Public Perception and the Cost of Keeping Cycling Clean

Public Perception and the Cost of Keeping Cycling Clean
Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador battling it out in 2010 TDF. Image courtesy of AP

Doping continues to be the top headline in bicycling news.

In the past week, Lance Armstrong was cleared (for the moment), Alberto Contador was stripped of his wins and retroactively banned, and Jan Ullrich was banned for two years despite having retired from the sport nearly five years ago.  He was also retroactively stripped of a third place finish in 2005.

If you're not a bicycle racing fan (beyond watching the Tour de France from time to time), you have probably developed the impression that the sport is severely tainted by illicit substance abuse.  We cyclists can thank the ever diligent CAS, UCI, and WADA for making a public spectacle out of routine athlete screenings and internal disciplinary proceedings.

No other professional sport is as fixated on performance enhancement substances as professional cycling.  While the baseball commissioner scratches his head and wonders how a player can double in physical size and quadruple his home run output in a single season, UCI leadership is randomly showing up at racer's homes commanding them to pee in cups.  But when it comes to following up with a positive test, well, the whole process kind of falls apart...

Why was Alberto Contador allowed to continue racing while his positive test result from July 21, 2010 was being investigated?  Why did it take until September of that year to announce the findings?  Why did it take until the following February for a hearing with the RFEC (Spain's agency)?  Why was Contador allowed to continue racing while the UCI and WADA appealed the RFEC's ruling?

While I understand that procedures are put in place to protect the racer - especially a high profile racer like Contador - it just doesn't jive with the sport's actual method of determining guilt.  A positive test result is a violation of the anti-doping policy and an automatic admission of guilt.  It is up to the racer to prove that he did not dope intentionally, not for any of the agencies to prove that he did.  If the burden of proof is on the racer, why should he be granted the benefit of the doubt when he is most likely going to be unsuccessful proving his case?  In the meantime, a man that doesn't belong on the course is potentially influencing the outcome of every race he enters.

Think of how ludicrous this system is by applying it to a hypothetical baseball example.  For sake of argument, let's say Mark McGwire tested positive for a banned substance in 1998 just before breaking Roger Maris' record.  The results didn't get reported until the off-season and McGwire was allowed to play in 1999, adding another 65 home runs and 147 RBI's.  When he ultimately was unable to explain away his positive test result, he lost both his personal stats for 1998 and 1999 and his team lost all his RBI's, altering their win-loss record for the past two seasons!

Contador's case is troubling on many levels.  First and foremost is that Contador wasn't more careful about what he ingested.  Whether you believe his "contaminated steak" defense, UCI and WADA's "contaminated blood doping" accusation or the CAS's "contaminated supplement" explanation (or none of the above based on the small amount of clenbuterol found) - the fact that a million-dollar elite athlete could come into contact with a banned substance shows either carelessness or disrespect for the sport's doping policy.

Contador's participation in every race since the positive test during the 2010 TDF influenced the course of each race, even if he wasn't the winner or a podium finisher.  The UCI may be able to strip his personal accolades and confiscate his prize winnings, but it can never erase the impact he had on fellow racers in the heat of competition.

It's safe to say that awarding Andy Schleck the 2010 TDF win based on Contador's disqualification is appropriate as his cheating occurred during that competition.  But he may not have prevailed had AC been pulled from the race immediately after the failed test.  A new rival could have emerged to challenge Schleck and the matchup may not have been as conducive to his strengths and strategy.  No one can say decisively that Michele Scarponi would have been the champion if Contador had not been his main rival in the 2011 Giro.  The entire dynamic of that race could have changed had Contador not competed in it.

In the court of public opinion, professional bicycle racing continues to be conflated with doping and cheating.  Few non-cycling fans understand that "dope" is neither an illicit narcotic nor an anabolic steroid.  They just think of dopers as bad individuals.  Those that do understand just how physically demanding Grand Tour races are realize that there is only so much that proper nutrition and physical conditioning can yield.  If an elite athlete's weakness - be it time trialing, climbing, or sprinting - can't be overcome with training, inner strength, and competitive desire, there will always be a temptation to utilize science in an unsanctioned (and hopefully undetectable) manner.

Strict doping measures haven't really proved themselves effective in terms of discouraging cheating.  It doesn't help that the stakes are highest for both individuals and teams in the big money races.  In fact, one might argue that the inconsistency in revenue for the sport - relying on prize money and corporate sponsorship - continues to fuel the risk/reward cycle that transforms a racer from mere mortal to champion to disgraced cheater in the span of two seasons.

Perception is everything in today's short attention span society.  Instead of viewing bicycle racing as the most grueling endurance athletic event known to man, some people wrongly perceive it as the most corrupt sport in the world.  Meanwhile, dedicated amateur athletes, road riding enthusiasts, bike commuters, and recreational riders all continue to get lumped into an elitist category that is scorned instead of revered.

Last week was a bad week for bicycling, despite some exciting results from early season races.  Factor in the GOP's all-out assault on funding for bicycling infrastructure in the latest Senate and House transportation bills and you begin to wonder just how big this PR problem has become.

I welcome your thoughts in the comments section below.  Let's see what we can do - together - to alter public perception of bicycling.


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  • Been changing perspectives on bicycling culture for over a decade. Ride freely and responsibly...
    Bike&Chain: The Ultimate Guide to Bicycling Culture

    Nobody cares what rich, spoiled brats in pelaton do. What makes UCI think they can police racers? Only baseball comes close to UCI's obsessive level of scrutiny, but that's just because every top athlete in bicycling is so closely matched the only edges can be found in doping, extra training, handling skills, and team tactics. Probably can't lighten or modify equipment any more than already done.

    Bicycling is more about the billion other riders around the world whose 40 lb single speed clunkers get them to market and work.

  • In reply to Labann:

    Thanks for the comment and sharing your blog info.

    I agree that bicycling should be about the millions who choose it based on what bicycling offers them personally.

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