated. The names of the panel members will be announced as soon as the Commission is convened. The Commission’s final report and recommendations will be published no later than 1 June 2013 – and you can be confident that the UCI will take whatever actions are deemed necessary to put cycling back on track. We are confident that the Commission will conclude that the UCI has been one of the strongest of all sporting federations in fighting doping in sport for many years.
As part of the effort to eradicate doping from our sport the UCI has made a considerable investment in education and implementation of the True Champion or Cheat program, the ‘no needle policy’, the ethical evaluation as part of teams’ registration and the modules in the Sports Directors training programme. These are all measures to achieve the necessary changes in the culture of our sport.
Finally, while the Independent Commission carries out its work, I feel it is also important that UCI works on restoring the credibility of our sport. I have decided that, during the first quarter of 2013, the UCI will set in motion a wide-ranging consultation exercise involving all cycling’s stakeholders to tackle issues of concern within the sport and work together to build a bright future for cycling.
The UCI will welcome your participation in this consultation, which will also look at how we can continue the process of globalising the sport, encourage wider participation and take measures to make the sport even more interesting for spectators.
This is not the first time cycling has reached a crossroads. Nor is it the first time it has had to engage in the painful process of confronting its past and beginning afresh. It will do so again with renewed vigour. Its stakeholders and fans can be assured that cycling will find a new path forward.
This summer in London, we saw that cycling is one of the world’s most popular sports. Its future will be defined by you the current generation of riders, who have proved that you can compete and win clean. In December, I will be meeting all first and second division teams to address the issues which will ensure a clean, anti-doping culture going forward.
Together, we can maintain cycling’s popularity and ensure its bright future.
The effect of the release of USADA’s “reasoned decision” and the accompanying documents has been rather like a Hollywood special-effects explosion. Debris has been raining down from the sky long after the explosion itself has ceased to reverberate. Some of us continue to wince and duck because we know there’s more in the sky than just blue. With a single download George Hincapie has gone from one of the United States’ most beloved riders, to one of its most vilified. Johan Bruyneel has gone from genius mastermind to evil genius. So many characters from the heyday of American cycling have been thrust into the role of criminal that Tyler Hamilton’s one-time team director Bjarne Riis—an enigmatic figure if ever there was one—has the enviable position of occupying a kind of moral purgatory where people aren’t really sure just how to feel about him.
Reams continue to be written about the USADA case, Travis Tygart and, yes, Lance Armstrong. Some of it, like Charles Pelkey’s recent Explainer, will be reasoned and objective. Some of it, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s piece for Business Insider, will get the conclusion wrong due to a lack of understanding of the facts; simply put, Gladwell doesn’t understand that the public wants a clean sport. Unrestrained doping results in deaths, and deaths are bad for the sponsors. Others, like John Eustice’s piece for TIME, hails from an outlook of such moral ambiguity one would prefer he didn’t speak on behalf of the sport; his attitude is a great example of what got us into this mess. This is no time for more of the same. The biggest surprise came from Competitive Cyclist’s “What’s New” blog, which is the most unapologetically ambivalent piece I’ve been able to find. Unfortunately, cycling fans don’t seem to be willing to entertain negative capability where Armstrong is concerned. As a result, no one I know is ready for nostalgia.
One wonders about the curious silence of Sally “Lance Armstrong is a good man” Jenkins, the Washington Post columnist and Armstrong biographer who has been known to take on a sports icon directly, such as when she wrote, “Joe Paterno was a liar, there’s no doubt about that now.“ And then there’s the astoundingly politician-like flip-flop of Phil Liggett who has been far more effective as a PR agent for Armstrong than Mark Fabiani was. His statement that he finds it “very hard to believe Lance Armstrong did not dope” falls rather short of the more definitive, ‘I believe Lance Armstrong doped’, was nonetheless a shocker for those who watched him on the Four Corners program on Australian television, and re-broadcast by CNN in the U.S.
No matter what faults readers may find with the print media, they cannot compare to the sin committed in the orchestrated slander of Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis by Liggett and co-commentator Paul Sherwen. In allowing Armstrong to join them as an investor in an African gold mine, they gave him their short hairs, and the last vestiges of their objectivity.
The outrage about Armstrong is really understandable. His seven wins in the Tour were a Ponzi scheme that even Bernie Madoff would admire. How Armstrong managed to do what he did, why he did it, why others aided him, all of that is easy to process. It’s a word I keep coming back to: coercion. At some level, everyone who succumbed felt pushed by forces outside their own will. What has been harder to understand is how the reception to the Armstrong story changed over time.
In 2001, almost no one wanted to hear any suggestion that Armstrong wasn’t clean. For a long time, David Walsh was treated as if he was running around in a tinfoil hat. Even in 2005, once the allegations were out there more firmly, the cycling world still seemed to have their hands at their ears, collectively yelling “la-la-la-la I can’t hear you.” But by 2009 it was apparent, based on—if nothing else—comments here on RKP, that a great many serious cyclists had come to the conclusion that Armstrong wasn’t clean. It was also apparent by that time that a great many stories had emerged of just what a domineering personality he was. I’ve often wondered just how much peoples’ dislike of Armstrong greased their ability to conclude that he was a doper. Once a villain, then why not all-in?
So while the Friday Group Ride is a few days away, I’d like to pose a few questions to you readers: When did you come to the conclusion that Armstrong was a doped athlete? If the tipping point for you came before the USADA Reasoned Decision, what served as your personal tipping point? Also, if your change of opinion came before the Reasoned Decision, did the release of those documents change anything for you, even if it was only to cause you to hate Armstrong even more? Finally, for those of you who have been outraged by what was detailed in the Reasoned Decision and its supporting documents, why did it anger you in a way the same allegations made previously did not?
Now, having asked all that, I’ll make a final request: This is meant to be a conversation, not an occasion to vent self-righteous spleen. We want to hear from as many readers as possible, so we ask that you try to keep your comments both brief and civil. Thanks.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Journalist Paul Kimmage has filed a criminal complaint against the UCI for defamation, slander and fraud.
That’s worth repeating: Paul Kimmage is suing the UCI.
This would be where Wayne and Garth are supposed to say, “Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.”
Lo, see the winged orangutans!
Even though UCI President Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen have always been as fast and easy with insults as the Real Housewives of Orange County are, as recently as a year ago, a defamation suit would have seemed impossible, like unicorn impossible. Of course, Kimmage isn’t suing the UCI because they hurt his feelings. The papers filed on his behalf by Swiss attorney Cédric Aguet cite both slander and defamation, but that’s not what makes the suit earth-shaking. It goes on to include a criminal complaint that there are “strong suspicions of fraud.”
It’s the fraud charge that causes Kimmage’s suit to step beyond what might be merely a civil case and into something with serious teeth. Criminal. Capital C. Jail time. Should the prosecutor the case has been referred to pick it up one can expect a bunch of subpoenas.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned through this process it’s that we aren’t willing to believe the truth until someone gives sworn testimony. Richard Virenque was clean until he was confronted by a prosecutor in court. We’d never have learned Tyler Hamilton’s full story without a subpoena. The eyewitnesses who were Lance Armstrong’s undoing? Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Tyler Hamilton—their stories were mostly ignored until they became sworn testimony attached to the USADA investigation, which, it’s worth noting, was the second time around for Betsy Andreu. Sure Stephanie McIlvain lied on the stand, but she’s maybe the best demonstration of just how important the moral courage of people like Andreu, O’Reilly and yes, even Hamilton were to the process.
It’s why Kimmage suing the UCI for fraud is the best shot we have of finding witnesses who can tell just what happened in Aigle. But we’re going to need more, better, witnesses than the likes of Julian Devries. You may recall that Devries told Kathy LeMond that Nike paid Verbruggen—not the UCI—$500,000 back in 2001 to make Armstrong’s 1999 positive for corticosteroids go Jimmy Hoffa. While I believe LeMond, this case needs a witness closer to the action than Devries.
When Floyd Landis first started spouting off about the corruption within the UCI his charges were long on vitriol and short on specifics. Sure, he was making charges, but he wasn’t doing a lot to tell us how he knew what he knew and what facts he’d seen to support his assertions. After all, the difference between saying “the UCI is corrupt” and “I saw a check for $500,000 drawn on Nike’s checking account and made out to Hein Verbruggen” is the difference between saying “guns can kill” and watching someone shoot your mother.
As important as the testimony from each of the eyewitnesses has been, we would not be in this position without a couple of crucial acts by Mr. Armstrong. There’s a strong causal link between Armstrong’s refusal to give Landis as spot on the RadioShack team and his downfall. That simple act of charity, something alleged to have been suggested to Armstrong by a few different people, would have reinvigorated Landis’ career and life. Could Armstrong have found room in his heart to mend a fence with Landis, there would never have been that legendary tete-a-tete with USADA. And had Landis never met with Jeff Novitzky and Travis Tygart, Tyler Hamilton would never have been deposed. Hamilton was as crucial a witness as USADA ever found. It’s safe to say that if Armstrong hadn’t dropped a dime on him (this is a charge alleged by Landis that I believe to be true), Hamilton’s career would have run its course, with him winning some more big races before sailing off into retirement with us none the wiser.
A portion of Armstrong’s downfall must be attributed to his Machiavellian ruthlessness. Ironic, eh?
In interviews with the media, many witnesses in the USADA investigation made a similar, if crucial, statement: They didn’t want to be talking to investigators, they didn’t want to be on the stand. Some of the riders snared in the investigation have been slagged doing what seemed obvious: telling the truth. Despite what some think, the testimony they gave wasn’t obvious or easy, and while some cycling fans still wonder just how much of what they told was the truth, there are a few details worth noting. First, the riders did have options. They could easily have lied. McIlvain certainly did, despite contradictory eyewitness testimony. Second, they could have remained silent per the Fifth Amendment. While we don’t know for sure, it seems likely that George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and the others were given immunity in exchange for their testimony. Any indication that they had lied to investigators would have nullified the agreement and opened them up to prosecution. Given the sheer number of witnesses, lying to investigators would have been a pretty significant risk, for a rider who lied would be facing charges for both doping and perjury.
A recent piece published by The New York Times pointed to Kayle Leogrande as the catalyst that set the investigation in motion that led to Armstrong’s downfall. The Times rarely ever gets the story wrong, but this is one of those occasions when they did. In calling him “pivotal” to the investigation, Ian Lovett missed the event that deserves remembering.
Lance Armstrong would still be (as he’s been called, occasionally ironically) “the cancer Jesus,” were it not for the efforts of Suzanne Sonye. Sonye is a former professional rider for the Saturn team who worked as a soigneur for Michael Ball’s Rock Racing squad. It was Sonye Leogrande confided in when he feared he was going to test positive following a urine test. Sonye then did the unheard-of: She reported Leogrande’s doping of her own volition.
In a recent phone interview Sonye said, “When he told me [that he might test positive] it was number one, ‘Oh my God! He’s dirty!’ and number two, ‘He can’t race.’ I knew he was going to race the national championships and this was something that was definitely going to affect his performance.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I let this go. It made me sick to my stomach. It was wrong on so many levels I couldn’t let it go.”
Sonye reported him to team management, including Ball.
“When I realized Michael Ball wasn’t going to do anything, I knew I needed to call USADA. I had to call USADA twice. The first time they didn’t respond. The second time I said I had first-hand information about a doping violation. I thought Michael Ball would do the right thing; so did Frankie [Andreu, then the team director], but he didn’t. To his credit, Travis Tygart called me back right away.
“At first I couldn’t decide if I would do it anonymously … it was hard to do because I liked Kayle, but I couldn’t not do it.
What makes Sonye unique among everyone in the Armstrong debacle is that she took action for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. She wasn’t compelled by a subpoena or enticed by an outside entity (such as a newspaper or magazine). She had nothing to gain; self-interest was a motivation that would have steered her away from reporting Leogrande.
For Sonye, the choice was as simple as it was unavoidable.
“I was on the number-one cycling team in the world and I didn’t choose to put a needle in my arm.”
Leogrande would go on to sue Sonye for defamation, and while he lost the suit (and wound up having to pay her legal bills because the lawsuit was deemed a SLAPP), the stress it put her through upended her life.
“I’d been on antidepressants and they were awful for me. I had a nervous breakdown. I went to the hospital for five days. My doctor took me off everything, then I was switched to a really low dose of a mood stabilizer for four or five months. When I came out, I was beaten. I thought, ‘I can’t beat this.’ Eventually I realized, ‘Fuck that, this guy is going down.’ It took two years.
“The mental stress I went through I can never get back. The drain on me, what it took from my life, was enormous.”
The debt cycling owes Sonye for being honest, for acting on her conscience, can never be repaid; there’s no way to make that suffering go away. The least we can do is recognize her for being the person without which Lance Armstrong would be competing as a professional triathlete.
Image: Danny Munson, Cycling Illustrated
When Paul Kimmage’s book “Rough Ride” came out in 1991 the story he told was one that not many people wanted to hear. It was a reality of cycling to which many of us were unaware. Indeed, many of us would have preferred to keep it that way. The story he wove was one few were clamoring to hear, one that contained truths many of us had never guessed, truths that were at odds with what we believed cycling was at minimum, what cycling should be at worst.
When Kimmage was ostracized from most of the cycling world, few who had taken the time to read the book could have been surprised. Not only was his story a shocking one, it was bitter and left little room for nuanced responses. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have danced a diplomatic waltz that backed him up while not simultaneously giving the finger to the entire peloton. He was in a no-win situation, one that has sealed his fate as less a journalist than an antagonist because his work so rarely contains anything approaching compassion. Journalists live and die by friends; you may call them contacts or sources, but to those who ply the trade, one always thinks of making friends.
“Rough Ride” could be summed up as the first survey of an iceberg. Like those early Lewis and Clark maps that look familiar but clearly lack the precise reflection of satellite photographs, Kimmage came to us and announced that most of the iceberg was underwater, that there was—incredibly—twice the ice below the waterline as above it. His was as fantastic a tale as we’d heard.
Yet his was a necessary initial step. First into the breach. Without him leading the charge, shattering myths, we’d think of Tyler Hamilton’s and Daniel Coyle’s “The Secret Race” (Bantam, $28) as one elaborate delusion. But Hamilton and Coyle have undertaken as specific a survey of an iceberg as we’ve seen. This is National Geographic: photos, measurements, months spent in sea ice. It’s one thing to claim a two-bit domestique is full of shit; harder to do when it’s someone who reached the top.
That the book is meticulously researched is unsurprising, at least to me. I’ve been reading (and respecting) Coyle’s work since I first read him in Outside Magazine in the 1990s. His work thorough, his storytelling perfectly paced—efficient and brief when necessary, while rich and layered when things get heavy. If Jeff Novitzky and Travis Tygart are storming the bastille, Hamilton has taken Coyle in the back entrance, showed him where everything is kept: sleeping quarters here, provisions here, armory and magazine there.
While the book is as compelling a read as can be found in cycling, one must embark with a taste for tragedy. I was reminded of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News.”
Of course, many readers will find exactly what they seek. People who believe that dopers should be chased from the sport with pitchforks will find the yard-sale of Hamilton’s personal life satisfying rather than heart-rending. Lance’s would-be lynch mob will find even more reason to want him eviscerated as publicly as possible. Those who don’t like Armstrong are unlikely to wince at Hamilton’s most compassionate insights into him, his motivations. Armstrong’s still legions of fans are unlikely to read the book, which will make for an unfortunate miss in potential sales, and even bigger miss in dispensing reality.
Hamilton and Coyle perceptively call out the incident that ultimately leads to the investigation culminating in Armstrong’s downfall. It is, of course, Floyd Landis’ email to USA Cycling, the confession that was called everything short of J.R.R. Tolkein’s greatest fantasy. They point out how the entire investigation would never have taken place had Armstrong possessed the charity to give Landis a spot on his team. Simply mend a fence.
However, I think the more telling event took place a few years before, an event few of us could ever have guessed. The scrutiny that resulted in Hamilton’s positive tests that destroyed his career came as a result of a tip, a tip allegedly given to the UCI by Armstrong. One can infer that no length was too great in Armstrong’s mind, no effort too outlandish, not when defeating an opponent was at stake. For me, that felt like a real turning point for Armstrong, a selling out of the omerta in the most cynical way possible.
This book weighs on me. It has infected my dreams, putting me in rooms with Hamilton and Armstrong, their sponsors, causing bicycles to float through my nights, and resulting in mornings that lack the refreshed satisfaction of a night’s rest. The question on my mind is that after cycling is burned down in the United States, what, if anything, will come in Europe. Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid have been less leaders than shopkeepers. They are the competent employees left to mind the store while the owner runs to the bank. The problem: There’s no owner. No one has taken responsibility for the mess the sport is in and perhaps the one thing everyone can agree upon is that the UCI has done a terrible job of governing. McQuaid can’t be trusted to get the reform accomplished that cycling desperately needs if only for a simple reason—it’s virtually impossible to amputate yourself.
Hamilton cheated and lied about cheating. He sinned against cycling. There’s no getting around that. But in as much as anyone can ever repent a sin, “The Secret Race” makes amends by taking responsibility for his part and giving up everything he knows. He’s done his time, served his sentence. As a culture we profess to stand against cruel and unusual punishment. I can’t say I believe the punishment fit the crime, not when you consider the way we punish violent crimes, white-collar crimes.
Hamilton has done more to expose cycling’s flaws than all the anti-doping crusaders combined. From the way the book closes, it sounds like he wants little to do with cycling other than his coaching business and something in that makes my heart ache for him. He is our Prodigal Son. I’d like to think that he’s got more to contribute to this sport, something positive. If I had an olive branch—a job—I’d extend it; somehow “thanks” and “I’m sorry for your loss” don’t seem enough. This may be the most important book ever written on cycling.
Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.
This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.
Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.
At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”
In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.
In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.
Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.
USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.
Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.
Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.
Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.
Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.
In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.
The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.
One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”
If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I don’t really want to talk about doping in the way that we normally do, debating the merits of lifetime bans or declaring open season for all illicit products, slicing and dicing the moral code riders ought to ascribe to. We’ve done that.
I don’t have the answer to the problem anymore than anyone else does, not Paul Kimmage or Michael Ashenden or Anne Gripper or Andrea Schenk. We, most of us, feel passionately about clean sport, and those who don’t mostly cast themselves of too practical a mindset. Humans will cheat, they argue, and may well be correct.
All of that aside, I have found it interesting over the last few weeks to see dominoes begin to fall across the top level of the sport. Yes, USADA sanctioned Lance Armstrong after he chose not to defend himself against their allegations. The UCI struggled to strike the right tone in response. The whole structure of the sport began to shift.
Tyler Hamilton has a book coming out, which details much of what happened in his own somewhat tragic career, and that implicates himself, many former teammates and major players in the management of the sport at both team level and within the UCI.
One event that shocked me this week was Jonathan Vaughters going on the Cycling News forums and outing some of his riders as former dopers, including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given his own recent confession in the New York Times, but the timing and venue seemed suspect. Were the riders aware he was going to spill the beans?
Is this just where we are in the process of truth telling? Suddenly everyone is talking.
You expect this from characters like Jorg Jaksche, Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni, but we’ve moved into some new territory with recent statements from Johann Museeuw and Sylvia Schenk. Given all the recent information flooding into the open, journalists are turning up the heat on figures like Bjarne Riis, who has confessed his own transgressions as a rider, but has left, perhaps, too much still unsaid.
People are speaking out. More people are asking hard questions like, is the UCI even capable of cleaning up the sport? It is one thing for fans and marginalized journalists to say these things. It is another entirely for people like Schenk, once a member of the UCI management committee and Museeuw, a respected rider from the EPO era, to say them. Now the questions and confessions are coming from the inside. People are emboldened. The calculus is changing. But is it changing enough?
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Have we finally reached the watershed moment in confronting cycling’s doping history? Or is this just a strange conflagration of events, more stumbles down the wrong path, toward the status quo?