CYCLING must root out the old guard who allowed cheating to course through the veins of the sport, writes Tom English, in the wake of the full extent of Lance Armstrong’s doping becoming clear this week.
Tyler Hamilton tells a story about the 2004 Dauphine Libere, the final tune-up for the Tour de France. The American had left Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team by then and had joined Phonak. The week before the Dauphine, Hamilton had flown to Madrid for a blood transfusion. “It felt great,” he said. “We headed to the Dauphine feeling quietly excited, secure in the knowledge that we were going to do well.”
The major stage was stage 4, an individual time trial up the brute that is Mont Ventoux, a steep climb through a pine forest. On the road ahead, Hamilton could see Armstrong, out of his saddle and riding to his limit. Hamilton felt super-charged. When he crossed the line he was told that he’d climbed Ventoux faster than any man before him.
That evening, the management of Phonak received a phone call from cycling’s governing body, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) based in Aigle, Switzerland. They requested a meeting with Hamilton. Hein Verbruggen, the president, wanted to see him. It was an unprecedented request, but Hamilton went. He was greeted by Dr Mario Zorzoli, the UCI’s chief medical officer.
“Your blood tests were a little off,” Zorzoli told the American, before handing him data that indicated that he may have received a blood transfusion from another person. Hamilton’s heart pounded. He hadn’t transfused anybody else’s blood except his own, but the UCI appeared to be on to him in any case. He told me last month: “There’s no doubt in my mind that the UCI knew what I was doing, but they let me off. They more or less gave me a slap on the wrist and said, ‘Slow down a little’. They knew.”
Hamilton, and other riders, have pointed the finger at the UCI for more than a year, have accused them of turning a blind eye to the cancer of doping in their sport and continuing to show a disdain for discovery even now. It was in May 2011 that Hamilton made his first public mea culpa on television in America, a warts-and-all exposé of the pervasive doping in his sport naming Armstrong as the driving force: the doper, the bully, the liar, the most cynical and shameless cheat that sport has ever known. The UCI did nothing. No phone call, no request for a meeting to explore what he knew. Not a word. Even after he published his book with even more detail about the horrors of doping in cycling, the UCI sat on their hands. Hamilton said he would fly to UCI headquarters and tell president Pat McQuaid and honorary vice-president Hein Verbruggen everything that he knew, but there has been no contact, no word from the UCI apart from words of denial.
The fact that McQuaid and Verbruggen have not already resigned is one scandal heaped on a mountain of others. David Millar spoke not just for bike riders but surely for all who love sport when he said the other day that resignations need to come.
“They have to carry some responsibility for this because it was obvious what was going on,” said Millar. “The UCI had all the blood data, the medical reports, it was part of the culture of the sport and in the big races the majority of riders were doing it on drugs. There was only a tiny minority getting good results without drugs and they really were the outsiders. The first step for the UCI is that Verbruggen has to be removed. There is no doubt about that – current president Pat McQuaid has to distance himself because it was under Verbruggen’s presidency that it was at its worst and yet there were all these denials coming from the UCI.
“He was at the head of [an] organisation with the biggest doping problem in history of sport… But the UCI is not a commercial company so there is no one to answer to.”
The forensic deconstruction of the myth of Armstrong as hero by the Unites States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) hasn’t shifted McQuaid and Verbruggen despite the jaw-dropping report finding them, at the very least, asleep at the wheel, and, at the worst, wilfully blind to what was going on around them in their own sport, reserving their greatest ire not for the cheats but the ones who wanted to talk about the cheats and expose them.
USADA’s report is, of course, utterly ruinous to Armstrong’s reputation and the fantasy of his legend but going forward, the guns should now be trained on the UCI, as Millar and others have attempted to do. The pages that catalogue their unwillingness to talk to riders who wished to clean up their sport are truly shocking. In 2010, when Floyd Landis spoke to the Associated Press and outed Armstrong as a cheat, the response from the governing body was not to interview Landis and discover the truth but to deride what he was saying as “nothing new” and then to sue him.
Similarly, when Hamilton spoke on the American news programmed 60 Minutes in May last year and revealed the horrible reality of the peloton, the reaction from the UCI was that of a body acting in the interests of one man, Armstrong, rather than one sport. Verbruggen’s response has become infamous.
“That’s impossible because there is nothing,” he said. “I repeat again: Lance Armstrong has never used doping. Never, never, never. And I say this not because I am a friend of his, because that is not true. I say it because I’m sure.”
The original reporting of his comments came from the Dutch news outlet AD.nl, Verbruggen’s precise words being: “Lance Armstrong heeft nooit doping gebruikt. Nooit, nooit, nooit.” The other day, Verbruggen denied ever having said these words.
USADA is highly critical of the UCI for prejudging its own investigation and finding Armstrong innocent of all charges despite never having spoken to any of the riders who say they witnessed him doping. Then there’s the testimony of the former professional cyclist, Jorge Jaksche – another in a long line of riders who wanted to speak out but found a governing body unprepared to listen to him. Jaksche admitting doping in 2007 and spoke with the UCI’s lawyers as well as with its president, McQuaid, about the scale of the doping going on in teams he was familiar with – Team Telekom, ONCE, CSC and Liberty Seguros. “The UCI showed zero interest in hearing the full story about doping on these teams and did not seek to follow up with me,” said Jaksche.
“McQuaid told me he would have liked me to have handled things differently from which I can only conclude he wished I had not been as forthcoming regarding the degree of doping that was taking place in the peloton,” he added.
This pattern is repeated over and over. Riders who doped and who had come to a point in their life when they didn’t want to live with the lie any more turn to the governing body only to find people who didn’t want to hear their story, who just wanted it all to go away, except for Armstrong who they looked on as the untouchable, the great hero, the flag-bearer.
Armstrong’s reputation is destroyed but the cleansing of cycling is nowhere near finished. Hamilton lists all the rotten apples left in the sport and the list is a long one. And at the top of the tree, McQuaid and Verbruggen, still in power and still unembarrassable. Until they’re gone, cycling can’t move on.