05 March 2008

Cycling earns a RED CARD...

Shame on you, Amaury Sport Organisation.

What exactly would you do, if you found one day that the cycling world that has offered you memorable epic days, and exorbitant profits, was AS UNFORGIVING AS YOU ARE? As unwilling to compromise, as you are?

" On sait pas comment vous arrêter, sauf
que vous disparait de nos vus, en vous
auto-infligeant vos propres blessures graves " ...

(ZEN translation: 'one doesn't know how to stop you, except if you disappear from our sight, by self-infliction of your own serious wounds...')

In soccer (aka Football, füssball, calcio), players who fault their opponents egregiously, maliciously, are given a Red Card and sent off the field. Their teams suffer from the 'man-down' situation for the duration of the period in contest.

Such a penalty is inflicted in the eternal hope that the players would refrain from conduct against 'colleagues' in their sport, to play fair, under the rules, in honouring the sport they love (and which offers some of them a paycheck).

As the 2008 season hits full stride in the transition to spring, cycling fans are only assured of one certain fact: the sport they love as spectators or participants, is going to implode THIS YEAR, as surely a Red Dwarf star collapses, and maybe with explosive effects, as when those stars result in a supernovae.

The problems are relatively recent, although the fans' minds are seared with memories of scandals sans cesse, stoked in the flames of sporting journals or newspapers whose August sales are often the slowest of the year.


Yes: in the cycling world, the pinnacle event happens throughout the month of July. The Tour de France, an epic human achievement in which participation requires either sadistic or masochistic joy in auto-induced punishment, has long been the benchmark. Victory in the race assures any cyclist's admission into the Club of the Greatest Cyclists.

In the long history of the Tour, epic scandals abound, and no era has been spared of the scandals of doping. Year after year, fortunes are made, futures are secured, and the press feeds a hungry public with pages and pages of stories of heroes du jour, injuries and rumours of strategies to come in the epic Alpine stages.

This summer, 2008, will no doubt offer cycling fans, and those whose interest is more pruriently oriented towards the repetitious scandals that cycling has produced in an astonishingly regular fashion, a dénouement with serious repercussions. Those repercussions will offer a glimpse of how few cycling officials have ever undertaken study of the Rule of Unintended Consequences.

A delicate and healthy balance once existed in the world of cycling. Teams found sponsors, sponsors' funding bought the talented cyclists, whose apparel featured logos', and the Racing Event managers invited the teams whose results or sponsorships brought maximum assurance of popular support by fans.

The sport of cycling, administered by the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, had a long and honourable history, and its involvement in developing anti–doping rules were earlier than most sports.

Yet that delicate balance in cycling's domain was dis–equilibrated, some years ago, when Teams first asserted to the UCI their complaints, when they egotistically believed that their budgets, their star cyclists, and their annual performance were sufficient to 'assure' a place in the Tour de France. The UCI reacted, in proposing the UCI ProTour, a newly–defined 'league' of teams whose performances and budget were accommodated, by their paid 'fees' to become members of cycling's Elite teams.

The three 'Grand Tours' were corralled into this system; the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta de Espagna, found themselves unable to accommodate certain smaller, more nationally–oriented teams. No more 'Big–Mat Aubers' for the Tour, and so on for the others.

To recount all that happened in the last ten years, at the Tour de France, in terms of scandals, would make this article some five pages too long. From Festina to Floyd Landis, from border guards in Lille to Ministries in Kazakhstan, insinuations and innuendo cross double-edged swords with facts and revelations.

Not all the scandals or insinuations are focussed only on the riders.

Machiavelli lives in cycling, and his spirit finds a home in France.

Leading the perennial battle waged against the UCI ProTour, the company that owns the Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organisation, has never once regarded the ProTour as a legitimate vehicle responding to the demands of those companies whose Euros, dollars or Swiss francs create the sport's glory.

So are Teams egotistical bullies, forcing participation on unwilling Event organizers? OR are these Grand Tours fighting for a 'sporting decision' that has wrongfully been taken from them?

Is the 'decision' one of 'sport', or was money 'event participation fees' denied to the Grand Tour organizers?

Throughout the last three years, a distasteful tango has played out on tabloid pages, in the press, and in backroom meetings between the UCI and the Grand Tours. Accusations piled upon each other, mud–slinging insults appeared to imply that 'those people' are destroying the sport.


The UCI fought its battle in alliance with the grand Teams. The means at the disposal of the Grand Tours appear now, with the duration of this story creating a living history, to have included selected 'Big Guns'. Essentially French institutions, it appears now that the Spanish and Italian Grand Tour organizers had no problem in allowing France to work alone to destroy the system wrought carefully by the UCI.

Those guns included the French Agency AFLD, the 'Agence française pour le lutte contre le dopage', and the French Court system. Carefully orchestrated actions, presumably at the behest of ASO, appear to have been purposefully aligned to disparage the UCI and its management of cycling. One of the most important components in this action by ASO, comes from its ownership of l'EQUIPE, the French sporting daily paper.

Known as a vehicle through which French gouvernement officials routinely leak information prematurely, of cyclists' A sample doping test results, the simple fact that ASO owns both entities, makes it a perfect living example of pure Conflict of Interest. As an Event Organizer, it has interest in running a race with zero doping scandals. It formulated a Race Charter, where Teams had to profess allegiance to the cause of dope-free racing.

As owner of l'EQUIPE, ASO caused stories to appear, with editorial content implying that the UCI could not itself regulate properly the sport under its authority. In the Landis affair, or the Vinokourov case, or concerning the UNIBET team, the ASO provided information to the public that placed itself, as a Signatory of WADA, exposed to charges of violating the WADA CODE's provisions against confidentiality, amongst others.

So in 2008, what remains of the ProTour in the future, is at stake.

The regulatory authority under which this year's Tour de France runs, is still unknown. The event could be run under rules of the Fédération française de cyclisme (FFC), or doubtfully, under the UCI rules.

Another ASO event is about to get underway; the week–long race Paris-Nice – the 'Race to the Sun' – yet only weeks ago the UCI was encouraging its ProTour teams to boycott this event as ASO had only invited nine of the ProTour teams.

When personal animosity prevents collaborations between organizations, and both institutional and individual egotism is culpable in escalating the ill-will, then the sport suffers as journalists write ridiculing stories, quotes fan the flames, sponsors question the utility of their investments, and teams suffer uncertainty, provoking cyclists' insecurities.

Witness the sad saga of team Astana.

When history directly contradicts open statements, the sport loses. This is what happened when ASO-Tour de France Director Christian Prudhomme declared that the team was not being invited to this year's Tour. Prudhomme's reasons included as a basis the old adage 'Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The untruth of this claim comes from how ASO/TdF presumed to mix stories from two separate teams as being one history. Twas in the late spring and early summer of 2006, that the Liberty Seguros team, managed by the tempestuous Spanish Mañolo Saiz, was stricken through reactions to antidoping allegations that threatened the 'non-start' of this team. If it couldn't present a minimum six riders to the starting line, it was destined to be dropped.

Star rider Alexandr Vinokourov, a Kazakh national hero, was able to convince government officials to create in all urgency a new team, named 'ASTANA'. That team raced without suspicions and did reasonably well for its inaugural world–class event.

Last year, Astana suffered its first revelations of doping allegations, as a result of participation in the 2007 Tour de France. Astana, managed by the Swiss Marc Biver, was on the edge of total collapse, until the team was reformed under Johan Bruyneel, whose company formerly managed the US Postal/Discovery Channel team, as it evolved under the starring role of Lance Armstrong.

Bringing unassailable talents to his team, in signing Alberto Contador, and Levi Leipheimer, the 2007 Tour's N° One and Three in the General Classification, the world cringed, then shrug its shoulders, in receiving the news that ASO was refusing Astana's participation.

What grounds?

ASO/TdF claimed that 'Astana had cheated two years in a row', and by thus saying this, ASO/TdF opened itself to charges of being no less than a 'revisionist historian', seeking to destroy memory of its gratitude to the Kazakhi government for its aid in lifting the Astana team out of the ashes of the decimated Liberty Seguros team.

No argument presented to date, has shown any persuasive effect on the ASO/TdF to alter its stance against inclusion of Astana. The cumulative effect on team sponsorships is not being swept under the rug. The UCI has called for a boycott by ProTour teams against the ASO's Paris-Nice event, as proof of solidarity with the other uninvited ProTour teams. The powerful teams chose to disregard this UCI call for action. It cannot help, in 'war', when mutineers fill your ranks.

One hopes.

In regarding as a fan how these situations reveal the phases of this perennial war for cycling supremacy, it cannot be stressed that the 'teams' (ASO, UCI) are both fouling the field, foiling the progress, and incapable of coming to terms with how the pie is to be split.

IF the UCI told the ASO to die a corporate death, this writer would not suffer. There exists only so much good will in the world of sports, less in the world of cycling, and that which remains is not rationally induced to bestow much more patience on your automatic backlash at the teams and riders who have given more than sweat, to earn you the profits and the stature that you insist, through pure egotism alone, to be the lawful holders of ultimate cycling reward...

WHAT DID Mick say?


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© 2008

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