Viva Luca

White lines & pro cycling's problems.

Luca Paolini's head gear

Riding across to the break, getting dropped, riding back, attacking and winning is the short version of the story of the 2015 victory at Ghent Wevelgem. Easy to remember despite all the racing since, due to the skill, cool head, fitness and panache required to pull something like this off. These are the hallmarks of Italian cyclists at their best, understanding the drama, the romance and perfectly executing a bold plan. This was a premium Luca Paolini performance.

Unfortunately as most of you will be aware, Luca tested positive for cocaine at the 2015 Tour de France, quitting the race and disappearing from view. A few weeks ago, hunting down information on the B sample test, it seemed that all trace had gone from all sources, with no reporting following up the initial test. However, Gazetta dello Sport published an article following up on the test, a story that has a familiar ring in Italian cycling, but happily a different ending.

These are the facts as we know them. Paolini became addicted to sleeping pills after the death of his brother a number of years ago. The team doctors at Katusha were aware of this situation and seemingly did little to combat it. To counteract the sluggishness Paolini supplemented excessive coffee with cocaine to boost him enough to be able to get back on the bike. Finally, since the test Luca has undergone rehab and returned to a normal life after years of altered and suppressed consciousness.

The inevitable snap reaction of those who feel ‘robbed’ by drug cheats from a glittering career, and the associated vitriolic and poorly considered troll commentary has its place, but to take more time to consider the situation would be beneficial.

There are many heroes of Italian cycling, and one of the shortest stands head and shoulders above the others, with unmatchable panache and tragedy in our time. Marco Pantani. Hounded to death in an ending more worthy of the Sopranos than the death of a sporting hero.

It is here that a consideration of doping and its repercussions must begin, outside of the everyday world of the amateur, and in the pressure environment of the pro peloton.

2015 also saw the positive testing of footballer Jake Livermore tested positive for cocaine. No further action was taken, as the case was considered to be worthy of compassion as his young son had recently died. There is a clear mirroring of the Paolini situation, and compassion should be considered above all here. This in turn brings consideration of the offence itself.

Sleeping pills are not illegal, either in society or in sport. Cocaine is illegal in both. However, its sporting benefits are non existent, as vouched for by the great Laurent Fignon, who admitted use in the 1984 Tour of Colombia. Other cyclists have also tested positive, in and out of competition, including Tom Boonen and Gilberto Simoni, both with palmares considerably more glittering than Paolini. Sanction in this instance is difficult, would there be any civilian penalty that applied for usage, but not for possession?

If the team doctors were aware of the sleeping pills situation they were also aware of the plight of Paolini in terms of addiction. This gives rise to a question that is often troubling in professional cycling - should doctors do more to look after their professional patients? What happens to those pro riders less well known who are pushed to breaking point by the sport and fall ill, or even the better known who are injured or ill? What is the role of the team in their recovery and rehabilitation? We know from the Lance saga that post cancer his team failed to support him and let him drift into obscurity.

In instances such as these how can we expect riders to return without support? To navigate financial and personal desperation without recourse to pharmaceutical assistance both legal and illegal?

Instead of looking to the cyclist we need to question the role of the employers and the governing bodies in the provision of assistance to recovering riders. We, the fans, need to be able to track the process of recovery, to see that the lesser known domestiques, who make our sport what it is, are paid, have their contracts honoured and are assisted as any other employee of a large organisation would be. This is a huge task and opens a whole area of research into how teams and riders are paid, where television money goes, the behaviour of the sport’s governing body and the corruption that has been rife, yet poorly exposed, within it. Leaving riders to suffer and even die is not acceptable and the shortcomings of a global sport need to be addressed.

The happy end at this point is that Paolini has not been left to rot by those around him, and has had the strength of character to go through rehabilitation and has emerged a new man.

So we are left to consider the sanction required in the light of all these things. Perhaps time served within his own torment of sleeping pills and stimulants is enough. He hasn’t performed any better for the use of these drugs, it’s just not the nature of the drugs that he has used.

What we are left with is what we refuse time and again in relation to strangers, yet expect in our own lives, and that is compassion, understanding and forgiveness. Let’s not become the boring money driven sports that we see everywhere else, let us remember that cycling is a community, that we share the same experiences and humanity.

We need to see men like Paolini with his style, experience and attitude sacrificing themselves at the front of the bunch in all weathers to create both the spectacle and inspiration we crave. We need to understand that this comes with its own pressures and problems.

Most importantly we should use Paolini as a role model for someone who goes through hard times and recovers, after all isn’t this the fundamental concept of our sport?

Viva Luca!