My friend Heather asked why I wasn’t blogging on the Tour this year. I’m not because I’m all about 90X at the moment, but I’ve also been a bit bored about commenting so much on doping. Yesterday’s madness, however, has given me a chance to write about both.
What was looking like a pretty clean Tour got skewered yesterday with a positive drug test for rising superstar Ricardo Ricco, who had won two stages. As the investigation unfolds it seems like it may be a bigger, and more systematic, issue that will lead to more busts. Ricco’s team pulled themselves from the race and one of his teammates, who also won a stage, has been implicated. So let’s look at three issues: is cycling cleaning up, how much does doping matter, and how is it different than supplementing.
Is cycling cleaner than it was?
The evidence all points to an affirmative. Many teams now have strict doping controls within the team. At CSC, anyone can download physical data of each rider. If blood levels start to get squirrely, it will be noticed.
The biggest evidence, however, is on the road. Racing has slowed down. A lot. Piano (stretches of grand tours where the riders cruise at a pedestrian pace) is back in vogue. Over the 90s and early 2000s the average speed of the peloton was increasing every year. Over the last couple, this has reversed.
Another, more subtle, clue would be riders acting more human. In the old days, grand tour leaders would gain and lose 20-30 minutes in a single stage regularly. No lead was safe because the guy in front could crack at any time. Now, with better training, diet, teamwork, and strategy, this is far less likely. But looking at this years Giro d’Italia we were seeing things that all seemed very, well, natural.
The best example of this was at the final day’s time trial, where the leaders of the overall race where no where in sight of the podium (a far cry from the days when Armstrong and Ullirch would crush everyone through the mountains and then take minutes in the final TT as well). Mario Bruseghin, who won the first TT and came in 3rd overall came in 28th and lost 1:33. Race winner Alberto Contador, second in the first TT, came in 11th. Simoni and DiLuca, who had both made huge solo efforts trying to win the race in the mountains, came in 135th and 112th.
Then there was Ricco. A bad time trialist, he was the only one of the overall race leaders who improved on his effort. He lost more time to the stage winner, but far less to every GC contender.
In the Tour Ricco was riding incredibly well. His attack on the Aspin was like nothing we’ve seen since the days of the Texan. He dropped everyone like they were club riders. He said Piepoli would win on Hautacam and Sanuier Duval then dominated all of the important points of the race. Ricco seemed to be barely breathing while shadowing the GC contenders. Up front, his teammates dropped Frank Schleck the second they decided it was time to go. It was all, as David Millar said, “a bit too good to be true.”
Apparently, they were using a new form of EPO. One of the doctors on the anti-doping committee was surprised they were caught because he didn’t believe there was a test for it yet. He stated that they knew riders were using it, and even which ones, but had no way to prove it. Apparently there was a specific team working on this test and trying to get it ready for the Tour. We may still have more busts. I’d bet against many more. There was one team riding oddly better than everyone else and now they’re gone. We’ll see, but I’m optimistic that the playing field is getting a bit more level.
I’ve got to get to more-pressing work, so I’m breaking this into parts. More later…
pic: Ricco looking astonished at how easy it is to beat guy who aren’t juiced.