The softer side of Omertà

Recently, Dutch mag AD Sportwereld took a brutal tack to get to the bottom of who was doping in cycling in the 1990s and early 2000s. They called up all the Dutch pro riders who rode from 1998 to 2005 and asked them. The dates were chosen because 1998 was the year of the Festina scandal and 2005 was the year the biological passport system was introduced.
They reported the results online in a three-part series. There were 50 Dutch professionals in that period. Of the 50, three didn’t want to talk, two were unreachable, and four had either been busted or admitted to doping. This link will take you to a Google translation of part one and you can then click on the other two parts and Google translate will do the job again. The translations are a bit rough—one of the funnier translations is “Do you use drugs? ‘Not me, but we need to call each other sissy.'” A cleaner translation can be found on Cyclingnews.
The answers range from brush-offs to revealing, though the brush-offs reveal in their own way.
Here’s Johan Bruinsma, a pro from 1998 to 2000 (the quote has been cleaned up by editors at Cyclingnews):
“No. But I have learned about things, out of curiosity. I was ending my career, was just not going forward. I was shocked at how easy it was. …. Guys whom now say they knew nothing, I don’t believe a word of it. Doping was everywhere. Sometimes I lay at night in the hotel awakened by the commotion in the hallway, so you knew that a few got treatment and that they had to move, otherwise their blood was too thick. That a guy like Steven de Jongh now says that everyone deserves a second chance, well I don’t know. Fuck off with your second chance. He drives a nice big car while I’m too old to climb on the bike. “
None reported being told of dopers and doping. None reported any pressure from management. One reported of being casually offered help.
Bruinsma’s quote I’m citing because he couldn’t have been the only one to have experienced commotion or noticed odd happenings in hotels. In the Freiburg report, we learn that Patrik Sinkewitz and Andreas Kloden left the team hotel on the first night of the 2006 Tour, drove to Freiburg and back. The drive from Strasbourg to Freiburg is, in light traffic, on fast roads, about an hour city center to city center. They had to stop in Freiburg, so the trip could have easily lasted three hours. No one noticed? No one noticed on Phonak or CSC when Tyler Hamilton disappeared to get his blood transfusions? No one noticed in 2000 when Hamilton, Livingston, and Armstrong strolled in late to dinner all wearing long sleeve tops or that they had to be in one camper while the rest of the team, six of them, were stuck in another?
As for no one talking and telling their tales, or the clean guys grousing to one another of the stuff they saw going on, that’s impossible to believe.
People talk.
Dopers want to tell somebody. Everyone does. Using the secret sauce and getting away with it is pretty heady stuff, and it’s a bummer not to have anyone to share it with. It might be more important even to commiserate with other dopers when you’ve done all the smart cheating and still don’t have a result to show for it. Review the tape of Karl Rove refusing to believe that Obama won on election night to get a sense of what it looks like when a cheat doesn’t have anyone on his side.
Dopers seem to find each other pretty well. They have to. They can unload their secrets freely, and take advantage of the networking to find drugs, doctors, and better methodology. Of course, dopers are better at spotting other dopers, as they know the tells.
Betsy Andreu sat front of her television in Michigan and knew the guys on US Postal were doping. Maybe it was Phil and Paul gushing about how well previously undistinguished riders were climbing. Maybe it’s because she knew what was going on behind the scenes. It’s amazing that she could do it, and yet people in the same peloton didn’t notice.
Not only do the dopers find each other, and get others in on the action, but the clean riders find each other as well. Of the two groups, the dopers can probably spot the other users more easily; they’re more aware of the signs. But the vast majority of clean riders are at least wise to the game—it’s like when your least favorite coworker comes back from surreptitious butt break; everyone can smell the smoke still on their clothes, yet most pretend they don’t notice a thing.
I bring this up because besides the comments from Dutch riders, we’re seeing a small boomlet in stories from riders who claim they saw nothing and knew nothing. They tell us they were confident in themselves, and so good nobody thought to ask if they wanted a needle full of the dark side. And they believed in the results of others enough that they had no reason to doubt. The most egregious example of this is Jens Voigt’s head-in-the-sand story in Bicycling.
I don’t want to pick on Jens in particular, but since he went on at such length, he makes an easy target.
Reading through the admissions and affidavits, his inability to know or notice anything seems an impossibility. Scott Mercier, who went over to Europe for the first time with US Postal in 1997, knew something was up, asked around, couldn’t get anything out of teammate George Hincapie, conferred with other clean riders, and eventually did enough to merit the special lunch bag and instructions on how to dope. Tyler Hamilton saw the results and knew he wanted to be a part of it. David Millar recounts quickly learning from his experienced teammate Bobby Julich when he joined Cofidis that drugs turned donkeys into racehorses and that teammate Tony Rominger thought doping was essential for stage racing success. Millar was on a team full of dopers, claims to have bragged about being clean, but when he wanted the needle, he had no problem finding help and drugs.
Interestingly, this same Bobby Julich is one of Jens’ closest friends in the peloton. He was teammates with Jens on two different teams over the years, and we’re to believe drugs never brought up? Especially when Jonathan Vaughters, also a teammate of both at Credit Agricole, claimed that who is on what was one of the most discussed topics among racers. Credit Agricole had a reputation for being a clean team; the only rider who ever tested positive was Dmitry Fonfonov, and he was popped after the team’s final Tour de France when it was clear the team was folding at the end of the season. Credit Agricole was just the kind of place where riders would grouse about dopers. And Floyd Landis even claimed that he and Oscar Perreiro discussed what drugs they’d be using in advance of the Stage 20 time trial at the 2006 Tour.
I’m not interested in picking on Jens, but in asking why the charade? Even most of the Dutch ex-pro’s that have no job in cycling and don’t need to stay in any cyclist or federation’s good graces avoid specifics. None take a shot at Lance Armstrong. None mention how they grumbled about it with teammates. Their silence is giving cover to the very people who probably limited, even ended their cycling careers.
There must be something else at stake for them. They’d rather appear stupid, disingenuous, or lying than level with the public.
I think there are three things that keep these guys pretending they didn’t see anything
The first is they don’t want to appear complicit. With an angry public, if they say, “yes, it was rampant, but I chose not to do anything, ” the questions will never end. Worse, they’ll appear untrustworthy because they went along with the crowd then and they’re just going along with the crowd now.  And worse, they profited off the dopers, sharing in their winnings. 
The second is they’re protecting friends. Friends might be too generous a term, though some are friends. They’re protecting people they’ve known for years and shared many experiences with.  These are folks they shared rooms with, traveled to races with, raced to make the time cut together, etc. They might not have liked these people they’re protecting, but they think they understand them. As a result, they have empathy. They certainly know people who doped and they have plenty of strong suspicions. Maybe in private, with these people, they ruefully reflect on the change in atmosphere on doping, but they’re not going to subject their comrades to more scrutiny.
The third is they’re protecting the image they’ve been projecting for years, an image they want to believe. To the friends and family who see pro cycling from a distance, they were living the dream. Sleeping in, riding bicycles all day, traveling around the world, experiencing the adoration of fans, a life unlike any other. That life ended, of course, as all sporting careers do, and most riders have moved on to more humble professions, and more modest circumstances, a far cry from the dream. Revealing the dream to be a nightmare robs the retired racer of one of the few things he has left; a cherished past bathed in golden sunlight.
Admitting the fraud might seem small, but it could be enough to cause the entire façade to crumble. Admitting you spent a large chunk of your life either chasing or being part of a fraud could be enough to feel as if your life has been wasted. We see this kind of thinking with people protecting pedophile priests, and with southerners beating the drum of “states rights.” Few are willing to admit they’re wrong in public, let alone having it broadcast around the world and remaining alive forever on the web.
I’m wondering if this better explains the silence than the fear of losing a job. Losing one’s public image is potentially more catastrophic.   

Leave a Reply