Moving on… after recognising mistakes of the past
By Rob Arnold
Late on Friday evening 26 October 2012, the phone rang. Brad McGee was calling to let say that a story he had written and shared with me a week earlier was about to be published in Fairfax Media. What became an article titled ‘Confessions of a non-doper’ (in the printed form, Sydney Morning Herald 27 October, but was dubbed ‘How dopers stole the best years of my career’ in the online incarnation) started as a note to himself late on the evening he returned from his final race as a directeur sportif for the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team. “I couldn’t sleep,” he told me so I got up and starting putting my thoughts down to try and free my mind.” We had previously discussed running his story as an ‘open letter’ but he eventually decided to offer exclusivity to Fairfax on a piece which has since been picked up by media outlets around the world. It was one of the first post-“Reasoned Decision” articles from a clean rider defending his place in a peloton that has been severely tarnished by the fall-out from the USADA’s report. He suggested the follow-up could be done with RIDE Media (and this is what we’ll do in parts two and three of a series of interviews that took place in September and October 2012).
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First, a bit of background…
Before he left Australia at the end of September, bound for the Tour of Beijing, we’d spent an afternoon on his property in the NSW Southern Highlands talking about a variety of things. The intention of our original discussion was to get some insights about the 2012 Vuelta a España, the race won by Alberto Contador while McGee was the main DS for the Spaniard, working in conjunction with Bjarne Riis in team car number-one. He had become the third Australian to call the tactics for the winner of a Grand Tour (following on from Scott Sunderland with Carlos Sastre in the 2008 Tour de France, and Allan Peiper with Ryder Hesjedal in the 2012 Giro d’Italia). That in itself made McGee an interesting subject for an interview.
The fact that he had also long been a nemesis of the reigning champion of the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins, meant that it was also an opportunity to reflect on what had happened in July 2012. Much of that commentary can be found in the next issue of RIDE Cycling Review (due for release towards the end of November). But, as happens, other topics came up. Only a few days earlier McGee’s former team-mate Philippe Gilbert had won the world championships in The Netherlands but Brad wasn’t at that race. He had watched it unfold on television while in Copenhagen in what would ultimately become his farewell visit to the office of the team which had employed him since 2008: Saxo Bank (née CSC, etc).
While he was doing that, I’d been reading ‘The Secret Race’, by Dan Coyle and Tyler Hamilton. Like everyone who has done likewise, the contents had an effect on me; it left me feeling hollow and cheated. This was an era of cycling that I’d followed closely. It would be foolish to think that there wasn’t doping going on; even the casual observer could tell that there were men doing extraordinary things on bicycles. “Not normal!”
In fact, it is downright disturbing but no matter how much anyone looked, there was no way of proving – beyond speculation – that these extraordinary riders were cheating. That’s why ‘The Secret Race’ is both liberating and insulting. Finally, there was a clear explanation of all that transpired in Hamilton’s teams. Since the book’s release several readers have written to RIDE suggesting that the media has somehow been complicit in the acts that have led to the biggest watershed in cycling history; that, because the questions weren’t asked, the dopers could keep on with their sordid practices.
“Did the peloton Omerta extend to media outlets?” asked one reader. “Otherwise, print and television media were staggeringly far behind the reality of doping.”
That may be the case, but so too were all the so-called anti-doping agencies who are charged with the responsibility of policing these things. There’s a natural instinct when something enormous is revealed to seek blame, to point the finger and say it was all the fault of someone who could have done more. Hindsight offers perfect vision and also the opportunity to say that, once all has been revealed, any potentially defamatory comments at the time would be absolved and that business could resume as normal.
When a piece about Lance Armstrong’s farewell race was republished on ridemedia.com.au, it was prefaced with a comment about how the rider who had once won seven Tour de France titles was a particularly litigious character “with access to big-time lawyers and the funding to back up any action he or his foundation wanted to take against anyone who spoke out about him”. That’s true, yet we reminded readers that RIDE has never shied away from doping topics. The key was to say enough to tell a story but without actually being defamatory (of course).
In other words, there was a need for RIDE to defend itself against allegations that it had contributed to doping in the peloton. Why?
“You put Armstrong on the cover and sold magazines.” “People took up cycling because of Lance and that’s your market.” Etc.
Somehow, some people wanted to suggest that the blame could be directed at people and businesses that had nothing to do with EPO injections, micro-dosing, banking of blood bags, “red eggs”, cortisone, or “therapeutic use exemptions”. The ones who doped are the ones who cheated. There is a lot of collateral damage but not all of it warranted.
People want someone to place blame because of what’s recently been exposed; people feel robbed, and rightly so.
But as McGee said to me when he started writing the piece that would end up being published by Fairfax Media, “Why do I need to defend myself?!” The same applies to many people associated with cycling now: the (clean) riders, the media, the directeurs sportif, managers, team owners, race organisers… the fans. Some people in these groups are complicit; some are not… but generalisations are dangerous. Before his Fairfax piece was published, a link was forwarded to McGee with comments from the president of WADA that were published online with the headline ‘Everyone doped in Armstrong era‘.
I sent this link to McGee and told him: “I’m not you, but I’m pissed off that he could make such sweeping statements. ‘Everyone’ is a lot of people.” If it was an ordinary person offer commentary on Twitter, it could be dismissed but this is the head of the very organisation that failed in its mission statement. And he was willing to go on the record stating that everyone in cycling was using drugs.
The list of those affected is long and everyone is unhappy about it. Cycling is the laughing stock of sport right now. And the joke is a universally acknowledged one. This isn’t just one positive test, a slap on the wrist, a suspension, a financial penalty, a short-term embarrassing incident. It’s a generation or more that’s all been caught up in an utter fiasco, a farce. And there’s no escaping it. There’s no excuses left to offer. But there are still plenty left to blame.
The losses, for many, are not only great but irretrievable. Forget about the asterisks that now appear in place of a name in the position of “First Place” in the Tours de France from 1999 to 2005; that’s what the UCI has decreed will be the solution to an unprecedented problem and it’s what the ASO (organisers of the Tour de France) have ultimately had to accept. There are other huge losses – financial and emotional. And for all the bravado from the likes of UCI president Pat McQuaid who touts his regularly-repeated lines that cycling is not dead, that it is doing more than any other sports, that it is leading the fight… the sport is suffering.
Cycling is not finished. People will continue to ride their bikes. But the reputation of those who were once lauded as “stars” is now in tatters. Even the clean ones are having to “prove” their innocence – particularly when there’s a wealth of commentators willing to defame (often in anonymity) or simply cast aspersions about someone’s reputation even by suggesting a guilt by association.
Another former team-mate of McGee’s followed up the Fairfax article with another “defence” post that talked about this exact problem. Jens Voigt wrote a piece for Bicycling magazine in the US that carries the title of a quote: “I Just Did Not Ever Dope” – all first-caps, Jensie style.
This article outlined his career and how it could be perceived that Voigt was tainted by the slurs like the one that Fahey used. The German who started his career with an Australian team referenced the indiscretions of riders who had doped in the past and, ultimately, confessed their sins. By then it was too late. In late-2012, Bobby Julich had lost his job with Team Sky because of what he did from 1996 to 1998. He had injected EPO. Now he’s paying the penalty. Some will say that between then and now he had sufficient opportunity to confess but he opted not to, all along collecting a salary that was propped up by his reputation as a rider who “came third in the Tour de France”. That “success” was in 1998, behind Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich in what was, at the time it unfolded, the darkest Tour in history.
Anyone involved in the 1998 race will tell you that it was three weeks of action, drama and intrigue – and that it absolutely sucked!
The first issue of RIDE Cycling Review was released on the same day Willy Voet was arrested. That heralded the start of what is now commonly known as the ‘Festina Affair’. And it should have been the beginning of the end of doping in cycling. But as we’ve learned from Hamilton and many others who have since admitted their part in a horrible, narcissistic charade it only marked a change. It was only a speedbump on the way to glory – particularly for Lance Armstrong.
He was not part of that “Tainted Tour”, the one which Pantani won after claiming two stage victories in the mountains finishing third in the final time trial – while racing with a bandaid in the crook of his elbow. He is the only Italian since Felice Gimondi in 1965 to win the maillot jaune, the first pure climber to take the title since Lucien van Impe in 1976. And now? Big deal. Does anyone believe it was a real victory?
Armstrong missed that race but he returned the next year and won and won and won and won and won and won and won. But now it’s all lost. A name that was once celebrated has been replaced with asterisks.
He made liars out of many. But because the story was told as it unfolded doesn’t mean we got it wrong. It’s just different now that his methods have finally been uncovered.
The truth is out there and the winner is no one.
Travis Tygart can take a lot of the credit for uncovering what no else was able to: or at least document it in a way that was so comprehensive that even the most convinced believer of the Armstrong fallacy started to realise that they too had been cheated. But even the CEO of USADA would only consider it the net result of a lot of work… it’s a victory against dishonesty and greed and ego. Surely everyone would be happier, however, if it never had to come to a “Reasoned Decision”.
Everything is different now. Doubt lingers on every performance. Reputations are in tatters. At least one long-term sponsor has opted out of cycling. Judgements are being made about people who aren’t even on trial and the bickering has really only just begun.
There’s no simple formula for redemption. No one understands what the definitive way forward for professional cycling is. But anyone who knows even a little about the last two decades should at least appreciate that things are different now to what they used to be. The racing is different, the attitudes of young riders are not like they once were, the much-hyped omertà is out there as a thing of shame and anyone who tries to maintain the silence on topics that are now being discussed by the wider public is shot down like they ought to be.
The contents of ‘The Secret Race’ didn’t really surprise me but the book offered an insight into how it all happened: the clandestine yet systematic doping regimes at US Postal, and the nastiness that was at work by some at CSC and Phonak in the years that Hamilton was able to witness it first-hand… it’s explained in intimate detail. And, best of all, it offers a chronology of events that essentially formed the basis of the “Reasoned Decision” that would be released by USADA on 11 October.
My visit to the McGee property was on 26 September. He’d been busy and hadn’t yet gotten around to reading the Hamilton book.
During our chat about the Vuelta, it was inevitable that the owner of the team that McGee was part of from 2008 to 2012 was referenced. And even after the publication of his story in the Fairfaix Media, McGee is subjected to taunts from people who question his ethics, who insist on guilt by association. Bjarne Riis, I told McGee at the end of September, gets a fairly good wrap from Hamilton; he explains how meticulous he is and that there is a genuine, caring side to the Dane. But it also points out the obvious: that Bjarne had his history as well…
“And not a lot of blokes out there have been able to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Okay, from this moment on…’ they’ve still got to carry baggage and a lot of people would be cynical,” replied McGee. “I’ve only known Bjarne since he has drawn the line in the sand. And I think that’s very important.
“There are not a lot of blokes out there who I’m interested in working with because they haven’t emptied their skeletons out of the cupboard; they’re still quite two-faced in many regards. That’s the legacy that the sport will have for a long time.
“If only more blokes were able to stand up and go, ‘Alright, this is the way it was. There’s the line – and from this moment forward it’ll be different.’ And then be honourable to that, day in, day out with clear action.”
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On the Monday after the Fairfax story ran, McGee, true to his word, dropped into the RIDE office to offer a follow-up story and answer questions sent in by readers. The idea was to respond to what was raised in the story about him not having doped during his time as a rider but it extended beyond that. Still, the 36-year-old honoured his commitment and offered comments on topics that related to what he had to say a few days earlier. (But we, politely, skipped over the query about equipment: “What happens to all the pro bikes and gear when they get the new models?” Interesting question… wrong forum.)
In part two, McGee responds to questions about working with Bjarne Riis.
In part three, McGee talks about how recent revelations of doping should not mean that everyone in the peloton is implicated… with a particular reference to Jens Voigt.
A big thanks to all who contributed to the discussion: many of your questions will also be answered by McGee in the coming days.
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RIDE Media publishes RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
RIDE Cycling Review is now available in a digital format via Zinio.