The self-preservation society

4 06 2013

It’s a very difficult job and the only way to get through it is we all work together as a team.

And that means you do everything I say.

‘Charlie Croker’ (Michael Caine)

The Italian Job (1969)

The news came through early this morning (4th June): Mauro Santambrogio of Vini Fantini Selle-Italia had returned a positive sample for EPO on the first day of the 2013 Giro d’Italia. The former BMC-teammate of Cadel Evans was the second rider on the Italian squad to be busted for doping, with Danilo Di Luca caught for an out-of-competition test returned during the race. Santambrogio is reportedly in ‘disbelief’ about his positive result, and wants a B sample analysed. Yeh. Denial is a river in Africa.

I’m not surprised; I don’t think anyone is ‘surprised’ that Santambrogio returned a positive sample. I was surprised on stage 14 of the Giro, when the glowworm emerged from the gloom to take line honours ahead of the maglia rosa, Vincenzo Nibali. ‘Where were these legs when he worked for Cadel!?!’, I tweeted. The win, & 20-second time bonus took Santambrogio to fourth overall, just one second from the podium. That was dashed three days’ later, with the Italian cracking on the road to Ivrea, eventually finishing ninth on general classification.

I’m not surprised, but I am angry. That Santambrogio was close to a podium place is one thing. That Nibali gifted him a Grand Tour stage win is another. It’s not uncommon – the magnanimous race leader handing out a sweet to a compatriot – but in the context of these tweets, it’s sick:

             David Millar on Santambrogio         Nibali's gift

I feel more let down by those who say they are in the know and do nothing than the dills who dope. Don’t get me wrong: I think Santambrogio and Di Luca are scumbags from the planets Ignorant and Stupid. Ignorant for daring to piss on their home country’s Grand Tour and stupid for … everything? EPO? Hello? 1993 called and it wants its latest advance in doping back. The Tweetfosi rumour mill is whirling about Nibali himself. For me, the problem is beyond doping. It’s culture. If Vini Fantini were the talk of the peloton, and no one in the peloton called the WADA/UCI hotline to report their suspicions (as Alex Oates says, that’s why it exists), then nothing has changed. ‘The past is the past’ … ‘truth & reconciliation’ … ‘we’re needle-free’ … ‘WHAT? SOMEONE I JUST RODE A GRAND TOUR WITH HAS BEEN BUSTED? SHOCKED I TELL YOU I AM SHOCKED!’ Bullshit. You are bullshit artists and oxygen thieves. The omertà remains strong, so strong that the athlete wearing the leader’s jersey will deliver you his imprimatur, boost your palmares, your profile and offer you a possible place next to him on the podium. All of science could be focused on developing newer, better tests, but unless the brothers of the chemically enhanced members of the pro peloton avail themselves of the whistleblower mechanism afforded them, they defile the sport, and dishonour good people like these …

Santambrogio celebration

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Great expectations

8 02 2013

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.

In other words, it is war minus the shooting.

 ~ George Orwell

I’ve written about doping in sport several times on this blog (here and here), mostly about procycling, but also what I consider the sporting crime of our times: State Plan 14:25 – the East German ‘diplomats in tracksuits’, approximately 10,000 athletes (including children) doped by the State with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). The scale, the cruel consequences, the ‘win at all costs’ regime makes Lance Armstrong look like a kindergarten bully.

The release yesterday of the Australian Crime Commission’s Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport report – the result of a 12 month investigation, aptly code named Project Aperio (a Latin verb meaning ‘uncover’ or ‘open’), hasn’t surprised or shocked me. Not the scale of its findings, not the scope of the investigation, or that the coercive witness powers of the ACC were used – and I love sport. I love it because I can’t run out of sight on a dark night. I can swim a bit, and play tennis. That’s it. Oh, I can leg press 180 kilograms (hardly surprising; I have long, strong muscles attached to metre-long legs). I love people who are good – brilliant – at their jobs. If those jobs involve a football, a tennis racquet or swimming caps, all the better.

Orwell captures the essence of my take on the last few days in those few sentences above.

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play: don’t give me piffle about Don Bradman, or golden ages forever tarnished by a 40-odd page report and a press conference. Sporting organisations and their products have traded on the notion of ‘fair play’ since the first Olympics. You don’t need to use elite athletes to test ‘undetectable’ drugs to make a mockery of an ideal. You can throw tacks on the road in front of cyclists racing aerodynamically down a mountain. You can use your elbows to cause your opponents to fall over in a distance race. You can punch someone below the belt. You can bowl a ball with the intention of hitting a batsmen, instead of the stumps, or roll a ball down the pitch against a valiant, disgusted foe. You can field a below par team to pick the cream of the next crop. You can employ wrestling techniques to slow play.

Serious sport is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness: You can grunt, dive for a penalty, taunt an opponent so tastelessly that they head butt you. You can threaten to rip a man’s heart out, rip his children’s hearts out, bite, gouge, brawl, engage in ultimately deadly rivalries, label yourself the greatest and another man an ‘Uncle Tom’, king hit a player for doing nothing more than marking your patch. You can smash racquets and abuse officials. You can, without proof, label someone who swims faster than and sets world records an ‘obvious’ drug cheat. You can call yourselves leaders in drug testing, and be revealed as a sham. You can lie to yourself and courts, fool millions of people and foully degrade and discredit anyone who dares stand up to you. You can choose to become part of a code of silence instead of speaking what you know to be the truth, or pursue a lead on a story. You can choose to be a cheerleader, ingratiate yourself with athletes, managers, clubs, administrators because you are so close to glory you can taste it.

Serious sport is bound up with a disregard of all rules: you can set a pathetic policy where your players, your product, aren’t subject to the laws that apply to every other citizen, where recreational drug users you catch out are rarely named or reported to police. You can surrender your place in an Olympic team to someone who hasn’t qualified, and watch them win a gold medal. You can handle a ball to score a goal instead of your feet, and win a place or a game in the ultimate exhibition of the joga bonito and blithely admit it in a post-match interview, or claim divine intervention. You can break salary caps and make dodgy deals. You can tweet garbage  ohberniebecause you are witless. You can bet on or against your own team or race, consort with criminals, paint a horse so it resembles another, poor performer. You can insist drivers race on unsafe tracks, and take action only when one life too many is lost.

Serious sport is bound up with sadistic pleasure in violence:  We, the stadium fillers, bay for ever-harder, brain-rattling tackles, celebrate the spilling of claret or a knockout in the boxing ring. Our games may not be violent, but they become sadistic. Rule changes push athletes to, and beyond, the limits of pain and endurance. We find intermediate stages of three-week races boring, and thrill when tour organisers announce brutal stages. Players who miss penalties never live down the ignominy. We take pleasure in hating rival teams, rival codes, rival sports, other countries. We bait rival fans and rely on other fixtures so we ‘win’ at the expense of another’s loss. We resort to racial abuse and defend those who practice it. We, the fans, have voices. We choose to silence ourselves and demand ever-greater performances. We buy pulp peddled by pundits who self-censor and allow the brave to be damned.

Sometimes, we bear witness to horror, and react with every ounce of human kindness and concern, sorrow at the loss of athletes dying young or stretchered off a ground with broken limbs or hearts which have ceased beating. We remember serious sports bear serious risks and consequences. We remember, and try to right wrongs. We can think, call, write, refuse to pay for memberships, support the outspoken against the omertà. We can accept losses with good grace, instead of crying with indignation that ‘we wuz robbed”. We can be better, act with integrity and ask the same in return.





The Big Texan’s Telenovela

15 01 2013

DISCLAIMER: I started writing this post on 6 January (including the part about a brain-dump confession). I became distracted with other things before posting it. More to come (obviously) now a confession of sorts is coming …

~~~

A few sketchy thoughts on the latest episode in the telenovela that is the Big Texan, something I have covered previously in this post. Sticking to the ‘Five Ws’ …

Who? Lance Armstrong, the greatest sociopath never to win a Tour de France.

What? Armstrong is reported to be considering admitting to using PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) and blood transfusions during his cycling career. ‘Considering admitting’. Is that even a thing? Yes. Think of the number of times you’ve seen expendable politician muse publicly on party leadership / policy. Create a shitstorm. See where the chips fall.

When? Armstrong’s camp launched the first salvo in the NYT on January 5, with a great tease: after denying that he had doped during his cycling career (in sworn testimony as well as to the media, the people ‘outside the bus’, himself), viciously denigrating anyone who said otherwise, and deploying an army of Armstrong Orcs (including athletes, authorities and Matthew McConaughey) against the ‘haters and cynics’, Lance is, according to people with direct knowledge of what goes on in his head (most likely Lance), thinking of telling the world & its mother that he’s been a cheatin’ & a lyin’.

Where? First reported in the New York Times, the ‘maybe, baby’ yarn tore through the media cycle (mainstream, sporting and social) faster than a barbed wire fence through lycra (apologies to Johnny Hoogerland).

Why? As I tweeted when the story broke, nothing this man does would surprise me, but here are a few motives, either reported (and my take on them) or invented by me (I’ll make those clear).

NYT:

“… he wants to persuade antidoping officials to restore his eligibility so he can resume his athletic career.” (Me: I don’t doubt this. Armstrong needs to compete. It’s his raison d’etre. Fake Twitter accounts won’t keep Juan Pelota happy for much longer).

“Wealthy supporters of Livestrong, the charity he founded after surviving testicular cancer, have been trying to persuade him to come forward so he could clear his conscience and save the organization from further damage, one person with knowledge of the situation said.” (Me: see below, under ‘Cancer Jesus’).

My theories:

Cash. Cash not here: In retirement, Armstrong relied on the continuing support of personal sponsorship from firms including Nike, Trek, SRAM & Oakley; lucrative ‘cycling with Lance Armstrong’ rides, and generally ‘Being Lance’ (South Australia, your tax dollars hard at work paying Armstrong’s Tour Down Under appearance fee). The sponsors have pulled the pin; dissatisfaction with his ‘riding for hire’ is being aired and ‘Being Lance’ isn’t what it was this time last year. Armstrong faces losing approximately $12.5 million in prizemoney, lawsuits and an estimated $30 million from endorsements alone. Despite a rumoured $100 million fortune, a tell-all book, complete with exclusive excerpt and interview deals, on the shelves in time for Father’s Day in the US (Sunday, 16 June … a nice tie-in with the cycling calendar, as well) will help a man ‘raising five children’. Mark the date in your diaries. Floral tributes gratefully accepted if I’m right. I’ll tweet, ‘I was wrong’ if I’m wrong.

Cancer Jesus: Apologies if you are offended by this sobriquet; I find it fitting. Armstrong has inspired many people (whether they have cancer, know someone with cancer, or just want to improve their lifestyle) to think positively, change, get healthy, but HE IS NOT THE BLOODY MESSIAH. He has not done more than anyone else to ‘fight cancer’ (copyright: Phil Liggett). Raising $500 million through LIVESTRONG is amazing; amazingly, the bulk of that money is not spent ‘fighting cancer’ at the frontline – in research labs, on nursing or palliative care, for example. It is spent ‘raising awareness’ of cancer and employing lobbyists to lobby governments for research funding and ‘cancer awareness’. Are you aware of cancer? Yes? Let’s move on.

Despite resigning as Chairman, The LIVESTRONG Foundation was, until recently,  ‘The Lance Armstrong Foundation’. Not to be confused (although in all likelihood, very easily confused with http://www.lancearmstrong.com). Every day, its work is still associated with him. A confession may be the only thing that will guarantee its long-term credibility (see above paragraph from NYT). I doubt Lance will be getting many invitations to the Clinton Global Initiative or appear before state legislatures to ‘fight cancer’. Who still wears one of the formerly ubiquitous yellow bracelets or, more importantly, would buy one?

The Big House:

If the Justice Department joins Floyd Landis’ lawsuit, Lance is in trouble.

If the Justice Department decides the senior team (including Armstrong) which ran the US Postal squad defrauded the Federal Government by breaking the terms of its contract, Lance is in more trouble.

Facing time in the Big House is a very unappetising prospect. WWLD? (What Would Lance Do?). Throw everyone else under the bus. If I was Johan Bruyneel, I would be bricking it & moving to a country without an extradition treaty to the US.





Living in LA LA Land

15 10 2012

“Anyone who imagines they can work alone winds up surrounded by nothing but rivals, without companions. The fact is, no one ascends alone.”

Lance Armstrong, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life

Lance Armstrong knew all about teamwork.

For every grimace in the face of an outrageous mountain gradient; for every second split in a bunch sprint; for every sinew straining in the race of truth … Lance Armstrong climbed to the top of the Tour de France podium seven times as part of a team.

Sportspeople rarely claim their spoils as individuals. Tennis players thank everyone in ‘their corner’, just as boxers do; some athletes have an annoying tendency to speak of themselves in the third person. Cyclists have their team on the road, and off it. Everyone from the soigneurs to the directeurs sportif is part of the team.

Last week, the world learnt just how far Lance Armstrong’s ‘team’ went to ensure their companion’s ascent, and what happened to those people who didn’t play by Armstrong’s rules.

On 10 October 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released this statement and its 202-page ‘Reasoned Decision’ on the Disqualification and Ineligibility of Lance Armstrong and supporting information to the Union Cycliste International (UCI), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC).

Some of the language is hyperbolic:

The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.

I disagree. For me, that title will forever belong to State Plan 14:25, the systemic, state-controlled, barbaric doping of approximately 10,000 East German athletes. US Postal may have been more sophisticated in its methods, more professional at hiding the truth and staying ahead of the testing regime, but even seven Tour de France victories pale in comparison to the image built for the DDR by their ‘ambassadors in tracksuits’. Those in charge of the programme poisoned children; their experiments and drugs leaving wounds that have long-outlasted the Cold War.

That said, the statement from USADA Chief Executive, Travis Tygart, provides in one paragraph a great summary of the key issues and defences Armstrong, his cronies in the press and the peloton have used, repeatedly, to damn those who came forward before USADA built its case:

The evidence of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team-run scheme is overwhelming and is in excess of 1000 pages, and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with knowledge of the US Postal Service Team (USPS Team) and its participants’ doping activities. The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.

Firstly, anyone who reads even the 202-page version is living on the Planet Ignorant or the Planet Stupid if they can dismiss the evidence USADA has collected. A lot of it has been heard before, because people like Frankie and Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly and Filippo Simeoni had the guts to take a stand against Armstrong very early on. They paid a hefty price for breaking the silence against Dr Michele Ferrari or alleging Superman was a Supercheat. Ostracised from the peloton, careers crippled, businesses and reputations destroyed. I urge you to go further, and read the affidavits of all 26 witnesses. It was easy for Armstrong to take pot shots at Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. They were ‘known drug cheats’ and ‘liars’. It becomes more problematic when the list of witnesses includes names such as Michael Barry, Levi Leipheimer, Jonathan Vaughters, Dave Zabriskie, Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde, and the granddaddy of them all … Armstrong’s most loyal lieutenant, his ‘bro’, George Hincapie. Danielson, Leipheimer, Vande Velde and Zabriskie are still part of the peloton. It was Hincapie’s recent retirement which made me believe USADA had more than a couple of ‘disgraced’ riders and some ‘bitter ex-employees’ giving sworn evidence against Armstrong. Some of the stories are painful to read. Hincapie’s cold detail; I cried when I read Simeoni’s story – even though I knew it – of Armstrong bullying his way around the 18th stage of the 2004 Tour de France peloton to catch Simeoni in a breakaway, with the now infamous ‘zip your lips’ gesture (see 18 second mark, and between the 40 – 1 minute 40 second mark for the agitated encounter), a sign that Simeoni should not have testified in 2000 to doping under the guidance of Ferrari. Of Simeoni dropping back through the pack, crying and being spat upon by the group. Zabriskie’s affidavit is plain sad. A man who had grown up the son of a drug-addicted father, turned to cycling as a clean release, refused to dope and had his wages slashed in return, and then crossed the threshold to doper … some of them will make you white-hot with anger. No one covers themselves in glory by staying silent for all of these years, especially giants of the sport who could have made a difference, such as George Hincapie. The ‘omerta’ or Code of Silence was strong in these ones; yet none of them leaves me with any doubts that these events happened, and that Lance Armstrong was Doper-in-Chief. As pages 6-7 of the Reasoned Decision state:

“It was not enough that his teammates give maximum effort on the bike, he also required that they adhere to the doping program outlined for them or be replaced. He was not just a part of the doping culture on his team, he enforced and re-enforced it.” (for more, see pp. 16-87)

The financial records – especially the payments to the good doctor – make me think I went into the wrong business. A million or so Euros? A lazy 25,000 Euros in cash? Give me strength. The emails between Armstrong and Stefano Ferrari (Dr Ferrari’s son) detail the financial transactions, and offer an insight into Armstrong’s attitude to his teammates and rivals and confirm he was in close contact with Dr Ferrari during a period he has previously denied.

It’s easy to make light of some of the ways Armstrong distributed performance enhancing drugs, especially “Motoman” (pp 30-35 of the Reasoned Decision), but the way Lance Armstrong and USPS avoided being caught (pp 129-139) is dark. The scientific data and laboratory tests (pp 139-144), stopped exaggerating the number of doping tests he’s been through, or claim (falsely) that he’s never failed one.

Together, the evidence – which USADA is at pains to stress was not provided by US law enforcement – making a bigger mockery of Phil Liggett’s bizarre old-man rant Skype interview with Ballz Radio and his fellow commentator and Armstrong-booster, Paul Sherwen’s tweet that he was, ‘not sure if (it was) Al Capone or Alien (he was) reading’. I truly hope SBS dumps them both from commentating on cycling next year. Firstly, because we just don’t need them anymore – we have our own talent; secondly, I can’t see either of them admitting they’ve been very wrong, for many years (NB: Liggett has finally tonight said on Australia’s ‘4Corners’ programme that ‘everyone was doing it … so I can’t see how Lance wasn’t doing it’. This investigation is no witch hunt, nor was it a waste of taxpayers’ money, as Armstrong claimed, somewhat despicably in light of the fact that US Postal took tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.

There are people who, despite all of the evidence presented by USADA, the personal testimonies of 26 people, the emails, the positive samples, the relationship and payments to the disgraced Dr Michele Ferrari, this weekend’s ‘parting of the ways’ between Armstrong’s US Postal Team manager, Johan Bruyneel, and his employer, Radioshack-Nissan Trek (for more on Bruyneel, see pp. 107-115) will continue to support Armstrong. Those people who read his books and are inspired by the ‘Big Texan’. It’s a compelling story – the comeback from cancer and the ‘unparalleled’ record in the grande dame of grand tours. Millions of people around the world to whom Lance remains a hero, the person who drew them into the Euro-centric world of men’s road racing, or insist that it doesn’t matter if he doped because the Lance Armstrong Foundation (or LIVESTRONG) ‘fights cancer’ (for the record, I don’t believe that raising $470 million and spending it largely on awareness campaigns helps ‘fight cancer’). I disagree with those who say you can separate the work of LIVESTRONG from Lance Armstrong. LIVESTRONG would not exist without Lance Armstrong. It may be a false equivalence, but do you think people would give money to the Floyd Landis Foundation? When you are so closely associated with good deeds, does it give you carte blanche to do so much wrong?

People are flawed. I am a huge hypocrite when it comes to doping in cycling. I love the sport. I still shout my support for many riders who have been caught doping. Unlike some, who demand apologies from dopers, I don’t want them to self-flagellate for my benefit. Anyone who follows my cycling tweets knows I am a huge fan of Alberto Contador. His ‘it was the steak what done it’ excuse for testing positive to clenbuterol may be pathetic, but I’ve never heard him blame anyone – not even the team cook. I like the irrepressible Alexandre ‘Vino’ Vinokourov. I get tingly over ‘Tommeke’ (Tom Boonen). I believe that as the size of the English-speaking contingent in the peloton has increased, a certain amount of prejudice has grown among cycling fans toward non-English speaking dopers, especially those who express no remorse for what they did, such as Alejandro Valverde; that unless you publish mea culpa after mea culpa a la David Millar, you’re forever a filthy drug cheat instead of a reformed drug cheat. Do I think there are riders who continue to dope, teams which find new ways of beating the system? Yes. Do I think there are riders who do it clean? Yes. Are there certain riders I would be devastated to learn had doped? Yes. The rumour mill in the cycling fraternity never stops whirling. Perhaps I would even admire Armstrong if he just copped the ban. I don’t want him to say ‘sorry’. If people want to keep buying plastic wristbands to ‘fight cancer’, in much the same way as you can stop child soldiering by buying a Kony 2012 pack for $39.99, then that’s their call. Just stop bullshit like this:

“To all the cynics, I’m sorry for you … I’m sorry you can’t believe in miracles. This is a great sporting event and hard work wins it.”

The Tour de France is a great sporting event. Hard work wins it; but the only miracle Lance Armstrong was involved with was the one that kept his myth alive for so long.

To bastardise his own words, Armstrong has chosen to descend alone.





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.