Commentary: A partially subjective ranking of cycling’s dopers, loved and hated
Since I started following pro bike racing in the 1980s, I have marveled at the marvelously complicated calculus that cycling fans employ to forgive or slam racers who’ve been ensnared in doping allegations, positive tests, and long sanctions. Why is one alleged doper a pariah and another previously banned rider quietly tolerated — or even loved?
After decades of careful study, I still can’t answer that question. But I think I’ve paid close enough attention to offer a groundbreaking, crowdsourced list that ranks troublemaking riders from the most beloved to the most despised. This is not a list of my personal opinions; it’s an attempt to distill public opinion, which is fickle, subjective, constantly changing, and one of the things that makes pro cycling a fun circus to follow.
The strange value of these curiously idiosyncratic evaluations are frequently made clear in the sport’s news cycle. In the past week, for instance, journalists and cycling fans have agonized about the mere idea of Alejandro Valverde riding the cobbled classics, debated Chris Froome’s upcoming participation in the Giro d’Italia and other events, and deconstructed the credibility of witnesses in a certain whistleblower lawsuit. As much as we pretend to be guided by facts alone, we also interpret news stories and history through the lens of our emotional feelings about justice.
Below you’ll find an inventory of 40 cyclists I chose to rank — riders who either tested positive, admitted to doping, or have been mired in allegations and accusations. I recognize that the list could have been longer, so don’t come at me about Luca Paolini or Laurent Jalabert or Bo Hamburger (all of whom were on the bubble). And I’ve focused my efforts on riders who raced on the sport’s biggest stage (so scholars of American doping: Don’t expect to find Joe Papp or Kayle Leogrande below). In any case, you have my blessing to vent in the comments.
Anyway, the whole thing is a joke. Sort of. Not really.
40. Marco Pantani. However long the list, Il Pirata will always sit at the top. Sure, he had hematocrit numbers higher than the Stelvio and carried the dark disease of substance abuse, but for many fans Pantani’s tragic qualities and his audaciously beautiful style of racing trumps whatever quantities of EPO, insulin, growth hormone, and cocaine he might have taken. His early, heartbreaking death cemented his public pardon for all the drugs and cheating. Not saying it’s right, just saying it’s so.
39. Frank Vandenbroucke. See above.
38. Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, and Fausto Coppi (three-way tie). Popping amphetamines is child’s play on this list, especially when popped by the greatest champions of their generations.
37. Tom Boonen. Cycling is the kind of sport in which you can feel quite ethical rooting for a rider who only was caught with cocaine in his system three separate times. Sure, there were whispers about how he won his fourth Paris-Roubaix with an uncharacteristic 50km solo break, but to many, Tommeke is beyond reproach. In the end, he was classy and likeable and also quite handsome.
36. David Zabriskie. Okay, so he worked on the Death Star at U.S. Postal and took the same PEDs as Lord Vader himself, but if you’ve read Zabriskie’s testimony in USADA’s Reasoned Decision it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for someone who got into cycling to escape from drugs and then, well, you know. His collaboration with Floyd Landis in a marijuana business boosts his likability score, too — it’s hard to feel angry at people who do wacky stuff.
35. Miguel Indurain. The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. Modest and almost frustratingly quiet, Big Mig seemed to understand this mantra better than most cyclists of his era. Eternally suspected but free from a sanction or positive test — his Banesto team were clients of notorious Italian Dr. Francesco Conconi — Indurain climbed mountains with serial dopers who weighed 30 pounds less than him, and then smashed them in the the time trials, all while successfully floating above the fray with class and silence. After winning five consecutive Tours de France from 1991 to 1995, Indurain left the sport following the 1996 season, just two years before the Festina Affair changed the sport forever.
34. Frankie Andreu. Although there is a genuine faction of racing fans who would like to see Andreu ranked lower because they don’t like his outspoken wife Betsy, or perhaps because, as a team director, he defended Paco Mancebo after his team gave him a job in the American domestic peloton, the former U.S. Postal rider will always have the credibility that comes with admitting his PED use (at least some of it) without being caught, compensated, or legally compelled to do so.
33. Christian Vande Velde. It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for someone who was outed for doping by his team manager on a Cyclingnews forum. Plus, USADA actually labeled him as a “somewhat reluctant doper.” And though some observers scoffed at his post-dated six-month suspension, conveniently timed to start after the 2012 Worlds, it essentially sent him into permanent retirement.
32. Matt White. The stalwart domestique turned DS is a sort of an Australian Jonathan Vaughters — he admitted to doping while teammates with Satan on the U.S. Postal team, admitted his wrongdoing when legally compelled to do so, and transitioned into managing pro teams with a “zero tolerance” reputation for clean racing, only occasionally employing sanctioned racers. Unlike many people on this list, he’s actually taken steps to help make racing cleaner.
31. Mario Cipollini. People may disagree with this relatively lenient ranking, but my contention is that Cipo was the closest that our sport may ever get to professional wrestling. The whole thing felt like theater. Yeah, there some blood bags, but did you see him win that sprint in the zebra-print skinsuit?
30. Roberto Heras. The Spaniard’s ranking is so high because Heras is someone insiders would call a “good guy,” while most outsiders can’t keep track of all the complicated twists and turns in his case. The Spanish climber tested positive for EPO during the Vuelta and was a lethal lieutenant for Voldemort, but he successfully sued for back pay after his suspension and had his results reinstated by some governing bodies.
29. Tyler Hamilton. It’s hard to hold a grudge against the guy, even though he raced for Rock Racing and got caught cheating multiple times and asked folks for money for his crackpot “Believe Tyler” campaign. Hamilton’s legacy is a potent mix of toughness, fragility, and late-onset honesty. He rode Tour stages with a broken collarbone (at least that’s the mythology) and spilled his guts on 60 Minutes. He also tried to explain away his blood-doping positive on a chimera — a vanishing twin. Hamilton is a classic case of the racer who is at once a habitual cheater and a legitimate victim, and proof of the power of forgiveness.
28. Jan Ullrich. It’s actually kind of crazy but true that people largely have forgiven a Grand Tour champion who doped extensively and stalled for many years before offering a hazy admission, but Ullrich is hard to hate. The mitigating factors are hard to say out loud without sounding absurd, but such is life. He had a huge engine from the beginning. He didn’t seem to enjoy his athletic dominance. He got pudgy every the winter and lost to Kylo Ren every summer. He initially seemed to struggle in life after his retirement. For these and other reasons, when Ullrich says that he merely took the same things as his contemporaries and would like to enjoy a quiet life with his family, most fans seem comfortable to grant him that.
27. Bobby Julich. Julich’s sympathy index spiked upwards when he was pushed out of a coaching role at Team Sky for his doping past in accordance with that team’s irony-free zero-tolerance policy. It’s also hard to feel venomous about his third-place finish at the 1998 Tour, behind Pantani and Ullrich. (An aside: Why is that podium still valid while others are not?) I personally feel liking cutting Julich a break because he once sold me his old Ibis at a swap meet. That’s basically how these things work, we forgive athletes who we like!
26. Johan Museeuw. With a few exceptions, most cycling fans don’t feel any keen hostility toward the top pro cyclists who were early innovators in the oxygen-vector doping revolution. Museeuw was one of the biggest winners when one-day races got supercharged, and only admitted his career-long drug use a decade after his retirement. These days he says many of the same things that a certain permanently sanctioned American racer has said — about being a scapegoat for an entire generation’s indiscretions — but people (at least those in English-speaking countries) seem to shrug when Museeuw says it.
25. Ivan Basso. Come on, it was only attempted doping.
24. Michael Rasmussen. A ranking this high for the Chicken of Tollose seemed unimaginable a decade ago, when he was tossed out of the Tour, technically for a whereabouts violation but karmically for riding like an extraterrestrial. Some also seemed to hold his gangly appearance and awkward mannerisms against him. All this hostility has faded, partly because of the honest manner in which he ultimately admitted lying, cheating and deceiving people, but also because he’s been blunt and smart about the sport without seeming unhinged.
23. Alberto Contador. If you want to diffuse public anger over alleged doping, it helps to have an inane narrative. And to ride like an angel out of the saddle and attack Grand Tours like a true champion. Thus many people have been able to put aside the absurdity of the tainted-steak episode and his curious refusal to offer up a DNA sample to back up his Operation Puerto storyline. Truth be told, Contador’s stock rose considerably when Andy Schleck was named the winner of the 2010 Tour.
22. Frank Schleck. Despite evidence of large transfers to a Swiss bank account linked to Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes of Operation Puerto fame, Frank Schleck was formally cleared of wrongdoing and proclaimed his complete innocence. That position got tougher after he tested positive for Xipamide at the 2012 Tour de France, but the Luxembourgian insisted that he had not ingested the diuretic intentionally. Yay cycling! All in all, the doping offenses that the elder Schleck brother faced were not remarkable for his era, and in truth his ranking is mostly a reflection of how some fans just never warmed to the Schleck brothers.
21. Jeannie Longo. The winningest woman in cycling history doesn’t have a cloud of suspicion over her head; she has a supercell cumulonimbus formation raining insults down on our intelligence. Over the course of several decades of supernatural domination, Longo has missed tests, failed tests, and aspired to convince the world that her husband bought EPO from Joe Papp for his personal use.
20. Jonathan Vaughters. He sits at the exact center of this list for good reason. It is true that he has a legacy far more complicated than that of an anti-doping pioneer, but it’s also true that he’s done considerably more good than haters will acknowledge. No offense Pippo, but I think JV is harder to judge than you.
19. Richard Virenque. The boyish, camera-aware climber did more than enough drugs and told more than enough bald-faced lies to be near the sharp end of this list, but he seems too naive or buffoonish to be hated seriously. His refusal to go away inspires more eye rolling than rancor. Still, the absurdist star of the Festina Affair only admitted to taking tons of EPO after theatrical denials, a weird book substantiating his innocence, and hypocritical denials and reversals in courtrooms.
18. David Millar. He used to be ranked higher on this list, and for a while he seemed to be a poster child of literate reformation, a truth teller and elder spokesman who could help change the sport from the inside. It was enough for many to forgive or overlook the EPO vials and his early, woefully bogus admissions and tapped phone conversations, but over time he’s lost some admirers for driving around in Maseratis, working with British Cycling, and for sanctimoniously ripping other sanctioned cyclists. Millar clearly did not watch Fight Club.
17. Danilo Di Luca. This explosive Italian climber is what an academic might call a habitual cheater. The Killer was popped three times — twice for CERA and once for EPO — and eventually earned a lifetime ban, but most of his biggest results still stand. At times he rode like an extraterrestrial who did not care how blatant his cheating might appear.
16. Filippo Pozzato. Despite what the tattoo says, a lot of people feel like they can judge Pippo. He offered up a dubious account of his relationship to Dr. Michelle Ferrari — during the pinnacle of his career, when he won the 2006 Milan-San Remo — but only got a flimsy three-month sanction due to a paperwork error. The way that he has hung around the pro peloton pisses some folks off, too. But it’s kind of hard to hate Pippo — there’s something absurdist about him, and he’s still hard to drop, and his social media feed is entertaining. Good for young riders to remember that having a flamboyant Instagram feed can boost your PED sympathy index.
15. Chris Horner. [Redacted]
14. George Hincapie. In the manner of Indurain, Big George is another successful practitioner of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” club. Of course there are some who still hold him accountable as The Joker’s loyal lieutenant, or hate him for his financial successes and the fondos and jerseys that bear his name, or resent his continued presence in the sport. But George has been quiet and likeable, and has lent legitimate support and guidance to a generation of young racers — in most every way acted like a classy champion from past generations who took PEDs. Two additional data points that enhance his ranking: He was immensely talented as a junior and he never won Paris-Roubaix.
13. Floyd Landis. This is a tricky one. There are fans who’d like this straight talking, pot-selling, whistleblower (who arguably was pushed out of the sport by Don’t Say His Name), ranked higher. Other observers feel stung by Floyd’s original sin on Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour, or by his Positively False debacle, or by his creepy threats toward Greg LeMond, and think he’s a bad actor. He is at once a victim of injustice and an acute cheater, but he sure as hell is interesting to listen to these days.
12. Levi Leipheimer. A divisive character for sure, disliked or toxic enough to be pushed out of the pro peloton by team sponsors after his sanction from USADA’s 2012 Reasoned Decision. He’s won plenty of hearts by being a class act and throwing a first-class gran fondo (and raising money for at-risk kids and other charities along the way) and accepting responsibility for his mistakes, but there remain a sizable number of haters who dislike his demeanor or how he rode or who he married or how he rebuilt his life after his sanction.
11. Ryder Hesjedal. By the time Hesjedal got into road racing, the PED genie was out of the bottle and on the floor, but he was at the forefront of screwing up North American mountain-bike culture before that. It’s kind of a big deal, because he didn’t just fall in with the status quo — he helped bring drug culture to a new discipline. Then, after a Grand Tour campaign that could charitably be called spotty, he won the 2012 Giro d’Italia for the Garmin-Barracuda “clean team” with some astounding climbing performances, and only admitted his early doping past after he was named in Michael Rasmussen’s tell-all book.
10. Tom Danielson. Some sanctioned racers piss people off way more than others, and Tommy D is one of them. Hardcore fans, the type who still haunt message boards, know that Steve Tilford didn’t like Danielson and that some in the racing community have a beef with him and that some people don’t like the way his voice sounds and that his last positive was the last straw and he still takes money to coach juniors, and the net sum is that he’s guiltier than others who did the same thing. I would like to be on record predicting that Tom’s ranking will rise considerably in the next few years.
9. Alejandro Valverde. That huge sigh you recently heard on the internet — that was Valverde deciding to pass on De Ronde. The Green Bullet’s biggest crime seems to be that he’s still riding, and winning. And while some riders have escaped scorn by remaining silent, Valverde’s refusal to talk about his doping has been held against him. He’s a classy rider and seemingly a respectful human being, but his presence on podiums in the Ardennes Classics and elsewhere is a reminder that it’s not entirely new era of clean-ish racing. More than half of his career wins have now come after he discretely served his two-year ban for his role in Operation Puerto, only confirmed after Italian authorities did what the Spaniards would not — match his blood sample with those confiscated in Spain.
8. Riccardo Ricco. At his fiery peak — on the Col d’Aspin during the 2008 Tour, for instance — the Cobra rode so explosively that he almost looked like he wanted to be caught. That time it was Continuous Erythropoietin Receptor Activator, or CERA. Soon after that sanction was over, Ricco — who allegedly had doped since he was a junior — had to check himself into an emergency room for botching a transfusion with 25-day-old blood. And in 2014, even though his pro career was essentially over and he was focusing on gran fondos, Ricco got nabbed buying EPO in a McDonald’s parking lot. His story has such pathos, but his high ranking is a justly earned lifetime achievement award.
7. Davide Rebellin. Here’s another guy with a dubious past who won’t go away. He’s 46, basically the Betty White of bike racing, still out there taking jobs and top-10 finishes away from younger riders. The supernaturally accomplished classics specialist was busted only once — for taking CERA at the 2008 Olympic Games. He lost a silver medal and was consigned to second-level teams, and he spent years bitching about his pariah status. Boo hoo. Pretty hard to have your complaints about missed opportunities taken seriously if you refuse to take responsibility for your actions and then spend a decade taking opportunities away from other riders.
6. Bjarne Riis. Perhaps no one has accomplished so much to normalize doping in the sport as both an athlete and a team manager. As a rider, he was known as Mr. 60 percent, an homage to his hematocrit, and his win at the 1996 Tour (over fellow list-mates Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque) has been stricken. As a manager, at CSC and Saxo Bank and Tinkov, he oversaw a parade of sanctioned riders. And as Tyler Hamilton alleged in his book, Riis didn’t just ignore cheating on his teams; he actively pushed it. I have almost nothing positive to say about Oleg Tinkov, but I’m happy that he helped push Riis off that team and out of the highest level of the sport.
5. Femke Van den Driessche. There’s a special place in Hell for the first elite rider to get caught with a motor in her bike at a major race (and for treating the public like morons for claiming the bike belonged to a friend). Not only does this disgrace prove the existence of an entirely new kind of doping but it reopens painfully circular conversations about how a certain Swiss rider noodled away from a certain Belgian racer on the the Muur in 2010. Thanks, Femke.
4. Alexander Vinokourov. Though many fans have trouble isolating Vino’s doping culpability from his many other indiscretions, his credentials for this ranking are strong. We know he saw Dr. Ferrari and got popped for blood doping at the 2007 Tour and oversaw the scandal-plagued Astana team through a raft of positives. There’s also that matter of buying his 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège win from Alexandr Kolobnev, and allegations he did the same with Rigoberto Uran at the 2012 London Olympics. Few have managed to retain such a dubious reputation both as a rider and team manager while coming across like a soft-spoken spandex gangster who DGAF.
3 & 2. Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. I don’t know where to start here — the jiffy bag and TUEs, triamcinolone and salbutamol, or Fancy Bears and “stolen” laptops — but I have a pretty good idea how it will end. We went through it with Festina and then went through it with U.S. Postal and now we’re going through it with Team Sky. And by “it” I mean institutionalized lying and bullshit. Sure, we need to watch things play out — Wiggins never tested positive, and the outcome of Froome’s case is to be determined — but it’s clear as day that Marginal Gains and Sky’s zero-tolerance policy are fairy tales. Seems that most fans have zero tolerance of this familiar tragicomedy.
1. Lance Armstrong. Did he take different drugs than the others on this list? No, he did not. Did he significantly innovate doping culture or tell fundamentally different lies than his contemporaries? Others might disagree, but I’d say no. In some genuine ways, Armstrong remains a scapegoat for the atrocities committed an entire generation of racers. However, when it comes to the rankings on this list, people are understandably resistant to forgive an unapologetic bully who stepped all over people on his way to the top step on the podium. Young racers, even those who find themselves tempted to join the Dark Side, would be wise to remember the wisdom of Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick.
About the author
Peter Flax, former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine and features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, currently works as editor in chief at The Red Bulletin. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore, and he only wears leg warmers when he feels like it.