The only way is ethics: In search of cycling’s moral compass

Cycling, like all professional sports these days, is a stinking midden of greed, self-interest, cheating, and moral relativism. This is nothing new. Cheating has been going on since the sport started, and road racing lent itself to skulduggery more than most other sports.

Before the days of TV cameras and camera-phones, you could grab a tow from a car, get pushed up a mountain by the fans, or even catch a train for part of a stage, and your chances of being caught or sanctioned were slim.

As TV cameras became more common, other forms of cheating were employed — buying and selling favours on the road; offering money to other riders not to compete in the sprint. Lance Armstrong allegedly paid rival riders to let him win the amusingly-named Thrift Drug Triple Crown of Cycling in 1993. Alexandre Vinokourov is alleged to have paid Alexander Kolobnev €150,000 to throw the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Rigoberto Uran to throw the 2012 Olympic road race.

Even the “sticky bottle” is cheating, but it’s only when someone is noticed taking the piss (Romain Bardet in the 2017 Paris-Nice) that anything gets done.


2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Alexandre Vinokourov moves to the front of the field, but did he do so legitimately?


The extraordinary thing is that there is almost no moral outrage when these things happen. The only indignation comes from outside the sport, where the general public scratches its collective head and wonders what the hell’s wrong with these skinny, cheaty bastards.

They don’t know, or want to know, that the pressing game their favourite football team plays with such élan is thanks to PEDs. Or that the occasional shock result in tennis owes more to Far Eastern betting syndicates than the vagaries of “form”.

Since performance-enhancing drugs in cycling were banned in the mid-1960s, precisely no one has taken any notice other than to find ways of circumventing detection. The ink was barely dry on the new doping rules when Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux, loaded with alcohol and amphetamines. And since then, there have been thousands of doping positives, very few of which caused much in the way of outrage.

But maybe it’s hard to be outraged when cheating is so widespread elsewhere. In football, when two players are competing for the ball and it goes out of play, they will both put their hands up claiming the throw-in or corner. One of them is cheating. But we accept that as part of the game, being “professional”. When a player commits a professional foul to break up an attack by the opposing team, he is applauded for “taking one for the team”.

You could argue that doping is being “professional” too — Lance Armstrong would certainly argue that point, as would many others.

When Simon Cope sat in front of the CMS Select Committee and smirked that (I’m paraphrasing here) “everyone fiddles their travel expenses”, he was also having a nod in the direction of wholesale expense-fiddling by MPs in the past.

And therein lies the problem. The normalisation of fraud and dishonesty leads to a situation where of course a cycling team’s courier isn’t going to ask what’s in the Jiffy bag. Plausible deniability is all-important. Hell, even implausible deniability will do, so long as all the records have gone missing and nothing can be proved.

Our moral relativism goes further. Convicted cheats are welcomed back to the sport, often in the role of directeur sportif or team manager, as long as they are good at what they do. Rolf Aldag, Alexandre Vinokourov, Brian Holm, Matt White, Bjarne Riis, Jonathan Vaughters, the list goes on and on.

Jonathan Vaughters at the Rouleur Classic in 2017

All of them are tainted by doping, but all continue to ply their trade. And we all know that there’s no such thing as a contrite, reformed doper – they’re just sorry they got caught (“everyone else was doing it”), so they keep their heads down and say nothing.

But should these people be in a position of power and authority? Should they be shaping the futures of young riders? Should they continue to profit from past crimes? Of course not, but they’re good at what they do. In a world where Donald Trump is President of the USA, you could argue that anything goes and that morality is now a defunct concept.

Certainly us fans have an uncomfortable and contradictory relationship with the whole doping thing. We loved Marco Pantani, but we hate Lance Armstrong. We love George Hincapie, but we hate Riccardo Ricco. Tom Simpson? Hmmm.

And when we see people like David Millar swanning around in his fancy Italian car while other clean riders are forced out of the sport altogether, it makes us wonder if being popped for doping is really such a bad thing. It clearly hasn’t hampered Millar, nor Richard Virenque’s career as a TV pundit. Cheats continue to profit from their past cheating, and it seems we’re okay with that.

Team Bahrain Merida and UAE Team Emirates have appeared in the pro peloton in recent years. Given that professional sport is already a cesspit of cheating and moral turpitude, should we really care who runs the teams in pro cycling?

Bahrain Merida

Personally, I certainly don’t want to see teams owned by men who have credible accusations of torture levelled against them. Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain and figurehead of Team Bahrain Merida, is accused of torturing and beating pro-democracy demonstrators. Such is the strength of these allegations that the UK has stripped him of his diplomatic immunity, so it’s unlikely he’ll be attending the Tour of Britain any time soon.

Abu Dhabi is another bastion of human rights abuse, as are Qatar and Dubai, where there is no democracy or free press, and where immigrant workers are subject to indentured servitude, women have few rights, and not believing in God is a capital offence. Kazakhstan isn’t much better, accused of many human rights abuses, from unlawful imprisonment to torture. But hey, the orange sex pest in the White House wants to bring back waterboarding, so that’s okay.

In the world of British football, there is something called a ‘Fit and Proper Persons Test’, which aims to prevent unsavoury people running the clubs.

If cycling teams were subjected to a similar examination in regard to their owners and staff, the World Tour would be a very different place. But that would require the utterly ineffectual UCI to actually do something, and at the moment all anyone cares about is getting money into the sport, no matter how dirty it is.

  The peloton race along the highway through the desert towards Madinat Al Shamal during the 2014 Tour of Qatar


For me (and I suspect a few others), a line has been crossed with Team Bahrain Merida and UAE Team Emirates. There is a big difference between an old boys’ club of cheats and the new boys’ club of obscenely wealthy torturers and human rights abusers. But then, the UCI is quite happy to send races to these forsaken deserts of the Middle East, just to swell the coffers, and the teams are happy to go because it offers them warm, early-season training and shedloads of money.

Sport quite rightly boycotted South Africa during the apartheid years, refusing to legitimise its morally bankrupt rulers. Now, we see World Tour bike racing in Qatar, Dubai, Oman and Abu Dhabi, all places with repressive, undemocratic regimes where torture and “forced disappearances” are commonplace.

If it wasn’t for their oil and their willingness to buy our armaments, the rest of the world would tell them to shove off. But we don’t. We suck it up, we tut.

A policeman in Qatar deliberately drove his car into a junior female rider at the 2016 World Championships, presumably because his mediaeval, misogynistic sensibilities were offended by the sight of her knees. Sensibly, the girl and her team didn’t report this to the authorities — it would have been the word of a nearly-naked foreign female against that of a Qatari police officer. And yet the UCI is still happy to put money before all else and send races to these places.

As a consumer, I can choose to ignore the middle-eastern races, and I do. If they were actually interesting in any way then I might have a dilemma, but they’re not, so I don’t. But it’s more difficult when there are teams in the peloton funded by states which supress basic human rights, impose barbaric punishments, prosecute people for not believing in God, and work people to death in appalling conditions.

I love the Giro d’Italia and want to watch it, but I know that every time I catch sight of Nibali in his Bahrain Merida jersey, I’m going to feel sick, and angry.

In fairness, it isn’t just the Middle Eastern teams stinking the place out. Orica (as in Orica-Scott) is an Australian mining and chemical company guilty of multiple incidents of pollution. In recent years, they’ve leaked hexavalent chromium (Erin Brockovich, anyone?) into the atmosphere, spilled arsenic into the Hunter River, and allegedly breached their pollution licences more than 300 times in the last 15 years.

Team Sky was part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, the people who brought you the phone hacking of a murdered teenage girl and spread lies and hate about pretty much everything and everyone, from immigrants to disaster victims. Katusha are owned by Russian oligarch Igor Makarov and have strong links to Vladimir Putin. I’m not going to say any more because I don’t want to fall out of a window.

 An unholy trinity? Riders representing three of the teams in question on the podium at the 2017 Vuelta

On the plus side, there’s Team Dimension Data, who still have a link to the Qhubeka charity in Africa and who do good work getting bikes to people in remote districts. These are definitely the good guys of the peloton, and it’s nice to see them in pro racing.

Team Dimension Data: Bicycles Change Lives

The same applies to Novo Nordisk, the squad raising awareness about diabetes and who also run a women’s team. And one cycling commentator has vowed to donate money to Amnesty International every time Bahrain Merida win a stage: “At least that way some good may come from their presence.”

So, should we be worried? Well, I am. It’s bad enough that the sport I love is riddled with lies and cheating, but when it sells its soul to abusive dictatorships for a relative pittance then I draw a line. I know that cycling teams need money, I understand that the economics of bike racing are difficult and complex, but are there really no alternatives?

I don’t know. But I do know that when I need to rent a car, I won’t be putting money into the Bahrain Merida team via their sponsor, Sixt. I’ll probably use Europcar. I will also be switching my membership of British Cycling to Cycling UK because British Cycling seems to be a hotbed of misogyny, sexism, bullying, obfuscation and ineptitude. Medals at all costs? Not with my money.

Ultimately, of course, it all comes down to business. Companies enter into sponsorship agreements because they think that the exposure they get will outweigh any negatives involved. They think that having Nibali wearing their shoes will boost sales, which in turn keeps people in jobs (an important consideration) and shareholders happy. But their backing also implies shared brand values.

In the world of publishing, there is currently a movement to pressurise major companies into dropping their advertising spend with publications and websites that pedal fear and hatred. The #stopfundinghate Facebook page has over 200,000 “likes” and 70,000 Twitter followers, and is growing.

If sponsorship implies shared brand values, do the likes of Merida, Sidi, Argon 18, Colnago, Rudy Project, Sportful, and all the others, really want to align their brands with repression, intolerance, torture and human rights abuses? Do any of these companies have any kind of corporate conscience, or do they only care about the money? In order to find out, I contacted five bicycles and equipment manufacturers who made the decision to sponsor some of these teams. The silence was deafening. 

The main problem is that pro cycling is a sport with no income, so it relies on sponsorship to survive.

But the cycling public has the opportunity to send a message about its distaste at cycling cosying up to oppressive regimes and the companies that support them. I wonder if any potential Merida or Colnago bike buyers might just think “You know what? I think I’ll buy my bike from a company that doesn’t give my money to torturers.” It should be fairly simple. It’s not as if there’s a huge difference between the dozens of £2000 Ultegra-equipped bikes on the market. Maybe we’ll soon see a #stopfundingtorture campaign.

Dispatch from the desert: the 2018 Abu Dhabi Tour

We all draw our own line when it comes to what is acceptable and what isn’t, and we are all conflicted to some extent. I detest Rupert Murdoch and his evil empire, and I refuse to buy his newspapers, but I still subscribe to Sky TV because I really want to watch football, MotoGP and cycling. I hate myself for it, but I subscribe anyway.

It’s the same with Amazon — a little part of me dies every time I buy something from them, but the cost and convenience sometimes outweigh my distaste. I wish it didn’t, but it does.

This is an extract of an article that was originally published in Rouleur 17.3 under the title ‘Swinging Cycling’s Moral Compass’


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