One of the academics hosting a conference in Geelong next week focusing on doping in cycling has defended the decision to invite Floyd Landis to participate in a panel discussion. He adds that critics of his presence, including the organisers of the UCI World Road Race Championships being held the city who have withdrawn official backing from the conference, have yet to mount “a rational argument about it.”
Moreover, the fight against doping in the spot needs to be focused on the wider structure of cycling that encourages such practices, rather than seeking to demonise individual riders, he insists.
The conference, called New Pathways In Pro Cycling, is being hosted by Deakin University in Geelong next Monday and Tuesday. Earlier this week, road.cc spoke to one of the organisers, law lecturer Martin Hardie, who is also a cycling journalist and who spent several years living in Bilbao where he got to know many leading figures on the Spanish racing scene.
Hardie is one of the co-authors of a report that will be presented at the conference, I Wish I Was 21 Now: Beyond Doping In The Australian Peloton, which provides a fascinating and often frank insight into the pro racing scene and riders’ attitudes towards doping and drug testing based on a series of interviews with the country’s pros.
The report, which you can find here, is well worth reading, although for obvious reasons the identity of the riders has been kept secret – mind you, we’d love to know who it was who conjured up the image of Manolo Saiz and a barbecue in a prison cell, and as a family website, we’d better leave it at that.
While media attention has focused on the reaction to the presence of Landis, Hardie points out that he’s just one of the participants in the conference, saying, “We extended an invitation to all embers of the cycling community – riders, teams, institutions. Many people responded. Pedro Horrillo [the former Rabobank rider who retired after suffering horrific injuries following a near-fatal crash into a ravine during the 2009 Giro d’Italia] was going to come, but family commitments made it impossible.
“Others just can’t get here. Some want to be, but fear the repercussions. We will hear from some of the voices from the peloton that could not make it when Carlos Arribas [the Spanish journalist who broke the Operacion Puerto story] speaks.”
Turning to Landis himself, Hardie said: “Floyd responded to our invitation and we think he has something valuable to add. The opposition to his presence has not yet mounted a rational argument against it. Their response is more of the same old tired stuff we have always heard from the sport’s helmsmen.”
The American cyclist, of course, became a pariah in the sport after being stripped of the Tour de France title he won in 2006 when it transpired that he had tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone, and hit the headlines again earlier this year when, after years of fighting to clear his name, he finally confessed and pointed the finger at one-time team mate Lance Armstrong and other members of the former US Postal Service team as being involved in systematic doping.
While there continue to be a number of cyclists competing – and winning – at the highest level having returned from bans for doping related offences, not all of them publicly forthcoming about past transgressions, Hardie says it is wrong to focus exclusively on the riders when addressing a problem whose roots are spread throughout the sport.
“I am not concerned if people confess or are unrepentant,” he explains. “I for one am not interested in holding up the riders as being the evil characters in this. I refuse to use terms ‘lie,’ ‘cheats,’ etc because what is at issue is the structure of the sport, not individuals. Some riders are able to come back, others are not. There does appear to be two standards at play here. Some riders are asked to make donations to the UCI to come back after bans and they refuse and hence never come back,” he claims.
Hardie does have strong reservations about the way some anti-doping investigations are conducted, and particularly the continued focus on riders rather than the wider framework of team staff who are complicit in and even encourage such activity. He also has doubts about the legality of the methods employed to ensure that perceived transgressors are brought to ‘justice,’ citing one recent high-profile example.
“I have great concerns about the manner CONI [the Italian Olympic Committee] approaches things. I think the Valverde case is a travesty of justice,” he insists.
Whether or not you believe the Caisse d’Epargne rider doped – and it should be pointed out that he has never failed a drugs test – disquiet has been raised in some quarters that evidence seized as part of a criminal investigation in one jurisdiction could then be used in an unrelated investigation in another.
In Valverde's case, that was the blood bags that apparently linked him to Operacion Puerto, with the blood subsequently matched to a sample taken from the cyclist when the Tour de France briefly passed through Italy last year.
“So it is not black and white,” Hardie maintains. “Another thing that concerns me is the demonisation of Spain. Operacion Puerto was the first chance we have had to attack the problem at its source – director sportifs, managers, doctors – and uncovering an illegal network that stretched from Spain to Israel and Australia. Puerto was about prosecuting these types of people – Fuentes, Saiz, Belda.
“But the UCI have derailed the whole process,” he claims. “One has to wonder why, especially given the strong links between them and Manolo Saiz,” he adds. “Instead of letting the process run against these people we have had another witchhunt against the victims – the riders.”
Nowadays, due to the power of the internet, everyone who has a stake in cycling can quickly access information and form and express opinions. Fans, riders, and everyone concerned about the future of the sport, can make their voices heard as never before, and long gone are the days in which the first you heard of a cyclist failing a test was when you picked up a monthly magazine weeks after the event.
As someone writing for the online cycling press since 1998 – widely seen as year zero for the modern fight against doping due to the Festina Affair – Hardie acknowledges, “I am all too aware of the power of the net. And I think it is a huge role to play in promoting change and in ensuring transparency in the future.”
However, he agrees that those responsible for running the sport, those whose job it is to root out the problem of doping, are yet to embrace the opportunities it affords in helping build a clean sport for the future.
“Sadly some don’t get this and just pass everything off as ‘internet rumor,’” he says. “I think they definitely underestimate the power of the net and the fans on this process. I think in this day and age the consumer is as much a part of the process of production and the marketing of lifestyles as are the riders or the sport’s helmsmen. The net increases and amplifies the role the fans play.”
Of course, the whole reason for the cycling circus arriving in Geelong next week is the UCI World Road Championships, and as Hardie says, “Well of course we can’t wait for the race. We want the race to be a success and have never sought to detract from that. People have to realise that the Worlds is where the business of cycling gets done. Remember the farce of the UCI Congress in Madrid, the Stuttgart debacle," he adds.
"So we want a great race and for me – I lived a long time in Bilbao, so Samu [Sanchez] is a friend and I would like him to add to his Beijing win. But [Oscar] Freire is a real threat on this course, in the end all I can say is – may the best Spaniard win!”
Andy Layhe, co-founder of the anti-doping organisation Bike Pure, will be one of the participants at the conference, where he will sit on the Biological Passport Forum on Monday, which also includes Michael Ashenden, Klaas Faber, Paul J. Hayes and others, and on the Where to Now for Cycling? panel discussion on Tuesday with Floyd Landis, Michael Ashenden, Michael Drapac and others on Tuesday.
"We are delighted to be given the opportunity to represent the grassroots fans and pro athletes who form part of our organisation at this landmark conference,” says Layhe. “Any event that wishes to send a positive message and move the sport forward is a step in the right direction and must be welcomed by all parties."
Layhe continued: “Any event that brings together a combination of speakers who are passionate about the sport, as a catalyst for change can only be a positive move. Bike Pure's core membership is passionate about cycling and wish to see doping eradicated, whilst promoting honest role models whom cycling fans can trust.
"Dealing with past cheats is unnerving and against our mission to promote clean riders as role models to trust, but if we can learn more about why riders resort to doping, then we can hopefully prevent another generation of riders falling foul to the disease of doping," he concluded.
We’ll be reporting on the conference here on road.cc next week, and you don’t need to be in Geelong to follow events, as Hardie explains. “We will put up videos. We will blog and tweet from the conference. And we have a lot more material to come out of the current research. Career, Education and Ethics will be one thing we will push strongly. Along with that we will be seeking to propose changes to the Biological Passport system. At present, our opinion is that it is legally untenable.”
To see the full programme and to keep up to date with the latest news from the conference, head to its website which you will find here.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.