Armstrong and the UCI omerta

Armstrong Filippo Simeoni 2004That the names of George Hincapie, Dave Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer, Jonathan Vaughters and Christian Vande Velde have been revealed/leaked as witnesses who testified in US FDA special agent Jeff Novitzky’s Lance Armstrong-US Postal investigation isn’t a huge surprise, but it is to be welcomed. They are among the 10 team mates and team workers said to have provided damning evidence of Armstrong’s doping activtities.

The irony is that their statements, given under oath with the threat of a perjury charge hanging over them, will almost certainly corroborate the version of events offered by poor Floyd Landis, a man whose reputation and credibility were trashed by Lance Armstrong’s team and online fanbase. It’s hard to see how the credibility of these new witnesses will be as easy for ‘Team Armstrong’ to undermine.

But perhaps the saddest aspect of this gruesome affair concerns those other riders, minor players and peripheral figures who, in the past 15 years, have seen their careers snuffed and reputations systematically ruined. And it’s not just outspoken Christophe Bassons or Fillipo Simeoni, the Italian who Armstrong chased down and humiliated during the 2004 Tour de France (above pic). There are other minor actors in this ongoing drama. There was Kelme’s Jesus Manzano (2004), or Jorg Jaschke (2007), both revealed  detailed doping scenarios, both dismissed by the UCI as fantasy which, inevitably, turned out to be closer to documentary.

But the UCI has been rubbishing (potential) whistle-blowers for decades. We might also spare a thought for Christophe Dupouey, the 1998 World mountain bike champion who committed suicide after being involved in a doping ring. Not forgetting Jerome Chiotti, former Festina rider and 1996 World cross-country mountain bike champion who voltunatarily confessed to EPO use and handed his rainbow jersey over to second-placed Thomas Frisknecht. Alarm bells should have been ringing long ago, way before we learned the name Jeff Novitzky.

These names – mountain bikers and pro road riders –  are all connected by EPO, hormone cocktails and the gutless attitude of the UCI. When the sport’s governing body was confronted with contrite and desperate athletes it simply punished them and brazenly moved on, burying the underlying issues with breathtaking disdain and rapidity.

When an insider tried to speak out about what he knew, each time some light was shone on the doping catastrophe that was metastasizing in the heart of the peloton, the UCI’s response was to discredit the doper. The UCI inevitably described the ‘witness’ as a rogue who was exaggerating the problem who was motivated by bitterness or cash.  In the 1990s, as Nike, Coca-Cola, Nestle and  other multinationals started to invest in cycling, as Lance Armstrong’s cancer comeback story helped raise the profile of the Tour de France in America, the last thing the UCI wanted to was scare away the new money or  massive new North American television audiences.

Perhaps that goes some way to explaining why the UCI failed to show any imagination in dealing with the issue? Why didn’t the UCI take a bold step and offer immunity for information? Why didn’t the UCI arrange meetings with teams, coaches, sports physiologists and team doctors when contrite riders were prepared to reveal what they knew? Why didn’t the UCI declare an amnesty when it was clear that a massive doping problem was spreading? EPO and its derivatives weren’t hit and miss steroids or easy to detect stimulants – the manipulation of blood chemistry worked and had a significant, measurable impact on riders’ performances.

Instead of treating riders who were ready to talk (Chiotti, Bassons, Erwan Mentheour, Gilles Bouvard, Emmanuel Magnien to name a few)  as useful witnesses, the penitents were damned, branded as twisted losers and cast into a firy pit. Is it any wonder that the omerta was so strong in professional cycling, given the reactions of its governing body? Recall too that every significant doping revelation has come about through the involvement of police authorities – from Festina to Puerto via the Telekom and Padova investigations – not from investigations launched by the UCI.

So the UCI carried on punishing and discrediting and could come up with no better strategy than to carry on with a clearly ineffectual testing programme. A testing procedure so weak that it has enabled every significant cheat to claim that he “never tested positive.” If cycling’s omerta exerted such a powerful influence, the UCI is partly to blame, given its hopeless treatment of potential witnesses. While riders were dying (Marco Pantani, Frank Vandenbroucke, Dupouey), the UCI was banning Cinelli’s Spinaci bars, introducing 50% haematocrit limits, extending a global race calendar and prescribing minimum bike weights…

And so it has come to this – that the evidence gathered by a US Federal investigation and passed on the USADA will lead to the biggest doping scandal the sport has ever had to endure. The biggest doping revelation concerning the biggest name in cycling. And, yet again, it is thanks to the work of ‘the Feds,’ rather than anything instigated by the sport’s governing body. If it took great courage for the witnesses to confess,  then that’s partly the fault of the UCI whose attitude to potential witnesses has been so pitiful for so long. Inevitably, cycling is going to make the wrong headlines, but the UCI  must shoulder some responsibility for its abject failure of management and vision. In the 1990s the UCI had a chance to perform radical surgery on cycling’s cancer – instead it chose homeopathy. The result? Shelves of useless cycling history books, results disfigured by asterisks and footnotes of disqualifications and dubious winners.



July 10, 2012.

*And is this statement from USADA, released on July 10, 2012, the beginning of the end? You’d like to hope so.