Omerta

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Omertá. The code of silence. A code which was adopted by members of the Mafia to protect criminals. A code which had since been adopted by professional cyclists, also to protect criminals. Riders who used performance enhancing drugs to win races, riders who cheated, riders who had no regard for the fact that they were role models to millions, were protected by this code. Any rider who broke the silence and dared to speak about the doping within the peloton was deemed to be ’spitting in the soup’ and was scorned by their fellow professionals.

In the wake of the Festina affair in 1998, Christophe Bassons dared to speak out against the doping that was being organised within his team. In 2004 Filippo Simeoni testified in a court case in which he gave details of how infamous doctor Michele Ferrari had instructed him how to dope effectively. Both of these riders were subsequently ostracized from the peloton. To speak out against doping was seen to be bringing unwanted attention to the fact that there was a doping problem. Twisted logic to say the least.

The highest profile doping story in recent years is Riccardo Riccó who tested positive for CERA at the 2008 Tour de France after he doped his way to two stage victories. He was banned for 20 months and will be returning to professional racing next month. Far from riders keeping the code of silence, they have been very vocal in their disdain for Riccó and his behaviour. Mark Cavendish recently said “It’s like a parasite coming back into the sport. It’s not the fact of what he did, because everyone can make a mistake. But he doesn’t see it as a mistake. He’s not even sorry about it”. Robbie McEwen expressed a similar attitude toward Riccó recently commenting on his twitter account “Ricco – what a f@$king hypocrite. Just don’t come back you piece of shit”. It must be said that Riccó was quite unpopular before his misdemeanors but the outspoken nature of these rider’s comments is a refreshing change from the silent solidarity we had previously come to expect.

So why have things changed? Why are some riders now willing to break the Omertá?
One of the major turning points was the public admission of former Team Telekom rider Bert Dietz that he had doped. This act of honesty led many of his then team-mates to also admit that they had been involved in systematic doping. Subsequently, two of the most successful riders of that era, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel came clean about doping at Team Telekom. These admissions seemed to draw a line under the undoubted doping problems that undermined cycling for so long and there was born a new impetus to leave the dark days behind and move into a new era of dope-free cycling.

Another factor that has helped in changing attitudes is that a number of new teams with outspoken directeur sportifs have entered the sport. Teams who are committed to anti-doping programs and maintaining a drug free roster of riders. Bob Stapleton at HTC-Columbia, Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin-Transitions and Dave Brailsford at Team Sky have all spoken openly about anti-doping and their commitment to running a drug free team. Also, the number of cyclists now who have Twitter accounts is increasing. This allows riders to communicate their opinions directly with fans. So riders who wish to be outspoken about other rider’s doping practices can now do it regularly and easily, which helps fuel the anti-doping sentiment amongst fans and other riders alike.

In addition, the UCI led by President Pat McQuaid must also be acknowledged for their anti-doping efforts. The introduction of the biological passport is a big step toward tackling doping. There may not have been many high profile riders been caught out by the passport system yet, but perhaps the fact that it is now in place, coupled with growing anti-doping sentiments in the peloton, is dissuading any potential offenders from doping in the first place.

There are still inconsistencies amongst attitudes toward riders returning from suspension. For instance why has Ivan Basso been given such an easy ride by the media and the rest of the peloton while Alexandre Vinokourov is constantly treated with disdain and abhorrence? The answer lies within the attitudes of the returning riders themselves. If a rider has apologised and has expressed a willingness to return to cycling without resorting to performance enhancing drugs, the likelihood is they will be afforded an opportunity to redeem themselves. But when riders like Riccó and Vinokourov return having neither apologised nor acknowledged that what they did was devastating to the sport, we rightfully get reactions from angry fellow cyclists such as McEwen and Cavendish.

Doping is still a problem amongst professional cyclists and there are still riders willing to cheat. But if Bassons or Simeoni did now what they did before, they would be heralded rather than victimised. Finally the riders who are willing to speak out against dopers are no longer considered to be ’spitting in the soup’, it is the dopers themselves who are doing the spitting. The Omertá is dying (we hope), a new code has been created and is catching on, the code of honesty, and as a result amajority  clean  peloton is getting closer and closer.

Cillian Kelly, 
Writing for Bike Pure, usually found @ Irishpeloton.com

All contributions and feedback welcome.

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Comments

  • 1

    Missing the point | Cycling Tips 31.07.2013 at 02:01am

    [...] is a persistent problem in professional cycling and the presence of omertà is a complicating factor. Therefore, the Senate proposes the creation of a “Truth and [...]

  • 2

    Bekännelsernas tid är här! | Nice wins nothing 10.10.2012 at 10:04pm

    [...] och jag håller med. Sporten är ingalunda helt återställd, men har kommit en bra bit på vägen. Omertan är bruten, och det kan bara föra gott med sig! Troligtvis behöver också ett och annat huvud [...]

  • 3

    ntodwild 29.01.2011 at 09:14pm

    It is unfortunate that the Omerta still exists within the Peleton but as long as the Tour has been around, pro cycling has had it's cheats/dopers. To think that a new era is being born is a bit unwise. As much as I love cycling it's 100% fraudulent. The omerta is alive and well from top to bottom in the sport. All the way from UCI officials, doctors and of course the riders. It's about money and anyone who doesn't see that is just blind. It's an ugly cycle. You can't make money if you can't compete. If the riders and teams that are competing are doping, you have no choice but to join the ranks or sit on the side lines. If you speak out against it as we have seen, you may as well slit your own throat. Pro cycling is one big mafia organization with it's mafia heads, hit men and officials on the take.

  • 4

    Mark Lambert 28.02.2010 at 12:26pm

    Sorry to say, but the negative reactions from within the peloton seem to have had more to do with Ricco's immediate rejection of Vania Rossi and his child in response to her positive than to the fact that he had tested positive. The same reaction has not been provoked by any other riders returning to the sport, which would indicate that his lack of human emotion is far more despicable to the peloton than his drug use. The drug use and the code of silence still exist at all levels within the sport, there is just more invested in covering up the illegal substance use.

  • 5

    Gert Van Dertan 18.02.2010 at 07:36pm

    Have you given up Dave?Understand the dopers have had their day but there are riders to be trusted. Blindly saying everyone is a doper is uninformed and rash. We all must have some trust and some belief in our riders. why else would we be biking? Why would bikepure exist?

  • 6

    Dave 18.02.2010 at 06:55am

    Right. Cav calling Ricco a parasite just like David Millar calling his busted teammate a nutter. Right? Bullsh1t. The sport is just as bad as it ever was, just the top guys are on the next undetectable (for now) thing. It's still pro wrestling.

  • 7

    Ian Woodbridge 17.02.2010 at 04:29pm

    'The more things change, the more they stay the same' as the saying goes. Ricco's girlfriend found doping as well? That is very sad. Sorry to hear that.

  • 8

    Kent Benson 17.02.2010 at 12:24pm

    There appears to be a change going on in cycling. A change for good. The reaction against Ricco is a good one especially in the light that his girlfriend has been found to be doping recently. This also casts doubt on Ricco's honesty and should raise a flag for his [unwanted] return to the sport. It is obvious that he has not learned the errors of his ways. I also find it ironic that here in Italy there are laws that make doping a criminal offence yet the state does not often enforce this. This may be a major reason why a substantial proprtion of dopers are Italian. Maybe something about trying to pull one over on the authorities which is also a national sport here. Us Bike Purists here in Italy have plenty of work to do!

  • 9

    Rex 16.02.2010 at 09:32pm

    I think it's always been there and always will. We kind of look past that to appreciate colourful aspects of the sport which definitely do exist. There were some great riders who I think were clean and 'close to clean' because it does seem to have been prevalent for a long time. I read the book "Tomorrow we ride" by the brother of 2 time rider Bobet, the brother was a racer in his own right. This was back in the 1950s and it existed.

  • 10

    bikePure Italia 16.02.2010 at 08:00pm

    I am in the middle ground. it is by no means over, but I agree with Cillian that it is now no longer institutional. I doubt teams have open drug programs and hence the need for the secrecy is broken. The double standards is annoyance. the only solution is ALL dopers shunned for life regardless of suspension ended.

  • 11

    Orange Bar Tape 16.02.2010 at 03:46pm

    Omerta is stronger than ever. The two dopers most crucified by their fellow riders are Ricco and Kohl, who also happen to be two dopers that named names. Admit no wrong, don't talk, serve your suspension and you will be welcomed back with open arms.

  • 12

    SinglespeedJarv 16.02.2010 at 03:11pm

    Was hoping there would be more on why the Spaniards and Italians don't seem to understand the issue about doping rather than revisiting old ground. Basso hardly apologised, he didn't understand why he needed to prove he was clean rather than just say he was. The UCI and McQuaid may well have introduced the bio-passport but it seems they care more about developing the commercial interests of the UCI, than they do about the sport of cycling and cleaning it up.

  • 13

    Laurens van Rooijen 16.02.2010 at 02:08pm

    An amazingly optimistic outlook indeed. Seeing that the peloton is still getting faster year by year and Lance Armstrong's return only led to occasional questionsbut to a bewildering cult of personality, I cannot see such a change in culture, unfortunately. The way I see it, it's the cheats who are stupid enough to get caught who get the beating. Do I trust the beaters? No, I don't.

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