Perhaps the most telling of lines in the the Cycling Independent Reform Commission's rigorous review of cycling is a timid appraisal of the sport's current health in the opening chapter, 'Elite Road Cycling'. Rather than an unequivocal line in the sand that separates the insidious, wild west era of doping that has clouded the last decade and more, and today's crop of riders, the review simply offers a "probably". Things are, probably better than they were, but we can't say for sure.. The exact line "doping and cheating remain evident in the peloton, though it is probably not as endemic as it used to be" colours a lot of the depth of the report. A realistic, frank discussion of what the sport's been through and the mountains it still needs to conquer.
There has certainly been progress in the last five, six years, the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP), a more intangible change in the sport's culture, including the formation of organisations like the MPCC, major investigations like those conducted by USADA and CONI that have ruffled the feather of the doping establishment, have all been factors in helping the sport renew. For those looking for good news, CIRC's report is adamant the introduction of the ABP particularly made it more difficult for doping riders to continue what they were doing.
As the CIRC reveals: "in the first three years of the ABP, 26 riders were found positive for the presence of EPO stimulating agents in their specimens. In 20 out of the 26 positive cases, it was the abnormal blood profile which raised suspicions leading to a targeted anti-doping urinary or blood test." Encouraging too is the assertion by the report that there is "no more team organised systematic doping in the WorldTour" as there had been in the 90s and 2000s.
But if the doping problem were to be considered a cancer, the sport's oncologists will have to be monitoring it carefully for signs of remission, because it is still exhibiting troubling symptoms, many that have plagued it for years. One of the ongoing concerns is the sport's problematic financial model, which can exacerbate the propensity of riders and teams to dope. And many of these concerns are far from unfamiliar, nor obvious as to how they'll be addressed.
"Risk factors includeÃ¢â¬¦ riders that often train predominantly away from the team and might engage their own doctors (and doctors operating outside the sport are hard to regulate); riders who rode in an era when doping was acceptable continue to work in the sport which makes it hard to change the culture; and although the influence of the classic omerta has declined, riders are still reluctant to report doping or suspicious conduct to the authorities."
Feeding the report's cynicism was also this gem. When those the review interviewed were asked to assess the sport's current health a common response "Ã¢â¬¦ was that probably three or four riders on a team were clean, three or four were doping, and the rest were a "don't know"." Then there's the scary stuff, like the fact that as good as the ABP has been in unravelling doping, several people who spoke to CIRC revealed that it was also being used in conjunction with specialist doping doctors as a tool to circumvent controls.
"...despite improvements to the science underlying the ABP, it is still possible for riders to micro-dose using EPO without getting caught.. And ironically, the ABP is also used by riders to avoid detection. Anti-doping experts noted that the fact that riders had access to their blood values, allowed them to ensure that they stayed within their limits when blood-doping."
The Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) system is also panned by the report, and those CIRC engaged, with "interviewees reporting TUEs to be systematically exploited by some teams and even used as part of performance enhancement programmes... one team doctor stated that he believed the TUE system had been regularly abused, particularly in the area of corticoidsÃ¢â¬¦" and "in one rider's opinion, 90 per cent of TUEs were used for performance-enhancing purposes." There's discussion of new substances, for example the 'new EPO', AICAR, the weaknesses of National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs) to police the sport properly and the difficulty in overhauling a sport's culture.
But as sobering as all of it is, the methodical rigour of the report brings all of cycling's demons to the fore in a way USADA's 'Reasoned Decision' only touched on, lacing the sport's history with the battle it's had to mount to pull itself out of the darkness. In a funny way, it's a story of hope. Because while it will give cycling's critics plenty of chaff to burn through, the sport has been truly laid bare. It's not about Lance Armstrong, it's not about any one athlete or team, it's a comprehensive overview of cycling.
And if used properly it should act as a road map for the sport to properly move forward. Its stakeholders to understand their depths of its problems its faced, and how to acknowledge and address them. Indeed, the biggest departure from the explosiveness of USADA's stinging investigation are sensible conclusions, and recommendations for the healing to begin. And that's what the sport has always needed. Solutions.