Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Compliance is no longer enough: why Team Sky needs a new approach to doping

Today the UCI announced that Diego Ulissi's blood at this year's Giro was full of salbutamol.  No problem, it's a legal substance if you limit yourself to two puffs from your inhaler. Unfortunately, Ulissi's blood suggests he was in a much deeper relationship with the stuff than is permissible.  Put it this way:  the guy took in at one sitting at least ten bong rips off the magic pipe.  The lusty Italian, it seems, got a little too caught up in smelling the salbuflowers.

Compare Ulissi with Froome, a more discrete salbooty caller.  We have video evidence of Froome showing proper British restraint as he taps dat salbooty:
Froome sucking salbooty
A couple of puffs and that's it.  Perfectly legal.

Unfortunately for Froome (or at least his reputation) it has come out that he used another substance--a substance normally on the banned list--at this year's Tour of Romandie, the corticosteroid prednisolone.  The UCI normally bans its use in competition, but fast-tracked a TUE for Froome.  The MPCC bans use of it for athletes in-competition, but Sky not being part of the MPCC, it's all apparently cool.  Perfectly legal.

I'm sorry to be back on doping. I'm sorry.  I know it's a dead horse.  The one that, whether alive or dead, has been beaten like a Benihani gong.  Like Jared Nieters beeting his beets.  Like Custer drops it.  Beaten like an unlucky Kabuli taxi driver in Guantanamo.

This is a topic we vomit up and engorge, again and again, as the Proverbs say, like a dog to his vomit.

But that's because it keeps happening.  And to be fair, this has nothing to do with the doping of He Who Shall Not Be Lanced.

It's about doping today, which is no longer EPO and go; it's now down to inhalers and the like--the things Fignon and Merckxx did.  So it's cool.  Right?

Truth is, it's hard to blame Ulissi for anything other than stupidity, and it's hard to credit Froome for anything other than savvy.  I certainly no longer see Froome, as I once did, as a moral leader for anti-doping.  I just see him as another bike racer trying to win.  And maybe that's good, although I've never been a fan of Froome.  

Wiggins, in contrast, I find totally a dick and completely hilarious.  I like guys like Talansky, and even Floyd, who at least yell their stance from the rooftops.

They make you aware that boundaries of what we as bike racers (and as people) can do and what we ought to do are often different.  No matter what your lawyer tells you (if you are profligate enough to allow him to bill you for it) there's a difference between what is legal and what is right.  Or maybe I put it this way: there's a difference between crossing the line first and winning.

As a new dad, this is a difference especially important to me (e.g., I'd much rather be a good father than merely a non-abuse one).  Is that a good analogy?

The succession of scandals Sky has faced were mostly within the bounds of the UCI rules: the use of tramadol, the use of Dr. Geert Leinders and Steven de Jongh (now coaching Contador), and now the use of inhalers and of TUEs.

Froome and Sky may cross the finish line first, but what concerns many fans are the many lines the team crosses--most of them permissible--on their way to achieving their results.  To many fans, Sky seems willing to oblige with minimum standards (those of the UCI) rather than striving toward the highest ethical standards of some of their competitors.

Perceptions are probably different than reality.  Sky probably goes to great lengths to promote clean cycling beyond merely abiding by the minimum standards.  Joining a group like MPCC probably seems like a shambolic gesture to them, just as trying to prevent the use of painkillers and other substances currently UCI-kosher.

Still, it's promising that fans now require more than compliance.  Criticism of Sky may be part of the disruptive innovation, if I can use a somewhat sullied term, that transforms the pressure of the pro cycling omerta toward clean bike racing.  In short, the message to Sky is this: when you limit your thinking to marginal gains, you may miss out on the truly revolutionary movements.

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