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Wiggins faces uphill path to save cycling

PARIS -- As doping-disgraced Lance Armstrong cycles into the sunset of sporting infamy, Britain's Bradley Wiggins and a new generation of pedal pushers must try to make people care about a forever-tainted sport.

That's the challenge moving ahead after the International Cycling Union (UCI) upheld a life ban on Armstrong and the stripping of his seven Tour de France titles based upon a mountain of evidence from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Where Armstrong had been listed as champion of the world's most famous cycling race from 1999-2005, there now is no winner named, organizers choosing not to move up other riders into the top spot — a symbol of a lost era.

Another former Armstrong teammate, Norwegian Steffen Kjaergaard, admitted Tuesday that he took the banned blood booster erythropoietin (EPO).

With already-ousted winner Floyd Landis also among confessed Tour dope cheats and an entrenched banned performance-enhancing system around Armstrong, Rabobank dropped its team sponsorship, declaring the sport was too far gone.

Wiggins, this year's Tour de France winner with Team Sky, and 2011 champion Cadel Evans of Australia are among the stars who must try and convince sponsors and supporters of cycling to stay faithful in the face of betrayal.

“We are the ones picking these pieces up,” Wiggins told Sky News. “For me it is about moving forward and not looking back any more to what happened 10, 15 years ago.

“We are one of the most successful sports for catching people. I don't think that is relevant to what we are doing today. What we are doing today is setting the example for our sport.”

Sky said it will ask all team members to sign a pledge vowing they have never been involved with doping and never will be — or face firing.

“We want a team in which riders are free of the risks of doping and in which fans new and old can believe without any doubt or hesitation,” Sky said.

Michael Ashenden, a blood doping expert who worked for UCI until April, said Sky's pledge must have effective oversight and standards to be meaningful.

“Do Sky intend to actively investigate what (team leader David) Brailsford calls reputational risks and act on what they find if there are grounds to suspect someone has been associated with doping?” he asked.

“It's a really important issue because unless they can qualify their position, their statement isn't worth the paper it's written on. If they intend only to act when a cyclist is sanctioned, they're being disingenuous to their fans.

“We're talking about millions of fans being deceived and tens of millions of dollars being fraudulently earned by Armstrong. Lessons have to be learned.”

Brailsford said slower Tour times in recent years show the doping era is over.

“Times have got slower and slower, which contrasts the normal progression of sport,” Brailsford said. “There's only one explanation and it's that the sport has cleaned up. People are doing a lot to make sure all the results can be authentic.”

Showing the depth of past disgrace, however, erodes confidence in the stars of the moment and threatens the future.

The Onion, a satirical faux news website, summed up the Armstrong affair in a story entitled “This Last Story Ever Written About Cycling” with cutting remarks basically wondering why cycling should even bother trying to ride on.

The tongue-in-cheek report said Armstrong's punishment ensured “cycling will never be mentioned in a mainstream news publication ever again, because, what's the point? ... Lance Armstrong is done and cycling is over.”

“According to sources and basic common sense, now that the storied career of cycling's most prominent and marketable figure has been revealed as a complete and undeniable fraud, there is no chance the sport will ever again receive even one line of coverage from any news outlet in the world.”

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 Mueller penalty enough for Bayern to defeat Lille 
This July 23, 2000 file photo shows Tour de France “winner” Lance Armstrong riding down the Champs Elysees with an American flag after the 21st and final stage of the cycling race in Paris, France (AP)

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