Thursday, July 24, 2008

Way to go Tour of Germany

I recently read that the organizers of the Tour of Germany have told Saunier Duval they are no longer welcome. Good for them. Even though I'm pretty sure that the Tour of Germany occurs just so Jens Voigt can win a stage race each year, it's still an admirable move.

Zero tolerance to doping needs to be the standard. Rather than voluntarily withdrawing after a positive test, as the Saunier Duval team did following Ricco's ring of the dope-o-meter, the entire team should be kicked out on every positive. If the team pulls a rider on suspicion, as Rabobank did last year with Rasmussen, they should be allowed to stay. But only if they act before the positive occurs.

There's no way a rider can do something suspicious without teammates or staff catching on, so having them police each other rather than turning a blind eye would only help crack down on the problem. As exciting as it's been to watch John-Lee Augustyn and Vincenzo Nibali in this year's tour, neither should be there because Barloworld and Liquigas should have been shown the exit along with their doping riders.

I've mentioned before how fishy it seems that Amgen, a manufacturer of synthetic EPO, sponsors the Tour of California. I can't imagine why they'd do that unless they had a business interest in cycling. Moreover, I can't see how the event organizers can in good conscience take their money. It's a far cry from Roche, another maker of synthetic EPO, cooperating with the WADA to enable them to detect what I'm sure Ricco thought was an undetectable EPO product. I really don't see why Amgen, Johnson & Johnson, and everyone else who makes synthetic EPO aren't also adding a molecule to their product to make its detection simple and consistent.

The standard test for synthetic EPO is wrong more often than it's right, in favor of the cheaters, which I'm sure is how Ricco managed to convince the UCI his hematocrit was naturally above the UCI threshold. This prodigy with a high hematocrit was such a sensation that his team touted his blood composition in his online bio, though it was taken down hastily once the fraud was revealed.

As much as I'd like to see doping removed from cycling and every other sport, the last thing I want to see is a witch hunt. Johnny Schleck, father of Frank and Andy, had his car searched earlier today in the Grenoble area. I have no idea what the French equivalent of the fourth amendment is, or if there even is one. Nor do I know if, under French law, being the father of two pro cyclists satisfies the burden for probable cause to make a traffic stop and search the vehicle. If I were Johnny and had been searched for no reason beyond who my kids were, I'd be upset. At the same time, if my kids were riding clean but losing races to guys like Ricco, I'd be even more angry. For all I know, he voluntarily let them search the car to make a point.

I do believe that athletes in competition forfeit some of their civil liberties in order to ensure fair play, but where to draw the line is a difficult decision to make. For a long time, the fact that neither the USADA nor the WADA had ever thrown out a doping conviction led me to believe that something was afoul with the system. I'm moving more and more to the opinion that they never overturned a decision because there was never a basis for it, but there were dozens more cases they couldn't prosecute because the dopers were more sophisticated than the controls.

Indeed, as much as Lance Armstrong is still revered as a hero by so many in the American cycling community and the public at large, and as much as I admire his efforts to fight cancer, I simply can't get myself to believe that he raced clean. The evidence in From Lance to Landis is pretty damning, with in-depth personal accounts from people who have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by speaking out. But perhaps the most convincing evidence is that neither Jan Ulrich, the most talented cyclist of this generation, nor Ivan Basso could ever beat Lance. And both were doping. Sure Lance is a great talent, but to beat a doped Jan Ulrich requires something more than that.

All the talk of doping in cycling suggests that it's the sport with the biggest problem. Frankly, I think that's a bigger load of bull than Ricco's naturally high hematocrit. Cycling does a lot about addressing the doping problem. Meanwhile, the big three American sports ignore it almost completely. Sure they have testing and bans and things like that, but does anyone really believe that someone can be six foot six, 300 pounds, and run a 4.6 40 without performance enhancers? Look at American football and basketball players from 40 years ago and compare them to today. There's a lot more to the difference than weight training and better nutrition. Those two things will only get you so far. I'm sure football (soccer) players are also doping, but that's a sport like golf where skill is the first priority. Doping can help your stamina or speed, but I don't think there's a pill you can take to make you do this.

Other than the doping positives, it really has been a great tour to watch. I know Fatty was critical of the lack of time bonuses or team time trial and the course layout, but it has served to tighten up the race and keep several riders in contention all the way through the last time trial. I'm looking forward to Saturday and really hope these guys are clean. Because I want to believe that what I've seen over the last two and a half weeks is real.

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