The Invisible Finish Line

The race will be too fast to notice today, but if you ride the route of today’s stage and get caught Lausanne’s traffic with about six kilometres to go, you might notice the sign beside for the Court of Arbitration for Sport and its anti-doping division. For many years the outcome of plenty of bike races was decided by this body rather than by riders. It all feels like a distant memory.

It’d be stupid to say doping has vanished, but big, repeated doping scandals have and that’s the point to stress here. Who knows what is happening in private, but outwardly the sport looks very different. Not long ago pro cycling was dysfunctional and delusional at times where riders could be caught red-handed cheating would refuse to accept matters and tried every legal means possible to avoid being sanctioned. The sport was held up as The Doping Sport.

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A decade ago you wondered if UCI staff might be on first name terms with the receptionists at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), so often were they attending hearings. And these were often big cases, star riders were filing appeals, grand tour results were at stake. Or “at steak” when it came to hearing Alberto Contador’s case about his positive test for clenbuterol, a banned substance which he said he ingested accidentally from some meat given to him. But under the rules where it came from didn’t matter, and after exhausting his appeals, he finally got a ban from the CAS. Even the eventual winner Andy Schleck who collected the Tour de France win following the CAS ruling was not happy.

“I never stood on the top step of the podium on the Champs-Elysées. I never wore the yellow jersey in Paris. I didn’t sign my contract for the following year as the Tour winner and that, financially, changes plenty… This win is on my palmarès but remains a disappointment”
– Andy Schleck, L’Equipe (translated), 6 July

None of this was satisfying. Having major results overturned and then put on hold for months and even years was a terrible look for the sport, the scandal and scourge of doping was dire enough but this just prolonged and amplified appeals. Now due process matters but who can name a rider who won at CAS by exposing some bungling by the UCI or WADA? Instead appeals seem to be made by desperate riders unable to admit they’d been caught and taking gullible fans along for a ride; or some hoping they had the wealth to lay legal siege on a mid-size sports governing body whose budget is less than that of some pro teams.

15 years ago pro cycling was like the addict that had hit rock bottom, the CAS cases, the CIRC report all spelt out that its business model would die because incoming sponsors risked being humiliated by reputational damage. Today you’ll find big blue chip names at the Tour de France…. but they’re sponsoring the race not the teams, brands like Vittel, Skoda, Continental, Leclerc and LCL are or have been on the Tour but haven’t wanted to touch a team. That’s changing, but slowly (and yes TotalEnergies has a pro team now but that’s not quite by design, the oil giant bought DirectEnergies, a small electricity supplier, and the team came with it).

Often the police catch more than the anti-doping officials. Operation Aderlass, the prosecution of a blood doping network, got pro cyclists Stefan Denifl and Georg Preidler among others but they admitted it and didn’t launch any appeals. The UCI has still had CAS cases to plead but it’s been for small fry, often outside the World Tour, think Raul Alarcon or André Cardoso of late. These cases feel administrative rather than existential for the sport.

Has doping gone away? Surely not and that’s not what this blog post is about. What’s certain is that it’s hardly making the headlines. Earlier this century the sport was beset with scandals and many ended up the Court of Arbitration for Sport, this body ended up changing the result of many races, including the Tour de France. Today the race will pass by at 50km/h without even noticing it’s there.

48 thoughts on “The Invisible Finish Line”

  1. Just a correction André Cardoso was WT at the time, also it was a case where I think the riders would have won had he the means to fight it, given that he never had a positive B sample and no way in hell would a big name rider be suspended for so long without it, and given it was at the same time as Fromme case the difference in treatment (even taking the difference substances into consideration) was patently obvious.

    Not to say he wasn’t doping, he most likely was, but the B sample.tule should have been followed, it was a ridiculous miscarriage of justice.

    • Arrange these four quotes in order of importance:

      – it was a ridiculous miscarriage of justice

      – pro cycling was dysfunctional and delusional at times where riders could be caught red-handed cheating would refuse to accept matters and tried every legal means possible to avoid being sanctioned

      – due process matters but who can name a rider who won at CAS by exposing some bungling by the UCI or WADA?

      – Not to say he wasn’t doping, he most likely was.

  2. It has been noticeable that interest in this stuff does seem to have fallen off a cliff, even though performances have not, to put it mildly.

    • The big advance that changed the equation from dope = marginal advantage to dope = sine qua non which meant that ability = marginal advantage was oxygen vectoring. They simulate that now with hypobaric bike hotels. Everybody agrees that’s legal but not everybody agrees that’s ethical. Then there are things with little scientific consensus (ketones, Tizanidine …) so UCI hasn’t ruled on them. And of course there’s the possibility of definitely illegal PEDs that go undetected and unreported.

      I don’t know if there’s a correlation between MPCC-member, non-MPCC-member, and use of legal but questionable techniques. It is perhaps interesting that the 5 biggest and most successful squads are non-MPCC (Quick-Step, JV, Ineos, UAE, Bahrain) but of course the huge confounding variable is that they’re also the wealthiest. Also, while nearly all riders are publicly against dope, some are more outspoken than others, and those are usually just below the elite level. Martin, eg, is quite outspoken; he’s also described as an inconsistent yoyo who can’t quite make it to the top level. There seems to be a correlation here, but is there a cause and effect, and if so, which way does it go? He won’t do sketchy stuff so can’t reach the top, or he’s not good enough and is blaming things like hypobaric hotel rooms and supplements which may not help at all? Or because his squad is not rich enough to afford these things?

      All that said, it does seem that what dope there may be is back to marginal advantage levels. Not acceptable, but a definite improvement over the bad old days. Certainly we’re not seeing the ridiculous transformations (Riis, Armstrong) that characterized the days when dope was determinative.

      • Everybody agrees that hypobaric is legal? Not Italy, and Italians athletes are out, both in their country and when training abroad, it’s just forbidden to them.

        And that should be the way to go. That stuff in theory brings us nearly back to before blood passport. You artificially change your values as you need with PEDs, then in case you’re asked to justify that, you provide the hypobaric hotel bill.
        Maybe you don’t even actually switch the room “on”.
        *Real* altitude’s (and hypobaric rooms’) effects are not always obvious, or constant through time even on the same athlete. The body reacts in a variety of ways, and you don’t always get what you want. But if you instead do it *the oyher way* you can always defend – after achieving the desired results through pharmacology (which isn’t obvious either, but more predictable and controllable) – that you had indeed a great series of legal low oxygen sessions which just worked the best possible way. And there’s close to no way to prove you’re lying.

        That said, altitude worked the same way and was less democratic because it was more expensive. It was also easier to keep vigilance at bay: more expensive for institutions, too, and easier for the teams to get inside info about controls (harder to organise a last minute fast and secret car trip).

        So, is this a step forward toward a more balanced sport because now more teams can affird the shortcut? Or making the blood passport nearly void (and I say “nearly”, because at least you can’t go over some supposed human limits as a supposed reaction to altitude; but, again, with hypobaric rooms you can now defend that you were sleeping at 5,000 m. and push the limits a bit further off) is giving a greater advantage to the teams which can afford a better science department, making the most of the now allowed vast range of legitimate blood values in training?

        Again, at least the blood passport should limit in-race doping. Oh, but, wait… the tool itself has other theoretical and practical limitations we didn’t even start speaking about…

        Heck, I’m bored. Back to watching races, please 😉

  3. doping in cycling – and we thought whether the tour having a cobbles stage like stage 5 was fair was the most divisive question! i certainly don’t have any answers (if there were really good answers i sure hope sports would be trying them) but i have a few observations:
    the feeling among the riders/athletes in general about whether others are gaining an advantage seems cyclical. i agree the riders don’t seem to be speculating that some are doing things most are not (maybe bahrain excepted). as a school teacher i try to gauge the level of acceptance with cheating among the students. when they think everyone else is doing it – it seems much tougher to control. whether the authorities/governing bodies/police are checking seems to matter. in us pro sports (NBA, NFL, MLB) one really gets the sense the authorities don’t want to know (thus encouraging rampant drug use). i think cycling does pretty well with this (prob not as well as the hard core anti-doping folks would prefer). finally, like social media/the media in general/human nature – ‘if it bleeds it leads’ sensational cases (la, contador, floyd) greatly alter the attention and hence the perception. i feel we haven’t cases of this magnitude/scrutiny in a while.
    i feel there will always be a high percentage of humans who place winning at any costs over competing with integrity at any cost – so drug use to enhance performance will always be there. when the culture of the sport (maybe due to the attitudes of the best riders) and a willingness of authorities to police and enforce current policies are aligned hopefully the perception (maybe the reality?) of the problem recedes (it NEVER goes away – cuz, you know, humans!).
    thanks for the blog – when the health doesnt allow as much riding – then being a (rabid) fan of the sport helps fill the gaps a bit and the topics and discussions here are awesome. sincerely, rick

    • I remember the fear (just media fear? Don’t remember that that well…) Nagano olympics in 1998 will expose NHL ice hockey players doping abuse, it never materialized, of course. But back then, it was assumed there is widespread (ab)use of PED’s in the NHL…

      Similar to soccer (originaly English term for association football…), Zdenek Zeman’s allegations etc. (he came from the eastern bloc, after all, and his compatriot Kratochvilova is still the world record holder – even Semenaya did’t manage to dethrone her /yet/… and he’s quite a character, but I still can not imagine his claims were baseless). I assume – just a outsider’s view – the rise of Spanish sport across many disciplines in say 2000s-2010s may not be that coincidental, FC Barcelona and Spanish NT players of the Guardiola / Del Bosque era ordinarily run much more than their oposition, which enabled them to dominate the possession of the ball that staggeringly – but maybe they were just trained better / more determined; and sure, they had certain Mr. Hernandez Creus on their side, the PEM (performance enhancing midfielder)…

      But one perhaps feels there is little incentive to enquire about PED’s in – say – ass. football by the relevant governing bodies… while track & field, winter endurance sports and cycling get all the flak, albeit modern football is also an endurance sport, without doubt. But, unlike cycling, the amount of money invested is sky(neos?) high.

      • Zeman’s declarations stood in court. Juventus FC using as much pharmacology “as a small province town hospital” went down in court-proven history, too.

  4. After some high-profile dope cheats beat-the-rap via high-priced lawyering IMHO cases are brought far less often these days. The authorities are like police with pistols while the cheats have automatic weapons…outgunned or in this case simply overwhelmed by cheats with vast budgets to defend themselves against the charges. I’d bet there’s a lot of discussions that go on at UCI/WADA about the chances of winning these cases vs just stirring up yet another scandal that does nobody any good, followed by maybe a discreet warning to the cheats that “We’re on to you. If you keep it up, we’ll work hard on an iron-clad case against you. Our advice is to knock it off.” rather than a big flashy announcement/sanction.

  5. There does seem to be a now a “traditional pre-Tour doping story” to put riders on notice, but to be honest, by the time authorities have caught on to what is going on in the peloton, the big teams with the resources have moved on to the next thing to keep ahead of their rivals.

    • I’m curious to hear about examples of these doping trends that well-funded teams are implementing successfully and then moving on from before the authorities have caught on?

        • You just shouldn’t think only about the stereotypical “can’t catch ’em ’cause of technological reasons, then comes a test, then they move on”. Which happened, of course:

          Blood transfusion > EPO > Blood transfusions again > microdosing

          You should also think about matters of lobbying and political pressure. Exercise pressure to avoid Tramadol and similar painkillers being forbidden until you’re ready to move on, maybe simply because the “poor teams” competition’s now got that too. Then it’s precisely the right moment to allow it being forbidden.

          The no needle policy, years and years asking for it, then you land there, but know what?, the focus about recovery is now on substances you take orally, and rather than recovery through filling the tank fast (which many used needles for, not just blood, also generally allowed substances…), now it’s rather about shifting the way your metabolism works. While authorities debate if it’s fine against your lawyers, you go on some further time. Yes, at the beginning of it all, that stuff was proprietary and exclusive for your liver only.

          GH. They looked to be able to test it, but things suddenly looked more complicated and it got rampant again.

          But, yes, the normal course of action is not cheating on sport authorities, it’s rather about feeling that they aren’t that much interested in going after you. Where the word “you” can be a specific athlete, team… or during some periods the whole sport, barring peculiar situations.

          Wow, I had resisted a couple of days without commenting this subject, but I’m growing tired faster than expected. Good ol’ commenting PEDs not working as they used to? 😛

          • What I meant was such truisms aren’t based on facts or actual knowledge, rather on banter, rumors and the expectation that because cycling was always using PEDs, it never stopped…

            I am under no illusion everything is clean – party because the reasons you stated, e. g. sport politics… (who tells what clean means, who limits the rules?) but – does it actually matter? The narrative of sport is – a narrative, a constructed reality, and it always was. Cycling races were invented for – and by – the sport media, so they have a matter to write about, of course. As an ex-football fan, I am more than aware about the temporary character of sporting success. By winning – say an international tournament – you kills everything, the suspense, expectations, the drama… everything ends and becomes redundant, replaced by new expectations, new tournaments, new dramatic arcs and personae… because the sport has little history, but the always hyper-present present – and a huge future.

            Why is Pogacar THE star of today? (Strangely almost no one seems to appreciate Vingegaard’s performance to date…) Because we project our expectations of the world beater, the super star, the six-time champion… who we can identify with and who can be our Coppi, our Merckx, our legendary contemporary… into Pogacar. We want him to be even better, even more dominant, because such dominance brings order to the chaotic nature of (not just) sporting competition.

            And does it matter whether he’s clean – at least until we know?

  6. I think that after the sheer number of scandals, fans got doping fatigue and preferred to just watch races. We’re also not seeing anywhere near the level of Lazarus transformations we used to – riders who are winning are showing it consistently from an early age. I’m sure riders are doping or pushing grey areas, but we don’t have many smoking guns. The human aspect is important too, and I’m sure it’s something riders think about. Armstrong wasn’t caught because he tested positive, he was caught because he was a remorseless bully. That’s the reason why the record books say that Indurain has five Tour wins and he has none.

  7. +1 Vedrafjord. You make the points perfectly.
    In the Armstrong days even some of us armchair critics could sense what was going on. And history has proved us correct, even although some escaped justice.

  8. Imagine being a superstar walking into that place to face your final judgement, it’s like it’s deliberately architecturally designed for maximum humiliation. Anonymous industrial estates are great levellers.

  9. We all don’t want to enter our cathedral of cycling to genuflect at the statue of our favorite rider of a sport with a tainted past. Although we all know inside our minds eye that we we may find ourselves disappointed with the champions of that sport that we love.
    Plan for the worst hope for the best.

  10. I wonder how much doping now happens at the edge of the WT. I don’t think any of the top guys are doing it, but rather those just hanging on to their contracts.

  11. As has been mentioned by others on this blog, the relegation system could have the unintended consequence of bringing back doping. The incentive is certainly there for a team threatened with relegation, especially if the end of their sponsorship deal coincides with a relegation year. On another note, Jonathan Vaughters is calling for team buses to be inspected for blood doping before races. I doubt he would publicly call for this unless he knows (or strongly suspects) that this is an issue. The willingness to take public stands like this is one of the reasons I really respect EF as a team.

  12. Call me an old cyni c- because that’s certainly what I call myself and quite probably what I have become – but to me making a public statement like Vaughters’ is nothing but a simple PR maneuvre, en easy way to make your team look good – and better than its race results – in the eyes of the general public, to get the respect of its fans and, perhaps, its sponsors as well.

    Mind you, I’m not *so* cynical – at least not yet – that I would immediately think that this must be a ploy to lead possible unwanted attention away to something that your team (no longer?) isn’t doing (because it’s old hat and no one else is doing it, either).

    • I’m not sure if you know Vaughters’ history with doping, with the USADA and with the entire Armstrong scandal, but I think you need to be very cynical indeed to call this a “PR stunt.” He’s been very publicly anti-doping for years and this statement is consistent with everything he’s said previously and with the stated principles of the team. If it were just easy PR, why aren’t other team managers courageous enough to speak out publicly?

      • I cannot claim to be as familiar with Vaughters’ history with anything beyond Team Garmin/Cannondale/EF Education, but yes, I’m very cynical indeed about managers and athletes who come across as more courageous than others to speak out publicly.
        Please note that cynicism in this case doesn’t mean that I think EF must obviously be just as dirty as every other team. It just makes me question what is the likelihood of findng evidence of blood doping in a razzia of team buses. It is not as if the team managers and doctors who are – or whom Vaughters knows, strongly suspects or wants us to suspect to be – practising blood doping haven’t thought about not leaving evidence to be found so easily.

      • That all makes sense…until you think about BigTex’ similar claims. Remember Ol’ Heinie’s claim that Tex never, ever doped? Didn’t JV claim in the past if doping was discovered on his team he’d close it down? So either no doping has ever been found on his team or he’s a liar. He’s got an MBA (IMHO the B stands for bulls__t) now so my guess it’s the latter.

  13. The CAS didn’t have to rule on Froome’s salbutamol case, did it? It would have been interesting. But since those days, we’re not hearing much of the CAS, it’s true.

    • WADA love letter. Russian athletes are dopers. Western athletes are essentially good persons who don’t deserve to be exposed, which would leave people around the world too confused about good and evil.
      And, yeah, through different investigations by several institutions external to cycling a good deal of sheer s**t about that team surfaced year after year, but neither UCI nor WADA looked much interested in taking serious action about that.

  14. A bunch of university eggheads from the Swiss area around these last couple of stages were paid good money to tackle the whole matter of doping in cycling, and, hey, they came up with decent ideas. Obviously to no use. Literally, they weren’t used much. At Astana, maybe.

    Why should anyone be really interested in fighting doping in the sport – besides the athletes, I mean? And enlightened fans, maybe, but… just wait for the cheating label to be potentially applied to their beloved champion and the light will soon be out.
    It’s the whole “cheating” concept that’s culturally wrong and won’t bring us far, but, as I said, it works greatly within cycling discourse.
    Yes, it became disfunctional in the past for a series of different reasons (mainly when it was being used as a weapon in sport politics and against competitors), but now things look fine, that is, tennis-like. Great. Or not. Whatever.

    • When police is involved, or better said when they decide to go public, it’s hard that things can be kept that quiet, really. They’ll tend to try and bring to court whatever they think they have and, both as a means to an end and a goal in itself, will keep the media on alert and smelling blood. Sometimes one could even feel they go a little too far. Then, closing a court case is a *whole* different story and might fail more often than not (today is a little easier thanks to new laws when compared to the 90s and 00s), but when police is raiding in a visible way, you won’t need to wait years and years to get all the details – if there’s anything relevant to share, of course. Normally, if an investigation goes cold or closed and nothing surfaces, you can pretty much bet that the athlete was “clean”(-er than average). They even exposed Armstrong (only for cycling authorities deciding not to take action and even lobby in favour of the athlete) for Actovegin. By the way, the same “old school” substance found a couple of months ago at Maynar’s when arresting him – an historical sport doctor who’s been linked to several cyclists, besides other sports. Actovegin in 2022 under blood passport across so many sports? Well, I guess he kept it merely as a fond memory…

  15. Catching dopers is like catching the Mafia – you need someone on the inside. Otherwise you end with the circus of Sky/Froome and his “asthma” problems.

  16. The lesson from the last 25 years odd of anti-doping is that only criminal investigations, by motivated police forces, with interested prosecutors, can reliably crack open doping. And hence, put some /genuine/ pressure on the sport to not dope.

    Anti-doping investigations need:
    – Power to raid hotels, service courses, homes and interdict cars
    – Conduct phone surveillance
    – Compel people to testify, under pain of perjury or other significant sanction.

    The civil IOC-affiliated, WADA system just can’t do this. It’s an “honour” system, that rests largely on tests that are – at best – always a decade behind and even then still can not reliably give hard proof of doping in many cases.

    We need proper criminal laws and investigative bodies (or sports-fraud departments within national forces), and we need them across /all/ major sporting nations. (*cough* UK and USA).

    • Oh, and the other issue is that at least some of the gameskeepers involved in WADA are also involved in advising those who might be the poachers in the sports world. When you have top-level WADA science advisers who are also top-level advisers of international, elite athletes, there is an obvious conflict of interest.

    • Last I checked (and please correct me if I’m wrong on this) there is still no EU-wide anti-doping law. The difficulties we saw with Festina and Puerto still exist (i.e. a doping offense in France is not necessarily prosecuted the same way in Spain etc etc). If there are strong community-wide laws in the EU, that’s a big first step. Leaving things up to the UCI (laughable) or WADA (well-intentioned but under-funded) will not solve the problem.

  17. Two OT questions:

    – is it worse the doping debate, or the “who’s the strongest” one?

    – why do I *always* get involved in both, although I *always* try to resist it? (I’m sure there’s some Anon with a PhD in Psychology on this plane who can give me some good hints as usual)

    • I find the doping debate more tedious as it relies almost entirely on speculation: if there were strong evidence then there’d be little need for debate!

      The “who’s the strongest”, OTOH, at least takes into account actual results (to which we can then throw in the “enjoyable” speculation/subjectivity about the worth of those results, or whether a certain rider would have achieved more/less if they were on a different team, weren’t marked so strongly, etc…)

      • The “strongest” debate is completely silly, because you compare completely incomparable qualities while comparing completely incomparable eras. 🙂 Was Coppi stronger than Anquetil and Merckx, because he faced much harder opponents (Bartali), or were A. and M. stronger, because they actualy significantly exceeded similarly strong opposition?

        Who cares?

        For me, doping debate can bring interesting topics – e. g. does doping matter and do we really want clean competition? The “goat” debate is little more than the proverbial “wasting the bandwith”, isn’t it?

        • And yet that “goat” debate (and the almost infinite number of other theoretical rankings) ends up capturing the imagination of fans and writers of every single sport. If it’s wasting bandwidth, then it’s no more a waste than watching sports or talking about sports.

          On the other hand, doping debates are virtually always full of people screaming at the top of their lungs about things they know little or nothing about, and generally being immune to updating their priors no matter what evidence is brought forward.

          • The second paragraph is alas definitely true. Concerning the first… I never liked the “goat” folly (be it soccer and comparing Aranycsapat to Brazil 70… even by Elo’s ranking – or Messi vs Cruyff, O’Sullivan vs Hendry, Fischer vs Kasparov vs Carlsen…). While it perhaps captures imagination (what kind of imagination is this?), it’s still utterly vain and – that also applies to the doping debate and most others, of course – it shows much more about us debating such stuff than about the point in question. 🙂

            I am in the O’Sullivan’s camp. btw… 🙂

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