Written for In the Bunch

Who would’ve thought that both the Eastgate and Northgate malls in Johannesburg were close to roads named Northumberland?

I was none the wiser, as was the person whom I was suppose to meet over lunch at Eastgate. I should simply punch “Northumberland” into my GPS and I’ll be close, he had directed me the day before.

And that’s how it happened that I rocked up at Northgate for my Eastgate meeting. A frantic phone call confirmed that we were indeed worlds apart, but fortunately he was able to continue with another scheduled meeting.

When I eventually arrived at Mugg & Bean, at the correct Gate, he was still busy with his “second” meeting and he quietly gestured me to wait at one of the other tables.

Scouting the room for a suitable one, my eye caught the unmistakable figure of one of the country’s most decorated cyclists. What a coincidence. Even a coup in my profession.

The latter was just finishing off with what turned out to be a failed contractual meeting and, as we were well-acquainted, I settled in for some catch-up and cycling gossip.

If I had not been late, I would’ve missed out on this conversation, which turned out to be both enlightening and frightening.

With doping topical at the time (Vino had just made his comeback after two years in the dog box), I asked this person to give me a personal perspective on the local front.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for the answer.

Whether cynical, disillusioned, or merely a bad loser, this person believed that cheating was still rife. I was even given a name. There had been rumours, I was told.

In the following months, I naturally made it my business to look out for this name – so I cannot say that I was completely surprised when it popped up for all the wrong reasons recently.

Like so many, this person was equally astonished at testing positive and the usual explanations and conspiracy theories followed. The stuff was in the system, but how the hell did it get there?

Anyone remember Floyd Landis? After four years of total denial, court cases and the like, I read today that the disgraced Tour de France “winner” had decided to come clean. In a series of e-mails, he owned up to the fact that he had been doped up during his career.

Although it doesn’t say much for the effectiveness of modern-day testing, before the advent of the Biological Passport anyway, at least his admission explains how he was able to come back from the dead to win the Tour in such spectacular fashion. As Lance said last year, one should start asking questions when a donkey turns into a racehorse.

The underworld of drug taking and trafficking in sports, and cycling in particular, is so covert, no one is entirely sure it exists. Twelve years ago my questions on the topic were answered with a “hell no” by one of the utmost authorities – and then the Festina scandal broke a month later . . .

However, what is certain, is that there are two opposing sides. There are those who will continue to cheat the system and those who will do everything in their power to respect and preserve it.

German cyclist Linus Gerdemann has recently agreed to 24-hour surveillance during this year’s Tour de France to prove that the race can be done without improper assistance – something, some sceptics maintain, is pretty damn near impossible.

This total transparency even goes a step beyond Lance’s public posting of his personal test data upon his return last year, and offers some hope that doping is indeed not a desired delicacy among the elite.

Having said that, for me the anti-doping movement is creating more questions than it is offering answers.

The now crisply clean Vino is riding as well as ever as was proven by his back-to-back victories in the Giro del Trentino and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, while a guy like Ivan is struggling to reach his former highs – if you know what I mean . . .

Does this mean that Vino was never doped, as he continues to insist, or simply that the anti-doping authorities are slowly but surely weeding out the cheats and therefore levelling the playing field?

I suspect we will never know, but experience has taught me that where there is smoke, someone is probably smoking something sinister.

E-mail me at perico@mweb.co.za or visit www.inthebunch.co.za.

Coetzee is a former journalist and full-time cycling fanatic whose company focuses on sports communications.

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Coetzee Gouws
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