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The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

From ardent fan, to once bitten, twice shy sceptic – and now hardened cynic, unwilling to believe anything. Is this what aficionados of professional cycling have been reduced to? Rather than cast a pall of suspicion over everyone, Anthony Tan offers a unique solution: create your own amnesty.

Some are telling you that Stuart O’Grady, despite his ‘this one time, at band camp’ confession, is still a legend. Others, who feel duped by Australia’s once most likeable, and arguably most decorated, cyclist, want him to rot in hell. 

In my opinion, both are missing the point. 

Focusing on individual doping cases from the 1980s, ‘90s and early-to-mid 2000s does nothing except expose a problem we already know about. Yes, the system was broken (read: corrupt), close to 100 per cent of the professional peloton were ‘on it’, drug testing was light years behind drug-taking and, despite what the rules said, being clean was the exception rather than the rule. 

Ride on bread and water? When you know the majority of your peers are not, and if you don’t you’ll be left behind and before too long, find yourself out of a job, your vocation; why would you? EPO testing in pro cycling wasn’t introduced until 2001; in other words, there was a decade of cyclists who adopted the ‘everything to gain, nothing to lose’ mentality. 

However, all this continual drip-feed of confessions does now is reinforce how rife PED use was in what I term ‘Generation EPO’. 

Exposing cheats from Gen-EPO in piecemeal fashion does not lead to positive outcomes, other than fuel unfounded suspicion – already at fever pitch – over the current generation of cyclists, who are saddled with an image brought on not by their own doing but by their predecessors’. 

Following the declaration of six-time Tour points classification winner Erik Zabel – like O’Grady, another who belatedly admitted his murky past, announcing on 24 July that, contrary to his 2007 admission, he had doped from 1996-2004 – German cycling federation president Rudolf Scharping said in a statement: “We can only hope that the damage done by the confession years after the doping occurred will not be too great for the current generation of cyclists. 

“The time of the revelations, and the fact that the confessions are almost always partial, is an unjust and continuing burden on those in cycling today and who have nothing to do with wrongdoing of the previous generation.” 

If you consider just the Tour de France alone, and the unmasking and confessions since (forced or otherwise), over the period from 1991-2005, potentially, there’s another three thousand identities yet to be named and shamed. 

Do you really think that the findings from the French Senate report, which this July, in its 918-page dossier, listed thirty riders as either ‘positive’ or ‘suspicious’ for EPO during the 1998 Tour, was the sum total transgressions from that year’s Grande Boucle? Of course not – these were simply the handful that were retrospectively tested in 2004. I’d bet my house – in fact, I’d be willing to be everything I own – that had samples been collected from the entire 189-rider peloton that year, five to six times that number would have been flagged as either positive or suspicious. 

I’m guessing that for many of you, O’Grady’s confession cuts deepest not so much because he cheated then lied about it for fifteen years – nothing particularly noteworthy there – and, depending on whom you ask, may still be lying about it. It’s because he imbued all the qualities of the archetypal Aussie Battler: through sheer hard graft, back to the wall, he achieved the enviable palmarès of a champion cyclist – one we could all relate to, revere, emulate and admire for decades to come. 

In short, for many of you, he was the most likeable. He was like one of your best friends. He was Stuey

The question I ask is, ‘How would the exposure of another three thousand-odd identities, drip-fed, lead to anything other than a negative outcome?’ 

It’s precisely the reason why an amnesty, or truth and reconciliation commission (TRC), or whatever you want to call it, is so desperately needed. 

The overwhelming majority of those who have not confessed are still too afraid to come out, fearing public persecution, loss of livelihood, loss of status and loss of income. After all, look how we’ve treated those who have. Aside from those former teammates of Lance Armstrong who last year testified before the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), receiving six-month suspensions (reduced from two years) for their cooperation in bringing down ‘The Boss’, the rest have largely been hung, stripped and quartered – trial by media, but in this new, information-now age we find ourselves in, trial by Twitter, too. 

A line in the sand needs to be drawn. 

Some have said an amnesty won’t happen. And even if the Union Cycliste Internationale does institute such a measure, they say, avoiding prosecution isn’t enough of a carrot to encourage the mother lode of skeletons to come out of the closet – particularly with teams like Sky Procycling and Orica-GreenEDGE professing ‘zero tolerance’, only for the latter to take back Matthew White, retain Neil Stephens and, despite an extensive independent team-wide review by ex-World Anti-Doping Agency director Nikki Vance, find nothing untoward with O’Grady (now unflatteringly monikered O’Shady). 

Both may be true. So does that mean you just give up? 

Does a church minister, who has dedicated his life to the parish, renounce his position because of paedophilic wrongdoings from former Catholic priests whose actions are inexcusable? Does a loyal servant of the Labor party, who has dedicated their life to making their state or nation a better place, vacate office because of wide-scale corruption within their own party, or internecine rivalry that makes them look like a laughing stock? 

In most cases, no, they do not surrender. Giving up – or in – is the easy way out. It takes guts to stick with what you love, to weather the storm, and to continue to believe. 

I’m not asking you to resume with blind optimism. That’s just pointless. (If you haven’t already done so, stamp on those rose-tinted glasses.) But so is blind pessimism. So why not meet halfway, and from this point forth, proceed with passion, but a dose of healthy scepticism, too? 

Chris Froome said he understood “100 per cent” why journalists – myself included – challenged him with umpteen questions on doping throughout his inexorable path to victory at this year’s Tour de France. “I can understand why people are asking, given the history of the sport – they have been let down so many times before. But I’m also one of those people who’s been let down. I’ve also believed in people who have turned out to be cheats and liars. But I can assure you, I’m not.” 

I think I can speak on behalf of most scribes in the Tour’s centre de presse and say that, for the most part, our questions were designed not so much to challenge the veracity of the Kenyan-born Brit’s superlative performances, so as to case innuendo over his achievements, but to gain reassurance that what he was doing – what his entire team was doing – was above board, so we could tell our readers, listeners and viewers that what they were seeing was real. 

That, unlike the past two decades, the results would stand. 

“Whoever wins the Tour is going to face those questions and when you have been as dominant as Chris was in winning that Tour, it was inevitable,” his predecessor Bradley Wiggins told the London Daily Telegraph, days after the centenary edition of the world’s greatest bike race drew to a light-filled spectacular evening close, on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. “I had to answer those questions last year and whoever wins in the next 10 or 20 years, there will always be those questions.” 

Standing atop the Paris podium on July 21, Froome assured the watching billions: “This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time.” 

For now, I have no good reason to believe otherwise. And neither do you. 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870), A Tale of Two Cities

Twitter: @anthony_tan

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