Crossland Q&A: The world comes to the U.S.; addressing ’cross doping

World cyclocross' attention trains on Ohio this week and Dan Seaton looks back at doping cases in ’cross with hope for the future

Photo: Dan Seaton

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Editor’s note: Dan Seaton has been literally crawling through the Belgian mud covering European cyclocross since 2008. Each week this season he’ll look ahead to the weekend’s races and answer your questions about ’cross on the other side of the Atlantic. Got a question for your favorite Euro star? Want to know the inside story about the legendary Flemish fields? Send your questions to Emails to this address were being bounced earlier this fall, so if you tried to email and didn’t hear back, please do try again.

BRUSSELS (VN) — For the first time since September there will be little action on the European cyclocross front this weekend, as all eyes turn to the United States and the build-up to cyclocross worlds next weekend. For the Europeans who haven’t made the jump across the Atlantic yet — or those left off their national team rosters — there are race options in France, Italy, and Spain. But it’s Cincinnati that will host the biggest event with its Kings International Cyclocross on Saturday.

With Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) on the startlist, the race will mark the first time American fans have seen the rainbow jersey of an elite world champion in the States since Erwin Vervecken made a short trip to race in Southampton, New York, in 2007. (Lars Van Der Haar was U23 world champion when he won CrossVegas in 2011, but, racing with the elites, he did not wear the rainbow jersey.)

Among the other riders scheduled to take the start in Ohio are the new American champion Jonathan Page, teammates Tim Johnson and Ryan Trebon, Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus), Swiss riders Simon Zahner (EKZ Racing) and Julien Taramarcaz (BMC Racing), and Czech Radomir Simunek (Kwadro-Stannah). Headlining the women’s race will be Amy Dombroski (Telenet-Fidea), racing for the first time her home country after many months in Belgium, Czech champion Katerina Nash (Luna) and her American teammate Georgia Gould, Meredith Miller (Cal Giant-Specialized), Swiss champion Jasmin Achermann (Rapha) and European Champion Helen Wyman (Kona).

In any other year, a race with that much international talent on display would be the biggest event of the year in the U.S., but it’s just a warm-up race for the main event, the world championships, now barely more than a week away. Things are about to get very exciting, so stay tuned.

Now let’s turn to one of your questions. It’s a tough one.

On doping in cyclocross

Dear Dan,
Doping in road cycling has been major news lately, but what about cyclocross? Is doping an issue there too?
—Alan in Kansas

I knew that with so much news about the Armstrong case emerging in the past few weeks it was only a matter of time until this question came up. It’s a fair one, because, indeed, cyclocross has had its own checkered history, and questions about doping persist today as well.

The most recent case is that of Belgian Tom Meeusen (Telenet) who lost his place on the Belgian National Team for the final two rounds of the World Cup and next Sunday’s championship race because of his involvement in a police investigation into doping practices in Belgium. Meeusen’s role in the investigation is apparently only as a witness, rather than as the object of suspicion, but the Belgian federation’s rules prohibit anyone involved in such an investigation from racing for the national team. Meeusen has spoken out forcefully against doping and has stridently defended his reputation as a clean rider, but until he is formally cleared by prosecutors, Meeusen will remain restricted from racing in national team colors.

Meeusen’s troubles follow close on the heels of his teammate Bart Wellens, who himself was the subject of an investigation following a life-threatening illness the night before the Belgian national championship race last season. Wellens was cleared after a police investigation concluded that his symptoms, which included high fever and kidney failure, were the result of a blood infection that originated in an infected tooth. He returned to racing this year after making, apparently, a full recovery from his illness.

Meeusen and Wellens may very well turn out to have been the subjects of unfair suspicion, collateral damage from a toxic culture where once-rampant cheating has left no one and no result safe from skepticism. But if that’s true, cyclocrossers have done plenty to earn that suspicion as well.

The most high profile recent case was that of the Pawel and Kacper Szczepaniak, Polish brothers who finished one-two in the 2010 world championships in Tabor, Czech Republic. Each brother had a positive control for the banned blood booster EPO following a somewhat surprising U23 race.

Pawel later told the Belgian paper Het Laatste Nieuws that they believed they were using vitamins, not EPO, and that their motivation for cycling success stemmed from a desire to help their family to escape poverty. But the excuses apparently didn’t resonate with fans or the UCI, and both are now serving long suspensions — eight and four years, respectively — as the 2010 infraction was not the first entanglement with doping for either of them.

Before that, Belgian Ben Berden, now a star on the U.S. cyclocross circuit, served a 15-month suspension for testing positive for EPO after finishing second in a GVA Trofee race in Essen, Belgium, in 2005. Berden admitted to doping, telling the Belgian press that before his positive control he had been suffering from fatigue.

“At that moment, I had a hematocrit of 38,” he said in a 2005 press conference. “With a tough period coming up, I did not want to disappoint the sponsors and fans. I regret my actions and will not be asking for a counter-analysis.”

Berden had appeared to be poised for cyclocross greatness before his infraction put the brakes on his career, racing to World Cup and national championship podiums in the 2004-05 season that marked his downfall, but he has never replicated the success he had prior to his ban. He continues to speak out against doping and the culture that drives racers to use banned substances.

The list goes on. One of the most significant doping cases in the history of the sport was that of former world champion and current Sunweb-Napoleon Games team manager Mario De Clercq, who received a four-year ban that effectively ended his career in 2005. De Clercq was swept up in what eventually became known as the Landuyt affair, for José Landuyt, a Belgian veterinarian who led a massive doping ring. De Clercq was one of a number of high profile riders identified during the course of an investigation that began in 2003, just a year after De Clercq won his third world title.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but it does put the sport’s past and present in some context. Are there successful athletes racing clean? I’m certain there are. Are there riders who continue to dope? I want to say no, that we’re in a new world where riders truly want clean and fair races and doping is harder to get away with anyway. But I’m not naive. Athletes, coaches, and journalists said the same about Lance Armstrong, the same in 2010 before the Szczepaniaks, the same in 2005 when both Berden and De Clercq went down. The fact is that as long as the rewards appear to outweigh the risks, athletes will inevitably continue to seek whatever competitive edge they can get.

Still, a new day does seem to be dawning for road cycling after a long period of darkness. I sincerely hope we can say the same about cyclocross as well.

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