When will we stop shooting ourselves in the foot?
On Wednesday night, I went to a function here in Nice, France, and I couldn't escape the questions about the two positive doping tests already reported at the Tour de France.
I immediately defended the sport I love, saying, "Yeah, but that's just 1 percent of the peloton." Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas Nevado were older riders, less prominent riders, so -- like others at the Tour -- I didn't make much of the Spanish riders' positive EPO tests.
But with Thursday's news of Riccardo Ricco's positive EPO test and the rest of the Saunier Duval team's withdrawal from the Tour, it's hard to defend my sport. What do I say to the critics now that another high-profile rider got caught? We're just shooting ourselves in the foot. This is the stuff that gets the headlines, not the leader of the Tour or who is winning the stage, but things like this. We can't afford it anymore.
I wish I had an answer as to why this keeps happening. It seems to be going on and on and on. When is this going to stop? It's hard to hear when you're a person who's passionate about performing and watching and believing in the results of cycling. I've been around the best riders in the world for most of my career; I can speak only for myself and the riders I've been around, and I know this isn't the way for all riders.
Rumors had surrounded Ricco for a bit; he was one of the "questionable" riders, but he defended himself last week by saying he has had a naturally high hematocrit level "ever since I was little." He has said this for years, and he was tested by UCI (the International Cycling Union) back in 2005, tests that backed Ricco's comments. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt. High hematocrit is one thing; testing positive for EPO is quite another. We've been tested enough to know the difference. EPO is a stimulant and affects many parameters. If you have a high hematocrit level, testers can look at other factors, such as your hemoglobin levels, to determine any other abnormalities. Every professional rider knows this.
I was afraid something like this would happen after we received the news that the Tour de France was breaking away from UCI for the race and, as a result, not using UCI's testing. UCI did not provide riders' "biological passports" to the Tour but did tell teams to provide that information to French officials. French officials don't have the histories and/or back logs for all the riders' blood profiles. This can lead to confusion, and to positive tests coming out during our biggest race.
For these riders to think they can get around the testing, especially in the Tour, scares me. Regardless of all the testing, the riders are still doing it. I've been through this time and time again over the past 14 seasons, and I've seen what a difference all the anti-doping agencies are making, and they are making a huge effort.
We are the most tested athletes in the world. We have in-competition and out-of-competition testing. My team, Team CSC-SaxoBank, and others, Garmin-Chipotle and Team Columbia, have independent testing on top of that. We have to report our whereabouts to officials so we can routinely be found for testing.
I believe in the testing 100 percent. I have to believe the best riders of the Tour right now are performing naturally. Of course, when news like this comes out, you start to question yourself and ask, "Am I being na´ve?" With all the writing on the wall in the past, especially the past three years, you have to wonder what riders like Ricco are thinking. Since the positive tests came early in the Tour, are they trying to beat the system by taking these enhancers in between big races in the hope that they will be out of their systems before the Tour starts?
All of this proves that we need to have one plan for every team across the board. Every team should have independent testing along with other tests, the way CSC, Garmin and Columbia do. All of our histories are on paper. Give every team the exact same protocol. It will cost money and raise some eyebrows, but if we want this sport to have credibility, we have to have everyone under the same testing system. The same level has to be set. It will eliminate doubt. If you sign a contract, you commit to X number of out-of-competition tests. If you have nothing to hide, it's not a problem. The process is a pain; you can be called for testing at any time. But you and your family have to understand these are the sacrifices you make to be a pro cyclist.
And what about those cyclists who are riding clean? My CSC teammate Frank Schleck is one of the best endurance cyclists in the world. Did he miss out on a Stage 10 win? Saunier Duval's Juan Jose Cobo and Leonardo Piepoli broke away from Schleck and dueled to the finish of the stage as Piepoli took the win. But will people question their performance now that the entire team is out of the Tour because of Ricco's test result?
Doping was supposed to be a problem of the old guard, a problem of the past. The moment we start to see 23- and 24-year-old riders testing positive (Ricco is 24), we have to ask questions. Doping and the temptation to do it have been out of young riders' minds, or so we thought. They come into the sport and are happy to be there. They shouldn't feel the need to cheat. This changes everything -- even for the young riders. Now, they will be questioned, too.
I was hoping we would have weeded out the "old guard" problem. But having a rider of Ricco's age and stature test positive changes a lot. And that scares me. It's not acceptable. Thursday was a wake-up call.
But I am still proud to be part of a sport that is trying to do something about the problem and not looking the other way.
Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.
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