The Column: Actually, we do need to talk about doping

We need to talk about doping.

Not particularly because Nairo Quintana’s room was raided at the Tour de France.

Nor, particularly, because this week saw further revelations about Operation Aderlass.

Not even, particularly, now more than any other time.

For a good few years the prevailing culture within the peloton has been one of anti-doping. That represents a sea change from a generation ago when, at best, most riders turned a blind eye to it; at worst actively persecuted those who spoke out against it.

That doesn’t mean doping has been stamped out entirely, but that it can no longer be undertaken with the impunity that was once possible. What is also now widely believed to be possible is for the biggest races in the world to be won by a clean rider. For a long time, it wasn’t.

EF Boss Jonathan Vaughters has been a pretty good spokesperson for this culture shift:

“Can a clean rider win the biggest race in the world? Yes,” he says. “I’m not saying every big race is being won by a clean athlete but it’s certainly possible. And I think it happens more often than not.”

That may not sound like a huge thing but it’s the difference between being, on balance, able to trust what we’re watching or not.

(That said, given the state of the kit he signed his team off to wear at the Giro, someone should probably request the EF boss pee into a cup himself. Just to be safe.)

This culture, however, is not self-reinforcing, or self-sustaining. It takes regular inputs, efforts and systematic reminders that doping is cheating, and cheating will not be tolerated.

Because every season a new class of riders graduate to the WorldTour. Some of those won’t have even been riding their bikes when the problem was at its worst, will at best have a theoretical understanding of how much better it is now than then. At the same time, each year a number of riders retire who were there, and we inevitably lose some of the shared memory of the bad old days.

Those inputs include us (fans) raising the subject from time to time, as well as us (journalists) asking questions of the riders, no matter how comfortable doing so might make us - or the riders themselves - feel. 

Some in the media disagree that it’s appropriate to raise the subject of doping in a press conference. During the Tour, Michael Rasmussen referred to one example of this as “stupid and indecent” while another journalist went as far as calling it cycling’s equivalent of McCarthyism.

There needs to be an understanding that to ask a rider “if there is anything to worry about in terms of his credibility” is not to insinuate that there is, or to be taken as an accusation of malfeasance towards him (or her). Which is why no-one should feel uncomfortable about it.

Arguably it would add to the moral weight on a guilty culprit because, as Lance Armstrong (of all people) says in the recent documentary on him: “The only way you can dope and be honest is if nobody ever asks you.”

Lying about the crime isn't necessarily easier than committing it in the first place.

It’s not as simple as “if you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing” to fear, but anyone with nothing to hide will understand why it needs to be asked. And there are plenty of riders who actively want it to be asked - Andre Greipel, for one. At the very least, getting a denial on the record serves to remind everyone (riders, teams, media, fans) that we want the sport to be as clean as possible.

Yes, it relies on maintaining a certain amount of scepticism towards what we’re watching, but if we know the sport will never be 100 per cent clean, we should probably never be 10 per cent trusting of it, either. That’s a healthy, not an unhealthy position to take, and there’s no reason for it to detract from our enjoyment of the sport.

So really, it’s not so much that we need to start talking about it as we need to make sure we don’t ever completely stop talking about doping. It’s not about looking at an “incredible” performance and going witch hunting, it’s about guarding against complacency. What’s unreasonable about that?

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