COURSEY: Cycling's latest black eye
Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 12:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 12:56 p.m.
Professional bicycle racing hit bottom today, which may be a good thing.
The release of 1,000 pages of documents condemning illegal doping by Lance Armstrong and his teammates during his seven Tour de France victories is yet another black eye for a sport that seems to have a black eye permanently tattooed to its face.
Santa Rosa's Levi Leipheimer gets bruised in this one, too, which surely will be a disappointment to his many fans in Sonoma County. But let's remember why he has gained such popularity in these parts. Leipheimer's success on his bike has made him one of the sport's elite riders, but his involvement in his community is what makes him a hometown hero.
Performance-enhancing drugs didn't convince him to do that.
Still, he and the rest of those implicated in “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen” owe their fans an apology. They need to do what Armstrong has never done: admit their misdeeds and mistakes, acknowledge their wrongs, express their regret, ask for forgiveness.
And work to clean up their sport.
Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, expressed that hope on Tuesday in a news release announcing the findings against Armstrong and his teams. Tygart said he hoped his agency's findings would “unshackle” cycling from its past and “dismantle the remaining system that allowed this EPO and blood doping era to flourish.”
That's a tall order. As recently as Tuesday, it was announced that a French rider was suspended for blood doping in a race last month. The “blood doping era” has not yet ended.
But shining light on that era, ending the code of silence that has surrounded the use of drugs in cycling, is a good first step. Tygert said that code has now been “shattered.”
Tyler Hamilton does a pretty good job of it in his new book, “The Secret Race,” co-written with journalist Daniel Coyle.
A former teammate of Armstrong's and the gold medalist in the 2004 Olympics, Hamilton was stripped of his medal and banned after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He, along with Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie and five other former Armstrong teammates are those listed in the USADA report as testifying against Armstrong. They all implicated themselves in their testimony, according to reports.
Armstrong says they lied. His lawyer refers to Hamilton as a “serial perjurer.” In his book, Hamilton acknowledges he originally lied about doping.
“Look, I lied,” he tells co-author Coyle. “I thought it would cause the least damage. Put yourself in my shoes. If I had told the truth, everything's over. The team sponsor would pull out, and 50 people, 50 of my friends, would lose their jobs . . . I'd be out of the sport, forever. My name would be ruined.”
Hamilton was called by the U.S. government to testify in the investigation into Armstrong and his teams, which were sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service. He writes that he decided to tell the truth.
“I made them understand how the whole system worked, got developed over the years, and how you couldn't single one person out. It was everybody. Everybody.”
Sometimes, with the drip-drip-drip of news stories about cyclists busted for doping, it does seem like it was everybody. But in the book, Coyle makes it clear that it was not. He cites a 2005 study of urine tests taken during the 1999 Tour de France, in which the French national anti-doping lab found several samples belonging to Armstrong contained the drug EPO. “Perhaps more interestingly,” Coyle writes, “it looks as though Armstrong was in the minority in 1999. Of the 81 urine samples taken during the 1999 Tour that were not Armstrong's, only seven tested positive for EPO, or 8.6 percent.”
But Hamilton contends — and admits that he bought into the fallacy — that Armstrong believed he wasn't cheating “because in his mind all the other contenders in the race were on” performance-enhancing drugs, and if they weren't they were idiots who “didn't deserve to win.”
Which is why, in the end, all of this hoopla over drugs in sport matters. “Everybody” is not doing it. There are still athletes who play by the rules. The playing field is not level. And the athletes who cheat are reaping huge financial rewards to which they are not entitled, while the ones who don't can't keep up.
Some will continue to deny they cheated. Armstrong comes to mind, as does that new celebrity cycling convert who made his fortune hitting baseballs, Barry Bonds. It's their right to maintain their innocence in the absence of a courtroom conviction. But denials in the face of overwhelming evidence perpetuate the negative image of their respective sports and delay any healing which may be possible.
On Tuesday, Tygart expressed hope for that healing.
He asked that beyond the discipline and ridicule directed at the riders who cooperated with the investigation, there can now be forgiveness “to leave a legacy far greater for the good of the sport than anything they ever did on a bike.”
It's a lofty goal, to be sure. But in the world of professional cycling right now, there's nowhere to go but up.
Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.