In May last year a UCI report was leaked to the French daily sports newspaper L’Equipe. It was a list of the riders who competed in the 2010 Tour de France, ranking each on suspicion of doping.
Australians Michael Rogers, a triple world time-trial champion, and Matthew Lloyd were placed in a category that contained riders who showed “overwhelming evidence of some kind of doping, due to recurring anomalies, enormous variations in parameters, and even the identification of doping products or methods”.
Pre-race blood tests were compared with each rider’s UCI biological profile, with variations between the two determining the level of suspicion. The UCI was quick to point out there had been no actual detection of illegal substances.
Suddenly though the awful thoughts came. Such is the insidious nature of it all.
Could the stars of the recent golden age of Australian cycling be tainted?
Brad McGee, the first Australian to hold the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours, and the lead-out superman for the Tour’s green jersey winner Baden Cooke.
Robbie McEwen, the three-time green jersey winner who didn’t need a lead-out man.
Stuart O’Grady, yellow jersey holder and winner of the great Paris-Roubaix.
Cadel Evans, the only Australian to win the Tour de France, and deemed by some as the greatest Australian sportsman.
But what if his haunted look on the bike wasn’t the face of a man able to suffer more than others, but the result of ingesting something concocted by a Dr Frankenstein in Cadel’s Swiss château?
You find yourself looking unfairly for their associations with riders, teams, doctors, and directeur sportifs that suggest culpability.
Michael Rogers was at T-Mobile in 2006, you suddenly realise. He was teammates with Jan Ullrich, just before Ulrich was sacked for his involvement in the Operacion Puerto doping scandal, and with others who allegedly attended a clinic for blood transfusions days before the 2006 Tour started.
Ulrich’s involvement has just resulted in a ban and the removal of all results gained since May 2005.
One of our pioneering riders is inextricably linked to the murky past of professional cycling. Neil Stephens, a directeur sportif for GreenEDGE, admitted during the Festina Affair in 1998 that he injected EPO on team orders, believing it was a vitamin supplement.
Previously Stephens had been an impressive domestique for the all conquering ONCE team that was managed by Manolo Saiz, and became a directeur sportif for Saiz’s Liberty-Seguros. Saiz would later be arrested during Operacion Puerto.
Matt White, also a sporting director of GreenEDGE, was on Armstrong’s US Postal team that allegedly engaged in systematic doping. The allegation is according to the admittedly disgraced Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, but also to Armstrong’s most loyal lieutenant (and Evans’ current teammate) George Hincapie.
Last year while working for Garmin-Cervelo as a directeur sportif, White was dismissed for referring Australian rider Trent Lowe to the former US Postal physician Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral. Moral came to prominence in 2000 when he was filmed by journalists dumping syringes and satchels well away from the site of the Tour.
According to Garmin the referral was only for a VO2 test, but contravened the team’s strict anti-doping and medical referral rules.
American cycling fans of course have just lived through the tumults of the Landis and Hamilton affairs only to realise that the worst is yet to come.
Appalled for so long that the French didn’t believe in their cancer survivor hero, and adamant that he had become the greatest Tour rider of all time without illegal assistance, they got a wake-up call when another of their cycling heroes Greg Lemond said he didn’t believe it either.
Lemond, a triple Tour champion and fellow comeback kid, having won two Tours after being shot in a hunting accident, was heard in conversation with Armstrong: “Listen Lance, I know physiology; no amount of training can transform an athlete with a VO2 max of 82 into one with a VO2 Max of 95 and you have ridden faster than I did.”
The claims against Armstrong made by Landis and Hamilton made Americans uneasy, but most comforted themselves with the thought that you can’t trust the word of a proven cheat. But then Armstrong’s closest teammate George Hincapie testified to the (now closed) US federal investigation into doping that he and Armstrong used EPO.
It’s not over: the United States Anti-Doping Agency intends to use the federal findings to continue its own investigations.
Jan Ullrich has now gone down, but Germany’s true heroes Erik Zabel and his devoted domestique Rolf Aldag admitted long ago that they had used EPO.
The brilliant documentary Hell On Wheels followed Zabel and Aldag during the 2003 Tour as the sprinter was dragged up the tortuous mountain climbs by his tough, less talented teammate. It also showed them in exhausted silence as they sat in the team bus or shaved their legs in the hotel bathrooms. It seemed such an awful isolated existence.
During the case against British rider David Millar for EPO use, an account was given of his life as a pro cyclist. “Winning the prologue of the Tour de France made things worse; he had worn the maillot jaune of leadership, his ‘dream’, he said, and when it was all over he was back in his apartment with no friends and just a television for company.”
Despite knowing about the drug use, it doesn’t spoil the wonderful sentiments expressed by Zabel. “I owe so many of my successes to Rolf where he absolutely sacrificed himself and gave everything. That really binds you. You can say: ‘I’ll never forget you for that’, but you can never give it back”.
Making incriminating associations without proof is too easy and therefore unfair. Cycling, however, seems such a closed, tough and relentless world, it’s likely most have taken performance enhancers at some time just to survive.
Even so, if a weeping Cadel ever approaches a microphone with that sad haunted face and squeaks: “George H. gave me EPO!”, I think I’ll die.