Cycling hell comes full circle
The fallout has begun and, no, it has nothing to do with the media's role in reporting on the sport, says Richard Poplak.
I am in Juba, South Sudan. Shortly after interviewing a journalist who recounted the story of his family fleeing from a breakaway Sudan People's Liberation Army faction – he carried his sister on his back into the mountains and later came under AK-47 fire – I received this in my inbox: "Cycling, as you know, has been a confusing space and although it has given me incredible moments, it has also given me experiences that no person or young athlete should have to go through."
This tricky piece of prose is culled from the so-called statement of guilt issued by veteran road and mountain bike racer David George, the first major South African cyclist to be nailed for doping. That he won't be the last does not detract from the obvious: professional cycling is a career choice subject to very clear rules and regulations. The "cycling is hell" excuse is becoming wearying and is especially hollow in the context of South Sudan. George is the first of many. Let the flood begin.
Several weeks ago I phoned George to get his comments on the fallout of the United States Anti-Doping Agency's "reasoned decision", which laid out in detail Lance Armstrong's systematic history of doping. George rode as a domestique for the United States Postal Service in 1999, but he has always made it clear that he was never in Lance's inner circle.
"Nah, that was a long time ago," he said of those years. In George's version of events, he sat on the sidelines, blissfully unaware of the doping conspiracy swirling around him.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, he did learn that erythropoietin – aka EPO, Armstrong's drug of choice – is a helpful, if illegal, cycling accoutrement. On August 29 this year, he returned an out-of-competition positive test for the substance. Racing professionally for Nedbank 360, which has poured generous amounts into South African mountain biking with the intention of fielding the first fully local team to clinch the Cape Epic, George's career is now over.
I know what you are thinking: if George is doing it, so are the rest of them. And you are statistically, conceptually, historically and metaphysically justified in thinking that way. George's Nedbank 360 Epic teammate, Kevin Evans, will now be on the defensive (I was unable to contact him for this article). When I interviewed both athletes for a double profile last year, George implied that he had much to do with tweaking Evans's training regimen, whipping him into shape so that he was no longer a "fatty" – 67kg to 64kg – under George's sharp eye. Perhaps they shared something other than recipes. It's now incumbent on Evans to prove otherwise.
Interestingly, when I asked George about Robbie Hunter and Daryl Impey, South African cycling's two other Armstrong-tainted luminaries (they raced with the disgraced hero in 2009 and 2010, respectively), he said that they weren't in Lance's inner circle, either. Yup, the Boerewors Boys all sat glumly on the sidelines while Armstrong and his yakuza juiced themselves to glory.
Hunter and George are sworn enemies, but George felt the need to run interference for him. It brings a tear to the eye.
But Hunter has vociferously backed his best-friend-forever Floyd Landis on many occasions and has stated that cycling doesn't have a doping problem; it has a media problem.
If I had a rand for every time I have been blamed for the sport's filth, I would be on a new set of carbon racing wheels every week. By no means am I implying that Hunter even knows how EPO is administered (he's a litigious man and has a phalanx of lawyers at the ready), but perhaps it is time for South African cycling to purge itself.
Regardless, the flood is coming. According to Sean Badenhorst, editor of Tread Magazine, "George's test was four days after SA Marathon Champs where Max Knox beat him by 12 minutes to the title". In other words, Knox crushed a guy jacked to the gills on EPO by almost a quarter of an hour. South African cycling's media problem does seem fairly entrenched, doesn't it?
Oh, the usual whining will follow. What about soccer? What about rugby? Why don't those guys pee in a cup? And let's not forget the old chestnut, "cycling is hell". I'll be sure to mention that to the next Lost Boy I meet, after he tells me about a 1500km barefoot trek through virgin bush with his sister on his back.