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Perceptions of a doper: Part II

Public opinion is fickle regarding convicted dopers. In Part II of three, we talk to cycling personalities about gaining acceptance

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In early March, Velo Magazine conducted exclusive interviews with a varied panel of individuals intimately involved with the sport of professional cycling. The goal: To find out why doping, or being accused of doping, elicits such diversity in response and outcome.

From Riccò to Zirbel, Armstrong to Contador, the court of public opinion is varied and unpredictable. Where fans welcome one rider convicted of performance enhancing drug use back as a spokesperson for clean sport, they crucify another.

These interviews formed the foundation for the editorial in our May 2012 issue, written by Caley Fretz and Neal Rogers, suggesting that empathy — and more importantly, how it is achieved — is the key component determining how fully the public accepts a convicted doper’s return to the sport.

Below is the second of three installments of our interviewees’ thoughts on the topic. Look for Part III on Friday, featuring Tom Zirbel, Joe Parkin and Frankie Andreu. — ed.

Christian Vande Velde

Team Garmin-Barracuda
Christian Vande Velde has seen a lot since turning pro in 1998. He sat next to Lance Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service team bus, flew the colors of Liberty Seguros, went to battle for Bjarne Riis’ Team CSC, and he’s been an outspoken member of Garmin-Barracuda, cycling’s clean team.

“You definitely have your extremes that go from (Riccardo) Riccò (widely viewed as unrepentant) to (Tom) Zirbel (widely viewed to have been tripped up by a tainted supplement). There is obviously a lot of space in between those two. All the people I talk to look at Zirbel and just say, ‘Wow, he got screwed. But guys like Riccò, that guy should be hung.’”

“On the inside of the peloton, if I think to myself that, ‘everyone is doping,’ or ‘so and so is still doping,’ then I’m going to drive myself crazy. So I’m one to give people the benefit of the doubt. If I’m second guessing everyone then you start second guessing yourself and you may start thinking you can’t stay with some guy, when maybe you can.”

“As far as being let back into the sport, I guess it can depend on where you are in the peloton at the time of your violation. If someone had taken something from you, then maybe you look at him differently. But if you’d never had anything to do with that guy then maybe it’s different. I see it as they did what they did and they paid their dues, and the rules say they can come back into the peloton. Yes it’s true that everyone has done basically the same thing who has been banned, and yes there are different reactions. But there are a lot of guys who go out of their way to be transparent and try to regain the respect of the fans. They obviously care a lot more about the sport.”

“The problem I do have is with the teams that seem to cater to those kind of people. That’s where I think there should be more hate, not just to the riders but also to the teams that give them the vehicle to do this. The teams that give them options. The teams that turn a blind eye and let these things keep on happening. It’s not just the individual. It’s the team that creates the ability to do it.”

“It was surprising to me (that Garmin signed convicted doper, Thomas Dekker). I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t any animosity towards him. I was pissed at him. But as I hang out with him more and know that he is riding for the minimum salary, I think you should get a second chance. He was under a lot of pressure, being a 20-year-old prodigy in a country (the Netherlands) where cycling is huge. I feel fortunate that I grew up in the States and didn’t have to deal with that. I’m not giving him excuses, but a lot of young people make mistakes.”

Dave Chauner

Race director, Philadelphia International Championship
In a cycling career that now spans six decades, Dave Chauner has seen the sport from nearly all sides. He’s a two-time Olympian on the track (1968, 1972), and in 1985 Chauner co-founded the race known today as the Philadelphia International Championship. He’d prefer that every rider that contests his race is clean, but he knows he’ll never know for sure.

“With our race, the feeling is that if there is a tainted team or tainted staff, we don’t want them at the race. But that’s tough. You obviously don’t know what everybody is doing all the time. Our preference is to go with teams that are more upstanding and more outspoken in their stance against drugs. No organizer wants to have a positive drug test at their race.”

“I would hold David Millar up as the one rider who has recognized how he let himself get dragged into this and how awful he felt. And how relieved he is now to give back and council riders that there are other ways to the top.”

“On the other hand, there are some people who don’t see it as a breach of ethics at all. There is nothing you can do about those guys. Then look at Tyler Hamilton. He played the party line: deny, deny, deny. Finally he got to the point where he couldn’t live with himself. I think at some point he had to relieve himself of all that. I bet he sleeps better at night now. Same with Floyd (Landis).”

“In the case of Lance (Armstrong), there is an awful a lot of evidence that indicates that that era, and many of the people that Lance raced against and with, were doing drugs. Many have admitted it or were caught, and it seems incomprehensible that Lance could be completely innocent of that. You have to look at the character of the individual. Most probably wouldn’t admit anything if they didn’t get caught.”

Dan Schmalz

Dan Schmalz and fellow co-editor Andy Shen are the brains behind the popular New York City-based website and its top draw, “As the Toto Turns,” a satirical web comic that lampoons the often soap-opera-like world of professional cycling. In a good week, Schmalz says the site attracts upwards of 10,000 unique visitors.

“It’s pretty clear that the best PR move is, if you get caught, just say your sorry. If you say you’re sorry you can get so much farther. That’s what happened with Millar. He did just as much bad shit as anyone else, but he came clean. Then take Vinokourov. He seems to be stuck in the mindset of, ‘We are all pros and this is what pros do. I can’t believe you are all getting mad because this is the way we’ve always done things. I’m not going to apologize.’ Basso is somewhere in the middle. He did a half-assed apology, but it was enough and now he’s back.”

Be sure to read parts I and III