re: Cycling

It’s been a bad time, for this sport, and no mistake.

Recent events have threatened to overshadow or eclipse the warm glow thrown over the world of cycling by this year’s heroic Tour de France victory by Britain’s Bradley Wiggins, and the keen interest regenerated in the sport by the Games of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

In Case You Forgot…
Lance Armstrong – 7-time winner of the gruelling Tour de France – was stripped of his titles, on the basis of (allegedly?) ‘insurmountable evidence’ in a damning 1,000-page dossier published by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

The report (allegedly?) exposes Armstrong as a serial drug cheat, at the heart of a sophisticated conspiracy involving cyclists and supporting medical staff that hid their actions from the authorities, for at least a decade.

On Wednesday last week, Armstrong was dropped by his largest corporate sponsor, American clothing and footwear company Nike, and forced to step down as chairman of Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded 15 years ago, following his own successful battle against the disease.

The company said it would, however, continue to support the Lance Armstrong Foundation (a.k.a. Livestrong) – though the cancer charity faces an uncertain future, now that its figurehead has fallen from favor.

Nike’s sponsorship of Armstrong has been reported as being worth $7.5 million a year.

Nike’s association with Armstrong dates back to 1996, and the company has a history of remaining loyal to its stars. Remember how they (initially) stuck by Tiger Woods, when he was embroiled in that sex scandal in 2009?

Problem is, Nike had recently signed a deal to supply uniforms and products to members and staff of the International Olympic Committee. Having gained such a foothold in Lausanne, the last thing Nike needed was to be tainted by association with a drug scandal.

Three other companies also announced they would no longer continue their commercial arrangements with Armstrong.

Anheuser-Busch – brewer of Budweiser – announced it would not renew its relationship with Armstrong beyond the end of 2012.

The bike manufacturer Trek revealed its long-term agreement would end with immediate effect.

Another of Armstrong’s main backers, electronics store RadioShack, also said that its relationship with the disgraced cyclist was over.

In addition, Armstrong faces the threat of legal action by American insurance company SCA – who have indicated they will attempt to reclaim a total of around $12 million in bonuses and legal fees, over sums paid to him for his Tour de France victories.

Armstrong took SCA to court in 2005, forcing it to pay up, after it initially withheld the money because of allegations that he had doped. His sworn testimony denying the claims could also leave him facing perjury charges.

Lance Armstrong has been banned from the sport for life, but continues to protest his innocence.

He appears to be running out of believers.

Collateral Damage?
The fallout from the USADA report continued on Wednesday, when Matt White, Armstrong’s former US Postal team-mate (who has confessed to doping), was sacked as a national coach by Cycling Australia.

On Friday 19 October 2012, the Dutch banking group Rabobank announced that it is to pull out of the sport, after 28 years of continuous involvement, saying it is “no longer convinced” professional cycling can be realistically viewed as clean.

Rabobank’s distinctive orange and blue jerseys will disappear from its men’s and women’s professional teams at the end of the year, though the financial support – worth more than £12m a year – will continue for a period.

The 27-strong men’s team (more than half of whom are Dutch), and the women’s squad (led by the 2012 Olympic road race champion Marianne Vos), will not be immediately broken up, but will continue to ride under the “white label” of a new foundation.

In a statement, Bert Bruggink, a member of the bank’s managing board, said: “We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future.”

Should We Be Surprised, Though?
Not really.

I mean, we’ve all known it, for a while now.

That the ‘PED’ in ‘pedal’ stands for Performance-Enhancing Drugs?

That professional cycling has been rife with them, for decades?

The Rabobank announcement came the day after a Spanish Rabobank rider, Carlos Barredo, was suspended for possible doping – though there is no indication the two events are officially linked.

Levi Leipheimer – one of Lance Armstrong’s key Tour de France lieutenants who confessed to doping as part of the Usada investigation – is a former Rabobank rider.

The Usada report named another former rider for the team, Johan Bruyneel (who went on to manage Armstrong), as a key player in the doping conspiracy. Bruyneel says he will fight the charges.

In 2007 Rabobank looked set to gain their only Tour de France win through Michael Rasmussen – who led the race with four stages to go. But the Danish rider was sacked by the team as pressure built over his failure to attend a series of scheduled doping tests.

The Rabobank pullout is a significant setback for professional cycling as it seeks to emerge from the shadow of the Armstrong controversy, and convince the public and other sponsors it is becoming largely drug-free.

It’s a bit of an uphill struggle.

A Checkered History
Cycling played a central role in the explosion of stimulant use in sport after
World War Two.

Of 25 urine samples taken from riders in a 1955 race, five were positive for stimulants.

In the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, Knud Jensen, a 23-year-old Danish cyclist, collapsed during competition and died. Autopsy results revealed the presence of amphetamines in his system.

Tests conducted on Belgian cyclists in 1965 showed that 37 percent of
professionals and 23 percent of amateurs were using amphetamines, while
reports from Italy showed that 46 percent of professional cyclists tested
positive for doping.

During the thirteenth leg of the 1967 Tour de France, English cyclist Tom Simpson, 29, collapsed and died. His autopsy showed high levels of methamphetamine. A vial of the drug had reportedly been found in his pocket at the time of his death.

The impact of Simpson’s death was extensive, not least because his was the first doping death to be televized.

One year later another cyclist,Yves Mottin, died from excessive amphetamine use, two days after winning a race.

Longtime team masseur for professional cycling, Willy Voet, summarized the past forty years of doping in cycling by describing the three drug eras of the sport:

1. amphetamines in the 1960s and 1970s,

2. anabolic steroids and cortisone in the 1980s, and

3. hGH and erythropoietin (EPO).

There is strong speculation that more than a dozen deaths of elite cyclists that took place during the late 1980s were the result of using EPO.

The full extent of doping in the cycling world was exposed to public view in 1998, when Voet was arrested by French customs police for transporting performance-enhancing drugs.

Voet began detailing the use of drugs in cycling, and a large-scale investigation by both French and Italian authorities (as well as by a number of journalists) ensued.

The results of these probes implicated many of the top teams and riders in the sport as part of a highly organized, sophisticated and long-term doping regime.

Just hours before the 2000 Tour de France was to begin, three cyclists failed a mandatory EPO test and were expelled from competition.

Yeah, But, What The Heck Is EPO?

Well, visit this column next time, and I’ll tell you.

Till then.