Most of us know what it’s like to be lied to, but cycling journalists are more familiar with the feeling than most. Consider this anecdote….
On the second morning of the 2006 Tour de France, I spent maybe 15 minutes talking on and off the record to one member of the T-Mobile team’s medical staff about Jan Ullrich, his ejection from the race due to his links with Eufemiano Fuentes, and above all the difficulty of detecting blood transfusions. Maintaining eye-contact, the doctor in question told me that he was shocked about Ullrich, that only a foolhardy athlete would try something as risky as a blood transfusion, and, hopefully, a new test being developed in German might soon make the technique detectable and, therefore, obsolete.
Right. Now imagine my reaction this week when I read former T-Mobile racer Patrick Sinkewitz’s interview with Der Spiegel, and more specifically the bit about him driving from Strasbourg to Freiburg for a blood transfusion after stage one of the 2006 Tour. That’s right, do the mental calculation I did yesterday, and tell me what your conclusion is. Because mine was that the very same doctor who had been wringing his hands about blood transfusions in the morning was probably, well, getting them dirty with Patrick Sinkewitz’s red cells in Freiburg that very evening. Or at least he would have been had there not been a problem with the two bags of blood Sinkewitz had been saving for the special occasion.
Now, this might surprise you, but if the doctor in question did tell me fibs in Strasbourg – or was at least, very, very economical with the truth – it doesn’t really bother me on a personal level. I actually liked the guy then and don’t believe that he’s become Satan’s offspring overnight. That’s one of the difficulties with doping; it’s not the straightforward world of cartoon heroes and villains that people sometimes like to believe.
What concerns me much more is that, as I write this, T-Mobile’s sponsorship czars are sitting at a boardroom table in Bonn wondering how much further their own patience will stretch. Already in the past 15 months, they’ve held four installments of crisis talks about their estimated 15 million-euro annual investment, and on each occasion they’ve decided that the team masterminded with aplomb by American businessman Bob Stapleton deserves another chance. It’s in hope more than in expectation that we wait for their verdict the fifth time around.
But the question you have to ask yourself is: what basis for long-term investment and long-term confidence in this sport is there if you never know when the lies will stop coming? When you have doctors puffing their cheeks about blood transfusions, then having the bloody cheek to go off and perform one the same evening, how can you possibly keep the faith? And faith in what? Because while we all love and believe in cycling, we’re simply beyond the point where we can put our trust in men who seem even more addicted to deceit than they are to drugs.
I don’t know what the answer is and, neither, I suppose, do you. What I do know is that these people need to start growing up a little bit. Children tell lies; when you become an adult, and especially when the stakes ride as high as they currently are in cycling, you need to stop, for your own sake as well as everyone else’s. It’s quite straightforward but it also takes some courage. And given the precedents, I’m afraid I’m not optimistic…