As news broke of Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies rider Will Routley’s victory on Stage 4 of the 2014 Tour of California, the majority of cycling fans could be forgiven for being unable to name any of his previous victories or his team’s name. Indeed, for many it would have been the fist time they’d have heard of him.
But make no mistake about, Routley is a rider who combines a sackload of talent with great courage and, last but not least, one commodity that many a pro cyclist has been shown to be sorely lacking in recent years: honesty.
His palmares on Cycling Fever includes only two significant victories: the 2010 Canadian Road Race Championships and, thanks to that great ride on Wednesday, Stage 4 of the Tour of California.
For those who haven’t been keeping up with the action in California, Routley has featured in every breakaway of the race so far and started Stage 4 wearing the polka dot jersey as leader of the King of the Mountains classification.
During Stage 4 he took the line on all three of the KOM summits to extend his lead in the mountains classification and then went on to claim the stage win. To top that all off with a nice dollop of icing, Routley also took the lead in the Points Classification from Mark Cavendish.
“Things went better than planned,” Routley said after the stage.
“Of course the goal was to go in the break for the KOM points again. It was a little harder to get in the break today than it was the last few days. I had a couple teammates kind of launch me across at the right time. I had been feeling really, really good sprinting at the top of the climbs, so really that was my whole focus, just to try and lock that down.”
There were no big names in the 6-man group that went away, but that does not mean that the star-packed peloton behind gifted them anything. Tom Boonen later explained just how the leaders managed to cross the line a minute over the pack.
“The climb before actually I went to the others and said we have to start pulling with two or three extra guys, because in the front they were waiting for the last part to speed up, I could really tell,” Boonen said. “At that point we started riding full speed straight away going 75k an hour trying to get as soon as possible a minute or a minute and a half off their lead, so the other guys would start pulling as well to take their morale away a little bit. But it lasted too long, and with tailwind they were going full speed in the front as well.”
‘So, a relatively unknown rider a win at a big race, so what?’ you may be thinking.
‘Why single him out for praise?’
Well, the thing about Will Routley is that he has never been afraid to speak his mind about an issue that has come close to – and might still – tearing the sport apart.
In an article in the Vancouver Sun back in November, 2012, Routley penned a clear, concise article that sent a message to many of the guys he rides with in the peloton.
“I had no choice, I had to ‘cross the line’ or end my dream.” This is just a taste of the utter garbage that has filled my ears as of late,” he wrote.
“To say I am frustrated would be an understatement. Cyclists are coming out of the woodwork at the moment — big name athletes admitting to doping. I use the term ‘admitting’ loosely, as in reality they have been caught and forced to come clean. Canadian legend Michael Barry is on the list, many American superstars are on the list; it is saddening to say the least.
“Throughout this ordeal I have noticed that we are primarily hearing interviews and opinions coming from the dopers themselves. I am wondering where the opinion of a real, clean athlete is, so I’m going to offer one…”
He talked about how riders ‘admit’ to doping only when they have a gun to their temples.
“The thing is, along with doping, these guys also enjoyed the success that goes with it: podium finishes in monumental events such as the Tour de France, fame, success, and money. The pay range would be from $300,000 to $3 million a year (a lot more if you are Lance).
“These guys go on to say they quietly stopped cheating on their own accord, and continued racing “clean.” Then in the years of “clean” racing that followed they all seem to incredibly achieve similar success to that seen in the years in which they were doping.
“They even pat themselves on the back and say how they are proud of the steps they’ve taken to improve the sport and clean it up. Maybe they just found a larger love of the sport? Or maybe now is a good time to call bullshit.”
Ring any bells? Leipheimer, Hincapie, O’Grady, the list goes on and on.
Routley’s not alone amongst the clean riders in the peloton in feeling this way. Just last week I received an anonymous comment on an article I wrote about a former doper who is still involved in the sport. He said he was a pro rider and believed that these ‘ex’-dopers should not be allowed to remain in the sport once they retire.
I checked the back end of my site and saw the email address, which contained a full name. I googled the name and found he is a rider on an American team. Impressed that he had these opinions, I mailed him to see if he would like to do an interview.
“Sure,” he said, “but I can’t talk about doping.”
“Because the guy you wrote about owns a company that is one of my team’s sponsors. Sorry.”
It could be argued that Routley has little to lose. He’s been on American and Canadian teams almost all his career and has certainly not become rich off the sport.
“Cycling is the most difficult sport I’ve ever tried,” wrote Routley, “and suffering is an essential part of the game. In the few years that followed I did not suddenly jump over to Europe and race the Tour de France, I slowly plodded along, racing for a wage of somewhere in the neighbourhood of zero dollars a year. (Yes, I have learned how to budget money very well).”
Yet any rider that speaks out runs the very real risk of limiting the chance of future contracts with certain teams.
Some teams are run by former dopers, or managed by them. Other teams, and many at Pro-Continental and Continental level, sign returning dopers in the hope of getting quick wins and publicity. Speak out about this and get labeled as a ‘trouble maker’ and you cut down the number of teams that will take you by a significant number.
There’s another aspect to it all that the general public may be unaware of, and it is the rumors that whirl through the peloton and indeed amongst riders in a single team.
Sometimes riders suspect another of doping. In other cases, riders and team management actually see evidence of doping products, yet so very few ever speak out because a) they invariably have no tangible proof to offer authorities b) they know what’s happened to previous ‘whistle-blowers’ and c) many a manager and rider might not care anyway.
Some managers and DS might believe their team to be clean but may worry that, if there is evidence of doping and they have an outspoken anti-doping rider on board, they won’t have the chance to deal with the infraction in-house, but will instead have to go through the trauma of official sanctions and suffer the opprobrium of the press and spectators.
Routley though pulls no punches, and lays it on the line.
“Canada financially supports its athletes at the elite Olympic level. This is called “carding” and I have qualified for this financial support several times, but have never actually received any money. I’m not complaining, and Sport Canada has done nothing wrong, there are simply a limited number of “cards” available, and if a card goes to a doper, as it has in the past, this means a clean rider is left without.
“This is money — an athlete’s livelihood — being directly stolen: it happens with carding, with prize money, with sponsorship agreements, and with selection to compete at events like the Olympics and World Championships. I have yet to receive a cheque in the mail from a doper with a letter saying “sorry Will, here is the money I stole from you.”
He also admits that fighting the good fight almost became too much at one point:
“I had a rough window where I basically gave up — it seemed like an insurmountable gap for me to jump to the elite ranks, but I was lucky and had tremendous support from family, friends and fellow teammates. We all committed to each other that we’d stay clean, and kept convincing one another that it is indeed possible to win clean. This mantra went against the popular sentiment, but we held to it.
I for one am glad you didn’t pack it in, Will.
A clean rider in a dirty sport. Let’s hope this brave man gets the jersey his fortitude deserves at the end of the Tour of California.