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How unlucky

July 27, 2013

Imagine you’re a professional rider for almost two decades

Imagine all these years, against a tsunami of cheating, you ride cleanly

Except for two measly weeks

For two measly weeks you used EPO

Imagine that of all the weeks you could have done that, you picked two weeks before the Tour de France

But luckily you came to your senses and stopped. Phew.

Now imagine that at some point, years later, they decide to retest Tour samples

Imagine that of all the years they could have chosen, they pick the year you cheated

Fortunately, it’s for scientific research and the riders are never identified. Phew

Now imagine that another decade later, some country decides to waste tax payers’ money to look into doping

Imagine the chance that this country is France

Imagine the infinitesimally small chance that they not only target your sport, but also that one year, and that they manage to unearth the rider names behind the positive samples

Now imagine that although there is no real reason, they decide to make the names of the dopers public

There you are, always played by the rules, one little slip-up and you’re caught

Just like Erik Zabel really, oh no, wait, his claim to have used EPO only once turned out to be a complete lie

Now imagine that fans of the sport have gotten so accustomed to the excuses that they don’t believe you

How unlucky. Truly.

Note 1: Paris-Roubaix 2007 has always been one of my favorite races, making the recent revelations a pretty bitter pill to swallow

Note 2: Instead of only focussing on the positive tests, let’s also acknowledge that apparently several riders won stages in the 1998 Tour without using EPO. Maybe that should give us some hope for the future, and if nothing else it should serve to show the claim of “I had no choice, everybody was doing it” is off the mark.

Mind the gap!

July 17, 2013

With Froome so far ahead, what can keep him from winning? Mind games and rain. And in that sense, Contador may have scored a first point, albeit unintentionally.

Contador’s crash clearly shook Froome a bit, the five, six turns after that were very wobbly for the Brit. And it seems he wasn’t able to forget about it at the finish either, given that last night at 11pm he still tweeted:

Almost went over your head @albertocontador.. Little more care next time?

It looks like Contador has gotten into Froome’s head, like a pesky Spanish bilharzia bug. Add to that the possible rain on the descents today and the next days and strange things could happen.

We saw it in the Giro with Wiggins, confidence in descending is a funny thing. As much as Froome tries to be different from Wiggo, in this sense he may be similar. I don’t like the train of thought that Wiggins and Froome are mere human robots following orders from their coaches, but it cannot be denied that they do rely greatly on being told what to do. While Cavendish dove into the gap during the echelon stage and was the last guy to make it into the front group, Froome who was 10m behind decided instead to get on the radio.

With a strong team and good preparation, this is a golden set-up. But on the descent, team mates and radios are of no use. It’s just you and your thoughts, and if those thoughts are thoughts of fear, you’re in trouble.

In the time trial, this may pose a small problem for Froome, especially if it stays wet. In the coming days, the problem may grow. I have little doubt that Contador will descend like a maniac off the back of Alpe d’Huez. That road is terrible at the best of times, in the rain it will be the ultimate test of nerves. Especially if Contador decides to take some bad lines to freak people out, we may end up with more than a few riders hanging off the trees there. Or worse.

I can’t say I am looking forward to it, as I just hope that everybody stays safe. But descending is as much a part of cycling as climbing, and it is a legitimate spot to attack. If Froome doesn’t want to be caught behind a crashing Contador again, he’d better make sure he is ahead of him. And Sky fans should pray their sports psychologist has learned from the Wiggins case.

The positive positive

July 16, 2013

Rarely have I welcomed a positive doping test as much as Mustafa Sayar. Here comes a rider out of nowhere and starts winning races like he’s Asafa Powell. I mean, it was crazy. And how he got busted for EPO.

This is great news for cycling for two reasons. First off, while Sayar was winning the Tour of Turkey, several riders openly expressed their disgust. What they saw simply couldn’t be real. Kevin Seeldraeyers said:

“I exploded myself trying to follow the Turkish guy”

Marcel Kittel’s tweet was more explicit:

“I was not often in my life so angry about a result of someone else. And I see many people around me feeling the same.

I have a dream!, in which riders actually refuse to take the start when they are in a situation like this. And in which they do this not just with small Turkish riders, but with any rider, including teammates. But it’s a good start.

The second piece of good news is that Sayar doped and WON. Just think about that, all these talented riders could not match a doped Sayar. So the peloton can’t be very doped if Sayar can handily “outdope” them.

Sure, you may argue that Sayar outdoped them by using so much he was caught, and maybe in a peloton of micro-dopers, the macro-doper wins. I’m not pretending this is definite proof of anything, but I certainly take it as positive (ahum) news that for Sayar to win, he must have been competing against a peloton significantly cleaner than himself.

 

Stop asking questions

July 15, 2013

I think I have a solution for Froome et al. A few posts ago I described the conundrum top riders find themselves in; how to prove the unprovable, that you ride cleanly. Reading and watching some Tour de France coverage this month has not made me any more optimistic, but not on account of the riders. It’s most of the media that seems to have learned little (with hopeful exceptions). But don’t despair!

Conscious of their failure to seriously address doping in the EPO era, it seems that many journalists have vowed to not make that mistake again. So every chance they get, they bug riders with the dreaded “Are you clean” question. Sometimes it’s even dressed up as a service to their audience, gramatical error included: “Can you promise our viewers you are riding clean?”

In the history of sport, I am not aware of any athlete who has ever spontaneously answered “No” to that question. This makes it a non-question, a podium purportedly showing the journalist’s commitment to “asking tough questions” without really asking anything. I am actually amazed at the patience riders have for this question.

I’m not sure which is worse, the journalists who keep repeating this same question or those who ask it once and then  proclaim that “Froome has been asked the question, he has answered it and that’s what we have to go with.” Really, is that the media’s job? To ask a rhetorical question and then when you get the only answer you could possibly get, declare the case closed? Isn’t that exactly what they did in the Armstrong years, ask the same, get the same answer and go with it?

Careful, I am not accusing Froome of being in any way similar to Armstrong, what I am saying is that the media doesn’t give Froome any chance to prove he is far different from Armstrong. And no, publishing power data or blood values would not help him either – Armstrong has done some of that too in his career.

The epiphany came to me when I heard an ex-rider (Rob Harmeling) tell a journalist that he should continue to chase the doping story, but refrain from insinuating without proof or “lying in the bushes to follow riders”. Very sensible advice, but after initial disgust, riders may warm to the idea of finding some journalist behind a tree while mowing the lawn.

Would it not be a a godsend for Froome if a journalist spends the next year lying in the bushes following him, and then reports he found nothing? Would that not be one of the few ways even the most skeptical followers might be convinced?

Right now, I think there are only three ways in which credibility can be restored:

  1. Proof that the media is doing everything it can to unearth doping practices and coming up empty. This means not asking “are you clean” when there is only one possible answer, but true investigative journalism.
  2. A new doping test for a product that is super-effective and until-then undetectable. If you’re going to dope, you would do it with such a seemingly “no-risk-all-benefit” drug (why use something that is less effective or more easily traced). So springing a test for such a product on an unsuspecting peloton would show you who rides cleanly out of conviction even when there is “free speed” to be had. The last time this happened was with the CERA test in 2008, it could have happened with an AICAR test in recent times but unfortunately it hasn’t.
  3. It’s a version of #2, only less elegant. It is of course through retro-testing. If the AICAR test is now available and you retro-test samples from the past eight years and find nothing, that would be a very strong indication that the peloton is able to withstand the sirens of shady speed.

Note that I am not listing two other ways:

  1. Police investigations and the like. Many of the most recent anti-doping successes have come from police investigations, US government actions or anti-doping agencies. But while that is useful, it is unlikely to ever be of help to prove the opposite. No government agency would ever admit to having done a very extensive investigation into doping and having found nothing. You celebrate your successes and hide your failures. It’s ironic in a way, and applicable to investigations in all areas of society; the more they investigate the worse our world view becomes, because we only hear about it when they find something bad.
  2. The riders. There is really nothing any athlete can do to prove his innocence. Of course, dodging questions may look suspicious, but answering them freely is just par for the course. Even if you would come up with a novel, very credible looking tool to make your innocence plausible, such a tool would quickly be copied by clean and dirty athletes alike.

P.S. Just when I finished this, Brailsford from Team Sky said he would be willing to hand over all their data to an expert appointed by WADA, as a sort of “biological passport PLUS”. That’s a great idea, although when you think about it it shows how the passport is not working. Brailsford correctly states that the passport should be more than a few blood values, it should look at weight, power, etc. But right now there aren’t enough tests being done in the passport to even get a credible clean sheet with regards to the blood values.

Even better than giving an expert access to bio pass and internal team data, give a bunch of experts the power to take blood samples and get the power data for all riders. Fund it through the teams & riders, make this expert independent of teams & riders and independent of the UCI. Of course that is the independent anti-doping organization many are calling for, it’s just a matter of how to fund it (and some thoughts on that are here.)

Get the blood tests to several per month or per week, get constant info on power readings and before long you will have a system so tight that although it may not prevent all doping, it will make the micro-dosing so micro that the advantage is minimal. Thus clean riders can compete, and cheating ones have such meagre returns they may decide it’s not worth the risk anymore.

Riis’ pieces

July 12, 2013

It appears more and more pieces of the puzzle are coming together with regards to Bjarne Riis, with now Rasmussen stating that Riis was aware of the doping going on at his team while Rasmussen was a rider in 2001 and 2002. Together with the statements from Jaksche and Hamilton in the past few years, it seems the net is slowly closing.

It brought back memories for me, since I was negotiating our first sponsorship agreement with Riis’ team during the period Rasmussen is describing. In fact, I remember thinking Rasmussen was a rider with a lot of potential on that team, having recently switched from mountain biking and making quite an impact in 2002 already.

Ironically, one of the reasons we decided to sign the deal was that we figured the trio of all-American hero Hamilton, French darling Jalabert and up-and-coming climber Rasmussen was a combination you could always use in your promotion – whether they won or not. Looking back now, what a lethal cocktail that turned out to be.

A few days after we signed the deal, Jalabert retired. So other than a Cervélo P3 rebadged as a Look in the 2002 Tour, he never rode our bikes. A few days after that, Rasmussen also left the team and went to Rabobank.

My memory is notoriously bad, but I do remember asking the team for an explanation because I was disappointed to see him leave (remember, this is 2002). They told me they had decided to let him go because he was doing things that the team didn’t agree with, that he was a liability. While they didn’t spell it out, it was pretty clear to me what that meant.

I asked them how letting him go to Rabobank would solve anything in the bigger picture (instead of just for the team), and if they shouldn’t warn other teams about a rider like that. They said they had told Rabobank, but that the Dutch didn’t care. I now shake my head, but at the time I thought “Phew, looks like we chose the right team”.

So in a twisted way, Rasmussen is probably right, the team did know what he was up to. The question is, what did the team do with that information. At the time, I saw the whole episode as a positive sign, it appeared the team was taking the right stance by saying goodbye to the rider. I have since wondered what the whole story was, and if the “things the team didn’t agree with” was the simple act of doping, or the methods, or the facilitators.

Aside from all the business reasons to be in pro cycling, one of my personal reasons to sponsor a team was actually that I was very curious about doping, about whether most riders were doping or most weren’t.

As a fan, I had always wondered. It’s easy to draw conclusions in retrospect, but at the time I figured all hypotheses were equally plausible – how do you see the difference between a group where almost nobody cheats and a group where almost all do? You really only see riders in relation to those around them. Comparing with different eras, when equipment, nutrition and other knowledge was different, remains tricky. I mean, we’re all faster than Maurice Garin, so what does that prove?

I figured that by being a sponsor, I would see something either way. It’s not that I expected to be asked to hold the IV bag if doping was occurring, but thought I’d surely see something while staying in the team hotel from time to time. That was a bit naive, and I never saw anything; no suspicious behavior, no strange packages, no hurriedly closed doors, nothing. I guess hiding your illicit activities in plain sight in busy hotels isn’t that difficult.

[Just to be clear, since several people seem to read between the lines stuff I didn't intend, I wasn't thinking for a moment about David Walsh when I wrote this last paragraph]

The truth about reconciliation

July 4, 2013

The JaJa case, Cookson’s manifesto, McQuaid’s diatribe against same, Jonathan Vaughters on twitter; after a brief lull, truth and reconciliation is back in a big way.

It seemed to gain momentum right after the USADA report, when it was even embraced (likely with the goal to smother it) by McQuaid. At least I think it was, tough to figure out through the usual contradictions. Here are some points to consider:

  • Many of the bureaucrats ditched the concept after first seeming to embrace it “because the WADA code doesn’t allow for it”. But the WADA code was not sent to us from Mars with explicit instructions never to change it. Humans from planet Earth wrote the code, and if enough people make good arguments to change it, it can be. So if the bureaucrats think T&R is the way to go, they should not complain the WADA code doesn’t allow it; they should work to change the code. And personally, I think such a request would be seriously considered by WADA if it didn’t come as part of a salvo of sniping press releases and asinine public statements.
  • Can we allow people to “get away with it”? I wrote about that in my previous blog post, and we have to accept that there is no perfect solution. The outcome will feel insufficient and unfair regardless. But if it is possible to use the concept of Truth and Reconciliation in a country that has suffered murder, torture, bomb attacks and other unspeakable crimes, then surely it should be possible with something as insignificant as illegal drug use in sport. Furthermore T&R needn’t mean there is zero punishment for transgressions.
  • Ex-dopers can’t call for Truth and Reconciliation. It’s quite alright for ex-dopers to call for truth, but they should leave to others the call for reconciliation. Problem is, there is no real “other side” in this conflict. Actually there is, made up of clean riders, fans who were fooled, etc, but this is a rag-tag group that is not easily identifiable Even worse, until the moment a T&R process starts, every rider will continue to claim they were part of that small minority in the “clean rider” camp. Tough to start Truth and Reconciliation with such a fundamental lie.
  • Cycling doesn’t have a bishop Tutu. Whatever you may think of the man, he could speak to large parts of both sides with authority. Cycling doesn’t have a person like that – there is so much conflict on so many levels and so many topics. Who has the authority or even credibility with a large portion of the cycling world?
  • What is the purpose of a T&R process? Is is that (ex-)dopers no longer have to fear getting found out? Is it to avoid embarrassing stories appearing one by one for the next decade? Those are all pretty self-serving goals. But what is the goal for cycling, what will the sport get out of the process? You hear very little about that.

As a result, it is entirely possible cycling (and maybe other sports) will have a process through which people will confess their doping sins without penalty. The truth part is easy, it can certainly be “bought” with the prospect of never having to worry about getting caught up in your past anymore, and in essence future job and financial security. Just like any bank robber would confess to the crime if he could keep the loot and avoid jail.

But the question is, how does this help the sport? Will it make the environment any healthier for the next generation? Will it give riders who are doping as we speak an incentive to stop? Will it encourage their clean teammates or pelotonmates a reason to speak out about them?

As long as it is unclear how Truth and Reconciliation will help the sport – aside from giving peace of mind to the ex-dopers and avoiding future embarrassing media stories because all the sewage comes out at once – there isn’t any real point.

And as long as we don’t really know what reconciliation entails, and with whom, it’s an affront to South Africans to even use the expression.

ONCE bitten, twice shy

July 1, 2013

Another week, another ex-cyclist bites the dust. This time it’s Laurent Jalabert, with evidence mounting he used EPO during his career. While most would file this under A for “Absolutely the least shocking news of the year”, it’s getting quite a bit of attention for two reasons:

  • Oddly, JaJa doesn’t really deny there was EPO in his body, but rather that he knew about it. “I trusted my doctors” and never asked questions, never looked at the bottle, I simple wasn’t interested in what kind of stuff was injected into my body. Didn’t care, never curious.
  • JaJa is a cycling pundit for French TV and this fuss around his person is unwelcome. In an attempt to avoid the limelight and pretty much disappear from sight, he has now (temporarily) stepped down from that position, either voluntarily or after mild suggestions.

First off, it’s entirely logical he can’t be a pundit right now. With his explanation of unknowingly doping, he has lost a lot of credibility. And a pundit without credibility is, frankly, useless.

Of course, that’s not the reason he stepped down. He stepped down because having to answer questions about his past as a cyclist is uncomfortable. And as we have seen time and again, not answering them or answering them with bullshit only makes it worse. Apparently JaJa missed that part of the memo.

Predictably, JaJa’s conundrum set in motion the truth & reconciliation script. It goes for example like this:

  • Somebody will tweet, facebook or – in extreme cases – “say” that JaJa should be stripped of his results, fired from his current cycling-related job, etc.
  • Somebody else will respond that “other riders” will think twice about coming forward if this is how we treat them, and that the only solution is truth & reconciliation.

For some reason, these two camps remain diametrically opposed. But isn’t it simply the case that both are true?

  • It is appalling to think that some people cheated their way to fame and riches and that once they are caught, they get to keep all their ill-gotten gains? We don’t like it with bankers or scam artists, why would we like it any more with cyclists?
  • At the same time, most people in the “strip them bare” group will also concede that the problem was so endemic that punishing the few unlucky guys who got caught won’t restore justice in any meaningful way.

This is it, life is imperfect and so is cycling. We can choose option A, we can choose option B, either way it will feel insufficient and unfair.

“It’s much better now”

June 27, 2013

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.

Ditch the national endorsements

June 24, 2013

Sure, it’s been interesting watching Pat McQuaid get roundly rejected by the Irish grassroots members, and the courtroom drama out of Switzerland will be riveting too (well, maybe not). And certainly, McQuaid doesn’t have the right to complain about “small groups of people” hijacking the process when he has never before expressed a concern about that process or done anything in his long, long tenure at the UCI to change it.

But aside from the current soap opera, can we not agree that these national endorsements are rubbish? Somebody running for the UCI presidency doesn’t represent his country, at least he/she shouldn’t. In fact, I would prefer a president whose home country is lukewarm about him/her.

The president should further the interests of the sport worldwide, not the interests of their home country  (or country of residence). The obligation to seek such an endorsement creates the risk that the candidate is beholden to a certain country. In fact, this is what happened with McQuaid’s initial endorsements by Cycling Ireland. They agreed to endorse him, but not after extracting promises from McQuaid about initiating certain changes to the way the UCI is run. We may have found those demands appealing, but one country should not have a bigger hold over a future president than another.

In a similar vein, I don’t think that one country should be able to prevent a candidate from running for president as it could potentially prevent a candidate who does not “sufficiently” favor the home country. In this sense, the board of Cycling Ireland had a point when it said the whole cycling community should decide on McQuaid’s record, not the CI board. However, they ruined it precisely by demanding concessions (the most galling of which was a change of the UCI constitution to limit the UCI presidency to two terms, starting AFTER McQuaid would serve his third).

Furthermore, in the CURRENT structure, the endorsement exists expressly to have the national federation judge the candidate and ensure that no unfit candidates turn up. Whether they liked it or not, the rules required them to judge McQuaid and when the members felt that judgment was incorrect, it was right to protest.

Therefore I appreciate what the Irish EGM has done. Agree or disagree with their decision, there is no denying they voted for the right reasons – whether or not McQuaid was fit for the job. They didn’t vote on whether he would be sufficiently pro-Ireland or anything else unrelated.

As such, the EGM used a flawed part of the rules to make the right judgment. I just hope that in the future, the endorsement of a candidate for the UCI presidency will better reflect the global nature of the job. Instead of requiring the endorsement of one country, let them obtain endorsements from 10,000 national federation members in no fewer than 50 countries. That way the candidate will need to engage with  grassroots members instead of just holding secretive private meetings with national federation board members.

Pat for candidate!

June 20, 2013

The news of the Irish Cycling Federation EGM rejecting the endorsement of Pat McQuaid’s candidacy for a third term as UCI president was amazing. Whatever you may think of the issue, the fact that a grassroots action was able to grow strong enough to overturn a decision made by the board is astounding. Especially since  they were under no obligation to call an EGM It’s proof positive that the powerless in fact do have power.

So now Pat’s ability to run for president lies in the hands of a few Swiss judges. Is he allowed to ask for a Swiss endorsement because he lives there, or is “international endorsement shopping” not allowed?

I’m torn on this issue. Although I usually try to be fair, I cannot ignore the fact that I think Pat McQuaid has been disastrous to the sport of cycling. So of course, I don’t want him to be the next president. I don’t know Cookson, and I don’t like the concept of “anybody but …”, but in this case I can’t help but feeling that way.

That said, I would like him to run for president again. Although I would love the Swiss judges to slap him on the wrist and explain that this cheap shopping around for an endorsement is not cricket, and although I would love to see the arrogance that oozes from it to be punished, I also would love to see an actual race for the presidency.

Ideally, an election race is a chance to exchange ideas. At the very least, it’s a time where the candidates will have to answer the tough questions from their constituents. Due to the way the UCI election is held, there are a few too many steps between the cyclist  and/or fan at the base and the race for the top, but it’s better than nothing. If nothing else, the candidates will have to unfold their plans and can be held to account when executing those plans or failing to. Without a race, the UCI will basically get a president who is free to do as he pleases. Cookson may do a very good job of it, but what’s the actual job he’s planning to do?

Therefore I say: “Pat for candidate”. Hopefully followed by a crushing defeat.

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