Giro d'Italia 2001 - a commentary

Meeting of the minds

By Jeff Jones

Over the next week, the magistrates in Florence and Padova will meet to discuss a course of action regarding the latest "doping scandal" to hit cycling. After police raided the Giro last Wednesday night before the toughest stage in the final week, the race essentially came to a dead standstill (see stage 18 report). It was not helped a couple of days later when the young hope of Italian cycling, Dario Frigo, was thrown off the race because he admitted to possession of illegal performance enhancers.

This was followed by the news that NAS police were investigating as many as 70 cyclists in relation to substances seized on Wednesday night. Cycling, with its big public image, has borne the brunt of investigators using the new Italian anti-doping law to "clean up sport." Other, richer sports such as soccer and tennis have been affected, but not nearly to the same degree.

Politics definitely had a role in planning the raids, with the change over in the Italian government. Likewise, they have played a role in keeping a lid on things in previous years. Doping in sport, especially one as hard as cycling, has been around for at least 50 years, depending on which definition is chosen.

The end result was that in a spectacular blitz that hit 10 times as many teams as during the infamous police raids of the 1998 Tour, more information about how the professional peloton goes about its business has been unearthed than we needed to know, to badly paraphrase a quote from Pulp Fiction. Most of us, especially those who followed Cyclingnews' reports on the PDM trial in 1997 (probably the first of these large exposÚs), will know that illegal performance enhancement in professional cycling can extend to more than a few bad apples.

People will cheat to win, and always have, even at the amateur level. Add a few lira/francs/guilders/pesetas/dollars etc. into this mix and the temptation is very strong. It doesn't even have to be a temptation if you've grown up with it as part of the culture, as so many professional racing cyclists have. The UCI termed the older riders who were doping "the lost generation", but Frigo's admission killed any thoughts of a generation gap. Even worse, he comes across as honest, talented, hard-working, focussed, non-arrogant...all the qualities you would expect in a clean athlete (maybe the peroxide hair gave it away).

We cannot change the past. The police raids happened, they were heavy handed and certainly smacked of a "war on drugs". Are we prepared to - as Italian law states - treat these athletes who ride thousands of kilometres for our entertainment as criminals? How do we rid the sport of illegal substances without closing it down altogether? An extreme that would be unfair to all the clean riders, who are hopefully in the majority now.

This is important if a change to a cleaner sport is to take place. All cyclists have to have the self belief that they can compete without illegal methods and performance enhancers, and obviously this is contingent upon the rest of the peloton being at the same level. Riding clean can be accomplished within a team, because there is support. But this can also go the other way.

The UCI is currently pursuing several modes of attack. One is the introduction of harsher penalties for drug use: 1 to 6 months suspension for "light" substances (first offence), 2 years for a second offence; and 2 years for "heavy" substances (first offence), 4 years to life for a second offence. This has far greater potential to prematurely end an cyclist's career, as UCI points will drop to zero after a one year ban.

Another is the introduction of more sophisticated tests. Admittedly, the EPO test that came into being this year was only 12 years after cyclists started abusing the drug, but by adopting a blood screen test, it is possible to determine abnormalities in a cyclist's blood profile that indicate manipulation by any artificial means.

But this is still part of a "war on drugs" which, given future methods of doping (gene doping for example) is impossible to win without both parties fighting on the same side. The other main thrust of the UCI's policy is the negative health aspects of taking drugs designed for completely different purposes. These are briefly outlined in the Princpal doping substances and their side effects (PDF file) that will come into force on July 1.

Will a young cyclist risk their future health and the potential to raise a family for a few brief years of stardom? Unfortunately in some cases this happens. Some riders are so addicted to their success that it blinds any consideration as to what will happen 20 years down the track. Perhaps the UCI will introduce psychological tests(!)

This commentary appears to put a lot of the blame on the "guilty" cyclists, however this is not the intent. Most of us ride bikes, some of us professionally, some of us manage and work or sponsor teams, some of us write, take pictures and film cyclists. We all contribute to the sport.

On the outside, cycling is beautiful to watch. Gilberto Simoni's solo stage 20 win in the rain and wearing the maglia rosa was exceptional, despite it coming on top of all that had happened. On the inside - well, does the fact that Eddy Merckx tested positive more than once in his career make him less of a cyclist? It appears not, and he has been retired for over 20 years and by all appearances, thoroughly enjoying himself.

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