A Tale of Two Podiums

Apr 22 2010

Well, I didn’t see it happen live, but I hear that the finish of Wednesday’s Fleche-Wallonne (or “Walloon Arrow”, if one is to take Universal Sports or the AP seriously about this sort of thing) was pretty exciting.

Tactical considerations aside, I think it’s nice to see a reigning Tour champ active and attempting to win races in mid-April. And to see him battle against two potential Grand Tour rivals only sweetens the mix. Certainly beats listening to some old crank stay home and whine about the weather

But what I’m decidedly less pumped about is the reaction to another podium of potential Grand Tour winners at the Giro del Trentino in Italy. Versus, through the magic of Google Translate, called it a “regal podium”, and were assailed for it almost immediately. The same-day win by Evans was heralded as “a victory for the anti-doping movement” in contrast

That opinion lasted all of about five minutes, however, as Evans’ teammate Thomas Frei, who had been doing quite well, ended up turning in a positive EPO test. Never mind that that B-sample hasn’t been tested—the A is never wrong, after all—time to pull BMC’s Tour invites and start simply lying about the circumstances surrounding the suspension of other riders on their squad.

Attitudes like this are why I view much of the anti-doping movement with deep skepticism. You can dislike the riders currently leading the standings at the Giro del Trentino, but the fact is, all three of them have been caught and punished according to the rules. They’ve served their time. What more do you want?

Cycling has the heaviest testing regimen and most rigorously enforced penalties in the sporting world. It’s gotten to the point that teams routinely suspend riders the moment their names appear in an investigation—regardless of validity. Is that still not enough? Does every ex-doper need to be taken out behind the press tent and beaten with a bag full of BikePure headset spacers every time he or she turns in strong performance?

At some point in their careers, Basso, Ricco, and even Vino’ (who does look awful beefy for a guy racing a Grand Tour in two weeks…) were riding exceptionally well despite not taking any drugs; why is the assumption that, as soon as they return to form, they’re back on the juice? Why do people brand their very reappearance in the headlines as a horrible thing?

Perhaps what I like least about this vocal court of opinion is the uneven nature in which it dispenses punishiment. I don’t seem to recall anyone screaming out for justice when Pantani made his last exciting lunges for victory at the ’03 Giro, or when VDB almost came back from the dead at that year’s Ronde.

For that matter, reformed doper David Millar is routinely excoriated for being too sanctimonious about his rehabilitation, and depending on who you ask among the “tarnished podium” crowd, some grant Ivan Basso a pass for reasons as tenuous as his status as a “[nice] family [man]” and his post-suspension work Cadel Evans’ coach.

While the Ricco certainly seems to have all the personality his nickname would imply, objectively speaking, he’s also the purest example of reform from Wednesday’s “tarnished” podium. He confessed immediately and cooperated with authorities, which is more than one can say of either Basso, who denied all charges for nine months and still didn’t really confess, or Vinokourov, who maintains his innocence to this day.

I think it’s pretty clear that the real villains in this tale of two podiums are the fickle cycling fans and commentators, and I think more people need to adapt the attitude taken by Fleche Wallonne winner Cadel Evans: some athletes in every sport will always cheat to win, and no amount of wristbands, invasive testing, or draconian punishment is going to change that.

Cycling does the best job of any sport at rooting out the drug cheats, and I think it’s time we started celebrating the efforts that catch dopers instead of whining that cheats exist in the first place.

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