Sunday, July 01, 2007

Doping - Is This the Start of the Weeding?

I started this post about when Basso resigned from Discovery. As you know it's something I disagreed with from the start. But I didn't feel things were complete so I waited to post it.

And waited.

Ullrich's DNA.
Basso's reluctant confession of contacting the famous Dr. Fuentes.
Basso's non-admission of "thinking of doping"
T-Mobile's doctors suspended (Andreas Schmid and Lothar Heinrich).
ex-Telekom riders admitting to doping (Udo Bolts, Christian Henn, to add to Brian Holm).
T-Mobile's doctors admitting to helping racers dope.

There were a couple more. I recall Uwe Raab (of the Olaf Ludwig era) quitting Telekom due to their alleged excessive doping practices. But he shut up pretty quickly and I can't find evidence of his accusations online. A second rider, another East German type, quit at about the same time. I read these allegations in either VeloNews (the paper version, not the electronic version) or Winning Magazine, but I can't find evidence to back this up.

The shocker was that the stars of the movie I got for Christmas, Hell on Wheels, Rolf Aldag and Eric Zabel have both admitted to doping. Aldag seems to be a bit more complete, 'fessing up to EPO usage from 1995 to 2002. Zabel might have forgotten a few years as he admits to doping for a week in 1996 - but then again, he time trials "slow", worse than a sick Aldag, in the movie. Perhaps, hopefully, he was telling the truth.

Both riders were model racers. Aldag in particular - he was the head of the rider's association for a while. Zabel was the good boy of racing. While Ullrich was busy getting high or crashing his car into bike stands, Zabel was taking care of himself on the way to a record six green jerseys.

Curiously enough, in 2003 (the year of Hell on Wheels), Aldag is going very well - he goes on a break and earns the right to wear the polka dot jersey for a day. The only rider to beat him that day? Richard Virenque.

His teammates allude to some secret training he'd been doing - they joke about it on the bus, cracking themselves up. Now it seems a little more apparent what that "training" might have been.

Still though, these confessions are a start.

Zabel, Aldag. Henn. Holmes (he wrote a book about his doping).

This whole cascade of Telekom/T-Mobile confessions started when Jef D'Hont's pre-release publicity for his tell-all book hit the media. Suddenly a cascade of riders admitted to doping. There were some significant names in the lime light, two in particular - Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis. They were the leaders of the team during that period, winning their only two Tours ('96 and '97). However, contrary to their teammates, both riders adamantly denied doping.

The soigneur in question D'Hont seems to have been under suspicion himself for quite some time. Back in 1999 this article appeared about some admittedly circumstantial evidence that he helped administer (or at least knew about) some of the doping going on.

Ullrich, a member of the team during that time, has always denied doping and still does, even after 9 bags of blood were traced back to him (the miracle of DNA).

Riis, another member of the team at that time, categorically denied knowing anything back then. He had second thoughts and held a press conference to admit that he used EPO and two other substances (the actual drug types escape me at the moment).

And I thought he was going to announce that he didn't want to talk about the past anymore.

Curiously enough, there are two more riders being investigated. Both shared the Olympic podium with Ullrich, both raced on that team. The racers? Vinokourov and Kloden.

They are now on the beleaguered Astana team, all of them leaving T-Mobile when it came under new management, one strict about its anti-doping policies. Astana recently lost Mattias Kessler to a positive testosterone test (a surprise out of competition test). Another Astana racer, Mazzoleni, has been suspended pending investigation some SMS messages from 2004. He seems to be implicated in a current inquiry, one of super low testosterone levels - a classic sign of masking agents. And now they're accused of training out of their team kits in order to "hide" from the surprise dope controllers.

Talk about some potential fireworks. Vino and Kloden are probably the two top favorites for the Tour after Basso's ignominious ejection from the racing ranks.

The various reactions to doping allegations fascinates me. It's like watching a guy on TV who seems guilty but denies it (non-cycling people comes to mind - the infamous Scott Peterson and the almost-as-infamous Mark Hacking). Both professed full innocence. Then someone offers up proof (DNA, etc). The reactions after that proof are what makes things so interesting.

Similarly, racers caught doping offer various reactions. It's an interesting insight into some of these racers' drive and ethical make up.

Lars Michelson may not have been specifically named by Voet's book "Breaking the Chain", but the book mentions the winner of Ghent-Wevelgem in 1995 and there was only one winner - him. When asked about Voet's doping allegations, he simply says "No comment". Voet himself says that the rider in question was a most frugal and conscientious racer, not flagrantly doping like the others. It seems to make sense that a racer like that might avoid denying anything outright by simply not commenting.

It seems that he really didn't want to lie. So he didn't.

Perhaps guilt ultimately got the best of him - he's never really won a big race since.

It might be something to do with the human conscience. Michelson, to his credit, didn't lie (if Voets was truthful, and it appears no one has disputed that particular bit of the book). And curiously, when an interviewer asked Michaelson about his big win the following year, he alludes to the dope tests. He said, on the videotape of the 1996 Ghent-Wevelgem, that it was hard to celebrate the win right away since "You don't know that you've actually won for a few weeks."

A few weeks?

Let's put it this way. They don't wait a few weeks to post the finish line pictures.

That "few weeks" comment is very curious if he never doped. The race itself was not controversial - the sprint was clear cut and he beat the other guy with him. The only reason he wouldn't have won is if the tests came back positive.

Why would anyone think a test might come back positive? It's only if you dope that you worry. If you blow by a cop with a radar gun at 80 mph, you slow and pray. And you wait that metaphorical "few weeks" to see if you got caught.

If you're not speeding and pass a cop with a radar gun, you think nothing of it. You might glance down at your speedometer but that's about it.

Therefore Michaelson's comment on the "few weeks" he waited to see if he was the winner was telling.

(By the way, the 1996 Ghent Wevelgem is the most amazing race - for 40 km the field is less than 20 seconds behind a super-motived break, eventually catching them with less than 2 km to go. Incredible bike racing, one of my favorite tapes.)

Anyway... There are times when conscience appears illogical. A lot of psychologists can explain better than me but from what I can tell, there's a touch of logic behind each "human conscience" decision.

For example, say someone does something illegal, like doping. He's asked if he did this illegal thing ("Yo, man, did you dope?"). He has two choices:

1. Lie and say no and avoid getting punishment.
("What are you crazy? I'd never dope! Lemme race.")

2. Say yes and get punished for saying so.
("Alright, I admit it. I doped. Here's my race number, I can't race now.")

What will that someone do? It depends on which thing this someone thinks is worse - lying or getting caught.

If the person is more afraid of getting caught than of being called a liar, he'll lie.
("I'd never dope, I could get suspended for doping. Oh, by the way, the plaid pants and striped shirt combo looks really sharp.")

But if this particular person thinks lying is worse than getting caught, the person will tell the truth and get punished.
("I admit I doped. I made the decision and I'll accept whatever punishment you say is appropriate. And dude, you have to lose the plaid pants if you're gonna wear that striped shirt.")

Or this person could simply not answer and avoid lying.
("I don't want to answer your question. And I'm not going to comment on your attire choice either.")

People are motivated by some set of internal "rules". If one of them is to deny ever doing anything wrong, so be it. So when you catch a kid doing something wrong, they'll deny ever knowing about it outright. It's when you ask the kid's parents that suddenly the fear of punishment overwhelms the fear of getting caught doing something wrong.

Later, when the kid grows up, if he is close to his parents, he realizes what a significant role his parents played in his life. That the punishment he was afraid of back in high school was actually there for a good reason. He loves and respects and cherishes his parents. And he doesn't want to hurt them.

I think that's this type of emotion is what motivated a certain racer, an American one, to deny doping. Floyd comes from a very strict family. They seem very conservative. Floyd's mom seems to be one of his most faithful supporters. And, as rebellious as Floyd is, it seems that he is close to his parents.

I'm sure that as soon as the positive news came out, Floyd and his parents talked on the phone. And I'm sure that one of the things his mom asked was, "Floyd, did you use this testosterone stuff?"

And how he answered at that moment would decide years of trials and tribulations.

I'm guessing he said something like, "Mom, I didn't take that stuff."

And that was it.

If he doped and he lied to his mom, I think he won't be able to take that lie back. He'll have to maintain his innocence because that's what his mom believes. I don't think he could put his mom through the embarrassment of being exposed as a believer in a lie.

Likewise, if he didn't dope and said this to his mom, he will never be able to give up his fight for innocence. Because he can't cop to doping if he never did. And therefore he can't put down his will to fight.

Finally, if he did dope but it wasn't testosterone (say he used everything but), then he can tell his mom truthfully that he didn't use testosterone and he has no idea how that test came back positive. Floyd's mom can fly the Floyd flag proudly as all moms would. And Floyd wouldn't have to tell any lies.

Since his mom believes his innocence, Floyd will probably never admit to doping, whether he did so or not.

(Curiously enough, one of the details Riis revealed at his confessional press conference was that his wife and kids knew he was doping and they approved of it.)

With Floyd's mom believing in his innocence though, Floyd will never, can never, give up the fight. Innocent or guilty, that's no longer the point. Floyd has a different motivation for fighting.

And, unfortunately, it'll be like dragging a knife across the sport's abdomen. Nothing really good can come of it.

I compared doping to weeding a particularly weed-ridden bush in my yard last fall. I was really proud of clearing out that bush.

I went out the other day to mow the lawn. To my dismay, the azelea had vines entwined throughout its branches. Vine tendrils extended from the bush out to the road. They appeared to be searching for another host plant, something they could wrap around.

Weeding, unfortunately, is a never ending process. It takes time and energy (and money) to keeps things on the up and up. For cycling's sake, I hope that the weeding continues in pro racing.

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