Big John's weekly view
14:26, 14 Jul 2012
There aren’t too many redemptive stories in cycling, particularly if you’re a rider who has chosen the dark path of doping in the past. So to experience redemption twice is special. Nine years ago, David Millar won a time trial stage at the Tour de France and convinced himself that, having doped to do it, it was normal because everyone else was at it. In that era, doping was as necessary to compete as having the right diet or equipment was.
Millar served his ban, came back to race clean and now, finally, after years of scandal after scandal, it appears that the right cyclists are winning. The ones who blew the lid of the peloton’s omerta and are instigating changes of mindsets so it’s now at least possible to believe you can win without cheating. And, more importantly, that if you don’t win, the chances are you were beaten by a clean athlete.
Nine years ago also, at the same Tour, Lance Armstrong stunned even cycling’s most avid watchers with a display of power, will and ferocity when he attacked his greatest rival, Jan Ullrich, haven twice fallen from his bike on one of the Tour’s most gruelling climbs. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, the commentators who seem to think there has never been a problem with doping in the sport, said with a sense of awe: “This is unbelievable.” With the US Anti-Doping Agency charging the seven-time Tour champion with using drugs, and with so many of his former colleagues detailing instances of being in his presence when he allegedly doped, maybe it was too good to be true.
In Armstrong’s time, anyone who attempted to take a stand against the dopers was not just ostracised but ridiculed and treated as a laughing stock. It seems extraordinary that the Texan could chase down Filippo Simeoni
, who was no threat to his general classification, without provoking the most intense scrutiny as to why he did it. It simply doesn’t happen that the leader of the Tour chases down every break. It was arguably the most outrageously public display of the inner workings of the peloton in the Tour’s history. It was as if Armstrong was the corrupt sheriff of a lawless town and he was goading those who thought things should change.
In Millar’s autobiography, Racing Through the Dark, there is a quote from the bishop’s eulogy at the funeral of Marco Pantani: “The man is greater than his victories and defeats. The man is worth more than the cyclist. In the champion beats the heart of a boy, a heart that needs normality and that cannot be sacrificed at the altar of exploitation.” Millar and Bradley Wiggins -- who holds what should be an unassailable lead in the overall standings -- are striking blows for the “bread and water” cyclists in a Tour that has seen less frenzied, incessant attacks than during the Armstrong era. Certainly, the feeling that there was no hope for cycling after Pantani won the 1998 ‘Festina scandal’ Tour is slowly being eroded.
Paul Kimmage has recently raised doubts that Wiggins’ Team Sky haven’t been as transparent as they promised and during the week the British cyclist reacted with fury to questions about doping. It was a depressing reminder of the spat between Kimmage and Armstrong before the Tour of California in 2009
. The question immediately sprang to mind: Why doesn’t he just condemn it? He answered that in a compelling column in the Guardian
yesterday. He couldn’t have been more vehement in his opposition to drug-taking and the carnage it would wreak on his career and his life if he were to make that choice.
Armstrong’s main defence is that he has been the most-tested athlete in the world and has never returned a positive test. But Marion Jones never tested positive either and she was one of the most doped-up athletes women’s sprint racing has ever seen. If he was clean he could have unambiguously opposed dopers, derided them and called them out as the cheats they were. But he never, ever did this.
Millar and Wiggins have. Floyd Landis has too but his credibility has been questioned, and rightly so. But read the transcript of the extraordinary seven-hour interview he did with Kimmage and it is difficult not to be struck by the details he discloses, the articulacy of his recounting of events and the vehemence of his argument. Evidence for and against Armstrong may be heard in autumn and it will be a glimpse back into the sport’s dark days at a time when cyclists such as Wiggins, Millar and Cadel Evans are helping to usher it through a new dawn. At least that’s the hope. If it turned out that those who have been most vocal in the anti-doping war were hiding something, it would be difficult to see how the sport could ever recover from it.
With Dwain Chambers and Cian O’Connor set to compete at the Olympics, Millar’s re-emergence as a stage winner has added another shade of grey to a debate that is never black and white. If a confessed cheat comes back to win clean, maybe it does more for the sport than banishing them for good might. In all cases, though, it requires a leap of faith that doesn’t always clear the doping abyss.
Millar and Wiggins, though, are having to deal with the legacy of those years when Pantani, Ullrich, Basso, Rasmussen, Landis and countless others went over mountains as if they were nothing more than inconvenient speed-bumps. But, as spokespeople for the fight against doping, they make compelling cases for the credibility of a sport that has itself for years being seeking redemption.
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