Oct 18, 2012

The cycling cynic syndrome

For the most part, I’m not an overly cynical person. Sarcasm with a dose of realism and healthy skepticism is perhaps a better characterization of my nature. However, when it comes to professional cycling today, cynicism is quickly taking over.

This goes beyond Lance Armstrong, but it is due to his prosecution by USADA that myriad doping violations have been exposed in the ranks of pro cycling over the last two decades.

I love cycling. I love racing, reading about it, watching it on TV, rooting for the favorite to win (or sometimes the underdog). But having read nearly all of 1000 pages of the USADA report, the next time I watch a professional race, I’m not sure I’ll know what it is I’m watching.

Like many sports fans, I love an incredible performance. I love to see an attack at the bottom of the climb that blows the field to pieces. I love to see a heroic comeback. I love to see the expression of pain on a rider’s face as he crosses the finish line in a TT, having just come back from behind to win. No doubt, 2013 will have those moments, but instead of rooting and cheering, I’m afraid I’m going to be asking myself, “What the hell am I looking at? Did I just see an incredible performance, or does this guy just have a better doctor?” That's no way to watch a bike race.

I don’t want to have to ask those questions, and I’m certain that I’m not the only fan out there who feels this way. Looking back at 2012, I’m not quite certain what I’ve seen.

Joaquim Rodriguez finished on top in the UCI rankings this season. But today news broke of several of his teammates (Kolobnev, Gusev, Menchov and Ignatiev) being linked to Dr. Ferrari, doping and money laundering. Even if Rodriguez himself is not implicated, winning with the help of doped up teammates is as bad as being doped up yourself. Isn’t it?

And what about Alberto Contador’s triumphant return to cycling at this year’s Vuelta? I like the guy (which wasn’t always the case), but he too has ties to Ferrari and has already served a doping ban. Not to mention he’s passed through the hands of Johan Bruyneel. I want to believe he’s clean now, but I can’t.

Team Sky has Sean Yates, who somehow managed to remain blind to everything that was happening on Team Discovery Channel in 2005 as it ran the most sophisticated doping conspiracy in professional sports. And likewise "forgot" to delve into the past of 'Mick' Rogers and the team doctor Dr. Leinders, both of whom have been implicated in the Armstrong case as being involved in doping. So now when I think back to Bradley Wiggins’ dominant performance at the Tour de France, I don’t know if what I saw was a dominant performance, or another case of a medical miracle. Seeing Wiggo with a bandage over his vein after the TT didn’t help either.

Do I even need to go into any sort of detail about Vinokurov’s win at the 2012 Olympics? I think you see my dilemma.

The problem that’s facing cycling is twofold. First, the penumbra of doping uncovered in the Armstrong controversy is so broad there are few teams and riders not touched by it. There are riders, trainer, soigneurs, doctors, DSs and coaches from that era of cycling throughout the professional sport today. And as soon as new talent joins the pro peloton, it is only a matter of time before he’s touched by one of these people and is then forever tainted by cynical suspicion.

Taylor Phinney (BMC) and Joe Dombrowski (Sky) are great examples. They are both young riders on teams committed (on paper) to clean cycling, but where did they have their start? Bontrager Livestrong run by Axel Merckx, a former doper himself, as implicated by the USADA investigation. I’d like to believe that they weren’t corrupted in their days at Bontrager, but I don’t know! Ben King and Matt Busche are in the same boat, having worked with Bruyneel.

I don’t know how much training Cadel Evans did with Ferrari, but it is enough that I know he did some. I’m even prepared to accept Evans’ explanation that he never used Ferrari for doping, but at the same time in the back of my mind, I can never rule it out. 

I’m not accusing any of the riders mentioned in the above two paragraphs of doping. But as much as I really want to believe they have never touched a prohibited substance to gain an unfair advantage in the pro peloton, today I cannot bring myself to make that statement with 100 percent certainty.

The second part of the problem is the omertà – the mafia-like silence of the peloton. As I thought about my dilemma, I also thought of what it would take for me to sit down, watch a bike race, and be near damn certain that what I’m seeing are clean athletes showing their true, human potential. This will happen when with extreme regularity, riders will blow the whistle on their team managers, teammates, doctors and trainers for using unethical methods to gain an unfair advantage; and those riders will be seen as heroes and not as traitors. They will be praised, not fired. They will be shown to the world as examples of clean cycling, not as vindictive and jealous liars. It will take more than riders: it will take management, race organizers, sponsor and the UCI working together for the benefit of the sport and not their own.

When the peloton as a whole accepts the notions of openness and transparency, professional cycling will begin to shed the gray cloud that has hung over it for the last 20 years. 

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