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.

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A Simple Message to Cadel

22 07 2011
Dear Cadel,

You’re a fine man & a champion athlete. You have shown that time & again. Last night was no different. You rode your own race … and a few others’ as well.

Tonight: the Alpe d’Huez. Tomorrow: the race of truth.

Marcus Burghardt said it best in a tweet after stage 4:

Today we saw what BMC Racing Team can do with 9 riders and 19 staff pulling for one goal

Now, there is a million-plus army clad in the black & red of BMC.

A whole country willing you on.

Your bella Chiara – her humour & grace beloved by all.

All pulling in the same direction.

One goal – to see you in the maillot jaune on the only road that matters … the Champs Élysée.

Two more efforts. Chapeau. Forza

 

Close to Flying

One man against the clock
Chiara Passerini and her World Champion, Mendrisio, 2009
BMC Pro Racing, on their way to 2nd in the Team Time Trial, 2011 TdF




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