Comment: Happy birthday, Moreno!

Can cycling maintain its credibility, when so much of its past is tainted?

Words by Edward Pickering

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Cycle SportHappy birthday Moreno!

Retired Italian champion cyclist Moreno Argentin has celebrated his 50th birthday with a widely-reported tirade against modern life in today’s Gazzetta dello Sport.

“I see guys in the group who are mushy, with no personality,” he said.

And don’t get him started on Schleck and Contador: “Contador. He’s completely calculated, a perfect racing car built in the laboratory for one race – the Tour. It does not matter whether or not he has character. He and Schleck are the same. You know how they race, you know where you need to wait for them. They have no imagination, no risk.”

Good old Moreno – if a retired pro can’t criticise the youth of today on the occasion of his half-century, when can he?

But he’s only got this to say on the doping issue: “The cyclists have to stop to rewrite the rules that are crushing them. From the ranking system to the anti-doping rules, with the whereabouts (programme) that makes them look like convicts on parole.”

The whereabouts system might not be very popular with today’s cyclists, but the majority have accepted it as a necessary penance for the sins of their forebears. If doping hadn’t been so rife during the 1990s and well into the 2000s, perhaps the public would have had more trust in the integrity of the sport.

And Argentin seems to have less to say about his own racing days. Perhaps it is just as well.

One of the Italian’s most striking results was the legendary 1-2-3 his Gewiss team achieved in the 1994 Flèche Wallonne. Gewiss were dominant in the first six months of that year – Giorgio Furlan rode away from the peloton to win Milan-San Remo, Evgeni Berzin won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and would go on to beat Miguel Indurain in the Giro, and Piotr Ugroumov came second in the Tour de France with extraordinary performances in the Alps.

But at Flèche Wallonne, Gewiss’s dominance crossed the line into tyranny. Argentin, Furlan and Berzin simply rode away from the field 137 kilometres into the race, riding the next 69 kilometres as a team time trial. Argentin won on the Mur de Huy just ahead of Furlan, while Berzin was 22 seconds down in third. Fourth-placed Gianni Bugno was 1-14 behind. It was unprecedented.

Best team ever? Perhaps not if we look at subsequent events.

I had an interesting time looking back at the June and July 1994 editions of Cycle Sport, which carried reports of Flèche, as well as an early investigation into EPO usage in the peloton.

Following the extraordinary domination by Italian riders in early 1994, a doctor with the Belgian cycling federation, Chris Goessens, told Belgian newspaper Het Belang van Limburg that, to him, the victories “smelt dirty”. At the same time, rumours of EPO usage started to circulate, linked to Gewiss team doctor, the not-quite-yet notorious Michele Ferrari.

Reactions to Goessens’ accusations were immediate and unsupportive. Manuel Fonseca, the president of Spain’s national anti-doping committee, maintained that the Belgian had no proof, but then went on to say that, “with something as hard to detect as EPO, it’s as if we were to prohibit you from having a piss in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Sure, we can prohibit you from doing it, but when it comes to enforcing it…” He left the sentence unfinished.

UCI president Hein Verbruggen also weighed in with an open letter to the cycling press, in which he stressed that the reasons he believed that the Italians had been so successful this season were that they were “well-organised and managed.”

At the time, however, the Flèche result was taken at face value, although Ferrari lost his job after telling L’Equipe that in his opinion, “EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink 10 litres of orange juice.”

But that wasn’t the end. In 1999, an Italian journalist from newspaper La Repubblica, Eugenio Capodacqua, published haematocrit levels alleged to belong to Gewiss riders in 1994 and 1995, coinciding with their period as one of the strongest teams in cycling.

Ugroumov’s haematocrit allegedly jumped from 42.8 per cent at the end of 1994 to 60 per cent in May 1995. Berzin couldn’t quite match that – his allegedly rose from 41.7 per cent to 53 per cent over the same period. Ivan Gotti, who came an incredible fifth in the Tour de France with Gewiss in 1995, allegedly went from 40.7 per cent to 57 per cent. Knowing what we know these days, it’s unlikely these results were achieved naturally.

What does this have to do with Argentin?

The Italian is symbolic of the sport’s continuing difficulty in coming to terms with its past. Many of his peers, like his team mate Bjarne Riis, used performance-enhancing substances, took the money and glory, then built lucrative careers as directeur sportifs or media personalities on the foundation of dishonestly-achieved wins. Some are more willing to possibly break the omerta than others (I have heard from one good source that a DS with a major team was prepared to make his big public confession a couple of years ago, but was warned off doing so by another major figure within the sport). But in general, the fiction is maintained, and the past brushed under the carpet.

Meanwhile, let’s raise a glass to a champion cyclist on the occasion of his 50th birthday, and pretend that cycling’s problems are only in its past.