The president of the International Cycling Union (UCI) Pat McQuaid, and Cofidis team manager Eric Boyer have long been at odds over the ProTour, but today agreed on something: strengthening the fight against doping in cycling.
One pillar of the sports authorities' quest for a cleaner competition is anti-doping testing, others are the disciplinary proceedings ending in suspensions. Recently, the call for longer bans - even for first-time doping offenses - has become louder.
"I support very much the idea of a four-year ban for first offenders, in the case of a very serious doping case," UCI president Pat McQuaid told Cyclingnews at the start of the Tour de France in Rotterdam. "This would make it much harder for a rider to come back."
Referring back to the Code of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), McQuaid said that cycling had to work within this framework, and that four-year bans were possible "depending on the gravity of the doping. In case of a first offense, the minimum ban is two years, but it can be up to four years. Life bans are being handed out only in the case of a second offense. We follow that procedure."
Indeed, the revised Code of 2007 allows a first-time offense suspension of up to four years, but this ban has not been handed out yet in cycling even though severe cases of doping have happened. Under the Code, the "aggravating circumstances" resulting in four-year bans include violations as part of a doping plan or scheme, as well as the use of multiple substances or multiple uses as such.
Cofidis team manager Eric Boyer, once president of the International Association of Professional Cycling Groups (AIGCP), would like to see tougher measures taken. "At the moment, the standard ban given for first offenses is two years. I think this should be raised to four years automatically, or for life, depending on the gravity of the doping. We need to step the fight against doping up one level," he told Cyclingnews at the start of stage four in Cambrai.
To Boyer, who admitted that he had also taken performance-enhancing substances during his professional career in the late 1980s and early 90s, cases involving blood transfusions, EPO, anabolic steroids, testosterone or human growth hormone "should get a greater sanction. It may be very severe, but I think we have to be severe at this point. Four years is long but depending on the age of the rider, a return to the sport remains possible."
To pro rider Linus Gerdemann from the Milram team, two-year suspensions are not effective enough. "In doping cases that are determined without doubt - EPO for example - sports authorities should think about a longer ban than two years," he said. "I think a longer ban for first offenders could have a greater deterring effect."
Still, the German warned that not all doping cases should be treated alike. "I think the bans should not be extended in doubtful cases, when it hasn't been established to 100 percent that the rider took the substance knowingly and willingly, with the aim to boost his performance," he said. "There are doping cases that involve substances that were included in nutrition supplements or the like, where it's more an unfortunate event than anything else."
What happened to the Code of Ethics?
Another measure that was aimed to clean up the sport was the Code of Ethics, agreed upon by the AIGCP in 2004. According to this agreement, suspended riders would blacklisted from riding for a ProTour team for four years - a rule that was never respected. "This code of conduct still exists, and it is signed and validated within the AIGCP," said Boyer on the day the news came out that Andrej Kashechkin had been signed by Lampre for the rest of this season.
"The team directors signed the agreement several years ago and said they would apply it, but they never did. This means that these people would like to make the public think that they are fighting against doping, but the fact is they don't."
Other teams that have signed returning riders as soon as their two-year suspension ended are Liquigas, Caisse d'Epargne and Astana.
Gerdemann also thought that doping offenders were allowed to come back to the sport a little too easily. "I feel that those riders who got caught more recently come back pretty fast. Two years just seem to fly by, and then you have to race against them again," he said.
"I think there are people that are able to change. But all in all, cycling has to implement harder sanctions against dopers. Those who still haven't understood now [that doping has to stop] - it is doubtful whether they are able to be part of that process in the future."
The next review of the WADA Code, applicable to all sports, will start in 2012, with the fourth World Conference on Doping in Sport being held at the end of 2013.