What did we actually learn from the CIRC report?

Behind the headlines, and the inevitable flaws, lies a surprisingly nuanced and significant step forward in the eternal fight against cheats in our sport

The headlines following the publication of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC)’s report were easy.

‘Doping culture still exists,’ said the BBC. ‘UCI criticised in new report’; ‘Ninety percent of cyclists still dope, says respected rider’; ‘Doping in cycling still commonplace’, were others.

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The devil is in the detail, of course, but one frustration of the CIRC report is that a lot of the detail is maddeningly vague and speculative, with sweeping statements about the state of the sport – inevitable but not necessarily entirely accurate when reliant on so few sources. That is the major disappointment – realising just how many people did not speak to the CIRC, for whatever reason. David Millar, who says he does not recognise the picture painted of the sport as it exists today, explained on Twitter that he and the CIRC tried to meet, but couldn’t, saying the blame should be evenly shared.

There are other prominent names missing, though it is possible that some did speak and requested anonymity (Chris Froome is the only named active rider).

Chris Froome poses before the 2014 Tour de France

Chris Froome confirmed before publication that he had spoken to the CIRC

But there was a striking juxtaposition on Monday morning between the scene in Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse, where teams assembled for stage one of Paris-Nice, and the doom-laden headlines that followed the publication of the report, as though the two were entirely unconnected.

Riders and team staff at Paris-Nice totalled around 400 people – how many were among the 174 who spoke to CIRC in their 13-month investigation? And why not – was it a diary problem, as in the case of Millar, an unwillingness to speak, or lack of faith in the investigation?

>>> CIRC report says UCI hindered anti-doping efforts

It is in the nature of these things that the odd line will jump out and make headlines, and also that we do not apply scepticism evenly. Credence is given to the unnamed but ‘highly respected’ rider who said that he (or she) thinks ninety per cent of the peloton is still doping, and to the claims made by those who spoke to CIRC in an effort – as the report acknowledges – to reduce their own punishments.

The small pool of sources is a recurring problem; elsewhere in the report it is said that, “In one rider’s opinion, 90% of TUEs [therapeutic use exemptions] were used for performance-enhancing purposes,” and you couldn’t help but wonder whether the source of the two ‘ninety per cent’ claims was the same rider.

Brian Cookson, Track World Cup 2013-14, Manchester

UCI president Brian Cookson has been commended for commissioning the report

The report acknowledges some ambiguity in the question of doping, and that different people – and perhaps different places – have different definitions. It mentions products that are not on the banned list and says: “the CIRC has been told that the administration of some of these substances has the sole purpose of performance enhancement.”

Well, of course. Everything an athlete does is to enhance his or her performance: performance enhancement per se is not illegal. But the serious point here is that if a product is not banned, is it doping?

>>> Lance Armstrong praises CIRC anti-doping report

Although there are shortcomings, it would be churlish to criticise the UCI for commissioning such an investigation into the sport’s doping culture. The alternative, after all, would have been to not commission it.

And while many of the headlines are inevitably misleading, the report is appropriately nuanced. Take this paragraph, which offers a reasonable summing up: “The Commission did not hear from anyone credible in the sport who would give cycling a clean bill of health in the context of doping today. However, the general view was that doping is either less prevalent today or that the nature of doping practices has changed such that the performance gains are smaller. There was a general feeling that this has created an environment where riders can now at least be competitive when riding clean.”

Pat McQuaid (left) replaced Hein Verbruggen as UCI president in 2005 (Watson)

Pat McQuaid (left) replaced Hein Verbruggen as UCI president in 2005 (Watson)

The report does acknowledge that while doping has not and never will be eradicated, there has been cultural change. It also makes useful recommendations. Perhaps most important of all, a lot of the concerns raised – micro-dosing, the abuse of TUEs and cortisone, suspicions arising from dramatic weight loss – are now not only out there in the public domain, but in an official report.

Interestingly, it goes beyond doping. “The Commission was told of varying efforts to cheat the technical rules, including using motors in frames,” it states. “This particular issue was taken seriously, especially by top riders, and was not dismissed as being isolated. Other forms of cheating were explained, relating to frames construction, saddle specifications, and the wearing of illegal clothing and apparel.”

There might be little that is new here, yet here it is in a report commissioned by the governing body. That alone gives the UCI and anti-doping agencies a serious mandate to tackle these threats with a far greater sense of urgency. As the report states, doping is dynamic and constantly evolving: anti-doping must be equal to that.