Cape Epic bans two riders for life: Is this the way forward?

Lee Rodgers Columnist

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What do we do with these guys huh? They come along to a race, doped up, get busted, go away for two years or even less.

Then at the end of their suspension, they swan along again and slot right back in to the groove of things, taking part in the very event that they got caught doping in in the first place.

Numerous top-level pros and not-so top-level pros have done this before, and yet the organisers of these races often feel powerless (if they care at all) to prevent the ‘reformed’ doper from returning to the very event that their selfish actions tainted.

In other cases, event organisers know that an athlete has tested positive in the past and that their participation will serve to antagonise some of the other participants.

Yet again, they have no precedent to fall back on of these guys being denied entry, and lack the nuts to be the first to make a stand.

In other cases, the organisers themselves actually suspect that these ex-dopers are still doping, and still feel powerless to do anything, as they know that testing is hit and miss and that, despite a rider putting in truly incredible – not credible – performances, they probably won’t get caught.

And so they pass the buck, let the guy in, then cry bloody murder when he gets busted.

Michele Acquarone, formerly director of the Giro d’Italia, said as much about the performances of Danilo di Luca in the 2013 race.

Claiming at the time that Di Luca had an addiction problem, after he tested positive for EPO, Acquarone said “I’m angry because I think: ‘How can a rider or a person of his age be so stupid and not understand that the music has changed and not understand the damage he’s doing to himself and the whole movement.”

At that time, Giro d’Italia technical director Mauro Vegni refuted the suggestion that RSC Sport should have been suspicious of Di Luca’s performances after his successful but very late comeback to racing.

“It’s not up to us to evaluate a rider’s performances. I think it’s up to the team, not the organisers,” Vegni said.

“He’s got a licence from the international federation and so that’s OK for us. He undergoes all the controls, like all the riders. He got caught by one of them. I don’t see why we should evaluate his performances.”

But is that attitude really good enough? Remember, these are the same organisers who watched Maurio Santambrogio enter their race then get busted for EPO too.
Acquarone’s reaction?

“Of course I’m not happy, but I’m not even surprised,” Acquarone said. “We all knew.”

What an incredible statement: ‘we all knew.’ And yet, he still entered the race. As Vegni argued at the time, should the onus be 100 per cent on the teams, the cycling federation and the UCI to hunt down the dope cheats?

I’d say yes. But, do race organisers bear some responsibility in all this too? Again, yes. I’ve done enough races where guys come straight back from suspensions and smash the field apart just as they did when doping.

I’ve also known organisers to allow guys to ride without a word even though, privately, they suspect that these guys are doping.

It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?

One race has finally come through though with a policy that could and should mark the beginning or race organisers beginning to pick up the slack and to make statements where dopers are concerned.

Six days ago, the organiser of the Cape Epic MTB race announced that two riders had been banned for life from ever taking part in the event again.

One rider was already provisionally suspended by the South Africa Institute for a Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS) and the other was suspended for three months for returning an “adverse analytical finding in an in-competition test” in May, 2013.

Neither are professionals. It is worth noting here that amateur riders still receive cash and other prizes, can get sponsored bikes and equipment on the back of good results and attain social stature too, all of which have a value.

“I don’t care whether a rider has been banned for three months or three years, if you cheat then we don’t have time for you – even if you are not earning a living from cycling, as is the case with these riders,” said Cape Epic founder Kevin Vermaak. “This is a new era in cycling, things are changing and I don’t want to entertain anybody who still feels the need to dope.”

Unfortunately, the ban will not be applied retroactively pre-December 2012 (when the organisers made the statement regarding the life-time bans) as they felt to do so would be ‘naïve’.

“We’ve chosen not to apply this retrospectively because we believe that would be naive. Cycling has a dark past. Many riders from this previous era have rediscovered the joy of cycling as mountain bikers and participate in the Absa Cape Epic as their expression of riding clean.

‘Previous offenders, who have served their suspension term, may ride future Absa Cape Epics. We want to be part of the new era of cleaner cycling, and therefore only future offenders will receive the lifetime bans.’

Personally I think that is a cop out, and the fact that guys like Floyd Landis could sign up and ride serves to make my point. Yet still, this is a move that other events should take note of.

This is an example of organisers taking matters into their own hands and setting out their stall. They out in massive efforts to get people to ride and they have every right to call the shots. As a result of a policy such as this, more people will be drawn to participate and its reputation will only benefit.

Worth stating clearly is that the Cape Epic decision is one of zero tolerance. So, no second strikes. One strike and done, you’re out.

Is that fair? Again, it’s a tough one, but more and more I am starting to think that, unless the UCI comes up with a better proposal, then the race organisers worldwide should sit down and make that decision themselves.

Lee Rodgers is an independent pro rider riding for the Crank Punk Coaching Systems-Lapierre Cycling Project, and is a freelance journalist.
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