Opinion: It's not all about Lance Armstrong, and here's how we can fight doping

I am wearing a garbage bag. Why, you might ask, thinking that Merino wool is more my thing. Quite simple, I know that in these days of cycling, banana peels and rotten tomatoes are thrown at anyone who dares stick their head up. Rocks also work quite well and, sadly, my garbage bag won’t do much against those. They hurt.

However, the old expression about sticks and stones hopefully will prove correct and because of this, I figure I’ll continue onward with this monologue. Let me start by saying something really simple: I love bike racing. From a very early age every aspect of the sport just enthralled me. Its history, its traditions, its strategy, its heroism, its toughness, and even the constantly evolving bike technology. I love it. I love waking up early and watching some poorly web streamed feed when I’m home.

Now, despite the fact that I am all of the things described in paragraph one, I often wonder, how is it that I managed to damage something that I loved so much? Why did I disregard that? And why is it that when I watch my peers that have damaged the sport of cycling in similar ways, do we fail to see that we are the problem. We are the problem. But I don’t see anyone saying that. I see people saying “he is the problem” or “they are the problem.” It’s gone from blaming Lance and Lance only, to blaming the journalists, to blaming the team managers, to blaming the UCI, to blaming the riders, definitely blaming Pat McQuaid, oh and don’t forget to blame the race organizers, and then back to blaming Lance. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I played this game too. The fact of the matter is that it is our entire fault. We, the people who make up the world of professional cycling, are to blame.

I can already hear the peeling of bananas... “Damn you, JV, no! I am not to blame, my team stopped doping in 1999 after Le Affaire Festina!” or “No, I am not to blame I never raced in the EPO era!” or “No, I am not to blame because I only did it to survive.” or “No, I am not to blame because everyone else did it!” “I am only a race organizer that made the most mountainous Grand Tour in history of mankind, I am not to blame!!” ... I can go on, but I think you see the point. Before I move on, let me say for those who were talented enough to race at the highest level in Europe, and did walk away, you aren’t many, but you are not to blame. You are to be highly regarded. You can leave the principal’s office now and have pudding. I can only offer my apologies to you guys, and pudding.

So, we can come to the conclusion that actually no one is responsible for the doping issue in cycling. Everyone denies their culpability and we happily hang a few riders every year, give them the blame, and refuse to understand the responsibility we all have.

I was absolutely shocked to learn, this morning, that the MPCC, an organization I have been a part of since 2007 and one that I truly believe in, is thinking about suing Lance Armstrong. Yes, it is his fault, a 100+ year history of doping problems in cycling can be remedied by extracting financial damages from Lance Armstrong. All the while, this organization, of which I am member, is chaired by someone who once tested positive, and whose members have a rich and varied history ranging from Festina to Puerto to USPS to CERA to Corticoid investigations. And our solution to protect cycling’s image is to sue Lance Armstrong? I truly hope they don't sue anyone. Maybe I need to attend the next meeting? Maybe a bit of introspection is needed here? Maybe a better way would be to sue myself and give the damages to someone like Danny Pate? But this seems to be the mentality entrenched in cycling, blame the other guy to fix the problem. Put it on his plate.

When I signed up to go testify to USADA about cycling’s past, I did it, not to “bring down Lance!” I did it because I was convinced it would help cycling in the long term. But instead of fertile ground for positive change and forward movement, my testimony seems to have turned into mud for throwing at each other. Seeds don’t grow in mud. It was an attempt, my me, at helping cycling unwind from a nasty past, but I’m not sure it worked the way I wanted. So, what will work?

First we have to realize, cycling cannot separate itself from its own history. That is impossible. When, a hundred years ago someone decided to cheat in the Tour de France, that got the ball rolling. It kept rolling. And while I hope you (the readers) will feel it is somewhat honorable to walk away from doping and try to mend the damage you’ve (me) done, whether one stopped doping in 1956, 1976, 1998, or 2006, the fact that at one time you doped has contributed to the pervasive culture of doping. That’s not to say there aren’t reasons for this culture. To start with, cycling is the toughest sport ever invented. It is contested by hardened individuals from hard backgrounds. This is not the sport of the aristocracy, this is the sport of tough kids who are fighting their way out of tough lives. That is cycling’s history in Europe. The ethos professional cycling started with is not that of higher, faster, cleaner...It is an ethos of “I need to feed my family.” That is cycling’s 100 year history. The private jets only came at the tail end. So, while all of us, especially me, would like to believe that we are “part of the solution” we weren’t, we were part of grinding this culture in further and further. To try and indemnify ourselves from that will not work. In fact it will only entrench the culture deeper, as it teaches hypocrisy.

We, in professional cycling, all are to blame and we all end up hurting each other because of blaming each other. Public spats, lawsuits, backstabbing policies, hatred... these all hurt cycling. They work against any budding possibility of a long term solution for this sport. Trying to solve a 100 year old problem with short-sighted and knee jerk reactions will not work. This takes creativity, vision, and UNITY. And who does this lack of unity hurt? Well, we might think harsher measures and lawsuits hurt those evil doers who need public flogging, but instead who do I see getting hurt? I see young riders, who have had nothing to do with this mess, being the ones that get hurt. The up-and-comers who, with idealism still intact, they are the beneficiaries of our inability to work out real and lasting solutions, together. They get to carry the burden of being seen as a “doper” in the view of the broader public, for the next ten years, when in fact, they’ve never doped. Not yet, anyway. But, if we don’t figure this out, soon, guess what? 100 years of cultural entrenchment beats a few of us old guys coming up with a few new rules. That is sad. And that is my own damn fault.

How about we give these young riders a chance at having a doping free career? How about we do something that overcomes the image that they’ve been saddled with due to their predecessors’ (like me) actions?

Because I absolutely hate complaining without a solution, I’m going to make a very simple suggestion for a solution: Make us pay. Now, I know many of you think I should be in jail, and whole heartedly agree with my suggestion of making me pay, but “making us pay” isn’t an analogy. Quite simply put, as opposed to launching lawsuits, trying to overthrow the king, blaming the dog, etc.. We need to fix anti-doping. I’m sorry, I do not think that is accomplishable by policy changes and adding extra rules invented by people who broke the rules. I do not think that is accomplishable by telling a rider who has less than 12 months visibility into if he’ll be able to feed himself that he needs to “just say no”... Nor do I think telling a highly ambitious type “A” athlete that he should be happy with second place, is going to work. Nor do I think a newly reformed team manager telling his team “do as I say, not as I did” will work. Nor do I think telling guys that ride 30,000 kms a year in rain, snow, sleet, and heat to just “work harder” is going to work.

Let me give you an example: There are two young guys I know quite well. One is on my team now, one raced for me as a junior. Both are thought of as future GT contenders. Both of these guys are unbelievable tough, incredibly competitive, driven, and ambitious. And both of them would saw their kneecaps off with a rusty butter knife, if they knew it would win them a bike race. That’s why they are so good. They are both clean riders from a generation that shows us what cycling could be. But you throw a drug in the mix that makes you 10% better, there is no test for, and then that’s a whole lot more tempting than sawing off your kneecap for the win. We need to protect these guys. The toughest and most competitive are the most at risk. The guys we love and the qualities of those champions are exactly the things that put them most at risk for doping. So, since I don’t think anyone wants to make bike racing easy and start giving awards for nicest rider or rider who really wanted his buddy to win because he was having a bad hair day, then we need to realize the risks that come with the highly ambitious and protect them. Quite simply, if we want this to change, we have to actually enforce the rules so that these hardened and respectable young men and women can stop having to chose between “being first loser”(now society is at fault too) and saying no to doping..

I’ve been referring to “we” a lot in this rant. “We” means those of us working in professional cycling. But here comes the part that we need to be responsible enough and man enough to step aside for: This is the one part that “WE” can’t do. WE need to step aside and pay for someone, totally outside cycling, to be in charge of enforcing anti-doping rules. WE were the problem, WE cannot be in charge of fixing the problem. But we sure can pay for it. Meaning this: right now teams spend less than 1% of our total budgets on anti-doping. For the biggest problem in cycling, less than 1%. That won’t ever work. You can’t fix a problem this big with something so small. WE, including me, need to pay.

Cycling needs to step aside, the UCI needs to step aside, Pat needs to step aside, teams and riders need to step aside, I need to step aside. We’ve had 100 years to figure this out, with limited success, how about WE let someone else have a shot? Someone who has no race to worry about, no sponsorship to think of, no conflict of interest at all. None. WE (those of us with a conflict of interest) need to escrow much, much, much more than 1% of funds available, give it to a totally independent entity that specializes in anti-doping and nothing else - and then let them do their work. We race bikes, you guys (WADA? AFLD? USADA?) make sure we are doing it straight. Period. Of course, WE can help. WE can tell them how we doped, we can give them total honesty to help their work. It takes one to know one, right? But WE cannot be in charge of this. At 8% of every teams’ and every races organizers (yes, they need to help more too) budget, we’d be looking at a pool of $40M annually. Sounds a lot better than the current pool of $4M. Ask any scientific researcher around the world what he is limited by? Funding. Ask any police force what limits them? Funding. How would it be spent? Testing? Science? Investigative efforts? I don’t know. Leave it to the experts how the funding is used. But give them the tools, and never let cycling’s biggest problem be held back by lack of funding. All of the issues you hear about the testing not being good enough, the science is behind, not enough tests...All of that can end. All of the excuses can end. All of the blame game can end. WE just have to stop trying to be the solution and instead step aside and start paying for what WE did. Literally.

Then we (you guys too) all can get back to loving bike racing.


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