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CIRC: First impressions

The UCI has released their big report from the Cycling Independent Reform Commission. With a mission to look into the sports troubled doping past with a special aim at seeing what mistakes and perhaps even misdeeds the UCI made in order to avoid them in the future. The result is a 200+ page report that is both damning and at the same time not very surprising. Seasoned cycling fans learn very little new and the ideas presented are not very new or creative.

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Firstly a bit of background. The report commissioned after Brian Cookson took the helm at the UCI has been described as a response to the calls for a truth and reconciliation process to clear the air from the eternal doping issue and move on in a constructive way. In the end the commissions mandate was never that sweeping and the scope and mission was pretty clearly penciled in in order to make the task manageable and assure that we had a result in a reasonable timeframe. The full instructions can be found here but basically the task was to :

- Look into the causes and patterns of doping use in cycling.
- Look into past mistakes from the UCI and provide recommendations on how they and other stakeholders can learn from these and improve future practices.
- Not to primarily look for info in order to punish past offenses or point out guilty parties.
- Specifically look into allegations that UCI or UCI officials directly contributed to the development through corrupt practices or mismanagement.
- Mainly focus on the timeframe 1998 - 2013

What did we get

Actually let's start with what we didn't get. We didn't get a barrage of new juicy revelation and named evildoers from the (g)olden days of the EPO-generation. In fact the report is almost  clinically clean from new revelations about named or unnamed riders. So let's just move on from that. There will certainly be detailed dissections of the report in all the cycling media so I will just limit myself to my main takeaway from the report from a fan's perspective. What can we use of all this ? What is meaningful and new and what was just a waste of time and money? For those interested the full report is available from the UCI website and it is certainly worth a read.

The commission actually looked soberly and rationally at the flurry of allegations aimed at former UCI presidents Verbruggen and McQuaid regarding their part in the huge Lance Armstrong debacle. Their conclusions have a great degree of credibility pointing less at the outright conspiracy and corruption that the most rabid critics claim and more at the kind of lower level collusion that comes from administrators more concerned with oiling the wheels of their business than ethics and proper conduct.  It is no less damning even if Hein&Pat are eager to claim they have been exonerated simply because CIRC can't find proof of the wildest accusations. The picture of how their shady dealings helped perpetuate rotten and poorly functioning system is clear to see in the report for anyone but the terminally deluded.
Once again an absurd amount of focus is aimed at the Armstrong affair, perpetuating the image that this was such an abnormality. Yes it was a big deal, yes it came at a critical time. The onesided Lance-focus is just counter-productive though and deflects attention from the bigger issues.


There's an in depth discussion of the role of doctors and soigneurs in distributing drugs and perpetuating a doping culture that is still in place. The problems are looked at extensively why the docs act the way they do and the issues that they are faced with. It also shows how people profit off maintaining the doping support network around an ever changing cast of riders.
There is virtually no recommendation whatsoever on how to get at this culture beyond saying that sanctioned doctors ought to be reported to medical authorities so that their actions might have repercussions for their medical licenses. "It's really important. We have no earthly idea what to do about it" Thanks CIRC, you really saved the day there!

The report contains plenty of anecdotal insight into practices and the actual workings of the doping inside the peloton. You get some brutal clarity on some issues of the kind you got from Hamilton's book when it came out. 
It's only anecdotes, from cover to cover. Add to that the depressing statistics. Covering a long 15 year period there were only 16 riders and 15 team-staff who would contribute information and be named. A further 10 riders and 3 staff members contributed anonymously. No one stepped forward voluntarily and admitted to a dopingviolation (even when promised with reduced sanctions) so basically the list of contributors is overwhelmingly already caught riders giving info. Why more riders, clean or not, were not interviewed is an interesting question. Did they fail to turn up or did CIRC fail to approach them? Either way the sample size makes for a terrible terrible scientific selection. Also the anecdotal evidence presented is never attributed so there is absolutely no way of making any kind of assessment on how credible it is. So we have a few persons giving off an image that while sounding convincing you really have no way of knowing how representative those persons are.


Riccardo, a champion of clean cycling

The report doesn't just look back 15 years pre-Puerto when we know for sure things were completely shit. It also takes a decent stab at outlining the problems that still exist. And it does it rather well, except for the inherent problems I just mentioned. It paints a picture where the Bio Passport has improved things dramatically, limiting the benefits that riders can get from oxygen doping that they can get away with.  At the same time it doesn't give the "everything is hunky dory these days"-version that we often hear from cycling officials and riders. CIRC instead indicates that while the playing field is more level there is still an attitude problem remaining where riders have learned to adapt to the passport and dope "smart" so as to not get flagged by the passport. It also shows that the peloton is still reliant on an immense battery of banned and (still) legal drugs used solely for performance enhancing purposes. With bloodboosting becoming more difficult new (and revived old) drugs take over as the doping of choice. It also outlines what is potentially a huge abuse of the Therapeutic Use Exemption system. "One rider" (rolls eyes) saying 90% of TUEs were for illegitimate reasons. When Cookson spoke of cans of worms this might just be one of the biggest ones.
The information is so flimsy it simply begs more questions and further investigations. So in the end the whole outcome will depend on the willingness of the UCI to handle the problems indicated. And there is really very little concrete for them to work off. They will more or less star from scratch again. And this thing cost them 3 million Euro allegedly.

The report does present a number of concrete recommendations. Among other things they suggest more intelligence based targeted testing, allowing round-the-clock out of competition testing (even nighttime), working actively and systematically with re-testing old samples, creating a truly secure whistleblower system and focusing more resources on investigations. Most of the suggestions are uncontroversial and common sense things. The testing window thing would of course be wildly controversial and probably clash with another recommendation which is to encourage the establishment of a true rider's union but for the most part they are widely acceptable ideas, and ideas that have been floating around for a long time.
As good as the suggestions are, there are a bunch of them and the sad fact is that time and resources are limited. The recommendations, and the problem description behind them, really don't give any indication of what needs to be prioritized. We have a bunch of suggestions but from reading the report I have no clue which ones need to be addressed acutely and which ones come lower down on the list of priorities. This is really my main problem, the document is so neutral that I have a hard time separating the crucial from the trivial and the same will go for the UCI. None of this stuff is new, everyone knew the basic problems. What might have been useful was someone saying "start here, this is problem number one, then this needs fixing and then maybe thing number three and four need attending" but we get none of that. Just another rambling list of cycling's problems. I could have written that.