Erasing the past and writing the future

Cycling’s governing body needs to win back the public’s trust, writes Al Jazeera’s Andy Richardson.

In June of next year the world’s best cyclists will gather on an island in the Mediterranean sea for what will be an historic sporting moment.

Corsica is the venue for the start of the 100th Tour de France. For many Tour enthusiasts, the race will then get really interesting mid-July. That is when the peloton hits the legendary Alpe d’Huez, a brutal climb ingrained in race folklore.

At key turns on the route you can see signs that honour past winners of the stage. But even here, on the normally isolated bends of an Alpine road, the effects of the Lance Armstrong scandal are being felt. Armstrong won the stage twice and has the high altitude etchings to prove it. Not though if local mayor Jean Yves Noyrey gets his way. “I want to withdraw his name and leave it blank,” he says.

The removal of Armstrong’s name from cycling history continues apace.

When the sport’s governing body, the UCI, deleted Armstrong’s name from its own honours board it was a painful admission of wasted years. The inspiring narrative of a cancer survivor who came back to win multiple Tours, replaced by the story of a cheat who had bullied his way to the top. The serial winner was now revealed to be a serial cheat.

The signs in the road were now all pointing in one direction and had one clear message: “Dear UCI, please do something to make sure this can never happen again.”

The UCI has responded by setting up an independent inquiry to investigate its own role in the handling of the Armstrong years. But already the World Anti-Doping Agency is getting worried. Photography and audio recordings at the hearing will be banned. Witnesses can choose to give their evidence in private. And the final report will first be given to the UCI who will then decide if and when it is to be made public.

The man at the top of the UCI is adamant he is capable of reforming his sport. Pat Mcquaid has dismissed calls for his resignation and says cycling has already moved on from the Armstrong era.

Mcquaid describes the UCI as a pioneer in the fight against doping. He also has little time for the reform group ‘Change Cycling Now’ which has led the campaign for his departure and for an independent body to take control of drug testing. Mcquaid says CCN’s manifesto is undemocratic and its members are agitators.

Tour legend Greg LeMond is one of the leading figures within CCN. Viewed by many within cycling as one of the last truly clean champions of the Armstrong era, he is in no doubt that Mcquaid does need to go.

During an interview with Al Jazeera he also said riders were still too intimidated to speak out against the UCI. Even more worrying were the claims made by the group’s anti-doping expert Dr. Mike Ashenden.

“The unfortunate reality is that everything that a rider can say today, Lance Armstrong has already said. The reality is, no matter what a rider says, there is going to be doubt.”

On July 18th, hundreds of thousands of fans are expected to gather on the Alpe d’Huez to watch what is one of cycling’s great spectacles. For the first time ever the riders will be taking on the feared climb and its 21 hairpin bends not once but twice in the same day. It will be sport at its most elemental. Human endurance will be pushed to its upper limits and any hint of physical frailty will be exposed.

Such has been the culture and history of drugs in cycling it is arguable that some fans will barely care if the men taking on the challenge are doped or not. But outside of that hardcore bubble there is a wider public exhaustion that is almost as debilitating and painful as the agonies the riders will be feeling on that day.

The sport cannot afford to elevate another champion of Armstrong’s status only to then expect us to carry on watching as everything he stood for us is dismantled in front of our eyes a few years later. Cycling’s past is populated with fallen heroes and empty promises.

How maturely the sport can start handling justified criticism and then deal with the findings of its own inquiry will be crucial.

It is not enough for cycling to erase its past, it now has to write a future we can all believe in.

To watch Lee Wellings’ exclusive interview with doctor at the centre of Lance Armstrong scandal click here. And to see Andy Richardson talk to three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond about doping visit here.  

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