Shane Stokes interview

crankpunk caught up with Shane Stokes of the cycling website VeloNation.com.  Shane is a veteran commentator of the sport who, throughout his career, has sought to publish news and reports as and when they arose that pertained to the fallacy that Lance Armstrong was riding without the aid of performance enhancing drugs.

as a fellow journalist journalist and also as a fellow fan, i was interested in hearing what Shane had to say on not only the case at hand but also about the future of the sport.

the following is a transcript of a conversation that took place on Monday the 22nd of October.

Journalist Shane Stokes

crankpunk: Shane you’ve been very busy recently on the TV and the radio in Ireland.

Shane Stokes: yeah in the last week and a half there’s been three radio slots and two TV slots, and then my normal column in the Irish Times as well, obviously all to do with the Armstrong case. around the world this crucial case has really commandeered a huge coverage.

cp: interesting how the Tour of Beijing just completely disappeared under the fog of the LA case. can you tell me why this has garnered so much interest in Ireland in particular?

SS: I think because, well the pro scene here is quite small, it’s not a massive sport here but it’s quite prominent and has the potential to grow again, but essentially I think it’s because it’s such a tale of skullduggery, and because his name is so well-known and that he was so revered for so long. and here is this picture emerging that is so different to the public view.

cp: and of course he was really the first English-speaking rider to break out of cycling and into the collective consciousness.

SS: there was Greg Lemond before him but yes, I think with LA it was this sustained run of success and also because of the cancer angle. i think the media focused on that and that LA packaged himself in such a way for the appeal but also to ensure that any awkward questions sort of went away. any time awkward questions came up the charity came up as well.

cp: as a fan yourself, what would you say to those people who were saying for many years – and are still saying, in some cases – that we should just forget about his doping or the allegations of doping and move on? why does it matter, they ask…

SS: i disagree with that entirely, couldn’t disagree more strongly. the sport has had enough missed opportunities with Landis, Festina, Puerto and Rasmussen, people thought this was a pivotal point at each point yet the UCI has missed that chance each time. i thought that until four years ago the UCI was in fact doing good work with the introduction of the biological passport and with Anne Gripper in charge of the anti-doping drive, but the return of LA coincided with the return of the Omerta [an Italian word that essentially refers to a ‘code of silence – in cycling terms it meant that the riders were discouraged from speaking about doping in the peloton to outsiders]. as a result doping went away again as a topic of discussion.

so if this, the single biggest scandal in cycling, is allowed to happen without consequences and repercussions then the sport really is doomed. it might be like wrestling for example [laughter] with a following but it will never be a genuine sport again. it’s damaging for the sport but i think we all hope that it is profound enough, in the short term, to force the changes that are needed and never happened before.

that has to start with the UCI, with at least the removal of Verbruggen if not his successor [Pat McQuaid] as well.

cp: interesting that you mention Gripper who, along with Michael Ashenden when he was working with the UCI, felt that she was being censored by the her employer. and there’s Ashenden who realized the only was he could help cycling was to get out of the UCI.

SS: yeah and with Gripper, when she first started to work on the UCI anti-doping stuff, i could call her anytime for clarification on certain points or for her comments, and that ensured media confidence which translates to fan confidence. then Armstrong came back, and Gripper expressed her concerns that the UCI had waived its 6 month rule [that required any and every rider to be in the anti-doping programme for half a year before they could race] by 2 weeks so that LA could do the Tour Down Under in his comeback year.

she was quite upset by that and spoke about it to Cycling Weekly and as a result she was censored. i know that from that time on if i requested amn interview from her she told me that she had to get permission from Pat McQuaid or the management committee to speak, and more often than not she couldn’t speak. so that changed things a lot and was a sign to me that LA’s return was really bad for the sport.

cp: interesting that a lot of people don’t seem to realize that LA’s effect on the sport, from when he started to win the Tour back in 1999, didn’t just mean that cycling became more popular in certain countries but that also, a lot of people started to make a lot of money as a result of being ‘in’ with him. in regards to that, how much responsibility do you think that the brands that sponsored LA have in all of this? any? none? some?

SS: absolutely i do. they’re washing their hands of him now but it looks like the rats leaving the sinking ship, but these rats have waited until they are absolutely sure the ship is sinking before they leave.

cp: some of them have scuba gear on and are just now surfacing…

Stokes interviews a Garmin rider at the 2012 Tour de Langkawi

SS: [laughter] yeah, they drained every last drop that they could before they suddenly develop morals over behavior that for so long they just turned a blind eye to. Trek and the Lemond case is a perfect example of that, he expressed concerns – and has been completely vindicated – but he was pressured from Trek to shut up, and when he wouldn’t do that  Trek dropped him.

Oakley would have had to have had iridium on the insides of their glasses not to have seen what was going on in the sport.

cp; [more laughter] and then there’s the journos…

SS: and then there’s the journalists right, with their ‘willful ignorance’. anyone with any degree of logic at least would have had suspicions. there’s journalists i know that publicly praised LA and wrote soft pieces but in private they told me ‘for all i know he’s doping’. in the end i feel that you have to be true to your profession and true to yourself and to write what you believe to be the truth and not just what you want to package as the truth. so yes, sponsors, certain members of the media, the UCI, they are guilty here.

and then the UCI welcomed LA back on his return, having said that the old generation was the problem and that the new generation was the hope, and then suddenly, within about 2 months, the guy who most represented that older generation was back.

cp: you mentioned that this was the biggest fraud in cycling, can you think of any others that have been bigger in all sport? i have racked my brain but nothing as yet.

SS: ah…. Balco maybe?

cp: yet Balco wasn’t so endemic, wasn’t so institutionalized.

SS: yeah and i don’t think there was that willful ignorance by the authorities in the Balco case as to what was going on.

cp: interesting also what you said about the journalists. i remember watching the races on TV back then and hearing the praise for these incredible things that the riders were doing, yet as a cyclist myself i had my own suspicions. i think even if you were a general sports fan and just followed the sport loosely, you knew that evidence was growing in relation to widespread and endemic doping – and yet those so closely involved, press, management and even riders themselves claim ‘i never knew’.

we had the phenomenon that this intrigue actually turned a few of the cycling writers into investigative journalists. it must have all looked so rosy when they first entered the sport, you get to go to France, Spain, Italy, have the aura of the pros rub off a little on you, and then they realize that, actually, it’s a pretty rotten dream.

SS: yeah, there’s a guy i used to work with who in the mid 2000’s made a lot of money writing about LA. he really had a lot of access to LA and put the right message out for him, yet i know for a fact that he had a lot of his own suspicions yet he just switched them off in order to write the stories that made him money and gained him access to Armstong. there was that decision for journalists. tow the line and write the schpiel? or keep my distance and write what i feel is actually going on.

i could have made a lot more money if i’d done the former but i chose the latter. but certain elements within the media were complicit and that allowed things to continue. a good example is [TV commentator] Paul Sherwin. he raced as a pro, worked as a PR man for Lance’s team, and really has never let go of that PR role. then you have Phil Ligget, who couldn’t have been more pro-Armstrong. and now he’s said he is convinced LA doped. in the Independent newspaper he said he feels very let down.

but the proof has been building for a long time, yet he waited until the proof was incontestable before this u-turn. just 2 weeks ago he was defending and praising LA. it’s illogical.

cp: we have Bjarne Riss and several others still working in cycling, Andersen and Vaughters, etc.

SS: yeah Riis doesn’t inspire confidence. i believe 100% Tyler Hamilton’s claim that Riis sent riders to Fuentes [a doping doctor, central to the Operacion Ouerto doping ring]. Basso went, Hamilton was going when he was with CSC, and there were rumors of others going who rode for CSC. Riis doped as a rider, and i just think he’s a leopard who changes his spots. Nicholas Roche is going to his team next year and i am not sure that’s a good idea at all.

Vaughters, he’s seen by many as being the transparent guy, but i am not fully satisfied with it all. i think the aims of Garmin are admirable but, i have found Jonathan on the past to be less than 100% clear on some issues, when i’ve asked him questions. they are proud of their internal testing programme, but i’ve asked for example how many tests are done each year and didn’t get an answer. we need to see the results, to know who’s running the tests and how often the tests are being done. if you bill yourself as transparent then we need to see this. in no way am i saying that there is a doping problem in the team but i do think they could do more to lead the way and to set an example.

also the UCI doesn’t publish its biological findings and figures. the teams pay money in, yet we don’t get the chance to see if the money is being spent as it should be or if there is targeted testing being done, and so on. there’s no doubt that since LA came back in 2008 the transparency has slid.

cp: should former dopers be allowed back into the sport, in management?

SS: it depends, you have good guys and bad guys. Vaughters i think can contribute to the sport whereas Bruyneel should be as far away from the sport as is humanly possible. if you’re going to have the Bruyneel types around then they need someone like Ashenden to be there to screen all the test results.

cp: do you think the UCI can regain the credibility that will allow it to survive?

SS: McQuaid talked a good fight at the beginning, but he’s been almost completely unavailable to to the press for 2 or 3 years, has been increasingly linked to Verbruggen, and he hasn’t helped himself by not speaking to the press. and whilst the old guard is in there it looks increasingly difficult for the UCI to inspire confidence. they need new faces there. amongst fans the UCI has just about no credibility. look at twitter and you can see that.

cp: well also amongst up pro riders, the guys i race with, we respect the commissaires, we are very grateful to the organizers and love the fact that we can race, but as far as the UCI goes we have no real sense of affiliation with or belonging to this organization. i think we need to see the ProTour riders standing up and making their voices heard here. we need this leadership. there is potential here, it needn’t all be doom and gloom, i think there is some potential for something to actually happen.

SS: cycling is in a precarious position right now, and i think there have been too many false starts. i think the biggest tragedy is if this isn’t a pivotal moment. i think anti-doping needs to be brought outside of the national federations, and for the UCI to undergo a structural change and ideally to see the faces change, and an independent body maybe set up by WADA to take on all the testing, with a guy like Ashenden to oversee things. the importance of this will be to show that cycling has the ability to turn itself around and to set an example. this is not a cycling matter at all it’s a sporting matter, and even beyond.

cp: i think it’s cultural.

SS: yeah it will show that wherever there is corruption it can be overcome.

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