Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Doping - Purge?

Recently I had a very short email exchange with someone I honestly don't know very well. He's a long time cyclist, a long time racer, and someone who's involved in the sport, at least at the fringes, at the pro level.

He was wondering out loud if the sponsors of the sport will flee from the doping darkness permeating the sport. Of course, with the recent news, he mentioned the whole T-Mobile pulling out of the sport thing.

Now that in itself is an interesting move (T-Mobile's, not my friend's).

Previous sponsors caught up in major doping scandals have found that, for better or for worse, such enormous scandals work to their favor. After all, we don't talk about "Willy Voet's stop at the border", we talk about the "Festina Affair". Likewise, when people talk about the Floyd fiasco, it's hard not to think about Phonak.

What the heck is a Phonak anyway?

Well, according to Andy Rihs, a lot more people know who Phonak is, in part because of the doping scandals surrounding the team.

Is he upset?

Well, look here. He looks quite happy to me. I'd be "eagerly awaiting" the release of a book if the title included my company's name!

So T-Mobile is pulling out of cycling. So is Adidas. What does this mean?

It means that the two companies ended up in a win-win situation if they followed the course of action, and they would have been in a lose-lose situation if they did not.

Let's look at what would have happened if they stayed the course.

First off, we'd get sick and tired of hearing about T-Mobile stating that it's good that another ex-racer admitted doping, but that "Bob Stapleton is not of that era and we believe in him." They'd sort of gloss over the various details that are bound to come out - financial records, DNA matches, and all sorts of paper trails linking rider after rider to nefarious doctors and clinics. They no longer support that, even though they might have, at some level, in prior years.

This leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. Look, if you heard that there might be some e-coli tainted beef out there, would you go out and order your steak "rare" like normal? No, that would be a bit risky. Hearing "T-Mobile" next to words like "strongly deny" or the weaker "we stand by the team" just doesn't make you feel too good about buying a new T-Mobile phone. Okay, so the phone won't kill you, so it's a bad analogy. But if you were holding T-Mobile phone in one hand and some competitor's in another, and the two phones were virtually identical, you might select the T-Mobile phone because you're a pro-cycling fan.

Anyway, how do you fix that bad taste in your mouth thing? Back on steak, if you then heard that some previously-unknown-to-you beef company recalled some zillion pounds of Angus, well, you'd feel comfortable that, say, in a week, the steak sitting in front of you, still mooing, is not going to kill you.

Similarly, T-Mobile has "recalled" its sponsorship. It's pulling out. They no longer have to have some poor administrative assistant reviewing all the news releases containing the words "doping" and "T-Mobile". If someone calls T-Mobile and asks, "What are you planning on doing in response to the latest allegations by your ex-racer Singing Canary?", the T-Mobile doping damage control person can confidently say, "Well, T-Mobile is completely against doping in sport. It is unethical and we do not condone it. In fact, we have pulled all our cycling sponsorship so our stance cannot be misinterpreted."

The caller would probably say, "Thank you" and hang up. There's no story there. So the caller will say something like "The T-Mobile dope scandal continued today as Messr S Canary and S Pigeon testified today in court about the doping scandal that rocked the cycling world over 5 years ago in 2007".

And for the next 10 or 20 or 50 years, whenever we talk about the "huge doping scandals in bike racing", we'll talk about T-Mobile, Festina, and Phonak.

Well, less of Phonak I think. Not too many people remember the Polka Dot Jersey Rodolfo Massi, racing for Casino (who?), getting kicked out of the Tour while leading the King of the Mountains competition. Those same people probably don't remember a short version of Ivan Drago on that team - one platinum blonde racing machine named Alexander Vinokourov. You know him better as the guy who has such big thighs that they contain two types of blood.

Nor will race pundits harp on TVM or Lampre or Fasso Bortolo or... maybe I should just link to the list of teams around between 1992 or so and now.

In an old issue of VeloNews, probably in the 1991-1992 era, Allan Peiper (of Peugeot, Panasonic, and Tulip fame, and more recently of Davitamon-Lotto and the now defunct T-Mobile squad) was talking about the differences between the stars and the watercarriers. Although he was probably talking about some base level of "ability", I think his example illuminated what was happening in the peloton. Some were charging. Some were not.

At the time heart rate monitors were sort of new so everyone talked about heart rates the way they talk about wattage today. Peiper was riding along in the field, working somewhat intently, his HRM showing 160 or so BPM. A rider who Lemond called Capuccino rode up next to him and asked what Peipers HRM showed. Peiper replied and asked what the Coffee Man had displaying.

98 BPM.

Wow. Apparently he doesn't drink that caffeinated stuff. Or for that matter, he isn't pedaling his bike - when I'm sitting at a light I'm at 98 BPM. I could understand the heart rate difference if I was the one riding in Peiper's place in the Tour. But to have two very strong pros riding at such incredibly different levels? I'll leave it to you to figure that one out. Oh, wait, I don't have to - Chiappucci got caught using EPO and also got kicked off the Italian team with a high hematocrit. His response?

"The mentality of the sport has changed."

Not "I didn't dope". Not "No way no how I never did EPO". Or "Oh me oh my stick a needle in my eye."

I'm getting loopy.

Peiper, in an interview I can't find but it was in a British cycling magazine that interviewed current and retired Austrialian pros, said that he wishes he had doped. He came very close to winning a classic here and there but never got one. He knew others doped and they won. He stayed the high road. But, thinking back on it, he felt that given the chance, he'd dope to get a win or two. It's got to be depressing when you're training and racing and you're in really good form and humming along at 160 something BPM and then another guy rides up and he's literally at the same heart rate as when you first threw your leg over the bike. Think about that for a sec. I thought that interview was very illuminating.

Anyway, back to T-Mobile and their win win situation. Their team's unusual practices might have hurt the individuals themselves - I mean, look at the individual's situations - constantly called to come into court, hounded by the press, rejected by their formerly adoring fans. But T-Mobile will benefit from this for an eternity.

Well, my eternity.

I figure when I die, people will still know of T-Mobile because of doping, even if the company isn't around anymore. So is that a bad thing for T-Mobile?

The guy who exchanged emails with me wondered out loud (in text) if sponsors will flee the cycling market.

I told him I thought not.

I think certain sponsors are committed no matter what happens with the sport. For example, Nike will sponsor stadium sport stars until who knows when, ditto Oakley, ditto AMF or whoever makes basketballs and stuff like that. There are cycling equivalents. Of course Shimano and Campagnolo and SRAM will sponsors teams until there's no more bikes in the world. But what of non-cycling companies? Depending on their market and their home country, I think there are similarly positioned non-cycling specific companies who will stay the course. For example, Rabobank will be there forever - to sponsor a cycling team in Holland is like sponsoring the Bulls in Chicago, it will always, always work. Another sponsor would be...

Hm. I can't think of any more off the top of my head.

That puts us into more troubled waters. In the less cycling oriented countries, I think there will be a big shakeup. The purge I think will occur from within, from the cycling community, not from the sponsors. Yes the sponsors will demand clean cycling, but if racers are so afraid of getting caught that they stop doping, well, then they'll probably stop doping. A long time sponsor has a harder time in front of them (i.e. T-Mobile). A new sponsor will be better off (SlipStream) because there's that "childhood innocence" thing - they haven't been corrupted.

(With the last word unsaid - "Yet".)

A Cat 1 in the NY area was caught recently using some anti-something drug (whenever it's not testosterone or steroids, I figure it's a masking/related drug). He won Masters Nationals (the points race) this year, a month after his positive. Apparently there wasn't testing at Masters Nationals because nothing came up there. With this blemished track record in mind, it would make sense to test at the 2008 Masters Nationals. And if there was testing done then, well, I think not too many people would be blatantly juiced up in 2009. When it stops happening at the lower amateur levels, it'll be easier to stop it at the pro levels. Less places to test, to experiment, to corrupt. And if you have regression testing at an amateur level, well, we have 60,000 racers who have a racing license - there ought to be plenty for labs to practice on in that bunch.

The testing has to be reliable though. I think that it'll be absolutely necessary to have transparent doping procedures, even if that means having 3 labs test a single sample. Data should be shared or certain parameters revealed to the public (hemoglobin, hematocrit, for example) even if the test is negative.

Storing samples for future tests should become a standard thing, especially when taken during a non-competition time. Training camps for example might be a good time for a tester might take three times the normal sample in order to store two of them. Future results (for those cynics like me) should be pretty interesting. If a test for HGH does pop up, I have a feeling a lot of riders would be caught out if subjected to regressive testing.

Speaking of HGH, other things I think ought to be public are head circumferences as well as hand and foot "print volume" - some measure of the size of the hand or foot. These are measurements affected by long term HGH use. Such measurements, if they suddenly increase, should pin point an athlete for sample saving and close testing.

For pro cycling, the question really is whether or not the sponsors will stand for the current behavior. It's clear that they won't. However, it's just as clear that sponsors are interested in clean teams, or at least teams that appear clean.

So, no, there won't be a purge any time soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

98 bpm !?!!
That has to be some sort of metric conversion thingy.

But seriously, wow, good stuff. Um, the blog, not the EPO...