The Lance ‘n’ Oprah show is about more than one man
The admission by Lance Armstrong that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career may finally lead to a comprehensive account of the widespread doping during the past two decades of the sport.
Drug use has been known to cycling for decades. In the early days, some riders consumed a cocktail of amphetamines to withstand the long hours of competition, day after day, in the grand tours.
But it was the discovery of Erythropoietin (EPO) in the 1980s that has cast a long shadow over cycling to this day. EPO is the hormone that regulates red blood cell production, giving the user an unfair advantage.
EPO is generally believed to have been introduced to cycling by the Italian scientist, Francesco Conconi, whose colleague, Dr Michele Ferrari, was later found guilty of sporting fraud by an Italian court, and subsequently banned for life after being charged by the USADA for administration and trafficking of prohibited substances.
Ferrari had connections with a series of teams and dozens of riders over more than 20 years. He first came to prominence in cycling when he coached the Italian star, Francesco Moser, to a new one hour world record in 1984. Riding a radical aerodynamic bike at Mexico City, Moser added over a mile to the record that had been established by the five-time Tour winner, Eddy Merckx, a decade earlier. Moser, the thrice Paris-Roubaix winner and 1977 World Champion, later admitted using blood products, that were not illegal at the time.
Michele Ferrari would go on to coach and advise some of the best-known teams and riders in the sport, including Gewiss-Ballan, an Italian team founded in 1993. The team enjoyed amazing success in 1994, winning Tirreno-Adriatico, and the one-day classics, Milan-San Remo, La Flèch Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Team riders, Evgeni Berzin claimed the Giro d’Italia and Piotr Ugrumov was runner-up to Miguel Indurain in the Tour de France.
It was later revealed that many of the Gewiss riders, including Berzin, Ugrumov, and Bjarne Riis, who was to win the 1996 Tour, had been found to have elevated hematocrit levels. Danmarks Radio later claimed that doping had been practiced at both Gewiss and the Spanish team, ONCE, which dominated the spring classics and the Vuelta a España in the mid 1990s. Alex Zülle, who won the Vuelta for ONCE in 1996 and 1997, and finished second in the 1999 Tour, later admitted to using EPO in the so-called Festina affair.
The Festina team was thrown out of the 1998 Tour when their soigneur, Willy Voet, was caught by police with a large quantity of doping products in the team car. Seven riders admitted taking EPO. The team leader, Richard Virenque, denied using the illegal substances, but confessed two years later.
One of the riders at ONCE during the mid 1990s was Johan Bruyneel, later to become the directeur sportif for Lance Armstrong’s team, US Postal (later Discovery and Radio Shack). ONCE subsequently became Liberty Seguros, Würth, and finally Astana. Alberto Contador, later to be stripped of his Tour de France victory for offences related to doping, claimed the first win of the year in 2005 for Liberty Seguros at the Tour Down Under.
A new round of doping investigations arose after the Spanish rider, Jesús Monzano, alleged in 2004 widespread use of blood products at his former team, Kelme. The allegations implicated a number of doctors, including Alfredo Córdova, who had been with Liberty Seguros-Würth, and Eufemiano Fuentes. A police investigation, code-named Operación Puerto (Operation Mountain Pass) led to the arrest of the Liberty Seguros-Würth team director, Manolo Saiz, and Fuentes. The names of some 56 riders were found on lists maintained by Fuentes. Most, including Tour winner, Jan Ullrich and the Giro victor, Ivan Basso, were cleared – in some cases because there was insufficient evidence for a conviction.
Ullrich was later banned for doping. Basso was also suspended for two years after admitting that he had planned to use blood products.
In 2007, the Astana rider, Alexandre Vinokourof, was also banned for a year after blood-doping during the Tour de France.
In the meantime, Lance Armstrong, with Johan Bruyneel, his directeur sportif, was dominating the Tour de France. Both have since been banned and many of Armstrong’s team mates, including Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, have admitted to doping.
Given this long record of unlawful activity, questions remain over the international administration of cycling. It remains the case that Armstrong never failed a drug test, and many other riders escaped detection.
Great attention is now given to Armstrong, which is understandable. But to focus only on him, and to ignore the many other players in this sorry saga, is to downplay the widespread drug culture that has infected the sport for the past 20 years.
Consider this single example. Since 1993, 30 different cyclists have mounted the place-getter’s podium on the Champs E’lysees after the Tour de France, some of them like Armstrong, Ullrich, and Contador, numerous times.
Of those 30 riders to finish in the top three on General Classification, 15 have been banned or suspended for doping-related offences.
From time to time former riders such as the Irishman, Paul Kimmage, have exposed the widespread practice of drug cheating. Riders have been suspended or banned, often for short periods by their national cycling federations, but little seemed to change.
The focus is appropriately on Armstrong, but it needs to be widened.
Every young rider should know that they will succeed because of their ability and dedication, and not feel forced to join the drug takers to remain competitive - or abandon the sport.
Thankfully, there are indications that the recent entrants to the sport, including the major sponsors, want to chart a new, clean path. Last year, for example, two former riders, Bobby Julich and Steven de Jongh, left their coaching positions at Team Sky under the outfit’s strict anti-doping protocols.
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