Riding toward the light: Is a wave of confessions about to swamp pro ranks?
MADRID (VN) — Could a spontaneous wave of doping admissions from riders and staff sweep across the peloton in the coming days and weeks?
At least one top pro rider from a major WorldTour team, speaking to VeloNews on the condition that he not be identified, said that many think the time could be right to come clean about past indiscretions.
“There are a lot of people who have one foot in the past and another in the present,” the rider told VeloNews during last week’s Tour of Beijing. “The majority of people in cycling today are doing things the right way. The old stories will not go away and that is hurting cycling. I know people are discussing the idea.”
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation into Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team is already having a ripple effect across the peloton.
Several riders involved in the USADA inquiry went public last week, with George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, Tom Danielson, Dave Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer and Michael Barry all admitting they doped at different moments during their respective careers.
Over the weekend, Matt White stepped down from his role as sport director at Orica-GreenEdge and the Australian national team after he, too, admitted he doped during his time at U.S. Postal Service.
Other confessions could be forthcoming as pressure builds in the wake of the USADA dossier that outlined the elaborate doping ring beginning with the U.S. Postal Service team.
“I heard that some other teams were talking about that it might be a good idea (to come clean),” the rider told VeloNews. “These things happened a long time ago, but they are still causing problems. Everyone just wants to be done with it and move on.”
The sweeping admissions could be similar to what came out of Germany in 2007, when nearly all the top riders from the once-mighty Telekom team admitted they were cutting corners. Bjarne Riis, who now runs the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team, was among those who confessed he used EPO en route to winning the 1996 Tour de France.
Based on the latest series of admissions, many of the riders who raced in the 1990s and 2000s are now under suspicion, and among them scores of veterans still active as well as sport directors who stepped into team cars after closing their racing careers.
Many teams find themselves in an awkward position as the sport tries to project a zero-tolerance policy against doping.
Many insiders say the sport has turned the corner on doping and that the majority of today’s teams and riders are racing clean.
But how does the sport deal with riders and staff who may have acted unwisely in the past, but today are trying to help right the ship?
That’s a question the sport’s been struggling with the past few seasons.
Jonathan Vaughters, who also recently admitted doping during his time at U.S. Postal Service, embraced the notion early on that riders and staffers should be given a second chance in a clean, ethical environment when he helped to found Slipstream Sports.
Other teams have adopted strict anti-doping platforms that have included promises to hire only riders and staff not implicated in doping scandals. Some scoff at that idea, saying it’s naive and unfair to exclude some while hiring others who were, in the words of Vaughters, “were just lucky enough to have not gotten caught.”
David Millar got caught — he said that getting busted for doping in 2004 was the “best thing that ever happened” to him and since has become an outspoken leader on the issue of clean racing.
Speaking to Jeremy Whittle in The Herald Scotsman, Millar said confessions like those of his fellow Garmin teammates are helping the sport purge the demons of its past.
“By doing what they have, they have changed the sport for the better,” Millar said in an interview. “Jonathan (Vaughters) made it clear to the guys that they had to tell the truth and that he would stand by them. That was the admirable thing to do. Our sponsors … bought into the idea that the sport can change if people are transparent about their past.”
While Garmin and other teams, such as the now-defunct High Road program, in which former Telekom rider Rolf Aldag was the general manager, have been transparent about the past, other teams are facing uncomfortable questions of how to handle veteran riders or staffers who might be racing and working clean now but who were no angels in the past.
Team Sky is facing heat over its hiring policies. The Tour de France-winning squad says it’s a standard-bearer for clean racing, but team principal David Brailsford is being criticized for hiring Dutch doctor Geert Leinders, who was let go recently after it was revealed he has been the focus of doping investigations in the past.
Lead sport director Sean Yates, who raced with Armstrong at Motorola and later served as a sport director at Discovery Channel, is also taking flak. In an interview last week he said he was “shocked at the depth of the (USPS) system. I worked with Lance but I had no idea what was going on.”
Brailsford said he was “disappointed” when Barry lied about his past when Floyd Landis outed him in 2010 and has promised to review all staff and riders. He is even threatening to fire staffers who might not have been forthright about their pasts. That could mean trouble for some of the team’s sport directors and veteran riders.
It’s a slippery slope, especially because some teams simply did not want to ask the uncomfortable questions.
Viatcheslav Ekimov, a former Armstrong teammate who was a key part of the Texan’s famous “blue train,” was recently named as team manager at Katusha. Ekimov has denied doping, but the Postal Service revelations are raising new questions about anyone who was part of the Armstrong entourage.
GreenEdge boss Shayne Bannan admitted he never asked White directly about what he might have done in his past and hired him based on the quality of his work as a sport director at Garmin, one of the pioneering “clean teams.” Team manager Neil Stephens was part of the infamous “Festina Affair” in 1998, but GreenEdge hired him anyway.
The Cycling Australia board, where White also worked as the national team coach, announced it would meet this week to discuss White’s future.
Last week, the president of the Australian cycling federation, Klaus Mueller, once again floated the idea of a general amnesty program, something that’s been making the rounds in background conversation the past few years.
“I think it’s time all these ideas were put back on the table for discussion, not just in relation to cycling, but across the wider sporting landscape,” Mueller said in a press release. “Our members and fans have every right to feel disillusioned and angry and I share that disappointment.”
The UCI, however, has put the kibosh on any formal amnesty program, saying current WADA code does not allow for blanket pardons.
UCI president Pat McQuaid said that the organization’s executive committee decided last month during its congress at the world road cycling championship that an amnesty program would send the wrong signals.
“We need to focus on the sport today and go forward,” McQuaid said at a press conference last month in Holland. “We need to focus on the present and let go of the past. And the first step in that direction is to stop looking behind. … Our concentration is to create a good platform for cyclists coming into the sport today. We’ve admitted that there’s been a culture of doping in the sport. We are working to change that, but we cannot change it overnight.”
In fact, the idea of a general amnesty might sound good on paper, but it would likely be quite messy in trying to find an equitable way to induce riders to come forward and punish those who do not.
There is an eight-year statute of limitations on investigating former doping practices, which means many would technically be immune to any ban or fine. So why confess — especially if teams turn a cold shoulder to uncomfortable admissions about the past?
Active riders embroiled in the Armstrong scandal have received a reduced, almost cosmetic ban of six months, from September 1, 2012, to March 1, 2013, when there is little racing of significance. Those bans are largely seen as a carrot to encourage other would-be penitents to come forward.
But there would be little reason to admit to anything so long as there is no established consensus on how such confessions would be handled by cycling federations and pro teams.
Most riders who have confessed to their doping sins, however, say they are relieved by their decisions to come clean. Barry, the popular Canadian rider who admitted last week he doped during periods of his career, described his confession as liberating.
“I feel relieved because I was living a lie,” Barry told AFP. “I’ve done things I’m not proud of and which I regret. I don’t want a young cyclist to have to live what I did.”
The pros of today’s peloton are frustrated with how the powers that be are mishandling the complicated issues around what many believe is cycling’s new reality.
“The riders, we are doing our part. We are racing clean,” the anonymous rider told VeloNews. “I believe that (Bradley) Wiggins won the Tour clean. I even believe that (Alexander) Vinokourov won the Olympics clean. We know right away when someone is doping now in the peloton. The reality has changed but no one seems to notice that. We’re still talking about what happened 10 years ago.”
Whether an amnesty program or a wave of high-profile public confessions would change the tone of that conversation remains to be seen.