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Is T-Mobile Making History?

Yesterday's press conference where T-Mobile unveiled its overhauled squad should become a memorable event in Cycling's internal drug war. For a lot of reasons I don't think we thoroughly digested yesterday.

If the whole "new, clean T-Mobile" thing still results in embarassing positive tests, then T-Mobile's efforts will perhaps be remembered as a new cynical low for the sport. But assuming otherwise, for now, here are some pretty serious takeaway points on how maybe -- just maybe -- T-Mobile is going to save Cycling.

On the flip...

  • First off, T-Mobile has been one of the sport's most generous sponsors -- the most, for all I know -- for some dozen years. And their response to a drug scandal that not only supposedly destroyed the sport but hit their own squad squarely on the noggin? Four more years!

Perhaps a more pragmatic person would simply say they are too deeply invested in Cycling to pull out completely now. But rather than pulling back -- say, cutting funds or committing to one year at a time -- T-Mobile is making a dramatic statement that they still believe in the sport.

This could send ripples across the sponsorship landscape... let's face it, companies advertising on jerseys probably don't care about doping, they just want eyeballs directed at their logos. That's marketing. But they do tend to behave like sheep, and if there were a wave of sponsorship revulsion at Cycling, sponsors would find themselves staying away in droves and parroting each other's sanctimonious scolding of the sport. Once one big sponsor says "we quit" it makes it harder for others to not do the same. Well, T-Mobile is saying, "we ain't going anywhere. We want to fix this." So reports of a sponsorship famine are probably premature, if not dead.

Very cool! If I could get out of my Verizon contract right now, I'd switch to T-Mobile service in about two seconds.

  • Take a look at how T-Mobile is approaching the team concept:
The team has also introduced a new medical and training program. The rider's medical supervision will all be done at the University of Freiburg and there will be strict internal controls, including increased training controls and many tests done by the team medical staff. Each rider is to have a health profile established, containing their physical data, results from lab testing, and samples from controls - and it will include a DNA sample.

Until now, all training had been left to the individual rider. He could seek his own trainer - no questions asked - and could, but wasn't required, to use the team medical facilities. That will now change. All training will be coordinated by a central source, who will check out all the trainers. They will send all the data to this central source, which will analyse it and work with the trainers to develop training programs.

Am I missing something, or isn't this also a HUGE development?? Have teams done this before? Perhaps this has been tried from time to time, but at least most recently, at the top levels, riders have followed their own individual programs, especially top riders. I'm sure as far as wattage is concerned there isn't much difference between the more or less collective training models, and riders all like to be closer to home when they can, you'd think.

But regarding doping, this might make a rather large difference. Putting the entire team on the same medical and training program could have at least three positive effects I can think of:

  1. It physically prevents riders from working with a doping doctor... if you're training with Dr. X, you're not training with Dr. Y. No longer will their riders be associated with shady characters on an extensive basis. Remember, the doping doctors have not only been dispensing products but often working closely with riders throughout the season, so the whole meds/training program works in synch.
  2. It creates a much tighter system of internal surveillance, which if done right should be virtually foolproof (you'd think).
  3. It creates a HUGE psychological barrier against doping! I'm really going way beyond my knowledge and experience here, but it seems like it's infinitely easier for a rider who trains alone or in small groups to give in to doping than it would be when you're more closely connected. Wouldn't you find it much harder to go against a closely-knit system, which all of your teammates have bought into, than the old "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement?
So, some disclaimers... obviously I'm nowhere near close enough to the inner workings of a Pro Tour team to speak with authority here. This is pure conjecture. And I don't think it necessarily wipes out doping, even if all teams go this route. The drugs will always be around... like all forms of risk, you can only hope to reduce it to acceptable (background) levels, rather than wipe it out 100%. And finally, as always, my natural state of mind is somewhere between "naive" and "wildly optimistic."

Nonetheless, T-Mobile's new program really looks like it could throw some major roadblocks up in the path of the dopers. Perhaps it's only a part of the solution; we still need the races, the UCI, and the individuals to do their part. But what T-Mobile has done, in two short months, is reformulate the team structure so that the teams and the sponsors are now possibly a large part of the solution to the doping crisis. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but I say "respect" to the T-Mob for really, really trying.