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July 03, 2010

Shades of gray

Landis preparingThere are a lot of cycling fans who still believe in black and white.

Some rider or another, they'll say, has never tested positive, or is the most tested athlete in the world. Team X, they'll say, has the strictest anti-doping program in the peloton. Sure, there used to be a lot of doping in the sport, they'll say, but no sport has such extensive athlete testing, and the sport today is clean.

I've been following the sport for 25 years, through the mysterious deaths while riders slept, the 60 hematocrits, and now the biological passport, and I'm convinced the sport has never in that time approached clean. I don't believe in black and white.

The way I've come to see modern cycling is that every rider exists in a Heisenberg bubble, balanced somewhere on a scale between pure as the driven snow white and Floyd Landis “hell yeah I doped” black. As a fan, we all calculate the likelihood a particular rider is juicing, and all most of us have to go on is the rider and his team's public pronouncements, and the rider's race performance. How much you like a rider has to be balanced against how likely you think it is a) that he or she has doped, and b) that he or she will get caught. This is why I and many others breathed a sigh of relief when Vinokourov lost the maglia rosa at the Giro. I believe Vino's failed dope test was accurate, and I fear he has likely returned to his previously successful ways. You, of course, may disagree, or feel just as fearful about Giro winner Ivan Basso, who was ultimately banned for his involvement in Operación Puerto, and now says he's gunning for a podium spot at the Tour. One of the things about the bubble is that every fan's is slightly different. Maybe you assume that everyone who came out of the sports mills of Eastern Europe is tainted. Maybe you believe that the recent popularity of Spain as a training center was a direct result of tighter French anti-doping laws.

Tyler Hamilton & David MillarOccasionally, especially in the case of a superstar rider, there may be other information, from former teammates, employees, trainers, or other people in the rider's circle. In the absence of positive dope tests, which it still appears can be manipulated without a great deal of trouble, all we can do is take the data and put it together with our own prejudices and preferences to decide who we believe is clean and who's not. If an ex-teammate says you've doped, that moves you 3 spaces to the right. Coming out of nowhere to contend for the climber's jersey at the Tour? Move 10 spaces to the right. If you get caught, suspended, then come back as an anti-dope crusader, that might move you a space or two to the left.

It's apparent that there's a continuing arms race in cycling, and the enforcers are losing. Like any arms race, the advantage goes to those with money and technology, and those belong to the teams.

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - JULY 01: Cyclist Lance Armstrong pauses at the start of the team presentations for the 97th Tour de France on July 1, 2010 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Following a prologue time trial in Rotterdam on Saturday, the iconic race will include 20 stages and will cover 3,642km. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Far be it from me to identify where I think any particular rider falls on the 0-to-100 scale. Clearly, though, the recent Landis revelations, outlined in detail in the Wall Street Journal today, push Armstrong farther to the right, and at least nudge Zabriskie, Hincapie, and Leipheimer in that direction. Sure, it's easy to impeach Landis' credibility, but it's clear to me that Landis didn't come up with the sophisticated doping program he's described, and he's far from the first person to allege that Armstrong has relied on more than spring water in previous Tour wins.

Let's run through the allegations in the WSJ article by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell. First and foremost, there are dates and details of blood transfusions during the Tour de France itself in 2004, and a partial list of riders who received them, including Armstrong. Next most damaging is probably Landis' claim that Armstrong himself was the source of his first collection of testosterone patches. Finally, there is the allegation that as many as 60 team bikes were sold for cash to support the Postal doping program. For me, mentions of Armstrong's possible visits to strip bars and cocaine use are just distractions; my interest is in Armstrong as an athlete or a cheat.

According to Albergotti and O'Connell, three other U.S. Postal riders confirmed doping while Armstrong rode for the team, and one admitted he himself doped.

Frankie AndreuLooking through the article, though, I don't see anything that's going to change the mind of rabid Armstrong fans, or of people who have believed he's a doper since 1999. We already know of former teammates who have alleged doping, including Frankie Andreu, who admitted his own EPO use in 2006. The claim that team bikes were improperly sold to pay for the doping program can't be proven by the mere appearance of team bikes on eBay: Someone would have to connect their proceeds to a doping program to really make something of it. Otherwise, those frames could just as easily have gone toward Armstrong's Shiner Bock habit as toward dope. I can see no way to tie Armstrong to the foil-packeted testosterone Landis claims he was provided.

But the addition of FDA special agent Jeff Novitzky adds a new dimension to the sport's doping problem. Teammates and staff who don't hesitate to cover for a rider with the media may feel differently when a federal agent starts threatening purgery charges and deploys subpoena powers. Novitzky seems unlikely to tolerate the shades of gray we as fans have grown to accept.


ESPN.com | Lance Armstrong: Crunch Time

Posted by Frank Steele on July 3, 2010 in Dave Zabriskie, Doping, Floyd Landis, George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, Top Stories | Permalink


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I'm still waiting for someone to prove all these allegations. Might I add, my wait is going on ten years.

Posted by: Kyle at Jul 3, 2010 12:27:37 AM

So does that mean that for you, personally, you believe there is zero percent chance that Armstrong has used illegal procedures or substances? His shade of gray is soft-serve vanilla white? I mean, the point I was trying to make is that we all have our own preconceptions that determine what and who we believe in this sport.

For me, I tended to believe Floyd Landis even after he tested positive, I tended to disbelieve Tyler Hamilton as soon as he tested positive, and I pretty much always assumed that Jan Ullrich was doping. Your mileage will vary.

Would you at least agree that there is the real possibility that some riders might be able to control their environment to the level necessary to pull off the sort of doping procedures Landis describes in order to a) avoid detection and b) gain competitive advantage? If you can agree to that, why don't you believe Armstrong could be among those riders?

Could you also agree that a program handled with that level of control and secrecy might not ever discard evidence that rises to the level of proof that you require?

Again, I don't think anyone can or should take any action against any rider without a positive test, a suspicious bio-passport history, DNA evidence in stored blood, or records of doping procedures, but I can't just ignore stories, and in some case sworn testimony, that suggests that very carefully planned and executed doping campaigns are giving some riders an unfair advantage. And I'm not trying to convict anyone in a court of law, or prevent them from earning a living, just considering whether these latest allegations are believable or not.

That's what "shades of gray" are all about. Not guilty, not innocent, just more or less likely to be playing by the rules.

Posted by: Frank at Jul 3, 2010 1:23:48 AM

Do I believe there is zero chance? No. But there has to be something more than the word of a chronic liar and a person who solicited the public for money to defend his lies. Where is the smoking gun?

You're right in that I think we all have our own preconceptions as to who to believe. I will give LA the benefit of the doubt because I'd like to think that there are those people out there who are just great at what they do and inspire others in the process. I would hate to see someone like that fall. But, I would not be surprised if it was ever proven that LA did dope. But I just can't take the words of fallen from grace riders like Landis. Give me something other than, "I saw this happen". Heck, the article even uses a quote from one USPS rider (Gerlach?) where he says that he's seen riders dope, so Landis must be telling the truth. Because others do it, must mean everyone does it, isn't that good of a defense for me.

Do I believe riders could manipulate an entire drug system? Yes. But not for seven straight years. I don't believe anyone to be that good at secresy, or is it secrecy? I would think there would be too many uncontrollable factors going on to control an entire system for seven straight years.

And what would someone like the UCI have to gain by discarding evidence? I would think the long term pitfalls would greatly outweigh the short term benefits.

But I understand why people would think otherwise. I don't want to say everyone who doesn't believe what I do is wrong. This is just what I believe.

Just curious, but why would you believe Floyd Landis? Especially knowing his history. Did you believe him when he said he didn't do it?

Thanks for responding, by the way. Didn't expect that.

Posted by: Kyle at Jul 3, 2010 2:02:57 AM

I will say, that if the names of these three other USPS riders who saw Armstrong dope were released, or, if those three came out and collaberated (sorry if my spelling is brutal) the WSJ story, then my opinion would change. But to me, unnamed sources are just things pulled out of thin air when someone needs help to prove something.

Posted by: Kyle at Jul 3, 2010 2:12:14 AM

Have to agree with Kyle above. I can see a rider getting away with doping for a year, maybe two, but seven years of scrutiny at the very top of pro cycling would have to leave some evidence of doping. To my knowledge, no such evidence has ever been found. We tend to forget the witch hunts that followed the 1998 doping scandals in Le Tour, the following years were tighter than ever.
I'm not saying it couldn't, or didn't, happen but without any presentable evidence other than a proven liar peddling whatever to the media, the matter must rest.
Why would you believe a rider who has recently had to admit he lied? Why is he not being prosecuted for obtaining money by deception, when he started the Floyd Landis support fund, based upon his supposed innocence?
It's a funny old game.

Posted by: Big Phil at Jul 3, 2010 3:53:44 AM

As Lance said in the NY Times, "If I’m 20 minutes down, I’m still going to go home and have five kids jumping all over me."

In other words, here to do my job and life goes on. When he first retired he went out on top, now his new last ride is under another cloud. That cloud is of the sports own doing and where I get angriest is because the athletes and teams perpetuate it. It's Lance v. Contador, Lance v. Landis, Lance v. the French, v. the World, v. Cancer -- us fans love a good battle. Go Lance! Team RadioShack printed those Landis is a Rat posters at the TOC and handed them out. See we have a new villain for Lance to fight, one that can break news in the WSJ with scandalous, unproven gossipy tales.

The sport is thriving at the local level, amateur racing has neven been better, that's where racers aren't doing it for the money, they're not selling a Nissan Leaf, they're doing it cause they love it. David wrote about his digust on Bike Hugger yesterday. We can choose a Go Lance! camp or not while our other heroes have been tainted or fallen. How much are we as fans supposed to take? By cultivating Lance v. the World, the pattern continues and deflects the issue.

The sport itself, the guys kitting it up have themselves to blame here for their code of silence, for permitting it amongts themselves, for their own corruption and maybe a new generation won't be steeped in that.

The fans were reminded of the code when Jim Ochowicz said to the NY Times, "But I have no clue what went on. I wasn’t a part of it.”

That's the grandfather of US cycling, involved with Phonak when Tyler blamed an unborn twin for his irregular blood. Maybe Och was misquoted or not what he meant, but that's the problem right there. Och you were a part of it. So was everyone else around you.

Posted by: Byron at Jul 3, 2010 11:31:56 AM

The involvement of the same federal investigators who have routinely defiled (read: shit upon) the bill of rights in the BALCO case will turn this already sad situation into a complete travesty.

At least the 3 judge federal appeals panel in the BALCO/Bonds case recently restored some sanity into an all too typical case of federal prosecution run amok.


Your fervent wish to restore your vision of a moral equilibrium in the sport of cycling is about to steamroll basic constitutional protections for those involved....but you'll feel better about your internal, navel-gazing shades of grey vs. black and white debate.

Posted by: Jason O. at Jul 3, 2010 7:56:32 PM

Kyle, sorry for the delay responding. I'm not sure why I believed Landis. I think it was partly the high of that incredible Stage 16 comeback, and partly his Mennonite upbringing.

I was just editing categories here on the site, and scrolling through the rider list, it seems like convicted doper after convicted doper. Look over to the left there: Marco Pantani, Michael Rasmussen, Jorg Jaksche, Richard Virenque, Roberto Heras, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Santiago Botero, Sergei Honchar, Stefan Schumacher, Alessandro Petacchi, Alexandre Vinokourov, Andrey Kaschechkin, Ivan Basso -- these are not guys I picked out because they were caught doping. These are guys who won stages, competed for leader's jerseys, or otherwise distinguished themselves in the Tour, and they've all faced sanctions for doping. They were guys whose athletic performance I admired, and they were caught cheating.

Given that history, I consider it possible that any rider is doping. I'll admit I harbor a hopeful, possibly naive, optimism that Garmin's public anti-doping fervor is real and that their program is clean. Again, it goes back to our perspective, and what we choose to believe.

About Armstrong, I consider him innocent until proven guilty, but I think the media often has a Liberty Valance attitude toward him: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." There are a lot of suspicious incidents in Armstrong's record: The steroid positive in 1999, explained away by an overlooked prescription. The 1999 samples, retested and found to contain EPO in 2005, which, for a variety of reasons, can't be used as the basis for sanctions, but which certainly suggest Armstrong is a rider to keep an eye on. There's the payment to the UCI, unparalleled in my experience. The testers kept waiting last March while Armstrong left their presence for somewhere between 15 minutes and an hour.

Again, I hope Armstrong's as clean as he claims. That was certainly a great ride today, and suggests he's got a shot at the podium yet again. There's just a lot of history that makes it hard to believe.

Posted by: Frank at Jul 3, 2010 10:35:13 PM


I've made the point many times on the site that I think the anti-doping rules have to be fair to the riders, as well.

My personal preference for effectively protecting riders' rights is a functional riders' union, that could negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that would serve as a base rider contract. The current system puts all leverage in the hands of the teams and the event organizers, with riders staging the occasional sit-down strike at the beginning of a race to get the slightest crumbs of compromise on their concerns, and teams dumping riders and their contracts over the first appearance of impropriety.

Do you have similar suggestions that might actually advance the sport, or would you rather just spout crap? Who do you think has the authority to investigate the use of drugs in the US for off-prescription, perhaps medically dubious purposes including enhanced athletic performance, if not the FDA?

Should the Olympic-derived doping agencies in one country have the authority to seek sport sanctions against the athletes of another country, as happened with Valverde, and against which possibility Michael Rasmussen may have changed the nationality of his racing license?

Are you advocating that only the sports doping agencies should have the right to investigate sports-related drug activities, even when they might involve fraud, conspiracy, or other criminal activity?

I get that you think BALCO was conducted unfairly; does that mean the federal government must never again conduct an investigation of drug use in sports?

I'm not just navel-gazing here -- I'm happy to talk about rider rights and the problems of international enforcement. But I also think it's interesting how the web of loopholes many riders exploit (like Therapeutic Use Exemptions) and the apparently low success rate of the various drug tests, lead us as fans to weigh the likely legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of each performance against what we know about the rider. Since Armstrong is the best-known rider in the world at the moment, he's the perfect lodestone for the practice.

Posted by: Frank at Jul 4, 2010 12:48:14 AM

No, I don't think that that feds must not conduct an investigation: It's that they can't possibly conduct an investigation without destroying the privacy and other established constitutional rights of those (possibly) involved.

I have read about (yet can't possibly understand, because I'm not in your shoes) your passion about making pro cycling "clean." The thing that really sucks is that you are all too happy to let loose the feds to achieve your goal. This will de facto will lay waste to constitutional protections of the "small fry" players in this story. Those (unlike Armstrong) who don't have the resources to hire $700 per hour lawyers.

You want a consolidated rider's union?!?!?! Look at the last 5-6 years of MLB...Donald Fehr's actions as union head should give you pause re: this idea.

If "spouting crap" means checking virtually uncheckable federal prosecutorial abuses then I'm guilty.

Posted by: Jason O. at Jul 4, 2010 7:10:31 PM

Just thought I'd chip in and mention that I count myself among ex cycling fans. The term "sport" for cycling is stretching credibility these days.

I would perhaps watch an event where cyclists were allowed unlimited doping of any kind. It would be fun watching natural selection at work as the riders who overdid it suffered heart attacks and died dramatically on the course, while people who underdid the doping had no chance of winning. That would be fine. It's the lying and bullcrap that bothers me about the current state of affairs, not the doping itself.

Posted by: Rob at Jul 5, 2010 7:03:22 PM

Pretty much everyone was probably doping in the late 80's and 90's. Yeah Lance was probably among them. But retrospectively it's impossible to determine who if anyone was "clean" in those years. So it was dopers against dopers. But here's an idea: Have all bike racers be under the supervision of the race officials.

Posted by: Sue at Jul 10, 2010 11:08:08 PM