Cycle racing was my second true love. The last few years have been good for our relationship. First, Armstrong retired, which meant I could start taking an interest again; then he was caught, which I never expected. After that you have the emergence of Team Sky, with verifiable sports science taking over from sports pharmacy, capped by back to back English victories in the big race. Plus a lot of heroes continued in the new world, somewhat diminished, but proving that they were great riders, even without the superhuman power and ability to never have an off day that they’d shown previously. Alberto Contador, just as brave in the attack and not interested in riding for second place; Valverde with his canny racing brain compensating for the legs that aren’t quite the same.
Then comes the Vuelta a Espana – the Tour of Spain – that has just finished. The Vuelta is the third and often the most exciting of the big Tours, after France and Italy. It often throws up surprising winners. It’s at the end of the year, when riders are tired or preparing for the world championships. The route is so hard that having a well drilled team (like Sky) doesn’t help as much as in TdF. And it’s in Spain.
Spain is the country where the police managed to track down blood bags of sporting dopers that were being stored for their future use, labelled so that you could see who was who even if that couldn’t be established by blood tests. Some cyclists confessed and took their bans. The investigation dragged on for years. Then Dr Fuentes, the head of the clinic involved, disclosed that many of the samples that had not yet been analysed related to prominent tennis players and footballers at the major Spanish clubs (he claimed Spain would not have won the World Cup without him). The result was that Fuentes quickly got a suspended sentence and the judge ordered that the remaining blood bags be destroyed “to respect the privacy” of the subjects. The Spanish police aren’t going to waste more time on this when they have an entire political class that is corrupt to attend to.
So for a professional cyclist, if you were going to have one last go at beating the system, Spain is the place to do it. Which means that when a 41 year old American former teammate of Lance Armstrong, who’s been solid all his career but never great, suddenly wins a Grand Tour by never having a bad day in three weeks; and discovering an ability to simply ride away from some of the world’s best climbers on the hardest mountains – well, eyebrows are going to be raised.
People can do high level sport to a good age now if they look after themselves. Ryan Giggs is in the Manchester United first team on merit at a similar age, but he doesn’t play the same way as in his twenties; and cycling, unlike football, is mostly about physical power and (in stage racing) recovery. Ask Giggs how he feels the day after a match now, compared to twenty years ago; and then consider that a Grand Tour lasts for three weeks with maybe two rest days.
The reports that other former Armstrong teammates have made about what you signed up for when you joined team Lance are a matter of record. That may be in the past. The effects of some of the illicit treatments don’t go away though. The Vuelta winner himself says that what he has done will never happen again, which is a strange thing for a sportsman to believe.
To CH’s credit, his team has published the readings from the power meter attached to his bike, but that just causes more uncertainty. Current scientific theory is that a power to weight ratio of 6.2 is the upper limit of what is humanly possible without chemical assistance – but precise calculation requires accurate measurement of weight. Depending on whether you go by the team’s website declared weight or a guess based on your own prejudices, this old guy is churning out wattage that is either at or very close to the margins of human possibility, or just over that.
Some people close to the sport will think it doesn’t matter either way. It’s an older generation that will be gone next year. The team needed to win something this year to keep its sponsors. But then, there always have been and will be those with not much to lose prepared to take more chances – so it does matter.
Unless something comes out in the next weeks or months (from testing) only the man himself and a few others will know the truth one way or the other. However, it is worrying that we now learn that Horner missed a random dope test on the race; and more concerning that his team is demanding an apology that this fact has been published, as it’s explained by the testers going to the wrong hotel.
Anyone who’s read the excellent book, The Death of Marco Pantani, by Matt Rendell http://www.amazon.co.uk/Death-Marco-Pantani-Biography-ebook/dp/B009S8AV2M/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379403131&sr=1-1&keywords=the+death+of+marco+pantani
will recognize this scenario. The tests are random, but they have to be arranged in advance. Word gets out. The riders have their own testing capability: If the results don’t look good, there may be a last minute change of hotels for the team, notified by a misdirected fax that doesn’t arrive in time. Very hard for the policing agency to complain afterwards as that would be to admit that their own people on the ground are not reliable.
None of which is to say that this happened in the present case; but rather than issuing an apology to the team, the testers should be explaining how they came to turn up at the wrong hotel for this test.