Doping has cast a long shadow over road cycling in the past year. Case after case, rider after rider, team after team, it felt at times like there was no end to its reach through the sport, even though all the high profile cases were being dug up from the past. As I write this, Lance Armstrong has just confessed all to Oprah on prime time American television; that whole ugly circus has gone mainstream. Right now must be a painful time to be in road cycling as it tries to come to terms with its past and reassure the outside world that they have learned from those mistakes, that the present is a brave, new world.
Those worries have never really reached the shores of gravity mountain biking. While road cycling grew out of competition, mountain biking grew out of the late '60s hippie movement in San Fransisco. Wild, long-haired freaks on burly bikes, hurtling down the gravel roads. It's fair to say that some of them would have failed drug tests, spectacularly in some cases. Yet the substances they would likely have found wouldn't have been EPO, testosterone or human growth hormone. LSD, THC or MDA, any combination of the uppers, downers and hallucinogens that were common in that corner of the world at that time. The simple reason being that performance-enhancing drugs are no fun. Born from this free-wheeling world, downhill has managed to remain less tainted by doping.
Yet Enduro is different. By introducing an endurance element to gravity riding it brings increased risks with it. Enduro's founder, Fred Glo, admits, "Enduro racing is not a different dream world and we know doping can exist. Building technical trails will not be enough, doping can be a big plus, we all know that." So it was profoundly disappointing to discover that the French Cycling Federation (FFC) recently banned a rider for six months for using a banned substance. The Facts and their ImplicationsThe ruling from 6 September 2012
states clearly that a French-licensed rider failed the test at the Megavalanche at St-Paul, Reunion Island 2011 and hydrochlorothiazide, a masking agent, was found in his sample. A study in the British Journal of Pharmacology
explains that masking agents "can be used to mask the administration of other doping agents by reducing their concentration in urine primarily because of an increase in urine volume. The urine dilution effect of diuretics also allows them to be classified as masking agents and precludes their use both in and out of competition." In other words, they make your body produce more urine, so the amount of the banned substance in your urine will be harder to detect as it's diluted further. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is clear in its guidelines that hydrochlorothiazide is banned at all times
. We also know that the rider's ban started 20 September 2012 and runs until 20 March 2013. These are all the facts that are available right now and from here the bigger problem grows.
Article 45 of the French Cycling Federation (FFC) regulations state: "Toutefois, pour les personnes majeures, cette publication pourra, en cas de circonstances exceptionnelles, être effectuée sous forme anonyme par décision spécialement motivée de l'organe disciplinaire de première instance." That roughly translates to that in exceptional cases, people found guilty of using banned substances can apply to remain anonymous. Frank Filbien, the FFC's mountain bike representative, explains that, "There is a special committee, independent from the national federation. This committee can decide that the rider's name will not be published. This occurs when the rider tells the committee that such a publication will have a very negative impact on him and, for example, that he could lose his job - let's say he has a bike shop and there is a possibility that many people stop buying things in his shop if they know that he has cheated. This decision is very exceptional. That's why the rider's name has not be published."
The obvious question is: why is this case exceptional? We don't know. Nobody outside the independent committee that made the decision knows why they have chosen to both punish and protect the guilty rider, even Frank Filbien doesn't know the name of the banned rider or the details of the case. He explains that, "French sports laws says that the AFLD is the French independent agency against doping for all sports. Each federation has to build a “committee,” whose function is to establish which punishment must be chosen for each case of anti-doping rules violation. In this “committee,” for our federation, there are five members and only one whom belongs to the FFC. The others are chosen for their specialist knowledge of health or justice. When a rider has been caught in an anti-doping control, the AFLD asks the national federation to establish the punishment, this is done by the committee which works in an independent way, neither the FFC nor the AFLD has any influence on it. If the national federation does not do anything before the required deadline, then the AFLD stands in for the committee." These experienced professionals, who probably have far more experience in dealing with doping cases than any of them would like to have, have taken all the facts into consideration and applied the appropriate policies and precedent in making a ruling. Trust and Understanding the Media
We find ourselves in a situation where there is anger flowing through the sport, a desire to see justice visibly done and to remain free of doping. Yet without a name that anger is often misplaced, riders' names are being thrown around, sometimes on no stronger evidence than that they are from the right country and happen to ride Enduro. Innocent, clean athletes are inadvertently being tainted by the toxic overspill from this decision. The modern media and the free-flow of information on the internet mean rumours fly fast and the void of information is inevitably filled with gossip and speculation.
People naturally assume the worst, the suggestion that the rider could have made an innocent or stupid mistake is not a popular one right now. The British Journal of Pharmacology article acknowledges that hydrochlorothiazide has several medical uses and the short, off-season sentence is very lenient. Interpreting this as a sign that the rider made a mistake with their medication is as equally plausible as the reading that it is masking a more systematic regime of drug use. Yet only one of these theories is in circulation right now, and the truth is we don't know.
Italian Superenduro organiser, Enrico Guala, is open in his criticism of how the case has been handled: "To me, all this speculation and all the arguments on who is the rider, is very bad for the other riders. It's a lack of respect to all the other riders. In what other sport do they do this? They just say this athlete is doped. It's a way to protect the other ones." For the riders there is another dimension too, it creates doubt as to whether they are racing on a level playing field. Enduro's first professional rider, Remy Absalon, says simply, "For me, I'm an athlete, I train to win. It hurts to know that some guys cheat."
What the committee has not understood is that mountain bikers clearly do not trust the wisdom of their decisions. There is a desire from every level of the sport to see it remain clean, and to do that we want and need transparency. Maybe in the past simply keeping the rider's name anonymous was a plausible thing to do, mainly because few people would have ever found out about the ruling and if they did they couldn't share the details as easily as we can today. The world has changed and there is a strong argument that this kind of decision is no longer appropriate.The Wrong Response
Not everyone in mountain biking seems to have a grasp on the situation though. French website, Endurotribe, approached George Edwards, the Megavalanche organiser, for comment on the matter. You can read the full text
of his response on their website, but the money shot is when he says "Néanmoins les caractéristiques sur lesquelles sont fondées les qualités nécessaires pour être performant en DH marathon/enduro n’offrent pas d’avantage prépondérant à l’absorption d’un produit dopant, ce qui atténue la notion d’un résultat immérité!" The short, rough translation is: "doping won't help in DH marathon/enduro because it's all about technical ability."
Anybody who has raced in the Megavalanche will tell you how ridiculous the suggestion that extra fitness wouldn't help is. Frank Filbien is emphatic in saying "I confirm that M. Edwards can’t have any influence on the decision taken by the committee. The members of this committee work in an independent way and must keep their decision secret. If not, they would be automatically excluded from the committee." So even if George Edwards is sticking his head firmly in the sand, he has no way of influencing the application of anti-doping procedures, which is reassuring to know.The Future
Fred Glo, the organiser of the French Enduro series is vocal in his discontent and has written to the FFC stating that, "The current situation is not acceptable with the information we have. I want to know what to expect if this kind of case comes up in the future in the Enduro series. If the situation stays like this, it’s a very bad sign to give to riders and it cannot stay like it is." Sadly, this isn't the first time Fred has faced this kind of situation. In 2008 a rider named Franck Parolin was banned for six months by the FFC for using a banned substance while competing in a road competition away from Enduro racing. That ban has long since passed, but Fred's approach is "zero compromise," and he will never again be welcome at a French Enduro series race. As a race organiser this is understandable, anything less means being sucked into a world of complex judgements and grey areas. This way the message for riders is clear: no drugs.
In this case, the truth is that we are going to have to live with the situation. It is likely that we will never know the guilty rider's name. Maybe we need to know more about the work of the federations and their committtees, request more information. Even in this case, surely more information could have been made available to help us understand what happened without compromising the rider's anonymity? Or is there a way the FFC could help the rider be public about their offense, but support them in explaining it to the world? Unless we are to build our own systems, we must trust the FFC, the AFLD, WADA and the other organisations that police these matters. As Frank Filbien rightly points out, "The main thing is that such controls can take place in any race, even in Enduro races (probably, some people thought it couldn’t be the case) and that’s a good thing for sport."
What we must not do is waste this energy, this determination to keep our sport clean, we need to channel it into the future and find ways of avoiding ending up here again. As Vernon Felton wrote so eloquently for Bike Mag last week, "Professional cycling, in fact, has never been a 'clean' sport. Rat poison, cocaine, speed, caffeine suppositories—people have been injecting, gobbling and sticking things up their arse in pursuit of the podium before the Tour de France was even born." We may share two wheels with road cycling, but we do not share the same soul. Mountain biking was not born out of competition, but out of fun, friendship and bravery on those slopes just outside San Francisco. Talking to Chris Ball, the director of the Enduro World Series, he said one of the most hopeful things I have heard in a long time, "We are committed to the sport and we will always put the sport before the individual." If there is one positive we should take from this whole sorry affair, it's that we don't want to follow road cycling down that road to victory at any cost and we will not tolerate people polluting our sport.