Saturday, July 27, 2013

EPO revelations from '98: timing is never right for doping confessions


Fifteen years ago, Stuart O'Grady won a stage and wore the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. One day after the most recent Tour, O'Grady announced his retirement. Some were stunned, others were suspicious.

Suspicions were verified the next day, when the list of riders from 1998 who failed tests for EPO, performed retroactively. O'Grady was on the list, as was St. Louis native Kevin Livingston, who failed twice that year. Livingston rode as a lieutenant for Lance Armstrong in the 1999 and 2000 Tour victories, then switched to Telekom/T-Mobile, where he rode as a lieutenant for Jan Ullirch, another doper. He retired following the 2002 season.

Just more proof that everybody was doing it. Phil Liggett echoed the chorus of the apologists for O'Grady, saying that he felt he had to do it. In my book, though,  the proof of rampant use doesn't excuse the guys who justify it with "everybody was doing it." Each of them made the decision to do something both illegal and and potentially dangerous to their health. They will tell you they did it to keep doing something they loved. They're leaving out an element: they also did it to do something they love AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL. 

Sure, it was their livelihood. But most of these riders were young guys who knew that the career of a cyclist was short-lived. Eventually, they were going to have to find another way to make money for the next 30 to 40 years of their lives. They paid the price because they wanted to. A decade and a half later, they're retiring after reaping the rewards and saying they're sorry in retrospect.

O'Grady did a tell-all in Australia in which he said he used EPO for two weeks but was scared off by the Festina Affair, in which the Festina team left the '98 Tour after evidence surfaced that its riders were using EPO. Reminded me of Andy Pettitte's confession of using steroids once during recovery from injury. Seriously, guys, confessing to limited use raises as many eyebrows as denial. Just 'fess up. The truth will set you free.

Eric Zabel finally did so. Initially, he fessed up in 2007 to doping just once, in 1996, but in an interview with Suddeutsche Zeitung admitted that he took PEDs from 1996 to 2003.  Will be interesting to see whether O'Grady amends his statement. Another amendment merely adds to the suspicion that younger riders face. He'll make matters worse for the riders of today if he doesn't come totally clean. In fact, all riders of the '90s and 2000s who doped owe it to today's peloton to come clean.

The cynical will throw up their hands and mock people like me, who hailed the 2013 Tour as the hailing of a new generation. I'm still willing to give the Chris Froomes and Nairo Quintanas and Tejay vanGarderens of the world the benefit of the doubt. Totally unfair to have them have to continue to answer for the sins of cycling.

But, it's open season if one of the youngsters gets popped.

Timing one's true confession is tricky business, which no one, except perhaps David Millar, has managed well. Too much time between the crime and the confession for O'Grady, Livingston and the rest who were positive or suspicious in 1998 to get too riled up. Or is it? The omerta that kept their transgressions under wraps is more serious than doping. The silence and the fear of speaking up remains pervasive, even if PED use has waned.