A new day, a new dawn for cycling?

Date: October 26, 2012 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Once again cycling finds itself reeling from a new drug scandal.

Mind you, this one usurps anything that the sport has had to contend with in the past.

The outing of Lance Armstrong as an out-and-out drug cheat and the resultant stripping of his record seven Tour de France titles has largely nullified an entire decade of results in one of the world’s most popular and watched events.

And, like its reaction to all its previous major doping scandals, the UCI, and many of its faithful disciples, have stated that all this happened yesterday and the sport is far cleaner today.

It is a line that has been trotted out after every doping body blow that has rained down on the sport.

Armstrong’s primary defence throughout his years of denial – which as far as we know still exists today – is that he never failed a drug test.

That in itself is not totally accurate as the USADA investigation detailed although the treatment of them was less than overwhelming and he was never officially sanctioned.

The man himself has constantly purported to have been tested over 500 times and come up negative each time.

The UCI now puts that number at around 300.

Either way, it is a staggering outcome to consider that one man, of such profile, could successfully evade so many tests during more than a decade at the highest level of his chosen sport without being caught and suspended.

The trite “I have never tested positive” line has been hauled out time and time again yet once again the Armstrong case has shown that statement to be largely meaningless.

Five-time Sydney Olympic medallist Marion Jones continually spewed out the same defence, right up until her perjury case when she provided a tearful mea culpa.

The court took her belated apology into account at her perjury trial and reduced her sentence to six months in jail.

Time alone will tell whether Armstrong follows a similar path.

If recent history has taught us anything it is the fact that drug testing alone has provided little deterrent to those who wish to flaunt the system.

The downfall of many of sport’s highest profile drug cheats have come as a result of customs, police or court investigations.

The Festina Affair at the 1998 Tour de France came about as a result of the team’s soigneur being pulled over for a customs check on the Belgian-French border whilst en route to the start of the 1998 Tour in Dublin.

Willy Voets car was found to contain a virtual pharmacy of drugs and assorted paraphernalia ranging from EPO, HGH and steroids to syringes.

The Tour continued under the cloud of team hotels being regularly raided by police and the riders themselves actually staging a sit down protest at the start of one of the stages.

By the time the 1999 Tour rolled around, the cycling authorities were trumpeting a new era in the sport with the peloton having learned its lesson.

Then, in 2006, news broke of Operación Puerto (Operation Mountain Pass) that was conducted by the Spanish Police into a doping network run by Dr Eufemiano Fuentes.

The operation resulted in bans being applied to 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich, dual Giro d’Italia champion Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi, who later returned to competition and won the 2011 edition of the Giro.

Once again, cycling said that what was uncovered by the Spanish authorities was a reflection of the past and not the present.

And the same has been said again following the recent USADA investigation.

On each occasion the UCI has stated that the sport is far cleaner today and that the scandals of the past were just that – past.

Whilst the move to the biological passport system, whereby an athlete’s biological markers are entered into an electronic record, is a positive outcome for the sport but it has its limitations.

Namely, the anti-doping authorities need to have knowledge of, and testing procedures in place, for all performance enhancing drugs which are available to athletes.

That in itself is an impossibility for the gamekeepers are often a step or two behind the poachers.

The most recent example of this was the use of CERA (continuous erythropoietin receptor activator), a third generation class of EPO.

At the time of the Beijing Olympics the drug testers were aware that it was most likely being used by endurance athletes but they had yet to develop a test for it.

In April 2009, once a test had been developed the stored frozen samples of several athletes were thawed out and as a result five were found to have been using the drug, including Bahrain’s 1500m world champion Rashid Ramzi and Italian road cycling silver medallist Davide Rebellin who were stripped of their ill-gotten gains.

Marion Jones was able to evade detection through more than 160 tests because she was using a designer steroid that was undetectable at the time.

Cycling’s governors may well say that the sun has risen on a new era in the sport but to think that there are no riders currently in the peloton who, by virtue of clever and nefarious doctors and chemists, are not using undetectable substances is merely fanciful.

It may well be just a matter of time before the sun sets on another tainted era and the UCI is forced to adjust its goalposts once again.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 25 October 2012