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Cycling's Exorcism Begins

Sad to say, the upheaval rending the sport of pro cycling had to happen.

It's tempting to say that today is a major milestone in the war against performance enhancing drugs in cycling. It's also worth placing it in a bit of perspective.

Earlier today, Rabobank announced that it is removing its brand from the sport, taking one of cycling's biggest and most loyal sponsors from the ranks of cycling. Since the mid-90s, the Dutch-based international banking firm sponsored a major men's team, one of the world's best development programs, and finally a women's pro team too. Now their action is just the latest and perhaps most relevant domino to fall since the USADA exposed once and for all the extent of doping practices in Lance Armstrong's US Postal squads.

Is this some kind of end game? It's always tempting to declare this. I am sure my voice was among those saying so after Operacion Puerto. Probably said the same thing in connection with the Biological Passport program. I might have even said it after the Festina Affair. Had I been paying attention in 1924 when the Pelissier brothers, les Forçats de la Route, were exposed by Le Petit Parisien for taking horse ointment, chloroform, cocaine and other stimulants, I would undoubtedly have said that it's good to put that behind us and move on.

At the risk of exposing once again my guileless nature, today actually does feel like a significant change. I have kids, and while I don't want to sound like yet another self-righteous parent, I can say at least that following through on one's threats is the key to difficult progress. Yell about them cleaning their room and they might react to shut you up, but it'll be a mess again tomorrow. Make good on a threat to cancel TV or dessert or whatever, and they'll remember.

So I was largely relieved when I woke up to the news about De Bank today. A few years ago they made it clear that another doping scandal would mean the end of the sponsorship. True, most or maybe all of their current roster appear to be innocent victims (or will be if and when the cycling unit really stops), but had they not made good on that threat, following the news about Barredo and Menchov, with perhaps other news waiting to be made public, the message would have been about what it is when you threaten to take away dessert but give in at the end, to avoid the crying.

Clearly cycling has trouble sending the right message. Here's a brief recent history of the overarching message (IMHO) that cycling has sent to the peloton:

  • Early 1990s: don't dope too much
  • Later 1990s: No really, don't dope (wink)
  • Post-Festina: Don't dope too much at the Tour
  • Lance years: Don't dope unless you can afford to do it right
  • Post-Puerto: Don't dope or you might be caught and expelled
  • Biological passport initial message: don't dope because we have sneaky ways of catching you
  • About a year or so later: OK, maybe we don't, but don't dope
  • Lance 2.0 years: Don't dope if you're not really famous
  • About two weeks ago: Don't dope because secrets are eventually meant to be told
  • Today: Don't dope or it might detonate your entire team

That last one -- I say might, because Rabo is only one squad. But where is this going? Have Quick Step had enough? Not likely but perhaps. Have Astana? Katusha? Has Becco? Does Liquigas Cannondale have any limits to what it will tolerate? Is BMC getting nervous after Hincapie's outing? The dominoes just grew a few sizes today. Rabobank's action gives other sponsors permission to make a big statement of their own, or at least to cover their asse(t)s and be done with the mess.

I am not rooting for this to happen, at least not with my head, but in my heart I can see where this might go. This is looking like the root canal, as opposed to another filling. This is the part where you rip out the foundation, not just the boards where you can see the termites. This is shaping up to be a serious exorcism for the sport of cycling. Telling teams their entire structure is at risk -- really at risk -- could change how a potential doper weighs his choice. If you know that you will likely someday be caught, and 40 jobs will disappear as a result... well, a few psychopaths will be undeterred, but that should keep the temptation down.

What would help a lot is if it's not left to the teams to draw this line in the sand. Yes, that's an improvement over having just the testing agencies drawing the line, or the testers and the races -- all three forces can bring pressure. But at least some ultimate power still lies in the UCI, and if there is any one major element of the sport still holding out against progress, it is the tone-deaf stumblefucks hunkered down in their glass bubble in Aigle. I'm struggling to think of a metaphor that captures the breathtaking stupidity of suing whistleblowers while the sport is torn apart by doping scandals. The best I can come up with is the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi responding to foreign military threats by taking money from her navy and building a marble boat at the summer palace. Like the UCI's lawsuit against Paul Kimmage, a marble boat has only one destination: the bottom of the lake. But the fruitless use of resources in this manner is just as damaging, and pales next to the horrendous message coming from the whole rotten venture. I've long viewed Hein Verbruggen as the most cynical person in modern cycling, and regularly threatened to produce my alphabetical list of examples why the UCI is the least effective organization since the League of Nations. Now? If you told me that Dr. Ferrari was dealing EPO out of their parking garage, I wouldn't be terribly surprised.

Anyway, today is a new day. The path forward is going to get rough, but the purging of hypocrisy, particularly the staggering hypocrisy of tolerating remnants of the Armstrong regime, has to be good for the body of cycling.