Friday, May 18, 2007

Taking one for the team?

Professional cycling has had its share of doping scandals. It might even be fair to say it has had a disproportionate amount. Be that as it may, as long as a road will handle more than one bike at a time (and they all will) someone somewhere is going to race them. Humanity's competitive nature that has resulted from millions of years of evolution ensures this.

Professional bike racing is a uniquely beautiful sport. The uniforms are colorful, the bikes technologically interesting, and the scenery for the competition is unrivaled. Lost on many lay people, or even sophisticated sports fans is the cornerstone of the sport - the team tactics. While there are many ways to race a bike, the most well-known and obvious way, against a clock - the team race is most prevalent. Over a long course (usually over a hundred miles for a "stage") many riders on a team will cooperate to place their leader either on that "stage win" or to gain as much time collectively over the many "stages" in a longer event (the general classification, or "GC.") The cooperation springs from the very basic concept that when riding a bike, most of the energy expended to to overcome the wind resistance working against any rider. Slip in behind a team mate, let him "take the wind" and his/her energy is transferred to the person in back doing the drafting. The drafting rider rests, conserves energy until wither the sprint to the line, or to use when the course dictates a place to "break away" from all the other riders. Some teams prefer to transfer the burden of defending a lead to other teams, preferring to make a final push at the end for the final victory. Exciting stuff, fun to watch, and tactically very interesting.

In some kinds of bike racing, triathlon most prominently, drafting is illegal. "Stealing" the advantage by drafting is considered cheating, not tactics. All professional bike racing done under the guise of an Olympic endeavor is done with a strict doping code as well. Use of performance enhancing drugs, as determined by a governmental body, is cheating. When that cheating occurs, the user of the PEDs is disqualified, and usually given penalties beyond the loss of the race. Athletes that win are tested as a matter of course, and all competitors are tested randomly, in and out of competition. Testing is expensive and of course, subject to error.

Given that cycling is essentially a team sport, what could or should happen if a team integrates the use of PEDs into a team strategy, knowingly or unknowingly? In other words, what happens to the team result if one team member dopes? Put a doper out front, transfer his/her energy to the team leader in early stages, and drop back later. The team leader gains the advantage, the doper is less likely to get caught, as only the random checks might turn up the dope. Should this taint a champions win? Certainly if done knowingly, but what about unknowingly?

Lest we think of this as idle speculation, there is evidence it has been done, presumably unknowingly. Frank Andreu admitted to doping in the 1999 season while on the US Postal team for Lance Armstrong's first Tour de France win. Does this mean Armstrong was the beneficiary of "ill-gotten booty"; benefited from the effects of PEDs? In the context of another sport, what should be done to the team record if Barry Bonds is demonstrated to have used PEDs to break the home run record? Delete those runs from the scoreboard, and award the win to the other team? Sport doesn't really work like that.

Could it get more complicated? Sure. Remember that in pursuing the GC win at the 2006 Tour de France, Floyd Landis and his team decided to "give away" the yellow jersey (race lead) for a few stages before the end. This is a valid and common race tactic. The leading team has a responsibility to defend, to chase breakaways, to expend more energy they might be able to maintain, to make it easier on the chasing team in the long run - in this case, Phonak and Landis. (Indeed, this tactic was employed with great success in the 2004 TdF by Lance Armstrong and the US Postal team, placing Thomas Volkler into yellow early in the tour, making Volkler something of a French national hero that summer.) In 2006, Landis and Phonak chose Oscar Periero, and let Periero gain nearly 30 minutes back in one stage, moving in to the lead for several stages. "...we like him..." Landis explained. While there is nothing overtly sinister in this, consider the result: the winner, Landis, chose his runner up. If disqualified, should his choice for second place also be disqualified? (Even stranger still, Periero is now accused of being involved in "Operacion Puerto" a doping scandal of epic proportion.) If the win was a result of the the use of PEDs, shouldn't the all the consequences of that cheating be eliminated? Ironically, the organizers of the 2006 Tour de France tried to prospectively avoid this result by forcing teams to disqualify riders implicated in Operation Puerto *before* the race.

Could or should the rules reach this far? Cycling is certainly not alone with a drug problem, but it has done more than other sports. Are the rules we put in place illusory? Do they really prohibit unfair competition?