Horner wins the Vuelta … but what should we believe?

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Yesterday Chris Horner rolled into Madrid to win the Vuelta a Espana, and in doing so became the oldest rider ever to win a Grand Tour. In fact, at nearly 42 years old, he’s more than five years older than the next oldest, Firmin Lambot, who won the Tour de France way back in 1922.

This article isn’t about whether Horner is racing clean or not. You can make up your own mind on that and nothing I say is likely to convince you otherwise. Instead this is about the current state of professional cycling and how we make sense of spectacular performances.

It’s essential for the media to scrutinise suspect performances that seem too good to be true. After all, it wasn’t drug testing that brought down Lance Armstrong and his deck of cards. It was the tireless efforts of journalists like David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, combined with a wealth of insider information that allowed USADA to lift the lid on what had been happening for all those years.

But at the same time I’m not going to be one of those guys that’s so jaded that I scrutinise every performance without a single good thing to say about the sport. My Twitter stream fills up with that sort of sentiment as soon as people in the European timezones start tweeting. And while we need these jaded souls, I refuse to become one of them just so I can say “I told you so” when the next positive doping result reaches the surface.

But equally, should we be so keen to put these winners on the front of our magazines and websites? I have a stack of not-so-old cycling magazines that I was about to throw out but decided to keep as a reminder of how we’ve been defrauded again and again.

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Nobody wants to be duped by the cheats and the sport absolutely needs the media’s scrutiny of suspect performances. But in recent times I wonder if things might have gone too far and if so, what effect this might have on the sport.

During the past two Tours de France I quickly became tired of the media’s scrutiny of Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome. The races themselves quickly took a backseat while the frontpage story was all about whether Wiggins and Froome were clean.

The tone was noticeably different throughout this year’s Vuelta however and Horner faced considerably less questioning about his performance. Perhaps this is because far fewer journalists were covering the Vuelta than the Tour and the appetite for controversy was much smaller. But the cynicism could be heard loud and clear on social media.

The sentiment goes something like: “How does a guy who is nearly 42 years old, with relatively thin results throughout his career, come back from a six-month knee injury and manage to win a Grand Tour?”

The premise of this argument stems from the fact that somebody this old cannot win a Grand Tour without doping. Historically speaking this may be valid, but it is far from being a solid argument. If Horner were a few years younger there wouldn’t be anything questionable about his win.

Antoine Vayer, author of the controversial magazine “Not Normal”, posted the following tweet mere minutes after Horner crossed the line atop the Angliru on stage 20:


As you can see here, Horner’s time up L’Angliru puts him in second place in this dubious leaderboard:

1. Roberto Heras ——- ESP | 41:56 | 2000
2. Chris Horner ——– USA | 43:07 | 2013
3. Alberto Contador —- ESP | 43:13 | 2008
4. Pavel Tonkov ——– RUS | 43:25 | 2000
5. Roberto Laiseka —– ESP | 43:25 | 2000
6. Alejandro Valverde — ESP | 43:35 | 2013
7. Vincenzo Nibali —– ITA | 43:35 | 2013
8. Juan Jose Cobo —— ESP | 43:53 | 2011
9. Alejandro Valverde — ESP | 43:55 | 2008
10. Roberto Heras ——- ESP | 43:57 | 2002

So are things different now?

I’ve been asking around and the sentiment of who I’ve spoken with in the peloton seems to be that the scepticism towards Horner is unjustified. He’s been a remarkable rider for many years now; he just hasn’t had the opportunities to show what he’s truly capable of.

But regardless of whether Horner is riding clean or not, there’s something unsettling about a 41 year old (Masters 3) winning a Grand Tour. Not because he “shouldn’t” be winning it, but because it forces us into an uncomfortable position, as members of the cycling media and as fans of the sport.

Are we at the point where we can believe in and enjoy a victory like Horner’s for what it is? I can say with confidence that cycling is cleaner now than it was a decade ago, but have things progressed enough that we can believe riders when they say they’re clean? Or do we, and do I, have a responsibility to be sceptical of a performance like Horner’s?

Either option is troubling. If we take every performance at face value we risk looking naive if it turns out that a rider’s extraordinary performances were, in fact, extraordinary. Conversely, if we approach everything with a cynical eye, we run the risk of losing our love of this great sport. Every spectacular effort or win becomes little more than an indicator of cheating, rather than something to be marvelled at and appreciated.

Perhaps its worth taking solace in the fact that in all things, life has a way of catching up to people who decide to take shortcuts — especially when money and ego are involved. People who cheat will almost certainly be caught out at some point.

And this is where anti-doping measures come into it.

When you say you don’t believe in a spectacular performance, you’re effectively saying you don’t believe in the anti-doping measures that are currently in place. We absolutely need to trust the system that’s designed to catch the cheats, and of course – we don’t. In a sport that’s so dependant on physiology and with so much at stake, we’ll never be totally rid of cheating. But we need to be confident that we can detect cheating.

With it looking likely that Brian Cookson will be voted in as UCI president in a couple weeks’ time, he’s got a big job ahead of him to bolster the sport’s efforts to combat doping. Whether that restores people’s confidence in the system is another thing.

In the meantime we, as fans of the sport and as members of the media, still need to work out our responsibilities when it comes to spectacular performances and how our approach is affecting the sport.

What do you think? Do fans and the media have a responsibility to be sceptical of spectacular performances? And if so, where do you draw the line? How do you decide what should be scrutinised and what shouldn’t?

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