Truth and Reconciliation and Motors and Katusha

When I look back over the last ten or so years of cycling’s less savoury side – I am talking, of course, about doping – a couple of things stand out, and they make me slap my forehead in frustration.  I’m fully aware my view isn’t the universal one, but bear with me.

There have been days in history when you see someone, or a people, grasping something, and writing a new chapter for themselves, in spite of huge opposition, and flying in the face of universal truths that say the status quo is the way it’ll be: the day the Berlin Wall fell, the end of the Ceausescus, Rosa Parks riding the bus.  Days made possible by a few brave people – and yes, many of whom had blood on their hands – determining to do something. 

Sometimes of course, it all goes horribly to shit.  After the dawns of the Arab Spring has come Syria’s long dark.  Hopefully, that story will have a better ending – or even any ending.

That critical time for cycling came years ago.  Yes, we’re in a better place now, but I can’t help but wonder at the opportunities missed to make it a better better place.

Who remembers, for example, when Bjaarne Riis and Erik Zabel held a tearful press conference, at a time when there was no hand of the law on their shoulders, they called it quite unbidden, to admit that they’d taken drugs, that they’d cheated, and they wanted to get it out of the way and help cycling move forward, to come to terms with its dark past?  If you do you’ll remember the thanks they got for it – Riis got asked for his jerseys back, and Zabel got kicked in the nuts.

Then the UCI’s independent doping commission fell over because the UCI kept interfering to tell them what they could and couldn’t look at.  This was of course, the days of the Hein and Pat show, long may they be forgotten to rot in mediocrity, and there’s been more than a wisp of smoke for those looking for fire in that direction – covered up tests, and so forth.  The perception has been that Aigle was always more interested in Aigle than in cycling and cyclists.

Yes, some truths have come out.  Cycling is indisputably in a better place than it was.  But has it reconciled?  Has cycling answered the question: why did we dope?

And the answer is, no, we haven’t.  We haven’t got it out there that cycling was, in the sixties, a place where doping was legal – where to dope was to be nothing more than to be good professional.  We haven’t got it out there that the directeurs in the eighties and nineties were those same pros who’d raced in that era, and who prepared their riders in the same way, believing that the anti-doping regulations were sops to the marketing menand that no-one cared.  When Pedro Delgado got busted for Probenecid – a steroid masking agent – at the ’88 tour, he was allowed to continue racing, no questions asked.  Gert Jan Theunisse wasn’t so lucky at that tour though – he got busted for testosterone and received the eye-watering punishment of a ten minute penalty.  Those directeurs were right, and it would take the Festina affair and the police to spell it out to them that times had changed.

And so what did we do to change the culture?

We tested, and we increased the penalties, and there were a couple or three repentant dopers who showed that it was possible to win or not clean or not and we sort of believed them but not really because really who knew?  And there was Armstrong, and phantom pregnancies, and shit you couldn’t make up.  Our struggle was long, public, and in the world of public relations, well – we pretty much lost.  There’s plenty of evidence that other professional sports were doped up to the eyeballs, but they’ve got around it by taking the simple path of largely ignoring it.  Reading Joey Barton’s blog a couple of years ago was an eye-opener:  in a professional football career at the highest level he’d been piss-tested twice, and blood tested never.

So credit where it’s due – no sport’s gone as far as cycling in tracking down the cheats or working with the testers.  When it comes to the catch, we’re the best. I’d actually take less fright at my son declaring he wanted to be a pro cyclist than a footballer or a rugby player. He could do it clean.

If he didn’t, then there’s a well-worn path for him and any other cheating pro, and I think the reality is that the chances are pretty high now that if he did cheat he’d be taking it: two-year ban, fired from the team.  If it’s a WorldTour team or an MPCC member the team might even get suspended, if there’s a couple of positives within a specified time frame.   In all likelihood, his career would be over and his bank account emptied.  Why would you take that risk?

So we’ve done OK, but you think…it could all just be better.   Cycling is cleaner than it was.  It is, demonstrably, working, on some levels.

But on others it is failing miserably.

What future, for example, does Femke Van den Driessche have in cycling now?  After the witch-hunts of the Armstrong era who’s going to listen to someone who may or may not be a willing, knowing cheat?  The media’s too full of David Walsh wannabes and vessels anxious to prove themselves as damning and unforgiving as a Kimmage to ever let that happen.  What’s going to happen to this young woman, not even a full-fledged senior yet, who apparently comes from a home intent on winning the Bizarre Criminal Tendencies award at the Odd Belgians annual dinner?  (I’m referring to her father and EPO-suspended brother’s upcoming trial on budgie-rustling charges…)  Who, from cycling, is going to reach out and try and help her?

What of Luca Paolini, who tested positive for Cocaine and then confessed to an addiction to painkillers?  As loud a cry for help as it gets from a man who has bought pleasure to millions and who is quite clearly struggling.  But instead of asking itself why, the cycling media’s more worried about whether a team-mates positive test should or shouldn’t mean Katusha get suspended.  Have we really forgotten Pantani that quickly?  Frank VDB mean nothing to you?  Read Thierry Claveyrolat’s obituary.  Too many ex-cyclists die alone and abandoned by their sport.  Paolini’s not even an ex-cyclist, not yet, but we’re abandoning him already.

We’ve led the charge for cleanliness and truth, now we should lead the charge for rehabiliation and help, just as we always should have done.