Why Cycling Really Is Making Progress

Oct 9 2010

LA Confidentiel CoverDavid Walsh, author of the infamous LA Confidentiel and one of the most notable contemporary voices against doping, was quoted in Cyclingnews a few days ago, commenting on the high-profile positives of the past month. “You’ve now got Contador and Mosquera both in trouble” sighed the Irishman, “and you have to think that this sport is going nowhere.”

While I respect the man’s opinion, I think his statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Even as I type this, the allegations made in his book are flushing out the foundation of a federal case against Lance Armstrong and the former US Postal Service Team. A deposition prompted by Walsh’s investigation has already caught the seven-time Tour winner in an obvious contradiction, and for those eager to see the Texan’s head on a platter, the best may be yet to come.

But cycling’s steps toward a cleaner sport over the past few years go well beyond exposing les secrets de Lance Armstrong. Though the progress has been slow, and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture with each new positive test, the long-term trend has been turning solidly and inexorably against the dopers.

Consider 2004, the year in which LA Confidentiel made its debut. That fall, Tyler Hamilton recorded the first positive sample under new testing for homologous blood transfusions (the re-injection of someone else’s blood). Aside from proving the efficacy of the new test, the Hamilton case also revealed to exactly what extent the anti-doping authorities were able to monitor the blood samples they took; thanks to Hamilton’s rigorous legal battle, the scientific validity of this testing was thoroughly established.

This detailed monitoring—which would eventually become the UCI biological passport program—sent the message that successfully-executed doping would now be a full-time job, requiring careful dosing, refrigeration, planning, and support from medical professionals: none of which come cheaply or easily. Even the deep-pocketed Hamilton, whose doping program was extensive and well-planned, still hadn’t been able to dodge the vampires or beat the rap.

Manolo Saiz2004 was also the year of Jesus Manzano’s revelations about the pervasiveness of doping within the cycling world. Manzano, a middling Spanish rider, opened up to the Spanish press with a flood of allegations, which were categorically denied and dismissed by cycling’s establishment. But the maligned Spaniard’s work with authorities bore fruit in a 2006 raid on the offices of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.

Despite massive interference from the Spanish government, the Opercion Puerto case lead directly to the accusation and punishment of countless riders, including three serious TdF contenders: Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Alejandro Valverde. While the case was never as far reaching as it should have been, and progressed with interminable slowness, the actual sanction of top-tier TdF finishers was a first since the cycling “owned up” to the extent of oxygen vector drug abuse in 1998.

Between 1998 and 2005, there were no major changes in the UCI rules—EPO and blood doping were just as illegal as they are today. But before the Hamilton positive and Puerto raid, efficacy of testing and enforcement had been decidedly lacking. Both homologous doping and EPO lacked a good tests for years, and early positives were met with skepticism and short suspensions. At some points, authorities may even have turned a blind eye to higher-profile positives.

Consider the Tours since the Puerto raid, and I think you’ll see a definite change. In ’06, Landis was caught after a miraculous, ride-away-from-everyone Tour win, just days after the Tour ended. In ’07, Vinokourov was caught re-injecting someone else’s blood and booted mid-race. Later that same year, Michael Rasmussen was voluntarily pulled by his team while wearing the Yellow Jersey, after his violations of the UCI’s whereabouts policy were revealed.

In 2008, a few riders, riding high on the general classification and throwing back stage wins like energy gels thinking they’d discovered an undetectable new drug, were caught and very visibly ejected, along with a handful of other names sanctioned after the fact. And now, in 2010, we have Alberto Contador caught shortly after the Tour with nearly-undetectable levels of a drug, and chemical substances that, while not sanctionable yet, strongly suggest re-injected blood.

If those previous two paragraphs don’t represent a remarkable increase in testing effectiveness, I don’t know what does. And it’s really just the continuation of a longer-term trend. Consider the Tour podiums from 1999-2005. While it is glaring that the most successful rider of that era remains at least technically innocent, it’s difficult to find another Head of State from the period with whom justice has not caught up. When compared with the soft or non-existant sanctions placed on riders in the Festina era, even those slow-moving cases mark a dramatic improvement.

Bernhard KohlThe initial reaction when inundated by news of positive tests—as Walsh and Ettore Torri have recently voiced—is to throw up your hands and say that everyone’s on drugs and that nothing is improving. But natural though that instinct may be, it’s also highly irrational.

Positive tests mean riders are getting caught. While the confessions of some riders make test evasion seem trivially easy, their own positives contradict that suggestion. There’s no argument to be made that an effective doping program isn’t a massive undertaking today, especially compared with the casual EPO needlesticks of a decade ago.

While the UCI may at times seem to be doing everything in its power to erode public faith in the sport, the fact remains that cycling’s progress in rooting out dopers has been commendable, and the improvements are continuing. Bernhard Kohl’s well-worn quip that you cannot win the Tour without doping may indeed still be true, but the cost, complexity, and risks involved in dosing up are exponentially higher than just a few years ago—as his own downfall reflects. If testing continues to improve, in the very near future, it may no longer be worth the reward.

The dream of a sport—any sport—with no doping is an attractive fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. As long as there is competition, people will cheat to gain an extra edge, and those hunting the cheats will always be playing catch-up. The best a rational fan can hope is that those running the sport make cheating as unattractive a proposition as possible, through consistent, effective testing, and firm, swift sanctions.

And in that regard, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a sport going in a better direction than professional cycling.

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