The Web Monkey Speaks: The Straight Dope

The UCI says it wants the truth about doping: this won’t be pretty.

Illustration by Steve Smith

Illustration by Steve Smith

By Vernon Felton

There's this scene in "Old School" in which Luke Wilson's character, Mitch, comes home from a business trip to find that his wife has been hosting orgies while he's away. Devastated, Mitch attempts to wrap his head around the situation: on one hand, he needs the truth, on the other hand, what he really wants to hear is a lie.

Mitch: Please be honest with me. Tell me this is the first time this has ever happened.

Heidi: Well, do you want me to be honest or do you want me to tell you this is the first time?

Maybe that scene is a lot funnier on screen, but I can't help thinking of it whenever I hear about the UCI's efforts to reach back into cycling's past to discover precisely how bad doping was and just what role the UCI, itself, played in fostering that. Do you really want the truth?

Let's be clear here: the UCI doesn't stand accused of merely falling asleep at the wheel. The UCI has been accused of taking bribes, covering up positive tests and, flat out being as corrupt as the cheaters it was supposed to be busting.

Back in 2012, the UCI set out to investigate…itself. Just what role did the UCI play in cycling's sordid past? That was the question they, theoretically, want to answer and, to that end, the UCI appointed a fact-finding commission. Not long after, however, they folded the entire operation on the grounds that the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) wouldn't be assisting them in their efforts.

WADA, for its part, issued a press release, which boiled down to something like this: Don't trust anything the UCI has to say—those mother@ckers are crazy.

I'm paraphrasing, of course, but I'm not far off the mark. The key contention here was that the UCI was all talk and no truth. WADA had no interest in rubberstamping any of that. Their characterization of the UCI? WADA called cycling’s governing body “deceitful”. The situation, it’s fair to say, didn't cast the UCI in the most flattering light.

And yet here we go again….

A month ago, the UCI announced that they're going to embark on the whole soul searching exercise again in the form of a three-person Cycling Independent Reform Commmision. This time around, things might be different. We have a different UCI President (Brian Cookson), a guy who ran for that office on the promise that there'd be a real truth and reconciliation process in which past dopers and their dealers would be given amnesty for their testimonies.

The commission is going to investigate the peloton, the UCI and the whole sordid doping affair, from 1998 to the present. Why that particular 15-year window? Probably because it covers the Festina scandal and the Armstrong years. Then again, maybe "15" just sounds official. Or perhaps they just needed to bite off a chunk of history that they could actually chew up and digest.

Do you know how we keep going? Look, this is cocaine, chloroform,
too. And pills? You want to see pills? Here are three
boxes—we run on dynamite.

—Henri Péllisier, 1923 tour de france winner

I guess you have to start somewhere and 1998 to 2013 is as good a place to look as any. It kind of makes sense; when Willy Voet was caught in 1998 with a trunk full of dope, the lid was blown wide on performance-enhancing drugs in cycling. It's not like doping was a big secret up to that point, but the Festina drug bust made it clear that it wasn't a matter of a lone rider scoring some speed in a back alley. The Festina affair showcased the fact that the peloton's best riders were often players in sophisticated and systematic team-wide cheating programs.

From that summer forward, cycling was under the microscope—arguably more so than any other sport—and the UCI responded by instituting what seemed like the most extensive and objective drug-control program in sports history. And yet we now know that very little—if anything—changed.

You wanted to win a grand tour back then? Hell, you simply wanted to race on a winning team? You needed to be willing to cheat.

So, I guess you could argue that the investigation is focused on the right time frame. Then again, as Joe Lindsey noted in another one of his excellent Boulder Report columns, doping has always been a part of professional cycling.

So, here's the deal, looking at the past 15 years is a good start, but it kind of misses the point—cycling has always been dirty. If you try and answer the question of what went wrong from 1998 to 2013, you'll probably wind up with the wrong answer. The real question is why has doping always been a part of professional cycling? And once you're done answering that, you should probably also ask, "Are we actually willing to do anything to change that?"

We'll have to live with doping. Pure cycling is just an illusion.
—Francesco Moser, former world champion,
giro winner and hour record holder

Look, the moment you offer the race winner a shitload of cash for landing atop the podium, they aren't going to simply land in that spot—they're going to claw their way to it—gouging eyes, fishhooking opponents and injecting themselves with whatever GoFastJuice they can get their hands on.

When there's a financial incentive to cheat, people will cheat. That isn't "right" or "sporting" or even "nice"—but it is human nature.

Am I suggesting that professional cycling should therefore do away with prize money? No. I'm not crazy. Winners need more than a big hug and a slap on the back in exchange for sacrificing the best years of their life to the sport.

Riders need to pay the bills and cycling, for countless blue-collar Europeans, has been their ticket to a life that didn't revolve around swabbing toilets, laying brick or sanding shitty dinette sets at the local IKEA sweatshop.

For idealistic Americans, cycling may be all about glory and tradition, but in Europe, cycling is often a means of escaping a life of drudgery—those are very different motivations and that's not likely to change. Our sense of "fair play" probably doesn't amount to a cup of spit to some guy who is being told that he can either race on the team's winning program (complete with blood transfusions and "vitamin" protocols) or go get himself a job serving Royales with Cheese at the nearest McDonalds.

It's like being on the highway. The law says there's a speed limit
of 65, but everyone is driving 70 or faster. Why should I be the
one who obeys the limit? So I had two options: either fit in and go
along with the others or go back to being a house painter.

—Alex Zulle, two-time vuelta winner

So, now I sound less like a naïve idealist or more like an apologist for doping. I am neither. I'm a realist. Yes, those big corporate sponsors want "clean" races, but they also want records broken. They want spectators to see jerseys emblazoned with their company logo flashing by in fast races.

Doped-up riders are exciting to watch. Would you tune in to watch a slow Tour de France? Would you? Would you camp alongside the alpe d'huez for a week in order to watch someone climb it slower than Marco Pantani did in 1997? I can tell you this—even if you would answer "Yes" to any of these questions, the team managers don't believe you. The fact that many of todays "clean" riders are just as fast as yesterday's convicted dopers says everything you need to know about just how clean our sport has actually become. We may have burned our Lance Armstrong posters and tossed out our Livestrong bracelets, but that ain't making cycling any cleaner.

So, do we want the truth? I wonder about that. On one hand, I'm intrigued as hell by what a real amnesty program would do to shed light on just how rotten cycling has become and I'm saddened that it doesn't look like we'll have a true amnesty process. And yet, on the other hand, part of me keeps going back to that scene in "Old School": we are asking for the truth, something we already know, while many of us are really just hoping that someone will tell us a lie that makes us feel better about this situation.

The peloton is dirty. The UCI had their hand in some of that. You don't have to be a cynic to believe this, you just have to be conscious. An investigation is pointless. You don't ask a drunk guy with vomit stains on the front of his shirt to launch an investigation into who puked on him.

Here's a question worth investigating: are we willing to support a clean peloton? Can you cheer for slower, less-thrilling races? I can. I haven't tuned into a Grand Tour in ages because I stopped believing in them years ago. Give me something to believe in and I'll start caring again. Until then, I'd rather get on my own bike and break my own (admittedly, pathetic) records. I can't speak for the rest of the world though.

Today's baseball players look like yesterday's football players, today's football players look like comic book superheroes, and the latest track and field stars could moonlight as professional wrestlers. Do we honestly believe that any of this is the result of going gluten free and getting enough sleep? Come on. Cycling isn't the only sport that lives and dies by the needle. We want our athletes to be bigger, faster and stronger. We want to be entertained. What I don't think we want is the truth.

Maybe, hopefully, I'm wrong about that.