Cycling witch trials

Lance Armstrong Bradley Wiggins Tour de FranceIn the toxic fallout from the US FDA inquiry and USADA report into Lance Armstrong and doping practices at US Postal (with Tyler Hamilton’s book, ‘The Secret Race‘ adding fuel to the bonfire of reputations), a new fundamentalist ethos has gripped the media and angry fans. Confronted with questions on the issues, it seems riders are expected to make statements about ‘doping’ or ‘Armstrong’ that fall into line with what sections of the cycling media expect – although occasionally it feels more like a demand that riders regurgitate approved mantras of orthodoxy.

Where in the past journalists (me) struggled to plumb the depths of modern doping, wary of destroying the trust of contacts and hampered by riders reluctant to talk (on or off the record),¬† now that Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel’s house of cards has come crashing down, commentators feel empowered to ask anyone anything, anytime. The underlying premise is that every rider quizzed should disown and denounce riders, teams, trainers, managers, sponsors and owners in the strongest terms possible. This culture is inextricably linked to the rise of web-based news sites linked to – and and amplified by – social media. The internet demands news and comment, webstites need traffic and visitor numbers and there’s nothing like a doping quote or scandal to drive that web traffic.

Clearly sometimes an aggressively direct approach can be justified, but there’s a cruel lack of empathy and perspective in the air these days, almost as if fans and journalists are taking revenge for decades of deceit.¬† No equivocation from riders is permitted, because our newly minted ‘year zero’ cycling culture is policed by social media and web zealots ready to whip up an angry digital mob armed with pitchforks and flaming torches, primed to amplify rumour, lose the nuances and pass judgement forthwith. Which is rather ironic, given that documentary proof and reliable eye-witness accounts are not enough for Armstrong’s legal team but, at the same time, all that Twitter requires to condemn a rider are associations with a team. One position is as unedifying as the other. On this scorched earth we occupy, you are either good or bad.

Certainly there are liars in cheats in cycling (unlike, say in football, athletics, tennis, politics, policing, journalism, finance or entertainment), but such is the Witch Trial mentality dominating the media landscape it’s not surprising that some riders would rather just keep their heads down. The problem with ‘No comment’ is that the Taliban of Twitter will slam a rider for his sins of omission even if he really, quite simply, has no useful comment to make.

After decades of heavy duty doping and a widely observed code of silence, expecting riders, teams and managers to heave a massive sigh of relief and spill their guts is delusional. For some riders doping was never their problem, because they didn’t dope; for doped riders, what they did wasn’t really doping because ‘everyone else was doping too’; for team managers who ‘knew’ but preferred plausible¬† deniability, what can they say? And, between those three poles, there are a myriad shades of grey. Just because a rider doesn’t want to talk doesn’t mean he’s got anything to hide.

From the arrival of EPO in the pro peloton in 1991*, 21 years have passed and the money sloshing around cycling has increased exponentially. That means that doping revelations could have far more costly ramifications than a six month suspension or a 10 minute penalty on your GC position. And for those who say, ‘Serves them right,’ where does that position fit with amnesty or forgiveness? And if we extend that insistence on zero tolerance back to 1991, what, realistically, might be left?

I suspect the aftershocks will take months to subside and until then, the relations between the cycling media and cycling’s practitioners will remain decidedly awkward. There has been talk of a South African style ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ commission, which may be a good idea. But, its worth noting also that the first Truth and Reconciliation hearing took place six years after the end of Apartheid. Cycling might be trying to take its stabilizers off a bit early on this one…

Kenny Pryde, October 16, 2012

EDITED: *My bold statement about EPO arriving in the pro peloton in 1991 isn’t accurate. I don’t know when it arrived, but I suspect it was a bit earlier. I have no proof, no eye-witnesses either way.