Ryder Hesjedal is no Lance Armstrong, and that’s a good thing with cycling confession
Canadian racing star’s ‘wrong path’ admission the right way to address doping involvement
Ryder Hesjedal of Canada is shown prior to competing in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal race in Montreal Sunday, September 9, 2012. Hesjedal admits he 'chose the wrong path' more than 10 years ago after a book alleges doping involvement.
VANCOUVER — It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what would have happened to Lance Armstrong if he had reacted to doping allegations the way Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal did Wednesday.
“I chose the wrong path,” said the first Canadian winner of one of road cycling’s majors, the 2012 Giro d’Italia, in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. “I sincerely apologize for my part in the dark past of the sport. I will always be sorry.”
Simple, right? Admit the sins, pledge to be a better man.
Would that have worked for Armstrong? Could he have escaped it all with his good name only slightly battered? Or was the lie too big, too monstrous, his profit from it too great, to ever repair all the damage he had inflicted on his accusers and fellow riders?
Wednesday morning, the 32-year-old Hesjedal was linked to performance-enhancing drug use in a new tell-all book by Michael Rasmussen, entitled Yellow Fever, in which the disgraced Danish cyclist said he showed three young Canadian riders, including Hesjedal, how to use the blood-booster EPO and another doping agent, Synacthen, in the basement of his home in Italy in 2003.
Within hours of the Rasmussen excerpt appearing in a Copenhagen newspaper, Hesjedal, winner of the Lionel Conacher Award as Canada’s male athlete of the year in 2012, released his statement:
“Cycling is my life and has been ever since I can remember. I have loved and lived this sport but more than a decade ago, I chose the wrong path. And even though those mistakes happened more than 10 years ago, and they were short-lived, it does not change the fact that I made them and I have lived with that and been sorry for it ever since. To everyone in my life, inside and outside the sport — to those that have supported me and my dreams — including my friends, my family, the media, fans, my peers, sponsors — to riders who didn't make the same choices as me all those years ago, I sincerely apologize for my part in the dark past of the sport. I will always be sorry.
“Although I stopped what I was doing many years before I joined Slipstream Sports, I was and am deeply grateful to be a part of an organization that makes racing clean its first priority and that supports athletes for telling the truth. I believe that being truthful will help the sport continue to move forward, and over a year ago when I was contacted by anti-doping authorities, I was open and honest about my past. I have seen the best and the worst of the sport and I believe that it is now in the best place it’s ever been. I look at young riders on our team and throughout the peloton, and I know the future of the sport has arrived. I'm glad that they didn’t have to make the same choices I did, and I will do everything I can to continue to help the sport that I love.”
It works — in the same way New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte’s “I did it once, a long time ago” worked — because sports fans have an infinite capacity for credulity, and forgiveness. Plus, they’re sick to death of doping stories, just as many hockey and football fans would rather put their own eyes out with knitting needles than see the word “concussion” in another story.
They like their heroes writ large, without blemishes if possible, but equally they will embrace a fallen hero who has got back up to fight again, however thin his cover story.
Hesjedal may have learned the wrong way to compete in his early days from being on Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team, rife with dopers, but he also learned how not to handle the drug question, if ever the sharks started to circle.
And they did, when the evidence and testimony began to reach critical mass in the Armstrong case. The inescapable conclusion was that Armstrong didn’t want any stragglers on his team. If you didn’t dope, you were off.
Yet it seems no one asked The Question. No one said to Hesjedal: “Are you telling me everyone on that team was using, but you weren’t?”
Earlier this year, he did appear before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s ongoing investigation into cycling and admit to his part in the sport’s sordid doping history, and it might look better on Hesjedal if he had told it publicly, as well, at that time, and not waited until the story got told by someone else.
Even so, he didn’t have to come clean. Rasmussen, a former Radobank teammate, didn’t claim to have seen Hesjedal or the other two Canadians he named in the book, Chris Sheppard and Seamus McGrath, all of whom were mountain bikers at the time, actually use the drugs. And Hesjedal has never failed a drug test.
So he could have brazened it out, done as Armstrong did: deny, obfuscate, lash out, issue a “consider the source” statement. Rasmussen would be an easy target. An admitted drug cheat, he is one of countless riders of the era to have either copped to, or been caught, using banned substances. Besides, as a colleague pointed out, a confirmed cheat writing a passage in a book about an alleged dope incident that occurred 10 years ago is like telling people you're pretty sure your roommate, who years later became an elected official, smoked pot at college.
So all we can say, and maybe even believe, about Ryder Hesjedal is that these days, nobody gets tested more than cyclists, and not a single positive came out of 600-plus tests administered before, during and after this year’s Tour de France, so maybe the sport really is emerging from its decades of darkness, maybe truth and reconciliation really will win the day.
On the other hand, “never failed a drug test” doesn’t have quite the same weight it once did. Most credible accounts will add: “But then, neither did Barry Bonds, Florence Griffith Joyner, Lance Armstrong …”
Hesjedal said he took that wrong path but saw the light, and he is committed to the values of Slipstream Sports, whose Garmin Sharp pro team was created so that cyclists could compete 100 per cent clean.
And that, we have to take on faith; alas, a commodity in very short supply in high-level sports these days. Maybe shortest of all in cycling.
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