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
It should be clear to everyone involved at this point, that the disciplinary process for rule-breaking riders is hopelessly slow, convoluted and ineffective. Further, the length of time it has taken for the UCI and Spanish Federation to figure out what to do with Alberto Contador’s doping positive has compounded the damage of the “adverse clinical finding” ten fold. Pro cycling is killing itself slowly, with drugs, indecision and incompetence.
It seems like every other article I read these days concerns either Contador and the Godot-like wait for a verdict on his case OR Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis and the grand jury that cogitates in silence on an entire era of alleged pro cycling malfeasance.
This morning it occurred to me that FIFA, the governing body of football (soccer), would never do this to itself. Corrupt though it may be, FIFA lets nothing stand in the way of the game. If football’s biggest star, probably Lionel Messi at the moment, were found to have spiked his corn flakes with banned substances they would have, in conjunction with the Spanish FA, suspended him for some arbitrary length of time and left the chips to fall where they might.
FIFA doesn’t care that much about what’s fair. It allows football fans to seethe in rage, to debate in the most colorful language, to riot in the streets, but eventually to let the games go on. Messi would sit. He might appeal. His appeal would be upheld or denied, and the game would go on, and on, and on, earning and entertaining as it went.
Neither FIFA nor the UCI are governmental organizations. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hears any extra-organizational cases brought to them, and rules with the force of law.
What the UCI calls “complex,” FIFA calls ordinary. Where cycling dithers, dodge, obfuscates and ponders, FIFA decides.
It is fair to suggest that there is a far bigger doping problem in football than in cycling. It is fair to say that cycling is infinitely more transparent in the way it deals with its athletes. It is fair to say that FIFA is an oligarchy of corrupt old men who pillage their sport’s multi-billion dollar/euro/yuan/shekel revenues for their own fortunes and power. Those things all might be true. Or not.
But what you can’t say is that cycling runs its business more effectively. Someone at the UCI (paging Mr. McQuaid … Mr.McQuaid to the white courtesy telephone) needs to understand that they are as complicit in the sport’s demise as the dopers who steal the headlines. As every official from Paris to Madrid scrambles to avoid accountability for Contador’s ultimate fate, the fiddle music grows louder and Rome continues to burn.
In the 7th century B.C., a law scribe named Draco converted the system of oral law in force in Athens to a set of written laws, famous for their severity. In modern times, “draconian” has a pejorative connotation, but what Draco intended was for the law to be clear and decisive. Setting aside the issue of appropriate punishments for a cyclist’s indiscretions (most minor crimes in the Draconian system were punishable by death), perhaps what the sport needs is a little more draconian application of its rules.
There is a saying that goes something like this, “It is far easier to beg forgiveness, than ask permission.” The UCI needs to act quickly and decisively in all doping-related matters. It can apologize to those it wrongs later.
Alberto Contador may or may not have cheated in order to win bike races. Even when we get a verdict, some will believe and others won’t. All of that is immaterial now. In effect, the reigning Tour de France champion has already served 6 months of a purgatorial sentence. No matter what happens next, the Spaniard has lost, and cycling has, too.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Bashing Floyd Landis has become something of a past time for cycling fans. Even before his first implosion he was a rough-hewn character, the Crocodile Dundee of the cycling world. Within the US Postal Service Team he was Oscar to Lance Armstrong’s Felix in the boys in blue’s production of “The Odd Couple.”
From his first explanation for his positive test (Jack Daniels) he showed a capacity for the unexpected that could take even a fortune teller by surprise. His book, “Positively False” showed a rebellious, impish spirit designed almost perfectly to clash with Armstrong’s iron fist management. As an expression of spirit, it was an entertaining read and fairly complete in its examination of his career—with one not-so-small omission: his pharmacy.
I wrote several posts concerning Landis’ defense and read the entire transcript of the CAS appeal at Pepperdine University. While the UCI acted on an understandable “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” premise, I’m convinced they never actually caught Landis. The initial test was so poorly performed that the case against him should have been dropped. My problem with the case wasn’t that I wanted a cheat to win, it was that I didn’t want to see the same tactics result in the suspension of an innocent rider.
In a spectacular variation on the “guilty but not responsible” defense, I can see how he might have thought, “I’m accused of something I didn’t actually do. I can beat this, because they didn’t catch me at what I did do.”
Who wouldn’t think that?
Landis’ career and life were utterly destroyed as he pursued his defense. Many people are angry that a guilty man took money from them to mount an extraordinarily expensive, but ultimately fruitless, defense. Viewed through the mindset outlined above, an argument can be made that he wasn’t cheating anyone.
But for those who didn’t provide for his defense, an understandable outrage remains: Landis’ doping case cost USADA so much to prosecute that they ran other efforts on reduced budgets. In short, Landis’ defense impinged on other anti-doping efforts.
Since changing his story, cycling fans and the media have seized upon his story as either the raving of a lunatic or the smoking gun necessary to bring down Big Tex. What’s amazing is how often I encounter people who didn’t believe he was innocent when he first tested positive and yet don’t believe him now that he has confessed to doping.
Which is it, people? It can’t be both.
While it is logically possible that both stories could be complete fabrications, that’s highly unlikely. A lie is told to serve a larger purpose and if Landis is lying now, we have to ask the question: ‘To what purpose?’
If what he says isn’t true, the ramifications for him could include jail time, which is perhaps the only meaningful deterrent for him as he is essentially without assets at this point and what lawyers frequently refer to as “judgement-proof.” And I don’t think Landis would willingly choose jail as an alternative to unemployment.
Still, Landis hasn’t made this easy for himself. While he has given investigator Jeff Novitzky a variety-pack of allegations that the dogged and successful investigator is chasing, he has also handed us gems like the suggestion that the UCI protected some riders.
While I can name instances—for which I was present—where the UCI’s application of its own rules was highly irregular, I never saw anything that bordered on protecting a doped rider. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened; Landis has yet to provide anything stronger than a rumor and his other allegations suffer for it.
Now, Landis has asserted that cycling is the Superfund Site of sports, an endeavor in which doping is so inextricably entwined that cleaning it up is less likely than man traveling at the speed of light. His solution? Open a top fuel division: allow doping.
Look, I believe that Landis has seen things and knows things that could help to shed light to investigators on the doping front. Think of him as first mate on the Santa Maria. His eyewitness accounts of Columbus’ voyage to the west would be invaluable. We need him to talk.
However, every time he opens his mouth on something he didn’t personally do or see, he gets into trouble. What he doesn’t understand is that his usefulness to cycling does not extend, currently, to suggestions such as eliminating the doping code.
Here’s something that is not a newsflash: Doping will never be eliminated. In any population there will be those who cut corners, push the bounds, cheat. Those few should not cause an entire society to capitulate. Just because people are murdered, should we all carry guns?
Because so much of what Landis has to say seems to be based in the same variety of nuttiness that led the Octomom to become the world’s only single mother to 14 children, many people simply write him off. It’s understandable, if tragic.
Years ago I knew someone who would buy Lucky Charms cereal and pour small bowls of it and pick the marshmallows out, leaving behind the cereal, which was just Alphabits. I always thought of it as a waste of cereal. Landis has given me the capacity to see the merit in just extracting the tiny bits of gold that are presented. Maybe it’s unfair to compare him to a marshmallow, but not everything that comes out of his mouth is crazy. In dismissing everything he says as a fabrication from whole cloth, we lose an opportunity to learn from his experiences as a rider, and we do that at our own peril.
What he knows could provide an invaluable education to both the UCI and to WADA.
What Landis doesn’t seem to understand is that the UCI can’t be treated as an adversary if your purpose is to help expose the doping problems inherent in cycling. Unfortunately, Pat McQuaid is Floyd Landis’ doppelgänger, and in that he is no less likely to make statements of such sweeping irresponsibility that we have little use for them except to fertilize the whole of the plains states.
This week, with little surprise, Landis announced his retirement, effective immediately. It’s easy to turn his announcement into a joke about the obvious—that he really had no career currently—but the sadder truth is that it was an admission on his part that it was time to let go of a dream.
Landis knows things, helpful things. We should hear him out and we should show him some compassion. He’s lost everything he worked for. Is that really the just result for his transgressions?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The weekend shooting in Arizona has the United States—indeed, much of the world—discussing the need for civility in political discourse and beyond. The shooting of Representative Giffords is a tragic response to someone who represented her district according to her convictions.
One of the great treasures of our planet is its amazing diversity. From the blue whale to the ebola virus, planet Earth is full of unlikely and exciting life. Similarly, human beings are prone to just as diverse an array of beliefs and opinions … and all-too-often we act on those in ways that can horrify.
Where I live, the cycling community is enormous. Within 50 miles of me there are more group rides each week than I can number. There are countless more riders in the area who ride alone or with only a few other cyclists. The groups I ride with are made up of a stunning array of people. We’ve got engineers, shop rats, lawyers, baristas, real estate moguls, coaches, tailors, loan officers and plenty of other professionals. Off the bike, some of these folks and I would agree about very little.
However, on the bike we agree about much. Thank God. For a peloton to work, the riders must aspire to a Borg-like single-mindedness. Few things can result in a crash as quickly as a disorganized pack. It is because of this common ground on the bike I can entertain conversations on any topic with the reassurance that we can remain friends, no matter what we discuss.
The many comments on my recent post on helmets have kept me thinking about the intersection points between personal freedom, rational choices and personal responsibility. One comment in particular got me to thinking more about my views on the responsibility we each bear to our brethren of the peloton.
Each time we roll out for a group ride or race, we’ve done so with certain assumptions about the other riders present. Even if we’ve never met them before, we assume that because they have joined this ride that they know not just the basics of shifting, braking and cornering, but the delicate etiquette of the pack.
Most of you probably learned the basics of pack riding years, if not decades, ago. The unwritten rules are voluminous:
- Don’t grab your brakes suddenly
- Hold your line
- Don’t make unannounced turns that the whole group isn’t making
- Accelerate when the rest of the group does
- Don’t chop wheels
- In a paceline, don’t half-wheel the rider next to you
- Spit down, not out; same for the nose
- Don’t let gaps open
You get the idea. Those assumptions are the basis for the peloton itself. After all, without them, we would not be able to go out and ride in a pack. The pack is possible because we assume it will behave in a certain way. Society works best when we operate with a similar set of givens.
There are, however, many other distinctions that can’t be classified under basic riding skills, but fall, at least in my conception, under the heading of etiquette as well.
I admit that when I’m on a group ride, if I see a guy in tube socks, I’ll probably make a comment about Pistol Pete. I’m not likely to follow his wheel either—at least, not in the first hour or two. But I won’t go so far as to say he needs to get with the program. After all, socks don’t really affect the group.
But as I’ve mentioned, not wearing a helmet on a group ride can have consequences for the entire group—at least those who stop—should there be a crash. Not wearing a helmet isn’t the only decision that you make than can have consequences for others. Bottle cages that shoot bottles James Bond-Aston Martin-ejector-seat-style are a hazard to other riders. And riding threadbare tires that could flat at any time simply shows a lack of respect for those around you.
Dissimilarly, riding without a seat bag that contains the items necessary to fix a flat is foolhardy, but not really harmful to the group. Just don’t expect anyone to stop for you, though.
When I was in the Boy Scouts 35 years ago we were always taught, “Be prepared.” The riders I most admire are the ones who seemingly can take anything in stride without the pack-mule-style Camelbak on their shoulders. We all flat, but it’s the rider who has not only the fresh tube and CO2 (for the fastest-possible inflation), but also has the old tire casing for a boot, who gets the points for consideration. I appreciate any rider who stops out of consideration. The kindest turn and best thank-you the rider with the flat can show is the speedy fix. And the guy who carries food enough to help out a bonking rider is especially stylish in my eye.
Showing our gratitude is perhaps one of the classiest turns I see. On occasion I’ve seen one rider buy another a coffee as a measure of gratitude for a strong pull, closing the uncloseable gap, or just stopping for that flat. Riding with cash enough to buy another rider a coffee is preparation of a different order.
It is through the etiquette I described above that makes even the most competitive of rides civil affairs among friends. However, in contemporary discourse there’s a belief that if you can remain civil when discussing the most charged issues—say religion or politics—then it shows you have no conviction. Similarly, if you really take your beliefs to heart, then each engagement is all but a fight to the death.
As a writer, I lack apprehension about wading into any of cycling’s more charged issues. They don’t carry the weight of abortion, socialism or immigration, but most of us have strong feelings where doping, the UCI and even bike building are concerned. That RKP has remained civil in its discourse has less to do with me than it does with you, the readers. As a community, you obviously value this dimension every bit as much as I do.
If there’s any chance that what we experience in our cycling lives can inform our larger lives, then I hope you’ll take some time to follow this link and consider the idea of convicted civility—the possibility that we can have firmly held convictions and yet remain respectful and even warm to those with whom we do not agree.
This was a belief I, myself did not carry for much of my life. I watched James Bond (what is it with me and the Bond references tonight?) films and could never understand how Bond could sit down to a pleasant dinner with some arch villain who he knew was busy plotting our hero’s death. How the hell do you have dinner with a guy who plans to feed you to a shark? No one ever had more on the line than his life, and Bond has never been anything other than polite. James Bond may seem a trite metaphor, but I suggest that we cyclists—in our quest to vanquish competitors under the most physical of circumstances—understand the value of civility better than most.
In civility lies the future of dialog in this world. And we, as cyclists, can inform that conversation with our peers.
Okay, so we couldn’t leave a whole week without a post. It’s been a year of stories often as fascinating as they are frustrating. Robot and I have picked our five most significant (if not favorite) story lines.
1) Fabian Cancellara’s Roubaix/ Flanders Double—Few riders are able to completely dominate their competition quite the way Fabian Cancellara can when he’s in top form. His astonishing attack on the Muur in the Ronde, while seated mind you, is a move I will never forget. Then his turn of speed at Roubaix, with main rival Tom Boonen momentarily asleep at the switch, was thrilling. To ride off the front of a group containing Boonen, Thor Hushovd, Juan Antonio Flecha and a select crew of Classics specialists, demonstrates a power and quality we seldom see. Those two wins made Cancellara’s April my top highlight of the 2010 season.
2) The Rise and Fall of Contador—The American press tried to make the 2010 Tour about the duel between Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, but Armstrong never had a chance, crashing out of contention early and then fumbling along to the finish. The real match was between Contador and Andy Schleck and that story served up all the drama and controversy of the very best Tours, with Contador standing on the top step in Paris to confirm his inheritance of the Armstrong/Indurain/Hinault/Merckx/Anquetil/Coppi legacy.
Oh, but then soaring so close to the sun, waxen wings melting in the bright light, Contador tests positive for Clenbuterol. And with this positive test, confirmed with a B sample reading, and hurled into judicial purgatory for the rest of the year, we see an abrupt end to the building legend, an end that tarnishes the futures of both the rider and the race.
3) Thor Hushovd’s World Championship—Coming off a World Championship year that saw 2009 winner Cadel Evans represent the rainbow jersey with grit, bravery and aplomb, the talismanic championship seemed open to sprinters and roleurs alike. In the end, the sprintingest roleur won the race, riding a smart tactical race with a short-handed team, only flexing his considerable muscle when it mattered most. Hushovd’s win was big for a hard-working rider, but also big for the jersey itself, as we are now almost guaranteed a second consecutive year of class from the world champ.
4) The First Biological Passport Suspensions—The UCI might have taken a more expeditious path to this stage of the fight against doping, but despite their missteps and the blundering press comments of president Pat McQuaid, the biological passport program finally produced some results in 2010. It remains to be seen how its parameters and administration will evolve as tools against cheaters, but with the first suspensions, we are finally seeing an adjunct program to in-race testing that seeks to catch the dopers who slip through the first net. Love it or hate it, the Passport must have dishonest riders worried that they’re running out of options, and that is, unquestionably, a good thing.
5) The SaxoBank Exodus/Luxembourg Project—It is hard for me to fathom how so many riders (and managers) whose careers were built and fostered by Bjarne Riis would be so willing to jump off the SaxoBank ship to join a fledgling team, regardless of the pedigree of its component parts. That Riis can be prickly, stubborn and aloof is beyond argument, but the mutiny of nearly his entire team is an outcome I never foresaw. Heap on top that insult, the injury of Contador’s doping problems, and it becomes very hard to argue that the Dane will land on his race-winning feet in 2011.
1) Cancellara’s Flanders/Roubaix Double—I have to echo Robot here. Not only were Cancellara’s back-to-back victories the wins of the year for me, I have to say that Cancellara’s attack on the Muur de Grammont—seated and spinning the 25 while Boonen looked to be standing on a 21—was absolutely the attack of the year for me. Both rides had me standing up and cheering.
That anyone would accuse the four-time time trial World Champion of using an electric motor is like asking about Kobe Bryant’s rocket boots he uses to get his jump shot. We should ignore the birthers. They’ll go away faster this way. We have real problems to contend with, as evidenced by number two.
2) The Contador Doping Case—From a standpoint of rules, I don’t see how Contador will escape a suspension due to his positive test for Clenbuterol. American rider Scott Moninger went to incredible lengths to demonstrate that what he tested positive for was as a result of supplements tainted by sloppy manufacturing. He purchased stock made in the same lot as the supplements he took and submitted sealed containers for testing. His defense was rigorously scientific … and he still got a one-year suspension due to strict liability. Contador’s defense has been far less methodical, which makes me far less sympathetic. His claims have, for me, smacked of the ‘dog ate my homework’ variety.
However, the bigger question on my mind has to do with testing for plasticizers. The detection of plasticizers in Contador’s sample suggests that officials may soon be able to prosecute riders more effectively for autologous blood transfusions. This seems to have been the preferred doping method for GC hopefuls for more than five years, but catching these riders has been less than successful. I don’t care who the rider is, if they’re transfusing, I want them caught and suspended as a result of a rigorously scientific prosecution.
3) The UCI’s Technical Criteria for Bike Approval—Bike companies have been screwed like an Ikea entertainment center by the UCI’s technical commission. Cinelli was nearly bankrupted due to the Spinacci fiasco. Their implementation of rules ahead of schedule sparked a seething rant from me that I ultimately deemed too angry to publish. I’m glad that a procedure to approve bicycles is in place. Unfortunately, the fee schedule to get a bike approved is expensive enough that some companies might think twice before submitting a design. Viewed within the larger expense of sponsoring a ProTeam team, it’s not so bad, but for companies that stretch to sponsor a Continental team, this could be a deal killer; after all, $12k is the cost of some riders. Leave it to the UCI to create a system that would scare bike companies from sponsoring a racing team. While this story will make more waves in 2011 than it did in 2010, that the criteria were decided and announced is huge. It’s an important step in the right direction.
4) The SaxoBank Exodus—Once Fabian Cancellara announced that he, too, would depart SaxoBank, I had a Sixth Sense moment. If you recall the Bruce Willis thriller, when you reach the end of the film and realize that he is the dead guy, you must reanalyze the entire picture—better yet, just watch it again. I began to wonder if all the praise riders had heaped upon Bjarne Riis was all Hollywood kiss-kiss, “Love ya, babe.” Presented with a viable option every rider worth anything jumped like passengers from the Titanic. It’s little surprise Richie Porte stayed behind; there’s nothing like watching the heirs apparent abdicate. ‘You say I’m king?! Cool!’
I can’t help but wonder what skeletons rattle in Riis’ closet.
5) The Fall of Lance Armstrong—Long before investigator Jeff Novitzky became interested in Tailwind Sports and Lance Armstrong, many cycling fans rebuked him like a banana republic reformer-cum-dictator. Allegations of doping swirled around him, proven sufficiently to some, while others simply saw the allegations as typical efforts to besmirch a hard-working athlete. Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France seems to have been more than disenfranchised Floyd Landis could bear. My read is that Landis believes he played by the same set of rules Armstrong did, won, and got a very different result. Forgetting for a moment how Landis has conducted himself (the most conclusive thing I can say is that some of his choices seem to have been based on fuzzy logic), it doesn’t seem hard to see how a man who has lost everything he worked for—wife, home, stepchild, a father-in-law, savings—decides he’ll burn the rest down. History is replete with examples of figures who refuse to go down alone, people who want others in the boat with them when the gunwales swamp.
Armstrong’s story has a lot of unfolding left to do. We knew the comeback would be a fresh chapter in the athlete’s career, but no one expected this turn. Novitzky’s reputation indicates that if he tires of his work as an investigator he could teach graduate seminars in tenacity. Armstrong is anything but convicted, but the allegations all point to a conclusion that will change the world’s opinion of him, and probably his foundation. The tragedy is that if he is convicted of charges associated with doping, most casual followers of cycling will think of Armstrong as a dirty athlete in a dirty sport and simply write off cycling as a force for good. Lost will be the story of an athlete who returned from the grave, played by the standard of the day and won the Tour de France … again and again and again and again and again and again.
And so we put the question to you: What were the biggest stories of the year in your eyes?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International