If you had asked me where the Willunga Hill was five years ago, I’d have probably guessed New Jersey. Now I know the aforementioned topography can be found in Australia, and serves as the major climbing obstacle in the Tour Down Under, the January kick off to the pro-cycling season.
The TDU hits the Willunga Hill tomorrow and wraps up on Sunday with a circuit around Adelaide.
Shortly, the world’s top pros, the lion’s share of them Europeans, will battle head winds and dash for finish lines in Qatar. They’ll move on to Oman after that.
There is a reason to this globe-trotting rhyme having to do with climate, sponsorship and expansion of the cycling brand. While some small races (Etoile Besseges, Challenge Mallorca, et. al.) do stud the late winter calendar in Europe, the UCI has sought to jump start its season by traveling to the weather. In this context, Australia, Qatar and Oman make a lot of sense as venues.
Further, deep pocketed sponsors in those countries want pro racing. Qatar, in particular, is forcing itself into the international sporting scene, not only hosting an annual, but also securing the football World Cup for 2022. The UCI, in pursuing a more global strategy to growing the sport, are understandably happy to sanction big bike races for big money in small, wealthy nations.
But while the Tour Down Under stokes the fire of sporting passion in Australia and the burgeoning presence of Aussie riders in the pro peloton, one has to question the strategy behind events in the Middle East. With exactly zero representation on the ProTeams, Qatar and Oman are not exactly hot beds of cycling passion. Race video shows long straight stretches of dusty roadway occasionally dotted by small bands of curious onlookers.
Other than cash and carry commerce, what is the real point?
The Tour of Beijing this fall highlighted the profit-centered strategy of the UCI in stark detail. Many top teams were reluctant to participate but were then seemingly strong-armed into showing up by UCI head Pat McQuaid, who wrote a memo threatening the sponsorships of teams who failed to toe the line. The Tour of Beijing is put on by Global Cycling Productions, a for profit organization that lives within the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland and staffed by senior UCI officials.
Over the last two years the UCI has been assailed from most quarters, criticized for their stewardship of the sport in the areas of doping control, equipment standards and rider safety.
This week’s Group Ride examines the nature of globalization, its positives and negatives. Few would argue against the good of expanding cycling to a global audience, but is simply following the money the best way to do that? Without connecting top level races to roots level organizations, is the UCI actually succeeding in making cycling more popular? Or do you see the shift of the race calendar out of Europe as simply a dilution of the cycling brand, designed to enrich the governing body? What are the positives and negatives to this new paradigm?
Image: CJ Farquharson, Photosport International
“The body or the face?” the loan shark’s muscle asks, a droll query from a guy with a square jaw and a fist like a cinder block. The clear implication is that, no matter the choice, it’s gonna hurt. A good outcome is no longer an option.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the place sports’ governing bodies go to when they’ve failed to govern effectively, might as well be giving pro cycling a choice between the body or the face right now. With a verdict coming in the appeal of Alberto Contador’s non-sanction for Clenbuterol doping, it’s important to recognize that, no matter the outcome, cycling’s gonna take a haymaker.
The 30 second version of the story is this: Alberto Contador tested positive for Clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France. The Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) opted not to suspend him. The UCI and WADA appealed that decision to CAS based on the WADA code of strict liability, i.e. that the athlete is 100% responsible for what goes into his or her body. Simply stated, if there’s dope, they doped.
Let’s not go any deeper into this case and it’s details than that. The details and the extremely long timeline of events only serve to obscure the underlying truths here. (If you need to play catch up, Padraig has written about the case extensively here, here and here.)
CAS is going to do one of two things. They’re going to uphold RFEC’s non-sanction of the rider, or they’re going to impose the standard two-year suspension that every other rider who’s tested positive has received. The body or the face.
If CAS decides that strict liability doesn’t pertain to Contador’s case, then a long list of suspended riders are going to have a serious grievance against the UCI. Think of Tom Zirbel or Fuyu Li, for example. Neither of those riders ingested a substance that anyone would argue helped them to win races, but they both served their suspensions. Strict liability, morally nettlesome as it may be, has been the law, so the possibility of CAS somehow striking it from the books, at least from a judicial point of view, will be bad for pro cycling. If an “I didn’t mean for it to be in my body” defense is allowed to stand, it then becomes open season, not just for Clenbuterol positives, but for any adverse analytical finding that might be attributed to contamination.
If, on the other hand, CAS follows precedent and suspends Contador, then we’ll have to vacate the results of two Grand Tours, the 2010 Tour and the 2011 Giro, not to mention a whole host of individual stages and smaller, albeit not-insignificant, races. There will be history books to correct, riders to promote, prize money to redistribute, legends to be recast. Because of the stature of the rider, the damage to the sport will be massive, complicated and long-term. The sport’s reputation, which already sucks, will get worse. Sponsorships will be affected. People not named Contador will lose money and opportunities.
There is a third way, I suppose. The CAS could take a hybrid approach, crafting a sanction for Contador that takes into account the minute amount of Clenbuterol that appeared in his system, but still pays some respect to the strict liability rule. Quite what that would be is hard to imagine, and if not a full blow to head or gut, still a stinger for a sport already on the ropes.
In fact, news out of Paris this week suggests that the CAS is not confining itself to issues of strict liability, that a partial examination of Contador’s tainted beef excuse IS being aired, and that the levels of Clenbuterol, minute by all accounts, are playing in front of the tribunal. If the CAS only concerns itself with the amount of the substance and its net effect, rather than possible reasons for its presence, we are likely headed for acquittal and all the fallout such a verdict will cause.
After all, these are the issues that have been examined ad absurdem by the UCI, WADA and RFEC over the last two years. “Did he dope?” is a different question than, “Did the doping help him win?” None of the answers are good ones.
The Contador case, as most in modern professional cycling, has gone on and on and on. The temptation to see the CAS verdict as a resolution is strong, but given the possible outcomes on the table, we should expect this mess to continue on for years to come. Shortly, we should know what the consequences are for Contador. The body or the face. But pro cycling is a long way from paying its debt to this particular loan shark.
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To follow professional cycling in Europe is to be familiar with the machinations of the UCI. The organization’s attempts to do more than just administer the sport, but to, in effect, control the sport have resulted in more disenfranchised stakeholders than you’ll find in an oil spill.
Normally, you’d expect to find an organization with skewed priorities playing favorites. Not so with the UCI. They’ve managed to upset the riders. They’ve upset the race organizers. They’ve upset the teams. One could be forgiven for surmising that even the IOC has their issues with them, once behind closed doors.
Earlier this year Johan Bruyneel made some noise about starting a breakaway organization to replace the UCI. Pat McQuaid responded with his typical bluster.
What McQuaid may not know, and what I can say from first-hand knowledge, is that an investigation has already been undertaken into the requirements necessary to start a new governing body for cycling. The UCI is in people’s cross hairs. Why? Because the accusations that the organization is corrupt and doesn’t have the sport’s best interests at heart have legs.
Just this week Inner Ring reported that letters went out to team sponsors detailing the problems they would have trying to conduct business in China, should the teams they sponsored not show up for the Tour of Beijing. Forget for a moment that McQuaid intimated that the teams themselves would have problems getting their licenses renewed. That’s a pretty standard shakedown. What’s truly disturbing is the mob-style intimidation of suggesting that it will be difficult for the sponsor to do business in China should the team not show. After all, one wouldn’t want to insult the Chinese government, would one?
Ladies and gentlemen, that is good, old-fashioned blackmail. I’m no lawyer, but I play one in the bathtub and around my low-stakes soap dish that constitutes a felony.
The standoff began with the conflict over race radios. Bruyneel, Jonathan Vaughters and several other team managers considered using a boycott of the Tour of Beijing as way to take a stand on race radios. There was another, better reason to boycott the race, a reason still in place: Because the UCI organizes the race, their financial stake in the race constitutes a conflict of interest. As soon as the UCI begins promoting races for profit, races that can conflict on the calendar with other ProTeam events, such as Paris-Tours, then they become a competitor to those race organizers. What’s to stop them from organizing events in other parts of the world in July to undermine the ability of a team to send its A-squad to the Tour de France?
And now we find out that the UCI killed blood tests during the Amgen Tour of California.
Folks, if we can’t count on the UCI to carry out in-competition blood-tests at major races, we might as well take the gloves off and stop pretending that we’re trying to clean up the sport. Let’s just hold all the races in Las Vegas, hand out testosterone patches like jugs of Gatorade and educate the odds-makers on how to handicap a bike race.
When the day comes that McQuaid is ousted from the UCI, he’ll be able to find instant work with a certain family known for running most of Boston. He’d be right at home in Charlestown. I can here him now: “Hey, that’s a real pretty car you got there. It would be such a shame if something was to happen to it. If you want, for a small fee, I could watch it for you, make sure nothing happens while you’re gone.”
The question today is whether anything can be done to reign in the UCI, or what can be done to oust Pat McQuaid. We can’t trust the UCI to act in the sport’s best interest, so we must ask what can be done to resolve their negative impact on the sport.
For reasons unknown, this past Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on crashes in pro racing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this year’s Tour ended. Mostly because the reasons that most proffer don’t really explain what’s going on.
The Times article is here.
The biggest problem of all is that we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, and the Times is no different. The reporter gathered his anecdotes and offered them up. Ten deaths since 1995, though few mentioned because, they apparently aren’t worth mentioning. Thankfully, he does point out that no one is investigating. Seems to me that this is a matter for the UCI and the professional rider’s union (CPA) to investigate, but he doesn’t ask Pat McQuaid, nor CPA chief Gianni Bugno what they’re doing about it.
If racing my bike was my job, I’d want them investigating. At the very least, maybe an investigation of the reported crashes at the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. The three big stage races. Maybe looking at them can help point to things that might merit further research.
With the Tour, the biggest cycling stage in the world, every team has an incentive to ride aggressively, everyone wants an opportunity to get in front of the camera, everyone wants a dig at a stage win, just about every racer is probably thinking, no matter what their assignment is, if they just do one more thing, they might be able to score yellow, just for a day, and it won’t derail their team leader’s chances at his stated goal. Seems like a recipe for lots of crashes.
Stakes are highest for most riders and teams at the Tour, no doubt. But there are big crashes at the Vuelta and Giro as well, and they often take out a favorite, or two. And every year, there are crashes at the Tour, and crashes at every race. Every year at the Tour, and other big races, favorites are either caught up in the crashes and drop out or are caught behind them and are knocked out of contention before the critical stages or sectors begin. We’re not always paying attention in other races. But somehow, this year seemed different. There were lots of explanations; the most interesting I read was a cleaner peloton is both more evenly matched and more fatigued.
Maybe more evenly-matched causes some problems, but more fatigued I find hard to believe. It strikes me that such a comment assumes that every last cyclist was doping, because otherwise, the clean cyclists would probably have been more fatigued ten or fifteen years ago than they are now. Even if every last cyclist was doping, there is plenty of evidence that there are both high-responders and low-responders to doping products, EPO in particular, and the low-responders would presumable be at a greater disadvantage than they are today, assuming a cleaner peloton.
I think it’s safe to rule out road conditions as being a big problem, as road conditions are generally better today than they were in the past. I also think it’s safe to rule out “road furniture” on the transitions in and out of towns for most crashes. I know the road furniture theory is a popular one, and the awful Craig Lewis-Marco Pinotti crash at this year’s Giro has been attributed to road furniture, but even their crash deserves at least a little questioning. Was there any footage of it? I couldn’t find any. Maybe road furniture is responsible, but maybe it was just what they hit and the cause was something else. Maybe the crash would have been worse had it not been for the road furniture. I have no reason to doubt either person’s sincerity, but unless we have a better idea of what happened it seems premature to assign blame.
To me, another strike against the road furniture theory is that at this year’s crash-ridden Tour, it didn’t seem like any crashes were the result of road furniture; most of the heavily-reported crashes seemed to have happened on straight roads or in the mountains. There’s also evidence that the Tour and other big races work with local governments to remove some traffic circles and speed bumps where they think their removal will improve safety. I noticed what appeared to be traffic circle modifications during the World Championships as well. I think it’s safe to rule out narrow roads, as not only were wider roads once seen as a culprit, but narrow roads were once all the peloton used.
I’d like to offer up a few alternative explanations to the common cries.
It’s possible that crashes are as common as they’ve always been, but that broken bones are more common today than they used to be, making the crashes more serious and more frequently race-ending. As such, I think one potential culprit is osteopenia. If you haven’t heard of it, consider it osteoporosis lite: bone mineral density is lower than normal. I think it should be considered a factor in all crashes where bone breakage occurs, whether it is in training or racing. Anecdotally, there seem to be more and more stories about guys breaking bones in training crashes the past several years. Even “normal” cyclists can have reduced bone density as a result of all the miles they put in, so a Tour rider, particularly a climber who has meticulously starved himself down to his ideal race weight, probably has thinned his bones beyond what the average mileage-hound has done. I heard physiologist Allen Lim discussing hearing about crashes and thinking that every crash has the potential to break bones during a Grand Tour. When I put it to Dr. Michael Ross, a former team doctor, he unhesitatingly said, “yes.” It also could be a sign of cortico-steroid abuse, something Dr. Ross pointed out, as the result is same. Yes, these guys are racing hard, yes, they’re going fast, yes, they’re hitting the ground hard, but looking at how emaciated riders like Brad Wiggins and Chris Horner are at their Tour weight, I have to imagine their bodies catabolized bone matter to keep going. It strikes me as an evolutionary strategy that certainly helped early humans survive famines, but it also could be how crashes are breaking collarbones, ribs, pelvises, wrists, hips, and so on. For all the discussion about injuries resulting from race crashes, lots of guys seem to be breaking bones training; Dutch rider Robert Gesink had his season ended for him shortly before the World Championships when he fractured his leg while out training.
Some have suggested the culprit could be the machine itself. The bikes don’t seem to be the problem as catastrophic failures from normal riding have largely disappeared, and it’s hard to believe that a bike breaking after hitting the ground is injuring riders. Others point to stiffer wheels and too-light bikes, but I doubt those lines of thinking. I’ve seen little evidence that wheels are vertically stiffer than they used to be, which would be where the problem would lie in straight-line crashes. Tires are just about the same today as they were 25 years ago, and bikes still flex and tire pressure can be adjusted to account for stiffness. Steve Tilford speculated on his blog that some of the sketchy downhill riding was due to racers not training on their race wheels. He may be right. But I think the problem might extend to all racing. Not all carbon-fiber braking surfaces brake equally well. Some are grabby, some pulse, some give the unsettling feeing they’re not slowing down, even in the dry, some work fine in the dry but are questionable in the wet. Most pros can only ride the wheels they sponsors want them to ride, so they could be stuck between taking the risk of crashing or taking the risk of getting dropped more easily. I think many amateur racers would take the same risk, at least in the dry. People might suggest disc brakes, but I even with discs, tire traction, or lack thereof, will be a problem in the wet.
Another potential culprit is the training schedules of racers. At one time, pros probably raced much, much more before showing up to the Tour—the Tour came after both the Vuelta and the Giro and racers typically raced from February into June with smaller training blocs in between. Yes, they might not have been as fast as racers today, their training and nutrition wasn’t as precise, but by racing, they were training themselves to be more skilled in the peloton. And now the peloton is bigger. Riding in a pack takes skill, a skill that is honed by practice, unless there are some Wii games I don’t know about. Some weekend warriors in the US race more than Tour contenders between the start of their season and the Tour. Consider that this year, Chris Horner didn’t race at all between his victory at the Tour of California in May and the start of the Tour. Alberto Contador didn’t race at all between his Giro victory and the Spanish nationals, where he raced the time trial and road race, and then came to the Tour.
Or maybe the converse is true. Cadel Evans barely raced all spring and seemed to be able to race his few races with no crashing issues, though his preference is to race at the front. Maybe the pack as a whole are better bike handlers today and more comfortable riding closer to one another which makes it easier to crash several riders at once when one thing goes wrong.
The biggest issue is probably randomness, volume, and the nature of riding in the peloton. Just take an assembled group of cyclists, 189 riders is 21 teams worth, and have them ride an average of 100 miles a day for three weeks. Even if they were all riding solo, there would be crashes. Knowing how many riders go down in training and how frequently would be interesting to know, and something to compare to all the race crashes.
Some point to the packs being bigger as a culprit in crashes. There could be something to this, though the phenomenon of large fields began in 1986 when 210 riders started. And this time probably is when the super-large fields started occurring at the top races throughout cycling. Previous to this, it seems that races were in the range of 30-50% smaller and largely composed of teams racing in their home country—the Tour with French riders on French teams, the Vuelta with Spanish riders, the Giro with Italian and so on.
For riders, racing is their job and they owe it to themselves to demand research to determine what the real issues and culprits are. At the same time, they probably shouldn’t push for any changes until serious research is done. As a response to the extreme length of the 1987 Tour (22 teams of nine riders apiece riding 25 stages totaling 4231km), there was a movement to standardize the lengths of Grand Tours and shorten stages. This was seen as doing, among other things, reducing the incentive to dope. We know how that worked out.
Race radios are sure to come up as a safety thing. There’s no easy answer with them. Yes, directors can alert their riders to dangers up ahead, but there are downsides to trusting the voice in your ear. What if the director is wrong? What if riders interpret silence to mean everything is safe ahead? When hard helmets were first mandated by the USCF in the 1986, there was an argument that people would take more risks because they knew their head was safe. That never made sense. But I read a story about Erik Zabel’s role for the HTC-Highroad team. Supposedly he’d preview the stage finish and then relay what he saw to the team car, and Ralf Aldag or Brian Holm would then tell the riders. He apparently saw a turn that looked tricky but was convinced the leadout train could take it without braking. Hincapie lead through, didn’t touch his brakes, and Cavendish won the stage. Did this make for safer racing? The first guys made it through and probably so did the entire field. But what if he had been wrong? Is it good for the riders to trust such judgements?
It’s situations like these when I’m glad I’m not a pro bike racer. But it also makes me wonder how safe conditions are for all bike racing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
So HTC-Highroad is no more. Technically, that’s not quite accurate; the team will come to an end with the close of this season. But it feels like the team might as well be mothballed now. Any wins that come will carry a certain lame duck pointlessness as they won’t have the ability to attract a sponsor or serve as confirmation that an incoming sponsor made a good choice.
How bad is Bob Stapleton’s inability to find a new title sponsor for his program? It’s the worst thing that will happen to cycling this year, perhaps for years to come. Here’s why: There’s not a single doping revelation that can confirm potential sponsors’ worst fears about the sport the way the dissolution of this team does.
We’ve already had the Tour de France champion test positive twice in the last five years. Stapleton’s failure to secure a sponsor is directly due to that. In a conference call with journalists, Stapleton admitted that doping scandals were a topic of conversation in “every negotiation.”
Compounding matters was Stapleton’s refusal to be confined to irrelevance by racing on a shrunken budget while battling Sky and Katusha—teams that each have an estimated annual budget of $20 million. After all, if part of your raison d’etre is to lead the sport into a new, cleaner era characterized by better management, you can’t do that from the back of the bus.
The end of HTC-Highroad is the corollary to the Leopard-Trek dilemma. It proves (at least for the court of public opinion) that doping is what prevented Brian Nygaard’s formation from landing a real title sponsor (or co-sponsor, for that matter). Worse, the fact that Katusha, Sky and Leopard are funded by ultra-rich businessmen who could use the tax write-off makes the sport that much less relevant. It could be argued that BMC is no better given that few people seem to believe that BMC is selling enough bikes that Andy Rihs could fund the team exclusively out of the operating capital of that one company.
If bicycle teams become the playthings of oligarchs, it will be hard to sell the public on the idea that the sport carries the moral mantle of doping-free athletic achievement. There is a general perception that billionaires play by a different set of rules than the rest of us, and the recent phone-hacking scandal in London that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and killed his play to become majority owner of bSkyb is all the proof many people need to come to the conclusion that cycling lacks a moral compass. After all, if Murdoch’s businesses will run roughshod over the most basic elements of privacy, why would anyone think his cycling team is any more ethical?
I’ve met a number of principled people in cycling. I’ve met plenty of truly ethical people in the sport as well. I don’t think I’ve ever met a smarter, more decent person in cycling than Bob Stapleton. I’ve met no one with higher aspirations for helping the sport to function in a cleaner, more transparent manner—in other words, to be its best—than Stapleton. He brought credibility that simply can’t be purchased elsewhere and served as the ever-reasonable counterbalance to the ill-considered pronouncements of the UCI. He was a sort of sanity constant.
As I mentioned before, losing Stapleton and his team isn’t just the worst thing that will happen in cycling this year. It’s the worst thing that will happen in cycling for years to come. If the sport can’t keep a man universally respected and admired, then it will be no better than the cesspool of politics because it may only draw people we’d rather not have dinner with, figures like Bernard “Dr. Mabuse” Sainz.
Sainz’ nickname comes from the Fritz Lang film of the same name. The film was a commentary on post World War I German society, a time of amoral criminality. Dr. Mabuse, “the gambler,” was a megalomaniac who ruled—via hypnosis—an organized crime syndicate of counterfeiters, thieves and murderers. I can’t think of an uglier thing for cycling to be compared.
We’ve lived through that once, or something thereabouts. If the riders don’t get the idea that they need to clean up their acts, there won’t be a sport left to employ them. But we can’t place all the responsibility on the riders. The UCI has an obligation to make sure that testing is performed in a rigorous manner and justice handed out promptly and equally. Until John Q. Public sense we’ve turned that corner, it will be hard to attract leaders like Stapleton and sponsors like HTC.
By the time 60 Minutes aired Sunday night, I had digested every element of the show I could in advance. I’d parsed quote upon quote and laughed at Lance Armstrong’s attempts to discredit the single most storied broadcast news magazine on the planet.
As the fader brought up the iconic sound of the stopwatch ticking, I leaned forward in my chair and waited. While I knew what I would see in broad strokes, I hoped for two things. First, I wanted to see Tyler Hamilton’s demeanor. Was he contrite? Was he conflicted? Was he vengeful? Second, I wondered if I might hear anything that would surprise me.
Different people saw different things as they watched Hamilton unfold the events of his past. What I saw was a guy who was uncomfortable in front of the camera, uncomfortable telling what he knew. And while I perceived remorse, I saw a man in depression, a man in pain over all he had lost.
I was uncomfortable watching him.
Part of my discomfort stemmed from old anger. Hamilton had represented the best cycling had to offer. He was educated, decent and—we all thought—clean. When he went down he took a number of people with him. People placed faith in him and had all but mortgaged the farm to help him succeed and track that success. He was the anti-Lance and in 2003 we thought we had found in him a story of extraordinary courage and determination. His was a story to rival Lance’s, in part, because he was so polite, so self-effacing.
Most of my discomfort stemmed from wondering just how much punishment is enough. He’s lost everything he built in his career, but he wasn’t doped for the whole of his career. Is that just? And the interview barely glanced at his career-ending positive test for DHEA. I have to ask, Do we really know the full story about him taking DHEA? How could he be so stupid as to take a banned substance as his sole recourse to depression? I struggle with that explanation, but that’s a minor point. The larger question is how much punishment is enough? After stripping a rider of success, should he also be stripped of a future?
Back to that interview: I’ve heard people assess it as a tired re-hash of the accusations we’ve heard against Armstrong for years. It wasn’t. Hamilton made two surprising statements. His first was that he actually saw Armstrong use performance-enhancing drugs. No one has made that claim previously. He second was that his team management worked with the UCI to cover up a positive drug test at the 2001 Tour de Suisse. Armstrong made “donations” to the UCI and the cycling public never heard a word.
For those of you who doubt Hamilton’s ability to tell the truth—any truth—remember, this nugget has been corroborated by the anonymous source 60 Minutes spoke with for the story. The source revealed that the FBI took a sworn deposition from the director of the lab that tested Armstrong’s sample. The lab director said he met with Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel and was informed by the UCI the positive result was to be reported nowhere.
These weren’t garden-variety accusations.
Forgiving riders who doped has nothing to do with justifying their behavior and everything to do with finding out what they took, what they know, the methods they used. We must learn the best doping techniques out there if we are to defeat them in the future. And if unemployment is guaranteed, a rider, coach or whoever has zero incentive to reveal what they know. We shouldn’t tolerate repeated infractions (Riccardo Ricco, anyone?) but the silence of the offenders does us no good.
I used to think of doped riders as broken people, whether the deficit is narcissism, insecurity or sociopathy, they were people who need help. After watching one doping case after another unfold, I have come to believe that most of the athletes who turn to performance enhancing drugs do so out of a sense of coercion. Even though they may be incorrect, they believe the rest of the peloton is on the stuff, so they enter the practice.
My personal life has been punctuated with relationships too torn to rescue. Forgiveness has, at times, been an act of kindness too great for me to summon. But I struggle with that. I know that every religion on the planet and nearly every constitution regards forgiveness and redemption as a central tenet. Hell, half of the reality shows are built around people recovering their humanity after some fall from grace. We obviously love to forgive people.
It’s easy to condemn Hamilton. Too easy. Let’s listen to him. And let’s not abandon him; down that road lay the fallen. Their graves bear names like Pantani, Jimenez.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last week several media outlets carried an open letter that UCI President Pat McQuaid wrote to the union of professional cyclists, the CPA. Published on the UCI’s site as well as VeloNews, McQuaid explained the problems with riders’ desire to use radios and how the riders’ voices have been heard.
He did this in a sprawling, at times rambling, nearly 2000-word letter. His bottom line came less than 400 words in the letter, effectively eliminating the need for three-quarters of his communiqué. So why are radios banned and why is the point beyond negotiation? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look a bit at the document he drafted.
In McQuaid’s opening sentence he previews what I’ll go ahead and call a bit of cowardice. He says, “The discussions are heated….” How about give us a simple declarative statement. We know where the discussions stand. We don’t need him to set the scene. He should tell us something of his views and not passively. Take a stand. How about instead of “That is why I feel it is necessary to address you collectively to try to clarify some points in the debate that is unfortunately no longer calm and constructive.” just write, “I write to you today to clarify the UCI’s decision to ban race radios.”
McQuaid refers to the “progressive banning of earpieces”; just how he uses the modifier “progressive” is a bit of a mystery. Is he saying that the decision marks a progressive improvement in the sport, or is he referring to the fact that the ban wasn’t enacted all at once. Similarly, he states the debate is “no longer calm and constructive.” I’m not sure who he has been listening to, but points made by AIGCP President Jonathan Vaughters have been in my reading both respectful and entirely rational.
He ratchets up the rhetoric congratulating “most of you” for the ability to “up until now … remain reasonable.” By not calling out just who isn’t “remaining reasonable” he casts a broad net, damning many with his faint praise.
The letter is plagued with a series of undefined referents. The next one that troubled me was, “our sport has been susceptible to wide criticism.” Um, who are we discussing? Are we discussing stakeholders within the sport, or people outside the sport? I define stakeholders as riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, equipment manufacturers, governing bodies and even fans. If we’re discussing “wide criticism” from within, define which stakeholder is leveling the criticism. If it’s from outside anyone we define as a stakeholder, who gives a shit? Obviously it’s unwise to govern the sport in a way that alienates potential sponsors, but if you don’t have any skin in the game, why should we care what you think?
Further confounding the reader’s search for clarity he refers to “this attitude.” Just what attitude is that? I’m guessing it’s the one that leveled “wide criticism,” but we have no idea who was doing the criticizing or just what that criticizing was. That said, he uses this vague reference to rhetorically wonder just what will set of the next conflict—presumably with the riders, though he doesn’t make that clear.
McQuaid finally reveals who the boogeyman in the race-radio ban scenario is: France Television. Apparently, executives at the network gave the UCI an ultimatum: get rid of radios or “television would be reduced.”
Where I come from this is colloquially referred to as blackmail.
Up until now we have all been led to believe that the decision to ban race radios was one made by the UCI and the UCI alone. Not only is this not the case, but McQuaid revealed a terrible weakness: He demonstrated that it is possible to blackmail the UCI and win, if what he says is true.
His next point concerns how German television (ARD and ZDF) have both dropped all cycling coverage because of doping. What he is attempting to do here is to draw an equivalency between race radios and doping. The logic goes: Doping caused two networks to drop cycling coverage. Less television coverage is bad; therefore doping is bad. Another network is threatening to drop cycling coverage because of race radios. Therefore race radios are bad. If race radios can do the same thing doping did—result in less cycling on television—then race radios are just as bad as doping.
People, I’m not making this up. McQuaid wants us to think of race radios as a no less a threat to cycling than doping.
Perhaps most disturbing is the second comparison he draws to doping. He writes,
“I would have preferred to leave doping out of this discussion, but I realise that I can’t resist pointing out a few facts on this subject …
“I don’t think that the riders are in the best position to remind us of the seriousness and the urgency of certain situations: if doping still exists, it’s is only because there are still riders who dope! And if it is true and undeniable that the habits of a large number of you have changed, it is also true that we are still confronted with a fairly high number of cases, which, despite the remarkable progress of our anti-doping results, means we are constantly in an environment of suspicion and tension faced with the public opinion.”
No one suggested he need refer to doping. There is no rational connection between the use of race radios and doping. By comparing the two, McQuaid unfairly paints many riders as dopers. Note his use of “large number” and “fairly high number.”
Just as insulting is his observation that the riders’ indignation, as evidenced by Jens Voigt’s and Grischa Niermann’s open letters, should be reserved for doping scandals. The suggestion here is that by not speaking out more forcefully when riders test positive they have somehow lost the right to complain.
McQuaid insists the UCI has listened to the riders, the teams, indeed anyone who believes race radios are helpful when he writes, “you have been falsely led to believe that the opinion of riders was never taken into consideration….”
What McQuaid and the whole of the UCI doesn’t understand is that riders don’t want a submission form for a newspaper-style letter to the editor. They want a seat at the table and a vote. When decisions are made about the competition they provide, they deserve a seat at the table and what is meant by a “voice” is a vote.
In short, a decision regarding race radios would be more easily viewed as democratic, and not unilateral, if each of the major stakeholders in the sport—riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, networks and governing bodies—had a vote.
I’m surprised that no one has drawn a comparison between the Boston Tea Party and the ban on race radios. While the race radio ban isn’t a tax, both conflicts arise from the same dissatisfaction—no voice in the affairs that most concern them. Until you have a vote, you don’t have a voice. Period.
Suppose the UCI said, “We have come to realize that the speeds of the races are too great. To reduce speeds we will limit professional riders to a maximum gear of 40×17 to preserve their health; we have also determined that a flat bar will give riders a better vantage to see road hazards, thereby cutting down on accidents. Both these changes will give fans a greater opportunity to see their heroes as they ride by.” Would it be reasonable to expect the riders to compete in Milan-San Remo knowing their average speed might only be 33kph, making the race a nine-hour affair. Such a decision would affect the riders (by changing the nature of the racing), equipment manufacturers (think of the changes to bikes), team directors (changes in strategy), networks (changes in airtime) and race organizers (the length of road closures). Do you think each of those stakeholders would simply accept such a change made by the UCI?
Even if you dislike race radios, and I’ll admit that I was ambivalent on them for a while, I expect you can agree that riders deserve to vote on any decision that concerns them.
For now, though, that desire, no matter how reasonable some of us think it is, will remain unattainable. McQuaid’s patrician attitude demonstrates that he has no intention of giving riders a seat at the table. No matter; he has undermined his own authority with this letter, showing he is unwilling to take responsibility for decisions, and susceptible to blackmail. Even if McQuaid isn’t listening to the CPA, the CPA is listening to him.
Cycling can survive without the UCI, but the UCI can’t survive without cyclists.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I want to wear less clothing. I don’t want to ride nude (insert your own saddle sore joke here), but about half of what was required this morning would be a delight. Today, there are bib knickers, baselayer, midlayer, windproof jersey, wind tights, under socks, wool oversocks, shoes and toe warmers. Two pairs of gloves. A skull cap and wool over hat. Oh, and a jacket.
To that end, I want some warmth; 40 degrees (F) will do. Not the 12 I encountered at ride time today. Just enough that my sweat won’t threaten hypothermia at a long traffic light. Let me not seem greedy. I need no langourous Bermudan heat. Just a temperature not expressed in negative degrees centigrade.
I want a lane. It need not be painted. It need only exist, a space between here and there in which to roll. A dry, flat substrate, bereft of ice, sand and salt. An unpocked surface, without the sand traps and water hazards of a PGA golf course.
I want time. Not the half hour I have to dash from kindergarten drop off to early work meeting. I want hours. Multiple. To roll and roll and roll. To purge my weary mind of its weariness. I want to ride up and out of the city, to where the smell of cow shit hangs in the air, to turn around at a coffee shop that also sells shotgun shells.
I want a champion. Not a litany of chemically-enhanced avatars. I want to watch races and forget there are rules. I want to un-know the names of UCI officials and blood-modifying serums. I want to read stories that contain no quotes from lawyers or PR reps.
Wanting is wishing, and wishing is dreaming. My roots, in the hills of mid-Wales and the cities of New England, have taught me not to dream too big. There comes a point where your subconscious sets the bar so high that real world disappointment is the only inevitable result. I want to be a better me, but I have given up on x-ray vision and the ability to fly.
I just want to ride.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In light of the reports regarding Alberto Contador’s imminent, one-year vacation, we’re thinking double extra hard about different ways to clean up the sport. The other day we discussed the need for greater decisiveness from the UCI and more draconian application of the rules.
Who really has the power in pro cycling? It’s an imprecise question. It yields some obtuse answer about the various parties involved, the UCI, the state federations, the Pro and Pro Continental teams, the sponsors and the race organizers. Assign percentages. Divide and debate.
A more precise question is: Where’s the money?
It is true that the UCI, federations, teams and sponsors all have an interest in clean racing, but it is also true that each of those stake holders has some motive for winning, regardless of the methods. The UCI needs champions in order to grow the sport. More than that, they need spectacle and drama. They need superhumanity. Obviously, doping scandals hurt their brand, but what weapons have they got? We’ve already talked about how ineffective their current approach has been, suspend and litigate.
The federations also want champions, riders from their countries standing atop podiums. They want clean athletes, but they only really need their athletes to be cleaner than the others. They also have no real power, just a smaller player in the suspend and litigate system.
The teams are the most compromised. They need to appear to be clean, but if they don’t win races, it doesn’t matter much whether they’re clean or dirty as a dormant coal mine. They lose sponsorship either way.
The sponsors have money, it’s true, but they’re in the same boat with the teams. They want the publicity that comes from winning races. They want a spot in the Tour caravan. Doping scandals may or may not hurt them. Festina reported selling more watches in the year following their team’s expulsion from the 1998 Tour.
That brings us to the race organizers. It brings us to the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO).
As most folks know, the ASO runs the Tour de France, the biggest cash cow in the sport. What they may not know is that they also own and/or operate the Tour of Qatar, Tour of Oman, Paris-Nice, Critérium International, Paris-Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Vuelta España, Tour de l’Avenir and Paris-Tours. In short, ASO is the gatekeeper. More than anyone else, they have the power.
So what if the ASO implemented its own anti-doping policy, some more clearly stated variation on what they do now. Yes, Tour director Christian Prudhomme has been sending the teams messages for years. Embarrass the Tour and you become persona non grata in France, in July. But the rules aren’t written, and they’re not hard or fast.
If the ASO made the simple policy of barring riders who had tested positive from competing in any other of their races, it would send a shock wave through the peloton. Gone would be David Millar, Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, et. al. It would be a loss, but it would be a tolerable one to get our sport back from middle pages of scandal-addicted newspapers.
Not being able to race in ASO races would decrease even the most talented rider’s value so significantly as to virtually end their careers. Am I really going to pay Vinokourov’s salary only to have him compete in the Giro and some subsection of the rest of the season? And what if Giro director Angelo Zomegnan buys into this approach? To borrow and phrase from another sport, game, set, match. Over.
I am sure that the deal hammered-out between the UCI and race organizers to guarantee selection to the biggest races for the entire list of ProTeams contains some provision for teams who harbor convicted dopers. I would argue that there is almost no way, under law, for the ASO to be compelled to allow the participation of riders whose presence might devalue their primary assets.
The ASO could make this happen. But will they?
Over the last decade, the ASO has acquired a number of big races, expanding their cycling portfolio to its current size, and glancing down the list you will see three of the seven spring classics, two of the three grand tours, the most prestigious one week stage race (Paris-Nice) and one of the big fall classics (Paris-Tours). How many more races would they need before they could effectively take cycling private, marginalize the UCI, and run their own show? It seems outlandish, but … outlandish is what cycling does, isn’t it? Perhaps it will take a paradigm shift like this, a breakaway if you will, to win the race against doping. Perhaps this is our last, best hope.
We saw this coming. Anyone who didn’t see a suspension looming for Alberto Contador probably didn’t think the worldwide real estate bubble would burst, that the summer of love would end or that drugs would continue to be a problem for cycling. The Spanish Cycling Federation really didn’t have many choices. Even though some media quotes suggest that certain members of the federation would have acted to protect Contador, it would have been suicidal for the federation to absolve him of any infraction.
Even if it was conclusively proven that a team of rogue ninjas mugged Contador, strapped him down and then placed a cookie jar over his hand, his hand was not allowed in the cookie jar under any circumstances. Strict liability. The rules really didn’t allow for another outcome.
American cyclist Scott Moninger mounted mounted the most rigorous defense ever presented to show that the presence of a banned substance in his body got there unintentionally. Moninger tested positive for 19-norandrosterone due to a tainted supplement. He bought up other containers of the dietary supplement and had them tested to demonstrate how the substance entered his body. He still got a one-year suspension.
By comparison, Contador has floated theories that have mostly involved tossing the whole of the Spanish beef-producing industry under the bus. It may be that he genuinely doesn’t know where the Clenbuterol came from, how it entered his body. He has, however, a problem that Moninger didn’t have. His test sample showed evidence of plasticizers that are used to keep equipment used in blood transfusions soft and pliable. Think of plasticizers as lotion for plastics.
While there is no rule specifically against plasticizers, the UCI’s ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ view of the world suggests they are unlikely to be satisfied with a single year’s suspension for el Pistolero.
The issue here is not whether Contador deserves a more significant suspension, it’s that by not handing him a more significant suspension, the Spanish Federation may have actually prolonged Contador’s agony. Should the UCI appeal his suspension, the fighting could go on longer than the current length of his suspension.
It’s hard to think that a cycling story could eclipse the current Sports Illustrated piece concerning the investigation into Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service cycling team by Jeff Novitzky, but here we are. Current Tour de France champion stripped of title and suspended for doping beats story of 10-year-old allegations into Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping.
Should the UCI accept the one-year suspension and not appeal for something longer, we are still within our right to ask about the suspension as determined. How useful is a one-year suspension?
Contador is 28. Suspended for one year, he’ll come back to compete in the Tour de France at the ripe old age of … 29. And after all, 29 is generally considered to be roughly the peak of a cyclist’s powers.
Had Contador tested positive for, say, heroin, I would have been suspicious that something odd had happened. I would be hesitant to believe that he took that drug. However, the Clenbuterol and plasticizer fit precisely within the logic of what a Grand Tour rider would take. To the degree that there’s been a rush to judgement on Contador, it’s been because the substances found in his sample fit within what we know of doping practices by those attempting to win stage races.
I’ve tried, from time to time, to suspend not disbelief, but belief. If I’m honest, I was suspicious of Contador’s success during the 2009 Tour. Certainly his performance in the final time trial at Lake Annecy strained my credulity. It couldn’t have been less believable to me even if director Michael Bay had added machine guns, car crashes and explosions.
It is because I have trouble believing that he’s only accidentally guilty that I wonder if a single year suspension is enough. Perhaps his suspension as recommended by the Spanish Federation won’t matter, even if the UCI doesn’t appeal it. It seems possible that the Amaury Sport Organization will just refuse to invite any team he’s on—in perpetuity.
And if they do that, could we blame them?
It’s easy to wonder just what’s on the mind of Pat McQuaid. I honestly don’t know how his mind works. However, I do wholly believe that Christian Prudhomme wants the Tour de France competed in and won by clean athletes. And I think part of the ASO’s issue with the UCI is that they don’t see the Aigle Cabal as doing enough to protect their interests.
Twelve months from now we may be saying, “Woe be unto thee who hires Alberto Contador.”
It may be that hiring him doesn’t ensure victory; instead it may only ensure what races you’re not doing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International