Cycling’s Wheels Are Falling Off

The sport is falling into disarray as the doping scandal rolls on.

by Orla O’Muiri

Published in the Edinburgh Journal on 07/11/12

The only option is to hop on your bike and keep on riding, your 20km or 200km route, it doesn’t matter, keep going until it all melts away. Pace yourself, though, as there is a long road ahead in the rebuilding of this broken sport as the bad news just keeps rolling in.

After 17 years, Rabobank announces it will end its sponsorship of a professional cycling team. The province of Drenthe withdraws its financial support from the 2015 Vuelta a España. The powerhouse of this year’s peloton, Team Sky, is sputtering to a halt. Sporting Director De Jongh and Coach Julich are forced to resign after the pair admitted to doping during their individual professional careers, while Sports Director Yates retires ‘for health reasons.’

The future is looking dim; Armstrong will never confess and the sport seemingly isn’t getting any cleaner with top riders like Alberto Contador caught out in 2010 and Frank Schleck in this year’s Tour de France. Levi Leipheimer is fired from Omega Pharma-Quick-Step for doping. Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie, all of Garmin-Sharp are banned for their involvement in the US Postal doping programme. Even at amateur level the scandal whirls; eight American amateur riders were sanctioned for doping this year. No winners will be attributed to the Tour de France from 1999 to 2005.

Rabobank’s Bert Bruggink says it all; “We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport.” The UCI President Pat McQuaid needs to step aside if a revamp is going to have any success. Former Tour de France winner Greg LeMond published an open letter on Facebook urging both McQuaid and Hein Verburggen to resign. In it, he says; “I have never seen such an abuse of power in cycling’s history – resign Pat if you love cycling. Resign even if you hate the sport. Pat McQuaid, you know dam well what has been going on in cycling, and if you want to deny it, then even more reasons why those who love cycling need to demand that you resign.”

Five papers – The TimesL’EquipeLa Gazzetta dello SportHet Nieuwsblad and Le Soir have united and published a manifesto calling for reform. Cycling journalist Paul Kimmage has set out in pursuit of Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid by lodging a criminal complaint against them. Change will come eventually but for the moment just get on your bike, put your head down and keep pedalling.

Poster boy’s fall from grace

Published in the Journal newspaper – 25/10/12

Another legend stumbles, and he falls as he raced- hard and fast. Lance Armstrong is no longer the unstoppable hero of a sport; he is human and he is a cheat.

Former US Postal Service cyclist Lance Armstrong received a lifetime ban on 24 August this year after an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) found him guilty of doping. His offences include using the performance enhancing drug EPO, corticosteroids, growth hormones, undergoing blood transfusions as well as helping his teammates do the same.

The seven times Tour de France winner chose not to fight the charges pressed against him. He will be disqualified from all competitive results after 1 August 1998 and forfeit any medals, titles, winnings, finishes, points and prizes. The US Anti-Doping Agency’s report describes it as “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen.”

Armstrong’s story is legendary, a mere mortal who survived cancer and went on to win the greatest race in the sport; the Tour de France a total of seven times. A man who built an empire out of his tale and branded it Livestrong, not to find a cure for cancer but to raise awareness of it. Armstrong is a master of marketing.

However this fairytale had a sell-by date. One by one his former US Postal teammates stepped forward and outed him for what he was- with it they sacrificed their own reputations and admitted their own guilt. Among them stood self-confessed dopers Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis.

500 drug tests were all clean, as his advocates roar. But this, his primary argument, falls short as the tests were apparently impossibly easy to evade or pass. There was no test for EPO until 2000, blood transfusions continue to remain undetectable and teams frequently knew in advance when testers would be coming. The solution to that was saline drips which would cover up any evidence of the crime.

Armstrong is not to be pitied for falling prey at the hands of other dopers, and caving under pressure. He has been described by USADA as the “ringleader of biggest doping conspiracy in sporting history.” Every day the story thickens, another element added to the ever-growing jigsaw. Recently, the UCI admitted accepting a donation of more than $100,000 from Armstrong in 2002. They deny that it was connected to any cover-up of a positive doping test.

The question is; will the sport of cycling ever be credible again after this poster boy’s fall from grace? Perhaps cycling journalist Paul Kimmage was on to something all along when he referred to Mr. Armstrong as the “cancer” of cycling.

Book Review: The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton & Daniel Coyle

All the press releases, the articles, the tweets, the news bulletins and the radio presenters mumblings. Everyone shouting the news at you, pushing it into your face. Stacks upon stacks of information to process. I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t get it. Who was the bad guy; Armstrong, the UCI, USADA, all pro cyclists, the spectators, who? Can someone just tell me? Tell me who to believe and who to reject?

But that was then, and since then I have read; ‘The Secret Race’. It took me two days. I barely put it down. Now I get it. I get the tweets, the subtle jokes, I get to laugh and nod along. I understand the articles, I know who the professionals are, know who to believe and who to question. Now that this book has provided me with the unedited background. Now that It has provided me with the knowledge of which I was quietly ignorant. And what It has taught me above all, is that I was not there, I will never truly understand and therefore, I cannot judge.

The big secret  is out and I hope it will not be embroidered and stamped as scandal because this is a sad story, a lament about the reality of the world of pro cycling. The one the roaring crowds don’t get to see, the tale that perhaps we always knew but never asked, because if being honest, we never wanted to find out the truth.

Self confessed doper and former procyclist Tyler Hamilton and writer Daniel Coyle join forces to spill the beans on the reality of what a cyclist must face if he wants to get to the top. The Secret Race of needles, EPO, blood bags, and red eggs.  The competition off the bike, the need to be the best at all costs, the bullying, the training and all the lies.

It’s the classic tale; a story of the bad guys versus the good guys, and the ever pressing question of who will prevail?

A hard story to tell but one that needs to be told.

I suggest reading it.