Cycling still suffers from a ‘culture of doping’ according to a milestone 227-page report by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC), and has yet to recover from the drug scandals of its past.
The hotly-anticipated report was commissioned in January 2014 by Brian Cookson, president of the sport’s world governing body the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), to look into how cycling desperately lost its way during the 1990s and 2000s.
It profoundly criticises the leadership of the sport at the time, and one of its most disturbing claims is that Lance Armstrong, “colluded with the UCI to bypass doping accusations”.
Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles during the period in question but was later stripped of them after admitting to years of systematic doping.
Cookson (pictured above) said of the reports findings: “It is clear that in the past the UCI suffered severely from a lack of good governance with individuals taking crucial decisions alone.”
[pullquote align=”right”]”I see the report as a wasted opportunity, on the whole”
ITV cycling presenter Ned Boulting[/pullquote]
Former UCI presidents Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen are cleared of outright corruption. However, they stand accused of failing to enforce the organisation’s own anti-doping rules.
The report, which interviewed 174 anti-doping experts, officials and riders, notably fails to give today’s pro-cycling a doping all-clear: “The commission did not hear from anyone credible in the sport who would give cycling a clean bill of health in the context of doping today.”
The levels of doping alleged or estimated by witnesses in the report varied wildly, with one rider claiming: “90 per cent of the current peloton is doping”, whereas another source declared the figure to be “around 20 per cent.”
Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s former performance director and and the current general manager of Team Sky, believes the report should have been tougher. Speaking on The Cycling Podcast, he said: “I’m quite underwhelmed by it to be honest, I thought it would be quite hard hitting and address certain key issues.”
Reacting to the claim that 90 per cent of the peloton uses drugs, he said: “There are a lot of angry lads on our bus this morning. Nobody knows who said it, whether it’s a doper or not. It’s completely unsubstantiated.”
ITV cycling presenter Ned Boulting told Artefact he shared some of Brailsford’s frustrations. “I see the report as a wasted opportunity, on the whole. I praise the UCI for commissioning it, and also for publishing it in full (unlike FIFA), but it falls short of usefulness, both in terms of its historical findings about collusion, and its recommendations for the future.
“Those changes that are recommended (such as making random drug testing over 24 hours) appear to be largely cosmetic. I also distrust its science. It appears to draw sweeping conclusions, which have generated unwelcome headlines for the sport, from a tiny, and anonymous sample group.”
Chris Froome, Team Sky’s 2013 Tour de France winner, who gave evidence without anonymity, acknowledged his support of 24-hour testing, tweeting: “If it can help clean up the sport I love, let’s do it.”
A method by which a rider can take part in a race and use a medication is by obtaining a TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) and therefore legally use a prescribed prohibited substance or method for the treatment of a legitimate medical condition.
The report stated: “In general, there was a feeling that it is too easy to obtain a TUE; one rider who had doped reported that he was told to ask for a TUE for triamcinolone acetonide (Kenacort) claiming that he had tendinitis; he had no problem obtaining the TUE.”
Froome was granted a TUE for the 2014 Tour de Romandie. Welsh cyclist Nicole Cooke, a gold medallist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has spoken out against the use of TUEs.
She said of Froome’s: “That TUE application should not have been approved; Froome and Sky should have had a clear choice of either riding without steroids or pulling out.”
The CIRC report did, however, find some grounds for optimism, stating: “The general view was that doping is either less prevalent today or that the nature of doping practices has changed such that the performance gains are smaller.
“There was a general feeling that this has created an environment where riders can now at least be competitive when riding clean.”
The CIRC acknowledged “a move away from systematic, team-organised doping”, adding that “riders now organise their own doping programmes, often with the help of third parties who are primarily based outside the teams”.
New ways to dope
The report also notes that riders are finding new ways to dope: “New anti-doping methods have forced riders to adopt doping techniques such as micro-dosing and, at elite level, they often have a sophisticated understanding of how and when to take substances to maximise the benefit whilst reducing the risk of getting caught.”
It also flags up the issue of “non-banned substances” being used as performance enhancers, including; painkillers, caffeine tablets, Viagra, Cialis and “various nutritional supplements and homeopathic products” along with Tramadol, “a narcotic-like pain reliever”.
The report explains the ‘omerta’, or code of silence, that surrounded cycling when it came to talking about doping and specifically blood-doping and EPO in the 1990s. There was no test for EPO until 2000, and with performance benefits of 10-15% “it would have been hard to overestimate the prevalence of drug use in the peloton”.
The report added that “the review of UCI’s anti-doping programme reveal that decisions taken by UCI leadership in the past have undermined anti-doping efforts
“Examples range from adopting an attitude that prioritised a clean image and sought to contain the doping problem, to disregarding the rules and giving preferential status to high-profile athletes, to publicly criticising whistleblowers and engaging in personal disputes with other stakeholders.
“It was well known to UCI that use of performance enhancing drugs was pervasive in the sport. The direction of UCI’s anti-doping policy was determined by UCI management until the late 2000s when greater operational control was given to the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation.
“It was only then that UCI started to move away from a policy of containment and protecting the sport to seek instead to tackle the problem.”
The problem with this report is it doesn’t tell us much of what we didn’t already know, and therefore comes across as a missed opportunity in the eyes of many – an opportunity to really flush away the bad taste left by the Armstrong era. Instead, the CIRC report simply highlights what many in the cycling community already knew.