By the time the 2007 Tour de France hobbles down the Champs-Élysées this Sunday, the event will be drastically reduced in field size, star power and honor. Two whole teams and several prominent cyclists have withdrawn for anti-doping violations, among them the race-leading Michael Rasmussen and the prerace favorite, Alexandre Vinokourov. Last year, more than a dozen riders were tossed out before the event even started. With so much scrutiny and so many people getting caught, why are these guys still cheating?
Actually, there’s no reason not to dope at this year’s Tour de France. The recent twin crises of Operación Puerto (which uncovered a massive doping ring in Spain) and Floyd Landis (whose rise and fall became a year-long opera) have only fragmented the sport’s authorities, and cycling’s culture of cheating seems more entrenched than ever. Besides, it’s not just the corrupt managers, doctors, and riders who encourage doping: it’s the very structure of the sport itself.
No group has more influence over the Tour de France than the peloton, that big pack of riders at the center of every stage. And the peloton brings with it a measure of collusion unlike that in any other sport. In the pack, rivals conspire to moderate the pace of each race, taking turns shouldering the burden of riding in front, and working in unison to reel in riders who make breakaway dashes for the finish line. To function, the peloton uses a complex system of hierarchies and codes that rival those of the mafia. This, it must be said, is a big part of cycling’s appeal for its most ardent fans; after all, the mob mentality can be a dramatic thing.
Now, there’s some evidence that the peloton is cool with doping. Consider the fact that it accepted confessed dopers David Millar and Erik Zabel back into the ranks, including them in the peloton’s strategies and camaraderie. Meanwhile, the pack has no space for whistleblowers. In an infamous incident in 2004, Lance Armstrong—who was said to be the “patrón” of the peloton in those days—turned his fellow riders against Filippo Simeoni, a rider with an undistinguished career. Simeoni had the temerity to testify against Michele Ferrari, a shady doctor who had worked with Armstrong (and, as recently as this year, Vinokourov). When he joined a break in stage 18 in an effort to win a rare moment of glory, Armstrong—who already had a comfortable lead in the standings—gave chase and reeled him back into the peloton. By punishing Simeoni, Armstrong later said he was “protecting the interests of the peloton,” and that his fellows there congratulated him for it; Italian authorities suspected witness intimidation. We’ll never know the truth because it never went to court.
Could everyone in the peloton be cheating? One popular and age-old method is known as “blood doping,” where you inject yourself with extra blood to increase the amount of oxygen available to your muscles. Here, the game is simply to sneak as much oxygen into your bloodstream as possible while staying below a “natural” threshold set by anti-doping officials. As long as you’re careful not to cross the line, you won’t get caught. But if enough people are doping, a few are bound to slip up.
Over the last decade, it seems like the top competitors in the sport have been caught more often than anyone else. This could be because the top dogs are tested more frequently—immediately after every stage race, and in surprise out-of-competition tests (like those Rasmussen skipped). It could also be that the best riders are just more likely to cheat. Why would that be? First of all, they can afford the services of their black-market accomplices. Second, the top guys are less exposed to punitive action. A small fry who gets busted is almost certain to receive a ban that might end his career. But if you’re a potential Tour de France winner like Rasmussen or Vinokourov, your team manager will have your back until you’ve lost all hope of evading prosecution. That’s what Ivan Basso of Italy found out last year when he was implicated in Operación Puerto. Forced out of the Tour he was supposed to win on the eve of the race, Basso drifted in legal limbo for five months, passionately denying involvement in the affair. Then in November, the Discovery Channel team took a gamble and decided to hire him anyway. They only dropped Basso this May, when he suddenly confessed to “attempted doping.”
Even if a doper was forced to retire from competition, he wouldn’t necessarily lose the support of his fans. Cycling devotees (at least in France) still revere one of the most notorious dopers of all time, Richard Virenque. Despite a career tainted by strident lies about his doping, the Frenchman remained popular enough to jump right off the bike into a sweet gig as a television commentator for Eurosport, which only makes him the face of the Tour for a few hundred million people.
Reform isn’t likely to come from the people in charge of professional cycling. The sponsors don’t seem to be taking responsibility. And the fragmented governing structure of cycling leaves plenty of wiggle room for the cheaters. Cyclists can choose to skip tests with impunity, like Rasmussen did, or play the victim of a complicated bureaucracy, as Landis has tried to do. There are people in cycling who are frantic to clean the sport up, like Pat McQuaid, the president of the International Cycling Union. But he may not have the clout. Unlike the NFL and the NBA, where the commissioners dictate law from the top down, authority over cycling is spread between the international governing body, team owners, and race organizers. Each is guarding their own turf, and whenever someone tries to establish serious reform, someone else interprets it as a power grab.
Clean riders must look at all this dysfunction with dismay. But cynical people in the sport—and there are plenty—see countless opportunities to game the system. The way it’s going, doped-up cyclists will have less to fear in 2008 than ever before.