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The Ryder dilemma: When to come in from the dark

Despite the media following his trail in early 2013, Ryder Hesjedal held out on a doping admission — and the new Omerta shows us why

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LEON, Spain (VN) — There’s been a lot of hand wringing over the past week in the wake of Ryder Hesjedal’s admission that he doped early in his career.

Inflammatory stuff, without a doubt, but the questions for many didn’t focus so much on the admission, but on why it took so long for him to come clean.

For better or worse, anyone racing during the EPO era is now under suspicion. And that included riders like Hesjedal, who came into the sport in the early 2000s. The peloton was a dirty place back then. In those days, it was either play the game and juice up, or be content with Tuesday afternoon group rides.

It’s been more than a year since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released its reasoned decision that once and for all debunked the Lance Armstrong myth, and erased any doubt about how the Tour de France was raced and won.

But anyone hoping that the USADA case would pave the way toward a more transparent and reconciliatory future has been bitterly disappointed.

Compounding disinterest in the truth

Over the past year, a number of factors have compounded on the wrong side of transparency.

The sport’s world governing body, the UCI, dropped the ball, and the sport was not keen to dwell on the past. No one wanted to talk about what happened inside camper vans or hotel rooms more than a decade ago.

Over the past year, it’s almost as if a new Omerta has settled over the peloton.

There are plenty of encouraging indications that cycling has truly turned the corner on doping, and that today’s peloton is as clean as the sport’s ever been. It’s not that today’s pros have some secret pact to not mention the “D” word, but fewer and fewer see the upside of talking about the sport’s messy past.

Today’s pros feel burdened about having to answer questions about doping’s legacy, something that Chris Froome faced again and again during this year’s Tour.

The UCI found its feet stuck in the mud in the fallout from last year’s USADA exposé, and missed a big chance to channel the revelations into something useful. Any effort to create a “truth and reconciliation” movement was stymied and the UCI shelved its own “independent” review before the panel made any progress.

Some are hopeful that the arrival of new UCI president Brian Cookson will revive those efforts, and he suggested as much in a story with William Fotheringham of The Guardian over the weekend, but even he admitted it won’t be easy or without complications.

In the meantime, a sort of marketplace justice has emerged, and this new-look Omerta has done little to encourage riders to come clean.

In fact, why should they? There is certainly no incentive to fess up, at least not if the athlete wants to keep racing a bike professionally.

First off, riders who come clean are still open to racing bans, fines, and penalties if the confessed misdeeds occurred within the World Anti-Doping Agency’s eight-year statute of limitations.

Second, most squads have done little to encourage riders to talk openly about the doping issue. In fact, more than a few teams outright forbid their riders to answer probing questions, insisting only to respond to “sporting questions.”

While Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin-Sharp has protected and encouraged his riders to cooperate with investigative bodies, and then backed them when they have confessed to past errors, that policy remains the exception.

Look no further than Levi Leipheimer, who was shown the door at Omega Pharma-Quick Step last year after he admitted he was part of the U.S. Postal Service and Rabobank doping programs. The Belgian outfit saw no reason to hold onto Leipheimer’s baggage, and unceremoniously slammed the door in his face. No other team was interested in picking up Leipheimer, who was at the tail end of his career and who was viewed as damaged goods, so his career fizzled out.

Bobby Julich got similar treatment at Sky, where team management was under sponsorship pressure to “do something” about the radioactive fallout from the Armstrong scandal.

Sky implemented a strict zero tolerance policy, parting ways with any rider or staffer that admitted past indiscretions. Working in his “dream job” as a coach to such riders as Richie Porte and Chris Froome, Julich manned up, but all he got for his truthfulness was the door. There are whispers that others within the Sky organization were not so forthright, fudged their respective pasts, and remain on the payroll.

The same goes for the Australian federation, which fired Matt White from his job as national team coach. Orica-GreenEdge suspended him for six months while it conducted an internal investigation, and only let him back on the payroll ahead of the Tour de France this year.

No wonder the line to come clean is a very short one.

If an athlete opens his mouth about past indiscretions, he still pays the price. Fair enough. Cheaters should be accountable for their actions, but it’s one thing to serve a ban and it’s quite something else to be shunted out of the sport.

And that’s what riders fear, and what the sport still has not figured out how to handle.

Pursuing Ryder in early 2013

It should be no surprise at all that Hesjedal was in no hurry to admit publicly that he was in contact with anti-doping officials and that he had doped early in his career.

Last fall, after the reasoned decision came out, many were quietly wondering how Hesjedal had dodged the bullet. After all, he had raced not only in mountain biking in an era when anti-doping controls where almost non-existent, but he also transitioned to the road, racing for both Discovery Channel alongside Armstrong in 2004-2005, and the next year at Phonak, two teams with confirmed doping pedigrees.

Over the winter, there were rumors flying that Hesjedal had in fact been in contact with USADA and Canadian anti-doping authorities. When he came back to Europe relatively late, skipping Tour Down Under and not racing until March, some wondered if Hesjedal had somehow quietly served a six-month racing ban similar to other riders publicly implicated in the USADA case.

This spring, VeloNews contacted both USADA and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports, to see if there was any truth to the rumors. Neither would comment.

VeloNews also called Hesjedal at his home in Spain in mid-March, asking if there was veracity to what we were hearing from sources. Hesjedal said he would not respond and refused to react to what he characterized as tabloid journalism, and insisted he only wanted to talk about racing.

Unable to nail down the information independently from reliable sources, VeloNews opted not to report the story at the time.

Perhaps we were not the only news source to make inquiries, because for much of the 2013 season, Hesjedal seemed on edge with the media and uncharacteristically short. There was none of the “Easy Ryder” banter that carried the day en route to his 2012 Giro d’Italia victory.

Things quickly unraveled last week with Michael Rasmussen’s account of how he helped the then-mountain biking Hesjedal and three others learn the doping ropes back in 2003. Unable to stem the tide, Hesjedal stepped forward with his own admission within a few hours of the story breaking.

His statement, though brief, seemed as though it had been prepared some time ago, as if he and his advisors were waiting for the right time to pull the trigger.

Comments from both USADA and Canada’s anti-doping agency also seemed pre-scripted, as if they were waiting in the e-mail draft folder, and officials only had to hit the “send” button at the appropriate time.

But when is the appropriate time?

For athletes with one foot in the past, and another in the present, never would probably be the answer.

For Hesjedal, his admission will certainly tarnish his image in Canada, where he was feted as a national hero last year after becoming the first Canadian to win a grand tour. He was even named Canadian athlete of the year in 2012, big stuff in a nation where cycling is a minor sport to hockey and football.

Hesjedal’s admission — at least publicly — lacks the telling details of where and when and how. He clearly told anti-doping officials more, but there’s a sense that there’s a lot more to the story. By insisting that he “chose the wrong path” more than a decade ago, he avoids a racing ban, as his confession comes beyond a standing eight-year statute of limitations, something confirmed by Canadian anti-doping officials on Saturday.

Hesjedal’s quandary is indicative of many veteran riders that have been doing things the “right way” over the past half decade yet still have to come to terms with their past indiscretions. There is no formalized process, and Cookson said the outline of something workable is still months away, so we’re left with marketplace justice, with some riders paying the price, and others skating through.

Doing the right thing sounds great, but as it stands now, there is no incentive for riders to step forward. Absolutely none.

So we get a new Omerta.

Cycling continues to die a death of a thousand cuts, as so eloquently put by my VeloNews colleague Matthew Beaudin earlier this week.

It’s hard to say exactly where and when the peloton’s DNA started to change, but by the 2008 season and the introduction of the biological passport, things were clearly moving in a new direction. Today, sponsors and management are begging their riders not to dope — a sea change from the days described by Rasmussen last week.

It’s the challenge of coming to terms with how things used to be that continues to hold cycling back from fully realizing what it could be.