Analysis: Nibali’s Giro win represents quandary of ‘new’ cycling

In today's peloton, admirable performances invite suspicion and Andrew Hood reviews the evidence surrounding Vincenzo Nibali


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Editor’s note: As we ring out 2013, we look at 13 of our favorite stories of the year. Andrew Hood’s reflection on Vincenzo Nibali’s Giro d’Italia victory originally appeared on May 30, 2013.

MILANO (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) made his pursuit of pink look easy en route to winning the 96th Giro d’Italia on Sunday. But it is that ease that has many observers questioning the methods the 28-year-old Sicilian used to land his second grand tour title in superb fashion.

Nibali rode an impeccable Giro from start to finish. The “Shark of Messina” barely made a mistake during a weather-marred corsa rosa, and confirmed himself as Italy’s newest grand tour champion. But just as Bradley Wiggins (Sky) discovered last year after winning the Tour de France in equally impeccable fashion, victory in today’s scandal-weary peloton brings inevitable doubts. Following Nibali’s smooth domination of the Giro, can and should we believe his victory was clean?

In light of what everyone now knows about the depths of depravity during the EPO era, can any reasonable observer honestly believe that today’s stars are racing and winning clean?

Those are fair questions to ask.

Skeptics see plenty in Nibali’s performance over three weeks to raise some eyebrows.

First off, Nibali seemed immune to the cold, suffering, and otherwise miserable conditions that the rest of the peloton endured during the Giro’s worst weather in two decades. The Italian, who has one of the best poker faces in the peloton, appeared to be breathing through a straw while others rode with mouths agape through the three-week test of survival. Other than crashing on a wet descent — while attacking — in the first week, Nibali never had a bad moment.

Second, there are serious questions about the legacy of the Astana team and some of its key members. The team’s general manager is none other than Alexander Vinokourov, who served a two-year ban for blood doping and was one of the biggest stars during the darkest days of the EPO era in the 1990s and 2000s. Giuseppi Martinelli, Astana’s veteran sport director, led the likes of Marco Pantani and Stefano Garzelli to Giro victories. Pantani was ousted from the 1999 Giro while wearing the pink jersey due to high hematocrit levels; Garzelli served a suspension stemming from a positive control for the banned diuretic probenecid at the 2002 Giro. In light of what was revealed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into the U.S. Postal Service team and other anti-doping inquiries, it’s not a stretch to place suspicion on anyone with major success in the EPO era — particularly those with grand tour wins on their palmares.

And the overriding suspicion remains that no one can race, survive, attack, and then win a three-week, 3,000-kilometer grand tour without pharmaceutical assistance. Doping was such an ingrained part of the culture of being a professional cyclist that it seems like an impossible leap of logic to accept that suddenly the peloton is racing on pane y acqua.

Danilo Di Luca’s positive control for EPO — announced during the race but tied to an out-of-competition test in late April — reconfirmed that doping remains part of the fabric of the peloton. (Officials are still waiting for results of Di Luca’s B sample.) Yet the Di Luca scandal also reveals just how much things have changed between 2007, when “the Killer” won the Giro, and Nibali’s victory last week.

A long way from Di Luca to Nibali

Di Luca’s win in 2007 and Nibali’s in 2013 are worlds apart.

First, the noose around the doper’s neck is tighter than ever before. Back in the 1990s, there wasn’t even a test to detect EPO, and doping controls were notoriously loose and inadequate. Since then, there has been a sea change that has made for very dangerous waters for dopers.

In the wake of the Festina Affaire in 1998, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Code have been enacted. The Code includes more than 1,000 substances on its banned list. A new battery of tests has been developed to detect a wide menu of banned chemical concoctions.

Detection levels have also increased dramatically. Alberto Contador was busted for clenbuterol in 2010 with levels so minute — 50 picograms — that only one lab in the world could detect it.

Another loophole that dopers used to exploit was the question of out-of-competition testing. Until a decade ago, tests were only conducted during races. Drugs such as EPO and testosterone take days, weeks, and sometimes months of application to take full effect, but would quickly wash out of the system, meaning that riders rarely doped with easily detectable products during actual competition. They did most of the heavy dosages before a race. Today’s pros, under the ADAMs whereabouts program, can be tested anywhere at any time, and must be available to testers 365 days a year.

Several nations have enacted tough anti-doping laws, which give police and investigators sweeping powers for going after doping rings. Armstrong and his doping empire didn’t ultimately crumble until witnesses faced potential jail time for perjury if they lied under grand jury testimony. While the USADA case was ultimately built on cooperative witness testimony in exchange for lesser bans, Armstrong would have never fallen had it not been for increased judicial pressure and oversight.

Perhaps most important, the biological passport, introduced in 2006, provides an X-ray of sorts inside the body of athletes, allowing anti-doping officials (and teams) to see what their riders are up to. When applied properly, the passport can be used directly to hand down bans, or even more effectively, provide a baseline to initiate target testing. Riders with suspicious numbers are barraged with tests, and they invariably get popped if they’re up to something.

Despite evidence that the anti-doping effort has been bungled, under-funded, and mismanaged, the overall system has gone a long way toward making it harder and harder for dopers to get away with it. The most blatant cheaters are getting caught, something that represents a quantum leap from less than a decade ago. Just ask Di Luca; he’s been busted twice now since 2009.

At the same time as these changes on the legal and medical front, there has been a quiet yet equally dramatic transformation from within the peloton.

If you believe what riders say on and off the record, there is evidence that doping has become a minority within the peloton. Teams, managers, and riders have, for a variety of reasons, simply stopped institutionalized doping.

Young riders coming into the sport over the past few years insist they have never seen a needle, been offered a pill or a bag of blood, nor heard of teammates or bosses talking about doping. And those same riders are winning important races, so to them, the proof’s in the pudding. If the peloton wasn’t cleaning up, the logic goes, they wouldn’t be even close to winning anything.

In that context, we come back to the pink jersey question: can and should we believe Nibali?

Can and should we believe Nibali?

Nibali has been discreet throughout his career and turned pro just as the seeds of change started to take root. He has never been linked to a major doping scandal nor failed a doping control.

The biggest stink occurred in 2009, when reports surfaced in the Italian media that Ivano Fanini, manager at Amore e Vita, claimed that sources told him that Nibali was training with the infamous Dr. Michele Ferrari near St. Moritiz, Switzerland. Those reports created a firestorm in Italy. Nibali vehemently denied having ever met Ferrari, and threatened to sue Fanini and certain Italian media outlets.

During this Giro, Nibali was indeed in a “class of his own,” as Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) put it best, but against whom? Nibali was head and shoulders above a field full of aging stars and young up-and-comers that came into the Giro without realistic hopes of winning.

The peloton’s top grand tour riders — Chris Froome (Sky), Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Trek) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) — all steered clear of the Giro to target the Tour.

When pre-race favorites Wiggins and defending champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) abandoned, all Nibali had to do was stay upright on his bike to win the Giro. His most serious challenges came from Urán, who was seventh last year and started the race as a helper for Wiggins, and Evans, a winner of the 2011 Tour, who only decided five weeks beforehand to race with the idea of using the Giro to prepare for the Tour.

Behind them were Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida), a perennial podium man beyond his best, and some young guns, such as Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale), who were racing their first grand tour.

In sharp contrast, Nibali started working in November to prepare for the Giro, and came with a loaded, dedicated team fully intent on winning the pink jersey.

Nibali’s progression as a grand tour rider has also been consistent, steady, and above all, credible.

Since his grand tour debut in 2007, Nibali’s never finished worse than 20th in 10 grand tour starts, and he’s finished them all. After nibbling at the top 10 with seventh at 2009 Tour de France, his coming out party was 2010, when he rode to third in the Giro, helping then-teammate Ivan Basso take pink, and later winning the Vuelta a España. In fact, since 2010, he has won or been on the podium in five of the six grand tours he’s started. His lone hiccup was seventh in the 2011 Vuelta.

Last year, en route to third overall, Nibali was the only rider capable of challenging the Sky gauntlet during the 2012 Tour. So his Giro victory against a relatively thin field should hardly come as a surprise for anyone.

And despite winning by more than four minutes, Nibali didn’t do anything that seemed so extraordinary as to provoke guffaws from the peanut gallery.

Nibali’s attacks were measured, precise, and relatively short. His stage-winning attack at Tre Cime di Lavaredo on Saturday came less than two kilometers from the tape, and he even later admitted he went too early and was running out of steam.

In today’s science-based, number-crunching peloton, perhaps the most telling evidence of Nibali’s performance lies in the power meter.

While teams and riders are loath to give away the power numbers of their top riders, La Gazzetta dello Sport published a story revealing some interesting data about Nibali’s performance.

La Gazzetta didn’t cite the source of the numbers, but even at face value they provided some telling stats. The last time the Giro climbed Tre Cime, Riccardo Riccò and Di Luca were the main protagonists. Riccò, who has since been banned 12 years for illegal blood transfusions, won the stage while Di Luca cemented his grip on the pink jersey. Di Luca, after tackling three other categorized climbs, climbed the final four kilometers of the Tre Cime climb, with an average grade of 12.26 percent, in 15:30. Nibali, while racing in a snowstorm, was 2:30 slower. Using the measure of VAM (vertical meters climbed per hour), Di Luca hit 1,780 VAM in 2007 up Tre Cime, while Nibali posted 1,533 VAM up Tre Cime with 5.29 watts/kg.

Citing Nibali’s numbers on the other major climbs, La Gazzetta also estimated that he climbed the last 10km of the Montasio climb in 29:49, with 5.05 watts/kg. Those numbers were challenged by none other than Ferrari, who pegged Nibali’s power up the Montasio climb at a whopping 6.4 watts/kg.

Going back to La Gazzetta’s numbers, up the Jafferau, where he attacked in the final two kilometers in the cold above Bardonecchia, Nibali posted an average of 340 watts during the 7km climb.

The style of racing during this Giro was in marked contrast to 2007 when Riccò and Di Luca were trading punches. Gone are the days when riders would jump clear in the big ring with two climbs to go to a beyond-category summit finish. Nibali’s surges at Bardonecchia and Tre Cime both came within 2km of the line.

All of those factors seem to indicate that Nibali won because he was the best prepared, had the best team to support him, didn’t suffer any serious health problems or crashes, and arrived at the Giro at the peak of a long and steady trajectory over the past half-decade. There is no proof to indicate anything else, at least not now.

A Nibali positive would be devastating not only for Italian cycling and the Giro, but also for a scandal-ravaged sport desperate to rebuild its credibility. It’s hard to imagine that Nibali or Astana would risk everything, knowing the stakes involved, not only for themselves, but also for the larger sport as a whole. However, given the events of the last 24 months on the doping front, a pledge of this nature lacks the weight it held following the Festina Affaire or even Operación Puerto.

Is it a sucker’s bet to believe that Nibali might have won the Giro clean? No one wants to be caught with pie on their face again, but until we hear otherwise, Nibali deserves the benefit of the doubt.

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