Commentary: Cobo case is an important milestone in fight against doping

Though it took too long, the case to disqualify Juan José Cobo from the 2011 Vuelta is an important milestone in the fight for clean sport.

Photo: Corbis via Getty Images

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The slow hand of sporting justice finally ground to a conclusion this week. Nearly eight years after the race was over, Chris Froome was proclaimed winner of the 2011 Vuelta a España.

Gee, that didn’t take long.

With a procedural footnote this week, the UCI tweaked the official results sheet and removed Juan José Cobo from the 2011 Vuelta victory. The UCI had to wait for a 30-day appeal window to close before making the procedural but significant change.

Back-dated bans and retro-fitted results are never pleasing for anyone. In fact, they’re frustrating and aggravating as hell. The cheater gets to keep the prize money, the trophies, and all the glory that came with the ill-gotten gains. Everyone else who later gets bumped up doesn’t feel the satisfaction of standing on the podium or cashing his bonus check.

Froome had nothing to celebrate. The injured four-time Tour de France winner posted a photo a few weeks ago when the latest twist in the case was playing out and joked that, yes, you can win a bike race from bed. Wout Poels, who was awarded the stage victory at Anglirú, bitterly said it wouldn’t count for much in his mind. Bauke Mollema, who was bumped up to third in what is now his first and only grand tour podium, said it won’t change his life. No one will be popping champagne bottles.

Cobo (center) dropped Froome (right) and Wiggins (left) on the Alto de l’Angliru to win the 2011 Vuelta. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Better late than never

Despite that, the slow time-course of the case should not be seen as a failure.

While imperfect, the ruling is a milestone. The Cobo case proves that cheating riders can still get busted and face consequences years after their infractions.

The timing of the Cobo case was significant just as much as it seemed odd. The clock was ticking on an eight-year statute of limitations — it’s since been extended to 10 years — so the UCI needed to move on the case, or the window to impose a sanction would close.

The backstory reveals the difficulties anti-doping authorities faced to pursue the case over the years. As the anti-doping controls from 2011 Vuelta were being processed, Cobo was exhibiting some suspect numbers dating back to a period from 2009 to 2011. At the time, officials didn’t have firm evidence from his biological passport to press the case. The biological passport was still a relatively new weapon in their quiver. There was no smoking gun and no positive test, so officials resisted taking firm action.

According to reports in the Spanish media, anti-doping officials later were able to retest preserved samples with a new, more accurate testing methodology several years later. Though it took nearly eight years, the “cops” finally got their man.

Some might roll their eyes at a case that took eight years to resolve, and say cycling is shooting itself in the foot again. Others suggest that such slow justice is equal to no justice at all.

Arguably, there are no real-life implications to the outcome of the 2011 Vuelta case other than statistical. As a result, Froome now becomes the first British rider to win a grand tour — not Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour de France. Nothing much else will change. Cobo, who reportedly delivers milk and gives surfing lessons on Spain’s northern coast, won’t be coming back to racing. He’d already retired in 2014. And Froome, Mollema, and Poels won’t be standing on any podiums or cashing any bonus checks.

Cobo’s victory was the biggest achievement for the GEOX team. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Setting a new marker

As frustrating and tedious as tweaking race results years after the fact might seem, the case should be seen as another important landmark in the fight against dopers.

WADA rules now say samples can be stored for 10 years for retroactive testing, and the Cobo case is one of the first of its kind to successfully end with a ban. This will serve as another deterrent for the peloton, at the same time it raises the specter of more reshuffling of results in the future.

Still, some ask, why bother? Cycling’s past is full of ethical traps. Cynics will assume that it’s not just the unlucky chap who got caught who was doping, but the whole stinking peloton. What difference does it make to take away a victory from one doper to only give it to another rider who was equally tainted, but just not as unlucky? That logic is behind having the seven disqualified yellow jerseys of Lance Armstrong remain unclassified. It was hard to rationalize awarding the Texan’s tainted seven titles to riders who themselves had also admitted to doping, been popped on other occasions, or been implicated in doping scandals. Those Tours remain symbolically blank without an official winner as a testament to cycling’s dirty past.

Some assume the peloton in the 1990s is not much different from the one in 2011, or in 2019. Riders and teams are still willing to tip-toe right up to the line. Just look at the number of corticoids, ketones, TUEs, and asthma medications awash in the peloton today. It’s an ethical landmine to try to split hairs between a banned substance like EPO, and something that is allowed but also improves performance. Riders and teams will do what it takes to win.

What has changed in the past 20 years is the risk and implications of getting busted. And the Cobo case sets an important marker in cycling.

Cobo battled with Wiggins (left) and Mollema (center) for much of the 2011 Vuelta. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s worth remembering that the anti-doping movement is still relatively young. The infrastructure and procedures to apply modern sporting justice have only been around a few decades.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport, a sort of Supreme Court for sport justice, dates back to the mid-1980s, and only gained more independence and credibility in the 1990s. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which codifies anti-doping rules and regulations, celebrates its 20th anniversary in November. And the biological passport, the trigger for the Cobo case and many others, was introduced in the 2008 racing season, barely a decade ago.

The effort to build the legal underpinnings of rules and guidelines, implementation, and enforcement has taken a generation, and it continues to evolve with new science and methodology. WADA rules say samples can be kept for 10 years for testing. When new tests are developed, old samples can be retested. And that’s how Froome just won the 2011 Vuelta.

Today’s peloton faces a dramatically different reality from what the sport faced during the early years of the EPO era, in the early 1990s. Since then, a never-ending battery of tests, controls, and protocols has been put in place, with ever-stricter bans and fines as deterrents. When it becomes obvious that riders and teams are abusing the system, be it with TUEs or products like Tramadol, authorities react. Arguably, they sometimes do so too slow, but the years of doping denials from the top of the sport are over.

The Cobo case is the latest step in that evolution.

Is the system perfect? Far from it. Everyone would like to see more transparency, more vigorous controls. What’s sure is it’s a lot better than many seem to be willing to give it credit.

From a speeding ticket to a DUI

Think of it this way: The peloton in the early 1990s was like driving on the Autobahn with no speed limit. Today, there are a lot more speed cameras, speed bumps, and traffic circles to slow everyone down. And if you get caught, it’s no longer just a ticket, but something akin to getting busted for a DUI. Are people still cheating? Of course they are. And just like people will still drive home drunk from the bar, riders will dope if they think they can get away with it. Look no further than the string of troubling doping cases involving WorldTour riders and an ongoing blood doping investigation in Germany and Austria. A doping positive these days, however, has career-ending implications. That was not the case during omerta.

It’s impossible to know how much of the peloton is still cutting corners. Is today as bad as the EPO Era? Almost certainly not. Can clean riders today compete and win? Most insiders say they can and do.

The fight for clean sport is constantly evolving. There’s no doubt that more should be done, but the Cobo case is an important step in the ongoing struggle for fair sport.

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