The cloud of a doping past

Triathletes love to cheer the guy who rides the bike hard. Who is the fastest cyclist in triathlon right now? Sebastian Kienle? Andrew Starykowicz? Most likely it is Hector Guerra Garcia or Antonio Colom Mas. Never heard of them?

Guerra rode to a 2:00:49 half-Ironman split at the Ironman 70.3 Monterrey (in Mexico), a ride that was almost 7 minutes quicker than that of race champion Tim Don, 10 minutes better than Ben Hoffman and 12 minutes ahead of another Spaniard Ivan Rana.

Guerra is relatively new to triathlon. He came from a pro road cycling background, racing for Liberty Seguros through 2009 and was scheduled to represent Spain at the World Championships that year, prior to his switch to triathlon. But he left cycling at his peak because he was caught and convicted of using EPO-CERA alongside two other members of that Liberty Seguros, team and given a 2-year ban.

Typically there is vitriol against former dopers and other cheaters via the internet and that has been the case with Guerra too, but the outspoken Andrew Starykowicz offered a few choice words for Guerra while together in the lead group at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside.

"I called a spade a spade, I called him a doper to his face. He started yelling and swearing at me in Spanish. In my mind, once a doper always a doper. Once you cross over that line to cheat, doping, drafting, etc. it is a lot easier to do it again and after a while it appears these athletes become oblivious to the rules," said Starykowicz. "Is triathlon a second chance for these athletes? No."

The bike split of Guerra at Ironman 70.3 California at Oceanside was actually even more stunning than his time in Monterrey. After a 29:20 swim Guerra caught both Andrew Starykowicz and 70.3 World Champion Sebastian Kienle who had started the bike segment 5:20 and 3:45 ahead of the Spaniard. The catch of Starykowicz and Kienle was made around mile 40. Starykowicz was not 100 percent, but both he and Kienle dominated the other Pros as they typically do. In the end Starykowicz had a 2:10:22 split and Kienle a 2:10:40, but Guerra ended with a 2:06:45 on a course that is considered extremely difficult. He then pulled out of the race during the run.

Guerra does not seem to have any major TT titles to his name and we could only find a 4th place at the Tour De Langkawi in 2004 (behind Eric Wohlberg, Marlon Perez and John Lieswyn), a 4th place at Volta a Portugal in 2005 (behind Claus Michael Møller, Candido Barbosa and Vladimir Efimkin) and a 2nd place in a prologue at the 2008 Volta a Portugal em Bicicleta. His best season with several stage wins and some overall GC titles appears to be 2009 – the year when he was busted.

Fellow Spaniard road Pro Antonio Colom Mas who also was banned for doping (EPO) in 2009 competes now as an age grouper in triathlon (but word now has it that he will pull a Pro card), and at the 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas his 2:07:00 bike split was fastest overall and 3:10 quicker than World Champion Kienle on that day. At 70.3 Mallorca earlier in 2013 he finished 4th overall with a 2:09:45 bike split. That time was 7 minutes better than race champion Eneko Llanos and over 2 minutes quicker than the split of Andrew Starykowicz.

Colom Mas raced for bigger teams than Guerra and competed for Astana in the Tour de France in 2007 and the Giro in 2008, but has no big results in time trials. At the 2007 Tour he finished 135th and 10 minutes behind his team captain Alexander Vinokourov in the 54km stage 13 TT Albi-Albi stage, domestiques however are sometimes tasked to take it easy in big stage races during the TT to save their power for other efforts. But even outside of these stage races Colom Mas has no other stellar individual TT results to his name.

In 2009, as a member of the Katusha squad, he won the Volta Cyclista A Mallorca, finished 5th overall at Paris-Nice and 2nd at Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, but just like Guerra he was caught doping that year and suspended.

To put the efforts of Guerra and Colom in perspective, at the 2012 Ironman 70.3 Texas Lance Armstrong was about 1.5 minutes slower on the bike than Sebastian Kienle, and the now disgraced Texan was well known and respected for his dominating TT skills and speed. But Guerra and Colom can apparently ride 3-4 minutes faster than Kienle on the same distance after an opening 1.2 mile swim.

Neither Guerra and Colom have been caught or implicated in any doping since 2009, yet it is natural for triathlon enthusiasts to harbor those same questions that circled Lance Armstrong for years. Those questions about Armstrong arose not just because of the snippets of factoid emanating from deep in the Armstrong and UCI camps suggesting doping, but the analysis of his superhuman performances that mathematically defied belief. This kind of wondering conflicted cycling enthusiasts everywhere. Fans wanted to cheer the performances, to idolize the champions, to celebrate their skill, talent and courage.

But fans didn’t want to be duped by cheaters. They didn’t want to think the worst of their champions. And fans are even more suspicious and cautious today.

Had the proposed 4-year ban that starts in 2015 began many years back, both Guerra and Colom could be racing now anyway, and the same is true for Lisa Hütthaler. Michael Weiss however would still be on the outside looking in. But what does it say about our sport when folks who were convicted or admitted doping in other sports seek refuge or possibly just a new life in triathlon? Michael Weiss came from mountain biking, Rolf Aldag, Udo Bölts, Axel Merckx, Laurent Jalabert and Lance Armstrong from road cycling, and there are plenty of other folks who have found triathlon later in life.

Why triathlon? Road cycling is a team sport and in order to compete at the highest level an athlete needs to be hired by a team. A star cyclist has a great chance to be hired back, but for lesser known cyclists not so much. In the very individualistic triathlon sport however, a former doper who wants to race again simply gets a license from a governing body and competes again.

But should they even be in triathlon?

"These are difficult questions that are discussed intensively amongst federations, sponsors, media, professionals and fans," said Florian Brugger of SCOTT Sports in Switzerland, and added "We experience there is a consensus amongst these parties that the answers to these questions cannot simply be yes or no as almost no case is similar to the other. Eventually, WADA and the federations have to define appropriate rules for the sport and we believe they accommodate the importance of this issue. SCOTT follows a strict zero-tolerance policy with regard to doping. We do not offer sponsorship to convicted athletes."

Doug Martin of Felt Bicycles had this opinion: "I think this depends on the circumstances. This is no way to suggest that we condone any kind of past PED use--we unequivocally do not--but all situations are different and each deserves its own discussion and analysis. As most know, Felt has a long history in sponsorship and, for example, in the case of Garmin Pro Cycling, David Millar was a part of the team's then go-forward clean racing mission and vision. As an admitted past PED user it would have been easy to dismiss David, but on the contrary he emerged as one of cycling's biggest proponents of a new clean era in cycling. In fairness, David's situation is the exception and anybody with a past positive is also coming in with a very clear proceed-with-caution label."

Jake Pantone at ENVE Composites added the following view about the topic.

"If there is an athlete that has doped and then truly atoned for their sins and finds a love for the sport of triathlon and is competing because they love it, then I don’t think they need to be punished for the rest of their lives. I guess it depends on their attitude and I'd evaluate each case on an individual basis. If they are openly repentant and are truly turning over a new leaf then why not sponsor them? I wouldn't do it the moment their ban is lifted, but if they were to put together several seasons of clean racing then why not? Here is the major caveat… Why would I sponsor an athlete with a tainted history when I have at my fingertips literally dozens of clean pros to pick from?" said Pantone.

[below a picture of Lisa Hütthaler]

As mentioned earlier, it is not we who make the rules, it is WADA who decides the penalties and it is up to the signatories to comply with those bans and standards. World Triathlon Corporation is such a WADA signatory and they banned Lance Armstrong for life when that ruling came out in 2012.

"We are leaders in the anti-doping movement in triathlon. No one does more than us to ensure that our sport remains clean. We are WADA signatories and, as such, we honor the code," said WTC CEO Andrew Messick. "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about whether former dopers have a place in our sport but it is our responsibility to provide clear rules about who can and cannot race and to stick to them. That is an important reason why we believe in, and follow, the WADA code."

We also wanted to hear from Pros about doping penalties and several Pros chimed in with their views.

2013 Ironman World Champion Frederik Van Lierde agrees that folks deserve a second chance but really need to be monitored once they returned from the ban. He also understands that it isn’t quite so simple.

"When [caught doping a] 2nd time or organizing doping, [a] lifetime ban is necessary in my opinion," said Van Lierde and added. "Products who deliver a lifetime benefit, the appropriate instances decide on that, should result in a lifetime ban for the user as well."

Mirinda Carfrae who has now captured the Ironman World Championships twice also had a few thoughts on the matter.

"I like the sound of lifetime bans for positives from Blood doping, EPO etc not only will that send a strong message to any athlete thinking about taking that short cut but also there really is no way to know exactly how long an athlete can benefit from blood doping or taking EPO, at the very least they are able to absorb an enormous amount of work which will be of benefit for many years to come," said Carfrae.

Helle Frederiksen had a similar sentiment.

"I understand people make mistakes in life and we all deserve second chances, yet when it comes to cheating I don't think it should be an accepted part of society," said Frederiksen. "Unfortunately the ease in which convicted dopers are allowed back into triathlon does not set a great example. I'd love to see triathlon make an example to the world of sport across the board. Admittedly we are not a big sport but our voice would definitely be heard if, as a collective, athletes, race organizers, sponsors and media all took a stance that was consistent; doping is not tolerated."

We also asked our resident Pro Jordan Rapp about his thoughts on Pros who have previously doped.

"On the one hand, you want to respect the rules, and the rules say that these athletes are allowed back. And I think it's vitally important that we support the rules of the WADA code, in the same way that we don't go throwing water bottles or sticking pumps in the spokes of athletes who draft to serve vigilante-style justice," said Rapp. "I also don't think that it's right for either races, federations - or certainly athletes - to try to take matters into their own hands, because I think that just weakens the WADA code. Any special modification - even if more strict - is a bad thing, because the code should be universal. At the same time, the rules don't really seem to have caught up to the science, much of which is now starting to make it clear that the training benefit from doped training doesn't just disappear. In that sense, an athlete who is caught for anything that is not acute like say, a stimulant, which would just help a particular event can be said to be forever dirty, because the training that was enabled by steroids or EPO or blood doping or HGH doesn't just disappear. It's always with them."

But what is the solution to this dilemma? The current 2-year ban penalty is simply too short and not enough of a deterrent especially when considering the long term benefits of certain drugs. This is not unlike the 4-minute penalty for drafting in a long distance race. Athletes have shown over and over again that the benefits of drafting outweigh the 4-minute chill time in the penalty box. It is a good move that the ban period in 2015 will grow to as much as 4 years, but in many cases that still is not enough. Of course complaining and grand standing is easy when no personal associated cost is involved.

Who is ultimately responsible to make sure every Pro and actually random age groupers are tested regularly? Should it not be the task of the national federations? WTC has been trying to manage all this, often without any support from national federations. Great Britain, for example, told WTC that starting in 2014 all of their long distance athletes are no longer going to be tested by UKAD. That means Leanda Cave, Rachel Joyce, Corinne Abraham, Emma Kate Lidbury, Liz Blatchford, Tim Don, Philip Graves, Dan Halksworth and Stephen Bayliss won’t see any local testers and that is a massive obstacle. Spain, France both should have been helping WTC, but they aren't either. And that's a big problem for triathlon. Some of it is just bureaucracy, but regardless, it is a problem. And it makes it much easier for athletes to slip through the cracks.

There are also a few questions former dopers ought to answer in public when returning to competition: How did you dope, why did you dope, who and what got you into doping? Why should we believe you are not doping today? Assuming the answers pass muster, you might be accepted back. If they don’t – or if you refuse to answer with transparency – neither the fans, your fellow athletes on the starting line, the media, the sponsors will welcome you. We actually gave Michael Weiss the opportunity in a forum thread to describe in detail his intersection with doping – but he did not do that. Sadly though that is not surprising since you would get likely mum from most former dopers about these details. But in triathlon folks do not accept silence as an answer and demand details.