SA cyclists keep mum on Armstrong saga
As the wheels come off, locals who rode with US legend Lance Armstrong are keeping their heads down. Richard Poplak reports.
Not since the Bible has a vast tome of astonishing revelations caused such a brouhaha. When the United States Anti-Doping Agency made its 1 000-page reasoned decision public, cycling's doping era – roughly the mid-1990s to the late 2000s – was fully eviscerated. But as the recrimination continues to rain down on Lance Armstrong and cycling is once again front-page news for all the wrong reasons, it is all quiet on the South African front.
Three professional locals have pedalled for Armstrong teams: David George for United States Postal Service (USPS) in 1999, Daryl Impey for RadioShack in 2010 and Robbie Hunter for the same in 2011. All three, men who have essentially blazed the trail for the likes of MTN-Qhubeka, once rode for Mephistopheles. And yet: not a peep.
Contrast this with the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, where the mea culpas are coming faster than an Alpine descent. Tour de France-winning Team Sky, which has blathered about its clean racing policy, has had to explain the presence of Canadian Mike Barry, longtime Armstrong capo, on its roster. Australia's GreenEdge has endured a spate of firings; most of its management has been tainted by scandals.
Which brings us to the question: By simply having ridden for or with Armstrong, is a confession or a statement of innocence necessary? In no way is this article meant to suggest that George, Hunter and Impey are guilty of performance enhancement transgressions. But are they obligated to come clean, regardless?
George, who is now a professional mountain biker with Nedbank 360, rode for USPS in 1999 when the team was a highly polished doping conspiracy machine. When I spoke with him, he would neither comment on the reasoned decision, nor would he comment directly on whether he was involved in the USPS caper.
"There's nothing I can add to this that wouldn't be speculation," George said. "None of us who rode with [Armstrong's teams] were in the inner circle. There were three of us South Africans and we didn't ride the Tour, so that should give a sense of where we stood."
In his recent memoir, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs, former Armstrong lieutenant Tyler Hamilton makes it clear that more peripheral riders on the squad knew about the team's organised doping programme, but were excluded from it. He says his own involvement began only after he had begun to show particular promise.
Hunter, always irascible, lashed out at Moises Duenas, a teammate in 2008, for getting booted from the Tour de France for doping. But for Hunter, who rode as a lieutenant with Floyd Landis (who was stripped of his 2006 Tour title), doping is not a cycling problem but a media problem. "It will stop being in the headlines when you guys stop asking questions about it," he said in a 2008 interview with the Mail & Guardian.
In an email this week, Hunter wrote: "Back then, as you have now seen, there were so many people doing the same thing and they all made bad judgments due to peer pressure and a number of other things. So when a person honestly believes everybody else is doing it … it no longer becomes a thing of cheating but possibly trying to just fit in. The black and white all of a sudden becomes grey.
"Yes, there were people who never did anything, like myself. But how hard is it to be one person to take on an entire system? I decided to carry on and not care what others did."
What may act as South African cycling's salvation is that the local scene was barely established when doping was at its most endemic. As George told me in a previous, unrelated interview, he and Hunter were pioneers, very often without friends and therefore mentors, on the Pro Tour circuit. This seems specious in light of Hunter's fast friendship with Landis.
Doping on RadioShack Nissan in 2010 and RadioShack in 2011, the years Impey and Hunter respectively rode with Armstrong, would have been a more surreptitious affair, no longer treated with bluster.
Reinhardt Janse van Rensburg, the sprinting and time trial specialist on whom MTN-Qhubeka is betting big, has a remarkably fresh outlook. "For young riders like myself, I won't be forced to do that kind of thing, so it's good that the whole saga came out like that."