To move on or to dwell in the past?

News & Results

09/4/2012| 0 comments
by Neil Browne
Photoreporter Sirotti

To move on or to dwell in the past?

Are we going to enjoy the sport for the beauty or the swag?

The word “omertà” has been used a lot lately. Most often it is associated with a rider’s silence to protect a secret. The fallout from Lance Armstrong’s refusal to contest the USADA ruling has made me realize that omertà isn’t restricted to professional athletes.

Cycling television commentator Phil Liggett had a Skype-type interview with Ballz Radio (yes, that’s really their radio call sign) in South Africa. In this interview he dropped a couple of bomb shells such as shadowy agents from USADA tried to bribe a witness to testify by telling the person that if they agreed to talk against Armstrong, “they wouldn’t want for money again.” Wow – did you hear that? That’s a news bombshell exploding! A non-profit government agency that is partially funded by Congress is going to set someone up financially for life? Considering this country may be on the brink of a Great Recession and we are closing post offices, that’s an amazing offer from USADA!

Liggett and several other journalists and commentators are still clinging to a myth even as evidence continues to pile up that Armstrong cheated his way to seven Tour de France wins.

The reason these journalists and authors continue to prop up a false idol is a combination of financial gain and, I think in the case of Liggett, manipulation. What Liggett had left of his reputation before the Ballz interview is ruined now that Armstrong has joined the Disgraced Tour de France Cheaters Club. The other Armstrong supporters in the media who have written books extolling the amazing physical virtues of an athlete that cheated now look ridiculous.

While the riders’ omertà is slowly tumbling down, we still need to weed it out of the bike industry. Only then can we truly get a clean start. Okay, I’m taking a deep breath and letting it go as there was actually bike racing continuing and I’m going to write about that. But no promises regarding returning to the doping subject as news develops. In about two weeks, evidence against Armstrong is going to get even more compelling as USADA discloses to the UCI the evidence amassed. I hear it’s a doozy ...

Typically the end of the season kind of sputters out. Sure there’s the Vuelta a Espana, but the ratings aren’t anywhere as high in the States for Spain’s national tour when compared to the Tour de France. State side we had the awkwardly named USA Pro Challenge (or sometimes called the USA Pro Cycling Challenge) in Colorado. Whatever the name, it was a great race.

I was there at the USA Pro Challenge and barring one day, there was a constant leadership change. Also the racing was aggressive with a ballsy attack from Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) hanging on to win the stage in Aspen by three seconds and crowd favorite Jens Voigt going solo for almost 80 miles to win in Beaver Creek. This is exactly what the sport needed to get back on the right foot: entertaining racing with interesting personalities. Each and every start and finish town in Colorado laid out the red carpet for the riders, staff and everyone associated with the race.

In the end Christian Vande Velde was the overall winner taking the yellow jersey back in the time trial in downtown Denver. I spent all of that stage in a media car listening to the race radio and writing my stage report. As we drove around the 9.5 mile course there was hardly a space not occupied by spectators. It was quite a sight to see for a time trial. Of course don’t get me started regarding the crowds on both Independent Pass and Flagstaff! While I didn’t see them in person, on the monitors they looked to be out of control (at times in a bad way) and the journalists that did go to the summit of Flagstaff were constantly comparing it to the crowds at the Tour de France.

I spoke to two French journalists who were in Colorado covering the race and naturally the Tour de France came up in our discussion. They said people going to watch the Tour in person are not there to see the racers go by. They claimed that most people are there on the side of the road waiting for the publicity caravan to drive by so they can grab the trinkets they toss out.

The French journalists also said people watching the Tour broadcast enjoy the history and tourism aspect of the show – again, not so much the race. Of course I was surprised by these statements. To us, French people love the Tour and the racers. But it turns out that even the French are getting weary of the doping scandals. I guess the French can forgive (example – Richard Virenque is a consultant commentator for Eurosport), but it doesn’t mean they forget.

Speaking of forgiving, Alberto Contador has returned to professional cycling after serving his suspension. I have to say, Contador has invigorated this edition of the Vuelta. He has continually attacked whenever the road goes up. Like Armstrong, Contador’s suspension was polarizing. Admittedly not to the extent of Armstrong, but it did stir up some feedback on the Internet. Was he really guilty of doping or was he just a victim of a system that doesn’t give the athlete a fair chance? I emailed Dan Kalbacher for his thoughts.

Dan is a contributor on the excellent Cyclismas site and his real life job as Sheriff’s Deputy in Fairfax County, Virginia has given him some insight into how the justice system works. Plus, he’s a Contador supporter, so he seemed like the perfect person to pick their brain about his subject.

“I look at doping cases differently in the fact that my profession requires an actual ‘intent’ of wrong doing to make an individual guilty and for me that is what lacks with the Alberto Contador case,” explains Dan.

“Yes, I recognize the rules and the CAS decision is well in line with the code and was correct interpretation. However, I think the Contador, and even the Zirbel case both show how the pendulum of ‘tougher enforcement’ to ensure a cleaner sport has made strict liability unreasonable upon athletes. No one, not even those with the vastest resources can know every, minute detail of everything put into their body and test it prior to ingesting it with the specificity and scientific precision these labs who conduct testing possess.”

“The issue I have with the Contador decision is that even the CAS arbitrators noted that WADA and the UCI did not prove Contador intentionally cheated and they believed Contador’s ‘contamination’ theory, however a different avenue of contamination. However, the code is written in a way that it doesn’t matter that the arbitrators don’t believe he intended to cheat the way Armstrong, Hamilton and others have in the past who clearly had the intent, he is still punished the same.”

As we move forward we need to decide if we’re forgiving but not forgetting, or we’re going to let the scandals continue to drag us down. As I discussed with friends at a dinner party the other night – is it fair that the anonymous ten riders who gave evidence against Armstrong are allowed to walk with no repercussions? Yes, I believe so. The main head of the hydra has been cut off and we need to accept that the cost of that victory is to let the others go.

Will there be fallout in regards to other athletes testing positive due to accidental ingestion of a banned substance – a la Contador or Tom Zirbel? Unfortunately yes and sometimes that is the collateral damage. To complete our move forward as a sport we must find a way to eliminate this damage and find reasonable punishments to be applied in the case of positives stemming from unintentional ingestion of banned substances.

I know these are some “pie in the sky” dreams, but with leadership change at the top of the UCI I believe it is possible. Otherwise the sport will be reduced to people attending races hoping to collect free key chains tossed from a marketing car and people watching the races to hear factoids about random churches along the courses.

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