Category Archives: The Pro Game

Clenbuterol

Michael Rogers, back when he was riding for Team Sky

Michael Rogers, back when he was riding for Team Sky

Today, yet another cyclist – Belgian rider Jonathan Breyne of UCI Continental Pro team Crelan-Euphony – has tested positive for the banned substance, Clenbuterol, following his ride at the Japan Cup in October 2013. This follows hot on the heels Michael Rogers’ positive test (pictured) for the same substance earlier this week, following his victory at the same event. Both riders had previously been racing in China the week before. Coincidence?

I’m no chemist, so much of the information I’ve pulled together here is from secondary sources.

Clenbuterol’s main legitimate use is as a prescription drug for those with severe breathing difficulties. It is a stimulant and increases aerobic capacity; it doesn’t take much to understand why it is a banned substance for all sports around the world. The now-notorious EPO does much the same thing. It also makes the body burn fat faster and more efficiently, which has led to it being used as a weight-loss drug by some celebrities and it is commonly pushed as a “fat burning pill“. It is also very popular on the bodybuilding scene. The trouble is, it is prohibited in the EU and the USA for just about everything, other than in limited medical and veterinary circumstances. It is possible to obtain it in the EU / USA, much like other illegal drugs can be obtained in very specific circumstances, but for someone who just wants to pop a few pills to help with weight loss, that isn’t going to happen. However, like most things in the modern age, it can easily be obtained on the internet – and the main place to get it is China. Even in China, its general use is illegal – but it still occasionally crops up as a food additive, owing to China’s more lax farming controls.

It doesn’t take much effort to locate sources of Chinese Clenbuterol all over the internet. The Qufu Xindi Chemical Research Company don’t advertise it on their official chemical product list, but they are quite clearly selling the substance on other sites. It is easily obtained on forums and even sites openly selling performance-enhancing drugs, which aren’t even legal in the UK. Steroid Supplier and Muscle Junkies are two other such sites I’ve found in the last couple of minutes, and I’m sure I could easily find more. The thing they all have in common is the source: China. This is also where both Reyne and Rogers claim they have unwittingly taken the substance, and both blame it on contaminated food, as have many other athletes before them.

While with Jonathan Tiernan-Locke I’m still very much undecided, when it comes to Michael Rogers I find myself a lot less supportive. Rogers left Team Sky just as their anti-doping charter was drawn up and he had refused to sign it. He left swiftly and joined a lesser team, Saxo-Tinkoff. Rogers is also known to have visited Michele Ferrari, Lance Armstrong’s now infamous doctor who was at the centre of the world’s biggest ever doping scandal, back in 2005 and 2006. I read Tyler Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race, and am left in no doubt that people only went to see Ferrari because they wanted performance-enhancing drugs. He is utterly discredited. As such, for me, there is too much smoke around Michael Rogers to give him the benefit of the doubt unconditionally. His argument around contaminated food may have some merit, but consider that even the Chinese national team banned their own athletes from eating Chinese meat ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games so that they wouldn’t run the risk of ingesting any Clenbuterol. The same argument was used by Alberto Contador back in 2012 and it didn’t work then. UCI rules also make it absolutely clear (s.21, p.6) that it is the rider’s responsibility to control exactly what goes into their bodies. It beggars belief that in a country notorious for food contamination that teams – especially a WorldTour team like Saxo-Tinkoff – wouldn’t be aware of that.

What will ultimately decide the fate of Rogers and Reyne is the quantity of Clenbuterol in their systems, and this is the great unknown right now until proper hearings are held. Both Rogers and Reyne have tested positive for the substance in a China, where it is notoriously added to food to “bulk up” livestock. It is also the country where it is easier to get hold of than anywhere else in the world. Coincidence? We shall soon see.

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JTL Charged with Doping Offence

I don’t usually follow individual cases on this blog, but given my support and love of Team Sky, I have been following Jonathan Tiernan-Locke’s case with considerable interest – not least because I remember how well he did at the Tour of Britain 2012 and how pleased I was when Sky snapped him up. JTL stood out in that competition as a class act. I’d never heard of him before that, but it was obvious he was destined for the big time.

Now he has been charged with a doping offence, my confidence is rattled a little. I find myself trying not to judge or rush to conclusions; no evidence has been made public yet and JTL is entitled to defend himself. Yet, given JTL’s circumstances – his medical history, the step up in class, a new regime – there are many reasons why his form could have suddenly fallen off when he joined Sky. I hope he’s innocent, but something is nagging at me. The UCI are going to be very sensitive to doping at the moment and I just can’t help but think they would make such an allegation unless they had cast-iron evidence.

Given Michael Rogers’ positive test in the last few days (another ex Team Sky rider), I really hope the team doesn’t get dragged into this as a whole. I believe them when they say they “race and win clean”. Let’s hope that faith isn’t misplaced.

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Jonathan Tiernan-Locke

Jonathan Tiernan-Locke

As I write this, there is still no news on the Jonathan Tiernan-Locke blood irregularity story that has been in the mainstream cycling press. Some have argued that Tiernan-Locke has been given a raw deal by the press and that JTL is effectively “tainted” now for the rest of his career, no matter what he does in future. This is the reason why doping investigations remain confidential, but questions were always going to be asked about why JTL pulled out of the GB Road Race team when he did back on 26th September 2013. “Lack of form” wouldn’t have cut it for long; much lesser riders than JTL were in that squad and he wasn’t representing the higher echelon of Team Sky at the time. His form had been poor since making the jump up from Continental level, but perhaps that was to be expected.

I’m not going to speculate wildly about whether JTL’s blood readings are representative of an illness or doping; I haven’t got any more facts than anybody else, yet I do feel that stories like this deserve to be in the press. Professional sportsmen / women manage to exist because they are a form of public entertainment, no matter what the sport. If people aren’t riding clean, then people deserve to know what they’re watching. If JTL’s blood readings are “clean”, then I expect the processes around that to be well-explained by the UCI so that we can all have confidence in the procedure, and I’m sure they will be very thorough procedures indeed. It shouldn’t taint him in the long-term, so long as there is transparency. Unfortunately, the UCI is a masterful institution at remaining silent on important issues within cycling, and nobody seems to know what is happening with the case at the moment.

On a personal note, I hope that JTL is clean. I saw him win the Tour of Britain at the first ever cycling event I attended in person, standing out on Guildford High St for about 4 hours just to catch a 15-second glimpse of him as he cycled past in the gold jersey. I saw him crunch his way up Porlock Hill in Devon the day before, knowing that my car had barely once made it up that climb. For me, he was one of the outstanding riders of 2012 and a deserved addition to the Team Sky line-up. I hope my faith in him isn’t misplaced.

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UCI Proposes Two-Tiered Cycling Structure

It has been reported today that the UCI are discussing proposals to have a two-tiered structure in professional cycling, with promotion and relegation between the first and second division. There would also be a third grouping of the Continental teams, for which it doesn’t sound like there are any plans to offer promotion to the professional circuit.

While this may seem like it is bringing cycling into line with other professional sports, is it necessary or feasible? The current system on the World Tour relies on second-ranked teams being offered wild card places to enter the big events, a system which would seem largely unchanged by this proposal, but the only way they can move up to the World Tour is by proving that they have the staff, resources and setup to compete at world level. Under the new proposals, they could compete full-time on the World Tour by finishing in a high placing in their division, while another World Tour team is relegated. I’m not sure that this is good for either the teams or cycling in general.

Team Sky recently posted a video on their YouTube page giving a behind-the-scenes look at their Service Course (the division that supplies and maintains their equipment for touring) and it is nothing short of staggering. Most cycling teams could not compete with that support network without major sponsorship. If the teams had that kind of networks and sponsorship already, they would also be competing on the World Tour. But what would happen to these teams if they were “relegated”?

Major sponsors, already scarce in cycling, would not be interested in a team condemned to compete only in minor events for the coming season. If they pulled out, it is unlikely the team would be able to get back to World Tour standards anytime soon. However, if they did, it could lead to considerable uncertainty and see-sawing as teams cyclically hire and fire staff according to which division they compete in for the coming season. Football can sustain this – the structure is more supportive – but I’m not sure cycling can.

I also wonder, would the UCI really drop one or more of the current World Tour teams from the top level of cycling just because of a poor season? Cycling depends on these high level teams for its fan interest and consequent funding. Would the UCI seriously kick Team Sky out if they finished bottom? It would be the end of the team, and a significant revenue stream for pro cycling.

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Raising the Class

Professional races are graded by the UCI into four categories, signifying the amount of points and prize money on offer for competing in the race. There is an excellent explanation of these categories over on Wikipedia, lifted straight out of the UCI’s manual, so suffice it to only summarise here.

There are three grades of cycling team acknowledged by the UCI, excluding National Teams:

  • ProTeam – The highest level of professional team, competing at the very highest level of events – cycling’s Premier League. Examples include Team Sky, Garmin-Sharp, BMC Racing, Canondale and Movistar.
  • Professional Continental – A professional team employing at least 14 riders and support staff on a full-time basis. The team tours in specific regions around the world (e.g. Europe, Asia) and can only enter World Tour events along with the ProTeams after being invited by a wild card entry. There are not many teams in this category, with Asia having only one Chinese team (Champion System) and Oceania having none at all. Europe is dominated by French and Belgian teams, and there is no British (team) representation at this level at all.
  • Continental – The lowest grade of team, which may contain a mixture of professional and amateur riders – details are left up to national federations. They never compete in World Tour events. British examples include Raleigh, UK Youth and Node-4 Giordana. Owing to the somewhat more lax operating conditions on these teams, there are many more of them. Like the Professional Continental teams above them, they race events in their specific continental region.

The UCI does not deal with regional or club cycling teams, and they do not feature in UCI rankings. As such, even the Continental teams above should be regarded as being of a very high standard.

To go with these grades of team, the UCI grades races as:

  • WT – World Tour – The highest category of race. ProTeams are obliged to enter. These races include the Tour de France, Paris – Roubaix, the Giro d’Italia – all of cycling’s premier events.
  • HC – Hors Categorie – Open to ProTeams, who are only allowed to make up 70% of participants at a maximum, Professional Continental teams, Continental teams and National Teams of the organising country (e.g. UK Youth)
  • 1 – Open to ProTeams (50% participation maximum), Professional Continental, Continental and National Teams
  • 2 – Professional Continental, Continental, National, regional and club teams may enter

A race may further be designated a category 1 or category 2 race – this simply denotes whether it is a one-day event (Category 1) or a stage event (Category 2). The Tour of Britain is a 2.1 event, meaning a class 1 stage race, with 50% ProTeam participation as a limit.

The main difference between the categories is the amount of prize money and world ranking points on offer – the winner of an HC race will win 100 ranking points, but the winner of a 2.2 race will only take home 40 points. The winner of the Tour de France takes home a whopping 200 points. The scales of points are also different between categories, with the bigger races dishing out points to lower-ranked riders than those in the smaller events.

The grading of a race is entirely arbitrary and down to the judgment of the UCI, and there is little material available to explain the process on their website. It would seem to be down to the level of race organisation, support from sponsors, crowd support (including television potential) and the quality of the course itself. Readers of this blog will have noted that I am fairly anti-UCI, but to my mind, this is one of the only areas of the sport where they have any real influence.

The Tour of Britain is a Class 2.1 event and has been ever since its inception. This limits the field of top-tier riders and the amount of prize money on offer. This grading is no longer appropriate, given the levels of support for cycling in this country, and puts us below tours of Turkey, Denmark and Austria, all given the “HC” class. It also means we sit below Oman, and the mighty Tour of Qinghai Lake in China on the Asia circuit. We are equivalent to the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon on the Africa circuit. Surely Britain’s current position within world cycling demands a higher grading than this? Unfortunately, after another successful tour this year, the UCI have once again turned down the Tour of Britain’s request for a reclassification, and not even offered an explanation as to why. I’m not suggesting that the Tour of Britain should become a fourth “grand tour” (we don’t have the space for it or the diversity of landscape), but we should have a premier road cycling stage race that forms one of the highlights of the cycling calendar.

Britain is currently pumping a lot of money into cycling as a sport, generating revenue for companies all over the world. We are producing some of the finest riders, in all categories of cycling, ever seen. Public interest in cycling has never been higher in Britain than it is now. Cyclists have won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, voted on by the public, on the last two occasions, and three times in the last five years. The 2012 Tour of Britain drew an average of 382,000 viewers for the live coverage and 526,000 for the highlights every daydespite being stuck on a backwater channel like ITV4 which barely half the population can even get, and which draws an average of 1% audience share. We deserve a Tour of Britain that reflects our national status and interest in the sport, and that means one that offers significant prize money and big-name riders coming to town.

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Womens’ Road Racing

The other day, I read this interesting article over on Road CC where Lizzie Armitstead criticised the lack of action from the UCI in establishing a proper womens’ professional road racing circuit and called on professional teams to be forced into developing female riders as well. I think she has a legitimate gripe. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed watching the likes of Jess Varnish, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott on the track, and I see no reason why I wouldn’t enjoy watching a proper road racing calendar as well.

While I can reel off many male professional teams from the top of my head – Sky Procycling, BMC, Orica GreenEDGE, Omega-Pharma Quickstep, Movistar, Euskaltel Euskadi, etc etc, I can only name just one professional womens’ team – Wiggle Honda, and it is only through a bit of internet research for this article that I’ve learned of Team TIBCO. Even then, I only know of Wiggle Honda because they are based here in Britain. To my knowledge, none of the big teams I’ve just named have got female development squads and they are some of the biggest names in the sport (Orica are also a co-sponsor on one female team, Orica-AIS, but they are different teams). Only Argos-Shimano in the Netherlands have a direct female equivalent team, but they’re a second-tier outfit relying on wildcard invitations to get into the really big events. As can be seen from the list in this link, there are very few female pro teams.

There are some womens’ sports I don’t enjoy watching, such as football, cricket and boxing – they just don’t capture my attention in the way that the mens’ game does. Football I find too slow, the cricket I find lacks the big hits of the mens’ game and boxing I just don’t like, despite being a fan of the male sport. Yet I do enjoy tennis, athletics, swimming and cycling – so far confined only to the track – immensely. There is no valid argument that can be made to support the position that:

  1. Women can’t compete in endurance sports: they can (ask any marathon runner, biathlete or swimmer)
  2. There would be no audience to watch it: there is (look at the crowds for London 2012)
  3. There isn’t enough money to develop a women’s team: there is (cycling makes more money now than ever before – Armitstead estimates that Team Sky make over £10m per year)
  4. There isn’t enough room in the calendar to accommodate a womens’ schedule: there is.

This fourth point, to me, seems easy to address. Why not simply have a womens’ race set off an hour before the mens’ race in any professional event? The infrastructure would already be there, the planning has already been done – all that would be needed would be some more outriders and a slightly longer period of road closures. For an even braver decision, it could even be possible to have a combined start and mix the female riders in with the men, albeit they should be classified separately, much like happens in the Touring Car championship. Wouldn’t this also give the crowds at road races something extra to cheer and enjoy? I’ve stood out on Guildford High St before for 4 hours just to catch a 2-minute glimpse of some of the world’s best cyclists. If there had been women on the Tour of Britain last year, I might have doubled that.

At present, the situation for womens’ professional cycling is completely unacceptable. Recently, most of the peloton withdrew from the Giro della Toscana on the very final stage of the race, including the overall leader Marianne Vos, because they were expected to negotiate the course in amongst the general Italian traffic. Would we consider making women run the London marathon on a Monday rush hour? They are also forced to ride different courses, different routes, participate in different events (by which I mean classifications) at the same championships and scrabble around for funding – yet when it comes to track cycling, I would argue that Laura Trott is probably the biggest name going right now. This cannot continue for much longer, and I’m not the only one saying so.

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Cycling World Championships

For the second year in a row, the GB mens’ team has failed at the Road Cycling World Championships. Last year, they weren’t expected to do very well – Wiggins had just completed the Tour de France as well as the Olympics, and had just pulled out of the Tour of Britain owing to a combination of illness and fatigue. The course didn’t favour Mark Cavendish, the defending champion, and I got the impression that the GB team was really turning up just to go through the motions in 2012 – even Chris Froome was not regarded as a serious contender. The only medals won were by the womens’ team, taking two golds and two bronzes. However, all this was forgiven amongst a general flurry of cycling medals for Great Britain and the World Championships were disregarded. Despite a second British Tour de France win, however, the expectations were high for this year – yet with 100km to go in a 275km race, there wasn’t a single British rider left in the race. This also followed on from disappointment in silver medals from the Time Trials – an event where Wiggins and Lizzie Armitstead were expected to take the gold.

It feels overly-critical to have a go at Team GB’s cycling efforts when they’ve come on so much in recent years, but it would be good to see a British rider complete one of these uber-long distance races and show that Mark Cavendish’s 2011 performance wasn’t a one-off. The trouble is, if Froome can’t manage a win on a course intended to favour climbers, I can’t see where that British winner is coming from.

Shimano have also compiled this excellent video of the day’s racing, showing just how tough the conditions were for the World Championships.

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UCI Presidency – Time for Change

UCI President, Pat McQuaid

UCI President, Pat McQuaid – © Simon MacMichael

Today, the UCI votes on its future in a presidential vote. McQuaid should go. He has presided over one of the most controversial eras of cycling in his three terms and has been dogged with accusations of cheating, corruption and bribery pretty much since he started. Even when he was a professional cyclist himself, McQuaid was undermined by cheating and, famously, when he breached the anti-Apartheid rules in world sport at the time by turning up in a professional event in South Africa under a false name. Even today, his nomination for president relies on votes from Thailand and Morocco; even his native Ireland have abandoned him.

I have commented before on the disconnection of the professional game from its grass-roots, which I believe is a greater divide than in almost any other sport. The UCI is a distant body, doing little to promote cycling and operating as a remote gentleman’s club which owes its existence purely to history. It is as relevant to modern cycling as the MCC is to cricket. McQuaid must take responsibility for this. Professional cycling could do itself a favour today and vote for change.

Edit: The UCI has rejected Pat McQuaid and installed Brian Cookson, former head of British Cycling, as president after a somewhat farcical election process. I’m glad to see the change, but I still question the role of the UCI. Time will tell.

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Tour of Britain

As this year’s Tour of Britain nears its conclusion, I thought it timely to post this photo I shot at last year’s finish on Guildford High St. My disappointment at not getting to see Bradley Wiggins (who pulled out after Stage 4) was compensated by getting this great image of Mark Cavendish storming to a stage win up the cobbles.

This year, Wiggins looks set for a win in the General Classification and needs a race victory here to compensate for a pretty dire season overall – especially compared to his monumental 2012 effort.

Via Flickr:
GUILDFORD, UK, 16TH SEP 2012. Mark Cavendish, the "Manx Missile", breaks away on the final sprint to win the last stage of the Tour of Britain.

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The Disconnection of Pro Cycling

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I’ve been a player of many sports over the years, and consequently followed the professional versions of the same, whether that be football, cricket, rugby or many others. When I took up cycling last year, I knew virtually nothing about pro cycling; I’d heard of Lance Armstrong, but would have struggled to tell you which team he rode for, or who were the current leaders of the UCI tour. I was aware of Chris Hoy’s achievements, but oblivious to Bradley Wiggins. The last time I’d ever really watched cycling was at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. When I got on my bike for the first time in 20 years, it was in the wake of Tour de France and London 2012 fever. I naturally decided to watch the professional game and take an interest in elite-level cycling.

I was surprised, when I started taking an interest, at just how disconnected professional cycling feels from the amateur game. It may have something to do with the fact that cycling isn’t just a sport; for many people, it’s a form of transport. Car drivers aren’t all Formula 1 fans, after all. What struck me particularly was how remote the sport feels from the everyday cyclist. Maybe it’s because every major cycling competition takes place on the European continent, with only the Tour of Britain coming once a year to this country. Maybe it’s because there is only one real professional British team, Team Sky, who last year bore a strong similarity to the British Olympic team. Maybe it’s because of an almost complete lack of coverage of cycling news except on the Internet in this country. Either way, professional cycling feels remote and distant to me, an everyday British cyclist.

To add further insult to injury, I read Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race shortly before Christmas and was absolutely staggered at the obvious levels of cheating going on in pro cycling. I could think of no other sport in which limits had been pushed to such extremes that virtually all the competitors had resorted to wholesale organised cheating just to keep up with the pack. I was amazed at how tainted the sport I had just come to appreciate had made itself. It’s greatest hero – the only pro cyclist I really knew from my non-cycling day – was now being masqueraded as one of the greatest cheats of all. It certainly gave me no love for the professional sport, and I felt more distant than ever before.

To help in overcoming this disconnection, I think there needs to be more competition in this country. The UCI cannot now deny that Britain is one of the world’s leading competitive countries in cycling, whether on the road or on the track. We have the most fabulous countryside and world class velodromes. An annual visit of the 8-stage Tour of Britain, a class 2.1 event (i.e. not top tier), simply isn’t enough. There needs to be more competition – and better coverage – of the tiers of cycling below the UCI Pro Tour level. League structures make sports exciting, and as far as I know, no serious structure exists in this country, and even Pro Tour rankings are not taken particularly seriously – just whether or not a rider wins a particular race or not seems to be the main criteria.

British cycling cannot just be sustained by media coverage of Victoria Pendleton, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins. Pendleton has retired, Hoy is about to and Wiggins is unlikely ever to repeat the achievements of 2012. In any case, only Wiggins rides for a pro team. What about other British riders and teams? Without coverage, British cyclists will just be things that pop up every four years, and the pro sport will remain in the doldrums. It needs to be clean, and seen to be clean – something I don’t have a whole lot of faith with while the UCI is the governing body of the sport, given their apparent collusion with the Lance Armsrong drug scandal.

A perceived corrupt sport, with remote stars and a lack of competition will see British cycling return to the doldrums. This will be a huge blow for the sport, just as it’s more popular than ever in Britain. Last summer, despite all the scandal breaking in the pro game, the connection with the wider public was made. People like me started cycling in droves. Now the professional arena has a responsibility to keep that up.

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