Mike Rowbottom: Fears dark forces are at work as charter for cycling change launched
Monday, 03 December 2012
Among those facing reporters and television cameras in the main Conference Room of the Hilton Metropole Hotel were Fuller, chairman of Skins compression sportswear manufacturers, sports specialist Dr John Hoberman of the University of Texas, Dr Michael Ashenden, acknowledged as one of the world's leading experts on blood doping, former rider Eric Boyer, now manager of the Cofidis team, campaigning journalist and former cyclist Paul Kimmage, and the only American to have won the Tour de France – now that Lance Armstrong no longer holds that honour following the latest doping scandal to have convulsed the sport this year – that is, Greg LeMond.
Kimmage revealed that there had been a plan to put out an extra seat, one which would not be occupied, to mark the fact that, despite all efforts to bring a current rider on the circuit into this urgent initiative to cleanse and revivify cycling, no one dared.
"They were all just terrified of what the repercussions might be," explained Kimmage, whom the UCI tried to sue for defamation earlier this year but who has now launched a legal riposte after a fighting fund launched for him raised over £50,000. "That isn't the sign of a healthy organisation..."
Fuller added that he had personally spoken to numerous cyclists without success. "I tried very hard to get riders engaged," he said. "The vast majority were intimidated about what could have happened to them if they stuck their head above the parapet and criticised the UCI.
"One of them said to me: 'To do what we have to do is a revolution. At times you have to be prepared to die for the revolution. But I am not quite ready to die just yet.'"
There did indeed seem something revolutionary about this gathering, and about the hastily formed Charter of the Willing which outlined what is seen as the vital need for change in four main areas as the call goes up for an independent commission to investigate the UCI and senior management, fully independent doping controls, a cultural change in the UCI and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which would enable riders to talk frankly about the doping culture which has ravaged the sport.
It seemed as if all present could be in at the beginning of something momentous, albeit not yet fully formed. The Change Cycling group believe the position of the current UCI President, Pat McQuaid, and the Honorary President, Hein Verbruggen, are untenable given that the UCI's conduct is about to be scrutinised by an Independent Commission including Britain's 11-times Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.
As he responded to a questioner seeking confirmation of his intention to fulfil a possible role of interim President of UCI, LeMond - perhaps slightly crazed by the 12-hour marathon discussions in which he and his colleagues had been embroiled in the previous days – was less than decisive.
"I was asked by this group here, if we were successful, that until we found a full time President would I be willing to step in as interim," LeMond said. "If we can't find anyone more qualified, I would do whatever I can to change the sport. I'm not pushing myself. But I would do whatever I could to support this group."
But if this was revolution, cycling history in the making, there was no sense of it matching William Wordsworth's heady reflection in his poem The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement – "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive..."
You felt dark forces at work outside this brightly lit room. Maybe it's all the pre-publicity around for the imminent release of the Lord of the Rings follow up film, The Hobbit (a bit of reverse history if you like), but as LeMond, then Kimmage, then Boyer spoke of their recent interactions with the UCI, the world governing body seemed to take on a sinister, Sauron-like feel...
LeMond, an outspoken critic of doping in cycling who first crossed swords with Armstrong in 2001 and has come under heavy pressure to retract, shied away from the suggestion that this year's United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) report, which concluded that Armstrong had been at the epicentre of "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme the sport has ever seen" was a vindication for his views.
"Vindicated?" LeMond said. "I don't know. I was incredibly sad, because I have paid a huge price, my family has paid a huge price. I have been afraid for my safety. I had a fitness company that suffered some bizarre interactions. I know I could have played along with everybody.
"A lot of people came to me and wanted to tell me stuff. At times I wish I'd never heard it and gone fishing instead. But I suppose there was a sense of relief when it came out.
"Nothing surprised me in the USADA report at all. If people had paid attention, David Walsh has written about it. Everything was there. The shocking thing was it felt so long for people to come around."
Kimmage, who lost his job at the Sunday Times in January, admitted that there had been a period of five days, after the UCI had launched their legal action against him, when he wondered whether he had wasted his time and effort.
"I did question things when got the subpoena from the UCI a couple of months ago," he said. "I had been without work since January. It starts to bite after nine months. It started to bite when I received the subpoena. I thought 'I've got to go to Switzerland now to answer these charges – and that's going to cost money.
"I said to myself: 'What did all your ranting and raving and your book do to serve the sport?' And I said to myself 'It has served nothing. It was a waste of time.' But a week later I get bike fans not only supporting me but putting their hands in their pocket and preparing to help me in that way.
"So there was a five-day period where I thought 'It's a waste of time here, what did it serve?' Then I realised it actually did do some good. The public want clean sport, they want a clean Tour de France, and that's important."
Boyer, formerly a French cyclist who won three stages of the Giro d'Italia and competed in eight Tours de France, recalled how, as President of the International Association of Professional Cycling Groups (AIGCP) he had questioned whether Armstrong had undergone the statutory six months registered on the anti-doping programme before his racing comeback in the 2009 Tour Down Under.
He claimed he was told by McQuaid that it was none of his business, and that he had ceased to be a creditable President of the AIGCP.
Jorg Jaksche, a former pro cyclist who was identified in the 2006 Operation Puerto investigation as being involved in blood doping - something he later admitted to - spoke of the way what he described as a culture of doping robbed riders of the pure joy of competing which had brought them to the sport.
"No one did it at first because he thought he could earn a lot of money," Jaksche told the press conference. "This is what was taken away from us. You had to dope or you would lose your job and your passion. It is full of doubts. We don't know what the UCI are doing. There is no movement from them, other than to protect themselves. But there is no future without being honest about the past."
Ashenden made the point strongly that he felt reconciliation, rather than recrimination, was the way forward. And that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would play the crucial role in this. He made the point that fuller detail of how this might operate could not be revealed until the group had had a chance to canvass opinion among riders.
As things stand, the idea of amnesties for cyclists admitting guilt is not something catered for by the World Anti-Doping Agency, whose Director General, David Howman, was present for some of the fervent discussion which took place over the weekend, offering what Fuller described as invaluable advice.
But that empty chair...this impassioned case still has to be made to the hearts and minds of the main body or professional riders. And indeed to the main board of WADA.
Have we reached the tipping point?
Ashenden believes the case is undisputable.
"I think that in any walk of life leaders of organisations bear responsibility for what has happened under their watch and that's what I don't see at the moment. Until they do that, the message that comes down to riders underneath is 'Well, you know what? Let's just sit tight and maybe the whole thing will go away.' That's not the message we need today."
It was left to LeMond, the reluctant politician, to add a final reflection.
"I would still wish Armstrong to come forward and explain. I might even shake his hand if he could do this. There was a huge effort by multiple people, and he alone could reveal that. That would be the one redeeming thing he could do for cycling. Because he has done a lot of damage to it."
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames.