With increased growth in professional cycling in Asia comes greater attention, and, unsurprisingly, greater rewards. But growth should not come at the expense of integrity, because right now, trust must come before all else, writes Anthony Tan.
Unless I see a blood test done, I won’t be convinced. Because I don’t have trust.In his story ‘Malaysian cycling: Rumble in the jungle’, published Monday on Cycling Central, my Thai-based cycling colleague Steve Thomas waxed lyrical about the five-day Tour of Borneo, which began Sunday in the island’s second most populous city, Kota Kinabalu.
While professional cycling in the East is increasing in its popularity – no doubt about that – there is also a darker side Thomas failed to mention.
Around the world, and outside the ASO goldmine that is the Tour de France, races struggle to break even; most run at a loss, in fact. No surprise, then, that organisers implement whatever austerity measures they can to save money and ultimately, ensure their survival.
Outside the WorldTour, drug testing, despite great advances the last decade, is best described as rudimentary. For a race like the UCI 2.2 ranked Borneo tour, urine testing would normally be conducted on the stage winners and race leader/s*. However blood testing would be non-existent, because apart from cost, none of the competing teams are at WorldTour or Pro Continental level, and therefore do not participate in the biological passport program. Lee Rodgers, a born-again pro on the Asia Tour who rides for the UCI Continental CCN Cycling Team, wrote in his June 4 blogpost: “It’s 1993 all over again out here. It’s the Wild East. Not as rampant as in the Euro peloton back then but here nonetheless. The drugs are so hard to detect and yet the testing is only done through urine, not blood. I could, if I was so inclined, dope my ass off and get away with it all, doctor or no doctor, just by reading the web and managing my doping schedule.”
Besides, if you’ve read any of the eleven sworn testimonies from Lance Armstrong’s one-time teammates at US Postal, you’d be aware, then, that random urine or blood testing doth not catch drug cheats. Most juice up prior to competition, so by the time they race, any trace is out of their system (save for more sophisticated labs like Cologne or the LNDD in Châtenay-Malabry that can detect miniscule amounts); and for events ten days or less, there would be little need to ‘top up’.
At races like the UCI 2.1 Tour of Japan, which this year ran concurrently with the Giro d’Italia, both races concluding on May 26, organisers are so chuffed to have a WorldTour or Pro Continental team compete, they are willing to make certain concessions. Rodgers again: “At the same time, we have a governing body and national cycling federations that regulate the testing of these events and yet have a heavily vested interest in the image of the sport being – if you’ll excuse the tired old pun – a positive one. They want the sport to succeed in Asia for largely economic reasons, and yet are supposed to be testing for doping infractions.”
Despite the announcement three days before the finish that dastardly Danilo Di Luca, riding for Vini Fantini-Selle Italia at the Giro, had tested positive following an out-of-competition doping test at his home on 29 April – subsequently thrown off the race and fired by his team, who denied any knowledge of his nefarious acts – I can reveal that the same team, also riding the Japan tour, was granted a most unusual ‘favour’.
Andrew Christie-Johnston, team manager of Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisers, whose squad also raced the Tour of Japan, told me in a phone interview last week that on the final stage in Tokyo, he distinctly remembers seeing one of the Vini Fantini riders called for random testing. “Yeah, that’s right – their name was on the board and I saw that, and three or four other teams had seen that. And then we found out that their name had been removed and another rider’s (name had) gone up there…
“We don’t know what happened. All we know that is that it had come back to another team that they had said: ‘We’ve got to get to the airport to catch our flight, and we can’t hang around for this’. That was the explanation given. And we thought, ‘Hmm, oh-kay…’ That’s just tough luck. At the end of the day, you’ve still got to do your tests. We were a little bit shocked when we turned up to a restaurant close to the airport, six hours later, and they were still there having tea… and we realised their flight was four hours after that. They had heaps of time (to be drug tested and still make their flight).
“So there was a bit of suspicion… and I think it was at the time when the Vini Fantini guy (Di Luca) had gone positive (at the Giro d’Italia). We’ve raced that team before and there were definitely some suspect rides. When that’s just happened it puts that doubt (in your mind). I could never go up to someone and ask for (the random testing) to be changed, even it was for the right reasons; the fact that I had to do that would make me realise that it’s not the right thing to do, where cycling is at the moment. So at the (Giro), when that positive is announced, you’d be feeling like, ‘This is terrible for our team – we’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything right’. And then, three days later (after the announcement of Di Luca’s positive), they go and get their name removed. For me, it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, f**k…’ You wouldn’t want to accuse them of doing anything wrong but they’re not doing the right thing by themselves.”
Huon-Genesys, to their credit, was competitive nonetheless. In fact, with Ben Dyball and Nathan Earle, they pulled off respective victories on the Mount Fuji time trial and the following day’s stage in Izu, with Dyball finishing fifth overall behind winner Fortunato Baliani; although never implicated, the Italian having ridden for his fair share of teams tainted by doping scandals. In fact, another three Aussies placed eighth to tenth on GC, in Drapac’s Darren Lapthorne and Robbie Hucker (8th and 10th) and Earle (9th).
“The team that (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) sent was a sprint team. So, for me, it was hard to say they weren’t clean or if they were a little bit dodgy,” Christie-Johnston said.
“And Nathan Earle and Ben Dyball got stage wins in that tour, so if you’ve got some dodgy sprinters, it’s not going to affect the climbers still performing. If they brought a dodgy climber, okay, they wouldn’t have got those results. I think that’s why we strike in some of these races; there might be some suspect people or suspect teams, but there’s a real reluctance to help these teams in any way. And you can see that at times, when some of them don’t end up in the breaks they should, not because they aren’t good but (because) people won’t work with them.”
How does he feel about a team like Tabriz Petrochemical, who won this year’s Tour of Qinghai Lake in China with Mirsamad Pourseyedi Golakhor, a rider that only recently came back from a two-year suspension for EPO, then? (Interestingly, at the Qinghai Lake tour, the first seven places on GC and eleven out of the top fifteen spots were occupied by riders from Iran or Kazakhstan.)
“Tabriz is a team, for us, that has always been…”
Yes? I want an answer.
“Their strength in Asia has always been phenomenal. And when they had two riders go positive in Qinghai Lake after us racing (there) the last two years, it was not surprising to see that. We thought, ‘great, that’s going to fix it, they’re going to be gone’… and now they’re back and they’re back to being the number one team in Asia again. We didn’t realise they were going to be at (the Tour of) Borneo, because we don’t often know who’s racing until late, and they didn’t do Borneo last year.”
Christie-Johnston said that his star rider Earle, currently leading the National Road Series (NRS) standings and bound to hook up with fellow Tasmanian Richie Porte at Sky Procycling in 2014, is in “probably his best form ever at the moment”. Having won the queen stage to the hilltop finish of Kundasang in last year’s race before finishing second overall to Michael Torckler of New Zealand, what unfolds this week, he said, “will be very interesting”, particularly on the Kundasang climb, slated for Wednesday.
“If some of their climbers (from Tabriz) put two or three minutes into Nathan into that climb, I…”
Yes? I ask again.
“Unless I see a blood test done, I won’t be convinced. Because I don’t have trust. Like anyone else, when you have a team you’ve raced and they’ve gone positive, you lose trust in that team. That is a trust thing. But I think the good thing is now, there’s a lot more teams that agree and are totally against it, and are actually forcing these guys out – and even dealing with some of these situations on the road, themselves, to try and stop some of the results as best they can.”
After versatile Aussie rider Paul Van Der Ploeg, riding as a guest for Team Corbusier, took first blood, Mehdi Sohrabi – an Iranian from Tabriz Petrochemical, but who rode last year for Lotto-Belisol, albeit without result – silver at the Asian road championships aside – won the second leg and took the race lead, which he held as the race braced itself for the 147.1 kilometre fourth stage to Kundasang. Yesterday, as things turned out, Tabriz riders Ghaber Mizbani and Qinghai Lake winner Pourseyedi Golakhor broke away on the Cat. 1 climb of Gunung Emas, and, bewilderingly, the Iranian pair rode away from a fifteen-strong chase group that contained all four riders from Huon-Genesys – carving out an astonishing near eleven-minute lead after 100 kilometres.
While all this was going on, a few none-too-subtle tweets were dished out from the Huon-Genesys team car…
Tabriz Petrochemical proudly sponsored by Kawasaki #TOB13— HuonGenesys (@HuonGenesys) August 21, 2013
Mizbani and Pourseyedi Golakhor continued their extraordinary offensive all the way to Kundasang at the base of the 4,095 metre high Mount Kinabalu, the former taking stage honours and, with a 6’34 and 9’09 advantage over Huon-Genesys’ Joseph Cooper and Earle, now third and fourth on GC, an unassailable race lead.
A few hours later, tempers still frayed, another tweet…
“We need the same level of testing here that they have in Europe, or we will be looking at the same problem we have there with an entire generation of Asian racers,” Rodgers wrote in his June blogpost. “Forget cutting corners and tackle this problem seriously, right now, when we still, barely, maybe, just, have a fighting chance.”
“I don’t think you can be naïve,” Travis Tygart, CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), told the Sun-Herald in an interview published on 11 August.
“Whether Australians (or others), the win-at-all-costs culture is a global problem. As a results, countries collectively in a global community that values integrity, clean athletes and the health of athletes, we have to continue to do everything we can to protect sport or we lose an important institution that teaches our kids at every level.”
* It appears no drug testing of any kind took place at the 2013 Tour of Borneo. At the time of writing, organisers were yet to confirm as much when asked to clarify the extent of doping controls at this year’s race.