Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rasmussen Drugs Commentary

Yesterday's Stage 16 was the final Pyrenean stage, finishing up the hors categorie Col d'Aubisque.  Leader Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) held off all of the attacks that Alberto Contador could throw at him to win the stage, solidifying his hold on the yellow jersey and giving himself an excellent chance of holding it all the way into Paris... That is until post-race, where it was announced that Rabobank was withdrawing Rasmussen from the Tour de France and firing him from the team.  They explained that Rasmussen lied to the team about his whereabouts when he missed his drugs test.  Apparently, Rasmussen was actually seen in Italy during his missed drugs tests of May 8 and June 28 and not in Mexico as he had originally claimed.  His confession of lying to the team was enough to prompt them to fire him even as he was on the verge of winning the Tour de France.

After the bombshell of Alexandre Vinokourov's positive test and the news of Christian Moreni testing positive for testosterone, Ramussen's withdrawal from the Tour for suspicions centered around doping is the last thing anyone needed to hear.  Two full teams, Astana and Cofidis, are now completely out of the Tour.  Cycling's credibility, already so badly damaged by Operation Puerto and the Floyd Landis case, is teetering on a total meltdown.

I cannot say I'm completely taken off-guard by the latest doping problems.  With all the doping rumors swirling around, it's no longer completely unexpected when another rider gets caught.  I don't even know if I feel angry or betrayed anymore, those feelings have long since been tempered when the original Mr. Upstanding Citizen, Tyler Hamilton, was disgraced.  Still, it hurts every time I think I've found a new hero to support and they turn out to not be as I thought they were.  As a fan, I want to root for riders like Vinokourov and Rasmussen, to believe that what I'm seeing is for real.

For Vinokourov, it's especially painful because he was approaching hero status.  To be on the verge of abandoning due to so much pain, and then to comeback from that and win the time trial is incredible.  And then to be dealt another killer blow (by losing 28 minutes in one stage and thus the Tour de France) and to go out on the attack the very next day, in a never-say-die attitude, is just downright inspiring.  And, frankly, whether or not he was on drugs does not take away from any of that spirit.  Drugs only make a rider go faster, they don't teach a rider perseverence and persistance.  So the excitement that I felt at Vinokourov's response to all the adversity he faced has not changed, the spirit is still there.  I cannot, however, regard Vinokourov anymore as a person to look up to.  Any admiration gained from his attitude as a rider is overshadowed by disappointment.  As a leader of the Astana team and hometown favorite in Kazakhstan, he should have been setting an example for others to follow.  Now, he is just the latest in a growing list of disgraced riders.

In my opinion, cycling needs to be completely blown up.  Previous riders who have doped need to come forward, Operacion Puerto needs to be completed, and testing needs to be refined.  Only when cycling has hit rock bottom can it be solved.  If enough sponsors pull out and take their money with them, cycling will have no choice but to create a new climate, one where their credibility can be restored.  No more petty bickering between the UCI and ASO over control of cycling.  No more suspicious doctors hanging around the cycling scene.  No more abuse of riders' rights.  Only if cycling starts afresh can it make all the necessary reforms to create the sport we all want.  Otherwise, we are stuck in this continual process of plugging the leaks of a broken system and dealing with the latest controvery.

Today is certainly a dark day.  The #1 pre-Tour favorite is out due to a positive drugs test, and the likely next Tour winner is out due to false statements relating to drugs.  But maybe we are finally reaching the tipping point and can head in a new direction.  Maybe this is the rock-bottom that will finally lead to positive changes in the future.  Because cycling will survive this, it will come back.  And hopefully it will grow back into the beautiful sport that we all know it to be.  


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