I’m at a bit of a loss to know what to make of Dan Staite’s failed dope test. It’s the first drug positive for a domestic amateur that I can think of in recent years – the last thing I can remember was in the mid 1990s. And that one was not exactly clear cut, which is why I’m not putting a name or a date to it.
Doping in cycling certainly isn’t limited to the world elite. You don’t need more than a quick scan over the Wikipedia list of doping cases in cycling to see that most of the riders who’ve tested positive in the last few years are not exactly superstars. But I was still very surprised by Staite’s positive.
Maybe I shouldn’t be? To grow suspicious, you only have to look at the other things people will do to win – the time they’ll spend, the careers they’ll sabotage, the relationships they’ll neglect. I’ve done all sorts of things down the years that might have been honest, but which were shortsighted or inconsiderate or both. At the most basic, there are the knock-on effects of spending up to 20 hours a week on a bike – time when, as far as anyone who might want offer me work or complain I hadn’t cleaned the bathroom is concerned, I might as well be in space – and the further problems that arise from spending the other 148 hours either asleep or nearly asleep.
Friends or family or employers reach an accommodation with that kind of thing, often by stopping being friends or family or employers. That’s just the chronic state of cycling. It’s the acute state of cycling that they remember with a bitter edge. I am yet to be forgiven for once turning up to a friend’s wedding nine hours late because when I got up that morning it was a nicer day than I’d expected, and I had the sudden inspired idea of going to the wedding via a race 250 miles away. (The really dumb part was not realising that if you’re going to be that late, you’re better not turning up at all. Everyone is still cross with you. If you give it a few weeks, they’ll get round to thinking it was just loveable disorganisation.)
But somehow despite the kind of commitment that huge numbers of people are prepared to put into it, and the obvious temptation to take a shortcut, I’ve always persuaded myself that the sport in the UK is almost totally clean. I’m still convinced of this.
That’s because I didn’t have to do more than a race or two in continental Europe before it was very clear that at an elite level there cleanliness was next to stupidity. No one raced clean, because if you were going to race clean, you might as well not bother. I raced clean, and right enough I might as well not have bothered. (This was the case a few years ago. I’d be misleading you if I suggested any expertise in the scene now – my guess is that things are getting better.)
In contrast, in the UK, as far as domestic competitors are concerned, over God know how many races I’ve never come across anything more than vague anecdotes – sufficiently vague that I don’t believe them. Anyway, a doping culture, however sophisticated, still produces positive tests when people muff up their masking agents or get a bit over confident. If doping in the UK is commonplace, then the riders involved should be giving seminars to some of the world’s top pros on how to avoid getting caught.
I think doping in UK cycling is rare because whatever way I look at it, there just isn’t the evidence to support the opposite view. I’m not naïve enough to think there aren’t a few dishonest riders out there. But I sincerely don’t think there are very many. And I hope the Staite case scares the crap out of every single one of them.