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Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Healthy skepticism, dealing with doping and denial

Cycling discrimination: why skepticism should be encouraged, not silenced

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy piece in which I tried to provide some balance to the discussion about Froome's Ax-3-Domaines performance on Saturday, its physiological implications and the importance of circumspection in the answers we seek.  It was a data heavy piece, so have decided to follow it up with a more opinionated one.

A parallel universe - "cycling is in great health"

A quick thought on the general state of cycling first, though.  Imagine a 2013 Tour without Sky on Saturday afternoon on Ax-3-Domaines.  The fastest ascent of the day would have been 24:18 by Alejandro Valverde, well over a minute slower than the best Ax-3-Domaines times of 2001.  Behind him, a trail of riders with big time gaps on a short climb, including group of top Spanish climbers who lost over two minutes on the day, finishing in 25:16.  These are times that would not even make the top 60 on this climb (even correcting for error in timing!).

Had that happened, we would all be feeling pretty good about the world of cycling on Sunday morning, because the times would have gone in the "right" direction.  We'd say "See, the sport has changed, the stricter testing of the passport and the increased scrutiny are doing the job".  We'd be particularly impressed that these "slow" performances came on the very first mountain stage, when riders should be freshest. For context, a Twitter follower (ExRoadman1) reliably informs me that when the Tour did Ax-3-Domaines in 2001 and 2003 (the fastest ascents), they'd raced 1923km and 2095km before the stages, respectively.  2013?  Only 1148 km, and so it was very slow despite better circumstances for a fast time.

Yes indeed, had it not been for two riders on the day, we'd be very pleased with the 'health' of cycling! We'd be wrong to be so certain of course, in the same way that we'd be wrong to conclude that it's terrible and overrun with dopers (is it telling that Valverde would be the patron of a clean peloton, for example!)

So, it was Froome and Porte who spun us around.  Porte, for his part, had a terrible Sunday, something that can be viewed in one of two ways - either he paid the cost of a supra-maximal effort, a lack of pacing suited to a stage race, and we'd be more optimistic.  Or his variability is suspicious.  I'd go with the former, since doping is no longer as beneficial to once-off efforts.

As for Froome, he rode well enough on Sunday, but not spectacularly fast - the estimates ranged from 5.0 to 5.2 W/kg on those climbs, and he was accompanied by 30 other riders, so you could make the case for it being a heavy day following a fast one.  The point is, the efforts of two riders have raised eyebrows, specifically around one team, but should not by themselves be viewed as guilty.

Views on the value of constructive skepticism

On that note, and lest my last two thoughts place me on the opposite extreme of a 'dope-free cycling apologist', I thought I would follow it up today with what are really just my opinions on the sport in general, and why we have these heated debates about victimization of teams and riders without, apparently, justification.

I read a tweet the other day saying that it's unfair that Usain Bolt is exempt from suspicion and interrogation even though he is running faster than Ben Johnson 25 years ago.  That it's not fair for Andy Murray to not be questioned on his victories in the way that cyclists inevitably are.  Couple points.  First, those guys are not entirely exempt.  Granted, they don't face the same level of scrutiny, but it's too far to say they face none.  Second, they should be pressed more, because there is no doubt that cycling is not alone, and may, in some regards, be even better off than other sports in the anti-doping battle (no, not you, UCI, you don't get to take any credit for that).

But more to the point, I'd want to caution against pointing outwards when the debate asks people to look inwards.  The focus that should be placed on other sports, on other teams within a sport, or on other riders within a team, is a parallel matter, one that should be absolutely be dealt with, but not as part of the answer to specific cycling questions.  In this matter, I do not agree that anyone becomes less guilty because their illegal behavior is commonplace.  If the issue is cycling, let's talk about cycling, not tennis or athletics, because we'll never move from where we are.

Cycling is where it is, in part, because too many people who might have added value early were silenced or cast aside as being problematic, unwanted because they 'spat in the soup'.  The result, to paraphrase a piece by Paul Kimmage, is that the denial of doping hurt cycling more than doping.  And the easiest form of denial is not to openly deny doping ("It doesn't happen"), it's to distract from the debate by diverting questions and pointing to others, which seems, in my opinion, to happen too often.  We all hope, even the most cynical, that the riders we watch today are clean, or at least cleaner than those of ten years ago.  The mere existence of ongoing debate is, I hope, indicative that people want change and want to believe.  Few are maliciously cynical, even if they have by now forgotten their real purpose of becoming vocally anti-doping.

And so I would hope that those who defend the sport will at least find it possible to recognize the origins of the skepticism, and why they should not be trying to silence or divert the questions and allegations, but rather encourage them and heed the solutions they may reveal.  The mistrust of cycling can be turned into constructive feedback, unless it is diverted through defensiveness.

History repeating?

We find ourselves in the 100th Tour, the first since USADA's investigation of Armstrong exposed the Tour's previous "renaissance" after the Festina scandal of 1998 as nothing more than a more sophisticated fraud.  Back then, the sport was looking for salvation, and a Texan rolled into view with promises of miracles and hope.  He would eventually use the Champs-Elysees to admonish people who didn't believe in miracles when he finally departed in 2005.

Well, we now hear much of the same.  Promises and re-assurances that don't quite jibe with actions.  I read David Walsh's tweets from within Team Sky over the weekend, where he dismissed similarities between Froome on Saturday and Armstrong in Sestrierre in 1999, by basically arguing that Froome is different from Armstrong because Froome is a nice guy who would not pull a "Lance" and intimidate an outspoken rider the way that Armstrong did with Bassons in 1999.  

I see many others are making similar points - Sky have too much to lose, that they are credible because they have the pressures of UK Sport on their back.  They are team of nice guys, just very smart in their preparation, very scientific.  Well, I recall that Tyler Hamilton was a nice guy, one of the best in the peloton.  Hincapie had the respect of everyone, as have most dopers, before they were caught.  USPS was a credible sponsor, with too much to lose, and so was Discovery.

In terms of preparation, USPS and Lance Armstrong were systematic, scientific and methodical, you may recall?  Lance was called "Mr Millimeter" for his attention to detail, and the Europeans, they didn't know how to train for the race.  Lazy, unfocused, disorganized.  USPS, we were told, got the jump because of their scientific and systematic approach.  As for Lance Armstrong, he had cancer, surely he would never risk it all, and the hopes of millions, to cheat in a bicycle race?

Since when did the sponsor's governance and credibility become an effective umbrella against doping accusations?  And when did "nice people" not cheat when placed in the worst of circumstances possible for them?  Given what we have learned about cycling and its culture, how can we continue to confuse superficial personality with doping decisions?  Tyler Hamilton did seem a nice guy, and he still does.  So do many who testified to USADA, and to other commissions.  Their doping mistakes don't change that.  Are we still stuck in some kind of eastern European, iron-curtain clad generalization or stigma that dopers are ruthlessly seeking world domination driven by cold-war sporting philosophies?  Or that dopers are sporting equivalent of Gordon Gekko, relentlessly pursuing greed as the driving force behind rampant doping (that's a Wall Street reference, for the uninitiated)?  

It has become abundantly clear that in cycling, some good people were caught up in a very bad culture, that they made bad choices, but were not necessarily bullies, evil-doers or criminals (ok, some were, granted).  So where, in the words of one Twitter follower, does the "dreamy eyed pap" by some in the (UK, mostly) media about guys being too nice to dope originate?  How short are our memories, that we consider 'nice guys' to be even close to an admissible characteristic of a non-doper?

And as for "too much to lose" - millions of hopes were not enough for Armstrong, so I'm afraid you'll have to forgive the cynics when they don't quite buy the empty words of "trust me, I'm clean, I've got a lot to lose here".

Sky's specific place in the spotlight

Related to this, some on the weekend were accusing people of going after Sky specifically, that Sky should not have to answer these questions more than any other team.  That's only partly true.

As the team who hold a yellow jersey that has been stained by 20 years of doping and cheating, it is inevitable that they must field more of the questions.  This does not exempt Astana, FDJ, Garmin, Europcar and co. from the same scrutiny, but it is obvious that the winning team in a dirty sport will attract the skepticism.  After all, winning in cycling became synonymous with doping, so where else would you find a doper, if not wearing a yellow jersey?  That's the rationale of the skeptics and some in the media, and I think even the most ardent fan has to respect that reality, particularly if they wish to change it.  

For me, the issue with Sky is not that they are behaving the same as every other team when it comes to things like their position on doping, or the release of data (biopassport and power, as we discussed the other day), it's that they are doing so off the back of a promise that they'd be different.  They rolled into the sport with a commitment to transparency, to show that the Tour can be won clean.  That was their implied mission - win bike races differently. 

Even if they are held to account only to that promise, it's clear that they are currently inviting suspicion by not doing it.  It seems to me they have a choice in every instance, A vs B.  I'd call it an opportunity, rather than a responsibility, to emphasize that it is their choice.  A choice between two options, one which might confirm a new paradigm, and one which would re-inforce skepticism from outsiders.

As Shane Stokes, a Velonation journalist who DOES ask the challenging questions, has also mentioned, under pressure to show they are clean, they could go to extra lengths and invite experts to see blood and performance data, or they can choose to ignore it.  The latter option will only ever serve to heighten suspicion because of their promise and their dominance.  When the power output data is withheld because "pseudoscientists" can't be trusted to interpret it properly, and because it would create noise, that action is diametrically opposed to a mission of transparency and "difference".  It is choosing a course of action that will grow suspicion, when there is, in my view anyway, an option that would benefit them and the sport by diminishing it.

They have hired staff with very suspect histories and then patronized people with explanations that they did not know, when just about everyone else did.  They haven't engaged with experts like Ashenden despite having nothing to hide.  Is it a lack of trust in the experts, as much as in the public?  Do they not believe in the system they would need to work within?  Perhaps, and that is their right.  But they come in for scrutiny because they leave people guessing.  That, and the fact they have twice dominated the Tour de France (and much of the seasons, when you look at Wiggins in 2012 and Froome thus far in 2013) while being, well, the same as everyone before them.

Looking ahead

So the questions will continue, as they should, because national pride and promises are not a good enough reason to believe in people given the number of lies that have preceded them.  My point is this: I think most of us want a cleaner sport.  Some wish to arrive there by interrogating everything, by examining every detail, by challenging every performance.  They can (and do) cross a line into unfair accusation from time to time.  Others want to look in a new direction, forget the past and dismiss all questions as biased, destructive, jealous, racist (yeah, I got this one the other day).  Somewhere in the middle is clean cycling, and denying and diverting the questions blocks off access to that point.

The Tour now builds to its traverse of the Alps, and some incredibly difficult stages.  Given the way Froome has looked, and the relative 'weakness' of his rivals, it is unlikely we will see another maximal effort in this Tour - he can follow wheels, and gain seconds near the summit of the climbs if he wishes.  

And so performance analysis becomes less and less powerful.  The rest of the Tour, based on Ax-3-Domianes, will continue to ride the HC climbs at the pVAM, and so will Froome.  How much he has in reserve, we'll never know, unless someone discovers another level and shakes the Tour up.  We look forward to that.