Cycling season starts with doping on center stage
This weekend saw the start of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California. It has become a popular local race in California and the USA and with several top pro teams have races in recent editions, it is becoming an event not to be missed by serious teams in the peloton.
However this year it is notable for a slightly different reason. Doping seems to be ever present in cycling, and it seems like you can't talk about the sport without doping being part of the conversation. And so it is with this year's Tour of California, because we are seeing the return to the pro peloton of three cyclists who have been banned over the past four years:
- Tyler Hamilton: banned after a positive test for blood doping in the 2004 Vuelta Espana (he raced mostly locally in the USA in the second half of 2007 and last year)
- Ivan Basso: banned when he admitted to working with Efumiano Fuentes in Operacion Puerto but never admitted to actually doping
- Floyd Landis: banned in 2006 after testing positive for synthetic testosterone
"You've spoken recently about the return of Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis, who have returned after their suspensions, compared to David Millar – that they should be welcomed back like he was. But there was one obvious difference in that Millar admitted his doping whereas these guys have admitted to nothing. What is it about these guys that you seem to admire so much?"In response Kimmage's character was attacked, as is Armstrong's normal tactic when dealing with these issues. He told Kimmage that he was "not worth the chair he was sitting on" for daring to raise Armstrong's doping past, hiding behind the accusation that Kimmage had somehow offended cancer survivors when he implied that Armstrong was the "cancer of cycling". It was a classic case of shooting the messenger. But Kimmage raises a really important question: "What do we do with these athletes?" None ever admitted to actually doping, although in two cases (Landis and Hamilton) there is a mountain of physiological evidence against them even though they still to this day vehemently deny they ever did anything wrong. It makes it difficult to reconcile how to view them. Interestingly, Dwain Chambers, of track and field, has been widely cast as a pariah, despite admitting, apologizing, and trying to start afresh. He was quoted recently as saying that he should probably not have confessed. Cycling seems to welcome these men back with open arms.
A first for cycling: The return of the doped contender
This is a new situation in cycling, because although we had the Festina scandal in 1998, the highest profile rider on that team was Richard Virenque, whose claim to fame is winning the climbing classification a total of seven times, before and after 1998. Alex Zulle was 2nd overall in the 1999 Tour, but faded into relative obscurity after that. But now we see a former tour winner (Landis), an heir-apparent to the throne and Giro winner (Basso), and an ambitious 4th place tour finisher (2003) and Olympic gold medalist (Hamilton).
These are not the run-of-the-mill domestiques who have thin palmares and leave the sport without anyone taking notice. Instead these are all high-profile team leaders found guilty of doping. Now they are back, having served their time, so is it then an issue of redemption and forgiveness? Do we wipe the slate clean just because they served their ban? Even though Hamilton and Landis deny to our faces that they ever doped even though the data and evidence say otherwise?
As fans this puts us in a tough position as we try to reconcile how we feel about forgiveness and redemption as we watch these athletes return to the pro peleton. Honestly I am not sure how I feel about this yet and likely will struggle with this issue. On the one hand they did serve their time. . .but on the other hand we listened to them deny any wrong doing again and again when we have seen the evidence against them. And in fact we can put them in the same category of athletes like Marion Jones and Alex Rodriguez. All of them initially denied, denied, denied, even in the face of mounting evidence. Eventually they admitted to doping, but tried to tell us they did not know what they were taking at the time, as if that somehow makes it OK that they doped. So we will watch the Tour of California and the rest of the season with much anticipation as these three make their comebacks.
Doping and the other comeback of 2009
The other comeback story of this year's TOC is of course that of Lance Armstrong. He already raced in the Tour of Down Under in January, but as the TOC is taking place in the USA the hype is considerably higher. Of course it all started last year when he announced his intention to return to competition this year, and the relevance here is that concurrently he announced a one-of-a-kind anti-doping program with none other than Dr. Don Catlin, he of BALCO and THG fame among others. It was intended to show once and for all that he was clean, even though there was no talk of Catlin testing any samples from previous years. Quite how riding clean now has any relevance to riding clean over three years ago is beyond us, but in any case we will never get to see how this plan was meant to work.
Catlin was meant to be Armstrong's personal doping officer, testing Armstrong every three days and publishing the results. However Armstrong announced at the end of last week that in fact Catlin was not going to serve this role, and that many months of negotiations had broken down and the two parties could not reach an agreement. So in fact the announcement of Catlin as chief anti-doping officer was never formalized, even though it was announced way back in September of 2007, and not a single sample was analyzed.
When announcing his comeback, Armstrong insisted that he would not talk about doping this year, saying that "I am not going to tell you how clean I am, and I'm not gonna insinuate how dirty the others are. I'm going to ride my bike and I'm going to spread this message around the world and Don Catlin can tell you if I am clean or not."
Or not - Catlin is no longer part of the equation and Armstrong will be tested by the UCI and Astana's internal anti-doping program run by Rasmus Damsgaard. Armstrong also said that, "By shifting things from Dr. Catlin to Dr. Damsgaard, in conjunction with WADA, USADA, UCI... I still maintain it is the most comprehensive testing programme in the business." Which begs the question----if it is so good then why did he need Catlin in the first place? The original proposal called for testing every three days, but at the pre-race prss conference Armstrong stated that this was not needed given the International Cycling Union's (UCI) biological passport and all of the different testing agencies. . .again, why use Catlin in the first place then?
What is an internal anti-doping program, anyway?
The problem, as we have mentioned here before, with internal anti-doping programs is that the teams still hold all the information. Sooner or later this will lead to a team altering data or failing to report data that might implicate one of their riders---there is too much conflict of interest and therefore too much for a team to gain by witholding or altering information. In fact, I believe, and have it on good authority, that this is already happening, which is not surprising when you consider the massive conflict of interests between team, riders and the "independent" testers. You have riders who are paid to win, team sponsors who will withdraw their money for a positive test, and a situation where doping is crucial but announcing it is business suicide.
And in the case of Astana and Damsgaard it appears that the program lacks any real teeth beyond the UCI testing, anyway. In a Belgian interview Damsgaard stated that "the official anti-doping authority for all the tests I take, that’s the UCI. Thus it follows the customer's requirements. I only get the results after the UCI has received them." This seems to indicate that there is not much of an internal anti-doping program at all, and instead the team has hired an expert to have a look at the data to see if anything looks suspicious. If it does, then what? The poor team manager is now in the position of knowing riders are doping, when he has to produce winning results for sponsors, but sponsors will withdraw their money if riders are found to be doping! It's an impossible dilemma.
So how do these programs function? That is a question that we would love to know the answer to. Regardless, if anyone is asking our advice we propose a wiki approach where data is collected published by a third party for anyone and everyone to see---that includes the UCI, the teams, the athletes, and of course the fans like us.
In the mean time, enjoy the Tour of California! The course this year is a good one with plently of climbs including one on the final day that hopefully promises some fireworks and maybe even a new leader/winner on the final stage.