Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
Regeneration. In ‘biology’, says Wikipedia, “regeneration is the process of renewal, restoration, and growth that makes genomes, cells, organs, organisms, and ecosystems resilient to natural fluctuations or events that cause disturbance or damage.”
I’d like to extend this definition to the world of professional cycling and to the body that governs it, for is not the pro peloton an living, breathing organism? And the UCI akin to an ecosystem?
The only kink in what would be an otherwise smooth adaptation of Wikipedia’s biological theme of regeneration lies in the fact that cycling has been pretty non-resilient to unnatural fluctuations, given that it has been allowed for so long to fester and rot under the assault of very high-tech, manmade substances.
But still, as spring rolls around and the world of pro cycling is undergoing several changes itself, it’s worth hanging on to this theme (however lame it may turn out to be) for the moment.
The news of two retirements this week, that of Italian Marco Pinotti and American Dave Zabriskie, reminded us that riders of a certain generation, that of the Armstrong era and just after, will all more or less soon be hanging up their helmets to head off to pastures new.
This was the generation that buckled and swayed under the weight of sophisticated and institutionalised doping.
Most, it has now been proven, cracked completely and gave themselves over to a world of hotel room hook-ups and test dodging.
Pinotti was one who, if we are to believe him, did not crack. After a year of injury and a disappointing Tour de France in 2004, he almost gave up the sport, but then decided to re-prioritise his goals to discover the determination to continue.
“I found a reason to go on and do more, which was to show younger pros that a rider can race and win within the rules,” he said in an interview with CycleSport back when he was with HTC.
“The connection between being a good athlete and being completely against using banned drugs is enormous.
“Put simply, using banned substances is the shortest way to achieving what you want at a higher level. The only problem is, apart from being an excuse not to train and being illegal, it takes away the value of everything you succeed in doing.
“The problem all these people have is that even after having a great career, they can’t stop doping. That’s what happened to Danilo Di Luca. They end up believing it’s necessary, part of their job. They’re addicts.
“So please don’t give me that line about just because they used amphetamines in the 1960s it was different.
“If that generation of cyclists were racing today and they had access to the same sorts of drugs that we have today, they would have used them without doubt. The moral issues remain the same.”
Pinotti, quite obviously, was a man in the minority during his career. More usual were the likes of Jan Ulrich, who is now refusing to hand back his Olympic medals.
His line of defence? Heck, ‘everyone’ was doing it.
“I do not really understand why we attach so much importance to things that belong to the past,” said Ullrich.
“These medals belong to me. Anyone who wants to see them can come to my house.
“This story is fifteen years old, we would do better to look forward.
“Almost everyone at the time was taking performance-enhancing substances. I didn’t take anything that was not taken by the others. It would only have been cheating for me if I had gotten an advantage which was not the case.
“I just wanted to ensure I had an equal opportunity.”
An ‘equal opportunity’. A curious phrase. Like a member of an ethnic minority that has been discriminated against in the workplace, Jan and his co-conspirators were merely standing up for their rights.
Power to the shaven-legged drug cheats, Jan!
Then we have Zabriskie, another intriguing character.
Zabriskie had vowed never to take drugs after the early death of his own father, whose life was shortened due to drug addiction.
However, once in the pro world that changed one fateful day when he allowed himself to be injected with EPO.
“I [had] never used drugs and never intended to,” said Zabriskie in his sworn statement to USADA during the Armstrong investigation.
“I questioned, I resisted, but in the end, I felt cornered and succumbed to the pressure.”
How long exactly did Zabriskie dope, and what races did it make a difference in?
We will never know, much as is the case with his former teammate Levi Leipheimer, who also admitted to doping but then claimed that the last five years of his career were clean, doing a very good impression of a politician juggling a hot potato in the process.
Unlike with Leipheimer, whom I believe has no genuine feelings of regret, I can sympathise with Zabriskie even though, ultimately, the result is the same.
However it is also important to recognise the massive and hugely damaging role played in the pro cycling world from the 1990s by two men in particular, Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid.
Had they been doing the job that, to use the same word Pinotti used, ‘morally’ was the right job to do, perhaps the environment that crushed Zabriskie’s determination to ride clean would never have existed in the first place – or at least in a much more diluted and concentrated form.
Back to regeneration. McQuaid is out and Brian Cookson is in.
I’ve read what Cookson says he will do and like many cyclists and fans I am cautiously optimistic. However, it was an interview I latched on to after it had begun during the coverage of the recent men’s Worlds road race that left me thinking there may be hope yet.
Not knowing who the interviewee was as I came back to the TV set with a cup of coffee, I heard a gruff northern English voice talking about women’s cycling.
So impassioned was the speaker and so forthright when talking about what had to be done to develop that woefully neglected women’s side of things that I presumed he was a women’s team coach.
When the interview ended and the commentator thanked Brian Cookson for his thoughts, I was very pleasantly surprised.
Now, if he can put his money where his mouth is and truly deliver to women’s cycling what is so desperately needs, and to the battle against the old attitudes towards doping, we may have a shot at finally getting somewhere.
Finally, another ray of hope. I went for a ride on Saturday with a rider who was recently crowned U23 champion of his nation, one who will be in a World Tour team next season as a neo-pro.
As we rode, we eventually got around to the subject of how clean the peloton was. This young man spoke of how he rode because he loved to ride, how winning was fantastic but it was, essentially, the cherry on the icing.
His mature and reasoned outlook had me not fearing for him but actually hoping, hoping that there are more like him out there, that he is not alone or in the minority.
Of course, you could say that they all started out like that and look what happened, they ‘all’ doped. But then remember Pinotti. A member of the Old Guard who did it the right way.
‘Out with the old’ means we should not look on all those riders of the recent era with scorn, but it does mean that it is time to banish the archaic attitudes that allowed the problem of doping to so dominate the sport we love.
And what of hope? Foolish? Idiotic? Stupid? Not at all. It is, after all, the reason human beings keep on going through all life has to throw at them, and without it we are nothing more than shadows of our better selves.
With McQuaid finally out and with new riders like this one I met on the weekend coming in, and with former pros like Pinotti around to mentor the peloton (he should be offered a job on a top team immediately, in my opinion), perhaps we’ve reason to hope.
It’s time, finally, for regeneration.