The UCI’s decision to renew the Astana cycling team’s WorldTour licence has prompted outrage, following positive EPO tests for the Iglinsky brothers and Ilya Davidenok, the naming of Astana riders past and present in the Padua Investigation, reports that banned doctor Michelle Ferrari visited the team at a hotel in Montecatini Terme in November last year (denied by Ferrari), and Alexander Vinokorouv’s continuance at the head of the team.
President Brian Cookson has promised an independent audit of the Licence Commission’s decision and additional requirements for the team to meet in 2015, describing Astana as “very much on probation”. Are these assurances enough for the sport’s credibility – and his own? What more could he have done? And how significant are the reactions of riders like Peter Kennaugh, who described the sport as a “joke” and called for a union of clean riders? Read on.
Twitter can be revelatory
While the Twitter accounts of many professional athletes can make for dull reading, some venturing no further than a toe-curling list of public thank-yous to their benefactors (“New dust buster arrived today. Thanks @VacuumCity! Here’s to hoovering up more wins next season!”), the thoughts of more outspoken members of the peloton are occasionally worth hearing – and can amount to a very public statement on the rider's ethics.
Consider Tweets from JJRojas and Peter Kennaugh: the former describing a series of emails to Dr Michelle Ferrari’s son, Stefano, exposed by the Padua Investigation, as concerning little more than training advice, and the British champion’s inferred dismissal of the same.
Such statements are revealing. If Kennaugh were anything other than entirely clean, why take the step of such a public denunciation? And by following the ‘training advice’ line recounted by almost all of Dr Ferrari’s clients, many of whom were subsequently sanctioned, Rojas risks being hoist by his own petard (journalist Shane Stokes’ riposte – that a career in stand-up comedy awaits the Spaniard – is also worthy of note).
A WorldTour licence will mean nothing if ASO says no
The principal issue presented by doping to all but the rider, who risks damaging his health, is reputational damage – witness Rabobank’s departure from the sport two years ago. If the organisers of the biggest races, notably the ASO, decide that the credibility of their events is threatened by Astana’s presence (as it did in 2008, preventing Alberto Contador from defending his Tour de France title), a fault line could emerge with the UCI.
Vincenzo Nibali was the ASO's guest of honour at the presentation of the 2015 Tour de France route in October, but the organisation had previously barred Astana from cycling's biggest race. Could it do so again? pic: SImon Wilkinson/SWPix.com
This would be a drastic and unlikely course of action, given that almost every team in the peloton has riders, and often staff, with chequered histories (only Team Sky has a zero tolerance policy) and a decision to disregard Astana’s licence on this basis would open a Panadora’s Box. In the case of the Tour, this would also cast an entirely undeserved shadow over defending champion, Vincenzo Nibali (more of whom below). Race promoters must be able to regard the world governing body and its rules with confidence.
The rules are the rules
When a decision is made that leaves the wider world questioning its validity, is it time to change the rules on which the decision was based? Much like English football’s fit and proper person’s test, the UCI’s regulations seem powerless to bar those whose unsuitability for office at a professional sports team is obvious even to the casual observer. The sport becomes a laughing stock as a result.
The credibility of the UCI and its president, Brian Cookson, has been tested by the renewal of Astana's WorldTour licence, but the governing body has done no more than to apply its own rules meticulously pic: Alex Broadway/SWPix.com
The reputation of UCI President Brian Cookson, elected to deliver a more credible sport, has not fared well, but the alternative – that the rules of the Licence Committee should have been re-written/overruled for Astana – is unlikely to have advanced cycling’s cause, or even made it past the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Cycling missed the moment to grasp the doping nettle once and for all, when, in the immediate aftermath of the USADA report and the sanctioning of Armstrong, a broad consensus existed for the sort of sweeping change that might have driven the rats from the house forever.
The sport is now committed to a longer process of reform, where, with the bitterest of ironies, counter intuitive decisions like the Astana licence award are arrived at by conducting matters entirely by the book. This, however, is the path that cycling embarked upon when it passed on a ‘year zero’ moment two years ago. It will be long.
Astana needs Nibali more than Nibali needs Astana
Astana’s greatest source of credibility comes from its leader, Vincenzo Nibali. One of only six riders to win all three Grand Tours, he has competed at the highest level for a decade without a stain on his reputation, often losing out to riders who were subsequently sanctioned, notably his recently disbarred team-mate, Maxim Iglinsky. (Iglinksy the elder, you will recall, reeled in Nibali like a fish at the 2012 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, in a pursuit begun on the slopes of the Saint Nicolas. Oh, the irony.)
Vincenzo Nibali is Astana's prize asset. They need him more than he needs them. pic: SImon Wilkinson/SWPix.com
Only Nibali can judge the sense of joining a team headed by Alexander Vinkourov. What is patently obvious is that Astana needs Nibali more than Nibali needs Astana. Recent events make his transfer to the Kazakh squad appear ill-advised, but would he have received the necessary support at the Tour from former employers, Cannondale, whose loyalty he would have been forced to share with Peter Sagan? Perhaps. Only Jakob Fuglsang proved truly indispensible to his cause in France, but Astana's support was enough to propel him to victory at the Giro last year. Given his time again, would the Shark choose differently? Images of Nibali and Vinkourov on the Champs-Élysées only benefit the latter.
Clean riders union?
Kennaugh again. His second Tweet yesterday was a call for ‘clean riders of the peleton [sic]’ to ‘get together and push these cheats out’. As of writing, it has been re-Tweeted 843 times. Some 943 people granted his statement ‘favourite’ status. Clicking a mouse button is one thing, however; banding together riders with certain ethical standards is quite another, and fraught with difficulty. In short, Kennaugh’s suggestion would likely spark civil war in the peloton: accusation, counter-accusation and recrimination on all sides.
What is encouraging, however, is that such a suggestion has been made at all, and from a respected member of the highest-profile team in the sport. Much of the fallout from the USADA enquiry concerned a culture of omertà, where none of the riders was prepared to speak out against a culture of doping. Kennaugh is more forthright than most, but there are others, we suspect, who would not be slow in making their feelings known if they felt dopers were denying them their just rewards – Kennaugh’s Manx compatriot, Mark Cavendish for one.