Cycling finds new hero in war against drugs

Casual sports fans are likely to be surprised over the coming weeks through hearing occasional mentions of cyclist Alberto Contador in sports bulletins. The Spaniard, famous for winning three of the last four Tour de France races, was last September revealed to have tested positive for the banned drug Clenbuterol, yet is competing this month is cycling's second biggest event, the Giro D'Italia.

Contador was cleared of doping by the Spanish Cycling Federation in January, so is currently free to continue racing; but should the UCI’s appeal against the verdict be successful, he will be prevented from riding this year’s Tour de France and banned for what is likely to be a year.

So cycling is left in the sorry situation where the favourite to win its second most prestigious event is involved in an on-going doping scandal, and should he win may well be stripped of his title just weeks after. With cycling’s reputation as it is, few believe in his innocence, and will see his competing as evidence that cycling is a sport being destroyed by drug cheating.

Which makes the recent achievements of Phillippe Gilbert all the more significant for cycling. The Belgium has throughout his career been renowned for his outspoken stance against doping, most famously in a 2005 interview with the Sunday Times, in which he admitted his fear of never reaching the highest level of the sport due to his choice to ride clean.

Two weeks ago Gilbert completed a hat-trick of wins in a series of races known as the Ardennes Classics, a feat that has only ever once been achieved in the history of professional cycling. The three races (Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège) are some of the most prestigious one-day races on the calendar, and, though not as famous as the Tour de France, are deeply respected among the cycling community.

In winning all three, Gilbert has delighted all in proving wrong his earlier assertion that riders cannot reach the top without cheating. Despite his success, the 28-year-old’s reputation as a clean rider is still widely acknowledged, emphasised by his recent heading of his local Walloon regional government’s anti-doping campaign.

Whereas Contador always seems eager to avoid the subject of drugs, and responds to questions about the matter with generic, unconvincing answers, Gilbert’s outspoken and uncompromising attitude towards doping is a breath of fresh air, and exactly what fans want to hear from their stars.

Encouragingly, Gilbert’s combination of an outspoken anti-doping stance and success on the road is not unique. Britain’s Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, who has become the best sprinter of this generation; Carlos Sastre, who won the 2008 Tour de France; Cadel Evans and Thor Hushovd, the two previous winners of the World Championships, one of the most iconic races on the calendar, all have reputations for riding clean.

There examples show not only that not all cyclists are doped, but significantly that it is possible to win on bread and water alone, something the cynics laugh off as impossible.

With riders like Contador still tarnishing its reputation, cycling is a long way from beating the war against drugs, but with the state the sport was in ten years ago it was never to be a quick fix. Progress is certainly being made, and with a new generation of riders lead by Gilbert, fans at least have heroes they can believe in.

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