Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

May 6 2010

When I began following this sport, one of the first things that struck me were riders’ reactions to anti-doping efforts. Granted, no one likes being woken up early—all the more so if the early wake-up comes with a blood test. But I’d imagine getting smeared across the Pyrenees by 25 guys cranking oxygen to their muscles through erythrocyte smoothies is an infinitely less pleasant experience. So why the resistance?

To put in bluntly, the anti-doping moving sucks at PR. In case the legions massing in various public spaces with poorly-spelled signs hadn’t tipped you off, people hate notion of being told what to do—especially if it’s allegedly for their own benefit. Imagine what the Tea Party protests would be like if Dick Pound were running the US Government and I think you get a sense of how the peloton felt half-a-decade ago.

Granted, those carrying out the tests didn’t have an easy task—they’d fallen dangerously far behind the dopers in terms of technology, and drug abuse had spread to the point that team cars could essentially roll up at the stage finish and hand out refrigerated bags. But the midnight raids and rampant speculation were the wrong approach, upsetting the riders’ union, and prompting protests, both on the race course and in the courtroom.

Change came incrementally. Pound left. The UCI hired Anne Gripper, and started a surprisingly good athlete education program. And most importantly, riders started getting caught. Floyd Landis became the first rider to lose the Tour to a positive test. Michael Rasmussen had the Yellow Jersey ripped from his shoulders. Dazzling protagonists like Ricco and Vinokourov were bounced mid-Tour. And while I disagree with the specific circumstances surrounding the ’06 Puerto suspensions, they certainly went a long way toward cranking up rider perception of the risks involved with doping.

Earlier this week, upon the announcement that three riders would be blocked from starting the Giro based on their biological passport findings, a couple riders congratulated the UCI on Twitter—without a detectable note of sarcasm. While a vocal minority has always condemned dopers, the unsolicited, positive response of individual riders to a suspension marked—for me, anyway—a pretty significant turning point.

Alas, the UCI still has a few tricks to learn. The suspension of Pellizotti, Prado, and Valjavek, was, as a certain Vice President might say, a big effing deal. This was the first major suspension announced under the biological passport program, and cycling’s governing body dropped it off as unceremoniously as I might dispose of last night’s dinner.

From the horrific press release, which seems to have been optimized to avoid search engine results, to the lack of specific data on what makes these riders’ information abnormal, the UCI has created a massive information vacuum, into which all sorts of interesting excuses have rushed. It’s not a good when I’m only reading about the specifics of a positive test from the people trying to rebut it.

And it’s not some vanishing-twin longshot we’re talking about here. The biological passport program is a good idea, something that probably needs to happen, for cycling and for sport in general. These cases are clearly going to be its first major legal test, and right now the UCI seems to be doing everything in its power to make sure it loses the case.

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