Sky stalwart explains difficulty with seeking tougher sanctions against cheaters, team's anti-doping stance and how cycling has changed
On Monday, Bernhard Eisel talked to VeloNews about his split from longtime racing partner and best friend Mark Cavendish.
What follows is the remainder of the phone interview with Eisel, who talked about his role on the Union Cycliste Internationale’s athletes’ commission, which met earlier this month to provide input to cycling’s governing body about issues vital to the riders inside the peloton, and major shakeups inside Team Sky that saw Bobby Julich and Sean Yates forced out of the team.
Earlier this month, Eisel participated in a three-day working meeting with riders across all disciplines, from road to track to mountain bike and cyclocross, who came up with some ideas for the UCI to consider and implement.
Among there were calls for stiffer penalties for cheaters, more transparency in doping controls and equal prize money for women. Here’s what Eisel had to say:
VeloNews.com: Bernhard, tell us about the meetings that recently wrapped up in Switzerland.
Bernard Eisel: We had three days of meetings in Aigle with the athletes’ commission. The UCI wanted more input from the riders’ side. It all started with an initiative from the IOC about two, three years ago. It’s a way for the athletes to have a stronger voice.
VN: There were some strong recommendations, including stiffer bans for dopers. Did this come as a reaction to the Armstrong Affair?
BE: No, this had nothing to do with Armstrong. We were supposed to meet in London during the Olympics, but with everyone racing, coming and going, and right during the middle of the racing season, everyone agreed to meet in the fall when it’s quieter. Last year we met at the same time. It’s the off-season — well, for everyone except the cyclocrossers. This meeting had nothing to do with the Armstrong story.
VN: But the riders asked for longer bans for certain doping cases, when it’s blatant cheating. This had nothing to do with what’s happening now in light of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation?
BE: That had nothing to do with us. The riders have been asking for tougher sanctions over the past couple of years. But one of the problems is that there are conflicts with existing European laws. You cannot just impose longer sanctions, because there are laws that limit these things. Both the (International Olympic Committee) and (World Anti-Doping Agency) are working with the European Union to change things by 2015-16 so they can extend the sanctions in special cases. The UCI cannot change the laws, and every country has its own set of laws. Some infractions should get a four-year ban, but they cannot until some of the laws are changed.
VN: So what were the other topics beyond the doping issue?
BE: We had a lot of discussion about what’s going on with technical issues with the bike. There are so many things happening right now on the tech side. With disc brakes, the entire braking systems will be changing and what the UCI has to go through. And even bigger topics, such as educating riders with an eye on their future after cycling. What can riders do when they retire? Are there ways for riders to receive education beyond cycling while they are racing, while they are amateurs? Whether that’s university or a trade, we have to find solutions for riders.
VN: Any other firm commitments to press forward?
BE: It’s always hard to reach conclusions. It’s more about expressing views and sharing ideas. We can bring up recommendations for the UCI to consider. We looked on categories to agree on, for example, equal prize money for men and women on the road side. We could start at the world championships. Marianne Vos was there and we talked through a lot of issues with women’s cycling. It’s not just about the UCI throwing money on the table, but working with teams and sponsors to increase their interest. If you look at the Olympics and the worlds, the women’s races were among the most exciting of them all.
VN: One major complaint has been that the UCI is deaf to any interests beyond its own. How have you seen the reception of the ideas since you’ve been working on the athlete’s commission?
BE: I started working with the working groups five years ago and now I’ve been on the athletes’ commission for two. Some of the older riders said, ‘Why do you go there? We went to these meetings for 10 years and nothing changed.’ I said that we need to stop complaining and do something. We have to provide more input, we have to push the issues that are important to us. Riders only complain about things, whether it’s in the races or with the rules, but they never do anything. There are reports riders can fill out after the major races, but we never get anything back from them. Instead of putting something on Twitter, it’s better to talk to someone about it. We should come up with suggestions and constructive ideas, then we can start working to truly improve conditions.
VN: So the issue of how the Armstrong Affair is damaging yet again the image of cycling never came up?
BE: Of course, we cannot avoid it. It always comes up in a certain way, but it was never a direct part of our discussion last week. Okay, I raced with Lance, but what’s happening to him doesn’t change anything about what we are doing today. There are some problems, when he was controlled 250-300 times and never tested positive, but the testing today is better than ever. The biological passport has made a big shift. We have the no-needle policy and there are other new anti-doping controls coming soon. The problem is that when everyone is still talking about Lance, they are not seeing so many good things that are happening in our sport right now. The sport is really growing all over the world and the Olympics were a big success, not just on the road, but in mountain biking, the track, Paralympics. What we need to do better is work together as riders, teams and owners to work with the UCI to strengthen the sport.
VN: What things do you see that perhaps the public or media are overlooking?
BE: The testing is absolutely better now than it’s ever been. And it’s been that way for a few years now. It’s hard to believe that riders still get caught, because the peloton is a different place now. You have to talk about the doping issue, but when that’s all you talk about. … There are some important improvements that have been achieved, like how the teams are better organized and financed. Riders are getting paid, there is more security, there is insurance, it’s way more professional than even when I started as a pro. There are small things that are really working now. It’s just hard to see that when everyone is only talking about Lance. I would love to see some articles about something else.
VN: But do riders see how the sport’s credibility has been completely undermined by the Armstrong Affair?
BE: I think it’s a matter of time before people can see how the sport has changed. Look at what’s happened this year, with Bradley (Wiggins) winning the Tour. And Cadel Evans two years ago. The world is seeing good cycling. People can trust in the sport again. We are talking about things that happened 14 years ago with Lance. Now people are treating it like it’s a brand-new story. It’s important to confront that history and learn from it. There is another story about how the sport has changed for the better.
VN: Should people conclude that Wiggins’ win was clean?
BE: Absolutely. Just look at the average speeds of this year’s Tour. Look at who was riding at the front, me! If I was the one pacing the peloton up some of the climbs, that says a lot. What impressed me most was the whole Team Sky setup. They do everything so professional, so correct. They said they wanted to win the Tour within five years, and they did it within four. It was programmed from last year (2011) to win the Tour in July. They started working on this project more than a year before the Tour started. They got everyone on board on the team to make sure the riders were in the best shape, with the best material, the best coaching and training. They left nothing to chance. Things even like saving 150 grams by not putting handlebar tape on our handlebars. There are so many little things that added up to make the difference. And everyone gave 100 percent for Bradley.
VN: Wiggins said at the Tour presentation this year that sometimes he wishes he didn’t even win the Tour. What do you think of those comments?
BE: I think it’s been kind of unfair for Wiggins. He gave everything to win this Tour and some people doubt him because of stuff other people did a long time ago. He’s gotten destroyed, but when I realized what it took for him to win this Tour, it’s amazing. Now he says he doesn’t want to ride as the race leader anymore, and maybe focus on the Giro instead. He saw how much pressure it took to be the Tour leader. Right now, he’s happy to be Bradley Wiggins, not the Tour winner. He just wants his old quiet life back.
VN: What was it like for you to be part of the Tour-winning team?
BE: It was something I always dreamed about. I knew I can be a good helper and I knew this would be my biggest chance to win the Tour, so I did everything I could to make sure I made it to the Tour. When I first came to Sky, I came to help Cav’ (Mark Cavendish) and I never even thought much about the Tour. Then Bradley just started winning everything last spring. Everyone within the team was like, ‘Holy cow! We can win the Tour.’
VN: Do you really believe Wiggins when he says he doesn’t want to win the Tour again and focus on the Giro instead?
BE: I always thought that once you get a taste of yellow, you want more. I think once he gets back in the game, once he’s recovered a bit this winter, especially mentally, he will look back and think, ‘That was pretty good in July.’
VN: Do you think Chris Froome is up to the task to leading in the Tour?
BE: I think both he and Bradley are capable of winning. It will be different with Contador back in the game and there are some young guys coming up, but either could win. It’s still a long way off. I am ready to work for both of them. They’re both great guys and they work together well. Chris gave everything for Wiggins during this Tour, though some people might not think that. He rode 100 percent for Wiggins. So let’s wait and see how things develop. There’s still a lot of racing between now and the Tour.
VN: Finally, there has been a big drama within Team Sky over its enforcement of the strict zero-tolerance policy, with guys like Bobby Julich and Sean Yates leaving the team. What are your views on that? Is it fair for a guy like Julich who admitted he did something 15 years to lose his job now?
BE: It’s an absolutely strict policy and the team management brought it up. Everyone is sorry to see those guys guy and chapeau for those guys for telling the truth. People can say what they want, but it’s a good sign. It’s a way for the team to stand up for what it believes in. I will miss Bobby J. I worked with him this season and he was one of the best coaches I have ever worked for. He told the truth and he was honest. I have the biggest respect for that and Stephen de Jongh. They are walking away from the world they love and have dedicated their lives to. It’s not for me to judge what’s right or wrong. It’s the team policy.
VN: How did that process work of having an interview about any troubles someone might have had in the past?
BE: It’s an internal story and perhaps I shouldn’t say too much. Briefly, you just sat down and you talked through it with (Dave) Brailsford and some other team staff. There was a paper to sign and that’s it. You’re fired immediately if something comes up in the future, no matter what. I think it depended on each rider and situation, but it was a five-minute conversation and that was it. There have been some interesting changes in the team. I just hope it works, like everybody.