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Boonen-gate... UPDATED

Those of you who've joined the spirited discussion in the first Boonen thread might find a lot of this redundant, but I wanted to give some front page space to the latest news, and an editorial comment or two. For those who haven't read all the comments below, shorter Podium Cafe: he's an idiot.

The Facts:

  • Gavia caught already that he's being disinvited to the Tour de Suisse, but no word yet from the Tour de France.
  • Quick Step had withdrawn from the AIGCP just this past weekend. Lefevre: "The difference between the professional teams and those of the ProTour is too great. Both the budgets and the standards that the teams must meet are too excessive and difficult to cover." 24 hours later, the cocaine story breaks... but under the UCI's rules there's no disciplinary action. Coincidence?
  • The story gets weirder... Sporza is reporting that Boonen has had contact with Bouygues Telecom about switching teams. To a regional French team known for drastic anti-doping? Eh... we'll see.

A few additional thoughts...

Cyclists at the Dauphine who are being peppered with questions about Boonen can be forgiven for saying "it's an out-of-competition thing, not a cycling thing." This is tantamount to a no-comment, a predictable and understandable reluctance to discuss another rider's personal situation. Maybe it's just a personal problem, and whether it's a role-model problem (like every other athlete indiscretion) is the subject of interminable debate. But Thor Hushovd at least hints at what the others are thinking: this is a big cycling problem.

Tom Boonen knows full well that he is one of the primary beneficiaries of whatever remaining belief fans have in the sport. As long as we hang on to Cycling, the races continue and at least some sponsors continue throwing money into the sport, a not-insignificant amount of which winds up in Boonen's bank in Monaco. Or at least his Ferrari dealer's. However he may feel about the other guys in the peloton (and honestly, he seems like a team player), he himself has a massive individual stake in the restoration of the sport's credibility. Consequently, he has a disproportionate impact on whether the sport recovers.

Assuming he's not an addict, then he's guilty of deluding himself into thinking that a little partying doesn't really matter. Somewhere between Monaco and Brussels, Boonen is probably telling himself that it's unrelated to competition and shouldn't be a big deal. But even if you agree with that statement, as perhaps many of us do, that's not the issue. Cycling's biggest problem right now is perception. Hardcore fans like us can see a less-doped peloton and a sport that's getting back on its feet, but casual fans and potential new sponsors can't be expected to parse out the details. They're going to see headlines about Boonen and cocaine, and assume that the sport is still wallowing in the same old mire. To Boonen: you expect people to read through the headlines and understand the nuance? Get real. Take the example of Floyd Landis: he has an argument that procedural errors were made in his testosterone positive, but Casual fans and potential sponsors didn't wade through the details. His cycling epitaph reads "Cyclist... Winner... Drugs" and so will yours.

I expect he's due for a year in the wilderness, starting now, and a humbled comeback in 2009. The doping controls won't punish him, but for his crimes against the sport's image, the races will and the teams might too. For a minor, non-competition infraction, a year seems about right. If he's lucky.