A Confederacy of Cycling Dunces

By Sal Ruibal
Illustration by Ryan LaBar

“I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of months about the effect Lance can have on me in getting me to ride and getting me in shape. I don’t want to let him down. I have a really good reason now, other than winning races, to want to train a lot—to impress the king.” —Taylor Phinney, then age 18, on being selected to Lance Armstrong’s Trek-Livestrong Under-23 developmental team.

When I recently saw the above quote in Bonnie D. Ford’s January 6, 2009 story on ESPN.com, it sent a shiver through me. So much has changed since then and so much has been revealed.

The public has a much different view of Lance Armstrong now and the sickening details of the massive fraud and deceit in the sport have forced the public to accept the fact that they were misled, lied to and played for fools.

But those last four words, “to impress the king,” scared me because they sounded so much like the way child molesters manipulate their young victims, making their targets feel guilty, that they have failed their heroes, be they Jerry Sandusky or their youth minister at church.

I’m not implying that Lance is a child molester or that Taylor Phinney ever used banned drugs under his direction. But there is that need to impress someone you admire, someone powerful who is bestowing his gift of knowledge and entrance into a special, elite society.

In her story, Ford describes it like this: “And not too long ago, the most famous rider in the world – the man he and his family consider royalty—reached out and knighted him.”

Think about those words: royalty, knighted. Heavy stuff for a kid in high school.

Taylor has parents who have been around the cycling block a few million times. But it turns out even Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter were deceived. Armstrong has now admitted that he doped before, during and after his comeback, a time frame that included his 2009 recruitment of Phinney for the U-23 team.

The U-23 team was owned by Capital Sports and Entertainment, the Austin management company founded by longtime Armstrong agent Bill Stapleton. Armstrong has a financial stake in the company and Stapleton has been implicated in the doping scheme.

What chance does a normal, middle-class family have of avoiding the pitfalls and landslides that can engulf a young athlete. How can they determine if a coach or a celebrity rider is a true believer in clean sport?

One effect of the great unveiling of cycling’s vast doping culture is that there is now a substantial group of current and former athletes who have been caught and sanctioned by the UCI and or the World Anti-Doping Agency or the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

As we move through the investigations to come, more names will pop up.

The cycling world has to come to grips with this new reality. What role, if any, can these pariahs play in the sport?

Stay away from the kids

The National Interscholastic Cycling Association, the promoter and organizer of high school mountain bike team racing , is among the cycling organizations struggling to find a way to keep sanctioned dopers away from their kids.

Here’s what NICA Executive Director Austin McInerny says about their system:

“NICA was founded in 2009 as a way to promote mountain biking at the high school level and help student-athletes develop strong mind, body and character. To achieve our mission, we rely on volunteers to contribute as coaches on high school teams as well as professional athletes to help build support for our programs.

“Unfortunately, it appears evident that the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) has been endemic in professional cycling and, as a youth development organization, we have very strong opinions about this kind of drug use. NICA’s paramount concern is over the well-being and best interests of our student-athletes. We want them to discover and maintain a healthy lifestyle through the bike for the rest of their lives and performance enhancing drugs have no part in that. “We are doing everything we can to keep PEDs out of our events and away from our participants, and we believe being involved with individuals who have used or condoned the use of these drugs is harmful to our goals.

“To this end, the NICA Board of Directors has a very clear policy that states ‘Any athlete banned from competition for a doping offense is also banned from participating in any NICA sanctioned activity, including races, team practices and special events’.”

It is not easy keeping sanctioned dopers out of every nook and cranny of the sport. NICA readily admits that athletes who have been sanctioned in the past have appeared at some of its special events. And since most of their races are held in public parks and other public-access areas, they have no power to keep sanctioned dopers away from the races.

As far as its own athletes are concerned, NICA is very strict. Racers are subject to testing by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Tobacco is a banned substance as are energy bars or gels containing caffeine. Jersey pockets are searched for caffeinated gels before races.

Not-so-grand fondos

Promoters of mass-start race/rides, gran fondos and such have also had to deal with sanctioned athletes participating in their events, especially those that offer prizes to top finishers.

George Hincapie recently hosted a Gran Fondo in his home state of South Carolina. The race began and finished at an old winery site that he and his family hope to develop into a training site for triathletes. A training site.

Mass start races/rides sanctioned (in a positive way) by USA Cycling can keep dopers out, but there aren’t that many local or regional events that are part of the USAC program, mostly for financial reasons. Should organizers be forced to pay USAC to keep dopers out of their events?

Erin Bishop, who manages her husband Jeremiah’s Alpine Loop Gran Fondo in Harrisonburg, Virginia, says dopers should look elsewhere.

“I don’t have a formal plan outlined,” she says, “but after considering the possibility of a sanctioned doper entering our event, I did add the phrase “promoter reserves the right to deny entry to anyone” to the event registration page—just to put that out there as a reminder that participation is not a right.

I’m not putting up a billboard about it, but dopers are definitely not welcome at our event.

“I treat every participant as a special guest, inviting them to our hometown and showing them our favorite rides. I put incredible amounts of energy into making sure the riders and their families have a genuine, great experience here. Part of that includes rallying support, supplies and volunteers from the community, and I wouldn’t ask for that time, value and energy to be put toward anything that were not completely reputable.

“In our case, I think the event really benefits from Jeremiah’s solid reputation; participants are aware of the charitable mission and Jeremiah’s partnership with USADA as an athlete ambassador.

“Completing the Alpine Loop is challenge in and of itself; it’s about setting the goal, training with that motivation, then pushing your body to its limits on the day of the big ride. With the focus on such a pure challenge as man against the mountains, the incentive is in the individual accomplishment. When everyone shares equally in the accomplishment – celebrating the experience together – there’s a lot less incentive for someone to be driven to cheat. Most gran fondos don’t offer prizes or money, there’s no winner, so there’s little incentive for a sanctioned doper to participate.

“I hope I never have to turn someone away from our event, but I will if it means protecting its integrity and reputation from the negative attention and doubt that the actions of a few can cast on the sport as a whole.”

Getting to the point

I have a better, simpler idea: Let’s make all officially sanctioned cycling dopers wear a dunce cap instead of a helmet. This confederacy of dunces will stand out in the peloton, the gran fondo start, the NICA race crowd, the after-dinner speaker podiums and the Saturday morning mountain bike race in the park near my house. We’ll know who you are. And stay away from the kids. You’ve been warned.

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