It's the cycling journalist's Groundhog Day dilemma: you meet a rider, interview him, he's thoroughly personable, you want to like him, yet all the while his voice is competing with an inner cynic which won't give you peace. "What, this guy? This schmuck?" it's saying. "You don't seriously think he's for real, do you? Might as well have 'doper' written on his forehead. Don't know why you're giving him the time of day…."
Almost exactly three years ago, I had precisely this experience with Ondrej Sosenka. It was the night before the world championship road race in Madrid, and three months earlier Sosenka had soared out of obscurity to break Chris Boardman's 49.441km world hour record in Moscow with 49.700km. And that, in many ways, was my problem; three months earlier, I'd barely heard of the guy, and I was far from the only one. There was also the fact Sosenka had failed a haematocrit test at the 2001 Peace Race (a result of dehydration, he swore to me in Madrid). His coach and doctor, the Italian Daniele Tarsi, was the subject of numerous rumours and the odd police dossier. Sosenka's former team, the Polish CCC outfit, had a similarly dubious reputation….
It took three years for everyone's well-founded fears to be realised. Last week, for pretty much the first time since his finest hour, but maybe not the sport's, in Moscow, Sosenka returned to prominence when it was announced that he had tested positive for methamphetamine , or crystal meth, at the Czech time trial championships earlier in the summer. That's right, crystal meth. This stuff.
Now, we have to be careful. Sosenka's B sample may yet come back negative. He might appeal. Whether he's guilty or not, though, we can already assert with some certainty that this ugly saga is an allegory for the decline of what was, until a decade ago, one of cycling's most sacred contests.
Take a look down the list of previous hour record holders. Go on, try it. Henri Desgrange, Lucien Petit-Breton, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurarin…is there anyone missing? Perhaps Bernard Hinault and Lance Armstrong. But that's it. If the prestige of an event can be judged by the quality of its palmares, the hour record is a monument of cycling which ought to be protected with no less zeal than, say, the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix.
Sadly, the allegory began with the UCI's misguided decision to not only stop but rewind technological progress in 2000. The sport's lawmakers in Switzerland deemed that arguably the most exciting period in the event's history, the early and mid-nineties, had effectively seen the hour record reduced to an "arms race" where aerodynamics and bike technology were starting to outweigh human endurance. They believed that the trend had begun after Eddy Merckx set his mark of 49.431km in 1972, and that, technologically-speaking, the clocks ought to be reset to that era. In came round-section tubes, triangular frames, out went aero helmets, bars and disc wheels.
You might say it was a noble idea, but it was also a pretty foolish one. Overnight, bike and component manufacturers who had funded and promoted record attempts in the past lost interest in trying to cajole riders into an hour of self-inflicted agony. Gone was a wonderful, unique platform for them to test and publicize their wares. Gone, too, was the drama of a rider unveiling a new bike or position to take him where no cyclist had gone before. With the new rules, Graeme Obree and his eggs and supermen and bottom bracket fashioned from a washing machine would never have made it onto the track.
The UCI seemed to wake up one morning and forget that the "C" in their name stood for "cycling" not "cyclists". They seemed to forget that bikes, and by extension technology, are an integral part of cycling and its appeal. I had this conversation with Greg LeMond about a year ago.
"This comes back to the UCI, and I just think that whoever's the braintrust there has no brains," he told me. "You have to keep in mind what cycling is about, and that is the bike and the human working together. We made great improvements on bikes and technology all the way through the 1980s, and to an extent into the '90s, then Graeme Obree went too far in their opinion, and they decided it was time to protect the old guard.
"Aerodynamics has gone backwards," LeMond continued. "I just get enraged that the UCI was enforcing stupid rules with Graeme Obree when they had a massive doping problem on their hands and should have been attending to that…"
It's ironic, given Sosenka's fate, that LeMond should have mentioned doping, but it occurs to me now that the Czech's positive test could be the ideal excuse for a rethink at UCI HQ. Scrap the new rules, let the aerodynamics geeks off their leashes, and I'm sure we could see riders like Fabian Cancellara, David Millar and Michael Rogers finally following through on the their vague musings about one day taking on the hour.
Do nothing, on the other hand, and I'm afraid that it'll be a long time before anyone wipes Ondrej Sosenka's name, and with it a layer of disrepute, off a roll of honour which frankly deserves better.