Monday 27 June 2011

Doping: there is light at the end of the tunnel

Yesterday I talked to a friend while waiting for Mrs. Cyclopunk to emerge from the supermarket, where she had become distracted by shiny things and was taking her time. As is usual at this time of year, I can't think about anything other than ridiculously fit young men in skin tight Lycra and, as is also usual, I'm boring my non-cycling friends rigid with Tour talk in a language all but incomprehensible to them. As I tried to impress upon him the sheer enormity of the race and what those who take part in it do, he said the exact same thing that all non-cyclists do when you talk about the distances and climbs involved: "Well, they're all on drugs, aren't they?"

Astana-Würth had to abandon the Tour de France in 2006 after five of its nine riders were caught in anti-doping tests. The company that owned the team had its UCI ProTour licence revoked later in the same year.
It's annoying, that. However, much as we'd all like to think otherwise it's easy to see why those not in the know believe it to be the case. Over the last ten or so years, almost all of the news stories to have made it from the cycling world out into the wider public attention have been about doping - scandals, bans, is-he-or-isn't-he, Festina, Puerto, Contador, Armstrong, Millar... the list goes on. It has, categorically, not been a good ten years for our sport and until very recently it looked as though professional cycling was in real danger of changing beyond all recognition when the big businesses upon which teams rely for sponsorship began to run a mile from anything connected to it, even if the team in question was one of those that was doing all it could (as all of them are now doing) to assist the UCI in their quest to stamp out doping altogether, because there were no 100% clean teams. All had been affected by at least one rider who resorted to unfair help from the needle.

This year's Tour looks set to once again be ridden under a dark cloud as favourite Alberto Contador faces suspicions over the miniscule amount of a banned substance found in a sample he gave last year, and even though there is no evidence to suggest he's lying when he claims he was an inadvertent victim of food contamination there are many who have already decided he's guilty, despite the fact that we need to wait until at least August for a final verdict. Meanwhile, Lance Armstrong is back in the news. As it happens, he's not being accused of doping this time but is in a spot of bother after apparently "accosting" ex-team mate Tyler Hamilton, who accused Armstrong of doping, in a Texas restaurant. That's not good at all for cycling, because Lance is the one cyclist that everyone has heard of and, having never been caught doping, should be the shining example that he truly is. The problem is that the non-cyclists of the world won't bother to read the story. They'll just see "Lance Armstrong," "doping" and "FBI" and fill in the rest according to what they think they know. "Ah, I knew it," they tell themselves, "They ARE all at it!"

Lance Armstrong has never tested positive for any banned substance. Yet even in retirement, he is under constant suspicion simply due to his unprecedented success. Things shouldn't be this way.
There has always been doping in cycling. The sheer hardship of competing at professional level in the sport is such that there will always be those who seek to gain a little unfair advantage, and there will always be those who are simply unable to do what Armstrong, Schleck, Wiggins and - we'll lay our cards on the table here - Contador can do. That's no fault on their part, because the tiny minority who can ride at Armstrong's level are supermen while the vast majority of riders are mere mortal men. We're at a stage now when, finally, it's beginning to look as though doping can be halted once and for all - the tests have progressed to such a state that it's virtually impossible for a doper to escape detection and vast sums of cash have been poured into the anti-doping coffers. Nowadays it's no longer a case of whether or not a cyclist has the luck to get away with it, as it was when Tom Simpson drugged himself up to the eyeballs and paid the ultimate price on Mont Ventoux in 1967 - it's when they'll get caught, and they will, sooner rather than later.

Tom Simpson paid the ultimate price for doping on the slopes of Mount Ventoux.
If that means that racing becomes slower the so be it. That won't mean that cycling has taken a step backward, it'll just mean that we'll return to the days before everything went mad in 1998, the year that Willy Voet was arrested with a car full of drugs on the French border and the Festina Affair exploded way beyond the usual boundaries of cycling news. At least one of cycling's opinion-makers agrees - Jean-René Bernaudeau, himself a critic of anti-doping controls in the past.

"We need to wipe out ten years because we have lost our reference points," says the 54-year-old directeur sportif of Europcar, who are fielding an all-French team in this year's Tour. Some of the results in the last ten years are simply meaningless. There are riders who make sense to me: Hushovd, for example, hasn't come from nowhere. Bradley Wiggins has been fast since he was 18 or 19. You can't wipe out ten years of the sport, but in my mind I don't use those years as a measure of reference.

"We are on the right road. We are seeing things that make sense again," he continues. "You can see the riders grimacing as they ride up the mountains. I don't like seeing riders climbing mountains with their mouths closed, or the same guys riding super-strong on the flat and in the mountains."

The peloton has been passing through a very long and very dark tunnel, but the light at the end can be seen.

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