In all the commentary about doping in cycling, this may be the oddest bit. Whether it’s one of the rare occasions a rider talks about it, or a mainstream newspaper article, or a cycling insider giving his opinion, time and again we read that the current generation is much different from the previous one and that cycling is much cleaner now than it was.
The only problem is, there is close to zero proof to support that statement. That’s not to say it isn’t true, but it is un-checkable. And unfortunately for those who desperately want the world to believe it, it’s the same message that was peddled after Festina, after Puerto and after the Tour de Cera of 2008.
This makes it quite incredible for the media to make such statements. You would think they would have learned by now. Unless they come up with a way to prove it, or at least make it plausible, presenting the idea of cycling being cleaner now as a fact is poor journalism.
It’s quite a different story for the riders making such statements. While they may also lack hard evidence, it’s quite possible they have a good sense that things are improving. The problem for them is how to get that across.
I feel for the riders, you can see the frustration in their statements trying to prove the unprovable. Take Chris Froome recently in the Daily Mail:
“The sport is in probably the best place it’s been in the last 20, 30 years in that respect. Moving on from the revelations we had from Lance last year, it’s given us the chance to show people cycling has changed. I know how I work for the results I get and I know my results aren’t going to be stripped in five, six, seven years’ time.”
How does moving on from the Lance revelations prove anything? Dopers and clean riders both moved on from that, haven’t they? And of course Froome knows how he achieved his results, but the general public doesn’t. It doesn’t follow Froome 24/7 the way Froome follows Froome 24/7. So whether rider A, B, C or D wins, it doesn’t really prove anything to the general public. Unless D stands for Di Luca of course.
Dan Martin encountered a similar problem after he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège. As he told cyclingnews.com:
“A lot of people can see that we’ve got an incredibly strong anti-doping policy and to be able to win this is just amazing. It’s like David [Millar’s] win in the Tour last year or Ryder’s win in the Giro, it’s helped me to know it’s possible to win clean. And this is a sign of how things are changing for the better.”
First off, most people can’t see any anti-doping policy. How do you “see” that as an outsider? People may have perceptions about one team or another, but what are the concrete actions or statements that an outsider can see to know, not perceive, that a team has a strong anti-doping ethic? In fact, since Dan Martin speaks of a policy, that sounds like something you could write down and publish. But as far as I know, it isn’t – by any team – including his own (in fact I can’t even find an “about us” page that explains the general philosophy of most teams).
The second point he makes – while very relatable – is even more troubling for the sport. He basically says that he only started to believe it’s possible to win cleanly after he and his teammates started winning. Does that mean he doesn’t trust the other teams (and so, why should we)? Also, if the only way even an insider trusts this sport is by winning a big race, then he can’t expect any outsider to ever trust this sport. If every fan has to win a classic for him/herself to believe in this sport again, it’s going to take a while.
Please understand, I am not knocking these riders or their teams; in fact I commend them for at least speaking out when most don’t. But you can almost see why their fellow riders simply dodge the subject, since you can’t win. At least, you can’t win the clean cycling argument by winning, or by stating that your win proves anything to outsiders. It proves something to you alone.
But for the rest of us, it almost works the other way – winning fuels our doping suspicions rather than decreasing them. And so Froome can expect more and more critical questions as he tries to win his first Tour. Time will tell if he has a winning answer.