To say these are intriguing times for professional cycling is to post an early entry for the understatement of the year. Garmin-Cervélo's announcement yesterday that they had sacked their head directeur sportif Matt White came at the end of week which saw Sports Illustrated pile yet more pressure on Lance Armstrong - and at the start of another that would seem somehow incomplete without yet more allegations from Floyd Landis.
It's the White scandal, though, that really grabs the attention. For those who missed it, Garmin chief Jonathan Vaughters sacked the Australian, a respected domestique at US Postal in his riding days, after discovering that White had pointed ex-Garmin rider Trent Lowe in the direction of former US Postal physician Luis Garcia del Moral in April 2009. White claimed that he'd turned to del Moral because, like Lowe, the doctor was based in Valencia. Lowe had been struggling with illness and didn't want to drive all the way to team headquarters in Girona for simple fitness and health tests.
But of course there's much more to this story. Yesterday, Landis, weighed in with an e-mail to the United States Anti-Doping Agency accusing Vaughters of assorted forms of hypocrisy; there was also the revelation that Lowe hadn't been paid for his last month as a Garmin rider - his price for appearing in pictures from the Pegasus team's autumn training camp; then, finally, the claim that Vaughters, who has already warned the nascent GreenEDGE project off his riders and staff, had booted the horse, White, out of the stable door before it could bolt.
It was all getting rather undignified. Save for one thing: here was someone in cycling sticking steadfastly to the rules. Or, in Vaughters' words, to "the standards we have set for ourselves". And while people could and did debate those rules, whether the punishment fitted the crime, or whether Vaughters has always been such a stickler, this alone was refreshing.
As one of the team's riders, Dan Martin, told Cyclingnews today, "It's good that the team show that there's no exceptions and we're showing a hard line, especially with the way the team is growing."
Vaughters' references on Sunday to del Moral's "reputation" had hinted that it was the nature of White's breach as much as the breach itself that left him with no choice. In other words, this wasn't about his rider seeing just any external doctor. Frankly, though, none of that mattered. The simple fact is that almost every problem that exists in professional cycling today stems, ironically, from a lack of professionalism. That is, the same whimsical, woolly attitude that confuses contracts with gentlemen's agreements, preparation with doping, black and white with shades of gray, and rules with optional guidelines.
To put it another way, cycling needs the clarity and intransigence Vaughters showed towards White like never before. It needs someone not to care about reputations, good (like White's as a directeur) or bad (del Moral's), and to focus on the small print. Maybe then the sport can finally wean itself off the feckless, lawless orientation that has become its default setting - a state of near anarchy that, to recycle a quote to which I can't help returning, Armstrong described last year in the following terms: "It is completely ghetto. Everybody looks at the other person and thinks that they're either trying to f**k them over or they're getting f***ed."
Cycling, in short, that could do with a few more bespectacled pedants like Jonathan Vaughters...at least on this weekend's form.
We could also learn a few things from professional golf. No, don't roll your eyes. Or at least before you do, consider the two recent cases of Elliot Saltman and Padraig Harrington. Last week, Saltman, a 28-year-old Scottish journeyman, was banned for three months from the European Tour after his two playing partners in a tournament in Moscow in 2010 reported him to rules officials for what may seem a minor infraction - incorrectly marking his ball on the putting green on at least five occasions. Except that, in golf, infractions don't come in different sizes. All that mattered was that a rule had been broken - and it's worth noting that the people who felt most offended, most cheated, most compelled to seek justice, were Saltman's fellow pros.
Harrington's gaffe was even more trifling. It was also entirely involuntary; after the Irishman marked then replaced his ball on the green, it rolled forward "a distance of around three dimples". Yet Harrington didn't complain when he was kicked out of a tournament he was leading that night, essentially for failing to call the fault at the time (technically, his offence was signing for the wrong score, having not incurred the due two-shot penalty). Instead, he said this: "The rule is there for other and bigger reasons and we love the fact that we have the best game in the world when it comes to the rules. It's an absolute game of honour and even if a player is seen to breach rules and can't be caught out by the officials he would be ostracised and have a very lonely life on the Tour. It gives us the higher ground, let's say."
Maybe, just maybe, it's for precisely that reason that a sport which really ought to be fading in today's exercise and environment-obsessed times was able to offer a $2,000,000 prize-fund for the tournament Harrington was well set to win. Meanwhile, professional cycling, which the zeitgeist really aches to love, but somehow struggles, has endured yet another winter of discontent, standing frozen in a self-created draft of folding teams and swirling controversies.
Perhaps it's no coincidence either that, until this year, Vaughters' team was commonly identified with an argyle pattern some said belonged on the fairways. This weekend's conclusion: if the same people are today making the same remark about his professional ethics, Vaughters knows that he's doing at least one thing right.