Lance.. Are we done yet?

Have just finished reading Wheelmen (http://tinyurl.com/othmek6) the latest in a long series of books dealing with doping in cycling. The book was written by two Wall Street Journal reporters and while that doesn’t sound like the obvious place for cycling stories the paper does have its place in the timeline. It was the WSJ that published a copy of the email Floyd Landis wrote in 2010 revealing his own doping and the systematic use of performance enhancing drugs by the US Postal team. 

Lance Armstrong in the prologue of the Tour de...
Lance Armstrong in the prologue of the Tour de France in July 2004 in Liege, Belgium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wheelmen isn’t the Landis story, but his is inextricably linked to the books main character Lance Armstrong. It was a question of sticking with Wheelmen initially as the first few chapters have been done before by many writers (including those directly collaborating with him) on Lance’s early life growing up in Texas and emerging as a talented junior cyclist. The book has also been edited to try and explain the sport to the lay reader. Would Wheelmen have any appeal to a non cyclist? The writers clearly think so as they believe that the Armstrong doping story is the ‘greatest sports conspiracy ever’. Considering that this is one the books key strap lines the premise isn’t that obvious when reading it. What underscores the narrative is Armstrong’s place as a cancer survivor as much as the fame he achieved as a cyclist. As a cycling fan the story of Lance the cancer survivor is more often secondary to the tale of the erstwhile 7 times TdF winner and in placing as much emphasis on his role within the cancer community it might explain the spoon fed cycling insights.

Wheelmen begins to come alive once you have read the early biographical chapters. As soon as the subject matter is doping the pace picks up and the book starts to read more like a police procedural. It’s not that much of what is told hasn’t been said before. There are however some insights that even if unsubstantiated provide more context and understanding of some of the allegations that remain, particularly about the UCI. Take for example the suggestion that Lance ‘paid’ for drugs tests to be covered up. In detailing Armstrong’s financial arrangements and the structure of the organisations built around the USPS team, the book reveals that Thom Weisel provided investment advice for Lance and Hein Verbruggen (UCI President at the time). The implication seems to be that a stock tip from someone in Armstrong’s inner circle could have given Verbruggen the potential for great returns. With profits described as 40% and higher elsewhere in the book it doesn’t take much to join the dots. Rather like saying that he had never failed a drugs test as opposed to saying I have never doped.

In unpicking the wreckage of Armstrong’s lost endorsements it also becomes clear that what seems most important to him is to be able to return to competitive sport. Over the last couple of weeks Lance has been back in the public eye dropping less than subtle hints about what he is prepared to offer up in order to get a reduction in his lifetime ban.

Obviously it would be good to see Armstrong confirm all of the stories that remain in the ‘believed to be true’ category. Wheelmen quotes Armstrong telling a friend “..I never ratted anyone out”. In this mindset it’s hard to see how progress can be made if Lance believes it isn’t for him to name names. While the situation would be better served by a ‘truth and reconciliation’ type process being established by the UCI under Brian Cookson it is hard to see Armstrong achieving the goal of a reduced ban if he remains equivocal about what he knows.

Although he has walked away from the sport Tyler Hamilton, arguably almost as divisive a character as Armstrong, achieved some kind of redemption in many people’s eyes by his warts and all approach in The Secret Race (http://tinyurl.com/qac7e9m). Hamilton has publicly encouraged Armstrong to take a similar path. although in Twitter exchanges the enmity between the two remains clear.

Another disgraced rider has just published his own tell all story from the darkest days of cycling. In a flurry of leaks and interviews Michael Rasmussen described his own doping while revealing several high profile past and present riders who he alleged had doped also. One, Ryder Hesjedal was quick to confirm that he had doped in the past and it was quietly slipped out that he had already spoken to the Canadian anti doping agency and would serve a six month ban.

In the absence of truth and reconciliation the possibility of riders having their previous or even current doping exposed by way of tell all book seems the most likely way that use of PED’s  will be exposed. There is cynicism that ex riders like Hamilton and Rasmussen are only telling their truth’s now as they have nothing left to lose. There is some irony in that the lies of their pasts stretch with fans their credibility now.

If we interpret Wheelmen a certain way Armstrong comes over as a man who will sacrifice everything to compete. Whether this was his morality when trashing the reputations of people like Betsy Andreu or Greg Lemond while doping his way to flawed victories in the Tour or accepting the losses of his endorsements now to compete in Triathlons. Perhaps he will go down the book route himself like his nemesis Hamilton.

The context for this post is not to be for or against a reduction in Armstrong’s lifetime ban. As things stand it seems appropriate that as he has reaped he has sown. Should that be reviewed in the event of Lance bringing something meaningful to the debate? Potentially yes. However, he is right about one thing; he was not the only rider to dope. Ultimately it needs to be some kind of truth and reconciliation process to allow the least savory aspect cycling’s recent history to be laid to rest.

As for Wheelmen, it’s possibly best read in a triumvirate with Hamilton’s The Secret Race and Jeremy Whittle’s Bad Blood (http://tinyurl.com/ptzhbvy) which sets the scene for the later revelations that followed nicely. Bad Blood conveys the Omerta that continues to exist in the peloton today and provides an insight into the scandal that shaped Armstrong’s first Tour win, the Festina affair.

Another positive (or should that be negative?) for Vini Fantini

Mauro Santambrogio
Mauro Santambrogio (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

It’s been announced this afternoon that Vini Fantini rider Mauro Santambrogio has failed a doping test for EPO. Unlike his erstwhile teammate Danilo Di Luca Santambrogio’s test was carried out in Italy. The findings were discovered at a Rome laboratory after the test was taken ahead of stage 1 of this years Giro d’Italia, held in Naples.

VCSE has picked up on the story this afternoon via social media. At present there hasn’t been any comment officially from Santambrogio’s no doubt soon to be ex employers Vini Fantini, but his DS at the Giro Luca Scinto has already hinted that it could spell the end of the team, stating; “It’s the end of our project”. It’s a blow to VCSE as well after we had backed the rider as one to watch following his performances in early season events like Tirreno Adriatico and his stage 14 win at the Giro last month.

The positive test raises many questions, chiefly would Santambrogio have achieved the same results if he had ridden clean? Although no longer with a world tour team, the move to Vini Fantini at the age of 28 provided a fantastic platform to lead a team and ride for general classification results in addition to stage wins. Assuming Santambrogio offers no defence to the positive test he will have, in effect, ended his career.

How so? If the noises from the peloton are to be believed there appears to be a shift towards lifetime bans for dopers. This was certainly the consensus when Di Luca’s positive test was reported. In practice it is unlikely to happen, if only because sanctions aren’t applied universally. Take the example of Garmin where David Millar is not only an ex doper, but also part owner of the team. In addition to Millar there are riders on Garmin like Christian Van de Velde and David Zabriskie who served bans in the off season after their part in the Lance Armstrong / USADA case. Garmin maintain a transparent anti doping stance and where formed as such. The riders on the team who have doped in the past have ultimately come forward and cooperated with the anti doping authorities. This is not the case with other teams, where although an anti doping stance is implied it is not always explicit how this is applied.

Team Sky’s zero tolerance anti doping policy is the other high profile example from the world tour. This has proved to be a blessing and a curse for Sky as it essentially relies on the preparedness of team members to be open about doping. Prior to the Lance Armstrong ‘reasoned decision’ Sky had unwittingly employed ex dopers who subsequently left the team when the Armstrong story broke. As far as VCSE is aware there aren’t any other world tour teams who maintain such a highly visible anti doping stance as Garmin and Sky. Garmin’s approach appears to have its merits in that riders who admit to having doped in the past can remain with the team, although the emphasis here is ex doper. Former professional rider turned DS Matt White was sacked by Garmin after recommending a doctor closely associated with doping to a rider on the team.

Sky’s zero tolerance policy seems simple enough, but it was easy for riders and staff to circumvent it by just not saying anything about their past. Where zero tolerance falls down for VCSE is that Sky have lost talent from the team (back room staff in particular) by not allowing the chance of rehabilitation. It has also led to questions being asked when someone leaves the team under ‘unusual’ circumstances.

Students of the cycling biography (Tyler Hamilton & David Millar being obvious examples) will know that teams historically employed some kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. The reality of this was probably that don’t ask and don’t tell was the grey, middle area between teams that openly employed a doping strategy (open within the confines of the team bus that is) and teams that left the riders to make their own arrangements, safe in the knowledge that a professional rider would always ‘prepare’ properly for a big race.

VCSE believes that road racing is pretty clean at present. The fact that riders are testing positive suggests that the anti doping controls that are in place are working and the teams are taking appropriate action if a rider tests positive. The problems begin when considering the wider impact of a positive test. Mauro Santambrogio looked like a rider on the verge of a great year, if not greatness having joined a new team. Tyler Hamilton talked about how he achieved some of his greatest results riding clean, but as a doper all of his results carry that taint. It’s the same for Santambrogio, who finds himself, quite legitimately under scrutiny for every placing this year, if not in previous years before that.

One for Tyler… not sure about Lance

We have managed to avoid talking about the inevitable so far but just in case anyone is in any doubt as to the VCSE position here’s a couple of new additions to the VCSE store.

The Pan y Agua T Shirt is available in our standard unisex style but as we think this is gonna be a popular line we have added a girls specific T Shirt also. Like all VCSE products they are out of competition tested ;o)

Not sure if Lance is going to want one but I think Tyler will get where we are coming from!