Brighton, July 6, 1994: Tour de France, Stage 4. This was a moment in time that encapsulated a beautiful truth for me: British cyclists might never win the Tour, but they could be great and compete — and be clean.
That was the year that Chris Boardman, two years after winning gold at the Barcelona Olympics, wore the yellow jersey after the prologue in Lille. Of course, he was clean: he was a British tester. Nobody cheats to win 50 quid for coming first on the E2/25 on a rainy Sunday in March.
Boardman was no longer in yellow by Stage 4, but on the final lap in Brighton, he launched a suicide attack on the climb up to the racecourse. He didn’t catch the earlier escapees but held off the bunch for a creditable fourth place. He sat up and raised his arms as he crossed the line as if he’d won. Not quite, Chris. But it was sweet.
The rest of Boardman’s short-lived pro career had this quality of quixotic heroics against an ultimately dismal backdrop of under-achievement — which was anything but his fault. Over a stage race, you could see him getting burned out by the daily attrition of trying to keep pace with an EPO-fuelled monster. For the rare clean cyclist, the 1990s pro peloton was a meat grinder.
A decade later, things were far from perfect, but there had been major developments. The Festina Scandal of 1998 had blown the lid off organised doping. The UCI’s long history of nodding and winking to the cheats was under critical scrutiny. And from 2000, there was a test for EPO, and people were getting busted.
All this changed the dynamics of sponsorship. Eventually, as Jonathan Vaughters proved with Slipstream, you could get backing for a team pledged to race clean: for the first time in the sport’s history, it paid better to get headlines for an ethics policy than it did to win races.
And British cycling was taking off. Far from being a freak occurrence, Chris Boardman’s accomplishment had proved trailblazing. A new generation of British cyclists were succeeding spectacularly in the Olympic velodrome, and making the transition to Europe’s pro ranks.
And because, by the late 2000s, cycling was — after many cycles of investigations, busts and confessions — markedly cleaner, those British cyclists were soon on the podium. It was a glorious spectacle; I shut my eyes and enjoyed the rapture like everyone else.
So I’ve been postponing my own personal reckoning with this for a while, but it’s time to face the truth. I used to believe in the exceptionalism of British cycling: that with a few, marginal exceptions, British cyclists were clean because of their inherent decency and sense of fair play. This was hopelessly naïve, as I now see, this idea of our ethical superiority, even though I knew it was rooted in a simple economic truth.
There had been practically no money in British cycling for most of the postwar period; it was to all intents and purposes an amateur sport, and a Cinderella sport at that. Without cash, there is no corruption.
If I had thought a little harder about that, and not wanted to believe this myth of my own construction, it would have been apparent that the few British cyclists who did make it in pro cycling in the bad old days were almost certainly co-opted into the prevailing norms on the Continent. But I preferred to think there was something intrinsically virtuous about British cycling’s “culture of clean”.
Unfortunately, the integrated duopoly of British Cycling and Team Sky has played a baleful role in unwinding that. The obvious problems of corporate governance in this arrangement — an excessive concentration of power, money and patronage, a lack of accountability and oversight, the risk of conflicts of interest — are a subject for another time. In fact, they are a subject for parliamentary inquiry, which ought to be shaming in itself. How long will it be before we see an intervention by an international body, or even a police investigation?
An unmistakable pattern has emerged. Team Sky’s ill-advised public relations policy of declaring zero tolerance toward doping and dopers laid misleading claim to an unearned moral high ground. Aside from egregious mistakes like hiring a doctor who’d worked for a team with a clear record of organised doping, Sky has consistently flouted its own policy by employing asterisked former riders. So when was the policy a fib, before or after?
Behind the veil of that phony zero tolerance, a bad smell has been brewing. Dodgy therapeutic use exceptions, mysterious courier deliveries in jiffy bags, allegations about misuse of painkillers, strange lapses of memory and a lot of unanswered questions. We don’t need another Festina Scandal or a Reasoned Decision from USADA to know what is happening. We’ve seen this movie before.
How exceptionally clean is British cycling today? Chris Boardman gets the last word: “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
From issue 17.2 of Rouleur. Matt Seaton is a Staff Editor at the New York Times