Has the sport figured out how to deal with cycling’s doping past?
Recent evidence suggests that sections of pro cycling and society as a whole still have a hard time choosing between who they deem are the good guys and who are the bad.
The recent grand depart in Copenhagen may have looked spectacular and drawn truly incredible crowds, but away from all the obvious reasons as to why cycling remains such a beautiful sport there was an undercurrent, a feeling, that just didn’t sit right.
The obvious starting point is with Bjarne Riis,who was not invited by the Danish delegation or the Tour de France organizers ASO.
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Some will read this article as a defense of Dane’s crimes but it’s wholeheartedly not. Riis cheated to win the Tour de France in 1996, allegedly encouraged Tyler Hamilton to visit doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, and then sold out to a Russian oligarch. Riis is certainly not the victim in this story.
“If the sport has gained credibility, then someone you don’t want to invite is Bjarne Riis,” one of his former CSC riders, who did not want to be named, told VeloNews.
Part of Riis’s persona non grata status is down to karma, and what goes around comes around, yet his snubbing at the hands of his fellow Danes and ASO was a hot topic of debate, and once more highlighted the hypocrisy that cuts through our sport.
“But cycling is full of hypocrisy. You’ve got all these dodgy doctors who have been cycling for 25 years and they’re still there. I can tell you about three to five doctors who practiced doping on riders and then there are these managers, the ones just like Riis who are there. They’re the same,” the same ex-rider told us.
And just a few days prior to the Tour starting in Riis’s hometown on stage 3 fans had applauded and cheered as a squad walked on stage at the teams’ presentation despite the fact that it had been raided for drugs multiple times by several factions of the European law enforcement.
No charges have been made but cheering a team that has been raided for drugs, and which is backed by a regime with documented human rights violations is difficult situation to explain.
At the same time, if the obvious answer for Riis’ exclusion is doping then why are so many of his former peers celebrated and held in such high regard when their conduct was on so many levels just as bad as the Dane’s?
One of Riis’ ex-teammates, and another confessed doper, was asked by one Belgian publication last week if he was the coolest man in Denmark. This person may not have the same question marks over his post-racing career as Riis but does that, and the fact that he’s friends with fashion designers really cover up for morality?
ASO wheels out plenty of riders from the 1980s and 1990s with questionable pasts, and if the Tour started tomorrow in Belgium or Spain you can bet that those nations’ Tour de France ‘heroes’ will be carted out on stage to huge fanfare. Explain that.
And for those that think that this is an issue that only centers on the vetting processes around race dignitaries, it is not.
It’s puzzling, isn’t it, that a former rider like Richard Virenque, who cheated and consistently lied for years is part of a media brigade that proclaims cycling’s new generation to be entirely clean. That jars with rational and common sense. However, the former Festina rider is not alone in that regard, everyone in the cycling media landscape lives in glass houses, but there’s a sense that singling out certain individuals while passing over the bad deeds of others runs right through cycling.
Popularity it seems counts for so much. Riis, again, wasn’t a popular Tour de France winner. The French sneered at him, the nickname ‘Mr 60 percent’ was coined but he was far from the only donkey to turn into a race horse.
He was, however, brash, confrontational and certainly arrogant at times. On a greater level, perhaps that counted for more than anything when it came to his non-invite to the Tour.
“There were a lot of discussions about this in Denmark and I spent a week with Bjarne before the Tour,” says one of his former riders and 2010 Tour de France winner Andy Schleck.
“He’s disappointed but on the other hand, who is it up to when it comes to inviting him? Is it Denmark or ASO? If you ask me personally he’s the only Dane to have won the Tour. Of course we know that used EPO at the time and he’s admitted it but he wasn’t the only one. Should we treat all people who took EPO in the peloton at that time, and there are a lot of them still around today, in the same way and say that they don’t belong in cycling any more? We’d lose a lot of important people. For Danish cycling, Bjarne inspired so many kids and he’s the only Tour winner, and he’s not on stage. That’s a sad story.”
The Tour de France would indeed be a lonely place if all the ex-dopers were ejected overnight. The fleet of cars that follows the race every day would be down to the minimum, while a number of teams would be forced to swiftly scramble towards Linkedin in order to post job adverts looking for their next GMs.
No one is advocating for a carpet ban, it’s unrealistic, but when you see someone like Riis shunned while others from several generations are given a free pass it does make you wonder – who are the good guys, who are the bad, and who drew these invisible lines?
According to Schleck, one thing is for certain.
“I can tell you that if Bjarne Riis comes to the sport tomorrow with a sponsor and 40 million Euros then he will be invited by the UCI, ASO and all the other cycling institutions.”
That is a point we can all agree on.