To doubt or not to doubt? Vos, Tygart and others weigh in on skepticism

A handful of anti-doping players weigh in on how, when and why fans should believe in cycling

Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.

—Bertrand Russell

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Lance Armstrong had a name for them: “trolls.” Trolls were who didn’t believe, and those who would take him down. “Little fucking goddamned trolls,” he once said, leering out the bus window at cynical journalists.

Non-believers have always been a snag in the fabric of professional cycling. Not to believe is inconvenient. For years, it was out of fashion to question the performances on display. Just ask long-ostracized journalists, blacklisted by Armstrong and other journalists. Just ask Betsy and Frankie Andreu. Damn non-believing, bad-for-business trolls.

But now, there’s potentially a new problem entirely. After a century of doping punctuated by nothing short of a full-fledged conspiracy, cycling is suffering a loss of faith. Stage wins now result in arched eyebrows and pursed lips.

But is it better to be a skeptic or an idiot? Is the best rider really winning bike races now? Does it matter? VeloNews sought out U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart, current world and Olympic road race champion Marianne Vos, U.S. road champion Timmy Duggan and Garmin-Sharp manager Jonathan Vaughters to talk about cynicism in cycling. No one thinks blind faith is the answer anymore, and those who cherish the sport have been burned too many times for it to be an option. There are no real answers, but there are certainly opinions, offered below.

Travis Tygart on realism

If anyone’s a skeptic, it’s Tygart. It’s his job.

Tygart is America’s top doping cop, and his U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is responsible for pushing through on the Lance Armstrong case, even after the federal government backed off. His work resulted in the current jet wash in which the sport finds itself, and resulted a lifetime ban for Armstrong, along with the stripping of his seven Tour de France wins. Tygart has also worked on the BALCO cases, which saw, among other things, the stripping of Marion Jones’ Olympic medals. He said he starts with the basic presumption of innocence.

“On the one had, we are here to celebrate and show the benefits of the ‘how’ (meaning how results are achieved). Playing fair and clean and pure. Every individual athlete in every sport is entitled to that presumption, and that’s a hugely important piece of our mission — to insure true sport. Unless and until someone is proven otherwise, they’re entitled to that presumption,” he said. “Internally? USADA’s job is to also be the skeptic, and use information, and question results, and question ourselves, and determine how we can be even better at protecting clean athletes. Because we know the temptation and the win-at-all costs culture. The temptation to cheat with PEDs is huge. So if we let our guard down, if we suddenly attempt to convince ourselves that everyone is doing it the right way, then we’re just being naïve, and we’re not being effective at our job. So it’s a dual role.”

Marianne Vos: Getting better but not there yet

At 25, Vos is already the greatest woman cyclist of all time. She’s won world titles on the track, road and in the cyclocross mud. This year alone, she won a world cyclocross title, the women’s Giro d’Italia, the road World Cup overall, the world championship road race and an Olympic gold medal in London. Simply, she is without rival, on either side of gender. In an interview a few months ago, Vos said she never had to dope, that she was always good enough on her own. It would seem arrogant if it weren’t true.

More recently, she addressed the nature of skepticism. In an e-mail, Vos wrote that the pelotons need to “face this problem.”

“The thing the sport needs now is to open up more and make everyone within cycling aware of the fact that only together we can make a change. The USADA report shows that fans and media are right to be skeptical. The last decade we (me too), cycling fans, have been fooled all the time. It’s not strange that people somewhere lose their trust in this sport,” she wrote.

She pointed to the obvious doping use of the last generation, and the vast network it took to actually put drugs (and blood) into bodies. That, she said, made people doubt the governing body. In fact, “they have a right to do so,” she wrote. “Federations, anti-doping organizations, teams or sponsors couldn’t stop this practice going on, closed their eyes, or even seem to have kept it running. Where can fans and media build their trust up now then?

“If a rider is racing strong or makes a great effort, it can already be ‘suspicious’ from some point of view. Of course it’s a sad situation that cyclists are guilty until they can prove innocent, especially when you can’t really come with the proof. The beauty of sport is to see athletes excel due to a combination of talent, discipline, passion and willpower. We lost the confidence from all the media, the fans and sometimes even the riders here.”

The answer, for Vos at least, is a truth and reconciliation commission and independent testing.

“We need to get all stories from the past out now, to be able to look to the future. Cycling needs to be more transparent with a strong anti-doping system and independent organizations working on that,” she wrote. “I truly believe it’s getting better, but we’re not there yet. We have to keep fighting for a clean sport and show and share the passion of cycling. I believe that cycling has a future, because it’s still a fantastic sport.”

Timmy Duggan: A sham

Boulder’s Timmy Duggan is one of the true nice guys of the bunch. Ask anyone. He’s always ready with a smile, always ready to lend a quote. He’s the current U.S. road champ, and just signed a new contract with Saxo-Tinkoff, to hopefully ride in support of Alberto Contador.

For Duggan, this post-Armstrong apocalypse cuts several ways: Yes, the sport needs to clean up its image, but Duggan says his clean generation is paying for the mistakes of its forefathers. That generation, though, is largely responsible for the prosperity of bike racing stateside. Gifts and curses.

“I think you’re justified given the evidence, what’s in the media, what’s being shoved in front of you, down the public’s throat every day. Of course, you have the right to have the first thought: ‘I don’t know about this cycling stuff. It seems pretty dirty.’ But you have to go one layer deeper and educate yourself about what’s really going on here. And what’s really going on here is, the sport is uncovering stuff that went on 10 years ago. It’s not stuff that’s happening now,” Duggan said over lunch a few weeks ago in Boulder. “Cycling’s kind of being drug through the mud. But I think it’s an exciting time because the new generation who wasn’t wrapped up in all of this 10 years ago has kind of a clean slate to do it a different way … the focus should be on what we are doing different. Who are the athletes that are in it now, doing it different now, and what are the policies?”

Duggan is right. There are new initiatives in play, such as the biological passport, that make it harder to cheat. Whereabouts programs are increasingly thorough. Times up iconic climbs are slower that the glory days of dope.

And yet, today’s riders are forced to talk about doping on some level, though some are more outspoken than others. But it has to get old, answering the same tired questions about the same tired lies of pelotons past. The thing is, without the American resurgence before him, Duggan may not have found himself in the position to be the bike racer he is now.

“That’s kind of the reality of it that we all have to accept. The reality is that when I started the sport, Lance Armstrong was an inspiration to me. I thought watching him win the Tour in ’99 was pretty cool. And then a couple years later I thought I’d give bike racing a shot because I had that image in my head, and I wanted to be in that sport, too. And that undoubtedly inspired me. And he undoubtedly inspired hundreds or thousands or millions of others,” Duggan said. “For sure, I benefited from that five, six years ago, and for sure I’m still benefiting from that now. But the unfortunate reality of it is that it was all built on a sham. Not just Lance, but kind of the whole system. I think we have to look at it now and not try to justify this, or right what happened 10 years ago, but be like, ‘look, this is the reality and let’s move forward from here.’”

Jonathan Vaughters: Much more convoluted situation

Love it or hate it, Jonathan Vaughters is one of the central figures in the movement for clean cycling. His Garmin-Sharp team spends extra money on internal testing programs riders must submit to, and the clean doctrine has been preached from Garmin’s ivory tower from day one.

The polarizing Vaughters, who once held the fastest time up Mont Ventoux, eventually left the USPS dynasty, with the organized doping program a major factor in his departure. He eloquently came clean over the summer on The New York Times’ opinion pages.

He is either criticized for being a hypocrite or toasted for his commitment to clean cycling, but his commitment to cycling is undeniable. And he thinks the sport is cleaner now, and the best guy is winning.

“Most of the time, the vast majority of the time, the best rider, the most talented rider, is winning the race. Not the most doped rider. Or, even a doped rider. I think we’re to a good place on that,” he told VeloNews, adding that anti-doping efforts are better funded than ever.

“It’s reduced doping down to a level. Is it still there? Of course, I would never say different. Is it impacting races where it’s fundamentally changing the whole race, a la Fleche Wallone 1994? No, it’s not. Nowhere close.”

There was a time, Vaughters said, that the peloton was nearly 100-percent doped, so it was clear everyone was doping. Now, it’s more opaque, however reduced.

“What I think that we’ve got now is a much more convoluted situation. 1994, 1995 is very cut and dry … Anti-doping has been funded better than it has in the past. There are tests that cover almost all of the possible doping methods that are going to improve your performance. You know, the biological passport, despite all the criticism, is effective.”

Science and spectacle

In the end, fans decide what to believe in and why. They choose to ignore science in favor of spectacle, or watch sublime moments through clouds of doubt.

This is the reality now, until it’s proven otherwise. And this, as Pascal notes, is the nature of belief. For, “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”