Archive | October, 2010

Contador, Criteriums, and Clenbuterol

22 Oct

Tyler HamiltonLet’s see…suspended rider to participate in unsanctioned criterium. Why does that sound familiar?

Ah yes—the Tyler Hamilton case. I wish I could tell you more about it, but the massive number of dead links from this otherwise excellent summary article is clouding my memory. Am I the only cycling site on the Internet that knows how to write a 404 page and rock a little .htaccess magic?

Anyway, my understanding of the events surrounding the Stazio crits is that the UCI threatened to suspend clean riders for attending under a rarely-enforced regulation that prevents license-holders from racing at unsanctioned events.

My reaction at the time came down pretty heavily against USA Cycling—whose subservience had nothing do to with an alleged cover-up of another American’s positive test, I’m sure—but in hindsight, the UCI was probably equally out of line for enforcing a rule that would bankrupt many European riders.

But with Contador’s plan to race in Spain this November, it seems the shoe’s on the other side of the Atlantic. Following another high-profile setback on the enforcement of its biological passport program, the UCI should be feeling the pressure to at least appear to be serious about enforcing its rules.

Their treatment of the Contador case has been roundly assailed for its sloth and opacity, and in the past Pat McQuaid has appeared more than willing use the rule as leverage in situations as trivial as his yard-measuring contest with The Cartel. I can’t imagine the fallout if he fails to threaten everyone else at at the race with punishment for racing with Contador.

As for the Spaniard’s case, a recent high-profile Clenbuterol bust in the Canary Islands is being pitched as a potential win for the defense, since it seems to contradict Spanish agricultural claims that clenbuterol is not administered to livestock.

But I think it’s far more significant that the Canaries have long been favored as a training ground by Grand Tour winning cyclists—including Contador himself—as well as a base of operation and frequent travel location for some very infamous doctors.

So while I continue to think it’s a bit of a dick move to fine-print riders into saying what races they can and cannot do, it might just be the soundest course of action for an organization that’s struggling to prove their rules are worth the paper on which they’re written.

How The Race Was Won – Paris-Tours 2010

14 Oct

Anyone else out there tired of talking about doping? How about taking a look at a few races contested by the type of rider who apparently never needs to dope? I’ve been out of town for the past two weeks, but am finally catching up on the late-season classics, and so (turning a blind eye to Danilo Hondo’s fairly significant role), here’s a How The Race Was Won on Paris-Tours 2010.

[right-click for iTunes-compatible download]

(Contains just a few photos and screenshots from various sources, and video from Eurosport.)

It’s an exciting conclusion, despite the relative lack of action from the one-day specialists. Their absence does set up some interesting plot lines going into Lombardy, though the parcours at that event might lead us right back into the doping discussion again.

Why Cycling Really Is Making Progress

9 Oct

LA Confidentiel CoverDavid Walsh, author of the infamous LA Confidentiel and one of the most notable contemporary voices against doping, was quoted in Cyclingnews a few days ago, commenting on the high-profile positives of the past month. “You’ve now got Contador and Mosquera both in trouble” sighed the Irishman, “and you have to think that this sport is going nowhere.”

While I respect the man’s opinion, I think his statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Even as I type this, the allegations made in his book are flushing out the foundation of a federal case against Lance Armstrong and the former US Postal Service Team. A deposition prompted by Walsh’s investigation has already caught the seven-time Tour winner in an obvious contradiction, and for those eager to see the Texan’s head on a platter, the best may be yet to come.

But cycling’s steps toward a cleaner sport over the past few years go well beyond exposing les secrets de Lance Armstrong. Though the progress has been slow, and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture with each new positive test, the long-term trend has been turning solidly and inexorably against the dopers.

Consider 2004, the year in which LA Confidentiel made its debut. That fall, Tyler Hamilton recorded the first positive sample under new testing for homologous blood transfusions (the re-injection of someone else’s blood). Aside from proving the efficacy of the new test, the Hamilton case also revealed to exactly what extent the anti-doping authorities were able to monitor the blood samples they took; thanks to Hamilton’s rigorous legal battle, the scientific validity of this testing was thoroughly established.

This detailed monitoring—which would eventually become the UCI biological passport program—sent the message that successfully-executed doping would now be a full-time job, requiring careful dosing, refrigeration, planning, and support from medical professionals: none of which come cheaply or easily. Even the deep-pocketed Hamilton, whose doping program was extensive and well-planned, still hadn’t been able to dodge the vampires or beat the rap.

Manolo Saiz2004 was also the year of Jesus Manzano’s revelations about the pervasiveness of doping within the cycling world. Manzano, a middling Spanish rider, opened up to the Spanish press with a flood of allegations, which were categorically denied and dismissed by cycling’s establishment. But the maligned Spaniard’s work with authorities bore fruit in a 2006 raid on the offices of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.

Despite massive interference from the Spanish government, the Opercion Puerto case lead directly to the accusation and punishment of countless riders, including three serious TdF contenders: Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Alejandro Valverde. While the case was never as far reaching as it should have been, and progressed with interminable slowness, the actual sanction of top-tier TdF finishers was a first since the cycling “owned up” to the extent of oxygen vector drug abuse in 1998.

Between 1998 and 2005, there were no major changes in the UCI rules—EPO and blood doping were just as illegal as they are today. But before the Hamilton positive and Puerto raid, efficacy of testing and enforcement had been decidedly lacking. Both homologous doping and EPO lacked a good tests for years, and early positives were met with skepticism and short suspensions. At some points, authorities may even have turned a blind eye to higher-profile positives.

Consider the Tours since the Puerto raid, and I think you’ll see a definite change. In ’06, Landis was caught after a miraculous, ride-away-from-everyone Tour win, just days after the Tour ended. In ’07, Vinokourov was caught re-injecting someone else’s blood and booted mid-race. Later that same year, Michael Rasmussen was voluntarily pulled by his team while wearing the Yellow Jersey, after his violations of the UCI’s whereabouts policy were revealed.

In 2008, a few riders, riding high on the general classification and throwing back stage wins like energy gels thinking they’d discovered an undetectable new drug, were caught and very visibly ejected, along with a handful of other names sanctioned after the fact. And now, in 2010, we have Alberto Contador caught shortly after the Tour with nearly-undetectable levels of a drug, and chemical substances that, while not sanctionable yet, strongly suggest re-injected blood.

If those previous two paragraphs don’t represent a remarkable increase in testing effectiveness, I don’t know what does. And it’s really just the continuation of a longer-term trend. Consider the Tour podiums from 1999-2005. While it is glaring that the most successful rider of that era remains at least technically innocent, it’s difficult to find another Head of State from the period with whom justice has not caught up. When compared with the soft or non-existant sanctions placed on riders in the Festina era, even those slow-moving cases mark a dramatic improvement.

Bernhard KohlThe initial reaction when inundated by news of positive tests—as Walsh and Ettore Torri have recently voiced—is to throw up your hands and say that everyone’s on drugs and that nothing is improving. But natural though that instinct may be, it’s also highly irrational.

Positive tests mean riders are getting caught. While the confessions of some riders make test evasion seem trivially easy, their own positives contradict that suggestion. There’s no argument to be made that an effective doping program isn’t a massive undertaking today, especially compared with the casual EPO needlesticks of a decade ago.

While the UCI may at times seem to be doing everything in its power to erode public faith in the sport, the fact remains that cycling’s progress in rooting out dopers has been commendable, and the improvements are continuing. Bernhard Kohl’s well-worn quip that you cannot win the Tour without doping may indeed still be true, but the cost, complexity, and risks involved in dosing up are exponentially higher than just a few years ago—as his own downfall reflects. If testing continues to improve, in the very near future, it may no longer be worth the reward.

The dream of a sport—any sport—with no doping is an attractive fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. As long as there is competition, people will cheat to gain an extra edge, and those hunting the cheats will always be playing catch-up. The best a rational fan can hope is that those running the sport make cheating as unattractive a proposition as possible, through consistent, effective testing, and firm, swift sanctions.

And in that regard, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a sport going in a better direction than professional cycling.

Maybe We Should Test For Accountability

4 Oct

Pat McQuaidWhat is it about this sport that cultivates such an aversion to accountability? It must be drafting or something.

Let’s start with the UCI, who flatly denied a Contador positive to ARD after they were aware of it, and before the story broke. Ignore the fact that most third-graders know to spit back “neither-confirm-nor-deny” boilerplate to questions like that—it’s the frickin’ German media.

While they do seem to have a painfully self-conscious obsession with doping, they’re not exactly known for fishing expeditions. Contador’s positive tests occurred months ago, the UCI had already notified WADA, bringing dozens, if not hundreds of potential leaks into the loop. Did the UCI consider it conincedence that a doping specialist reporter called them to ask about Contador’s positive test?

Then there was the advice to Contador to keep quiet over the positive tests. Nothing says “we’re attempting to cover this up” like sequestering news from reporters, sponsors, team managers, etc. Now you’ve got Contador on record as saying he expects a “quick resolution“, rumors flying over slashed suspension terms, heaps of reporting on a double standard so obvious it would embarrass George Wallace, and—oh yeah—all this kicked up days before the UCI’s biggest week of racing.

In fact, the only thing transparent out of the UCI in recent weeks was their limp-wristed attempt to deflect attention and criticism onto the Spanish cycling federation. Words cannot convey how much better the sport and its governing body would look if the UCI had simply told Contador to come forward back in August, and confirmed—or at least not denied—the positive tests.

Alberto ContadorAnd then there’s Contador. Apparently, the B-sample clearance I’d been hoping for hasn’t come through. That makes a positive test. Contador should feel welcome to appeal to his heart’s content—it’s his right after all—but I don’t think there’s any reasonable expectation he won’t get sanctioned.

If Contador really did test positive from tainted meat, he should lose the TdF title for it. Yes, it’s not really fair—but then again, neither was Andy’s chain, Beloki’s crash, Hinault’s knees, Merckx’s liver or any other of a myriad of other hard-luck stories that potentially cost racers victory at the Tour de France.

At an absolute level, athletes have complete control over the food that goes into their bodies, and consuming anything other than the most rigorously vetted food at the biggest bike race in the world is as fool-hardy as taking risks on melted pavement, punching big gears through growing joint pain, or riding too close to a hostile crowd.

And frankly, if Contador’s case is handled like previous contamination positives, I think he should accept it and be satisfied. More than a few additional questions have been raised by this case, and with some labs apparently keeping an eye peeled for as-of-yet-circumstantial signs of doping, there’s no need for the Spaniard to start playing the retroactive testing card; at any rate, we know from experience that retro-positives are fairly easy to deny.

At the end of the day, what’s important is that people respect the rules cycling has established to deal with drug testing. They aren’t perfect—you’d be hard-pressed to find codified regulations that are—but they’ve come a tremendously long way in the past decade.

Tap-dancing around the media and normal procedure to try and control the impact of positive tests, or expecting special treatment because you happend to win a few Tours de France both undermines the effectiveness of the systems, and obscures the areas where it’s in need of further refinement.