If outrage or incomprehension was your reaction to news of Tom Boonen’s positive test for cocaine, then you get the situation better than he does. To be fair, a cyclist of Boonen’s stature in Belgium is a rock star, which is a sort of demi-god, and like other figures of mythical status can generally get away with acts that would be criminal by mortal standards. Think Apollo.
A Belgian King of the Classics. Yes, he’s supposed to drive a Porsche. And yes, he’s supposed to get stopped for speeding; he’s a bike racer! But cocaine? That rock star comment was supposed to be metaphoric. Oops.
The situation seems no different than when Jan Ullrich was caught for taking ecstasy. It seems likely it was a “just this once” sort of mistake. Only Boonen had Ullrich’s example to show what can go wrong. Imagine yourself in a club and you’re the most popular guy there. I know, but try to imagine it. You’re going to be offered everything in that club. Everything. There are at least a few of those things to which, as one of the world’s great bike racers, you need to have the cojones to say , “No.”
The problem here is that cycling is in such a tenuous state of credibility that the only way this situation could be worse was if Boonen had been riding for a team such as High Road, CSC or Slipstream that has taken great public steps to demonstrate it’s riders are clean.
Drunk driving would be understandable; irresponsible, but understandable. Alcohol is an acceptable (at minimum) part of a meal. A fourth (or fifth) glass of wine or beer before getting in the car is a mistake that some folks make. But cocaine comes with the taint of party boy, which implies a different sort of recklessness. And because cocaine is a stimulant par excellence, if you didn’t think, “Boy, I could make my bike go a million kilometers per hour on this stuff,” we’d have to question your sanity, not your judgement. And there’s the rub. For the bike racer, anything that can be construed as a drug ought to be seen as off-limits.
Perhaps Tom didn’t get the memo. The memo came from the viewing audience. It was brief. It said, “Don’t embarrass our sport anymore.”
Under other circumstances, his apology would have been acceptable, applaudable even. He said, “Lately, my name has appeared several times in the news in a negative manner. I realise that with this I have hurt my family, my friends, my team and my fans. I wish to apologise for that. But I am not perfect. I will accept the consequences. You will understand that in spite of everything that has been written, rightfully or wrongly, I am not here to defend my conduct.”
That wasn’t good enough. Frankly, it smacks of Johann Museeuw’s apology for not being “100 percent honest” during his days as a racer. Now, more than ever, we need someone caught red-handed to step up and say, “Yes, I did (insert name of drug here), and I apologize. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Don’t let the fact that his team is standing behind him obscure the gravity of the situation. Lefevre can be credibly accused of being one of the better architects of systemic doping in the peloton. To expect exemplary leadership from him is like asking a fifth grader to teach calculus; it’s not fair because he just doesn’t get it.
Which, is exactly Tornado Tom’s problem. He can’t possibly be seeing the issue through our eyes, otherwise such a gaff would never have occurred. And now that we have a clear illustration that his view of the “doping problem” isn’t our view of the “doping problem” it calls into question his judgement as a whole. It hurts, because he’s one of the last guys in the peloton we wanted this from.
Now we are faced with the ugly question of wondering what else Boonen may find acceptable on a “just this once” basis.
Photo courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
Each day Alberto Contador wears the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia he proves his mettle as a Grand Tour rider. Contador is putting on an impressive display of talent and determination (Andreas Kloden’s disappointment at being unseated as the team’s leader notwithstanding) after arriving at the Giro in something other than peak form. It’s a rare rider who can ride into better shape as a grand tour progresses.
To say Contador will arrive in Milan to take his second Grant Tour would be putting the pack before the breakaway, but his chances do look good. Contador’s transfer to Astana to follow Johan Bruyneel raised eyebrows or didn’t, depending on your outlook on the refugee of Operacion Puerto. Bruyneel retained the services of Rasmus Damsgaard and since doing so there hasn’t been a single whisper about the team’s, uh, cleanliness. No accusations, no positive tests, no non-starters, just a string of wins in every stage race they have entered this season save the Tour de Georgia.
The message Astana has been sending is that by being not just competitive, but consistently the most competitive team in stage races during the 2008 season (as evidenced by their victories thus far), they deserve to race the Tour de France.
Someone might want to phone Johan Bruyneel.
The Amaury Sport Organization’s problem with Astana seems to be as much about Bruyneel as it does the previous management of Astana. While Mssrs. Prudhomme and company haven’t said as much, their concern about Lance Armstrong—and by extension his methods and his team—hasn’t abated. If anything, Contador’s win last year was all the confirmation they needed that Bruyneel’s team must be up to something other than fair play.
Their ongoing suspicion of Astana—whether warranted or not—makes a tragic statement about ASO’s regard for team-retained longitudinal testing programs. It’s unlikely they know something about the possible fallibility of these programs that the rest of the world doesn’t, so if they are, in fact, suspicious of the programs themselves then we are entering a new era marked more by cynicism than proactive science.
Trust is a human contract that the PRO peloton has killed more convincingly than Nietzsche’s announcement that God is dead. ASO wants its race to be won by a rider utterly beyond suspicion, though how that can be accomplished is a matter that could be debated until the start of the ’09 Tour. One thing is certain: They don’t trust anyone riding in azure and yellow.
It’s clear that Astana’s riders and management believe that by demonstrating the team’s competitive worthiness that they will have earned the right to race the Tour de France. Leipheimer has illustrated the team’s naivete by saying, “We deserve to be in the Tour de France.” For those who aren’t clear on the concept (Leipheimer included), the Tour de France is a private company and rather like a restaurant, they have elected to retain the right to choose whom they will serve. Think of it as a ‘no shoes, no shirt’ clause for the doping set.
Should Alberto Contador arrive in Milan the color of a flamingo, many people will believe that Astana’s performances justify an invitation for the Tour. To ASO, the exact opposite will be true: Without having more thoroughly cleared up suspicions and concerns before winning yet another grand tour, ASO will believe its actions to be completely just. Moreover, winning the Giro despite the team’s lack of preparation will be proof positive to the Tour de France that Astana must be doing something shady.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
Jan Ullrich has elected to pay a fine to the Bonn Prosecutor’s office, thus ending the investigation into his possible sporting fraud through doping. Ullrich is reported to have paid six-figures to make the investigation go away. Most of us wouldn’t voluntarily write a check that large unless real estate was involved.
Naturally, the out-of-court settlement allows Ullrich to admit no guilt. That works fine for major corporations, but in this instance it has the feel of closing the gate after the horse has left the barn.
The case began after allegations arose that Ullrich was one of the athletes who had used the services of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes’s Spanish clinic. An alias for Ullrich had been found in the doctor’s records. That was enough to send German authorities into action.
German authorities launched a criminal inquiry that allowed them to request blood and plasma from Spanish officials. The basis of the criminal complaint was sporting fraud, that by winning the Tour de France while using banned substances and forbidden doping techniques, Ullrich had defrauded his employer of millions of Euro, thus illegally increasing his income.
The authorities tested both blood and plasma found at Fuentes’s clinic. Prosecutors, in a turn that wouldn’t fly in the U.S., announced that they had confirmed a DNA match between the seized blood and plasma and Ullrich. As trials by public go, the announcement was effective enough that Ullrich retired from the sport almost immediately after the announcement.
In a gentler time, the world might have let Ullrich go quietly. But there has been a widespread desire to know the truth, to find out just how prevalent doping was, if only one rider at a time.
Ullrich’s settlement lacks the finality of a conviction in court and while he insists he has done nothing wrong—that he has never used performance enhancing drugs or used illicit means to boost his performance—there is ample credible evidence that he all but had Fuentes on a retainer. Even though the criminal investigation has ended, there is more than enough damning evidence to have tarnished the athlete’s career
So the chapter on doping titled “Jan Ullrich” is at an end, right? Wrong. Ullrich’s settlement seems to be an effort into stopping any further inquiry into his alleged (or confirmed) doping. Unfortunately, Ullrich has a history of underestimating his opposition. First it was Marco Pantani. Then Lance Armstrong. Then the German Cycling Federation when he moved to Switzerland and registered as a Swiss pro; that didn’t stop the investigation into his activity as he was employed by a German team. It could just be that Ullrich hasn’t taken into account the next phase of “The Persecution of Jan Ullrich.”
T-Mobile has ample evidence to file a civil claim against him.
To the degree that his settlement was meant to end investigation into doping activities by the Olympic Gold Medalist, Ullrich was successful, but to the degree that the settlement was meant to protect his legacy, and ultimately his Yellow Jersey from the 1997 Tour de France, the settlement might prove to be fuel for a civil claim by T-Mobile. If they do file suit and prevail in court, ASO is guaranteed to come calling for that yellow shirt.
For the PROs of the ’90s, riding in a doped peloton was a classic double-bind. The riders were damned if they rode clean and damned if they abandoned their values to be competitive. And now it is our turn.
As fans of cycling, there is no satisfactory outcome for us. If we choose to endorse the retroactive rewriting of the record books, we find ourselves on a slippery slope that would eventually see not only Bjarne Riis’ and Ullrich’s Yellow Jerseys seized, but also that of Marco Pantani and the Polka-Dot Jerseys of Richard Virenque on our way to record books filled with names we don’t recognize as greats.
If, instead, we dismiss the doping of the ’90s as being an unfortunate footnote to cycling’s past, we turn our backs on those honest athletes who suffered at the hands of a supercharged peloton, suffered as only Prometheus could appreciate. Who says Ullrich shouldn’t pay for his part?
Photo courtesy of John Pierce, Photosport International
I read Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride in the spring of 1991. Why? I’m not sure to this day. I didn’t believe there was a drug problem in professional cycling and am not by nature a suspicious sort. Yet, for some reason, I decided to pick it up.
The picture Kimmage painted was so alien to what I thought I knew of professional cycling as to be practically science fiction. His was a dystopian world where the dreams of hard working innocents are dashed in a daily regimen. Worse than the tribulations mortals suffered at the hands of the gods in Greek Mythology, to race a Grand Tour among the PROs was clearly preferable to having your liver pecked out by an eagle on a nightly basis. Especially if you raced clean.
I hadn’t thought much of the book for some seventeen years. Then one day in a blaze of discretionary spending, I went nuts on Amazon and picked up a half dozen volumes without which my life seemed incomplete.
As I read the revised introduction I began to see all that I had missed in my first reading. In 1991, I knew the players, but not in the way I do now. The intervening years have given me time to read more about each of the protagonists and to become familiar with others whose names were little more than a footnote to me then. A line from the James Tate poem “The Lost Pilot” came to me as I read: He was more wronged than Job.
The stunner in this isn’t how Kimmage suffered as a pro trying to race clean. No, he was really just incidental damage in a system gone awry. There was nothing particularly malicious in his treatment as he got chewed up racing on bread and water. No, the outrage is how he was treated for, as the French call it, craché dans la soupe—spitting in the soup.
Rider after rider disputed the truth he told, and his hero and team leader Stephen Roche betrayed him and insulted him in a way that might make Roger Clemens smile. And while what was done to Kimmage was unfair and tragic, his personal tragedy was nothing compared to what the sport itself suffered as a result of hanging him out to dry.
Shakespeare himself would appreciate the cruel turn of events that occurred in 1990. As Kimmage was working on Rough Ride, the peloton was familiarizing itself with EPO. And by familiarizing itself, I mean the first Dutch cyclists were having heart attacks in their sleep.
Kimmage showed how the lack of testing allowed the cancer of doping to grow unchecked from the beginning of cycling through to the 1980s. The late 1980s ushered in a new age thanks to few tests, lax testing protocols, a culture that actively encouraged doping as a coping mechanism and three Italian doctors who saw EPO as something of a real-time eugenics program—a way to help the athlete to reach his full potential. It’s fair to wonder if Greg LeMond’s 1990 win at the Tour de France was the last clean win at the Tour.
In reading about Kimmage’s relationship with Irish journalist David Walsh—yes, that David Walsh—a different portrait of Walsh appears. Rather than the single-minded writer known for pursuing any rumor about Lance Armstrong, one sees a knowledgeable sports journalist mentoring a cyclist disillusioned with his sport because of his inability to get on board with doping. One can see how Walsh might have adopted Kimmage’s disillusionment as his own and how he may have grown outraged at those who victimized Kimmage for speaking the truth.
The cautionary tale here isn’t that in pro cycling you will face drug use. No, the cautionary tale is that by ignoring the doping problem when it was relatively simple and unsophisticated, the UCI missed the opportunity to get on top of the problem before it entered the realm of systematic practice. No longer was it the game of the farm boys.
Once doping became the province of doctors who introduced the athletes to the new drugs and team managers who instructed the doctors who peaked when, pro cyclists lost their dream. Kimmage’s story is not uncommon; on the contrary, his is the story of most cyclists of the modern era. It is the destruction of one cyclist’s dignity after another.