Procycling - - CONTENTS - Writer: Jeremy Whit­tle Im­age: Kristof Ra­mon

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.


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.


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.


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

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