Giro d'Italia

Analysis: The Di Luca dilemma and walking the tightrope between cycling’s past, present, and future

Di Luca's positive sends the Giro into chaos, but teams and riders are paving a path forward that is hard for some aging pros to navigate

BOLZANO, Italy (VN) — Danilo Di Luca’s EPO case at the Giro d’Italia was like a kick to a dormant wasps’ nest on Friday. What once was an idyllic, if freezing cold, surprise rest day in the Dolomites turned into chaos.

Reactions on Friday to the announcement that “The Killer” had failed an out-of-competition test in late April ranged from anger to indifference to calamity. There were plenty of hair-pulling “Chicken Littles” claiming the Di Luca case is yet one more affirmation that cycling is simply a lost cause. But is Di Luca the norm or the exception? That is the million-dollar question as cycling lurches awkwardly toward a cleaner, more credible future.

In the not-so-distant past, Di Luca’s legacy was the norm. As Lance Armstrong put it so mildly to Oprah Winfrey in his made-for-TV confession in January, doping was as casual as putting air in the tires. Yet there is real evidence that cycling has turned the corner on doping, and that Di Luca is a relic, not the baseline.

There is no sport with as many skeletons in its closet as cycling. Many of the sport’s darkest tombs have already been exhumed, but Di Luca’s case reveals there are still a few ghosts of doping’s past pedaling through the peloton.

The sport remains divided and dangerously indifferent on how to deal with that past.

The Armstrong scandal last year revealed just how depraved things had become. Some pragmatists say the only practical thing to do is paint a line on the tarmac, and start over with zero tolerance. Others argue that the sport needs a truth and reconciliation movement, insisting that cycling cannot turn the page on its past until it fully confronts it. Some wonder how far back the sport needs to go. One pro asked if the doping police needed to dig up the cadaver of Charly Gaul to see if he was doping 50 years ago.

With that debate stuck, the sport is left with yet another mess like the Di Luca case on its hands.

It’s easy to write off Di Luca as an aging doper who couldn’t break the habit. His already lurid track record, which includes a three-month suspension in 2007 over the Oil for Drugs case, suspicion during the 2007 Giro over low hormone levels, and a two-year ban stemming from an EPO CERA positive in 2009, raised eyebrows when he was the surprise late-arrival to Vini Fantini-Selle Italia just days before the Giro start. Even before Friday’s salacious headlines, Di Luca seemed like a junkie who couldn’t stay off the gear.

Yet Di Luca and riders of his generation are caught in the middle, straddling their doping pasts while trying to find a place in cycling’s supposedly cleaner present. Some have been able to make that transition easier than others. The ones who cannot give up on the past are inevitably getting caught; at least that’s what everyone is hoping.

That Di Luca could even find a ride reveals that cycling has a long way to go before it reaches ethical hegemony on the anti-doping front. Some teams are quick to sign dubious riders while others are committed to changing the rules of the game.

Changing the doping culture from the inside

Roger Legeay’s pet project, the Movement for Credible Cycling, has gained traction among the peloton. Whether it’s just window dressing or represents real change remains to be seen. The fact that Ag2r La Mondiale voluntarily pulled itself out of its home race, the Critérium du Dauphiné, after Sylvain Georges registered the team’s second doping case in under a year, indicates that some teams are serious about ethics.

Real change in cycling has come from a surprising place: the peloton itself. Disgusted with doping, teams and riders quietly began to force change from within. By 2008, the first signs that there was credible evolution began to take hold.

The UCI’s biological passport, target testing, where-abouts requirements, out-of-competition testing, and improved anti-doping detection methods have all gone a long way toward rooting out the most notorious cheats. Di Luca has now twice been a victim of the new system that wasn’t in place a decade ago.

Over the last half-decade, the style of racing has changed dramatically. Today’s climbs see battles of attrition, and when the attacks come, they’re later and lack the knockout punch of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Overall leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has gained more time against his Giro rivals on time bonuses and in the time trials than he has with attacks in the mountains.

“Clean teams” that were once the novelty are now the standard across the peloton. Even dubious teams of the past seem to have changed colors, adopting new training techniques and ditching the doping schemes of the past.

The shaky position of the UCI doesn’t help. Too many questions about its own complicity and/or negligence during the EPO era leave its wings clipped when it comes time to carry the baton as a force of change.

Despite quiet optimism, another thing is certain; no matter how many controls or how much finger pointing takes place, cycling will never entirely eradicate itself of doping. That’s a human impossibility. Just like people cheating on their taxes or speeding down the highway, the temptation of victory, fame, and riches is simply too great and there will always be a rider who thinks he is more clever than the rest. Di Luca is proof of that.

Human behavior changes only when the deterrent is strong enough (long bans, hefty fines), and the incentive is equally as alluring. Teams like those signed onto the MPCC’s ethical charge assuring clean riders jobs and encouraging them not to dope represents a huge paradigm shift from the days of Gewiss-Ballan, Festina, and U.S. Postal. The World Anti-Doping Agency will vote later this year on a proposal to increase first-time bans to four years — a sanction from which it would be much harder to return than the current two-year penalty.

Cycling is heading in the right direction. It’s made a U-turn from the dark days of the EPO era. There are still cheats, but the sensation is that they’re in the minority and are not the rule.

The news that Di Luca got popped should be cheered. Professional cynics will always decry the end is nigh, but cycling has come a long way since the days when EPO poured through an open faucet.

No one ever said cleaning out the rusty pipes wasn’t going to be a dirty job.