ANALYSIS: ALEJANDRO VALVERDE
The new world champion’s chequered past typifies a year of inconsistencies in the sport
2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the Festina Affair and, in case the significance escaped us, there were reminders everywhere. Cycling journalist Jeremy Whittle looks at what Alejandro Valverde’s Worlds win meant in a year haunted by cycling’s troubled past
was a very strange year, when cycling flirted with alternate dimensions, crossing every now and then into its very own Upside Down. It was also a year dominated by British riders in which reminders of the past — Festina, Puerto, Armstrong, Bruyneel — were everywhere, even as riders who were in nappies in 1998 rose to the top of the WorldTour hierarchy.
The season began with Team Sky punch drunk, fighting off scandal, their leadership under scrutiny, yet it climaxed with the British team vindicated and victorious after winning two grand tours. It ends however, with the team’s former doctor, Richard Freeman, facing a General Medical Council investigation that is focused on a mystery testosterone delivery.
It was a year in which Jan Ullrich’s unrelenting demons shockingly and very publicly haunted him, while his old sparring partner, Lance Armstrong, was feted as an ‘icon’ by a rider that he deprived of a podium finish in the Tour de France in 2009. Bradley Wiggins’s defiant lauding of Armstrong ensured that the rehabilitation of the Texan’s reputation continued through 2018, even as WADA’s appeal to obtain a lifetime ban for his former sports director and close collaborator, Johan Bruyneel, proved successful during the autumn.
CONTROVERS I A L CHAMPION
AT THE CENTRE OF THE CONTINUING obsession with the past, and the ghosts of Festina, Puerto and Armstrong, was the new world road race champion Alejandro Valverde, the Dorian Gray of the peloton, who, although technically 38, is forever 29. Age, it seems, shall not weary him. Valverde’s crowning moment in Innsbruck, possibly the peak of his evergreen career, only further highlighted the continuing credibility crisis in a sport that was gaslighting itself. While headline writers persist in calling Armstrong ‘disgraced,’ Valverde’s doping conviction was conveniently forgotten.
That climate of revisionism, in which one ex-doper, still mired in obstinate denial, became a celebrated world champion, saw another rehabilitated ex-doper turned television commentator, who once openly wept for the damage done to his sport, go on record to state that he was ‘cool’ with that state of affairs.
David Millar, just days after standing for the Presidency of the CPA, effectively the rider’s union, declared that he was fine with the Spaniard wearing the rainbow jersey. Given that he had based his CPA
candidacy on “making the sport better” and attacking what he called cycling’s “dysfunction,” it seemed a conflicted position to take.
Yet Millar’s sentimentality towards Valverde was widely shared. Even UCI President David Lappartient seemed just as comfortable with the Spaniard’s success and felt able to explain why Valverde was, as Millar said, cool, but Armstrong was very much uncool.
“The big difference between them is some riders paid,” the Frenchman said. “They paid two years, maybe more, then came back. It’s the case with Alexandre Vinokourov, David Millar, Alejandro Valverde,” Lappartient said.
“That was not the case with Armstrong. He always denied [doping]. It’s not the same situation. When Armstrong paid, it was just because he had big pressure from American justice. That’s why he couldn’t come back.”
Given Valverde’s continuing refusal to accept any responsibility for his involvement in Operación Puerto, it was a bizarre statement. Even Armstrong’s most demented critic would acknowledge that he had paid a price for his doping. You can debate of course whether that price — the lifetime ban, the $100m lawsuit settled for $5m, the ostracism from world sport — was too high, or too low, but Armstrong has paid.
Meanwhile, those who saw Valverde’s refusal to acknowledge his role in Operación Puerto as the very personification of doping denial gnashed their teeth and bemoaned the Groundhog Day moment of a rider who’d been a contemporary of Armstrong and Ullrich, now being feted.
Compared to the shower of ordure that got heaped on Chris Froome’s head merely for continuing to compete while his salbutamol case was being heard, there was barely a batsqueak of outrage either in Spain, at UCI towers in Switzerland or the peloton itself as Valverde went on a postWorld Championship victory tour.
Puerto was forgotten as Valverde flew home to Spain, to standing ovations and a warm welcome from the country’s minister for Education, Culture and Sports, while promising to race until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Much of the media coverage of Valverde’s win was uncritical. When questions were asked, the Spaniard seemed all too happy to assume the role of the peloton’s pantomime villain, while the three riders he had outsprinted in Innsbruck — Romain Bardet, Michael Woods and Tom Dumoulin — became characterised as wronged saviours.
Asked again about his part in the Puerto scandal, Valverde delivered his lines well. At Milan-Turin he dismissed those who asked him about Operación Puerto as “clueless.” Then, at the end of season Saitama Critérium, he saved his best line for Spanish newspaper AS. Reaching into the trusty filing cabinet of well-worn doping excuses, he came out with the timeless: “I’ve never tested positive.”
Bardet, like Dumoulin, was 15 years old when Operación Puerto overshadowed the Grand Départ of the 2006 Tour de France. Twelve years later they, along with Woods, found themselves in Innsbruck, sprinting for the rainbow jersey against one of the unapologetic and unrepentant protagonists in that sleazy scandal. “Like all riders of my generation, I’m in favour of whatever could reinforce our credibility,” Bardet had said in 2013, after making his Tour de France debut. Fast forward to 2018, and the Frenchman demurred to comment directly on Valverde’s win in Innsbruck, but it’s safe to assume that he’d have preferred to have lost to either Woods or Dumoulin.
It all left the global anti-doping movement looking lost. WADA, the world anti-doping agency founded as a response to the pharmaceutical excesses of the EPO generation, has ended the year on the ropes, ironically like bête noire Armstrong, ostracized, shot by both sides, and licking wounds in the wasteland. WADA’s hapless President Craig Reedie has become the very personification of weary resignation and defeat.
SKY D I D N ' T FALL
GIVEN THAT THE CYCLING TROLLS BEGAN this season with such high hopes, it has been a bleak 12 months for conspiracy theorists. Instead of collapsing under the weight of suspicion and scrutiny, their objects of loathing have survived and the
UCI President has ended the season with Alejandro Valverde as the governing body’s poster boy.
The breathless promises of ‘Skyfall’ finally becoming real, with Dave Brailsford, Froome and Wiggins all lined up, awaiting the outcome of various ‘processes’ - commonly known to most, however, as investigations - apparently came to nothing. Brailsford and Wiggins were serially skewered by the press, and the value of their knighthoods questioned. Subsequently, in the spring, the DCMS Parliamentary select committee report into anti-doping, which relied heavily on input from whistle-blowers, labelled Team Sky ‘unethical’ and homed in on Brailsford. “Team Sky’s statements… seem incredible, and inconsistent with their original aim of ‘winning clean,’ and maintaining the highest ethical standards within their sport,” the DCMS report said. It concluded: “We believe that drugs were being used by Team Sky, within the WADA rules, to enhance the performance of riders, and not just to treat medical need.”
But by July, with the case against Froome abandoned, the Giro d’Italia won and Thomas leading the Tour, all of that, it seemed, had been forgotten. There were tears from both Brailsford and Thomas as the Welshman won in Paris on the Champs-Elysées and the celebrations continued on the Tour of Britain where a form of collective amnesia prevailed.
Privately, Team Sky breathed a sigh of relief. Brailsford steadfastly refused to address the issues raised in the report and it was written off as hearsay and scoresettling. The DCMS were just a committee of pontificating MPs, a talking shop in a wood-panelled room. Like WADA, it felt as if their influence was waning.
By saying nothing and allowing time to pass, the negativity of the DCMS report, Freeman, Jiffy bags and salbutamol was replaced by the warm Welsh glow surrounding Geraint Thomas. His Tour win could not have been a better story for
The negativity of the DCMS report, Freeman, J iffy bags and salbutamol was replaced by the warm Welsh glow surrounding Geraint Thomas
a team battered by negative coverage over the past two and a half seasons.
In the hostile post-salbutamol fog of bitterness, a Thomas win played well for Froome too, no longer seen as the ‘slithering reptile’ of Cath Wiggins’s worst nightmares, but instead a doe-eyed and selfless team-mate, willing to sacrifice his own ambitions to help out his buddy.
As the season progressed, the gaslighting continued. Had we got Gianni Moscon, Team Sky’s farmboy Italian with those big puppy dog eyes, all wrong too? Had we been too harsh on him when he had racially abused a black rider and taken a swing at a French rival which saw him ejected from this year’s Tour? Was he just misunderstood and unfairly maligned, with a little more growing up in public to do?
And what about Sir Brad? Had we got him wrong too? Hacked by dodgy Russians, hunted down and doorstepped by the clickbait-obsessed tabloid media, when all he really wanted to do was share with us his collection of steel frames and vintage jerseys, his teenage posters and teary-eyed memories of what a great guy Lance really is – no wonder he was sick of people who’d never even ridden a bike having an opinion about ethics.
CYCL ING, CONFUSED
IN 2018, REVISIONISM RULED. AS Wiggins said when lauding Armstrong, if you think there should be some adherence to standards, if you believe there is a line that cannot be crossed, ‘look away now.’ There is no black and white, no certainty, and very little to cling to. The unresolved chaos of Froome’s salbutamol case was a devastating blow for those seeking clarity. The repackaging of Valverde’s reputation and the lack of follow-up from UK AntiDoping on the DCMS findings further reinforced that uncertainty.
Sky’s ethics can be damned by the House of Commons in March, only to be feted by the media in July. The Russian Federation can be excommunicated from world sport in January, but invited in for dinner in September. You can ban one denying doper for life and give another a gold medal. You can crucify one rider as a “lying bastard,” but champion him as an ‘icon,’ when you have a book to promote.
But maybe Wiggins came up with the perfect book for 2018, the perfect stocking filler - wrapped in a Jiffy bag - for the year in which doublethink and hypocrisy dominated, while truth and certainty was lost in a fog of competing narratives. Wiggins said recently he was “sick of being told how to feel about the sport by people who’d never ridden a bike,” as if only he, from his lofty perch, could make ethical judgements on sport, culture, the world. Bruyneel and Armstrong meanwhile, could only watch as Valverde talked up his chances of victory in the next Olympics.
“There are a lot of things I wish I could have done differently, and there are certain actions I now deeply regret,” Bruyneel said after his ban extension was confirmed. “The period I lived through, both as a cyclist and as a team director, was very different than it is today. I would simply like to observe that we were all children of our era, facing the pitfalls and temptations that were part of the culture at the time. We didn’t always make the best choices.”
In those few words, however mealymouthed they sound, he accepted more responsibility than the UCI’s own newly crowned world champion ever has.
Bruyneel could have behaved differently; he could have walked away, or turned his back. Plenty did. But instead, he made a business choice to use a doping programme, just like every other professional who doped. Just like Valverde.
So, who decides whose sin is less damning? Who decides who is allowed back into the fold - Valverde, Millar, Vinokourov - and who is not - Armstrong, Bruyneel, Ullrich? It’s hard to understand how these moral judgements of which of the sinners are allowed back into church are made.
Certainly, it doesn’t follow logic in terms of doping sanctions. Why does Valverde, child of Puerto and subsequently the architect of untold damage with his years of unremitting denial, get a pass, while Ullrich, for example, doesn’t? To me, if you’re cool with seeing convicted doper, Valverde - who let’s be clear has never apologised, admitted his guilt, or lifted a finger to assist anti-doping - wearing the rainbow jersey and being pushed forward as an ambassador for his sport, then you have to be cool with all of the others too. And if you’re not, then you are a hypocrite.
Newly crowned world champion Valverde gets a handshake from PinotMillar said he was 'cool' with Valverde as world champion, despite his doping ban
The salbutamol case against Froome dominated the agenda during the GiroJohan Bruyneel, Armstrong's former manager, saw his ban increased to life