The road to hell is paved with best intentions, and the current state of cycling shows us that many people with the best of intentions are making grandiose comments, revising history, or even stealing from the play books of the previous cycling realm, one which we’d all like to forget.
This past week has seen historically-defying claims of questionable origin, as our current UCI president Pat McQuaid continues to tell anyone who will listen that cycling’s problems are ancient history, or at least ten to fifteen years old. Cycling’s changed. It’s cleaner. It’s cleanish. It’s clean! He also talks about the rousing success of the bio passport programme, and how many athletes have been caught or sanctioned thanks to its implementation.
However this isn’t true at all.
In 2005 and 2006 alone, there were 65 positive tests for banned substances. From 2007 until the end of 2012, there were approximately 108 positive tests for banned substances. This represents a 56 percent decline in positive tests. Is this indicative that the sport is cleaner, or have we seen a trend to new substances that are currently evading detection? Rumours continue to run rampant that new drugs are all over the scene, and WADA confirms privately that they have concerns about several drugs currently not included on the banned substance list, plus current drugs which have escaped detection for several years.
Needless to say, based on these brief comments, to have our UCI president spin a rosier revision of history with his recent interviews – in the hopes that putting out “positive spin” might enhance the UCI’s revenue streams – is absolutely the wrong way to go about changing the perception of the sport. The one positive that we can take away from McQuaid’s assertions is that other sports are learning from the mistakes made in cycling. This includes Australian Rules Football, whose representatives cited what a mess cycling is because the warning signs were ignored for so many years.
Of course, McQuaid isn’t the only one who should be singled out as a cycling leader going about public commentary in the wrong fashion. My favourite subject, Team Sky, continues to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease as inconsistencies in their stories cast a pall over the performances by Richie Porte at Paris-Nice and Chris Froome at Tirreno-Adriatico.
What doesn’t help Team Sky is the fact that they’ve adopted this “siege mentality” to PR, where they’ve put up these walls to protect management, staff, and riders from potential harm or damage. The default position for the team seems to be everyone is “out to get them” rather than accepting criticism and answering it on a case-by-case basis. This was evident during my time at Tirreno, where every team was open, accessible, and willing to speak to yours truly, but getting time with Sky was problematic at best. Other teams I’ve given a hard time to over the years were willing to converse and even appear on camera for our CCNN-TV show.
The other difficulty with this tactic by Sky is that it puts them completely under the microscope. They are the world’s best team at the moment. They have the best riders performing at top levels in a sport mired in a massive perception problem from PED abuse, and with the above numbers stated, clearly there is still a problem.
With this in mind, it’s going to be a given that Team Sky will continue to be looked at with a highly critical eye. Does it mean they are doping? Absolutely not. However, their behaviour has caused them to be unfavourably compared with another team with perception problems – US Postal. In fact, even the pattern of inviting particular journalists at particular times to chronicle their adventures to “prove” to the public they are clean raises the hackles of many sophisticated cycling fans. David Walsh attending team camps and going to Tenerife? John Wilcockson and Bill Strickland did that with US Postal. Protecting the athletes against any interviews outside the chosen few? Again, same modus operandi by US Postal. Inconsistent stories about dodgy staff? US Postal blazed the trail there. Categorical denials down to even the same word usage? US Postal redux. How about stepping on other teams with a winning at all costs mentality? Sure, US Postal were the kings at intimidating teams. US Postal chocked it up to sheer jealousy of their success. Sound similar? Yes, same thing is happening here.
Let’s talk about the inconsistencies in the message from Team Sky. The Leinders story used to change monthly; now it changes almost daily. Paris-Nice champion Richie Porte says Leinders was employed for 80 days, Dave Brailsford recently said it was half that, but referred to the pesky 80 number back in 2011. Brailsford says there’s no Internet at the top of Teide, yet a phone call and an email to the hotel where they are currently staying reveals that Internet is available both in the common areas and in specific rooms. These recent examples are just the tip of the iceberg of inconsistency.
Again, does this mean the team is doping? Absolutely not. What it means is both Brailsford and McQuaid are extremely cavalier in the way they present themselves in the press. They show the tried-and-true method is sport of trying to take short cuts and give quick answers in order to move on with what they feel is most important. For Brailsford, it’s winning. For McQuaid, it’s generating revenue for the UCI. Both have a short-sighted mentality, and this is the biggest challenge facing the sport. The managing director of RCS Sport cited this short-term mentality when the AIGCP couldn’t make a decision on his revenue-sharing offer because it was a long-term plan. The leaders in cycling really don’t know how to handle this sort of thinking.
But back to the doping finger-pointing, because I’m sure all the Team Sky fanatics will come out swinging again, saying this column is yet another attempt to smear Team Sky and the sport of cycling as a group of top secret rabid dopers. In order to prove this sort of thing, you’d need to hire private investigators, videographers, and photographers. You’d need to develop a network of contacts with WADA, law enforcement agencies, and cycling federations. And then you’d need to confront the team principals directly with any evidence found. You’re not going to prove a team or individual is doping by sitting in the press room, or attending a dog and pony show in Tenerife. But hey, I digress.
The bottom line is there are two individual who continually stick their feet into their mouths after they’ve stepped into a massive pile of shite. Just because there is a complete lack of ability to send the correct message doesn’t mean a governing body is corrupt, or suffering from nepotism, or complete and total managerial ineptitude. Nor does it mean a team is doping their riders to the gills without the riders’ direct knowledge.
All it means is both organisations need to have a serious sit down and figure out how to remove foot from mouth and allow the incredible racing that has occurred in 2013 to take centre stage. Quick answers to try to placate certain journalists and new media people isn’t the answer to solve what ails our sport.