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The Optimist's Take

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Those of you who spend much time here probably have already figured out that I'm an optimist by nature. I'm not sure this serves me in my professional life ("I wouldn't worry about that termination clause, those Halliburton folks seemed so nice"), but it has helped me weather the doping wars of the last few years. Anyway, this has been an Earth-shattering week on that front, and to me it might really be the tipping point. May 2007 may go down as the month when people decided Cycling had to be saved.

This is kind of long, so I'll do it on the flip, but the road map to salvation goes something like this:
Phase 1: Doping Goes Mainstream
Phase 2: The Public Awakens
Phase 3: Everyone Gets Pissed Off
Phase 4: The Dam Leaks, Then Bursts
What It All Means

First off, let me acknowledge that this post is a mixture of my conclusions and stuff I've read from the many, varied, informed opinions posted on this site lately. h/t to the PodCaf community for hashing this all out.

Phase 1: Doping Goes Mainstream

Stepping back, we know that Cycling was awash in PEDs in the 1990s. Frankly, they'd been around (and tainting the sport) seemingly forever, but when undetectable, effective EPO suddenly hit the market, doping really seems to have hit the mainstream. As this old, nagging problem burgeoned out of control, the backlash began. In 1998, French police started calling bullshit on this at the Tour, and put riders on notice that doping was officially not OK. One team was destroyed, and by appearances French teams in general started backing away from doping. A year later the Giro booted Marco Pantani for a high hematocrit level, then booted stars Gilberto Simoni (cocaine!) and Stefano Garzelli (steroid masking agents) in 2002, putting Italian riders on similar notice that tolerance of cheating might be on the wane.

Phase 2: The Public Awakens

Around this time the fans started catching on. French fans turned their ire on Lance Armstrong -- rightly or not. His success made him a fat target, and a few books (all by the same people) fed the atmosphere of suspicion. Cheers for Richard Virenque (a confirmed doper from the 1998 affair) muddled the message some, but in retrospect the rude chants along the French roads only upped the ante on the dopers.

Since Cycling lacks a system, there was no systematic response, but the anecdotal evidence kept piling up: David Millar, Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, the Belgian Cocktail probe, and so forth. Then Operacion Puerto came along and changed the popular perception of the scale of the problem. To every rational observer, Cycling had a huge drug issue.

Phase 3: Everyone Gets Pissed Off

Then the frustration set in... Operacion Puerto seemed poised to launch positive change, except it didn't. If anything, it seemed to touch off mass bickering among officials, and a range of opinion among riders from indignation to resignation to silence. Worse, the Landis case (mirroring the Hamilton case) took the subject to court, where Cycling got picked over by swarms of vultures day after day. The pressure on the sport kept going up. Other than while races were going on, gloom pervaded the sport. Something had to give.

Phase 4: The Dam Leaks, Then Bursts

Don't ask me to recall all the specifics, but Operacion Puerto didn't go away after all. Thanks to the Tour's insistence that suspected riders stay away, or to the Spanish police for procuring some additional evidence, or to the German and Italian investigators who continued to pursue the Basso and Ullrich cases, things started to happen. Basso was held back, then detained, then confessed. Ullrich had retired, or his own license would likely have been pulled. At this point, Operaction Puerto seems likely to bring down the Fuentes ring after all. Then out of nowhere, the T-Mobile confessions started flooding in, culminating in admissions by champions like Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel. At this point, the only question is whose turn is it next?

What It All Means

Oddly, the solution to the age-old problem may have begun with  the binges of the 1990s. Tolerance for doping -- as big an enemy of the sport as there is -- began to plummet when doping went from a dirty secret to a rather nauseating way of life. The responses came in without organization (see about a dozen prior posts about cycling's governance), and as a result, it took time for them to add up. But as small scandals were exposed, the public and the press got involved, and finally -- Finally! -- the sport acknowledged it had a problem.

What has changed in the last six weeks is the tone of the conversation. Over the winter, everyone was willing to admit that the problem existed... everywhere but in their own corner. The new confessions change that. Suddenly it seems like the ugliness has gotten too great, and people in the sport have decided Cycling must be saved. Suddenly it seems like Operacion Puerto won't be for naught. Then this week... For guys like Zabel and Riis to admit to tainted wins, at the risk of destroying their legacy, shows that finally people are willing to make sacrifices to deal with the problem. If this continues, if riders keep coming clean about their own PED use, if the sport cleanses its soul, then maybe we will finally reach Phase 5: Cycling Starts Anew.

I believe this is where things are headed. Not because people are virtuous or that drugs are no longer a temptation, but because Cycling is too great to let it die, because people have figured out that death of the sport is staring back at them, and in response the sport is becoming gripped by a collective urgency to save it.