The Big Texan’s Telenovela, Pt II

18 01 2013

In which I delve inside the mind of The Big Texan after the airing of the first chapter of ‘Oprah’s Next Chapter’: Oprah Winfrey’s new series of interviews with people looking for publicity on a network seeking people desperate for publicity: ‘Lance Armstrong admits to doping’.

Lance Armstrong admits doping: well knock me down & colour me purple, Oprah. It’s why he’s there. As an aside, one of the more interesting diversions was a Twitter exchange between Leigh Sales (@leighsales), Tracy Grimshaw (@tracygrimshaw), Monica Attard (@attardmon), Jenny Brockie (@JenBrockie), Wendy Carlisle (@wendycarlisle) & Mia Freedman (@MiaFreedman – who famously ‘didn’t care’ when Cadel Evans won the TdF, but was all over Oprah like a rash) over Oprah’s interviewing technique. I highly recommend you check it out. Personally, I’d prefer Lance to be in a courtroom, but hey, I’ll take what I can get. Oprah didn’t do a ‘bad’ job, but she let him off the hook a few times. Contrary to the pre-publicity, Armstrong didn’t answer every question and when he did, his answers were pure Lance:

  • it wasn’t possible to win seven Tours de France ‘in that culture’ without doping
  • he’d looked in the dictionary (probably one he wrote) and checked the definition of ‘cheating’. Nup, he concluded. He hadn’t gained an advantage over his fellow competitors; “… it was a level playing field …” 
  • had he failed a test? ‘Technically, yes’. Not at the time, of course. Oh, those pesky retrospective EPO tests.

So … is Lance Armstrong a sociopath or psychopath? Given Armstrong ‘looked up the definition of cheating’, I’m delving into some pop psychiatry. Firstly, the labels are often interchangeable and shorthand for personality disorders as defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM IV TR – fourth edition, text revision). What tips me toward ‘sociopath’ is Armstrong’s constant references to his childhood . ‘Mom had her back to the wall, we both had our backs to the wall,’ he told Winfrey. He has said as much throughout his career. It’s a statement of fact, not blame. In the good old days, this disorder was known as megalomania. Under the Hare Psychopathy Test, Armstrong’s behaviour fits Factors 1 (a) and (b), closely aligned with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  Factors 2 (a) and (b) are more closely associated with Antisocial Behavioural Disorder, violence and criminality. NPD is indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)  pre-cancer, Lance is a guy in the peloton. Post-cancer, he wins the world’s biggest cycling race. He becomes ‘Lance Armstrong’. He BEAT cancer. He smashed that bastard to a pulp. He is the resurrected, ‘Cancer Jesus’, peddling yellow bracelets. Not so much. No one ‘beats’ cancer in the same way that no one has CURED cancer. You are diagnosed, you might be treated, & the still inexact science might mean you go into remission, and you celebrate anniversaries – five, 10, 30 years’ cancer free; or the cancer just gives it the big, ‘fuck you’, & spreads, & you go through the treatment cycle again & you get some more time, or you die.

Sundance Kid: “I can’t swim.” Butch Cassidy: “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.”

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love … His tweet following the release of USADA’s ‘Reasoned Decision’ was classic – ‘ just kicking back enjoying life’. Kicking back, photographed lazing on the sofa below the seven mounted maillot jaune lining the wall. Living in LA LA Land, where, despite the weight of evidence pouring out, you’re still the man. Also, he wouldn’t be sitting with the Mighty Opes if he hadn’t come back to the sport. He would have gotten away with a great fraud. He was only undone by his own greatness.

(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)  ‘Being Lance’ was an amazing gig, despite him downplaying it to Winfrey: ‘I didn’t know how big it would be.’ Get your hand off it, mate. How many of your peers are invited to rub shoulders with Presidents? Also, his dismissal of hardcore cycling fans as ‘the people outside the bus’. The great unwashed. Ugh. Today, it was evidenced by his refusal to answer questions about others implicated in the doping scandal, particularly his trainer, Dr Michele Ferrari, who is a ‘good man, a smart man’. He wasn’t opposed to delivering the occasional backhander, such as that handed out to former team mate, Christian Vande Velde, who alleged Armstrong had the power tell his team mates to dope, or they were off the team. ‘There was never a direct order,’ Armstrong said. Duh, VdV, you idiot. You just thought there was. Because Lance.

(4) requires excessive admiration … see the second coming of Cancer Jesus. Can you imagine training for triathlons (which, to be fair, he was pretty handy at as a young man before deciding it was all about the bike) while Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador & Carlos Sastre drank champagne on the road to Paris? Come on. To Winfrey, he concedes he’s a jerk, but makes sure he slips ‘humanitarian’ in at the same time. Jerk.

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations see the testimony of his fellow riders in USADA’s ‘Reasoned Decision’. In LA LA Land, the USADA investigation was ‘an unconstitutional witch hunt’ and a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’. Actually, no, Lance. The waste of taxpayers’ money was the years your cycling squad was sponsored by the US Postal Service, when you and your squad broke a contractual obligation not to dope. In today’s interview, Armstrong was asked if he felt bad, whether his actions were wrong, whether he felt like a cheat? No. Non. Nyet. ‘Hey, Travis (Tygart) – soz for all the bad stuff I said about you, or had my Orcs put out, bud; we can sort this out at a truth & reconciliation meeting – I’ll be there!’

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends Armstrong admitted to being a bully & trying to ‘control the narrative’. Fact: after the 2001 Tour de Suisse, Armstrong made out a cheque to the UCI for $25,000, pledging a further $100,000 in 2005 – to fight doping. They called it a donation. Tyler Hamilton called it hush money for Armstrong’s alleged 2001 Tour de Suisse positive test. Michael Ashenden, independent doping expert, calls it, ‘unconscionable’. Today, Armstrong said the UCI asked for a donation. The organisation was so poor it went to him & asked for money to assist its anti-doping efforts. Who knows? I think Armstrong used the words, ‘I’m no fan of the UCI,’ four or five times in the Winfrey interview. Get ready, Hein Verbruggen, Thomas Weisel, Johan Bruyneel, et al: you’re going under the bus. Lance. Does. Not. Want. To. Go. To. Prison.

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others see Armstrong’s treatment of anyone who stood up to him – journalists Paul Kimmage (@PaulKimmage) and David Walsh (@DavidWalshST) for a start. Armstrong called Emma O’Reilly an alcoholic prostitute & Betty Andreu a crazy bitch. Today, that dead-eye shark smirk as he refused to confirm her account of Armstrong’s admission to doctors on his cancer diagnosis that he was doping: ‘…but … I didn’t call her fat!’. Reference to cancer as ‘the disease’: ‘Cancer Jesus’ is exacting a big toll on LIVESTRONG. In its official statement after the airing of the Winfrey special, the organisation released this statement; he visited HQ on Monday and apologised for the stress he’d caused, not for lying. Stress caused because you lied, Lance. In the 2004 Tour, wearing the yellow jersey, he infamously, needlessly chased down a breakaway Simeoni was in because the Italian had testified against Ferrari. As he approaches Simeoni he gives him the sign of the omerta – seal your lips – & more. Simeoni drifts back through the pack, in his own words, ‘face wet with tears & the spit of others’. Some publicly mused on, and criticised the bizarre incident at the time; others, including then Australian professional rider, Scott Sunderland, said it was ‘stupid’ of Simeoni to speak out.

In 1999, Armstrong told Christophe Bassons – the only Festina rider cleared in the 1998 scandal – that he should leave the Tour for questioning Armstrong’s ascendency in a newspaper column. Armstrong confirmed the conversation on French television:

“His accusations aren’t good for cycling, for his team, for me, for anybody. If he thinks cycling works like that, he’s wrong and he would be better off going home.”

It worked. When Bassons transferred to Francaise des Jeux, he was persona non grata in the team, & the peloton. So he left.

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her among his many feuds, one of the nastiest is with Greg LeMond, the three-time Tour de France champion, not only the first American winner, but the first non-European cyclist to win. Was it not enough to ‘win’ seven consecutive tours? Armstrong had to stomp on LeMond’s achievements & bury his bike brand?  When Armstrong announced his return to professional cycling, and joined the same team as Contador, he announced that he ranked their team mate Levi Leipheimer on the same level as the Spaniard. Or he might even win again. Christ on a bike.

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes see all of the above. Armstrong speaks in the royal ‘we’;  his critics are ‘haters’ – questioning or criticising Lance meant you hated the entire sport; he blacklisted journalists; he sued, or announced he was suing, everyone from his former mechanic to the Sunday Times. He sledged Landis for almost a decade, now he wants to settle his whistleblower lawsuit. Little wonder. He doesn’t have the manpower to take on the Justice Department as well in the case, which centres on the alleged defrauding of the Federal Government.

I don’t think I’ll bother watching tomorrow’s ‘mesmerising’ insights. I think Lance Armstrong is mad, bad and dangerous to know. I don’t want to see his crocodile tears about being dropped by sponsors. I doubt we’ll see anything more probing, given the promo at the end of today’s show. Here are a few more highly recommended reads:

  • If you missed the interview, Jane Aubrey (@janeaubrey) gives a good wrap-up on cyclingnews (@cyclingnewsfeed), & captures the reaction of WADA President, John Fahey
  • Shane Stokes (@SSbike) interviews Bike Pure’s Andy Layhe for VeloNation (@Pro_Cycling)
  • Everything by the New York Times’ Juliet Macur (@JulietMacur), who has consistently been ahead of the pack. Especially this
  • Nice analysis in VeloNews (@velonews) by Matthew Beaudin (@matthewcbeaudin); Jake Stephens in VeloNation (@Pro_Cycling)
  • .. and with so many cycling journalists & commentators in Australia for the upcoming Tour Down Under, check out these interviews (and compare the reactions): Rupert Guinness (@rupertguinness), Phil Liggett (@PhilLiggett) Paul Sherwen (@PaulSherwen) on SBS’ Cycling Central (@cyclingcentral) website
  • USADA issued a two-paragraph statement. I think Trav wants to see Lance in another chair.
  • … as opposed to the UCI. Pat McQuaid thought Lance did good, has the Truth & Reconciliation chair warming. Vomit.
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Cadel, le vainquer

25 07 2011

I didn’t really have many words last night … just a feeling.

In 2007, Cadel Evans went into the starting house within reach of Alberto Contador. I had watched the Spanish man dance on the pedals in the mountains, & thought, ‘now this is not merely sport, but art’. I didn’t know how he would time trial. I knew Cadel could time trial, and he did. He rode the race of his life and at every checkpoint, he took time from Contador. It wasn’t enough. ‘Bertie’ showed he could do it to0. He won the Tour by 23 seconds. 

In 2008, the man wearing the yellow jersey, Carlos Sastre, having destroyed his follow ‘heads of state’ on the hairpin bends of the Alpe d’Huez, went into the starting house holding a 1’34” lead on third-placed Cadel. I think everyone expected him expected to fade. He didn’t. More importantly, Cadel didn’t time trial as well as everyone thought he would. Sastre won the 2008 Tour de France by 58″.

Thge 2009 Tour was awful. He finised 45′ behind Contador. From two 2nd places to 30th. Clearly the relationship between Cadel & Silence-Lotto was over, despite the addition of Phillipe Gilbert (PhilGil) to the team.

Then that day at Mendrisio … world champion. The announcement that Cadel was looking for new challenges & would leave Lotto. Signing with BMC Racing Team. Winning Fleche Wallone and the holding the maglia rosa at the Giro. He didn’t win, but as he and Alexandre ‘Vino’ Vinokourov slugged out stage 7 on the strada bianche like a muddied Frasier / Ali, there was just this feeling that this year would be the year. New team, rainbow jersey, solid Giro in the legs. Now for the Tour. We know now what happened, but at the time it seemed like that was it. After taking the yellow jersey, Cadel ‘cracked’ on the next mountain stage. He lost something like 8 minutes & collapsed in tears in the arms of his teammate at the end of the stage. He had fallen the day he took the jersey. Still, there was an assumption that the effort of the Giro had caused him to crack. The gruelling Tour of Italy had certainly taken it’s toll, but we learned later was that he had broken a bone in his arm. He finished 26th. That he finished the Tour at all is incredible; but there seemed to be a sense that time was running out for Cadel to win the Tour, that the rivalry between Bertie and the brothers Schleck would dominate.

This year, I watched Cadel ride and win Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie. I didn’t watch the Criterium du Dauphine, where he finished 2nd. I have watched every moment of this Tour. BMC’s Team Time Trial showed how determined, & more importantly, cohesive the squad was. For the first time, watching him guided through the peloton at all times by a black & red-clad teammate, rarely in trouble while almost all of the top riders fell (some injured so badly they were forced to abandon) … there was a sense that it really was his for the taking. After denying Bertie on the line of the Mur de Bretagne, Cadel took the podium for the first time as a stage winner at the Tour (he was awarded his first stage – the first 2007 TT – retrospectively, following Vino’s positive test, but was denied the honour of a podium). Why were they racing so hard? Well, Contador had to make up big time. But Cadel? To me, it was a perfect stage to go for. As he kicked past PhilGil, it was only Contador who could go with him. These men both know the meaning of ‘every second counts’. They have won and lost 3,000km races by a handful of seconds. Cadel threw his machine at the line. He won.

All I could think at that moment was how much Cadel wanted the victory & smiled. I smiled as his team rode hard in week one, even though Cadel wasn’t in yellow. A lot of people questioned why. I liked it. It was a psychological message to the teams of the other big boys. We’re here. We will race hard every day. Every day, for every second.

As they reached the Pyrenees, Cadel was still there. Every move marked. We transitioned to the Alps. Where the Tour is won and lost. The team gave its all. Leopard-Trek did what they do in every mountain stage – set an excruciating tempo to isolate the other elite riders so that Frank & Andy Schleck could attack and counter-attack their rivals. It didn’t work on the first day. They couldn’t shed the yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler, let alone Cadel.

They had to switch tactics. On the path to the Galibier, Andy Schleck attacked early. He rode solo, to victory for 40 kilometres, and deservedly so. Meanwhile, Cadel reduced a 4′ gap almost entirely by himself to just two. He saved his Tour. He towed a pack of men up the climb with him. He had to. He wanted it.

Then, the feared show down on the Alpe d’Huez. Same-same … Leopard-Trek would try and explode the peloton early, even though it was a short stage. But Bertie – his chances of a Tour win seemingly over – launched an even more audacious attack with 90km to go. The vanquished champion, battered & unlucky, had failed to stay with Cadel on the Galibier – and now he was attacking before Leopard-Trek had time to organise it’s tank-style group attack. This was racing – this was panache – and threw the script out of the window. Already disoriented by what was unfolding, as the cameras lurched back to Cadel several times at the side of the road, until he changed bikes, he had lost 70″ on the leaders, and with it, I feared, the Tour de France. To me, BMC’s directuer sportif, John Lelangue, made the difference. Cadel went back to the peloton, back to his boys, instead of chasing solo, as Voeckler did. For me, it proved the difference. He was given the support he needed & saved the energy he needed at the end to go up the Alpe d’Huez, clawing every second back. The only downside was watching Bertie unable to reap the stage victory on what was one of the most audacious rides I’ve ever seen, befitting the champion he is.

… and so the Battle through the Alps finished. It would go down to the ‘race of truth’. Cadel versus the Schleck brothers and the clock. Would the maillot jaune give Andy Schleck the wings it gave Sastre?

This time, after those two huge efforts & refusal to lie down because of some bad luck with the bike, and despitemy nerves jangling, I believed he could do it. I believed he wanted it more. As every time check passed, & it became increasingly clear that Cadel Evans was riding the time trial of his life & would take the maillot jaune into Paris, I realised how much this moment meant to me & to millions of people around the world. All of the disappointments, all of the bad luck, all of the criticisms that he didn’t attack … all erased. Cadel rode so brilliantly he almost beat time-trial wunderkind, Tony Martin to finish second. He not only recouped the time Andy Schleck held, he smashed it. He left it all on the road and was presented with the maillot jaune on the only day it matters. To wear it into Paris.

Thank you to the riders, the teams, the SBS crew led by Mike Tomalaris for bringing us each stage, and to everyone who has shared this beautiful race with me, on Twitter & by reading my blog posts (especially Chiara Passerini!)

Chapeau, Cadel Evans. Le vainquer du Tour de France 2011.





Procycling: I love you

14 07 2011

In October last year, as the World Road Cycling Championships were being hosted in Geelong, a doping scandal broke in professional cycling. Not just any doping story – the doping story: three-time Tour de France winner, Alberto Contador had tested positive for the banned substance, clenbuterol. The news hurt; as Australia watched the best procyclists in the world go around, arguably the best cyclist of his generation, who had not only won Le Tour, but taken out the three grand tours – the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta e Espana – had added his name to a list of drug cheats so long that the sport was beyond a joke to many people, and another cut to the ranks of those who see it as an unmatchable combination of athletic ability, teamwork, tactics and individual belief. As I wrote here, I desperately wanted the news about ‘Bertie’ not to be true. As it stands, hewas cleared byhis home cycling association of any wrongdoing, but the World Anti-Doping Agency & Union Cycliste Internationale (International Cycling Union) appealed the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The case was supposed to be heard before the start of this year’s Tour; so Contador rode – and won – a tough Giro d’Italia. The case was postponed: for whatever reason, WADA & the UCI agreed to Contador’s lawyers’ request for an adjournment. That sparked a predictable, ‘should he or shouldn’t he race the Tour’. For what it’s worth, I am firmly in the yes, he should ride camp. Legally, he is entitled to compete. If he was barred, without WADA / UCI appeal being heard, let alone won, the vanquer of this year’s Tour would always have the, ‘could he have beaten Contador?’ tag around his neck. This week saw the undignified bundling into a car by Team Katusha of their promising young rider, Alexandr Kolobnev, who returned a positive A sample for a diuretic masking agent. He was pulled out of the race after a bizarre statement from the UCI that virtually forced the team to do ‘the right thing’ and after the rest of the world learned of the result via the French sporting newspaper, L’Equipe (owned by the same French consortium which organises the Tour) before Kolobnev was himself informed. But this post isn’t about doping. It’s an open letter of love and respect to the men and women who ride bicycles professionally.

Firstly, the prayer of a stranger from the church for the fallen. Among the cyclists seriously injured or killed this year, the death of Team LeopardTrek rider, Wouter Weylandt, in this year’s Giro was perhaps the most horrific because it happened in front of those watching. His helmet was no match for the fall, and he died from the terrible wound the road inflicted on his brain. It was a shocking thing to witness, the death of an athlete young, to paraphrase Housman. His bib number, 108, has been retired from the race. Yet in the midst of their anguish, his teammates and best friend, Garmin-Cervelo sprinter, Tyler Farrar, rode the next stage of the race. As the peloton grouped behind them, they locked hands and crossed the line to end a stage of a grand tour not in a furious assault, but bowed, finally, in sorrow. It is a moment in sport – any sport – that I will never forget. If you missed it, or have no interest in professional cycling, and have never heard Wouter Weylandt’s name, this is all you need to know: 

Then, two weeks later, came the news – unbelievable – that Spanish cyclist, Xavier Tondo had been killed in a freak accident, crushed beneath a garage door. The Movistar team rider another missing from the peloton. Last week, glued to the Tour and watchng advertisements for the Amy Gillett Foundation (established in the name of the Australian cyclist killed by a car while on a training ride in Germany), Australia lost another cyclist in the same way. Carly Hibberd was struck by a car while training in Italy. Cadel Evans tweeted, stunned, from the Tour:

I’m very, very sorry. I ride that road too.

So it is with great sorrow when I read comments, supposedly made in jest, that it is somehow fun to watch cyclists crash. ESPN sports commentator Michael Smith was forced to apologise for this barrage of inanity  (captured in its entirety on the excellent Tour de France Lanterne Rouge blog) about an appalling accident on Stage 9 of the Tour, where Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland and Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha could also have lost their lives when a car from the French broadcaster France 2/3 tried to barge its way ahead of the breakaway group they were riding in. Watching the accident with a friend, we could not believe what we were seeing. Flecha was lucky not to go under the car, while Hoogerland was flung on to a barbed wire fence. This on the same stage that saw another serious accident end this year’s tour for Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov, Omega Pharma Lotto’s Jurgen van den Broeck and Frederik Willems, as well as Garmin-Cervelo’s David Zabriskie. Sky’s main GC hope, Bradley Wiggins was also forced to abandon after a crash, while Contador has been involved in a number of falls.

Again, from the ‘Tour de Carnage’ as Australia’s Stuart O’Grady (Team LeopardTrek) named it, came great courage. The battered, bleeding Hoogerland and Flecha both finished the stage, and in another triumph of the will, collected his polka dot King of the Mountains jersey. Overcome with emotion, he wept silently on the podium, earning the admiration of everyone who loves the sport. As Hoogerland said, “… I’m still alive. Wouter Weylandt wasn’t that lucky.”  They both continue to ride, heavily bandaged and stitched up. They ride in pain, in the company of men who suffer their own agonies, whether it’s hanging on to the peloton as it forms an echelon in the whipping wind off the Bretagne coast, or climbing hills (soon to become mountains), or give every ounce of effort to throw themselves at the line in a bunch sprint.

Cycling is often seen as an individual sport, particularly as we start ‘the real Tour’ tonight with the first mountain stage. When a peloton of 170 riders are defeated one after another by relentless climbs until a handful of the strongest riders, fighting for the golden fleece on the podium of the Champs Elysee, attack and counter-attack until one proves himself as a class above the best. It’s easy to understand that perception of individualism; each rider with their idiosynchracies; the cat-and-mouse games played out by an elite, taunting each other with a burst of acceleration in the hope they won’t be caught. The truth is far from it. Cadel Evans chances of winning the Tour de France were often talked down by the inability of his then-team, Silence Lotto, to provide him adequate cover and support. This year, after a calamitous result where he was lucky to finish the tour, having ridden his one day in yellow with a broken bone in his arm, he has had a purpose-built racing programme with one goal in sight: to win the Tour de France. His team, BMC ProRacing, is there to fulfil his ambition. “What can be achieved when 19 people (riders, management and staff) are pulling in one direction,” his teammate, Marcus Burghardt, said after their stunning (and unexpected) 2nd to Garmin-Cervelo in the Team Time Trial. Evans has ben guided, protected, nurtured at the front by his Praetorian Guard, led by 16-Tour veteran, George Hincapie. He has the confidence of winning a stage, and sitting in third place overall. BMC has also demonstrated its strength by frequently driving the peloton, doing the pacemaking despite their leader not wearing the yelloy jersey. To some, it seems a peculiar waste of effort; to me, it is a test of mental toughness, a clear message to the “big” teams that BMC is ready to take the tour by the neck and wring every drop of lactic acid from themselves and their rivals in order to complete their mission: the top spot on the podium for their leader, and the maillot jaune in Paris.

This is my love letter to these men of the peloton; those we have lost, and those who honour the sport with their refusal to give in to bodies screaming for the stage to just stop, those who fall and right themselves, race on back to their brothers in the pack. Those like Thomas Voeckler, who snatched the overall lead in that momentous stage 9 by daring to breakaway from the group, and stay away, only to see the stage go to another man, Luis Leon Sanchez. It is for the unsung heroes, the domestiques, who work their guts out to deliver their team’s star a victory. It is for the ‘lesser’ teams, those with no real hope of getting a place in the top 20, let alone a jersey of any description, but who ride with as much heart and hardness as the big names. It is for the superstars of the sprints, such as HTC’s Mark Cavendish, and the men of the Basque country, Euskatel-Euskadi, whose famed mountain prowess should come to the fore in the Pyrenees. It is for the most consistent rider wearing the maillot vert, and the innovative rule changes to the intermediate sprint points. It is for the startling individual ability of a man against the clock in the Individual Time Trial, the penultimate stage and ‘race of truth’. Most of all, this is a love letter to the sport, the vainquers and the vanquished; the pundits, ‘roadside randoms’ and fans.

With love and admiration,

Kimberley





Your cheatin’ heart

4 10 2010

Your cheatin’ heart,
Will make you weep,
You’ll cry and cry,
And try to sleep,
But sleep won’t come,
The whole night through,
Your cheatin’ heart, will tell on you…

Hank Williams

Yesterday, more than 100 elite athletes rode 267.2 kilometres from Melbourne to Geelong, and then 11 laps of a hilly, sometimes tortuous circuit of the town, chasing a dream that is the world champion’s rainbow jersey in the sport of professional cycling.

It was a beautiful day – well at least it was in Geelong, with its wide streets and large houses on quarter-acre blocks packed with fans. Legendary cycling commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen regaled worldwide audiences with such pearlers as, ‘Geelong is the centre of Australia’; ‘you can smell the bbqs’, and my personal fave: ‘everyone’s drinking tinnies’ (I don’t know anyone who drinks tinnies. Not even my dad). It was a true win for Australian cycling fans used to sitting up in the early hours, shouting at a TV screen or a sketchy livestream of Fleche-Wallone in Flemish, although I was disappointed by the paucity of ‘roadside randoms‘ we are used to laughing at as they pursue cyclists into the high Pyrenees along roads that bear greater resemblance to goat tracks. This year’s Vuelta a España (the Tour of Spain) featured mountain top finishes that were so tight the team buses could not navigate them; after hours in the saddle, at gradients between 10 and 20 per cent, the riders had to jump back on their bikes and descend the mountain.  There was a concern that the UCI World Championships would be overshadowed, given the AFL Grand Final Redux, and the NRL Grand Final in Sydney. As a cycling fan, I desperately wanted to be there, but a number of factors made that impossible. Chiefly, my level of disorganisation & lack of money. But for once, this blog isn’t about me.

There were other preoccupations aside from Australia’s addiction to two sports that are almost meaningless to the rest of the world: Floyd Landis, who had his 2006 Tour de France title stripped after returning positive drug samples, was speaking at a conference on doping in sport; and then the big news: Alberto Contador, arguably the rider of his generation, had tested positive to the steroid, clenbuterol, which helps develop lean muscle and drop fat. Although illegal, it has been found to contaminate livestock, particularly pig meat and is highly toxic in human beings.

Maybe it’s the greatest stitch up of all time – this information was a mere Google away for me. Contador was, after all, named in Operación Puerto, but later declared clean (as was Australian Allan Davis). However, it does make me inclined to give AC the benefit of the doubt, as Anthony Tan writes today, of the seemingly laughable defence that he had eaten contaminated meat. As Tan and Australia’s Cycling Central website report:

UCI chief Pat McQuaid says Contador could have his fate decided by scientists from the union and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

World cycling’s ruling body itself says only a “very small concentration” of the drug had been found and that the case warranted “further scientific investigation” because the Cologne laboratory which detected the clenbuterol is known to be able to detect the tiniest traces of drugs.

“The concentration found by the laboratory was estimated at 50 picograms which is 400 times less than what the antidoping laboratories accredited by WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) must be able to detect,” the UCI said Friday, adding that analysis of a B sample “confirmed the first”.

Cycling Central’s report goes on to say that if he is perceived as ‘damaged goods’, AC may give the game away. To me, that would be both a tragedy (this is a guy who, at the age of 27 has won EVERY Grand Tour, including three Tours de France) and perhaps, progress for the sport.

The Contador story, while the biggest of the week, wasn’t the only cycling doping yarn to emerge. More names came tumbling out –  Xacobeo-Galicia riders Ezequiel Mosquera and David García Dapena had both tested positive for Hydroxyethyl starch on September 16, during the Vuelta. Mosquera (“The Mosquito”) had finished the race in 2nd place, and Da Peña finished 11th overall. I think everyone who watched the Vuelta this year cheered Mosquera on, a rider who rarely races outside his native Spain, as he duelled with this year’s Italian sensation, Vincenzo Nibali. A podium finish in a Grand Tour is professional cycling’s Holy Grail; yes, this year’s Vuelta was somewhat diminished by its closeness to the UCI World Championships and the number of elite riders who didn’t enter, or pulled out; nonetheless, it was rough and tumble racing from Day 1.

Here beginneth the rant:

In 2010 alone, the following riders have all been named, suspended by their teams or from riding in certain countries, subjected to provisional or set-time UCI bans after returning positive samples:

  • A giant of Spanish cycling, Alejandro Valverde, who is banned from riding in Italy after failing to overturn a suspension by that country’s racing body in the Court for Sporting Arbitration. The UCI extended the two-year ban worldwide and erased all of his 2010 results;
  • Claims in Italy’s La Gazzetto dello Sport of a police investigation of 54 people centred on the town of Mantova, in Italy’s Lombardy region. The newspaper named 16 of Lampre-Farnesi Vini’s current and former riders, including ‘The Little Prince’ of Italian cycling, Damiano Cunego; former UCI Elite Men’s Road Racing champion, Alessandro Ballan and Mauro Santambrogio (now with BMC Racing Team – which provisionally suspended the pair until the completion of the police investigation); BMC reinstated the pair, satisfied that no authority had opened proceedings against them; Lampre did not take similar action against any members of its squad.
  • Another BMC rider, Thomas Frei, was provisionally suspended, pending further investigation and testing of his B sample, after testing positive for Recombinant Erythropoietin (EPO – which increases red blood cell production, allowing the body to carry more oxygen);
  • Team Radio Shack suspended rider Li Fuyo pending the outcome of the B sample after his positive test for clenbutrol;
  • The UCI banned Gabriele Bosision from professional cycling for two years after testing positive to EPO in 2009;
  • In ongoing cases, the UCI has named Franco Pellizotti, Jesus Rosendo Prado and Tadej Valjavec for returning irregular blood values in their ‘blood passports’ (A biological passport is an individual, electronic record for each rider, in which the results of all doping tests over a period of time are collated. Doping violations can be detected by noting variances from an athlete’s established levels outside permissible limits, rather than testing for and identifying illegal substances);
  • French rider Mickaël Larpe tested positive for EPO;
  • Francesco De Bonis became the first cyclist to receive a two-year sanction on the evidence of his blood passport results;
  • Pietro Caucchioli was also banned for two years on the evidence of his irregular blood passport results;
  • Ricardo Serrano was suspended by the Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) for two years due to Continuous Erythropoesis Receptor Activator (CERA) having been found in two separate blood samples collected around a year ago. He was also implicated due to abnormal values in his blood passport;
  • Nicklas Axelsson was suspended for life following positive analysis of his B-sample for EPO. He had previously been suspended for EPO use in 2001;
  • The UK Anti-doping agency posted the two year suspension for cyclist Dan Staite for EPO and ATD found in sample taken at a National B level event;
  • While he was riding the Vuelta, it was announced that Roy Sentjens had failed an out of competition doping control and would be suspended. He admitted to having doped with EPO that he had obtained in Barcelona, Spain, and declined to request the testing of his B-sample. He also announced his immediate retirement from professional cycling;
  • A UCI statement announced that Óscar Sevilla tested positive for the blood expander Hydroxyethl starchafter the final stage of the Vuelta a Colombia, which he had won.

(Sources: cyclingnews.com; cyclingcentral, velonation andWikipedia – the font of all lazy blogger’s knowledge)

Other recent high profile professional cycling cases include: Bernhard Kohl; Tom Boonen (cocaine); Ricardo Riccò; Michael Rasmussen (who at the time, was wearing the general classification leader’s maillot jaune in the 2007 Tour de France); Iban Mayo (suspended for two years – has not returned to the sport); Alexandre Vinokourov; Ivan Basso (for self-confesed ‘attempted doping’); Landis; Danilo Hondo; David Millar; Stefan Schumacher; Leonardo Piepoli; Tyler Hamilton (Olympic Champion); Bjarne Riis (1996 TdF winner and Team Saxo Bank manager); Marco Pantani (winner of the 1998 TdF and Giro d’Italia) Jan Ullrich (winner of the 1997 TdF, 1999 Vuelta; Olympic champion) – famed for his rivalry with Lance Armstrong, Ullrich retired in 2007, having been barred from the 2006 TdF amid speculation of doping.

Some episodes are so damaging, so prolific, they have become ‘affairs’: Telekom, Festina; Operación Puerto; ‘Oil for Drugs’. Welcome to professional cycling – the sport of dopers. Different day, different race, different drug, same shit. I cried when Rasmussen was caught, because I was tired of watching inspiring performances of man and bike versus mountain being trashed the next day. Sickened by the stench of mendacity, of lies and liars, to borrow from Tennessee Williams.

Tragically, and for decades, drugs have ruined the reputations and careers of sporting heroes – example A: Diego Maradona – and in the worst instances, been implicated in the deaths of heroes including Marco Pantani. But the use of performance-enhancing drugs or banned substances is neither a new phenomenon or limited to cycling. So why is cycling perceived by many as a haven for cheats, marred by the constant suspicion of drug cheating (particularly by afficionados who believe the successes of certain stars of the sport cannot be due to their extraordinary abilities)? Even the most one-eyed fanatics know the sport has been damaged, and seems to hurt more than others, with every transgression, every whisper, every allegation.

Think of the use of anabolic steroids in bodybuilding and athletics; where the Olympic ideal of ‘faster, higher, stronger’ could only be achieved by the likes of Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, through doping. The United States Olympic Committee covered up the use of banned substances, as admitted by stars including Evelyn Ashford and Carl Lewis. Both American football and baseball have been connected with steroid use; footballers, tennis players, cricketers, ice hockey players linked to the use of illegal drugs and diuretics; the evermore sinister ways of covering up – from urine and blood sample swapping to new masking agents.

Without doubt, it is the systemic abuse of East German athletes and swimmers that haunts me most. A regime imposed on young people; state-sponsored and dictated, often without their knowledge, or at least informed consent. For every star the ‘system’ produced, it wounded the bodies and minds of hundreds, so much so that on 1 October 2010, Craig Lord labelled it the ‘Sporting Crime of the Century’ on SwimNews.com:

Sport is war and at its core in the Cold War years of the 1970s and 1980s was a cancer called State Plan 14:25. It was a medal-making machine that created sure-fire winners and podium placers. Some names came, conquered and vanished almost as quickly. To the architects of State Plan 14:25, a systematic doping regime rolled out to an estimated 10,000 young athletes in all sports during the days of the German Democratic Republic, the names were, effectively, mere numbers, the swimmers (and others) there for one purpose: to serve as “ambassadors in track suits” and show the world that the socialist-communist system was the best, better than the West. 

The notion was a sham behind which generations of sporting scapegoats had their talent twisted for political gain before being spat out of the machine at the other end as victims, many of whom still pay a very high price today 20 years after a GDR about to be dissolved through reunification of Germany held its first free elections, on March 18, 1990. The people of the German Democratic Republic formally joined the people of the Federal Republic of Germany on Oct. 3, 1990. In swimming, that gave rise to the first joint swim team at a world titles, Perth 1991 featuring Michael Gross, at his swansong meet, and the retired Kristin Otto on a podium together.

Gross appealed to reporters to leave the past behind. Impossible for those who lived through it, warts and all, of course. Between 1973 and 1988, GDR women swimmers shattered 130 world records, won more than half of all Olympic medals available to them in the pool (1976, 1980 and 1988), almost two thirds of all world titles and 97 out of 104 European crowns. 

State Plan 14:25 held that children (for many of those doped, particularly in sports such as swimming, were under age) would be doped with substances such as anabolic steroids, some never clinically tested on animals before human guinea pigs were plied with them, and without the knowledge or consent of their parents. The 1966 blueprint refers to the drugs as “Unterstutzenden Mitteln”, or “supporting means”. The blueprint would not be signed as official policy until 1974 but experimentation on athletes started much earlier and tests had surely been conducted in international competition by then at the start of what would be the biggest pharmacological experiment in sports history. 

The drugs, administered by doctors and coaches, included Oral-Turinabol, a synthetic anabolic agent developed for cancer patients; testosterone derivatives; and “STS 646”, a drug considered too dangerous to licence inside the GDR but given to teenagers before being tested on lab rats. “The pills came in a box of chocolates,” Catherine Menschner would say in court in 1999. You are unlikely to know here name. By the time she spoke she had suffered seven miscarriages in the years after quitting the sport in which she was fed a diet of drugs but not for international glory. “I was a guinea-pig. I was used to test drugs for better athletes so they could win for the GDR.”

In his trial, Dr Lothar Kipke adopted the role of Nazi concentration camp guard: “I was only following orders…”. There to hear him was former swimmer Martina Gottshalt, who urged her abuser to “look my 15-year-old son in the eyes and tell him you were just following orders”. Her son, Daniel, sat beside her, his clubfoot swinging under the bench.

… Among doctors called to court to account for their role in a massive deception was Dr Dorit Rosler. Irony of ironies, she would set up a surgery in Czarnikauer Strasse in post GDR days with the very purpose of helping victims of the GDR doping system. In court, Rosler broke down in tears when she faced some of those victims and said: “I should have shown more courage. In Nazi Germany we did what we were told to do. The GDR doping machine was no different; we were just carrying out medical orders … have we not learned anything?” 

And all the while, German sports bodies continue to list the efforts of GDR athletes as the German record for events galore. In swimming a handful of national records remain in place 20 years on, including the women’s 400m and 800m free standards that even world champion Hannah Stockbauer could not get beyond. In track and field, four GDR world records remain the world records today, bodies from the IOC downwards apparently unable or unwilling to grasp the nettle and place the GDR years in context: the sporting crime of the 20th century.

So back to my original question: why is cycling perceived to be dirtier when other sports and events, including the Olympics, have also been tarnished? In my opinion, it is because cycling almost always imposes bans that last a few years, and are applied retrospectively, inviting known, or confessed drug cheats back into the sport almost as soon as they left it. In other sports, if you’re exposed as a drug cheat, you’re forever ‘disgraced’; stripped of your titles; outcast. Not so with cycling: you do the crime, you pay the time, and back you come (unless you decide to give it up). I was happy that Ivan Basso won this year’s Giro d’Italia; but that ‘clean’ feeling is marred by the knowledge that he was at least willing to dope. While there is redemption, I find myself wanting to turn the TV off every time David Millar talks about drugs in sport – the hypocrisy of a man who excelled while doping; and the greatest what if for me – what if Contador IS a master doper, learning the dark art through his connection to Operación Puerto, and robbed Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck of Tour victories? The conjecture surrounding Lance Armstrong and the rest of the US Postal/Discovery teams is ongoing, with Landis’ allegations about the highest profile cyclist of the modern era as yet unfounded and tainted by his own flakiness.

What if the only way forward for professional cycling is, together with what is acknowledged as one of the toughest anti-doping regimens in sport, banning dopers for life? Is it that terrible and that necessary to get the message through to the numbskulls caught this year that it isn’t worth it, that they are defiling a sport which can separate winners over a three-week Tour by a handful of seconds? A sport that deserves to be associated with all that is noble, with its reliance on strength, determination, speed, agility, tactics, teamwork and individual brilliance – with riders who honour the jersey, regardless of the colour, and whether they wear it for a day or a week.

In both my head and heart, I want to know, I want to believe that Alberto Contador is not a drug cheat. We share the same birthday (fun fact) and even if he did beat my beloved Cadel Evams by 23 seconds, he won the 2007 Tour de France by holding his nerve to produce the Individual Time Trial of his life when almost everyone with an opinion at the time (me included) thought Cadel would blast him off the road. I don’t want to know that he stood on the winner’s podium this year – winning over Andy Schleck by a mere eight seconds in controversial circumstances (meh, I think AS is a whinger) – knowing in his heart that he made it with a little help. I don’t want his achievements to be written off. Professional road cycling will be more than a little poorer without his talent; and it will have one fewer fan. It may be self-indulgent, but I’d like to think that the long hours spent loving a sport count.