Cycling’s governing body knows there’s a long way to go before the peloton races clean. But in releasing a self-critical report, it has finally confronted the elephant in the room: its own complicity.
On Sunday, after a 14-month wait, the UCI—cycling’s governing body—published the results of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC). The commission was formed in January 2014 to investigate the UCI’s complicity in the doping scandals of the ‘90s and 2000s. The report offers few new revelations for diehard fans of the sport, but it reinforces two notable facts: the body responsible for safeguarding cycling failed spectacularly at that task in the 1990s and 2000s, and the fight against doping is far from over.
Undoubtedly the most dubious star of the CIRC report is Hein Verbruggen, the former Mars Candy executive-turned-cycling chieftain. Under Verbruggen’s 15-year reign as UCI president—where the international federation grew tenfold—he continually downplayed the menace of doping in the sport and often circumvented protocol to protect the image, and hence money-making power, of cycling. At the end of the 227-page report he is shown to be on par with Lance Armstrong as one of the most influential agents in the doping era.
Co-starring roles also go to Verbruggen’s successor Pat McQuaid as well as the one-time, seven-time Tour winner Armstrong. Verbruggen and later McQuaid continually gave Armstrong preferential treatment. The CIRC report comes short of accusing the trio of overt corruption, but it thoroughly illustrates what can only be described as complicity. In 2009, for example, the CIRC report confirms how McQuiad reversed his decision to prevent Armstrong from racing the 2009 Tour Down Under—since Armstrong had yet to participate sufficiently in the Biological Passport program required of all professionals—and only hours later, Armstrong promised to race the 2009 Tour of Ireland, a race run by McQuaid’s brother.
One of the most fascinating portions of the report focuses on Lon Schattenberg, the long-time anti-doping chief at the UCI, who ironically saw the active pursuit of dopers as nothing more than a “witch hunt” and was instead more interested in simply protecting the health of riders. According to the report, Schattenberg advised teams about anti-doping tests and detection methods, helping riders to escape penalties. As history continues to show, his approach was devastatingly insufficient.
The report also outlines the transformation of the UCI into an organization that has taken a harsher stance against doping. The 2012 U.S. Anti-Doping Agency Reasoned Decision that unveiled Armstrong’s doping practices also highlighted the UCI’s failure to protect the sport. In response to the report, then-UCI president McQuaid promised to create an independent commission to investigate the claims, but the UCI disbanded the group in January 2013 to instead move forward with an amnesty program. When Brian Cookson, the president of British Cycling, won a contested UCI election in September 2013, he made transparency a central part of his vision and launched the CIRC initiative.
The report, based on interviews with 174 players and partners in the sport, was compiled by Dick Marty, Peter Nicholson, and Ulrich Haas. All three were selected by current UCI president Cookson. Marty investigated illegal trafficking of human organs in Kosovo while Nicholson conducted war crime investigations for the United Nations. Ulrich Haas is an anti-doping legal specialist.
This backstory helps to explain the ample time spent on the relationship between Verbruggen, McQuaid, and Armstrong, one in which the American cyclist repeatedly received preferential treatment from the heads of the sport’s governing body.
“The UCI leadership did not know how to differentiate between Armstrong the hero, seven-time winner of the Tour, cancer survivor, huge financial and media success and a role model for thousands of fans, from Lance Armstrong the cyclist, a member of the peloton with the same rights and obligations as any other professional cyclist.”
According to the report, several sources—notably UCI staff and former UCI staff—reported that the UCI leadership had on several occasions “defended” or “protected” Armstrong or taken favorable positions towards Armstrong indicating that he had received preferential treatment.
Already back in 1999 the report describes how Armstrong tested positive for corticosteroids, a story that the French daily Le Monde first broke during the 1999 Tour itself. Only a year after the Festina Affair—until then the worst doping scandal to hit the sport—crippled the Tour de France, the potential victory by a cancer survivor was nothing less than a godsend. But a new scandal could bury the sport forever.
The response by the UCI, according to the commission, was to allow Armstrong to provide a back-dated prescription that justified using the corticosteroids, a move in direct conflict with anti-doping protocol at the time.
Another case of complicity came in 2005, when, on the heels of Armstrong’s seventh Tour title, the French sports daily L’Equipe broke a story entitled “The Armstrong Lie” that revealed traces of EPO in Armstrong’s blood dating back to the 1999 Tour. An independent commission was set up by a pressured UCI to examine wrongdoing, but McQuaid, then president of the UCI, gave strict guidelines to Emile Vrijman, who was appointed to conduct the investigation, stating that “this investigation must clearly be restricted to the formal irregularities which have led to the revelations in L’Équipe.”
The Armstrong entourage, led by his lawyer, Mark Levinstein, was allowed to revise Vrijman’s preliminary report and to have continued input throughout the progress of the report. The result, when the final report was published on June 1, 2006, was more of an attack against WADA and the French Laboratory that revealed the findings than it was an objective examination of potential doping practices by Armstrong.
While these findings were already outlined in the USADA reasoned decision report, the UCI’s findings again remind us of the gravity of this accusation.
The UCI purposely limited the scope of the independent investigator’s mandate to procedural issues contrary to what they told stakeholders and the public, and in contradiction to Emile Vrijman’s own suggestion. The CIRC agrees with the consensus that the research results of the LNDD (i.e. Laboratoire national de détection du dopage) could not have been used for disciplinary purposes; it is true that this was not a positive test, but it raised strong indications of doping and should have been followed up (e.g., re-test other samples, target test, launch investigations). However, the UCI specifically excluded from Emile Vrijman’s mandate an examination of the EPO test, meaning that the allegation that Lance Armstrong used EPO during the 1999 Tour could not be directly considered.
The report continues:
(The) UCI, together with the Armstrong team, became directly and heavily involved in the drafting of the Vrijman report, the purpose of which was only partly to expedite the publication of the report. The main goal was to ensure that the report reflected UCI’s and Lance Armstrong’s personal conclusions. The significant participation of UCI and Armstrong’s team was never publicly acknowledged, and was consistently denied by Hein Verbruggen (ed. Verbruggen was no longer UCI president, but he still had an office at the UCI and played an active role.) »
The report also outlines how, on repeated occasions, Verbruggen solicited and received donations to the UCI directly from Armstrong. While the donations were earmarked for anti-doping initiatives, any financial contribution from an athlete is immediately suspect.
While the report spends ample time on the relationship between Armstrong and past UCI presidents, it also cites cases of favoritism with other riders. In 1997, after Frenchman Laurent Brochard won the world championship road race, he too was allowed to provide a post-dated prescription. The report also glosses over Alberto Contador’s positive clenbuterol finding from the 2010 Tour de France. The report does not find that the UCI attempted to conceal the results, but the organization did not follow the established protocol in notifying Contador of his positive test.
Moving into the present era, the report states bluntly that doping remains an issue in cycling: “The Commission did not hear from anyone credible in the sport who would give cycling a clean bill of health in the context of doping today.” But there is some positive news. The Biological Passport, a testing protocol that identifies the biological signs of doping rather than the presence of banned substances, has reduced the prevalence of high-impact doping methods since it was introduced in 2006 and 2007. Riders can still seek marginal gains by micro-dosing a wide range of substances, including EPO. But those interviewed generally believe there is no longer systematic doping within teams and that the potential gains from doping have been significantly reduced as a result of the improved controls.
Different interviewees estimate anywhere from 20 percent to 90 percent of the peloton is still doping. Several of those interviewed note cases of dramatic weight lose by certain riders that could only be explained by PED corticoids. And many interviewed estimate three to four teams were clean, three to four teams were doping, and simply said they “didn’t know” about the rest.
Hence, the report again confirms an age-old truth regarding doping in sport. “Anti-doping is not a static matter. Once a new level is attained, the battle is still far from won. Instead, the history of anti-doping is marked by constant adaptation by those who seek to cheat and those who seek to catch them.”
And so the fight continues. The CIRC report reveals little that we did not already know or strongly suspect, and no new doping investigations will likely result from it. But it is the most exhaustive study of doping practices, not to mention UCI mismanagement, to date. Its frank nature is refreshing in a sport that too often ignored the truth, and the UCI’s ability to admit its own blunders is unprecedented. For the first time in decades, the organization has earned real credibility. It is a document that will undoubtedly be referred to for years to come. And maybe, just maybe, the CIRC report will help prevent the sport of cycling from making the same mistakes again in the future.