Friday, January 30, 2009

A conversation with Pedro Delgado - Part II

By Martin Hardie

Posted Nov. 22, 2006

You may not agree with him, but you can't accuse 1988 Tour de France winner Pedro Delgado of being shy about stating his opinions regarding the sport in which he made his living. Now a cycling commentator for Spanish national television, Delgado still works in and around cycling and he often doesn’t like what he sees.

In this the second of a two-part interview with VeloNews contributor Martin Hardie, Delgado discusses the dynamics of a sport long dominated by a pair of dominant riders – Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong – and of the doping scandals now enveloping the upper reaches of the peloton.(See Part One of a conversation with Pedro Delgado

VN: On the subject of giving advice, what did you say to Oscar Pereiro before stage 16 of the 2006 Tour de France?

PD: I told Oscar that he had to attack going downhill and win going downhill, not just going uphill! In the era of Armstrong or Indurain, in a time when you have a great dominator, their rivals often think that because he was always a better climber or a better time trialist, the race was over from the start. That’s a fallacy.

In cycling there are the downhills as well. The race is in the feed zones, on the downhills, these are the places to attack. In my time, we lived under a constant tension; the race was always on the edge. Laurent Fignon would attack in the feed zones, he would always try to fan the race out in the wind by making echelons, and he would attack on any day. Stephan Roche was another. He was one that would often attack going downhill. Everyone and anyone would attack at any time and at any place.

Now this is not the case. It is like a rule that has been established – you make your time in the time trials or in climbing the mountains, and the rest of the race is simply of no interest to the greats, to those who are in contention.

So I said to Oscar “Hey, no one is attacking!”

Most people who know cycling well think that in recent times that it was Ullrich who was the strongest, that he was a better racer than Lance Armstrong. But why did Armstrong always win over Ullrich? Because of the head – he had a better head.

“You might beat me here or there,” he would say, but he always had the better head. Ullrich is very linear. He thought that Armstrong was better in the time trials and in the mountains. That’s why Ullrich always thought of himself as the runner up. If he attacked it was going uphill, but why not going down? Why not 80 kilometers from the finish? A rider as strong as Ullrich can do that. Why didn't he do it?

So, I spoke to Oscar and I said “the mountains are very long going up, but they are also very long going down. I don't think anyone is going to attack going up the mountains, so take the advantage on the descents. Get yourself a teammate on the front and go strong and very hard downhill, and you sit behind him and eat and drink, just worry about that, eating and drinking.”

Often, this is the key and for this reason it makes people angry as well. For example in the time of Indurain, Claudio Chiappucci was the rider that liked to attack on the descents, and it was always without warning. On the other hand, his great rival, Gianni Bugno, always gave up, such that if after the first time trial Indurain had a one-minute advantage, Bugno essentially conceded the race. That’s why the Tour de France was as predictable as it was in the time of Indurain and Armstrong. Riders often surrendered after the first time trial. There was no reason to allow that to happen.

Oscar is a rider who loves to attack, who thrives on this style of cycling. That’s why I told him what I did.

“Oscar take advantage of the descents on the mountains because tomorrow (Stage 16) they are much more important and crucial than the climbs,” I told him.

This was the day that Landis cracked.

VN: So we now know the story, or we saw the initial results, with Oscar and his team driving so hard on the descents, Landis didn't have time to eat and then cracked on the final climb. Is the start of a change in cycling? Are we going to see more of that in the future?

PD: In cycling, the champion — the patron — sets the style of racing. We are at a point where the peloton has no real patron, and so we don't know what the style of racing will be. There is no patron to place his mark on the peloton through his style. In the time of Pantani, or in my time, we tried to make time, to increase the gaps, on the climbs. Now the likes of Vinokourov and Valverde have to try and make their gaps attacking, and to do this successfully you have to have a certain profile, to attack at this level you have to have a certain capacity, both physically and mentally.

VN: The 2006 Tour, unfortunately, is marked by scandal; Operación Puerto at the start and the Landis positive at the end. On one side I see an increasing denial by those in the sport that there is a problem of any sort. The so-called code of silence plays into that. On the other hand, forces outside of cycling — the IOC, WADA and governments, for example — seem hell bent on bringing it “under control.” How do you regard the issue?

PD: Firstly, I think there is a problem with doping in cycling simply because the cyclists don't know how to deal with it or how to confront the issues. That is to say, doping is there, as it is throughout society. It is alcohol, it is new medicines, and it is in all sports.

Many say cycling is very tough and it is for this reason cyclists dope. That is simply false, it’s a lie. If this was the case then why does a sports person who runs 100 meters also dope? Why do people dope? It is not a question of physical force or exertion, of how tough the sport is. It is a matter tied to the fact that everyone wants to improve. They want a short-cut. People get tired, they get worn out: “I'm tired, I'm sleepy – I'll have a coffee.” It’s a short-cut. And the desire for that is something normal in people.

In Spain we say the problem is in the hombre blanco, — in general — in the making of rules for a general situation. We make rules and laws and at times those rules are not adequate to serve their purpose in an everyday actual situation. We have doping rules in cycling, but are they realistic? To start with, the list of prohibited substances is too big. It is far too big in fact.

There is a problem, but it is one that that no one wants to tackle. The cyclist, the high level sports person of whatever sport, is a person like any other. Why can't they get sick? We all get sick sometime. But for example the problem does not take this into account, the list is so big, and the powers of intervention now so great, that the moment the police enter your house and look in your fridge you become a criminal. It doesn't really seem to matter whether what they found is for a child, your family or for the athlete. And it doesn't seem to matter if the sports person needs it for their health.

The problem is also with the cyclists. The problem of doping has grown so large because cyclists have allowed it to grow. They have permitted so many things to be done in the cause of dignifying their names. In an effort to comply with some artificial standard of “cleanliness” in the eyes of society, they have allowed so much to happen, that it has come back on top of them, it has come back to haunt them.

Doping will always exist, but why does nothing happen in other sports, in football for example? Because if something like that happened in football, the athletes would stop playing, the players would go on strike and La Liga would stop. In tennis, the situation would never get to the point it has in cycling because the top thirty players would just refuse to play tournaments. If the top 30 don't play there would be no tournaments. They would just go on strike. In these sports they accept controls, but reasonable ones. Nobody enters into the homes of tennis players, or football players, nobody wakes them up at 6 a.m. to take their blood before a 200 kilometer race, as happens in cycling.

So on one hand, with all the controls the cyclists have permitted, they have allowed this situation to come about. They have allowed the creation of a problem that has just kept getting bigger and bigger. Many people are currently talking about Operación Puerto and this is partly to blame for the current situation, but isn't it also reasonable that the cyclists seek to place the management of their health and its maintenance and the improvement of their performance in the hands of a professional?

Surely this is a better situation than that which existed in the past. Isn’t it better than self-medication by sports people? In the past there were a few gurus around and they gave out assistance to people, and they put lives in danger. The problem is that now cyclists and others are placing there trust in medical professionals and if they can't do that who can they trust in? But as we know we find good and bad doctors, even in a hospital.

The great change in cycling or in doping between my time and now is that then there were as I have said, a few gurus, who didn't really have any knowledge of the cause and effect of what they dealt out. Now you have professional medical people who give some advice on these things. Professional advice as to what happens when you take something. Before, if you took amphetamines, for example, you knew that one tablet had an effect. If you took two, you presumed the effect would double, and if you took three, triple.... it was barbarous.

Now the medico can advise you that you only need a certain level and beyond that you are not gaining any advantage, and possibly a disadvantage. Like if I drink, I don't feel better, the effect is not better, the more I drink – it doesn't help me to drink too much. Now that the dosages are under medical supervision only the minimum is provided, whatever it is, vitamins or whatever.

VN: I agree that we have always had doping, from the earliest times, Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome have their stories of how sports people prepared for competition, what they took, the ethics that attached to it and from whom they gained advice.

PD: Yes, and the problem is that cyclists have not stood up and said enough is enough. The problem is that the cyclists are not united enough to stand up and demand a more reasonable and realistic situation. So everything just goes from bad to worse, all of the time.

For example some people try to justify their position by saying that a blood transfusion is dangerous. But in hospitals they do blood transfusions every day and nobody dies of that. So why can't a medical professional do a blood transfusion? Because it is prohibited! But this is a different thing! If done properly, a blood transfusion is not going to put your life in danger. But now these finer areas are covered over with too many rules.

Doping should be regarded as a problem at the point in which a rider’s health and life is put in danger. Doping should commence at this point, with the question – is the sports person's life being placed in danger? But at the moment this is not the case – all we have is just rules, rules and more rules. With rules, for example with the speed limit on the roads, these things are set by laws and they change, if you get into trouble it is because you have broken a rule – not because you have put someone at risk. It is because of this hombre blanco that we have made all these rules and it is this same hombre blanco that now comes back and threatens us.

VN: Some say what sport – and society in general - need are ethics.

PD: More responsibility. The problem is that nobody is prepared to take responsibility for the situation. I could say many things, wild things and the truth, but it is not going to fix anything because there is no middle ground that gives anyone a way out in relation to the issue of doping.

I don't see anyone out there in the world of cycling who wants to resolve the “problem.” There is nobody who has a position that is capable of coming together with the any other position. I don't see any coordinated or common position being developed to confront the problem. The cyclists – and their teams – continue to be the biggest losers.

VN: Do you see a post-Festina model in relation to this? It seems now that teams tacitly encourage riders to dope, but if it is revealed it is only the cyclists that are fault. This way, team managers can seek to protect the investment of sponsors. For the cyclists the risk is such that if they don’t dope, they risk sub-par performances, yet if they are caught and dirty the clean name of team and sponsor they are out on the street.

PD: Yes, that is true, you see now it has got to the point where it no longer even has anything to do with testing or being positive. At this point, everything is based solely on suspicion! It’s now to the point where the cyclists don’t even react. I don't understand. I think there was a point, after Festina, which was a really tough moment for cycling, but at least I saw some unity then. This year, at the start of the Tour, with the expulsion of Basso and Ullrich and others, I thought that the teams could have been - should have been – standing together, at the frontline, but nobody wanted to know anything. The teams, they just kicked the riders out.

VN: It was strange to see directors react as if they had no idea what the riders had been doing. Think of Bjarne Riis, who just stood there and said it wasn't his fault; that he had no knowledge.

PD: It is not just that. There is a real double standard at work. It is better to say that this is an issue that affects everyone in cycling. This is not a problem confined to only a few “bad” people. The issue affects everyone, especially the riders. Look at Phonak. Here was a team that was set to continue with E-Shares, but the problem blows up and the team disappears within a week.

So Riis as a director knew that eventually the problem could land on his doorstep, too. He was worried about keeping a sponsor insulated from the problem. But rather than collaborating with others, collaborating to draw a line, with which it would be possible to work together to find a solution, he did what he did. Instead of working to solve the problem, he and T-Mobile just kicked the riders out.

In my view, some directors are just millionaire chauffeurs. Others, like Manolo Saiz, argue that the problem is the small teams, which is a lie. As I said it is a problem of responsibility.

VN:Given the outcome of the Tour this year, do you regard Oscar Pereiro as the winner of the Tour? In a sense, one asks where is the law or lore of cycling made? On or off the road?

PD: It is always on the road. The fastest today is number one. You are the fastest or you are nothing. But there are sports and there are times in which the best doesn't necessarily win.

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