Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Doping on my mind, Part V

Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.

This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.

Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.

At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”

In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.

In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.

Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.

Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing  drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.

USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.

Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.

I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.

Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.

Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.

Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.

In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.

The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.

One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”

If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.

Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson 

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. sophrosune

    What is the point here? Is it that cycling fans in Continental Europe are more likely to keep cycling heroes on a pedestal even after they have been banned for doping than American and British fans? It seems that’s the narrative that you’re going for and what a desperate attempt you have made here to make it seem true. We all know the story of Armstrong and it seems to have hardly diminished his legion of fans in the US. And I couldn’t help but notice that in the midst of Wiggins’ TdF victory there was a steady stream of reverential references to Tom Simpson, who actually died on his bike from popping amphetamines. Here’s the deal: There is no cultural difference that you can define between Continental European and Anglo-Saxon interests in cycling and clean cycling. Any anecdotal examples you provide can be countered with a number of others showing the opposite to be true. Anglo-Saxon cyclists and cycling fans are no more chaste and pure than the Continental European variety. This whole line of reasoning reminds me that knowledge borne out of experience can be just as shaky as theoretical knowledge when examples get conflated into a universal truth. In fact, this entire series on doping has provided a seemingly unrelenting attempt to somehow show that Europeans are inveterate dopers. It’s not true so get over it and move on with your thinking.

  2. 32x20

    Wow, that’s not what I got out of the series at all. It sounded like the point of the article was: this has happened before and what happens to these racer’s legacies remains to be seen.

    As a ‘younger’ cycling & racing enthusiast (started riding and following racing after the Armstrong era) I enjoyed this series.

  3. peter lin

    For me, part of the problem is idolizing athletes. To me, idol worship is silly. An athlete may be able to do some extraordinary things, but he isn’t a “better” person because of it. Regardless of the armstrong/usada saga, it has zero affect on my love of cycling. It also has zero affect on my affection for the sport. Sure professional athletes do things that are questionable in the name of winning, but that’s professional sports.

    Regardless of usada’s actions and armstrong’s ego, he has raised a lot of money to benefit cancer patients. I would argue it’s silly to judge lance solely by his athletic exploits. The good he has done for cancer patients and those affected by cancer speak volumes. The good things don’t cancel the bad, nor the other way around. Everyone does good and bad.

    The real issue is the culture of “win at all costs”. Even in high school and college, I knew people that took steroids. These weren’t professional athletes, but they were doping. For many people that doped, winning is the only thing that matters.

    If we really want to solve the problem, we have to fix our culture first. Until that happens, all of this drama on both sides is really driven by ego and politics. It isn’t a real long term solution.

  4. HRockman

    @ sophrosune I think you got the point backwards.

    “If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited.”

    If we look to Europe, or more closely Britain to presume what the response will be here. It may not have such a negative impact on the sport.

    Now if only LA could man up and take some responsibility and own up to his actions maybe he could enjoy such a reaction… or lack thereof and this whole fiasco could go away sooner than later.

  5. Alex TC

    Not to be taken as anti nor pro-Armstrong (I´m neither), I get the feeling that both the europeans and americans have a knack for chasing and bringing down Lance at any cost and an altogether different appetite for doing the same with euro pros and even american racers who got caught/confessed to doping.

    I could be wrong (and probably am) but it´s more status oriented than offense-driven, thus it has indeed a personal matter involved. My guess is that stems from the fact that Lance not only doped but went deeper, getting involved with “the system” corruptness, dealing with high-rollers from UCI, sponsors of all kinds and floating freely among politicians and showbiz figures. He also stepped onto a lot of people on his way to the top, so all that is coming back to him now. The taller you get, the higher you fall.

    Had he been a nice and more generous chap, a “peloton champ”, a more accessible persona, maybe his doping sins would have been treated differently by his accusers and persecutors. Heck, somehow I feel that if he´d given Floyd the chance he asked for in the first place none of this would have happened!

    It´s only my feeling, of course – but now reading this post that thought came to me.

  6. Evan Shaw

    Everyone does not cheat if given them opportunity. Athletes fans and teams are exploited by corrupt big monied interests at all levels. As Nuremberg taught us all levels of involvement from domestiques to UCI IOC are complicit responsible and accountable. Many corrupt regimes entities and persons seek to avoid accountability like Armstrong has by doing charitable work and hiding under that umbrella. Good works do not make one innocent They are only sentencing reduction considerations

    A drug oriented culture is not a way to disperse responsibility away from a corrupt sports industry that exploits its athletes fans and youth

    The more awareness the public has about the devastation of doping concussions drain damage and death from a usary approach to sports the better chance we will have both cleaning up sports and ending exploitation of athletes

  7. bikenerd

    I wonder what the result and reaction would be if our American sports ‘heroes’ – football, baseball, and basketball players – were put through such an intense and thorough investigation as the USADA has put Armstrong through? How would the fan base view the athletes and the sports if there were numerous positive results and a structured doping culture were revealed? I think that’s a more relevant way to view it in the US, but maybe I’m wrong.

    Furthermore, what if USADA were to focus all its energies on one player, as it has with Armstrong? Would the public think that was justified, whether or not he was guilty? I mean, Miguel Cabrera won baseball’s Triple Crown this year, he must be doping, right?

  8. Alex TC

    “Everyone does not cheat if given them opportunity.”

    I respectfuly disagree, Evan. Even ones who get an opportunity cheat. That´s human nature. I´m no expert but I´d guess that most cheaters do it not from a lack of opportunity or choice, but rather to gain that “good old” advantage over others who refuse (or just don´t know how) to.

    All these recent mea-culpa from riders seem to share a common thread: “I´d not have cheated if I had a choice”. Classic, blame it on that ethereal, disform thing called “the system” and get away with it. So much for responsibility. I have much more respect for, say, Bjarne Riis who confessed years later, when no one was investigating or inquiring, or even caring, anymore. He beat the system, won and when things were cold he went back to purge his sins, for whatever reasons. His own only, not others´. Now that I´d like to see happen more often.

    Unfortunately for cheaters, confessed or caught (most confess after caught – not surprising), there ARE people who were also put under the same test and chose differentlu. Individuals who seem to have a different set of principles, a clearer and broader view of life´s obstacles and choices and a strenght of character and moral. Riders like Scott Mercier, Paul Kimmage and a few others who challenged the “norm” and opted for the path less traveled. Those are the ones that IMHO take credibility and dignity from all these late repenters.

    OK, Istill praise them for still come forward and face the hard facts. It´s not easy, and it sure is important now at this moment when the fight against doping seem to be gaining momentum and every help is needed. But this coming clean at this point has sure been made a lot easier by the good life they enjoyed during all the years of the PED party, not to mention by the avalanche of revelationsfrom the USADA case.

  9. LMCP

    Hi John,
    I totally agree with you: we Europeans have a different way to react to all this… But, don’t you americans also consider Merckx as the greatest ever, as we do? He too used doping… and what about Copi, Simpson, etc etc? How would cycling survive stripped of all his heroes?
    So, ok, strip Armstrong from all his victories, and give it to Ulrich, Virenque etc etc… and then strip Urlich and Virenque, and give it to the next and to the next and to the next until there’s no one left to investigate and condemn.
    Also the UCI should be investigated – they too recieved money from Armstrong, didn’t they? The hard reality is that almost everybody doped during years and years and only a few tested positive. So, the admission of guit should not come only from the riders, but also from all the managers, directors, presidents and so on.

  10. Khal Spencer

    Looking back at the years I spent glued to the TV watching Armstrong and USPS dominate the peloton, I was a little naive. Back then I thought they were the best managed and most fit riders. Now I know they were the best managed and best coached pharmacologist-athletes. It does make a little bit of difference in how I reflect on those victories, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m not heartbroken. Those were bike racers, not gods to be worshipped.

    What this investigation is showing is how drugs were an intrinsic part of the sport from top to bottom, all teams, all the time. Its a public health issue more than one of cheating (since they all cheated, it seems like a level playing field to me–the hidden competition was amongst the team doctors, team owners, and team leaders). Do we really want young people who are coming up in the sport to have to inject to win? That’s where it gets sickening.

    The cyclists have to clean this up themselves, since they are the ones being cheated the most. Its really a working conditions argument, kinda like giving coal miners EPO and testosterone so they can hammer away in the mines for longer hours a day and boost coal output for the owners. Where is the racer’s union on this?

  11. VSmith

    I suspect the folks that want to see Armstrong repent and beg for forgiveness are going to be disappointed. It doesn’t seem part of the man’s nature. He’s never going to write The Book or hold that confessional news conference. From what I can see, “Manning up” Armstrong-style means spitting defiance in your face. I don’t see Lance as a guy who got suckered or forced into a corrupt system. I think he looked the Devil in the eye, got the best deal he could, and made the most of it. It’s how he rode. You can admire him for that, hate him or, perhaps, consider that Armstrong isn’t all one thing any more than the rest of us are.

    Cycling in America will survive Armstrong, whether he confesses or not. The elegance and beauty of the sport are still there to be seen and enjoyed, even wracked by the disturbing “did he?” that haunts the victors right now. We have major problems, but at least we haven’t sunk to the level of rewarding a Michael Vick with a multi-million dollar job or protecting a Jerry Sandusky. Doping in cycling cannot compare, anymore than the bumbling form of corruption at UCI can compare to corporate corruption in pro ball sports. Cycling, I think, has a chance to redeem itself. An admission of guilt by Armstrong would probably go a long way to achieving redemption for both the sport and himself, but doing that would,d I think, be one of Lance’s greatest challenges.

  12. JMS

    In the end, whom I will regard as a great champion will have not have much to do with a moral judgment of how they got there — but rather, an assessment of their sporting achievement. After all, this is just a game and we should not pretend to know whether or not the hearts of the most successful riders are pure.
    So, I am of two minds: One says that Lance is a great champion — he broke the rules but so did everyone else (seemingly), and so his achievements were very real in the competitive sense even though they were not physiologically what they were presented to be.
    On the other hand, it appears that he may have gained an advantage over other (cheating) riders with a superior cheating program — including motorcycle drug couriers and special attention from the top doping doctors. These sort of advantages came to him not because of his sporting prowess, but because of his financial resources, his power over other riders and staff, and his willingness to employ the most cynical and flagrant types of rule-breaking imaginable. In this second narrative, he did manage to out-cheat the other cheaters, but this hardly makes him a great cycling champion.

  13. Richard Francis

    1 Business as usual: he did manage to out-cheat the other cheaters, but this hardly makes him a credible Presidential candidate.
    2 Has anyone questioned whether the dope that Armstrong used is connected with his increased testosterone levels and may have exacerbated his cancer. Gives Livestrong a very hollow sound. Oncologist care to comment?

  14. Heypip

    First post and I’d like to say how much I’m enjoying RKP since I discovered the site. What a breath of fresh air. The writers are knowledgeable, well informed and credible. RKP’s readers have an impassioned debate while still being civil, polite and intellectual. I like that a lot!

    As most of you do, I love the true grit and determination of cycling, both as a spectator and participatory sport. I have ridden and made myself strong, crashed and come back and not without inspiration from my heroes. To see so many of them fall in disgrace leaves me feeling hollow at times. Its not just the culture of doping that has me distraught but the corruption and complete lack of ethics shown by the TEAMS.

    Someone above asked about what the rider’s union had to say about this. That is a very interesting question because by all accounts, it was a top down “from the team” program for doping the Posties and most likely, on other teams too. The riders were put “in harm’s way by their employers” by being expected to ingest these dangerous drugs.

    I wonder what the UCI will have to say about all of this.

    OK yes! Most of them cheated. Did that level the playing field or shift it entirely? or maybe it was the best doping programs that won those races.

    Should not the director sportivs, Doctors and program designers be given the results for racing, won by a convicted or acknowledged doper, in all races prior to their conviction or disclosure? An asterisk would of course be applied. That asterisk would mean that the rider and/or team cheated.

    I think that would help fix the record book.

    These races, won by riders who were later convicted of doping, cannot be allowed to stand. These races weren’t contested by cyclists, but by cheaters and big money. The TEAMS and or doctors and competitors should be outed, forever. in the official record! No winner, No race results.

    After they serve their ban, a rider can come back with a fresh dance card and a true second chance.

    I will still watch bike races and scream at the tv and rant at my friends, who already think I’m mad. It’s like I think Mad Dog said about liking watching bike racing as much as I like looking at fake boobs.


  15. GeeTee

    .. Yet nobody, after all the discussion, has spared a thought for the clean riders during the EPO era – those that were cheated out of glory. Evans for one …

  16. Euro Cycling Fan

    I totally disagree with Tom’s analysis. Eddy Merckx tested positive for banned substances three times during his career. However he was considered by VeloNews – an American publication – as “the greatest and most successful cyclist of all time”.

  17. High Plains Drifter

    // I wonder what the result and reaction would be if our American sports ‘heroes’ – football, baseball, and basketball players – were put through such an intense and thorough investigation as the USADA has put Armstrong through? //

    How is USADA the bad guy in this scenario?

    Reality check: USADA ignored Armstrong for a decade, and only acted after two riders dumped, not just allegations, but photos and emails onto their lap.

    Any discussion that even hints at Armstrong as victim here is beyond delusional.

  18. High Plains Drifter

    I wouldn’t want my kids looking up to Pantani.
    His personal life was a train wreck. He lied, cheated, whined, and sullied the sport he claimed to love.

    And yet …

    There weren’t many things cooler than watching him attack, flying up a mountain, full grimace on, racing solely against himself.

    That’s where I’ll leave it. I can appreciate his performance as art, even though I realize there was a trick to it.

  19. F.A.

    To compare US and European reactions to doping is a bit silly. The history of cycling in Europe is about a hundred years old. Doping has been a part of that almost forever. Cycling in the US hasn’t been big as a sport until the nineties – the EPO era, when the sport truly changed.

    I’m not saying that doping isn’t important. Just that it’s been around for so long that European cycling fans have grown used to it popping up a lot. The first rider I was ever fan of got popped in the ’88 TdF for testosterone, but his penalty wasn’t more than 10 minutes and the next year he won the KOM jersey. It wasn’t that big a deal then.

    I remember Pantani and his beautiful attacks. I didn’t understand how much they were EPO-fuelled until much later on. I also remember Theunisse’s beautiful win on Alpe d’Huez in ’89 – possibly aided by testosterone, but what did that mean? The big picture was for a long time out of reach.

    Then EPO lifted it to a whole new level, but it took a while before fans caught up to the situation. Some never did. Some have done so only recently. Some are still making up their minds.

    The great instigator of this latest scandal is not US cyling or US cycling fans. It’s USADA, which was brave enough to stick its neck out and follow through to the end, going against everything that Lance’s many fans believed in. To make that into a big thing as if the US cycling community as a whole is somehow different and doesn’t do ostrich is ridiculous. That’s USADA, nothing more. It’s a bit early for back-patting on a national scale.

  20. Reid Neureiter

    When, John Wilcockson, are you going to admit your complicity in allowing the perpetuation of the code of silence and the grand fraud and thuggish conspriacy that was the Armstrong operation? You have been a cyclist and a cycling journalist for too long not to know exactly what was going on with Armstrong. And yet, you write a book purportedly cataloguing Armstrong’s comeback in 2009, calling it “the making of the greatest champion.” I even went to your talk at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver Colorado publicizing the book. You predicted a Lance victory, and when asked about doping, I thought a detected a slight pause, when you professed to believe Lance won his races clean. I knew it was BS then, and so did you. But you had to play nice in order to get access. You were complicit in the corruption of an entire generation of riders. I want to hear your mea culpa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *