Sunday, October 14, 2012

It's not about the Lance

I'm bored and it's the off season. Sleeping's nice, not training (as much) is nice, indulging in the odd pint is nice, reading Racing Through the Dark, The Secret Race then various bits of the USADA Reasoned Decision on Lance Armstrong and co is not as nice, but it's worth it to fill in some gaps and understand the world of doping in cycling.

Newsflash: Who the hell put Jimmy Savile in charge of Broadmoor psychiatric hospital?? Jesus people are thick. Given he was a cyclist (raced in the Tour of Britain) he was obviously a) a doper and b) an evil bastard. Anyway, he did a lot of good charity work didn't he. Wonder why.

Back to the reasoned decision. Yes Lance is guilty and in some ways has to be admired for having the ball, singular, to orchestrate such a racket during a period of intense scrutiny around doping. Even if you ignore the odd positive test (not that the UCI would ever do such a thing) the weight of evidence in his teammates' affidavits is too great. It's all there in the appendices, along with a pile of other stuff.

Funnily enough, I think the most damning is actually George Hincapie's. It's the last few pars that seal it - after giving details of his, Lance's and the team's doping programs, he finishes by saying he still regards Lance as a personal friend and a great cyclist and a role model. I'm not sure how Lance can counter that one, as the axe to grind / financial gain from forthcoming book / reduced ban (Hincapie's retired) defence doesn't really hold up. I guess we'll see how long the friendship lasts.

Anyway, it's clear that there were many riders and staff involved in this and plenty are still racing and in management. Some with 'zero tolerance' teams, some with teams that clearly want the doping status quo to remain. In time, plenty more people will get the boot. Once you lift the lid on doping in sport, there is no turning back, and there has to be a paradigm shift in the culture before it settles down again. That's going to take many years, if it happens at all. At least now you now have some riders prepared to speak out without fear of being ostracized from the sport because there are teams that exist to support them.

As far as speaking out goes, I can remember my time at Cyclingnews when this all took place. I started there in 1999, a year after the Festina affair, and had a steep learning curve as a production editor/journalist with zero experience (I left in 2006 to help set up BikeRadar). We lacked the resources to do any investigative reporting, so just did our best to keep the site going with news and results, which was our informal mission statement. However, no scandal was missed and if you go back through the archives, a lot of the smoke and most of the fire is there. We even did live coverage of Operacion Puerto.

I don't remember being afraid of publishing stuff that might piss off Lance, even when he successfully sued David Walsh and the Sunday Times (settled out of court, they may want to revisit that) for publishing a piece that, while relying on hearsay and circumstantial evidence, led the reader to the conclusion that Lance had probably doped. The truth doesn't protect you in libel cases unless you can prove it. And that is hard to do. You can also protect yourself by always covering both sides of the story in order to be balanced - that's hard to do when you're trying to paint a certain picture, which is where being a columnist can get you into trouble. Walsh was right in the end, it just took a while to come out.

We (well, not me) had some access to Lance - hell, we even published Dr Ferrari's diary for a while - but I got the impression that so called hard questions were not welcome. Not that they would have been particularly revealing as Lance was more than adept at handling them. And to be honest, that access didn't give us loads of extra site traffic and big ad dollars because frankly, reader interest is not very high when you are limited to puffery.

I remember going to the Tour de France one year and almost but not quite getting invited to a boutique press conference with Lance and Johan at their hotel, with about five other journos. Tim went but it was decreed that having me there would unbalance the whole thing so I got to sit outside, have a beer and enjoy watching Lance's bodyguard forcibly eject a nutter fan that had climbed in through one of the ground floor windows in the hope of an autograph. He was disappointed.

Going back further, I remember Gerard (then CN boss) and myself riding with Lance, Tony Cruz, George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton and Freddy Rodriguez the day before the Sydney Olympic road race in 2000. We took them on a circuit of Watsons Bay and chatted a bit. For the record Lance didn't ask me if I used performance enhancing drugs :-) But he did think Ullrich was nuts for racing too much beyond the Tour de France.

Unfortunately they missed the break the next day, radios not working they said, as Ullrich, Vinokourov and Kloeden magically rode away from a very high quality field up Bronte hill and finished in that order. Hincapie 8th, Lance 13th. I'm sure they were probably doped to the gills but what a race.

I remember the Tour in 2003 when Ullrich beat Lance in the Cap de Couverte time trial. I was excited and I wasn't the only one, as I thought we might have an interesting race on our hands. Pevenage and Ullrich and their entourage were staying at our hotel that night and by god they looked pleased with themselves. Lance prevailed in the end though. I would have loved to have seen those two race each other clean.

And finally I remember a phone conversation I was privy to in 1999, while covering the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic a few weeks after I started on Cyclingnews, and not having much of a clue about being a journo. It was between Rob Arnold, the editor of Ride Cycling Review and the then ASO press officer, Denis Descamps. I remember Rob being quite distressed and saying something along the lines of 'this will destroy the Tour de France'. I've honestly no idea what it was about (a big positive from the 1999 Tour? That would have been bad) and Rob wouldn't tell me, and I forgot about it. But for whatever reason it came back to me recently. I'll ask him if I ever see him again.

My reasoned decision

I no longer cover professional cycling and haven't really done so for five years (CN supplies all the racing stories on BikeRadar and they do a damned good job). I still have a professional interest in it and a personal one as well. I appreciate it for what it is and am observing the slow change in mentality as public and rider opinion shifts. Up until not that long ago, all cycling fans were more than happy to watch riders do completely ridiculous things up mountains, including braking for corners. Now the proportion is not as great. How many watched the Vuelta this year? I didn't as I knew it wouldn't be close to a level playing field. I'm sure I missed a great spectacle.

As far as heroes go, well none of them are to me (thanks Nicole Cooke for that perspective). I respect what these guys and gals can do on a bike. They're highly skilled, genetically gifted and very fit athletes. I would like to think more of them are clean now than before, and that the last couple of Tours were won clean but even on that front I have doubts. But I wouldn't go so far as to worship someone just for their ability to ride a bike, that's too much. You can find better people much closer to you if you're lucky.

Who benefits now? I think what's happened is good for the clean riders, management and support staff as well as fans who want clean racing. But it's obviously torn the sport apart as for over 100 years it was nicely self contained and controlled form of entertainment for the masses, thus the cheating was not considered such from within the peloton. Riders could compete clean if they really wanted as the drugs didn't make a huge difference until the '90s when EPO created a whole new playing field. Then there was no choice if they wanted to keep their jobs and that in itself contributed to the split that we have today. There's still plenty of the old guard left, slowly being weeded out as riders but then disappointingly going into management. That's only going to perpetuate things unless they admit and commit to clean cycling. But self interest is going to rule, so there has to be something in it for them.

As an amateur I'll continue to compete clean as I've always done, and while I'm sure there are riders doping at this level, which is sad more than anything else, I still seem to do OK in this small niche of cycling.

Finally, apologies I haven't bothered to put my remaining race blogs up here, but they're on the drag2zero site if anyone's interested.

1 comment:

Tomas said...

Hear, hear