Kafka on Wheels One.
Kafka on wheels, the phrase coined by the doyen of the Spanish cycling media, Carlos Arribas, is a pretty fair description of the state of cycling within which the 2006 Vuelta a España found itself. The race kicked off in the shadow of suspicion and doubt. Like K, la Vuelta was the subject of allegation without detail, nothing positive, just a heavy air of suspicion. Everyone knew something had happened, everyone knew something was happening, everyone knew something was going to happen, but nobody knew exactly what. Everyone had their version, but nobody would say what it was. Whether it was real or not wasn't in issue, all that mattered was that there was suspicion.
In the wake of the 2005 Heras disaster and the subsequent police investigation, sponsors couldn't be found or pulled out. The organisation was forced to slim down and the weekend viewing times were shoved forward to the early afternoon, leaving the bigger moneyed sports to bath in the light of prime time TV. La Vuelta started in the twilight, late one steamy summer afternoon in Malaga. The twilight of a Kafkaesque summer, or more, in which we have yet to have a definitive grand tour winner .....
It started hot, under the twilight skies of Malaga with its beaches lined with restaurants, their fried sardines and anchovies, and their lovely chilled white wine. The days that followed were a furnace, steaming hot, under the Andulacian and Extremadurian sun. Steaming hot as well from the pressure of Operacion Puerto and the post-Tour environment. Suspicion, confusion, doubt were everywhere. When Zabel won the first of his two stages on some self confessed and self produced adrenaline, some wondered aloud whether it was not long before that, along with all pleasure and endorphines, would soon be on the banned list. Nothing in life is black and white, and cycling, like everything else in this life, is simply beyond good and evil.
The Vuelta 2006 – a battle as epic as Stalingrad.
This years Vuelta on its surface had all the overtones of one of history's great battles between good and evil. It was in one way reminiscent of one of military history's great battles and turning point in the fight against the Nazis. Stories passed down to us younger generations, tell of how during the time of the Second World War, people throughout the world sat by radios and waited for newspaper reports of news of this bloody encounter. It was a battle that raged over three separate calendar years, but it was, like the Vuelta, a fight that some believed could be, if won by the forces of good, see a turning point in history.
Whether life can be reduced to good and evil, one things is for sure, the race's three acts, conjure the spectre of the Red Army's fortunes on the eastern Front. Alexandre Vinokourov forced onto the back foot and near defeat in Act One. An intermezzo of wave after wave of attack and counter attack, as the challengers, notably Vino and Alejandro Valverde, firing all they could muster, only managed to further entrench a bloody stalemate. And then, in the final act, wave after wave of devastating Khazak attacks, which finally saw the riders from the East dominate and destroy their opposition, simply through their own will to power, cunning and strength.
Kafka on Wheels Two.
Kafka on Wheels most certainly. Astana the team, not the company, nor the city, is dragged in as many directions as the compass holds. On the road it seems that Vino and Kashechkin ride the pointy ends of the race without any team support. Of the road you wonder if some of their support are sometimes the type that you would better off without.
After Vino disassociated himself from Manolo Saiz, he strengthened his ties with one of the east's growing economies, the State of Kazakhstan and its industrial powerhouses. He looked to Tony Rominger for advice and to negotiate the team's Pro Tour licence. He contacted his ex team Telekom director, Walter Godefroot, and asked him to come out of retirement in order to take over the helm in 2007.
Rominger, seems to be intent on signing all those that he manges, the stories abound, Kloden, as co-leader, Santi Perez back from two years off for, they say, having his blood confused with Tyler's, who of course, he says, had his blood confused with that of his vanishing twin. It is not at all clear that Vino wants to go back to the old days of T-Mobiles confused leadership, where he always played second or Third fiddle to Jan or Klodie, whilst being acknowledges by Armstrong as, the dangerous one.
In another direction Astana is being pulled by the followers, or they say, those indebted to or simply just need Manolo Saiz. They say they are holding out the hope that the Spanish police and judiciary will quietly put their files away in a back room and let them start anew. That it is all a part of a conspiracy against Manolo, some say, for setting up the Pro Tour. Old Liberty riders, not in the race, have been told to keep their mouths firmly shut if they want a job in the future. it was a team which throughout the race was two or maybe three teams all going in different directions at once. Whether this was a factor on the bike as well, we just don't know, but when it mattered the others massed like Banesto, ONCE or US Postal of old, the Khazaks roamed like a two man wolf pack, wild nomads of the steppes, always ready to bite at the heels of the favourites and their praetorian guards.
When Neil Stephens, for now Astana's second in charge on the road, was asked if he was “staying with this mob next year?” His response was “depends who you mean by this mob?” Or maybe, what you mean by the mob? Stevo, a loyal Saiz stalwart, is one of a few who, they say, are putting their bets on the police forgetting about it all. Or than Saiz was just a client, nothing more than a client of the evil doctors.
Astana a team that might next year be one, or two, both or neither with a Pro Tour license. Astana, a team whose liberty is in no way secured. But for now is being driven by the mighty cossacks in their quest to break free of decadent Europe's clutches. Where they go, if they go, well it all depends on The Trial. But which trial is that? The one is Spain, in The hague, in Switzerland or in Astana - a myriad of legal investigations, prosecutions, appeals and disputes in overlapping jurisdictions, blood law, human rights law, company law, team licensing law, drug trafficking and health and pharmaceutical law. Simply more Kafka on Wheels.
But maybe, just as Kafka himself thought, the solution is not one of more law and lawyers from above, but in fact a greater sense of ethics from below.
The Hope of Braver Souls.
There are some brave souls who are willing to speak. Rabobank's Pedro Horrillo, former bike courier and philosophy student, was brave enough to try and jump the peloton in the race's final kilometre in Madrid. Unfortunately, he was only to be run down by Zabel's disciplined train. In the winter you can often see Pedro heading out of town on his mountain bike, with a backpack of full of books, looking for a quite place to read and to ponder the world. So it wasn't surprising that as the race headed out of Malaga, it was philosopher Pedro who was brave enough and happy enough to lay his cards on the table.
In June he took on the role of the peloton's spokesperson at the Spanish National Champs when the riders decided against proceeding as a protest at them becoming the focus of criminal investigation. Pedro doesn't deny a problem, but he is not fond of the strong arm tactics of the police, or for that matter like most, the UCI Vampire wake up calls after 200 kms in 40 plus degree heat. At the moment he is one of the few with the courage and the where with all, to discuss the situation facing cycling in an intelligent and considered manner. He made it it clear that this year's Vuelta was a chance for everybody involved in cycling to make a fresh start. During the race he noted that the days were long and hard, but that some of the incredible craziness of the recent past seemed to have disappeared- thanks he thought to the repercussions of Operacion Puerto.
Recognising that the problem facing the sport was more than a few bad apples, and that the solution requires more than that the heads of a few scapegoats to roll, Pedro called for everyone involved throughout the machine of the cycling industry to end the lies about what really goes on. And it is a problem that won't be solved by simple calls for riders to stop cheating or being clean. Nor will it be solved by criminalising those caught in the machine, or dragging them out of bed at 6 am to await the taking of blood. In Malaga, he said that this Vuelta was a chance for the peloton, and for the cycling industry as a whole, to either win back or lose the love and admiration of the fans forever.
And as if to highlight the current loneliness of the sport, as he rode in 43 degree heat, across the sparse and uninhabited landscape of Extremadura - a landscape that reminds one of being on a solo training ride out somewhere between Bourke and Longreach; he pretended that the stumpy scrub that he could see was really thousands of excited fans whose faith in the sport had been finally restored
Whilst Pedro is not alone, his bravery is still not that of the majority. During those early days of La Vuelta there was much talk of a new start for cycling. Those implicated in Operacion Puerto off the race continued the denials. And the cone of silence still falls wide and heavy over cycling. The calls for a cleaning out of the cheats and their bodies continued, but at times they seemed like mock outrage, the outrage of those in the know, but with a firm eye on the future funding of the sport. Sometimes there just seems to be too many careers, too many companies and too many families and lives that fear what a new age might bring.
Kafka on Wheels Three.
One step forward , three steps back. What an upside down world it is. La Vuelta finished on the streets of Madrid, with the weather starting to turn to autumn. Spain had succumb, just as a degenerate Europe of old had, to wave after wave of assaults from the Cossacks and Tartars of the East. This time the Cossacks came wielding new metals and technology, they came riding carbon fibre horses, one of them hastily painted gold, but they were still ferocious and they still carried their ancient banner to the summit. But still the old ways tried to reassert themselves and claim their place in this new world.
Basking in the autumn light at the start of the final stage, still indignant and unrepentant, still loudly proclaiming his innocence on procedural grounds, was none other than Floyd Landis. Parading himself proudly, accompanied, as always these days, by his mate and rapid recovery adviser, Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero they visited their (now ex?) Phonak teammates and then paid homage to the Cossacks. Landis and his fixer mate, the style merchant, Perdi. Some say they should be regarded as the two, as much as many others, who have put us where we are today. Floyd Landis, smiling, mouthing the lines “I have nothing to hide”, quickly following it up with that of the defendant: “My lawyers have stated that I should make no further comment”. Perdi, mute, playboy glasses, strutting the bantam rooster walk of a man who like so many in the industry think they are untouchable.
Noone is Indispensable.
When the stage to la Covatilla was planned it was meant to be a tribute to the then Vuelta patron. Now it seems like a tribute to something else. And Heras is never seen, never speaks. Heras the Hermit is somewhere around here, holed up, until who knows when.
The banner at the foot of La Covatilla says "A Vuelta without Heras is like a bike without wheels". Pedro Horrillo thinks that ... well in reality nobody is indispensable. Everyone in this world lives a precarious existence. La Covatilla, the first grand encounter, and Perdiguero, confident of Landis at Phonak and not the machine he was not so long ago, climbs off, symbolically at the foot.
The pressure, the continual dope tests, the hypocrisy "I've had enough" he claims. Perdi who had helped Aitor Gonzalez move closer to victory here four years ago, Perdi, who had advised Landis on how to recover after cracking on Stage 16 of this year's Tour, Perdi who had helped so many others make their mark on La Covatilla's slopes: Santi Blanco, Aitor Gonzalez, Santi Perez, Oscar Sevilla,, and of course, Roberto Heras.
When asked if cycling was able to emerge from the Operacion Puerto and Landis scandals, Stuart 'Grady responded told Bicycling Australia that “Well I think we are. Of course we are going to come out of it, it's just that there is a few heads that need to roll and it's hard for cycling short term, but it's definitely good long term...
O'Grady thinks that one of the problems facing cycling and the reason for the sport being under the thumb more than any other at the moment is a result of there being “too much money involved in football and athletics and you know cycling is the easy target. It is the anyperson's sport, and it is not a rich sport, so it is the easy one to target”.
He continued saying that “it's obviously that there are people in all walks of life, in a job, or whatever, you know who decide to cheat, you are always going to have cheats in the world, you are never going to get rid of that.” He believes that some riders are still “trying to beat the system, so I guess that's cheating, people looking for the easy way out, people looking for more money, there's people looking for fame, there are too many reasons ,and now you know sport is such a big business, and people are prepared to take the risks ... they are not getting hard enough consequences, the consequences are not tough enough ... I mean if someone goes positive, it should be a life ban, your out of the sport ... then you would have a lot less people playing Russian roulette.”