Bradley McGee’s heartrending tale of a cycling career curtailed by dope cheats, while undeniably gut-wrenching, must now be used to effect positive – and preventative – change, writes Anthony Tan.
During 11 years as a professional, I was confronted by doping several times by people from all walks of cycling life – including riders, support staff and doctors. Each time I was able to say, ‘No’.
May 1, 2005: Lausanne, Switzerland.
I’d been trying to pin him down all week, to no avail.
My publisher at Cyclingnews, where I worked at the time, had given me one overriding directive: get a one-on-one interview with Bradley McGee.
“It’s not that easy, Gerard,” I told my boss over the phone the previous night.
“You know Brad’s mercurial with the media. And he’s not going so well, which makes him even more so. Tomorrow’s my last chance.”
‘Just do what you’ve to do,’ I was told. ‘He, Mick (Rogers) and Cadel are our best hopes for the Tour. You know that.’
Two days prior at the Tour de Romandie, on the queen stage that finished atop Anzère, a 1,500-metre-high mountain pass that the peloton would tackle twice, McGee lost twenty-one-and-a-half minutes to stage winner Damiano Cunego.
Cunego, who had won the previous year’s Giro d’Italia aged 22, was cycling’s boy wonder. McGee, who finished eighth overall at the 2004 Giro, was our boy wonder. Both staunch anti-doping advocates in an age when clean riders were conspicuous by their absence and shutting up preferred, speaking out pilloried. In fact, when you look at the names in between Cunego and McGee at the ’04 Giro – Gonchar, Simoni, Cioni, Popovych, Garzelli, Belli – you wouldn’t be too far off the mark in suggesting the Sydneysider deserved a place on the Milan podium.
McGee, as he wrote in an impassioned piece in the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend, knew what was going on. He knew as early as 2003 when he won the prologue at the centenary Tour de France, because David Millar, the man he beat, confided to him that Brad was the rightful winner, even though the Scot dropped his chain three times and lost by less than a second.
“I knew enough to know what he was talking about – that he was doping,” McGee wrote in the Herald.
“But instead of taking action, I selfishly accepted his words as a compliment and enjoyed the kudos. I still beat myself up for this inaction.”
The day after the Anzère stage at the 2005 Tour de Romandie featured another hilltop finish. McGee would finish the stage in the last 20 riders, alongside his Française des Jeux teammates Matthew Wilson and Bernhard Eisel, 15 minutes and 44 seconds down on the stage winner… Alberto Contador.
I returned to my Swiss home in Vevey that night, where I shared an unassuming flat with a girl working for the Union Cycliste Internationale, empty-handed and, knowing my boss was going to call, exasperated.
Stuff you, Brad, I thought to myself, as I went to bed that night.
I come over all this bloody way to interview you and you keep palming me off. It’s not my fault you’re going crap. It’s the bloody dopers you’re up against – they’ve made you lose your sense of self-belief.
Somehow, he must’ve heard, because the next morning, McGee invited me into the FDJ team bus. Not really the done thing before a final time trial; his last shot at salvaging what had so far been a forgettable week.
“It’s just one of the crazy things about this sport,” he said, asked why and where things started going wrong.
“Everything has to be right, and if it’s not, then forget about it. I’m not sick, I’m feeling healthy, but I’m having trouble breathing sometimes – it could be an allergic reaction, so I’m having some tests done... we’ll see what they say.”
After forty minutes or so I decided to put the recorder down and notepad away, and talk to McGee about something other than cycling, because it was clear he’d had a gutful that week. He told me he could see the day when he’d return home to Australia and live with his family in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, where, “after 20 years of living, racing and working overseas”, he finds himself now. “I feel I’m returning to my roots,” he said a fortnight ago, when he announced his decision to leave his senior sport director role at Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank.
No more than two hours after our conversation in the team camper, McGee rode superbly to finish second behind stage and race winner Santiago Botero – caught the following year in the Operación Puerto sting and subsequently fired by Phonak, but without a national doping agency in Colombia to investigate the matter properly, his national cycling federation cleared him of wrongdoing.
Looking back, it was another kick in the guts and a stage win stolen from McGee.
“I was the one who stuck my hand out and said I want to be a GC rider,” he told me that day in Lausanne, “so the pressure’s on me. But sometimes the best thing for me is to have that little bit of pressure, and I’m going to continue living my dream.” His dream continued at the Tour de Suisse, where he finished eighth overall (to yet another doper, Aitor González), providing renewed hope of a successful July campaign. “I was well trained with strategic altitude blocks, and had a reasonable backing from my team, FDJ.”
Losing a minute-and-a-half in the Fromentine prologue and 6’30 by the first rest day in Grenoble, however, things only got harder for McGee at the 2005 Tour. “After that,” he said, “Armstrong and his Discovery Channel completely changed the race. In effect they just tore it to bits.
“I got dropped, cramped and was lost in a sense of disillusionment for the next two weeks, until I felt the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées under my wheels on the final stage.
“Even then, after I had one last dig to try to redeem a wasted Tour, I got rolled by none other than Alexander Vinokourov, who two years later would be thrown off the Tour for doping.”
That day in Paris, moments after getting rolled by a dope-cheat, I ran not towards Vinokourov, but McGee: “I imagined Vino had a bit of acid in his legs – he’s been stomping pretty hard these last three weeks – so I just looked at the finish line, put it in the 11 and went for it. I was surprised when he came off me…”
“The more I think about it,” he says now, “the more it makes me mad as hell. But I have to move on from the fact that I have, more than likely, missed out on results and revenue, plus more, because of others’ doping.
“I can move on for two reasons: I was, on my day, still able to beat these guys. And now, knowing what I was up against, that gives a new level of satisfaction from a purely self-interested and quite vain point of view.”
Brad, as you said so yourself, there is a third reason you can move on: “During 11 years as a professional, I was confronted by doping several times by people from all walks of cycling life, including riders, support staff and doctors. Each time I was able to say, ‘No’.”
This is why we need you. We need you to groom our next generation of riders and imbue them with the same ethical and moral standards you proudly held yourself throughout your racing career.
Losing a bike race does not come by way of finishing second, fourth, tenth, last, or not finishing at all.
Losing comes by way of succumbing to the temptation of doping. And prevention is far easier – and better – than cure.