Dealing With “The Question”

Oprah Winfrey show

Mark Cavendish got frustrated at the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team presentation when journalists repeatedly pressed him over the Lance Armstrong story. Presumably Cavendish wanted to talk about his the ambitions for 2013. But there’s only one show in town: Lance Armstrong.

The story stretches from primetime sofa to the US Department of Justice via the Tour de France and features an international celebrity in the midst of a downfall more public than Felix Baumgartner’s leap.

Given this even a big name like Mark Cavendish is going to be pressed relentlessly for a quote on Lance Armstrong and others will face tricky questions on other topics this year. What should a rider say? What can they say?

Several years ago I witnessed an American couple riding the Paris Métro. Laden with luggage and probably jet-lagged, they were being quizzed about President Bush by excited Frenchman. They were on surely on vacation yet somehow were expected to account for the actions of their government, as if being on vacation equated to a diplomatic mission. It’s similar today with cyclists who have to explain the actions of another Texan.

Similarly’s series of interviews with new riders includes a question about the USADA case, ensuring even the freshest riders are connected to the past.

Wiggins interview
“So Bradley, was The Style Council Paul Weller’s worst hour?”

Talking about Armstrong is a minefield at the best of times. One wrong step and internet forum tripwires quiver, another step and you’ve triggered an explosive headline. It’s probably unlikely these days but some riders might still fear Armstrong’s legal firepower.

No Comment: the first strategy simple, just refuse to talk about it. There’s not much to add, the rider just says “look, I can’t talk on this” and that’s that. But the trouble here is that millions are talking about it. People who can’t ride a bike have an opinion on Armstrong. So if you have nothing to say it’s remarkable itself, almost a news story. Worse, zipping the lips can make you look furtive, as if there’s something to hide.

Delay: you might be annoyed but don’t rush into things. When an awkward question arrives there’s often a moment to play for time. Ask the questioner to repeat it, to explain what they mean in more detail or use another ruse to compose yourself.

Positive message: surely the obvious reaction is to stick to generalities and avoid controversy? Welcome the prosecution of cheats, offer support to the measures being taken by the UCI and WADA and express hope that the sport is cleaner. It might not make the evening news but it’s a satisfactory answer.

Project: if the past is an uncomfortable place then it’s better to talk about the future. When a poor journalist was tasked with getting a quote from Marc Madiot the FDJ manager shrugged and gave little away except the hope things will be better in the future, adding Lance Armstrong belongs to the past.

The pivot: politicians are experts at being asked one question but answering another. It’s called “pivoting” and can be very frustrating but it gets used by people who successfully win millions of votes. Why? Well studies show that if the respondent seems likeable and honest then the audience might not even notice the pivot, nor remember the question. Easier said than done and this is something that politicians spend time crafting in the company of acting coaches, speech-writers and other experts. For the rest of us this could prove harder but the lesson is to pivot less, just to lead the question onto safer ground.

Jens Voigt
“How do we pronounce Jens Voigt?”

Prepare: maybe you don’t care about a chat show and perhaps the WADA Code is something you hope you’ll never have to read. But a little homework can be considered a professional duty, being aware of the issues and coping with the media might be part of your job.

Turn the tables: sections of the media squirm when asked about their role in the Armstrong story. For years they built him up, ignoring the negatives. It wouldn’t work on live TV but a quick-witted rider could ask their questioner about their role and whether they put the same tough back questions the journo, to ask whether they ever put soft questions to “Lance.”

Twitter: been misquoted? Something got lost in translation? Stamped on a landmine? Twitter is a useful medium to issue corrections and explanations.

Mr Vaughters, is the 2005 Château Angélus ready to drink?

Le Metier
Finally it’s worth considering the job of a journalist. It’s not always to annoy but to get a story. Of course a rider is delighted to win a race but when the journalist sticks a microphone in the face of a rider seconds after they’ve crossed the finish line and asks “are you happy with the win” the point isn’t really to check on the rider’s state of mind but to elicit emotion, for them to share the joy of victory live on TV. They can’t always sell newspapers and if they file a video for the TV news then “cyclist says something bland” won’t make the evening bulletin. There’s a symbiosis here where the rider needs publicity for both themselves and their sponsors whilst the media need interesting content.

That said I’m not too interested in what Mark Cavendish has to say on Lance Armstrong. He’s an intelligent interviewee with a great eye for races and would prefer to know if he’s discussed who will lead the team in Milan-Sanremo or Gent-Wevelgem. And if the topic has to be doping, if you insist, then perhaps the media should be asking Team OPQS about the questionable past of Dr Jose Ibarguren Taus. But none of this is prime time TV news material.

The Armstrong is awkward and confusing at times but it refuses to go away. Questions about the matter as as inevitable as a Belgian crosswind. Riders should have a ready answer although there are limits to being asked the same thing again and again.

There can be other subjects that people would prefer to avoid. But like it or not a pro cyclist is a public figure and like others who work in front of cameras and microphones there are techniques to deal with the tough, annoying and sometimes boring questions.

55 thoughts on “Dealing With “The Question””

  1. Thanks for another good view into reality. I have to say, I’m with the riders who would prefer to talk about other relevant current or future events. While there is a lot to learn from the LA saga and it could change the future of pro-cycling, I’d much rather hear about Logan Owen’s bid to beat Van Der Poel at cyclocross worlds in the Junior race, or how Dombrowski and Boswell are faring in France, or whether Bradley can win the Giro. (I loved the phrase, “as inevitable as a Belgian crosswind.” Cheers.)

  2. Another variation of the ‘no comment’ response would be to refer the journalist to the team’s PR people or management. It is a bit weaselly, but does give the opportunity for the journo to get something to quote (however anodyne) and lets the rider dodge potentially saying something ill-advised.

    I’m not really sure what anyone hopes to get out of the riders on this topic that hasn’t already been said, though.

  3. You summed it up well when you said you’re not interested in what Cavendish has to say about Armstrong. Neither am I. That’s not to say current riders shouldn’t be asked about doping, but I’d like to know whether they think things have changed, and whether they think more changes are needed. As for the Armstrong confession, I do admit I am curious what a few key individuals think (the Andreu family, for example).

    • It seems we agree on a lot. It’s all about pertinent questions. Cavendish probably hasn’t got a great deal of insight into Armstrong but the Andreu’s might; I’d like to hear Hein Verbruggen being interviewed on TV. Meanwhile there are so many questions to put to Cav about sprinting with Boonen, whether Tony Martin will be working for him, if he has goals for the classics as well as sprinting. But this is bike tactics geekery and when a TV reporter is filming they need simple soundbites.

  4. I wouldn’t say the LA confession is generic. It’s a media freak show, yes, but moments like this don’t happen every day. I imagine most of the pros are sucked into this thing like most of us, and are curious as hell as to what LA will say. One approach riders should use when answering questions they don’t like is to apply a bit of humour, take the piss, have a laugh, have them on, etc. That’s the best way to dodge a question or turn the tables, but do pro cyclists have a sense of humour? Who is the funniest pro out there, that’s my question.

  5. Team PR should not just halt the annoying questions but must help to ready their riders for them.

    But we want to hear the voice of the rider for real without politician talk.

  6. How about tell the truth: “I think he is a liar, a cheat, and an sociopath scumbag who terrorized the press and the peloton for way too long.” If the cyclist being questioned is not a doper himself then I see no downside to being honest.
    But therein lies the rub: the only reason — real reason — for pro-cyclists to be squirmish about telling the truth about Lance Armstrong today (when neither the press — Lance’s little soldiers just yesterday ago! — , nor the endorsers care to protect him any longer) is that they themselves are doping.

    • I am inclined to agree. But the media who consistently blew smoke up his arse and abetted his crimes are unlikely to give us a mea culpa. Sadly I have little faith that the sport will ever be clean. I never was an Armstrong fan and (as a cancer survivor) thought his charity risible, and am annoyed that he looks like pulling the wool over all our eyes once again. It will be all glossed over a la Festina et al and the best cheats will win.

    • Some dopers would certainly be reluctant to speak out against those who had been caught, but overall I think that this is too simplistic.

      As USADA made clear, it certainly used to be the case that saying “bad things” about Armstrong in the press could be detrimental to one’s cycling career. More generally, speaking out about doping practices seems to correlate strongly with not getting another contract.

      My feeling is that the omerta is still alive and well in cycling, so it is not surprising that most cyclists are reluctant to take a position when questioned by the media. Sadly, doping in the peleton is probably is also alive and well…

      • Probably because coming out and saying the the history of pro cycling is full of rotten crap is directly relevant to practically every single ds and manager on the world tour… and they don’t want their poor feelings getting hurt.

    • Well,
      Yes and no. The problem is that in the past, Armstrong and those associated whether in a clandestine or open fashion with him had a track record of spiking career opportunities, sponsorship opportunities and generally making life very difficult for those who spoke up against him, or against doping.
      It is also very co-incidental that those who left Postal got ‘popped’ in unusual fashion (FL for testosterone which he still denies despite confessing everything else, and TH for Autologous doping)

      While Armstrong is gone his associates still throw long shadows over the sport, particularly with regards to US Cycling.

      There are still a lot of people with skeletons in the closet involved in cycling. Being circumspect in what you say in the press is mere prudence. To say that they are automatically a doper is drawing a somewhat long bow I feel.

      While McQuaid and Verbruggen are still at the top of the tree there seems to be a feeling of Keep your head down amongst the peleton, whether in time that will change, or whether lance gives the goods on the UCI and others, remains to be seen.

      • Exactly.

        I assume you’re referring to the fact that Kittel made his feelings clear by riding the first week of the Tour last year spraying sh!t out the back of the peloton? I guess that was a metaphor for all the bullshit that was being spouted by the riders at the front.


  7. Inner Ring – insightful as always.

    I do have to say that I am tired of all of these pros bleating-on about having to answer questions about Armstrong and doping. They have to remember that we (the cycling fans – who provide them with their livelihood) have been lied to for decades. This is not a simple isolated incident relating to one bad person or team but the biggest crossroads this sport has ever faced. This is BIG NEWS and quite simply something that we, the cycling public, want to get to the bottom of and have a right to know about. The deceit has beeen staggering and it has been going on for generations. Pros of today have to remember this and man-up to the fact that they will continue to be asked these questions for years to come, and for goood reason. No matter how much we want to believe the “new generation” we have every right to be sceptical given what has gone on in the past. This will not change with the USADA report, Oprah, etc, etc.

    Today’s pros should blame the past generations of riders, managers and administrators for this inheritance and not the fans (or journalists).

    The day we worry about upsetting Cav is the day cycling journalism falls back into the pit that helped perpetuate the Armstrong myth.

  8. I didn’t mind the Style Council. But I did laugh.
    The lyrics to The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment” could surely be re-written to cover this whole sorry saga. Then again, “The Walls Come Tumbling Down” could be equally apt.

  9. I can understand Cav blowing up about Lance, he probably doesnt care to much really and just concentrating on his pre-season which is fair enough.

    Personally I have grown tired of the Lance Saga, the lastest twist about the Oprah confession doesnt server any purpose apart from his own redemption as you wrote about INRNG. I would rather Cav talk about his lead out, or why OPQS choose to have pillow fits for all their team photos, or what is it like to work with Boonen etc.

  10. Didn’t Cav say things like “this is the most tested sport in the world”, “cycling does more for anti-doping…”, “why do they focus on cycling…” and the rest of it? I’ve always found him more petulant than insightful when it comes to discussing the bigger issues in the sport.

    • No, but I do watch rider interviews and am interested by the tango between the rider/team’s need for publicity and the media who want scoops, emotions, headlines etc; just as plain interviews are very dull. Wiggins is a good example, he can have a lot to say at times but other times he can talk for a minute without saying anything. And see Cancellara’s week in yellow during the Tour de France, apparently the press almost gave up talking to him because they struggled to get an exciting quote, it was just “yes, I am happy”, “I will try to keep the jersey one more day” etc.

  11. The best chance cycling has to regain its credibility is if the riders themselves take the lead on making it the cleanest sport there is. At least for the next few years that needs to be the number one message – both behind the scenes and towards the public. They need to be pro-active, creative and genuine. Those who don’t get on board need to be shunned. This might go overboard in some cases. But, when you’re responding to a long existing and extreme problem, sometimes you have to overcorrect for a period until you get to where you need to be.

  12. Hate it when textbook answers are given in interviews… A star is he/she who excels with the sporting performances and at the same time can handle the media (both the pressure and give them what they want).. Just see the example of Jose Mourinho..

  13. How’s about more riders using the Wiggo strafe and blast style retorts from circa TDF 2012, in response to the Pharmstrong query… “What???, all you f*@ck&#g cun%s, I’m not a sh&t rider…..” LOL

  14. “Mark, having seen the result of Tiger Wood’s scandal for Rory McIlroy, are your agents rubbing their hands together having you as cycling’s highest profile sponsored Nike athlete?”
    I mean there are plenty of fun questions journalists can ask that are personal, the thing is at the moment the questions are like bear baiting and require exactly the same stage managed response and for that the team PR’s and rider’s agents should be preparing their riders. Again as with the doping there is a duty of care that is not being taken by teams etc.
    Prepare your riders, it amazes me that a team so obsessed with every other level of PR as SKY don’t have the riders sat in a room with a PR Steve Peter’s telling them how to deal with the monkey with the mic… You only have to look at David Beckham and Andy Murray to see the effect of well being well prepped by a PR obsessed Agent.

    • I’m sure that Sky have done and do some kind of training, Niall. However its all very well delivering the lessons in theory in a classroom – the athlete as student turning the theory into practice in a room full of journos each and every time, is likely to be hit and miss on occasion.

      As for Cav, well, the media all know he’s an easy target to rile, whether at the end of a race he’s just lost or in a situation like this. And that makes an easy headline story for them. Highroad, British Cycling and Sky have all had to deal with the effects – now its OPQS’s turn.

    • Exactly this. There’s nothing a rider can do to stop it – this is the very obvious legacy of so many years tainted by doping.
      All a rider can hope to do is acknowledge the tainted past and ask to get on with a hopefully positive (bad choice of word perhaps) future – this is the Wiggo approach. He’s had his expletive-ridden rant, he’s had his reasoned explanation of why he won’t dope – what more can he do?

    • I’d have to agree with you on that. There’s a siege mentality amongst the peloton right now – and I kind of understand it. Some people choose to term this as omerta, but I disagree with that as a flat generalisation. Although some riders have things to hide I dont believe that’s at all true across the board. Its also clear that some teams’ management have instructed their riders to make no comment, and its also the case that some riders agents are turning down all media requests for comment on the Lance situation on behalf of their riders (I can name at least 2 such agents with a number of pro riders on their books). In one agent’s words ‘I wouldn’t touch this with a barge pole’

  15. with all the fuss shouldn’t they really be expecting something right now?
    surely they could pre-empt it with ‘ I know you’re going to want to know… here is my quick thoughts [insert nicely crafted comment] …thanks, but now I’d like to focus on my job in hand, so pls address all questions to that etc etc’
    and then for the rest of the day they can just say ‘ I refer you to my earlier comment, I’d rather focus on the future today thanks v much’….
    it can’t be that tricky

  16. The Armstrong Affair and all the duplicity, bullying and deceit that goes with it is simply another example of large scale corruption.

    We can find plenty of other examples elsewhere in life, cycling was simply the back drop for this one.
    It has absolutely nothing to do with ‘our’ sport but all the crooks must be identified and dealt with.

    Unfortunately we have to live through that but it really is not about cycling.

  17. Wiggins’ inability to see that his irritation at LA questions is raising more questions than it dismisses and drawing some ironic similarities. The TdF outburst and recent comments are only making things worse for him. Whether he agrees with it or not, why not publicly trot out the ‘positive (sic) message’ and stick to the party lines rather than going on a full-scale blow out that raises eyebrows over his own performance and perpetuates speculation? In his mind, he clearly thinks that he’s done everything he can to show he’s clean and is now fed up with it; he should accept that the question *will* get asked so why not be prepared with a bland, politic line? The question’s boring him – so give a boring answer repeatedly, help the topic die out.

    • Personally, I don’t blame Wiggins for getting annoyed. Just imagine how many times he has been asked about Lance Armstrong recently. He’s not doing press conferences and interviews to talk about anyone other than himself and his team so it must get extremely frustrating to constantly be questioned about someone (anyone) else.

      After all, he is only human. Unlike Mr Armstrong.

      • I totally understand his annoyance; it must be extremely frustrating. However, from a spectator/consumer perspective it makes it interesting. I don’t feel he’s helping himself with his current responses and, indeed, is only perpetuating these questions. If he bit his tongue, came out with the bland, positive response suggested in the article then the number of questions he’ll get asked will decrease.

        Of course, this is juxtaposed with public demand for ‘interesting’ riders and interviews, newsworthy quotes and the media satisfying this demand. While investigative, well-researched journalism is correctly hailed as being the higher form there’s still news in the ‘keep poking them until the snap’ method, irrespective of the morality of playing on riders’ patience. As you say, they are only human. It would be dull if all the pros were all reeling off the same lines: the media could barely contain their glee at the quotes from certain Spanish riders and (briefly) Alex Dowsett when questioned immediately post the USADA report…

        In short: he can’t win but he could do more to help himself.

        • Agree, Swami. You apparently came by your title honestly!
          I think that Wiggins does neither himself nor his sponsors much good when he opens his mouth. Cav, same thing. Not saying I want flat generic answers, but showing some class is a pretty straightforward way to return the sponsors investment. The last thing you want to do is make them cringe.
          I’d be interested to hear who Inrng and the board consider particularly savvy riders, from a PR perspective. Jens does not count, too easy.

          As an aside, Deadly Nedly is guns blazing.

  18. The Wall Street Journal published an article this morning (17Jan), “New Twist in Armstrong Saga” exposing a financial link between Armstrong’s financier, Thomas Weisel, and Hein Verbruggen. As the old investigative dictum goes, follow the money!

    • Yes… and BMC team co-owner Jim Ochowicz in there too. We’ll see how far this goes.

      There’s a lot more money to follow but it’s been part of the Armstrong case already with an international police effort to trace some of the payments linked to the doping networks.

  19. Well, well, well…the Lance Armstrong thing is being shown in the UK on the ……Discovery Channel.

    Even the former sponsors win on the way down too.

    • There’s a good article by Herbie Sykes in this month’s Procycling that looks at the comments made by the Spanish riders – or the lack of comment in Valverde’s case. Different perception of cycling in Spain and Italy (cycling is a hard job, the riders deserve help) compared to Anglo nations (‘Corinthian values’), national inferiority complex in Spain’s case, and Catholicism all mentioned.

Comments are closed.