This has been an epochal week for cycling – a sport which, despite best efforts, cannot distance itself from the poisonous association with performance-enhancing drugs.
This week marked the conclusion of the investigations into the two most successful cyclists of the recent era: Lance Armstrong (winner of seven Tours de France yellow jerseys and Alberto Contador (a three-time winner).
The circumstances of the cases were very different. The Armstrong case related to fraudulent use of funding via the grants that the U.S federal government provided to Armstrong’s team US Postal.
The alleged fraud was the use of the funds to engage in illegal doping.
As we all know, Armstrong was never found with contraband in his system, despite literally thousands of tests throughout his long career. The case against Armstrong was based on evidence given by certain former teammates and staffers of US Postal who claim to have seen Armstrong use the illegal substances or methods.
I will return to the merits of this case later, but draw for now the distinction with Contador, who during the final stages of his last win at the Tour de France in 2010 was found with small traces of Clenbuturol in his system.
This week the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the appeal lodged by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and the UCI (the world cycling body) relating to this offence.
Thus while the circumstances and even the outcome of the two cases is somewhat different, the impact on cycling will be the same. The headlines will cement the belief in most people that the superhuman efforts we see every European summer are exactly that.
Cycling has had a long association with performance-enhancing drugs. During last year’s Tour de France, SBS aired a fascinating documentary about the life and death of Tom Simpson, Britain’s first road cyclist to wear the yellow jersey, and a famous rogue.
Simpson won the 1965 Road Race World Championship and several Classics before dying in the 13th Stage of the 1967 Tour de France from exhaustion. In the post mortem, he was found to have both amphetamine and alcohol in his system.
In that same documentary it was claimed to be common for the domestiques (in the pre-professional era) to stop on the side of the road to try to find sustenance from the roadside shop keepers, who often provided them with alcohol. This seems ridiculous now, but at the time a lot less was known about hydration, and the riders simply knew that it dulled the pain of riding up steep gradients for hours on end.
I need not name the raft of high-profile riders who have been done for drugs in the last fifteen years, save three: Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Alexander Vinokourov. These three are of special interest because two rode for Armstrong in his prime; all three have links to Dr Michele Ferrari (the disgraced doctor who looked after the US Postal team for a period) and all three have been found guilty of doping offences.
Furthermore, Hamilton and Landis now claim that Armstrong also cheated.
The primary purpose of the recently aborted U.S Federal Investigation was to get to the bottom of these fresh allegations made by former Armstrong team-mates and friends. No reason was proffered by the U.S Federal Attorney for dropping the investigation; it could have been lack of evidence but most have speculated that it was a financial decision.
Whatever the case, Armstrong’s legacy and cycling’s reputation do not benefit from the resulting ambiguity.
While Armstrong cannot be guilty by association, the associations certainly raise doubts. As of this week we probably have to accept the fact that we will simply never know. Nor will we know whether the minute traces of Clenbuturol found in Contador’s system did come from contaminated meat as he claims.
What is clear is that cycling’s image crisis continues.
Some say it is an inevitable by-product of such a physically gruelling endurance sport where the athletes are pushed to their physical limits, but that does not wash when we compare it to marathon running and Iron Man, sports which have not suffered from as many high profile doping cases.