Sunday, August 6, 2006
Updated: August 7, 4:40 PM ET
Solutions are available; will to do it sometimes isn't
By Andrew Hood
Special to ESPN.com
Cycling is on the edge of implosion following Saturday's confirmation that Tour de France champion Floyd Landis tested for illegally high levels of testosterone.
Reports that the testosterone might be of synthetic origin is only pouring more gas on the conflagration of doping scandals that threatens to overwhelm one of sports' oldest and most colorful events.
Landis could become the first Tour winner to have his title stripped due to a doping offense, a worst-case scenario that's spinning the 100-year-old Tour toward its worst credibility crisis since the 1998 Festina scandal blew open the lid on organized doping within teams.
Cycling has often been its own worst enemy in the decade since. Rather than being open and honest about the doping plague, the sport has stumbled from one PR blunder to another.
Following the Landis scandal, there's a new consensus that half-measures and stubborn denials just won't work anymore. Race organizers, teams, sponsors and racers themselves agree that zero tolerance is the only way to save cycling's credibility.
The sport is at a crossroads and the players at the highest level need to take firm action to regain confidence among sponsors, fans and the media.
Doomsday forecasters are even insisting the sport needs to take a break for several months while it cleans out its dirty laundry. Regardless, it's clear that following weeks of doping headlines, business as usual isn't going to cut it, either.
Pat McQuaid, the new president of cycling's governing body, is saying all the right things about getting tougher on the doping fight, but now he needs to back up those words with decisive action.
Otherwise, cycling might never be able to lift free of the cloud of suspicion that is now threatening to overwhelm even the sunniest of optimists.
Here's what cycling can do to regain its credibility:
• Increase out-of-competition controls: Riders are tested daily at the Tour de France, with the race leader, the stage winner and two other randomly selected riders forced to undergo poststage anti-doping controls. That's how Landis was busted after giving urine samples following his heroic comeback victory in Stage 17 into Morzine.
But there's growing evidence that cheating cyclists are doping not during the actual races, but in the weeks and months before competition. Intuitively, this makes sense. Blood enhancers like EPO take weeks to fully reach their maximum benefit of enriching red blood cells, so riders take cycles of banned drugs well ahead of reaching peak form.
Yet the current EPO urine test can only detect the banned hormone for a window of three to five days. By the time a race starts, cheaters are running on full gas thanks to the lingering effects of the drugs that can last up to four to six weeks, but there's no way to detect them.
Riders are required to tell their respective governing bodies where they travel and be available at any time for out-of-competition tests, but those are few and far between.
Landis, for example, was only tested three times in 2005, once each in 2002, 2003 and 2006, and not once in 2004 by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the organization that carries out doping controls on American riders.
Out-of-competition anti-doping testing programs need to be stepped up aggressively. That's the only way the sport can create a level playing field for everyone in the 200-strong peloton at the starting line.
• Tighter controls: Two years ago, ex-Spanish pro Jésus Manzano blew the lid open on the inside secrets of cheats in a series of paid interviews with the Spanish sports daily AS, revealing how cheats beat the system. The current system is so full of loopholes, it's easy for dubious characters to fool the testers.
Under the current system, anti-doping blood controls designed to measure the hematocrit, or red blood cell, count are typically held early in the morning, usually between 7:30 and 9, giving cheats a huge window to operate before the start of the race still a few hours away.
Manzano spelled out how riders would wait until the morning blood testers would leave and then inject themselves with "micro doses" of EPO-charged blood that would later be completely synthesized by the body to the point that they would be undetectable in postrace controls.
That window could be narrowed dramatically if anti-doping controls could be held right up until the race began. Riders are required to sign in every day before each stage. Why not have surprise controls right before the start? Clean riders would have nothing to worry about.
Also, while samples are taken daily, a complete anti-doping analysis is not necessarily carried out on each sample due to high costs and logistical problems. Although the risk of getting caught is still high, the chances of actually getting busted are reduced because all samples aren't given the full review.
• Lighten the load: Racing the Tour de France is akin to running a marathon every day, day after day, week after week. It's no wonder that some riders resort to artificial assistance simply to survive the arduous three-week trek over steep mountain roads and tortuous descents.
Today's elite athletes train specifically for the arduous stage races, but some suggest that decreasing the punishing load would eliminate one of the main temptations for cheats: the difficulty of simply surviving to race another day.
The Vuelta a España -- the season's last of three so-called "grand tours" held each September -- has already introduced a less-demanding version, offering a course this year that's about 500 kilometers shorter than that of the Tour de France. Stages are shorter, averaging about 150 kilometers instead of around 200 kilometers for the Tour, making for less time in the saddle and more time for recovery. The shorter stages have also created unpredictable racing at the Vuelta, with attacks coming hot and early with some stages being as short as 120 kilometers.
Some have suggested even reducing the number of days of the longer tours from three weeks over four weekends down to two full weeks held during three weekends. That would be water in the face for the Tour's colorful 100-year history, but how many long, flat stages does the Tour need anyway?
• Amnesty program: Two years ago, British star David Millar was caught up in a French doping investigation that led to him being stripped of his world time trial title and being slapped with a two-year racing ban. Millar never failed a doping test. Instead, under pressure from police questioning, he confessed to taking the banned blood booster EPO.
His candidness didn't earn him any leniency, but maybe it should. If riders are encouraged to come clean on insider doping practices -- turn snitch, so to speak -- it would help anti-doping forces zero in on better doping tests, find outright cheaters and devise new anti-doping testing programs.
In the past, the tight-knit cycling community has regularly ostracized riders who have spoken openly about doping. The best example of this was Italian rider Filippo Simeoni, who served a doping ban and later testified in an Italian court that he allegedly received illegal drugs while working with controversial Italian doctor Michele Ferrari in the 1990s. Simeoni's testimony earned him the wrath of Tour champion Lance Armstrong, who also worked closely with Ferrari. When Simeoni went on the attack late in the 2004 Tour, Armstrong chased him down, denying Simeoni a chance at a stage victory.
Riders who come clean about doping practices deserve to be encouraged -- not discouraged -- for having the courage to stand up. One way to entice more is to ease racing bans for cheats who could help authorities root out doping's sources and its in-the-shadow operators.
• Doping tax: Anti-doping tests are expensive. One argument for why there are not more anti-doping controls is simply that they are too costly. And it's true.
A routine EPO test can cost upward of 400 Euros (about $515) each. Complicated testosterone tests like the one Landis faced -- with expensive equipment like a mass spectrometer -- cost thousands in lab time and technician labor costs, not to mention transport and other bureaucratic costs.
The current anti-doping controls are paid for out of the UCI's general operating fund at the tune of about $4 million a year. Most agree that the current tests are just scraping the tip of the iceberg. To fund a better war on cheaters, anti-doping agencies need more money to execute more tests, to underwrite research for new detection methods and to process and catalog testing results.
A "doping tax" could be created, with races, teams, sponsors and even the racers themselves being required to pay into a larger pot. Even a small percentage of the hundreds of millions of dollars moving in the cycling world could bolster the war chest dramatically.
• Third-party controls: Some suggest that cycling's governing body -- the International Cycling Union (UCI) -- has lost so much credibility that it should cede its anti-doping responsibilities to a third party. Three-time Tour de France winner Greg Lemond is among those suggesting that doping controls should be carried out by either the World Anti-Doping Agency or a new independent testing body.
Though they are loathe to admit it, there's a direct conflict of interest between the UCI's responsibilities to promote and market the sport and its anti-doping duties. An independent body could work with approved laboratories around the globe to ensure a fair, balanced but still stringent system to hunt out cheats.
It's a good idea, not only for cycling, but all major sports.
• Back-testing: It's already being done, but there are no sanctions imposed on riders whose samples taken sometimes years before come back positive when new testing methods become introduced.
That's how French testers alleged that Armstrong tested positive for the banned blood booster EPO during the 1999 Tour de France, charges that the seven-time winner vehemently denied. A UCI-sponsored investigation released this year cleared Armstrong of wrongdoing.
Urine samples taken from the 1999 Tour were stored at the Châtenay-Malabry lab, the same lab that ran Landis' testosterone tests, and used a new testing method developed in 2001. Reporters from the French sports daily L'Equipe managed to obtain release forms linking the randomly numbered samples with individual riders. Using those forms, the paper reported last August that six positive samples came from Armstrong.
Current rules don't allow for sanctions to be imposed on back samples, but many suggest all blood and urine samples should be conserved and then later tested for banned substances when new testing methods become available.
• Penalize teams: Riders pay the price for doping -- with two-year racing bans for first-time offenders and lifetime bans for the second offense -- but it's often pressures from teams and managers that force athletes down the dirty road of cheating.
Cycling's multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals are all based on gaining publicity and it's no secret that winning races guarantees plenty of press coverage. Team managers and sponsors pile huge pressure on athletes to gain results and oftentimes actually accrue and organize the doping practices internally.
Yet when teams do get caught with their hands in the doping jar, it's the racers who receive racing bans. Team managers and sponsors face no disciplinary action. In 1998, when the Festina Affaire blew the lid open on organized doping practices within the Festina team, riders were kicked out of the Tour and team management was fired, but the sponsor stayed in the sport for another three years. Landis' own Phonak team fired its team manager and sport director in the wake of the Tyler Hamilton blood doping scandal in 2004, but the team rode on without a hiccup.
Rules should be changed to include bans for dirty managers while unscrupulous sponsors should be simply kicked out of the sport.
• Give cycling some credit: Despite the flurry of bad news surrounding the Landis scandal and doomsday prophets predicting the end of cycling, the sport has come a long way in confronting its endemic doping problem.
Cycling has done more to clean up its act than any other sport. Its banned list is a mile long and not limited to recreational drugs, like the NBA's laughable banned list that includes old-school steroids and amphetamines, but is heavy on marijuana, cocaine and other party drugs that are bad for the league's image but do nothing to stop sophisticated cheaters.
Cycling's sanctions are among the most severe of any major sport, with two-year bans for first-time offenders and lifetime bans for a second offense. Even baseball's beefed-up 50-game ban for a first-time offenders looks light.
The sport's culture has slowly changed as well. While many decry cycling's bad health with Spain's ongoing "Operación Puerto" investigation -- a case in which a doctor and a hematologist were allegedly operating a widespread blood doping ring -- the fact that there is an investigation is proof that the cheats can no longer operate within team structures unfettered.
Cheats are forced to search out freelancers operating on the fringe to find their illegal caches of banned drugs because the teams themselves are running cleaner programs.
The UCI's new ProTour Ethics Code has the toughest language of any sport on doping. Even the sniff of scandal is enough to keep racers out of competition, resulting in the removal of cycling's biggest stars such as Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich from this year's Tour before it even started. But neither has yet to have any disciplinary or legal charges against them.
All these steps were in the right direction, but came too late to save the 2006 Tour de France.
Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.