Drug use in cycling is a frequent, if unpleasant, topic here at BKW. It is a cancer that has the potential to destroy the top echelon of cycling and take with it hallowed events that we await each year with the anticipation of a child looking forward to Christmas.
In the fifth season of the A&E series “Intervention” the producers profiled a former cyclist addicted to crack. Some of you may have seen episode 64 on Chad Gerlach, the one-time U.S. Postal Service rider who was booted from the team after clashing with team management.
Gerlach was crushed by his turn in fortune. Though he signed with other teams, he turned to crack and eventually stopped racing fell into a life on the street.
The once promising pro’s problem wasn’t one of performance enhancing drugs, and so it may seem his story isn’t relevant to our typical coverage of drugs in cycling. However, his story is significant in that it shines a bright light on how so many people see all drug use through the same lens; it’s all illicit to a large swath of America.
Gerlach’s family persevered in their love for him and belief in his abilities, which led to the intervention and resulted in his rehabilitation at a facility in Florida.
To the casual viewer, the dream of returning to the pro peloton could easily have seemed unrealistic, a goal so unattainable as to be a setup for relapse. Yet that promise drove Gerlach. After his release he began training again and—incredibly—returned to the pro peloton this season, riding for Lifetime Fitness.
Gerlach just gold-plated his comeback by winning the opening stage of the Tour de Nez. Four laps into the criterium Gerlach broke away with Jonathan Baker and lapped the field. At the finish, Gerlach easily outsprinted Baker to take his first pro win in more than ten years.
The philosopher in me sees simple confirmation in the power of the love of friends and family and what we can achieve when we believe in ourselves. The pragmatist in me sees a story as removed from reality as a romance novel, the very exception that proves the rule.
I know many cyclists who view the entire peloton, to a man, as almost certain dopers. They eye testing programs such as Rasmus Damsgaard’s with the wary distance reserved for used-car salesmen. They are non-plussed by David Millar’s fervor for racing clean and reason if he was lying then, then he is probably lying now.
Gerlach deserves his consideration in our thoughts for how someone can truly turn his life around. An about-face doesn’t have to mean a retreat. We shouldn’t need a lesson so stark in its drama to teach us, but we’ve been trained into suspicion by a mountain of lies. It doesn’t mean we should never believe.
In defying the odds not once, but twice, first by getting clean and then by sprinting for the V., Gerlach ditched the naysayers. We can be suspicious all we want, but what he has in his heart today even the best of us can envy.
Episode 64 of Intervention is available on iTunes.
Image courtesy Lifetime Fitness.
USADA has handed down an eight-year suspension for Tyler Hamilton. The Rock Racing rider tested positive in February tested positive for testosterone or its precursors in February. When the announcement for the non-negative result was announced, Hamilton declined the B sample test and immediately admitted he had taken the steroid DHEA as an alternative to prescription antidepressants in an effort to combat depression.
Hamilton retired immediately. As noted by USADA’s CEO Travis Tygart, Hamilton’s eight-year penalty is effectively a lifetime ban for the 38-year old cyclist.
For his part, Hamilton said he was disappointed by the ban, “The eight-year suspension is unfortunate and disheartening. At this time, however, my focus remains on my mother, my family, battling my depression and getting better. This has been an extremely difficult and trying period, but I am determined to get through it.”
The length of the ban is irrelevant to all but those closest to him. Even if the planets had aligned to dismiss consideration for the principle of strict liability, he would likely still have received a ban of two years. Did Hamilton really think he would have had the legs of Joop Zoetemelk or even Kent Bostick at 40?
“Although we believe the sanction is exceptionally harsh and completely disproportional to the transgression, Tyler has chosen to focus on getting better instead of fighting a pointless battle against the anti-doping regime,” said Chris Manderson, Hamilton’s counsel.
Hindsight is blah, blah, blah. If we set aside the anger we felt when we heard he tested positive—the first time—and apply honesty to our recollections of Hamilton’s career, most of us will recall the jubilation and shock we felt when we heard that an American had won the Gold Medal in the ITT at the 2004 Summer Olympics. When we learned it was Hamilton, surprise was added to our jubilation.
Hamilton gave the United States its first victory in a Monument—Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Who can forget his performance in the 2003 Tour de France following his broken collarbone, not to mention his epic breakaway through the Pyrenees on his way to winning stage 16 in Bayonne? And what of his second place and stage win at the 2002 Giro d’Italia, despite a broken shoulder?
Should we excuse his doping? No. The wheels of justice have turned and by at least one objective measure things are as they should be. Should we turn our backs on his earlier results? Depends on your point of view. Most cycling fans will admit that at his best, Hamilton was surrounded by other riders who were engaged in similar levels of doping and so he was most probably playing on a relatively level field. And if that sounds like a tacit acceptance of his doping on some level, then consider this: Even after throwing out his results you are left with a guy who rode through broken bones and molars ground to expose nerves. In the annals of hard men, those stories earned him a permanent seat at the bar.
Hamilton’s end as a rider is sad and ignominious. But given what we know of the time in which he competed on the international stage, he did achieve memorable results. The inspiration we felt to see his courage is worth remembering.
Image courtesy of John Pierce, Photosport International.
I can’t let this one go. The UCI has declared that they can’t complete disciplinary proceedings against Tom Boonen in relation to his second cocaine positive in time for the Tour de France. As a result, they have declared that Boonen is permitted to race the Tour de France.
They can’t complete it in time? What? This isn’t the restoration of a 1968 Camaro or the design of a web site. It’s a disciplinary proceeding. And the relevant facts are known. Hasn’t anyone heard of midnight oil?
No matter what your personal feelings on Boonen’s positive are, this is the wrong message to send. When I was in third grade, we would have called this wishy-washy. Is the UCI uniformly hard on drug use or not? If they don’t really see a problem with recreational drugs out of competition, that’s their choice, but they shouldn’t have made a fuss last time.
Given that most of the world can’t differentiate between performance-enhancing and recreational—which is like not being able to tell the difference between the Space Shuttle and Disneyland—a firm stance against recreational drugs would be understandable for the UCI and WADA. To most folks, drugs are either medicine or illicit. And anything that isn’t medicine isn’t tolerated in lots of places, The Netherlands notwithstanding.
What is so surprising in this is that the UCI didn’t like the Amaury Sport Organization deciding independently which teams and riders could and could not compete in the Tour. And yet, by delaying any action on Boonen, they are in effect forcing ASO’s hand, asking Prudhomme et al, to decide what the race is willing to accept.
Meanwhile, Bernard Kohl is passing the buck as well; he is concocting fictions that would make for a promising Hollywood script. He says he was cooperative from the outset, but CyclingNews reported October 15, 2008 Kohl wanted his B sample tested.
Worse yet, he asserted that the entire Top-10 of the Tour de France general classification must have doped, only to retract the statement and say l’Equipe invented the entire interview. Right. Shaun Palmer did the same thing years ago when Specialized wasn’t thrilled after he told a journalist he did recreational drugs and watched porn. The French rider’s union, CPA, has decided to sue Kohl. As Cedric Vasseur said, “He might think everybody else was doped as well but he has to prove it.”
Kohl’s idea of cooperation is suspect. The one thing he has said—retracted or not—that is truly helpful is his insight into how sophisticated dopers would use the information found in positive tests to guide their manipulation of blood and the biological passport.
If Kohl were truly a man of substance, he’d admit his part and wouldn’t try to accuse everyone else of doping as a means of excusing his poor decision.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.
By now you’ve heard that Team Katusha’s Antonio Colom is the second rider from the Russian team to test positive for EPO. Christian Pfannberger tested positive earlier this year. The situation reminds me of the fine backwoods-residing gentlemen from southeastern United States who try to outrun the cops in their pickup trucks after running across a spike strip. Escape is really only an option when you are smarter than those in pursuit of you.
For as long as I’ve covered pro cycling the Union Cycliste Internationale has found ever-evolving ways to come up with decisions and procedures that seem arbitrary, illogical and just wrong-headed. And I’ve been critical of those decisions whenever I’ve had the chance to speak up.
For instance, it doesn’t sound like the UCI informed Colom’s team through the proper channels or in a timely manner. We must take it on faith that the lab that did the testing performed to standard as Colom is unlikely to have the Euro to mount a real challenge of the result. He will probably ask that his B result be tested, but confirmation is no assurance that the first result is correct. Ultimately, it is unfortunate that not everyone has unwavering faith in the UCI’s ability to act in a logical and unbiased manner.
At its heart, the UCI is a bureaucracy and for all that Europe does well, their bureaucracies suck harder than a Hoover powered by a V8 on aircraft fuel. While I detest rule-following for rule-following’s sake, that organization needs a measure of discipline to bolster our faith in its best initiatives. That said, I need to offer the same measure of praise for this catch.
Colom didn’t just happen to test positive. He was caught precisely because his biological passport showed some irregularities. The UCI calculated when he would be likely to dose with EPO by examining his racing schedule. Working back from his next appointment, the UCI elected to target the Paris-Nice stage winner on April 2, 2009.
I decided to check in with Jonathan Vaughters to see what he would have to say about the UCI’s methods. Here’s his response:
“There are 2 ways the passport can work:
1. The blood values are irregular enough to cause a positive on their own right. This hasn’t happened yet, but will, soon.
2. Even when the values don’t bounce around enough to cause a proprietary positive, they can bounce enough to cause suspicion and LOTS of extra out-of-comp and surpise urine analysis. This is how Colom got caught.
Either one is a magnificent use of the passport system. We’re just now seeing the fruits of this massive effort, as it takes awhile to have enough data points to be able to see ‘irregular’…
I’m happy to be in a sport willing to take it on the chin for true and fair competition. Glad to see the progress and I’m sure there is more to come.”
The biological passport has been criticized by many, among the critics have been scientists who say it is only as good as the first test; if the baseline is doped, more dope just looks normal. The challenge is that because it is imperfect, the longitudinal testing is pointless. It’s the same sort of criticism that has been leveled at the Toyota Prius. The argument goes that because it is not perfectly green it is a failure. The batteries contain nasty chemicals, it still uses gas, most of its materials can’t be recycled, blah, blah, blah. But the real world isn’t binary like football where you either win or lose. High school exit exams aren’t given to third-graders for a reason: a 10-year-old is a work in progress. And so is the biological passport. The UCI could do nothing worse in the name of clean sport than to throw up its collective hands and cry out, “We can’t catch them all so we give up! Uncle!”
I don’t like the idea of the UCI finding suspicious any rider who wins. Such a cynicism poisons the person who holds the view, not those viewed. I’ve seen it in plenty of fans who have turned away from the sport because they suspect all the riders are doped up. However, using objective methods to target riders for further attention is exactly the step the sport has needed.
Highly is the likelihood that some riders are doping and still evading detection. If we are to enjoy professional cycling as spectators, then we need the assurance that someone competent is on the case. If the record books get corrected six months, a year down the line with an asterisk, so be it. What the sport doesn’t need is to see a guy raise his arms at the line and have the TV audience suspect immediately he will test positive.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.