Click here for the full, original piece, “Sykkelsporten – pill råtten?”, at the website SykkelErik (posted on 13th June 2014). The below is an updated, edited and abridged version courtesy of its author, followed by my afterword.
When I saw Nairo Quintana win the Giro d’Italia in 2014, especially during his effortless climb up Monte Zoncolan, I thought that this must be too good to be true. Quintana had problems in the first week and struggled with a cold in the second week, but still he went on to win the whole race ahead of Roberto Uran by three minutes… On the face of it, this is as suspicious as the cock-and-bull story about Alberto Contador, who was chilling on the beach the week before he was asked to start the Giro d’Italia in 2008, which he subsequently won.
However, when I saw Chris Froome and Contador duel their way up to the finish at the Col du Béal during the second stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2014, in breathtaking speeds with countless attacks, the “this IS too good to be true” feeling was solidly affirmed.
Sir David Brailsford, the Team Sky boss, said during the Tour de France in 2013: “If people want the entertainment value of riders attacking each other, stopping, attacking each other again and again, then go back to ‘old cycling’, which will give you the capability to do that”. He did not say it in plain language, but between the lines you get the feeling that he was referring to doping. What we saw in the second stage of the Dauphiné was suspiciously similar to racing in the dark doping days.
Historical credibility problems
If it looks like it’s too good to be true, it has often been proved that it is actually true good to be true: Pantani’s climbing abilities, Armstrong’s famous ascents on Alpe d’Huez (and countless other Tour de France achievements), Landis’ frenzied 16th stage to Morzine in 2006, Rasmussen’s and Contador’s ravages in 2007, Kohl’s impressive polka dot jersey in 2008, Armstrong’s comeback in 2009… How many times have we seen performances that seem incredible, and that have subsequently been proven to be based on illegal aids?
These days everything is supposed to be cleaner and better than before – but we have heard this countless times. Consider the top 10 standings of the Tour de France from 1999 until 2013: Armstrong, Zülle, Olano, Moreau, Heras, Escartin, Gonzales, Leipheimer, Vinokourov, Mayo, Basso, Mancebo, Rasmussen, Landis, Klöden, Menchov, Rogers, Contador, Valverde, Astarloza, Kohl, Vande Velde, Fränk Schleck, Valjavec and Danielson – and, of course, Riis and Pantani, champions from 1996 and 1998. In addition, add a whole bunch of domestiques, sprinters and others who contested in the upper echelons of the GC with various medical aids. Some did it to win, others to survive (see: Paul Kimmage’s “Rough Ride”). And many of them are still involved in the sport. The history of cycling has little credibility to show for.
In 2004, Lance Armstrong said: “I’ve said it before and I will repeat it: I believe that I am the most tested athlete on this planet, I have never had a single positive doping test, and I do not take performance enhancing drugs.” In 2013, he laid his cards on the table, and we now know that he took performance enhancing drugs. A clean cyclist will not be able to say anything other than what Armstrong said, but precisely because of the Armstrong-era lies, statements such as “I do not use drugs, I do not cheat, I’m clean, I deplore the…” ring a very hollow sound.
Cycling can blame itself for its lack of credibility.
The new generation
The big names from the doping era of the 1990s and 2000s have gradually been replaced by a new generation of cyclists, and one hopes that the sport would be decreasingly plagued by doping scandals.
The new generation is apparently tired of talking about doping, and of being tainted by former cyclists’ history with doping, according to David Millar in 2013. Similar statements from other young riders are not hard to find, and more established riders are quick to say things like – “it was the past, we must look to the future” and the like. We often hear that cycling does more than any other sport to clean up doping (although one would wonder if that is anything to brag about). If a race is held and many participants are caught testing positive, we are told that doping tests work. And if no cyclists are caught, we are sold that the sport is becoming cleaner.
Considering that Froome has positioned himself as the moral guardian – “Armstrong cheated. I do not cheat. Period.” – his infamous inhaler stunt at the Dauphiné in 2014 is interesting, and so is his explanation (which bears some similarity to Armstrong’s explanation of the positive test from 1999): When Froome was confronted with the inhaler issue, the answer was that Froome, ever since his youth, has struggled with asthma, and so he uses the inhaler prior to the great efforts; and that he has often been seen coughing after races because of narrow airways (in general, and perhaps completely random and conspiratory on my part, coughing is said to be a side effect of xenon gas), and that he does not use anything illegal. Armstrong dismissed the positive steroid test in 1999 with the explanation that he used a cream for a saddle sore. Froome has been keen to point out the health challenges he has overcome, so it is curious that he, in his over 400-page biography “The Climb”, does not mention asthma once, and neither had he, up until the Dauphiné, mentioned asthma in any other context.
And now, in 2014, when the new, allegedly clean generation are starting to realise their potential, one might wonder how clean things really are among the young and hopeful: Quintana (at 24 years) wins the Giro d’Italia 2014 with an average speed the fourth fastest of all time (39,045 km/h), Froome (at 29 years) and Contador (at 31 years) fight each other at Dauphiné in a manner similar to when we saw Pantani, Ullrich and Armstrong battle in the Tour de France 10-15 years ago, and various cycling forums and related Twitter accounts are frequently on fire regarding doping.
In Froome’s biography it is noted that he rode up to Armstrong’s test ground of Col de la Madone in a record time of 30:09, just before the Tour de France in 2013. Froome’s ride on the Col de la Madone was 36 seconds faster than Armstrong’s best. Hamilton rode up in “only” 32:32 (see: “The Secret Race”, page 106). Can Froome really be a freak of nature who can excel and surpass what the doping-fuelled guys did before? It seems too good to be true.
The Danish writer Kim Plesner has written an excellent article about a number of potential cracks in Team Sky’s image that is well worth reading. There are simply too many things amiss with Sky. With their zero tolerance for doping, it is striking that Sky has hired people with past associations with doping: Bobby Julich, Michael Barry, Steven de Jongh, Geert Lein Childers, Michael Rogers and Jonathan Tiernan-Locke have all created headaches and have subsequently been released.
All in all it seems that the new generation is very similar to previous generations. The same guys are still largely involved in the sport today (in different roles), and cyclists and the field seem to move just as fast as before…
Froome = Armstrong 2.0?
One of this generation’s great cyclists is certainly Froome. There are some similarities between Armstrong and Froome, although Froome tries to distance himself from Armstrong: both emphasise that they come from humble upbringings, both grew up without a real father figure, both have defied diseases and other challenges on their way to the top, both had/have at their disposal dominant teams, and both had/have proved to be superior in the Tour de France.
It may be that I have not followed cycling as diligently as I ought to, but for me Froome was completely unknown until 2011 when he took second place in the Vuelta a España (at age 26). Before that, his palmarès was nowhere similar to cyclists he now rides alongside: Nairo Quintana won the Tour l’Avenir at age 20, Lance Armstrong was World Cup champion at 21 years old, Jan Ullrich won the junior championship at age 20 and the Tour de France at age 24, Andy Schleck took 2nd place in the Giro d’Italia at age 22, Alberto Contador won the Tour de France at age 25, and Edvald Boasson Hagen won stages in the Tour l’Avenir at 19 years old and has been highly regarded for a long time. Out of seemingly nothing, Froome has emerged as one of this generation’s great cyclists (apparently, his various diseases have hindered him, of course).
It may even look like Froome has learned from Lance Armstrong’s mistakes – he is on good terms with the French newspaper L’Équipe, unlike Armstrong (L’Équipe revealed his positive test in 1999), and he appears to be polite and articulate unlike Armstrong’s confrontational style. Robert Millar goes so far as to describe Froome as a “politician” (in contrast to Bradley Wiggins, who is a “rock star”). And then Froome has ensured that David Walsh, Armstrong’s “troll”, also plays along with him. The Godfather lesson – “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” – is clearly not lost on Froome.
Walsh’s credibility is seemingly high on the basis that he was involved in exposing Armstrong (one of his books, “Seven Deadly Sins”, is being made into a film). In 2013, he wrote “Inside Team Sky”, where he claimed that he could not see anything to indicate that the team cheats. In 2014 he was the ghost writer for Chris Froome’s biography “The Climb”.
What’s more, Walsh said in an interview in Canadian Maclean’s in 2007 that because Rasmussen climbed the Col d’Aubisque in 2007 faster than Armstrong ever did, and because Contador managed to follow Rasmussen the entire way, Contador must be a cheater (this article is no longer available on Maclean’s website, but is referred to in a number of discussion forums – for example). Froome rode up Mont Ventoux with an average speed of 21,86 km/h during stage 15 of the 2013 Tour de France, which is slower than Iban Mayo’s record of 23,10 km/h in the Dauphiné Libéré in 2004. Walsh implies that because Froome rides 1,14 km/h slower than Mayo, then Froome must be clean (see “Inside Team Sky”). A crucial detail Walsh does not mention is that Mayo’s time was achieved in an individual time trial up Ventoux while Froome rode up after a 243 km long stage. And that Froome was flying up Madone faster than Armstrong ever did is ignored by Walsh.
So one may wonder if Walsh is critical enough of Froome, or if he takes whatever Froome says at face value. There are two flaws in “The Climb” which I also find curious:
- Froome claims that he saw the Tour de France in 2002 for the first time, and was impressed to see how Armstrong and Basso fought each other, and that Basso was his first and last hero. The fact is that in 2002 it was Joseba Beloki who was Armstrong’s big challenger, while Basso took the white jersey, won no stages, took 11th place in the GC and was over 19 minutes behind Armstrong by Paris (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002_Tour_de_France).
- And an acclaimed journalist like Walsh ought to have found out that Froome has asthma…?
Either Walsh has bet his credibility on Froome being a clean cyclist, or he has decided to cash in on Froome’s marketability while he still can. Regardless, Froome has a public relations advantage with Walsh on his side, unlike Armstrong, who degraded Walsh with the infamous “troll” status.
Neither I nor others can prove that Froome is a cheater, and I am not saying he is, but I find it very striking how he came from out of nothing to become so superb. Really, what makes it hard for me to really believe in Froome is not one single thing, but the sum of all the little things that don’t add up:
- Froome’s magnificent time up the Madone does not make sense.
- Asthma has troubled Froome since he was a child, but it’s not been known or mentioned anywhere until June 2014. The bilharzia parasite and knee pain, however, has plagued Froome till 2011, and once these two things were taken care of, his career took off.
- From 2011, when he was 26, he went from having won hardly anything of significance to suddenly taking 2nd place in the Vuelta a España. Other major overall riders distinguished themselves at a much younger age.
- Froome complains that he and others are not tested enough, but Team Sky has been very resistant to making available Froome’s training data, and when they have done so the distribution was limited to selected media.
- Team Sky, who are obsessed with “marginal gains”, have no desire to publicise Froome’s training data, they have not tested his V02max, his functional threshold power is a secret, and they have not tested or tuned Froome’s position on the bike in a wind tunnel despite his painful riding style (just look at how he rides). Why the lack of transparency?
To trust that cycling has become cleaner seems as safe as to believe in the notoriously unfaithful wife or husband who promises to behave, but who still hangs around with the same people in the same places.
Cycling deserves its bad reputation. The risk-adjusted return for cheating is appealing, there are plenty of PEDs on the market, anti-doping agencies don’t seem to have a clue, and one wonders if the new generation of cyclists is morally any better than the last. One of this generation’s dominating teams, Team Sky, has a few question marks hanging over its head, and there are certain similarities between Armstrong and Froome. And lest we forget, Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo Bank have had their share of negative stories in 2014-2015 too.
I will obviously follow the Tour de France this year, as I do every year, but I have gradually come to enjoy cycling more as entertainment than as a pure and clean sport. And regardless of how many cheats time will reveal, I will always find the same joy and pleasure from riding and competing on my bike. I hope that applies to you as well.
Afterword by Anaemic On A Bike
On 23rd June 2015, a report by Anti-Doping Denmark (ADD) was released which concluded that former professional cyclist-come-cycling team owner, Bjarne Riis, had knowledge of doping on his team (Team CSC, now Team Tinkoff-Saxo) and failed to act. This follows the damning findings in a report by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission to the UCI, published in March 2015. In my blog post, Who is the real enemy of professional cycling – Lance Armstrong, or capital personified?, my argument is that the capitalist political economy of cycling creates the conditions of existence in which doping and cheating proliferate. The problem is a systemic one. For professional cycling to stand a chance of being free from doping and cheating, a critical mass of cyclists and fans need their own democratic organisations to exert a pressure to reform and/or revolutionise this political economy.
Erik Nordlie is right when he suggests that professional cycling is ‘entertainment’ rather than a pure and clean sport. I’ll add (see my post, All laid bare: cycling, commodity fetishism, and podium girls), the political economy of cycling fuels a dehumanisation of its participants that takes many forms: with capital as cycling’s real dope, the very bodies of talented athletes and others, such as podium girls, are merely branded commodities to entertain and yield profit.
Erik’s comparison of Armstrong and Froome fascinates me, because of the commercial dominance of their respective teams. Individual personalities aside, in a US news interview with Tyler Hamilton, he inadvertently touches on where cycling’s ‘competitive edge’ actually comes from: “Although the majority of us were doping at that time, it certainly wasn’t an even playing field, due to your financial situation, due to having connections, it took a lot of finances, it took a lot of connections…”