Sonoma County residents Art and Gabriel Neibrief were on the road in Colorado following the USA Pro Challenge bicycle race. Their trip coincided with the headline-making news about Lance Armstrong being stripped of his cycling titles amid the continuing doping allegations. Art Neibrief shared this commentary from his vantage point:

Epilogue: The Elephant in the Room

As many are aware, Lance Armstrong announced during the week of the race that he would no longer fight the USADA charges against him, foregoing his right to an arbitration hearing.  For some, this became a subject of conversation which cast somewhat of a shadow over the race, but there was such excitement about the USA Pro Challenge that the crowd seemed to generally disregard the news.  Having said that, there will be more press in the coming months and it will be like an evolving Greek tragedy.

In June, the news broke that the US Anti-Doping Agency was filing formal doping charges against Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel (Lance’s team manager for his seven TDF wins). Michele Ferrari and three team staff members.  The 15 page charging letter also stated that it had collected blood from Armstrong in 2009 and 2010 that was “fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions.”  The USADA is seeking to backdate his disqualification to August, 1998, stripping him of all Tour de France victories.

Lance is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable pro athletes of all time.  Winning seven Tour de France races after overcoming cancer and establishing the Livestrong Foundation to help others is a well-known story, and he is beloved and admired by millions.  For some, the news will change their positive opinion about Lance.  My guess is that for many others, it will not.  Time will tell.  The other issue is the impact it will have on pro cycling and the opportunity the sport has to take action.

So, what is one to think about all of this?  Is blood doping something which was commonplace amongst pro cycling teams?  Was Lance singled out because of his prominence or for other reasons?  If the charges against him are true, does it matter?  To get some perspective, the following is just a bit of what I reviewed and read online since returning home:

-Tyler Hamilton gave an interview to Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” in May of last year.  It is a very informative and compelling piece.  He was a teammate of Lance on US Postal for three years.  Tyler admits to taking EPO himself, says that it was something that “we all did” on the Team, and he also talks about having blood withdrawn for later transfusion to augment red blood cell levels.  He says that “I’d rather beat up myself or the sport than Lance.”  He said that pro cyclists are one big fraternity, and that in the peleton riders would talk with one another about avoiding detection because no one wanted to see a positive test result from anyone.  After a positive test he had to give up the Gold Medal he won in 2004 in Athens.  His book, “The Secret Race” is due out Sept. 5th.  One reporter who got an advance copy already wrote that Hamilton states that “blood doping was a mandatory way of life for anyone hoping to compete at the elite level.”

-Phil Liggett, well known race announcer was interviewed via internet by Ballz Radio on August 30th.  He has done speakership with Lance at Livestrong Foundation events where he and Lance have spoken to groups of cancer survivors.  Some of what Phil had to say is that:  The efforts of the US Federal Government in this matter were withdrawn earlier this year due to lack of evidence; the USADA is a politically motivated body that is making allegations about offenses which allegedly occurred in a foreign country; the issue of who is going to get Lance’s titles is bad for the sport; that Lance passed over 500 drug tests, sometimes three in one day; that there is an eight year statute of limitations, and that during the period in question there might be only one or two untainted riders;  that you cannot turn a donkey into a racehorse with a shot of EPO; that many riders believe that Lance was the best rider of his time; that masking was possible because EPO does not hold in the system.  Liggett had other things to say, including a story told to him by a man in Boulder during the race about the attempt to gather evidence against Armstrong.  One of his final comments is that “it is a filthy business.”  (It is not clear whether that reference is about going after Armstrong, doping in pro cycling, or both).

Michael Ashenden was interviewed by Velo News; published July 6th.  He is an anti-doping researcher and former UCI Biological Passport review board member.  He was involved in the development of the blood test for EPO, which was first used at the 2000 Olympics held in Sydney.  This is informative reading for those who wish to learn about EPO, variations in red blood cell levels, how competition schedules can alter how test results are viewed and other specifics of testing and test interpretation.  One of the things he says is that sometimes a case against an athlete is not opened because there is a question about whether the case can be won.  In an April 2009 interview, Ashenden stated that he had “no doubt” that Armstrong had taken EPO during the 1999 Tour de France.

Professional cycling, like any other pro sport is a business.  Team owners and sponsors want to win races.  It seems to me that over the years, if owners/managers have thought that they could succeed in a game of cat and mouse and avoid detection, then they would direct that cyclists take banned substances and engage in blood doping.  Pro cyclists are much more controlled by owners and managers than in other team sports.  In training and during race season there is a regimen that includes what they eat, caloric intake and sleep.  Do people think that pro cyclists decide on their own to do something illegal, or that it is done at the behest of team management that believes it can avoid detection?

Why isn’t there more of a focus on going after team owners and managers?  If riders knew that no other cyclists were taking a banned substance or transfusing their own blood, would they choose the option of an even playing field?  If riders were not pressured to do something illegal, I think it likely that they would travel the path of honest competition.

Pedro Delgado won the Tour de France in 1988 and is a Spanish TV commentator.  When asked about the Armstrong case he said, “It’s bad news for cycling and we know that the victims are always the cyclists.”

No matter who did what, and when, and whether or not all or most riders participated in blood doping, use of EPO or other substances, some things seem clear:  Pro cyclists are the world’s finest athletes.  They have the best conditioned hearts, lungs and leg muscles.  They ascend hills at high altitude at speeds and in gear ratios that pro athletes of other sports could not even attempt.  They push pain barriers during stages which last for several hours in races which last up to 21 days.  Some riders describe long time trials as constant pain, but they persevere to excel.  As Liggett said, “You can’t turn a donkey into a racehorse.”

Cycling fans know that what Liggett says is true, so whatever may come out in the press probably won’t diminish their respect for pro cycling, in general.  However, there is another question:  What impact will the issue of banned substances have on the ability to popularize cycling amongst our youth?  How are we to help develop the next generation of pro cyclists who can compete at the elite level?  If George Hincapie were asked by the parent of an aspiring youngster, “will my son be pressured to take something illegal” what will he have to say?  If my own son should one day ask me, what do I tell him?

Hopefully, whatever cleansing this wonderful, exhilarating and life-affirming sport requires will take place.  The sport needs it to happen, and to happen sooner rather than later.

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