THE DIRTY GENERATION?

In his interview with Vanity Fair, during which he announced his intention to return to professional cycling next year, Lance Armstrong said something that deserves further analysis.

?There?s this perception in cycling that this generation is now the cleanest generation we?ve had in decades, if not forever. And the generation that I raced with was the dirty generation. And, granted, I?ll be totally honest with you, the year that I won the Tour, many of the guys that got 2nd through 10th, a lot of them are gone. Out. Caught. Positive tests. Suspended. Whatever.? And so I can understand why people look at that and go, Well, [they] were caught ? and you weren?t? So there is a nice element here where I can come with really a completely comprehensive program and there will be no way to cheat.?

It got me thinking about that ?Dirty Generation? and after closer inspection, Armstrong is not wrong. The decade which followed the Festina Affair in 1998 was astonishingly dirty.

The 1998 Tour de France was almost a high-water mark, a race that blew the lid off and exposed the extent to which the culture of doping had taken hold of the sport

But in the years that followed rider after rider tested positive or became embroiled in a doping scandal of one sort or another. And the three grand tours have been particularly badly scarred. Floyd Landis was stripped of his Tour de France title. Roberto Heras of his ?fourth? Vuelta win ? which inevitably casts a shadow over the previous three.

Ivan Basso was implicated in Operacion Puerto before the flowers he was presented on the final podium as winner of the 2006 Giro d?Italia had even died in the vase.

Michael Rasmussen was stopped in his tracks when victory in the 2007 Tour was almost tied up.

The list of grand tour winners sanctioned for doping goes on.

Jan Ullrich, 1999 Vuelta winner, sacked and retired in the wake of Operacion Puerto scandal.

Angel Casero, 2001 Vuelta winner, also named in Operacion Puerto documents, albeit he?d already retired by then.

Aitor Gonzalez, 2002 Vuelta winner, tested positive twice for an anabolic steroid.

Alexandre Vinokourov, 2006 Vuelta winner, tested positive for blood doping the following year.

Stefano Garzelli, 2000 Giro winner, tested positive for probenicid during the 2002 race and was banned.

Danilo Di Luca, 2007 Giro winner, suspended for working with a banned doctor.

And these ?champions? are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more riders who also took what should have been career-defining top ten positions in the most grueling of races, who were caught doping at some point in their careers.

It struck me that perhaps we?ve become desensitized as each positive test packs less of a punch than the last.

By looking back at every grand tour since the Festina Affair, we can unearth some pretty damaging statistics.

If you strike through the names of every rider who has tested positive, served a ban, been linked to a major doping investigation or been sacked by his team over doping allegations at some point in his career, it puts a very different complexion on the race results.

And that?s just looking at the top ten ? it doesn?t take into account the dozens of stages that have been won by riders who have tested positive at one time or other in their careers.

Look at the centenary edition of the Tour de France in 2003, a race that should have been a celebration of all that is great in cycling. Look at the names in the top ten. Ullrich, Vinokourov, Hamilton, Mayo, Basso, Moreau, Mancebo.

Then look at some of the stage winners. Petacchi (banned in 2008), Virenque (banned in 2001), Mayo (positive in 2007), Vinokourov (banned in 2007), Ullrich (Operacion Puerto 2006), Hamilton (banned in 2004), Millar (banned in 2004).

Some celebration.

But that race is nothing unusual. Only since Operacion Puerto, an event that seems to have brought about some actual change, have things started to improve. The biggest change is that riders are being caught during the events and expelled immediately.

Of course listing the top ten results like this will spark many arguments, not least one asking whether it is fair to tarnish a rider?s results prior to or after a positive test. Just because a rider tests positive one year does not mean he doped in earlier or later events, it is true.

But there is still a knock-on effect. The legacy of a positive test is that every result is brought into question. When Vinokourov tested positive in 2007, did it affect the way you viewed his 2006 Vuelta a Espana win?

So, was it, as Armstrong called it, the dirty generation? It certainly looks like it.

Consider this: in the past ten editions of each race there have been 100 top ten positions on offer. In the Vuelta a Espana (1998-2007) 45 per cent of those places have been taken by riders who have served a suspension for a doping offence or been implicated in Operacion Puerto. That doesn?t include riders who have question marks hanging over them. In the same period, the figures for the Giro and Tour are 36 per cent and 41 per cent.

That is a shocking number of discredited riders.

Armstrong says he?s going to subject himself to a transparent anti-doping programme. There will be no opportunity to cheat, he says. There is a word of caution to Armstrong, though, if he returns and beats a cleaner peloton, it will still not prove a thing about 1999 to 2005.

Looking at the list and seeing the names who have shaped the major events is depressing for anyone who truly loves bike racing. There should be some great memories from that decade, but so many are tainted or at the very least shrouded in doubt.

There has been a shift in attitude in professional cycling in the past couple of years. Columbia and Garmin may not be everyone?s cup of tea, but they are the future of cycling, as are any other teams that wish to pronounce themselves clean and subject themselves to fair scrutiny.

Do we really want to turn the clock back?

LINKS

How the shadow of doping has damaged the grand tours in the past decade.

Giro d?Italia 1999-2008

Tour de France 1999-2008

Vuelta a Espana 1998-2007

DOES BRITAIN FINALLY ?GET? CYCLING?

Apart from a few grumbles about the sudden narrowing of the road on the run-in to Newbury, which contributed to a major stack in the peloton, the Tour of Britain was an operational success.

Now in its fifth year, the event seems to have grown up. Far from hoping to go unnoticed and without inconveniencing anyone too much, it took to the roads with a sense of pride and purpose.

Several riders and a team manager noted a subtle change in reaction from the general public too.

The rolling road closure surrounding the race inevitably causes a few minutes’ delay for some motorists in order to allow the bunch safe passage.

Plowman Craven?s manager Garry Beckett said: ?Usually you see the motorists stopped by the side of the road with steam coming out of their ears, but this year they were all out of their cars taking pictures on their phones.?

Russell Downing of Pinarello-Candi TV added: ?I noticed that too. A lot of people were getting out of their cars and taking pictures, whereas usually they just sit there looking dead unhappy at being held up.?

Beckett went on to say: ?The crowds were amazing. When we went through Southport you?d have thought it was the finish line, there were that many people there.?

Olympic success seems to have lifted bike racing on the highway out of the gutter and into the middle of the road in the minds of the general public. Long may it continue.

INDEPENDENT THOUGHT

Amid all the rumours and reports of Cervélo and Katyusha, the two new teams on the block, assembling star-studded line-ups for 2009, I am still waiting for the most important announcement of all.

Who will be running their independent anti-doping programmes?

HOLIDAY FROM HELL

Michael Rasmussen is running a training camp in San Diego on November, offering keen cyclists the chance to ride with him and, as the website says, ?learn from the best?.

The six-day holiday will set each guest back $2,495 (approximately £1,400) and is a reminder that no matter how notorious, there?s still cash to be made from a cycling career ? no matter how it ends.

Rasmussen, remember, is banned from racing until late July 2009, after being handed a two-year ban by the Monaco Cycling Federation for lying about his whereabouts in the run-up to the 2007 Tour de France, which he almost won.

(Let?s gloss over the absurdity of a Danish rider who lives in Italy ? and spends a fair bit of time in Mexico ? being licenced by the Monaco Cycling Federation for a moment.)

Anyway, the pictures on the website show Rasmussen in yellow, arms aloft on the Col d?Aubisque during the 2007 Tour. Unsurprisingly there are no pictures of him being surrounded by the media after being caught out telling lies.

During the six-day training camp, Rasmussen will impart the benefit of his experience and give lectures on life in the peloton and how to climb mountains faster.

I wonder if he will answer any questions about why he felt the need to give duff information to the UCI?s anti-doping department regarding his whereabouts or whether he?ll be willing to discuss the allegations from a friend of his who claimed Rasmussen asked him to transport some human blood substitute from America to Italy in a shoe box.

That would certainly liven up the evening Q&A session.

It is worth remembering that while sporting careers inevitably end, the reputations earned during them are used to continue bringing in the bacon after retirement.

It rankles that Johan Museeuw, a man who admitted ?making a mistake? by using drugs in the final year of his career now uses his name to promote his range of bikes.

PUT THE VUELTA OUT OF ITS MISERY

It?s far too easy to criticise the Vuelta a Espana but this year?s event really has been abysmal.

The race has suffered since being moved from spring to late summer in 1995 and lags well behind the Giro d?Italia in terms of prestige.

And if we thought last year?s race was tedious (until Samuel Sanchez decided to start trying in the second half of the last week), this time has been even worse.

A farcical team time trial in the rain, where most of the teams were more concerned with avoiding a crash than winning, was followed by a week that looked as if they were racing up and down the same bit of highway.

The first mountain stage went unseen because the mist meant the television cameras could not send any pictures to the satellite overhead. Back-to-back wins from Alberto Contador did little to raise any excitement as the race was killed as a contest by the fact his nearest ? and only ? challenger was team-mate, Levi Leipheimer.

Bernard Hinault v Greg LeMond ?86 it ain?t.

Perhaps the only bright spot was the stage win in the mountains for David Moncoutie.

I will watch almost any cycling on television but I turned off Tuesday?s stage through boredom and because it had over-run so late I was in danger of missing Masterchef: The Professionals on BBC2.

ASO must wonder what on earth they have lumbered themselves with, having bought 49 per cent of Unipublic earlier this year. It?s rather like buying a large piece of furniture that looked great in the store, only to get it home and realise it?s totally out of keeping with the rest of the house and is actually a bit useless.

But at least you can sell large pieces of furniture on eBay or chop them up for firewood. What are ASO going to do with the Vuelta?

I used to argue the case for cutting it to a fortnight.

On this year?s evidence, running it from Monday to Friday would probably suffice.

PREVIOUS WEDNESDAY COMMENTS

September 10 ? The Armstrong Edition

September 10 ? The Armstrong-free Edition

Bonus comment ? Why Sevilla, Botero and Hamilton must not start Tour of Britain

September 3 ? Want to be national TT champ and ride the Tour of Britain? Tough, you can?t

August 27 ? Defending Great Britain

August 20 – Gold, gold, glorious gold

August 13 ? Gold rush starts

August 6 ? Team LPR in the Tour of Britain

July 30 ? Assessing the Tour

The Tuesday Comment – January to July 2008