PARIS (Reuters) - Samuel Dumoulin read out a collective letter before the third stage of this year’s Paris-Nice race in response to team mate Lloyd Mondory’s failed dope test.
It declared that the whole Ag2r-La Mondiale team were “determined to advance, true to their values”.
“We will not give up,” the Frenchman said, surrounded by his team mates.
The scene was a sharp contrast to the peloton’s strike at stage 17 of the 1998 Tour de France in the wake of the Festina affair -- suggesting a cultural shift is finally happening in scandal-ridden cycling.
“The solution is not to keep silent,” the 34-year-old Dumoulin, who takes pride in “doing his job clean”, told Reuters.
After a UCI-ordered Independent Commission’s (CIRC) report into the sport’s doping practices suggested cheating was less prevalent but still endemic, several riders offered a different viewpoint.
The CIRC report, which one team manager described to Reuters as “a literature review”, interviewed 174 people but fewer than 10 of them were actual riders.
One of them, Dumoulin, has seen the “crazy years” and “the Lance Armstrong era” -- and he now believes that change is happening.
“It’s not like it used to be,” he said. “Now everybody is counting their pedal strokes. The gaps allowed to the breakaway groups are not as big because the peloton does not have the same strength to catch them.”
Yet one ‘respected cycling professional” told the CIRC panel that 90 percent of the riders were still doping -- a remark that Briton Geraint Thomas found ‘insulting’.David Millar, an ex-doper turned anti-doping campaigner who retired at the end of last season, labeled the report ‘borderline irresponsible’.
“The sport that I entered is completely different than that of the majority of the names that they published,” American Andrew Talansky, who turned professional in 2011, told Reuters.
“I came into a sport that from everything that I have seen is clean, especially on the team that I turned professional with.”
The 26-year-old Talansky, 10th overall in the 2013 Tour and winner of last year’s prestigious Criterium du Dauphine, rides for Cannondale-Garmin, a team launched in 2008 on a strong anti-doping stance.
“I can’t speak for everybody else but I know basically that my team is clean, I know that my friends in the peloton are clean, I believe in that,” he said.
“There are still ways of doping, like micro-dosing, which can improve performances by two to three percent,” Gerard Guillaume, team doctor at French outfit FDJ, told Reuters.
“But the younger riders have had a different education, they’re not into this. they’re a totally different generation.”
According to Dumoulin, ”racing is more subtle now, you have to be intelligent, it’s not just about the engine.
“Training and strategy now matter. In the past, you could not fight, it was obvious.”
Doping will never be eradicated but an increasing number of riders are open to discussing a subject that would have been taboo 10 years ago.
“There will always be people who do not believe in that (anti-doping) and don’t want to be part of that, but they’re a very small minority, now the majority are on the same page,” Talansky explained.
The cheats are more likely to be caught, however, because the sport is at the forefront of the fight against doping since it first implemented biological passports in 2008.
A majority of the World Tour teams have also adhered to a movement that enforces rules stricter than those of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), especially on the use of corticoids.
“The sport gets thrown under the bus and we get mud thrown at because we do the most,” said Talansky.
“I live in the U.S. where a(n American) football player can go in and get a cortisone shot in his knee at halftime and come back out and he’s viewed as a hero for playing through the pain. We (cyclists) can’t do that.”
Cycling is often singled out but there are signs of change.
Asked whether he would one day tire of answering doping questions, Talansky said: ”There is never going to be a point like that.
“I hope that during my career that there is a point I don’t get asked those questions anymore but not in the sense that I want to ignore the subject, but in a sense that we’ve proven to the public that were clean.”
Some sponsors have left but others have decided to stay despite the scandals and recent positive tests. Ag2R-La Mondiale, who have faced three failed tests in the last years, have been in the peloton since 1992.
“We have a chance to have such a sponsor, let’s not waste it,” said Dumoulin.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Alan Baldwin