Ever since Alejandro Valverde won the World Championship title a few weeks back, I’ve heard and read quite a bit about cycling fans not being happy with his victory. While I do understand their position, the reality is that Valverde has never had a positive test for doping. Yes, he served a two year ban due to implications linking him to Operation Puerto, but he served his ban. People seem to take the stance that he is an unrepentant doper. They say, rightly, that he never explicitly apologized for his doping ban. I would argue that the itself was enough, why should he have to apologize?
From all indications, Valverde is the last of an admittedly dirty generation of cyclists. In fact, it could be said that until recently, all previous generations were less than clean. But what do you expect? A casual rider will never understand the unforgiving nature of racing at the highest level of the sport. Most top level professionals ride more miles before the beginning of the season than most of us do all year.
The brutality of racing
Professional bike racing is not a sport for the weak. A champion must be at near top form all season long, with a few specific peaks for targeted races. These riders have the benefit of a team shepherding them to the most difficult parts of a day/stage so that they can then finish the race. If all goes right, a victory is the reward. Of course, there are twenty-two teams all going for victory on any given day.
The unsung heroes of the peloton are the road captains, lieutenants, and domestiques. They have to work day in and day out, and unless something goes dreadfully wrong, or incredibly right, they may go an entire career without a victory to their name. These are the riders that spend the first two hours at the front of the race, before the television coverage begins. Workers tasked with carrying water and jackets and gloves. Riders who make sure their protected leader is at the right place at the right time. These are the riders who are tempted to enhance their performance if it means one more year in the pro ranks. Yes, the high profile dopers make for a grand story, but it’s the workers who have everything to lose.
I want to be clear, I am not defending doping. Countless talented riders throughout the history of our sport chose not to “enhance” their natural abilities. Due to this fact, these riders never got the recognition they deserve because they were unable to compete against those who did choose to cheat. They could have been great champions, but they nobly stood fast by their convictions. This relegated the truly talented clean rider to water carrier duty, if they could ride well enough to stay in the wheels.
I believe that the last week in racing in particular has illustrated the fact that the sport has cleaned up. Thibaut Pinot’s victory at Il Lombardia was a master class in panache. The way he rode that race was a beauty to behold. If you haven’t watched the final 40k of that race, you really should as that is exactly the kind of racing that keeps me watching the sport. There is also not a doubt in my mind that Pinot is clean. Why? Because the French don’t mess around when it comes to doping.
French doping law
French cycling is seeing a renaissance, and I believe it has to do with the sport cleaning up. For the last twenty years, French professional teams were considered, “also rans.” This is due to the seriousness of a doping violation in France. In France, doping is a criminal offense. If someone is convicted of a doping violation in a French court, they are facing serious jail time. The French even consider possession of a banned substance a criminal act. With this in mind, it is not wonder French cycling withered in the age of better sport through science.
Seeing the reemergence of French cyclists at the top of the sport I feel is a good indicator of the cleanliness of the peloton. French managers such as Marc Madiot have been complaining about how difficult it is to run a clean team in a dirty sport for years. Now that FDJ is beginning to win again, he has moved on to other complaints.
Far from perfect
I’m not saying cycling is a perfect sport. The reason it is regarded as dirty, is that it certainly has a dirty past. But it is also a sport that in recent years has made huge strides towards actually cleaning up it’s sordid past. Cycling still has a long way to go before it earns back the respect it has lost due to past indiscretions, but I feel it’s heading in the right direction.
We should celebrate Valverde’s victory as not simply as a win for a top class rider, but as the dawn of a new era. Valverde is a remnant of a generation whose time has come and gone. He is a strong rider who has performed consistently well over varied parcourse over the years. He’s a deserving champion, and one I feel earned his victory. Here’s to a cleaner future in sport. Stay safe out there, and as always, keep the rubber side down!