Friday, 22 June 2007
The mysterious case of cycling's 'Men In Black'...
The intrigue has built all week, reporters feverishly scrambling to shed light on a mysterious new group of riders dubbed the ‘Men In Black’. With such a sinister moniker, the story can only be related to doping, and if the reports are true then the worrying thing is that this is an elite group of riders who are taking extreme measures to get their ‘preparation’ for the Tour De France just right.
The term ‘Men In Black’ refers to the riders’ practice of training in inconspicuous logo-free clothing in locations that are well off the beaten track. The aim, it is alleged, is to avoid out of competition drugs testing that would presumably reveal foul play. The unusual patterns of behaviour of the ‘Men In Black’ has, it seems, aroused suspicion at the UCI, who have acted to investigate for themselves.
The UCI’s chief anti-doping officer Anne Gripper hinted a couple of days ago that a series of tests had produced a number of ‘non-negative’ results. Leaving aside the wonderful inverted logic of the term, all we know so far is that no rider’s name will be released until ‘B’ samples have all been analysed to confirm the results.
The big questions among fans and the press are inevitably ‘who?’ and ‘when?’ If the secondary tests are completed in time for riders to be disqualified from the Tour De France then this will be the second year in a row that the race will have been blighted by chaos and controversy on the eve of its running.
The rumour mill has already started and the Astana squad, which already has something of a checkered past, has been singled out in much of the speculation. Last year of course they missed the race entirely because over half of the squad was implicated in Operacion Puerto, and although they regrouped afterwards and severed ties with controversial manager Manolo Saiz, they formed other questionable new associations with former Team Phonak employees, and latterly the under fire former T-Mobile boss Walter Godefroot.
Astana have emphatically denied the reports, and Tour favourite Alexander Vinokourov acknowledged that he sometimes trained in plain kit to avoid persistently being approached by amateur cyclists. He added that he had nothing to hide, and that riders on his team were available for testing anytime. Presumably he's forgotten about last year's Vuelta, when the whole Astana team bus drove away from a scheduled doping control because the testers were delayed in traffic.
Of course denials usually do come before a fall in cycling, but until we know the names of the riders in question critics should hold their fire. No doubt we’ll know soon enough, and when we do it will be another black day for cycling. If this group are from the upper echelons of the pro-peleton, any wrongdoing is of greater sporting significance (though not necessarily moral rectitude) than a domestique who is simply preparing him self to survive three weeks at the toughest race on earth.
Many predicted last year that the Tour couldn’t withstand anymore of these scandals and that sponsors would withdraw, the event imploding into a pool of its own sleaze. I sense the opposite, with CSC this week backing Bjarne Riis by renewing sponsorship, the Dane’s open publication of his rider’s blood test results (monitored independently in the first half of the season and all clean), and an increasing buzz of anticipation from fans and media for what many believe will be the most open race in years, despite a pretty unimaginative route.
All eyes will be on the UCI in the coming weeks, and they must already be dreading the unleashing of yet another monster for the sport to wrestle. Ultimately they should be pleased – this case proves they are taking their responsibilities seriously and are indeed trying to clean up the sport. If a few more big names fall by the wayside in the process, c’est la vie. This is the new reality of modern cycling, and although there will still be drugs scandals, I don’t believe that they are anything for the sport to fear.