Culture

Mexican cycling grapples with painful questions amid Villalobos controversy

When Mexico's best rider in generations recorded an Adverse Analytical Finding, the news sparked a debate between pro riders, retired heroes, and coaches about the country's lingering problem with doping.

“Not everything is lost,” Flavio de Luna told VeloNews.

De Luna, a retired pro cyclist from Mexico, was asked how his country’s cycling community has been impacted by the recent news that Mexico’s bright young talent, Luis Villalobos, recorded an Adverse Analytical Finding during an anti-doping test from 2019. The news made waves in the U.S. cycling scene, as Villalobos had scored impressive results in American racing and earned a contract with American WorldTour squad EF Pro Cycling.

The news struck like a nuclear explosion in Mexico’s small and tight-knit community of riders and coaches. Villalobos was the most promising rider of his generation and appeared to be on a trajectory to WorldTour greatness.

In the weeks since the UCI announced Villalobos’ suspension, Mexico’s cycling community has grappled with questions about their country’s history with doping. Riders have questioned Villalobos’ rapid rise through cycling, and asked why his coaches and teams were not skeptical of his meteoric progression. They have asked whether Villalobos was working with trainers back home that pointed him toward banned substances.

Other riders have pushed back, opting not to criticize Villalobos until the results of his ‘b’ sample are made positive.

News of Villalobos’ AAF from a 2019 test (prior to him joining EF Pro Cycling) sent shockwaves through Mexican cycling. Photo: Photo: Mario Stiehl-Pool/Getty Images

And throughout the saga, riders and coaches have feared that the Villalobos saga will torpedo future opportunities for Mexican riders.

“When I hear people on the outside saying ‘Mexico is dirty’ it affects me,” said Rene Corella, a member of Mexico’s national track team. “I’m pissed because the media doesn’t say, ‘a select group of riders from Mexico tolerates doping.’ Since there are not many professional cyclists in Mexico, the only news that guys from the outside hear about is doping problems.”

Small community, big impact

Mexico’s history in grand tour racing is short when compared to France or Belgium, and 34 years ago Raul Alcala became the first Mexican rider to race the Tour de France, where he won the best young rider classification in 1987. Since then, there has been a slow, if steady, trickle of Mexican riders into the professional leagues in North America. Only a few Mexicans have gone on to race in the pro leagues in Europe.

Uri Martins retired in 2017 after racing six years with Amor y Vita in Europe. Martin launched a development project in his hometown of Morelos, Mexico to help provide some of the same opportunities he was afforded to make his career in Europe. He now financially supports two aspiring Mexican riders racing in France.

Martin said the news around Villalobos is guaranteed to impact future Mexican riders.

“This situation is going to have a huge impact and is not to be taken lightly,” Martins said. “As a pro rider racing [alongside De Luna], we were always proud to represent Mexico while racing abroad. We wanted to set the example for the next generation. I raced with the national team for close to 10 years. I figured once I was based in Italy it would be easier and more economical to select me but when they did, I was expected to cover all expenses. I didn’t feel that was fair to be honest. I chose to work the best I could and rely on my team in Italy.

“The federation and internal structure of the sport in Mexico is not at a good level, it’s just a disaster. We couldn’t expect to have a proper racing schedule for everyone so we did what we could. I believe cycling in Mexico can continue and have success but only with the right people and in the right place, done right without these problems.”

But the country and its riders have also come under scrutiny for doping in recent years due to their success in topsy-turvy events in Central America, primarily at La Vuelta a Costa Rica, where doping controversies have plagued the race. Currently Mexico has two professional men’s continental teams, Canel’s-ZeroUno, Team Crisa, and one women’s team, Agolico BMC. Last season, Roman Villalobos (no relation to Luis), was suspended by the UCI for returning a positive test for a blood transfusion and anabolic steroid at the 2018 Vuelta a Costa Rica, where he won multiple stages and the King of the Mountain classification.

Flavio de Luna says Mexican cycling needs to address the doping stigma. Photo: 303 Project

Overcoming the stigma

De Luna has been one of the most outspoken voices in the recent debate. Now retired, de Luna was once the up-and-coming star of Mexican cycling, and he raced for Team Spidertech, Smart Stop, and Team Illuminate, among other squads, before retiring in 2019.

“Doping has been a stigma of Mexican cycling all around the world that has affected me and other cyclists,” de Luna said.

In a video response he posted online, De Luna said Mexican cycling needed to address its problem with cheating. Throughout his career, de Luna said, he was approached by riders and doctors to dope. And in select areas of the country, he said, doctors and coaches are known to steer riders to use performance-enhancing drugs.

“During the Tour de San Juan in 2011, a rider [that I won’t mention by name], sat me down and told me I had talent but what I needed was a doctor,” de Luna said. “What was he trying to tell me? That I wouldn’t arrive at the WorldTour without a doctor?”

De Luna expressed concerns about Villalobos’s rapid rise, and said declined to recommend his countryman when U.S. team directors inquired about him.

“He asked me specifically about Luis but I let him know I could not vouch for him,” de Luna said.

De Luna’s comments sparked a backlash from other members of the Mexican cycling community. Retired pro Eduardo Graciano went on Facebook live to push back on de Luna’s comments and his apparent condemnation of Villalobos.

“Don’t come and tell me that [de Luna] knows about everything here in Mexico,” Graciano said, pointing out that de Luna raced mostly for American squads. “I know Villalobos, and he’s a good person. Whether he’s a good person or not, I understand a positive result can still come, but I am not going to criticize him.”

Graciano raced professionally in the 1990’s and rode alongside Juan Villalobos, the father of Luis Villalobos. Last year Graciano won the Mexican Master’s Cycling Championships at age 53.

“I am a cyclist and I also live in this sport,” Graciano said. “I will never be against my cycling in Mexico. If Flavio loves it so much, why is he criticizing it? We don’t know the outcome or if Villalobos will be exonerated or not, but I know he will come out of this strong. We are with him. I know he’ll return so that when he does, he will shut the mouths of all those who are criticizing him, like de Luna.”

Graciano’s words then generated a response from Luis Lemus, another retired Mexican pro who most recently raced for the Israel Cycling Academy squad. Lemus said that de Luna was right to criticize Villalobos, and that the pushback against de Luna’s perspective was part of Mexican cycling’s omerta.

“When cyclists say, ‘I will never be against my cycling in Mexico,’ it’s omerta,” Lemus said. “Flavio has done more to speak about this issue than others have with many more years in the sport.”

Mexican riders continued the conversation on a conference call organized by longtime Mexican cycling coach Klement Capliar. Capliar coached Villalobos, De Luna, Lemus, and other riders, and said he organized the call to discuss how they were feeling, specifically because they were concerned and upset he says.

“These riders cannot do anything against the mafia in Mexico—as I call them—that group hates them,” Capliar said. “We have to focus on what is right and what will help. I advised them to continue the way they were taught and not be intimidated. They have built their reputation outside of Mexico, their teams know them. What’s going to be hard is for the guys to come because the trust is completely gone.”

Mexico is still working to make it as a player on the international cycling scene, and it’s Mexican National Team sends riders to races across South and Central America. Photo: Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

An uncertain future

Capliar said he felt remorse for Villalobos, but hinted that he had been suspicious of the rider. He coached Villalobos for a year beginning in 2015 through the summer of 2016, but stopped working with him because he felt he could no longer trust Villalobos’s performances.

“Most professional coaches have lots of ways to determine and see which riders are using something to help them a bit extra,” Capliar said. “By knowing their talent and following their numbers…if they are not consistent all the time, and you see rapid increases in their performances, that gives an educated coach a red flag.”

Capliar said he expressed caution when U.S. team managers reached out to him asking about Villalobos, but his warnings were either unheard or ignored.

“When I started with [Villalobos], it was a program to keep him in a healthy way,” Capliar said. “He was okay when he was training with me but I could not trust him when he would return home.”

Capliar’s sentiment mirrors the statement released by Villalobos’s team, EF Pro Cycling, in the immediate wake of his suspension. Villalobos joined EF Pro Cycling from the U.S. Aevolo squad in 2019, and the anti-doping test in question was carried out before the transfer. In a statement, CEO Jonathan Vaughters pointed the finger at doctors or trainers in Mexico that had been working with Villalobos at the time of his test.

“It’s hugely upsetting for us when these young riders fall under the guidance of amateur doctors and trainers who ultimately ruin their careers,” Vaughters said.

Exactly who provided the guidance that may have led to Villalobos’s AAF is not known. VeloNews reached out to Villalobos for this story, and Villalobos initially expressed confusion over the result, before declining to comment until the UCI had finished an investigation into the result.

Across the cycling scene, riders and team directors said they simply wanted to know from Villalobos exactly what had happened.

“I’m blindsided and heartbroken. My happiest memories on this team are related to him,” said Aevolo’s director Michael Creed. “I want to know how this happened and I hope that Luis can help us with that by being open and honest. He’s still a kid. I hope he’s okay mentally first, but I want to know who told him this was a good idea because that person needs to be removed from the sport immediately. A kid shouldn’t have to carry someone else’s baggage.”

What impact Villalobos’s story has on the future of Mexican pro cycling is up in the air. Traditionally top Mexican pros looked to the U.S. domestic scene for work, and in recent years Mexican riders have raced for Jelly Belly, Elevate-KHS, and 303 Project, among other squads. But the financial challenges felt by American cycling has siphoned off opportunities for Mexico’s top riders.

And now, European managers may be more cautious to hire Mexican riders.

“How do we separate these doping problems in one part of the country from generalizing the name of an entire nation?” Corella said. “It puts what I have done in my career, all in the garbage.”

De Luna said that in lieu of the Villalobos controversy, he is still optimistic about the future of the sport. Change comes with reaching riders at a young age and teaching them about the periods of cheating. If he and his cohorts can impose that perspective on riders before they get to the elite ranks, they can create a culture change that could restore the country’s reputation.

“Luis [Lemus] and I are going to try to find a way to encourage kids to take the right path,” he said. “We still don’t know how exactly but not everything is lost.”