This spring has been a joy so far. The weather has been fantastic, time has been spent pottering in the garden and the last three weeks have seen some of the best spring Classics I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever (I’ll agree, my direct viewing has been limited to more recent years but go with me on this). Therefore I was looking forward to yesterday’s Amstel Gold and the switch from cobbles to Ardennes, so much so that I was forgoing Stoke City’s march to the FA Cup final as a trade with MrsAB (I sneaked snatches of the latter via a combination of Twitter and radio). In the words of Allo Allo’s Captain Alberto Bertorelli, what a mistake-a to make-a! The racing was mundane, the parcourse though hilly was challenging more for its obtrusive road furniture than its attrition (perhaps a lesson to consider in any form of road calming?) and it was only saved marginally by a win from Phillipe Gilbert, a gutsy, attacking rider who I have grown to appreciate more and more. Unfortunately though, the thing that soured it for me most was a brief outburst by David Harmon during his Eurosport commentary. Even more unfortunately it involves doping in cycling.
Doping isn’t a subject that I am expert in but, like very other cyclist and cycling fan out there, I have my own opinions on it. I’m not going to use this post to accuse, castigate or praise any one rider in particular for their denial, doping, suspension, return or rehabilitation in the sport. There are enough of those opinion pieces out there and I really haven’t the energy or inclination to add to them. Yet that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a more serious debate to be had about how the doping issue evolves and so this piece is my first forray into that wider debate. To say I have apprehensions about writing it would be a slight understatement but once again I’m hoping I can put forward a couple of points in a constructive way. Therefore I reiterate this is not a personal attack or slight on any one person but a comment on the situation we are in.
So returning to matters from yesterday afternoon, Harmon was responding to correspondence about success and form in Amstel of recent years and their presence in today’s race: Frank Schleck, Vinokourov, Di Luca, Schumacher, Cunego, Ivanov, Gilbert. So far so good. Then, in referring to form at this race he lands the incendiary line: “I’m not even going to include Schumacher”. What does this mean? For those unaware, Stefan Schumacher was found positive 3 times for CERA-EPO in 2008 and subsequently banned for 2 years and had previously been caught by the police and tested positive for amphetamines though was never suspended from cycling. Schumacher served his time (perhaps a little unrepentantly some might say) and is now back in the sport racing for the Miche Continental Team, a third division outfit. Harmon’s line prompted me to tweet him: “if you’re not going to count Stefan Schumacher why include Di Luca? Both have done the crime, both done the time. Difference?”. Condorbee replied to us both about not including Vinokourov and I can only imagine others were wading in prompting David to give a stern response – stop the tweets and emails, we know his views on the ex-dopers and he now has a job to do commentating. And that’s the slight issue I had this afternoon. If commentating is to be an impartial activity as David is implying then that requires a balanced and consistent approach to your treatment of the subject. By deciding to exclude one ex-doper but feel it necessary or obligatory to include others starts to bend if not wildly cross these boundaries. It was not as impartial as it should be.
This post is in no way a wild swipe at David Harmon and nor am I singling himn out alone but is an opportune example of a difficulty the sport faces in discussing doping matters. David is a great commentator making the sport accessible to the novice and the expert. More importantly he commentates live and does so whilst offering an opportunity to interact with the audience in an open way. When I have had a tweet mentioned in the past it does make you feel part of the event somehow. Therefore, I would like to think the initial comment of Harmon’s was one of those moment of live television where thoughts emerge and might not necessarily come across 100%. Equally his reaction is understandable given what I could imagine to be an onslaught of the cycling Twitterati (I wasn’t referred to as naught-to-nuclear without good reason a couple of years ago). We are only human.
What it does highlight is the uncomfortable relationship we all have in this sport around the thorny issue of doping. What I am adding now is the views from the roadside of an increasingly confused and, though loathed to admit after recent progress, cynical cycling fan. What do we do about and with dopers. Whilst the cycling press would like to think that it is merely reporting on the happenings, there is a dangerous undercurrent which affects they way we view this issue. It is one that was put across extremely well by Festinagirl in the last Real Peloton podcast which I would urge you all to listen to. Her point is that whilst the press think they adopt an objective position, much of the time they are subjective and often just in the way they refer to the subject of cases by first or family name. Furthermore, she notes the close relationship between some journalists and riders which can affect the way we view them – the example she gives is that between Messrs Liggett and Sherwen and Lance Armstrong. As a fan on the roadside, sat at home in front of TV coverage or reading the reports later on, we are reliant on the content of this reportage to help us shape our opinions of riders. This afternoon I was trying to highlight this via Twitter. The lapse by the commentators allowed doubt and more doubt to creep in. That’s why the balance and consistency is important.
Yet this speculation, praise and veil accusation is all fuelled by the murkier world of doping regulation. I can just about remember when a dope test was done, analysed and announced all in the same afternoon. Of course, the doping products and procedures in those days were far less sophisticated, over the counter remedies being the mainstay, so I’m reliably told. Though the penalties now look like a slap on the wrists, at least the matter was dealt with in real-time. Rather like sagas in Aussie soap Neighbours that turned from days in the 1980s to weeks by the 2000s, doping procedures seem to more and more protracted increasing the uncertainty not just for those immediately involved in the sport but for the innocent bystanders too (i.e all of us “viewers”). The latest high-profile case with Alberto Contador is merely the tip of the iceberg. Whilst justice must be seen to work correctly (though the aforementioned latest case does question this if you get the PM involved) surely there is a need for greater speed in proceedings too. If the decision is between doping and not doping, the rules about your body as a temple set and the evidence needed to proceed is already collected why such a long time to sort out who won, for example, last year’s Tour de France. You can come up with all the arguments you like but evidence is evidence, it’s not as if you need an alibi to prove you were somewhere else. The facts should speak for themselves, just ask George Monbiot.
Which leads me to the third issue, the one which encompasses us all as fans, competitors, sponsors, administrators and managers – if a rider does the crime and then does the time do we accept him back with open arms? Looking at this from the spectators perspective this al seems to be very dependant upon who you are. Let’s look at yesterday’s race and the names which seemed to cause offence: Schumacher, Di Luca, Vinokourov. Of these three, 2 were in yesterday’s race having secured rides with ProTeams. The other, as I’ve already mentioned has resurrected a career of sorts with a much lower division team. Why the difference? I really don’t know though could hazard a few guesses based on a few criteria and limited evidence. So this is the offical response to dopers by employers. But it doesn’t stop there. What does the average fan think. Given the Twitter traffic ex-dopers can be given both support and short-shrift. For example, Di Luca and Vinokourov continue to divide opinion, but so does a rider like David Millar. Here is my own personal take and opinion on this triumverate as an example. Whilst they have all spent their time out of the sport for me my acceptance of Millar is based on his contrition and the commitment he puts into a cleaner sport. The fact Vinokourov ‘retired’ after his positive whilst proclaiming is innocence only to return and Di Luca has received a lenient sentence for co-operating with authorities though without naming any names has always riled me. The basis of any justice system is that if those found guilty take their punishment they are entitled to start a fresh, in theory. In practice we know it is very different and, yes, I am a hypocrite for putting all of this in one paragraph but then that’s the confusion this whole mess creates. For example, where once there was agreement between teams about post-suspension employment (an extended ban in all but name), now there is merely an open market and conjecture. As someone yesterday suggested on Twitter, there appears to be a class system operating for ex-dopers. Another case of sport mirroring life? It doesn’t really help the spectator.
Rather like my previous comments about the stand-offs between teams and administrators, those of us on the sidelines are affected as much as anyone else but without a thought. In terms of doping there obviously needs to be action to speed up the process and to set in place a clearer procedure for any return to the sport. Even the punishments need reconsideration, though let’s not start here or I’ll be over 2,000 words and climbing. If professional commentators find it hard then spare a thought for those of us who view this in our spare time and try explaining it to our friends without fuller information. That is why we tweet and email and though I acknowledge it can be annoying it deserves fuller discussion.
And just to keep the musical themes of most of my posts going, the situation we’re in reminds me of this:
A street kid gets arrested, gonna do some time
He got out three years from now just to commit more crime
A businessman is caught with 24 kilos
He’s out on bail and out of jail
And that’s the way it goes
If cycling is like a line from a Grandmaster Flash song the only hope that fans have is that the next season is commissioned by HBO, though given the nature of these productions I don’t want to be the innocent bystander.