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.
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.