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.

25 Responses to “Stop asking questions”

  1. Evan Shaw Says:

    Exactament! Many of us having been advocating this for years. Lemond was one who voiced this after researchers looked at the need for it. But then LA et al drowned us all

  2. Luis Oliveira Says:

    Assuming 29 riders per team, 18 teams (normal year), 4 tests per month (48 per year), we are talking 25.056 tests per year. I’m assuming that in competition testing would be unnecessary with this in place. Any idea (and I’m REALLY asking) how much such a system would cost?

    Of course you then have to factor travel and other expenses. You also have to assume that any Pro Conti team must be in the system to qualify for a GT invite.

    • It actually costs nothing. Cycling teams have flexible budgets, and in aggregate they make/lose the money they are wanting to make/willing to lose. That’s why sharing TV revenue won’t work either.

      If you give everybody 5M extra, first BMC will spend it on riders (because if he was OK with losing 10M a year before, he still is OK with losing 10M after). Then others will have to follow, salaries will increase and in the end, every team puts 5M more into salaries. To make more money, you need to change attitudes, not revenues (at least not for all teams together).

      It’s the same with anti-doping. If all teams put in 1M, people who were willing to lose 10M will not all of a sudden be willing to lose 11M. So they will cut costs by 1M and the only place is rider salaries. All teams will follow suit, etc, and the anti-doping fund is paid for.

      I realize this is a simplification, but it’s pretty close. I have a longer article about this in 2r issue 2 called “Revenue is irrelevant”.

  3. Alex SP Says:

    Re: ” 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). ”

    I have a friend who cheated on his wife for years. When he finally got caught, he confessed, asked for forgiveness and… became more careful and sophisticated in his ways of cheating his wife and covering it. That´s the human way of dealing with these things.

    IMHO the riders usually look for the more effective drug regardless of ease of detection. Tour of Turkey winner just got busted with EPO, some ppl would say that´s “amazing” or “stupid” (a Di Lucca) someone still getting caught with EPO these days but shows how things are still running in pro cycling re. doping techniques.

    Just reading through the post-bust declarations of many riders recently (especially the germans, for some reason I don´t know but suspect eg. Dekker, Schumacher, Ullrich etc.) is revealing about how easy it is to beat testing. It´s not like this all happened 10 or 20 years ago, so that doesn´t seem to have changed.

    • Of course people will look for effective doping but CERA was both; highly effective AND undetectable. So definitely a “great choice” at the time.

      • Alex SP Says:

        Sure Gerard, agreed. And when you look at CERA it begs the question how EPO has endured as a PED. While at that, let´s not forget there have been talks of new gen superdrugs doing the rounds in the peloton already, and for some time now. Might take a while till it comes to the surface though… with all this UCI election thing going on and stuff not helping matters, etc. Either way I guess we´re still trapped in the “watch, wait and see” loop, so back to the action and eyes/ears open.

        • Paul Jakma Says:

          Because EPO is naturally occurring – your body makes it for itself – and the test for it is statistical in nature. The test looks at the balance between different isoforms of EPO, and if that balance is extremely out from what is typical – dominated by isoforms that are more common in manufactured EPO – then that’s considered a positive. As EPO is metabolised quickly, and hence the balance returns relatively quickly to normal, and as the test, being statistical, has to be very conservative about where it draws the line at ‘doped’, it’s likely still easy to get away with careful use of it.

  4. Mark Hornsby Says:

    The UCI have actually retested thousands of stored samples for AICAR in order to get a feel for the size of the problem. That process has been going on since the end of 2012 (and actually started before there was an officially validated WADA test).

  5. beev Says:

    A couple of comments/thoughts;

    i now hope, or should i say expect, 2r to start asking the “right questions” – failing that, to start hiding its contributors in the “right” back gardens.

    as for rider data – there has been a lot said about power and pseudo science in the last fortnight, but how about this as a good halfway point so that the two sides of this argument can start to converge; all pro tour riders bikes carry a transponder. i do not know if that is also a GPS, but making it so would be an easy step. the UCI can then make this information available in a uniform and fair manner. this would at least be a fair amount of reliable data for people to use/interpret as they see fit. right now, the accuracy of even the timings on climbs cannot be agreed….

    • Gary Says:

      That’s an interesting idea. I was going to post something about the different challenges that come into view when sharing power data, if you have some standardised data collector it controls some of the potential issues.

      Right now there is so little that people are grateful for what they can get hold of; make it a mandatory part of an athlete’s profile and a whole bunch of things jump out:

      – how do you manage chain of custody for a power file? Easy enough to handle with public/private key encryption.

      – Whose power file is this? Do we need the drug test team to take the computer from a rider’s bike and download their data?

      – Is the data correct? Not just is the power meter correctly configured, but is the firmware the genuine article? Has it been tweaked to tone down the data?

      Its easy to put the idea out there but I think the challenges in collecting this kind of digital data is no less than collecting a physical sample.

    • Jerome Says:

      Cheeky suggestive ‘2r’ you dropped in there

    • Well, you can definitely expect 2r not to ask the dumb questions. And 2r doesn’t spend money on sending some guy to three weeks of Tour de France press conferences to ask those questions. I wish I could say I could use the money we saved to put people in the right gardens, but no doubt that’s expensive. Once we have enough readership to afford it, I would consider it though!

      BTW, you may have noticed that 2 out of 3 Kimmage articles contained a doping confession of sorts. Although that’s not the interesting bit. I think it is more important to have a discussion like the one with Pinotti in issue 4.

  6. VeloHope Says:

    Thanks for voicing this. It’s been frustrating as a fan to see reporters frame the debate as “whether or not we should be asking about doping.” It’s not about whether you ask, it’s about what questions you ask. Asking a non-question such as “are you doping?” or “how do we know you’re not doping” is probably worse than not asking anything because it can give the false sense that questions are being asked but nobody feels any less suspicious.

    It makes me wonder if, with a few exceptions,the problem is that “journalists” simply have no experience thinking about these kinds of questions. We’re asking reporters — who just write up what people do and say — to act as journalists. It’s not what they have been trained to do. We don’t expect waiters to know how to think about cooking intricate meals, but we expect reporters to know how to think about investigation and thoughtful open-ended questions. It’s not an excuse to fail at the job we need them to do, but maybe we need to give them time to learn better.

  7. Lance rising Says:

    There are no new drugs.
    Sky are laughing and high fiving behind closed doors.
    Is a special protein a drug?
    This is clean racing at it’s finest.

  8. Releasing a flood of data to the public will reduce the most beautiful sport in the world to numbers on a screen. A small minority of “experts” will wallow in their own pseudo-scientific “cleverness”, then, eventually, go back to reading mystery novels once they too are bored with the sport that they have killed. Instead, cycling needs a reliable, independent anti-doping body that can assure, beyond a reasonable doubt, that performances at the top of the sport are genuine so that everyone else can turn their focus to the compelling racing happening out on the road.

  9. Buddy Says:

    My solution.

    Firstly, remove the statute of limitations on the use of performance enhacing drugs in sport..

    Secondly, get governments to enact laws that make it a criminal offence to use PED’s in sport with gaol/jail time as the punishment. Surely defrauding the public and sponsors is worthy of this.

    Thirdly, retroactively test samples when there are suitable tests in the future. This trying to keep up with the drug companies and scientists is a game that can’t be won. So lets say to the riders ……take what you like today …..for tomorrow ….or the next day …or the next ten years will see you behind bars. Now the risk is up to the riders.

    I am not sure too many riders would take the risk with those odds.

    One other question: why wouldn’t releasing haematocrit numbers during a grand tour help a rider show they were clean.

    Especially if the number started below 47 and was dropping as the race progressed like it should. The only reason I can think that a rider like Froome would not release those numbers was because they started at 49.8 and was still 49.8.


    • Jerome Says:

      My issue with power profiling is that power outputs are majorly influenced by motivation, say hushovd spends most alpine days in the grupetto but the stage he won from the break his power would have increased massively, but you wouldn’t say he was massively doping. Or what if a GC rider takes it easy in the dauphine before raising the bar in the tour? is he doping? Or riders coming out of hard training compared to fresh? There are just so many variables compared to a heamocrit that is doping if over 50 and should drop over a GT.

    • To start with the end, haematocrit can rise if dehydrated, obviously not uncommon in high-performance sport in hot conditions. So there could be incidental peaks. Definitely though over the course of a 3 week Tour, the general trend should be downward. See Lance’s 2009 Giro numbers. Very plausible. 2009 Tour numbers? Different.

      As to whether it’s government’s role to combat cheating on something as trivial as sport is obviously a matter of opinion. Whether criminalization would help, I am doubtful. DEATH doesn’t faze dopers, as is evidenced by the appearance of GW501516 in the peloton (although it is unlikely the riders realized the danger). So I am not sure a mere “chance” of going to jail will.

  10. My recent tweet :

    ” Jacques Rogge welcomes YOU to the Pantomine of Sport! See the UNBELIEVABLE! Performances that will make Sponsors wonder! In the REAL World ?”

    UNTIL there is a ” T & R Comm. FOR ALL SPORT “, nothing is going to CHANGE !

    DOPING is OUT of CONTROL ! Catchup ? When are they going to catchup ? SEEMS LIKE THEY SACRIFICE A FEW ATHLETES IN Any Sport , then say ” See we are doing a Good Job “!

    A Closing date for ” Sealed Submissions of Guilt ” , then LIFE TIME BANS , for those discovered to have ” fudged the Truth “!

    In addition Athletes , locked up in their homes with ” Anklets” to save the community the expense of Prison Cells . Only the Suppliers and Team Managers should enjoy the comforts of a Prison Cell , fed on bread & water as a reminder of their claims of innocence !

  11. Paul O'D Says:

    Didn’t David Walsh just do a version of #1 by embedding with Sky? Now he’s criticized (with some justification) for being a Sky patsy.

    • I guess people see a difference between hiding behind a tree or yelling “Yoohoo, I’m behind the tree”. Also, “embedded journalists” are a relic from the Iraq war where they often delivered absolute drivel and plain propaganda, so the word doesn’t have a very good image. And those journalists weren’t even employed by the same overarching entity as the army they were reporting on.

      But the David Walsh embedding is probably the right idea in the wrong spot. If he was embedded anywhere else, people would likely put more stock into it than when he is sent from one News Corp entity to another. Fairly or unfairly, it doesn’t really seem to matter, does it? Perception is reality.

      • Nick Evans Says:

        If Walsh was embedded elsewhere, people would criticise Sky for their relative lack of transparency.

  12. Steve Says:

    Am always flabbergasted that come the Tour the doping questions are raised of riders and teams, but the UCI and ASO are never asked these same questions about riders that for all intent and purpose come under their control. Brailsford is being pushed to prove but surely t’would be far fairer to put the UCI in position as the body capable of providing these demands so all teams have to provide such data for analysis. Always feel ASO shun the UCI during this period and in doing so the UCI don’t get the deserved scrutiny when they should get the global media’s attention. Would love to see another Pat presser as when USADA report was released where he is asked ‘what are the UCI doing about an independent doping agency for cycling after the collapse of your plan to implement’

  13. Tom Says:

    What’s really annoying is how ‘journalists’ act when they’ve been handed viable evidence. USADA published a big fat dossier of information with numerous redacted riders and support staff. How many journalists went up to Sky’s Bobby Julich and asked him if he was rider x, because the details sound exactly like him? CN published a puff piece interview a month later about Julich’s plans for working with young riders in 2013. No mention of the relevant elephant in the room, which was he was going to be booted from Sky ASAP.

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