GENEVA (AFP) –
World cycling officials said they could make reforms as early as this week in the wake of ratifying a life ban for global cycling icon Lance Armstrong.
The International Cycling Union (UCI) on Monday effectively erased Armstrong from the cycling history books when it decided not to appeal sanctions imposed on the American by the United States Doping Agency (USADA).
A damning report by USADA last week concluded that Armstrong helped orchestrate the most sophisticated doping programme in the history of sport.
He will now lose all of his results from 1998, the year he resumed racing after successfully battling cancer, and a year before the first of his seven consecutive yellow jersey wins from 1999-2005.
Having failed to catch Armstrong in over 200 anti-doping tests, the UCI believes it is now far better equipped and says it has the support of many in the sport, including riders who want to leave the murky doping past behind.
But UCI president Pat McQuaid said recent events had forced a rethink on how the entire sport is structured and run. He hinted at proposals to change how the gruelling three-week races, the Grand Tours, are held.
“This affair has been hanging over us for quite a while now and I would hope today is the culmination of this affair. We can now put it behind us and move forward,” McQuaid told reporters.
“We want to take what we can learn from it and put in place measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The UCI’s management committee, which can make changes to the rules of the sport, is set to meet on Friday.
As the fall-out from Armstrong’s downfall gathers pace, McQuaid said issues like the return of prize money and the re-attribution of placings would be discussed, as well as changes as to how cycling is run.
“It’s up to the UCI to look at the sport, look at team structures, look at race structures and try to create an environment for this to not happen again,” he added.
“Let’s face it, most of our problems revolve around our teams in Grand Tours. Let’s look at that.
“I have some ideas I’m going to put forward on Friday, and we may make some decision on Friday with relation to this.”
Asked if that would include the reduction in the number of nine-man teams, McQuaid said: “Possibly.”
After an in-depth investigation into his former team US Postal by federal agent Jeff Novitzky, Armstrong’s fate was virtually sealed by the 11 former teammates who gave damning evidence against him.
Some of those riders, according to the USADA, were coerced and, in some cases, according to McQuaid, “forced” into taking performance-enhancing drugs to support Armstrong’s Tour de France campaigns.
“When reading the affidavits, you realise that most of the guys who were on that (Armstrong’s) team had no intention getting into doping,” McQuaid told AFP.
“They were coerced into it, and even one or two were forced into it.”
David Zabriskie, a former US Postal rider who was told he must take EPO if he wanted to remain on the team, was one of the riders who testified against Armstrong.
“The way he (Zabriskie) was coerced and forced into doping is just mind-boggling. I just found it hard to understand,” said McQuaid after reading the report.
Another American, Christian Vande Velde, was put in a similar corner before having to adhere to a programme organised by Armstrong’s notorious sports doctor, Italian Michele Ferrari.
“I was in the doghouse and the only way forward with Armstrong’s team was to get fully on Dr. Ferrari’s doping programme,” Vande Velde said in evidence against Armstrong.
The UCI’s aim is now to “ensure that riders are not put under the type of pressure that these riders were put under, or can be put under, to demand results or deliver for a big star,” said McQuaid.
In a later interview with AFP, McQuaid said the landscape has changed significantly.
“The athletes of today don’t want to get into doping, and the structures that are being built around athletes by their professional teams now are much better than they were in those days,” he said.
“Structures of support, not structures of doping as they were in the USPS (US Postal) team, who assist athletes, when they get into trouble physically or emotionally.
“I think the sport is in a very good place at the moment, we’ve had to deal with this crisis but I look upon this as an opportunity.
“When you look at the fantastic London (Olympic) Games as an example, the public and the fans were there and they understand what is going on and that a lot of work is being done in the anti-doping field at the moment.
“I’m not going to say this will definitely change things for the good. But I am confident that more and more of our teams and riders and stakeholders realise they don’t want to go into a situation like this.”