Short of an amnesty, piecemeal confessions, hurtful and damaging as they are, may be a necessary evil, the president of Mountain Bike Australia tells Anthony Tan.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

There is a photo of one Aussie drug cheat, taken on a crit circuit named after another Aussie drug cheat. And this is not in Europe – this is in Australia, our own national capital.Following the screening of Cycling Central on 28 July, Russell Baker, president of Mountain Bike Australia (MTBA), felt compelled to write host Mike Tomalaris and myself an email.

The first part of the episode in question focused on Stuart O'Grady's admission earlier that week, where, on the back of being named as one of thirty cyclists in a French Senate report, he admitted to taking EPO prior to the 1998 Tour de France – but added 'L'affaire Festina' scared him off using what was once the peloton's perennial drug of choice ever again.

Baker, a former commodore in the Royal Australian Navy, where he served for thirty-four years (until 2007) and was, among other duties, chair of the Australian Defence Sports Council, responsible for twenty-eight sports, naturally takes a hard-line approach.

When I spoke to Baker by telephone this past Friday, who has held his position as MTBA president since December 2009, I agreed that the piecemeal confessions are frustrating, together with a lack of closure on an era now behind us, which, consequently, continues to cast aspersions on the veracity of performances from our current generation of cyclists, clean or otherwise.

However, unlike the way indiscretions are treated in the navy, army or air force, I said, things aren't so black and white in professional cycling – particularly those from 'Generation EPO', where shades of grey are the norm.

Whether you're a rider, soigneur, sport director, team manager, press officer, sponsor, administrator, journalist, or fan, we're all dealing with cycling's murky past, and wondering what the future holds, in our own way.

So, I suggested to Baker that, rather than telling me how he felt, why not publish his sentiments – to which he's kindly (and boldly) agreed to do, and which is reproduced below:

I too, am very upset with the recent revelation that Stuart O'Grady has taken performance-enhancing drugs. I treat his 'admission' with a lot of skepticism – along the lines of, 'Did he jump or was he pushed?' I can find no honour at all in what he did. To approach a honourable act, he would have had to withdraw before the glory of the centenary tour, not after it. Even more honourable would have been to admit and retire many years ago, and, of course, the ultimate honour would have been not to use PEDs at all.

While you came out strongly with a view on O'Grady and (it appeared to me) Anthony approached it differently, I was very surprised with the interview with Stephen Hodge as part of the segment. The on-screen text that went with Stephen described him as a "former professional cyclist". No mention of him being a self-confessed drug cheat or that he had to stand down as VP of Cycling Australia because of that confession.

Maybe you think everyone knows that; maybe you're right. But, for those who do not, then the absence of this places his comments in a different context.

I have seen comments in other media that O'Grady only took drugs once, that it was a long time ago, and that back then everyone was doing it. I congratulate you on the skepticism you displayed to this attitude in Cycling Central.

If you go about halfway down this recent Herald Sun article, there is a photo of O'Grady in Aussie team kit at Stromlo Forrest Park when the team was training there before 2010 world road champs.

Or, lets put it another way... There is a photo of one Aussie drug cheat, taken on a crit circuit named after another Aussie drug cheat. And this is not in Europe – this is in Australia, our own national capital. Stromlo is a world-class venue, it has hosted world and national championships and it will host more – yet the main road-cycling track in it is named after a drug cheat. If you want to know how serious Australia takes the drugs-in-sport issue, there is part one of your answer.

For me personally, our mountain bike club in Canberra (CORC) runs the ACT Schools mountain bike championships each August. About 600 secondary school students from over 60 schools (not just ACT Schools) walk up to the roller-window to collect their bike number plate at registration. In doing so, they walk past a sign that says (to me), 'you can be a drug cheat and we'll still name a sports venue after you'.

This influence on our youth troubles me greatly, and I have called for the track to be renamed. Yet, the response is that Stephen has done great things for cycling since he retired from competition. Even the former chief minister of the ACT, Jon Stanhope, supported retaining its name. Stephen did a lot of the concept work for Stromlo, he organises the politicians' hill ride group in Canberra (I wonder how they feel about that), he is a strong advocate for cycling with State and Federal Government, etc.

But ask yourself this question: If Stephen had tested positive to drugs during his career and received a ban, how much access and influence would he have had with Government? I suspect they would not have wanted to know him. In other words, hiding the drugs issues enables people to get where they are.

So, part two of the answer to the 'how serious are we?' question is simply that for as long as some look to find excuses for the drug cheats' actions, it excuses why we should still use them for their experience when we know that experience to be tainted, and excuses for some of our own consequent actions – then we won't be taken seriously. At the highest level, look at the French Senate delaying the report until after Le Tour, after a delegation of pro riders approached them (and some of them were riding circa 1998). I wonder if they considered the economic impact on France if the Tour was affected by the report being released on the original date.

This is not 'old news' (which seems to be the other excuse trotted out). The offences are old, but the effect is current.

Apart from the Stephen Hodge situation described above, our flagship pro road team, Orica-GreenEDGE, is now shown to have been riding with a tainted rider in O'Grady – but take a look at who is in the team car following them. Is that acceptable? Are people again making excuses to justify the use of those people in the sport?

As you know, the various forms of cycling in Australia are in the midst of an integration process, which, if agreed by the various member bodies, will result in a single cycling body.

Some of our members feel that this represents a takeover of MTB by Cycling Australia, but I do not see it this way. I see it as a totally new body to embrace all the cycling disciplines, plus the various participation and recreational groups. Indeed, in the light of the reputation damage to cycling in the last 18 months, it must be a new body.

But, right now, a lot of MTBA members are asking me: "Are you sure you want to be associated with these people?"

Our sport's reputation is being damaged in a few ways.

Yes, it is being damaged every time a drug cheat is revealed. This tends to happen in a piecemeal fashion because that is the means by which they are being exposed. Short of some worldwide amnesty (which the cycling bodies must not grant – it has to be WADA), then it will always be piecemeal.

So if we (the sport) do not focus on them, it is fair to say that the media will. How does that make the sport look if they are not prepared to focus on those cases? It makes it look like we condone it.

But it is also being damaged by the continued use of these people, and, as I stated earlier, damaged more by the propensity for people to try and find excuses why they should continue to be used. As I said, until we fix that, we will not fix drugs in sport.

Now, I want you to be absolutely clear that as President of MTBA, I do not condone the use of PEDs in any way. We were the first cycling body to introduce declarations for our staff and committee. I also do not support the use of people with a PED use history in our governance or staff positions. I also ask you to note our national MTB team selection policy, Section A, 2.2.10., where it says:

Any athlete who, after 1 January 2013, has been found guilty of an Anti-Doping Rule Violation and where the consequent penalty applied is a two-year suspension or greater, will no longer be eligible for selection in an Australian national cycling team.

Just to be 100 per cent clear on that: If you receive a two-year (or greater) ban for the use of PEDs, then you will never again be part of an Australian MTB team. Ever! Go find another sport.

Russell Baker, MTBA President