“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.

16 Responses to ““It’s much better now””

  1. There is some evidence to support the supposition (that cycling it cleaner) but its not (& I don’t think it can ever be) conclusive. It comes from slower times (overall and up known climbs).

    • rogier Says:

      Slower climbing times are zero evidence that cycling is cleaner nowadays.
      1. Using half the amount of epo, or less, will not make you ride as fast up alpe d’huez as pantani but is still cheating.
      2. if froome climbs alpe d’huez slower than marco pantani but still considerably faster than he did a couple of years ago, what does that prove? Nothing.

    • Leo Says:

      Slower times can also be the result of more conservative racing by the main contenders, watching their powermeters and never making that super-human effort of “excessive” time in the red.

      But I love Gerard’s “…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.” So true.

  2. I’ve always said that the worst thing Lance did was not the actual doping, but the repeated, vehement denials. This combined with the lies from Ullrich, Basso, Hamilton, Vaughters and every single other cyclist of the past 20 years has been the worst thing to happen to cycling.

    It has absolutely and completely destroyed the trust, not only in the cyclists themselves, but the entire sport. The teams, the UCI, the race organizers. Anyone on the outside who trusts a word coming from anyone on the inside is considered a gullible fool now.

    The big problem with this state of affairs is that there’s no way back. There’s no dope test good enough, there’s no lie detector accurate enough to PROVE that you’re not cheating. In every aspect of life, as well as sport, we have to trust that people are going to do the right thing. (See Bruce Schneier’s brilliant “Liars and Outliers” for more on this).

    What these cyclists have done is utterly and absolutely destroyed that trust, so now we absolutely cannot believe any of them. It’s tragic for the people who are clean

    I can hear their protests now, they say: “The sport is dfferent now, I would never do anything like that” but all I can think is: Everyone insists that they’re clean, right up until the moment they admit to doping. Everyone says the sport is clean, until the moment something like the USADA report comes out.

    The real tragedy is is that this lack of trust cannot be fixed, except by a long string of trustworthy behaviour, and I’m not sure cycling is capable…

    • Good points Matt – the current generation (if they’re clean) are certainly paying the price for the EOP generation. Its going to take another generation or two to rebuild the trust. My only difference with you is that I do have a some degree trust in the current generation – if I didn’t that I’d probably give up on the sport like I’ve done with football/soccer.

      • It’s sad, but I’ll probably never stop watching pro cycling, even if I can never be sure that the fantastic performances aren’t achieved with some “help” I just refuse to be shocked when anyone is popped or admits to doping. You can admire people’s performance while being morally disgusted with them. Or at least I can…

  3. VeloFreak Says:

    I think it’s quite silly to be in such a naive position. If riders still dope, they won’t use epo or the like, there are new drugs that can not be detected yet, just as always. blood samples should be stored and dopers will show up 10 years later…

  4. Rp Says:

    Just when you think you can enjoy cycling …
    In 1988 it was Pedro Delgado … you can fill in the others …
    In 2013 it was Danilo di Luca
    2 Do:
    1 – Get rid of Pat McQuaid ASAP
    2 – Bring in doping controls that work – passports do not
    3 – Get someone credible like Lemond to oversee things

  5. […] model of espousing “clean rider” ethics and policies. Problem is, there’s almost zero evidence these policies are making the current generation of riders any cleaner than the…. What to do […]

  6. Patrick Says:

    i think retrospective tests are the only real answer.
    just as we’re seeing now with old samples coming up positive thanks to new tests detecting drugs that couldn’t be at the time, there is no way of knowing what the current athletes (across all sports) are taking, safe in the knowledge that their chemists are better than wada’s.

    it must be made clear that even if that is the case, in a few years time all your victories will be re-examined and yes you will have had some fame and fortune for a while but we will take back everything we possibly can and you will be completely discredited if it turns out you were cheating.

    i really like froome’s statement that he knows his results will stand the test of time. it doesn’t necessarily mean he is clean but at least he is thinking about the future and the legacy he will leave

    its best that cheats are caught as son as possible but the reality is that that will sometimes not be very soon.

  7. PeterB Says:

    In regards to believing performances and in particular in GT’s why can’t we have the riders haematocrit published on the day on an official website.

    If we see riders starting a GT over 48 and then staying there for the 3 weeks then we would have every right to call the performance into qurestion.

    Given that the average male has an haematocrit on the mid to low 40’s surely posting those numbers could help with the trust bit from the blood doping perspective.

    If I was a clean rider I could see this as a reasonable thing to do as opposed to invading my privacy.

    The days of 49.9 should be gone forever for the majority of riders.

  8. Kirk Says:

    Well I think I have figured it all out:
    The The International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) Body Building’s governing body is the model cycling has to follow.

    A. They have implemented doping controls since 1986.
    B. They follow the WADA code per their website: http://www.ifbb.com/page.php?id=23
    C. You never ever hear of professional body builders getting busted for doping.

    They must be doing something right and all other professional sports organizations must follow suit.


  9. spandelles Says:

    This is one of the most rational posts on observational evidence for changes in the quantity or quality of doping I’ve seen (and I have read and written a few). We often fall back on intuitions to fill the gaps in evidence, and I guess that is why arguments about the extent to which cycling is clean or dirty so often revert to opinionated assertion.

  10. Switch the terms “doping” and “cycling” for “God” and “religion” and the debate is the same, ie unsolvable and unprovable.

    We’ll never know for sure either way.

    All one can do is consider all available evidence and make an informed guess. Exhibit A:

  11. […] 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 […]

  12. […] 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 […]

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