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
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