‘It’s a sh*t question’: Is it time for cycling to move on?
Sophie Smith asks whether Tour de France champions should still face questions drawn from cycling's dark past
Tadej Pogačar last year was asked multiple times during his successful Tour de France title defence for his stance on anti-doping, effectively if he was competing clean.
The questions did not stem from any obvious evidence to suggest that the prodigious all-rounder was breaking the rules, rather cycling’s dirty past.
That past has left a deep, seemingly immovable stain on the fabric of the sport and one which on Saturday was put through the ringer again, in an attempt to wash it off.
The question is reserved for the exceptional, rather than the great, or good. Win one Tour and it’s believable, win two on the trot as Pogačar did before his 23rd birthday, or four like Chris Froome did from 2013-2017, and the industry becomes suspicious.
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Jonas Vingegaard on Sunday was crowned as this year’s winner of the Tour following an incredible campaign with his Jumbo-Visma team, who won the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys, and, before the finale in Paris, six stages. It was an exceptional performance.
Vingegaard assumed the yellow jersey from Pogačar with a solo victory on stage 11 and in none of his daily press conferences thereafter was asked about doping. However, when the 25-year-old fronted the media for the official winner’s press conference on Saturday night one young journalist posed the question usually chased by senior reporters, who were there and remember how the fabric got dirty.
Can we trust you and the performances of your team?
“We are totally clean, every one of us, and I can say that to every one of you,” Vingegaard replied.
“Not one of us is taking anything illegal. I think why we are so good is because of the preparation we do. We take altitude camps to the next level, and everything: materials, food and training. I think the team is really the best in this. That’s why you have to trust us.”
It was the longest and most detailed answer the reserved Vingegaard has given all Tour.
Moments later when his teammate Wout van Aert walked into a hot indoor basketball court stadium turned temporary press room, another young reporter asked him the same question.
But van Aert, who has won the green jersey and three stages, including Saturday’s individual time trial, which he believed Vingegaard gifted him, wasn’t having it.
“I don’t want to answer this question. It’s such a sh*t question. It comes back every time,” he said.
More than one journalist countered that it was, in fact, a fair question.
“Because we’re performing at this level, we have to defend ourselves? I don’t get it.
“We work super hard for this. Cycling has changed. I don’t like it that we keep on having to reply to this,” van Aert said.
“We have to pass controls every moment of the year, not only at the Tour de France, also at our house. We’re just training for it. If you look through our team, how we’ve developed through these years, it hasn’t come from nowhere.”
Cycling is perhaps the only international sport, maybe even the professional sport, where asking an athlete if they are doping, or about doping, is standard practice, or at least permissible.
No one put the question forward to Rafael Nadal, for example, if injecting anaesthetic to numb his painful foot multiple times during the French Open men’s singles final, which he won, was performance enhancing. If he’d not had the unspecified number of injections, would he have been able to finish the match?
At the time French cyclist Guillaume Martin as well as Thibaut Pinot called out the perceived double standard when they compared it to cycling.
“They pass for heroes because they go far in pain, but in fact, they use substances to go far in pain,” Martin told L’Equipe in June.
“The winner on the bike, in particular that of the Tour de France, even if there is no element behind it, he is systematically accused of doping.”
Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999 – the year after Pogačar was born.
The disgraced American was arguably ancient history, if not shameful history by the time the Slovenian was rising through the ranks, surely looking to cycling ‘heroes’ of generations closer to his own, not someone old enough to be his dad.
Ineos Grenadiers deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth, who with the squad and its former incarnation as Sky has had a hand in producing seven Tour winners in eight years, believes you can’t compare sports.
“Every sport has their own regulations, and you have to respect the regulations. That’s what we do is we respect the regulations; we live by the regulations and that’s what you’ve got to do,” he said.
“Sport is sport, and every sport is different. You can’t compare them because their injuries are perhaps different, or their management of the athletes has got to be different.”
Eliingworth could remedy why today’s riders are still being asked if they can be trusted.
“We had our fair share of questions with Froomey and everybody, and it is always challenging, but it is what it is, it’s the sport. It’s got that history, so you’ve got to answer the questions,” he said.
“We have to live with our history of the sport, so I understand why people would ask questions because the sport has a history doesn’t it? Whether that is any more or less than other sports, and other sports it’s just not come out the same.”
Cycling’s past deeply hurt the image of the sport, media and fans alike.
When I tell a general sports fan that I’m a cycling journalist they will nearly always ask the same two questions: Have you worked at the Tour de France, and are all the riders still doping?
Being systemically lied to and believing in those lies, contributing to them unawares, supporting them unawares, hurts when the truth comes out.
However, the same could be said for questioning the integrity of a new generation of riders who have been reared in a more professional environment, where the latest advancements in technology, training techniques, sports science, psychology, equipment, nutrition and so on are fully exploited. Jumbo-Visma have a food app that tells riders exactly what they need to eat, how much and when, based on many factors, from physical output to the weather.
Two past Tour champions this month politely declined to comment on whether they thought being asked questions pertaining to doping, or anti-doping, when they were in the maillot jaune was unfair.
“We’re confident with what we do and how we do things and I think you’ve got to accept the history of the sport is what it is,” said Ellingworth.
“Is it unfair? I think to some maybe it could be a bit. It could feel quite unfair if they’re getting those questions all the time.”
UAE Team Emirates sports director Andrej Hauptman said questions posed to Pogačar last year, but not this year when he marked a stint in the yellow jersey, didn’t affect him.
“It’s not nice because these are not nice questions but he’s really a great person and he’s able to manage these questions and doesn’t allow it to [bother him],” Hauptman said.
Making a case for people to move on is difficult when isolated incidents like that which Miguel Ángel López is currently embroiled in, or the Bahrain Victorious raids at the start of the Tour, which have so far publicly amounted to nothing, are out there, highlighting that stain in the fabric.
But if we don’t move on from questioning the integrity of the riders who currently comprise the bunch, who are cut from a different cloth, are we doing more harm than good? Is it time to move on?