A brave move from Jesus Ezquerra during the Vuelta a Espana.
We had a decision to make. The 2013 winner of the Taiwan KOM Challenge had arrived on the start line of the race fresh from a doping suspension, causing heated debate on internet as to the validity of his victory.
The integrity of the event that we had been working hard on for so many months was suddenly unraveling before we even had the satisfaction of wiping our brows and putting the kettle on for a well earned cuppa.
The 2012 winner of the event, John Ebsen, came fourth that year and immediately suggested afterwards that the race needed doping controls to be able to claim that its results were legitimate. I know Ebsen and this venting was not merely the product of sour grapes, for he had raced with a bronchial infection and knew he wouldn’t win.
Rather, it came from a sense of this just not being right.
Ebsen was not happy, and in truth, as Director of International Communications for the race, neither was I.
Yet we had done nothing wrong – according to the letter of the law – in accepting entries from riders with records of previous doping violations. The 2013 winner, Rahim Emami, had been busted for a positive for Clenbuterol in 2011 and had indeed served the full stretch of the two years that the UCI had handed to him.
He wanted to race, we had no rule in place stating that he could not, he was officially cleared to do so by the highest body in cycling, and so, he raced.
The Iranian team he raced for previously had quite a rap sheet when it came to doping.
Shane Stokes noted in his excellent article on the Iranian domination of professional cycling in Asia that there were plenty of examples of riders getting popped.
“Mirsamad Pourseyedigolakhour (of Tabriz Petrochemical) [received a] two-year ban for EPO, fueling concerns.
“Another Tabriz Petrochemical rider, Hossein Askari, tested positive for methylhexaneamine in the 2013 Tour of Singkarak, where he had taken stage one and led the race for two days. He received a one-year suspension and was eligible to return to competition on June 2.
“The performances of some of those in this year’s Tour of Singkarak also contain a footnote for past positives; Mehrabani Azar received a two-year ban for Metenolone in 2011, while Emami incurred a similar suspension in 2011 for Clenbuterol use.
“A number of other riders from the country have also been busted in the past, increasing suspicion.”
The row that followed Emami’s win here and the depth of feeling that this unleashed showed that a majority of cycling fans in Taiwan and in the rest of Asia, as well as many from the rest of the world, were not particularly happy to see former banned riders return from suspension to win.
It happens at the very top of the sport too of course, and several high level riders have served their time and then come back to re-establish themselves as winners. Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador and Alexandre Vinokourov are perhaps the top three examples of this.
However, we felt that something had to be done to reply to the disquiet felt by many fans to Emami’s win. We felt that things had come to the point where we had the right to write our own rules not just in regards to feed zones and the positioning of race numbers on jerseys, but also of the regulations our race would enact with regards to doping.
There was another reason to reevaluate our current rulebook. An injection of finances from our backers had seen the men’s overall prize rise from a few thousand to $US38,000, with over $US85,000 available overall.
Immediately we decided that we had to bring in doping tests for the top riders. However, we also had to sit down to look at what else we could do.
A few months before we began this process, I had read that the Cape Epic had introduced a ruling that would ban from ever entering the race “anybody found guilty of an offence committed after January 1, 2013.”
This was, in effect, a zero tolerance policy. It was brave and it was a fresh step, for no other race, to my knowledge, had ever adopted such a policy.
However, why not go one step further and decline entry from any rider who had previously been suspended for doping?
As studies have shown, the use of steroids for even a short period can have an effect that can last a decade. Studies have not yet shown whether the same is true of blood doping or of EPO use, but one would suspect that the benefit from training harder and longer while using either or both would also last longer than the current two-year ban an athlete receives if busted.
In light of this, we decided that we would move forward and insert a rule that denies entry to the Taiwan KOM Challenge for any rider who has ever been suspended for doping, in an event anywhere, ever. We also left an open-ended clause in that would allow us to decline entry to any rider at our discretion, permitting us to turn away riders who might put at risk the reputation of the event as a whole. The decision to turn such riders away would, we decided, have to come from a committee and not one individual.
We are, as far as we know, the only event in the world to have this rule.
I have spoken this week to another race organiser from Canada who informed me that the board of his race were looking to implement a similar rule but felt hesitant because they could find no precedent.
We are discussing how we can work together on this and how any potential union might encourage other races to join us.
Some might say it is unfair to have such a rule as this amounts to a lifetime ban for formerly suspended riders in our race. And the answer is that, well yes, it does. That was our intention.
However, there are thousands of other races that these guys can do. Unless, of course, all those other races too decide to implement a similar regulation.
Personally I feel that the UCI should allow the organisers of the races that make up the World Tour to ban any ride that has doped at one of their events. After all, why should an organiser have to accept back on its route a rider whose doping has brought a stain upon his or her event?
Riders around the world often mumble and grumble about once-banned guys coming back to race in events that they turn up to, but there seems to be a lack of cohesion in any attempt to band together to use their collective power.
This is another reason we have done what we have done. We too are racers. We believe in the pursuit of a clean sport and we are in a position to do something about it.
Already our policy is bearing fruit. At least three ex-dopers who have ridden the Taiwan KOM Challenge before were politely informed of our new policy and, more encouragingly, some of the favourites for the race that will be held this Saturday, November the 15th, have said that the new rule played a large part in their decision to come here.
We expect what the people paying to come to our event expect. A fair race and a clean race and a legitimate victory by a legitimate rider.
Why would anyone expect anything less?