I met Thor Hushovd once. I was racing in the 2012 Tour of Qatar as a member of the RTS Racing Team, previously known as the Giant Racing Team. We’d been invited by virtue of being the third best team in Asia in 2011, after two Iranian teams.
So, there I was, sat at the back of the peloton and getting a daily pummeling. One day I ended up riding in with none other than Mr. Hushovd, who had punctured with about 10km to go. I caught up with him and we rode in together.
“I like your kit,” he said.
“Really? I don’t!” I replied. The black and bright yellow kit wasn’t my cup of tea at all.
“I like yours though,” I said.
“Meh,” was his response.
I’d always liked Hushovd as a rider. There seemed to be an honesty about his riding, a sense of graft to the effort he put in. Then there was his brilliant win in the Points Classification in the 2009 Tour de France when he rode solo on Stage 17 to scoop up points, which, much to my amusement (and no doubt many others), left Mark Cavendish markedly nonplussed.
“You’ve won the green jersey now but that’s always going to have a stain on it,” Cav said he told Hushovd at the time, ever the gent.
So it was nice to meet the man himself and to find that he was a decent bloke too.
He was one of those riders I always really wanted to believe was clean. Perhaps those of you reading this will know what I mean. Some of you may have felt that way about Armstrong. Or O’Grady. Or Basso. Or… the list goes on.
Hushovd recently gave a press conference to publicise his new autobiography. In it, he talks about both Christophe Bassons and Lance Armstrong. Bassons is widely regarded to have been a clean rider during his career, with Armstrong of course having been exposed, since his retirement, as the perpetrator of what has been termed as ‘the greatest sporting fraud of all time.’
Curiously however, in the press conference Hushovd had stronger things to say about Bassons than he did about the American, which is particularly strange as Hushovd claims that in 2011 Armstrong told him that he, and everyone else, had been at the dope.
Speaking of Bassons, Hushovd said that the Frenchman’s claim that it was impossible to win clean during the EPO heyday was false and more indicative of Bassons’ lack of talent or preparation than anything else.
“He [Bassons] probably had a rough time when riding, but he should also have the guts to look at himself,” said Hushovd. “Because, he has said it was impossible to compete at top level without using doping. Then he has to look at himself: Did he do a good enough job? Was his talent big enough? Did he eat the right food? He must look himself in the mirror. I’ve never seen anyone ask him those questions. Because it is possible. I did it.”
It does seem to me nothing short of ridiculous that a rider of Hushovd’s experience would basically dismiss Bassons’ claims without considering that EPO is widely accepted amongst athletes to give an endurance athlete a boost of 15-20% (though one study claimed that EPO increases performance levels by 54%) and without balancing what is nothing short of an attack on Bassons (history repeating itself?) without also considering how widespread the use of EPO and other drugs and methods such as blood doping were amongst the peloton at that time.
Are we to accept that, if Hushovd is indeed telling the truth, that he was over 20% better than those in the peloton who were using EPO when he claimed his many victories?
Speaking to a friend the other day, we posited this: what if, at that time, the peloton had its fair share of what would otherwise be average riders who were vying for wins thanks to illegal aids? What if, if that were true, a very talented rider was at the peak of his game on a given day? In that case, we wondered, could the truly clean and truly gifted athlete then beat the not very gifted and not at all clean athlete?
‘Maybe’ was the only (unscientific) conclusion we could agree on. It might be the case with Hushovd’s career, if he was indeed clean. Who’s to say either way. Some will say no one could have been clean then, others will say some were, and others still will admit to being nothing other than completely unable to say one way or another.
And then Hushovd moves on to Armstrong and the criticism he received from the Norwegian cycling authorities for not passing on the contents of what amounted to an admission of doping by the Texan in 2011.
Hushovd says that Armstrong said to him “Thor, let’s face it. Everybody did it.”
‘It’ of course being doping.
“Maybe I could’ve told the anti-doping bodies,” he said at the press conference. “But I don’t think it is my job to. And they were already working a lot on this issue at the time. If this would’ve happened again, I would probably have done the same thing. I’ve chosen to handle doping related issues in my own way during my career.
“If I had said that Lance did this, there wouldn’t have been a lot left of me. I was supposed to ride a bike. That’s my job. And I’ve done it pretty well now and then. Others will have to discover who doped or not. That issue I raise in my book as well. Why doesn’t the anti-doping government catch those who cheat? I think that’s worth raising questions about.”
‘There probably wouldn’t have been a lot left of me’ is a fascinating line, which could refer to the media and the frenzy that would have kicked off, or to the reaction by the peloton to a rider breaking the Omerta.
For me, Hushovd words on Bassons at the press conference amount to the Omerta rearing its head once again. Any rider who said that many doped and that it is either very hard or ’impossible’ to win, as Bassons did, was ostracized and, if we consider Hushovd’s words when he says it is not a rider’s job to call out dopers, isn’t he saying that the Omerta has its uses?
This method of calling riders who complained about doping inferior or weak (Paul Kimmage springs to mind) was the favoured technique, tried, tested and trusted, of Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid.
I’d also ask, when exactly is it a rider’s job to expose another rider who admits to doping? When the sport is half-standing, punch drunk from allegations and denials, as it was 15 years ago? Or when it is actually kneeling in the dirt, its reputation in tatters, as it has been these past few years?
We need riders who will stand up, riders who will find a voice. Hushovd is right in a sense in that, technically, exposing drug cheats is not a rider’s job, but in this era, being what it is, someone within the peloton has to make that breakthrough.
When asked at the press conference if he believed Armstrong had had a negative impact on cycling, Hushovd’s words, once again, were open to interpretation.
“Yes [Armstrong did damage cycling]. But he has contributed to building of the sport. I don’t defend what he did, I’m one of those riders who cried while climbing mountains because of Lance and the other dopers.”
And yet there is that line, ‘he has contributed to the building of the sport.’
Well, that depends on whether you fully accept that the reason he was in a position to do that was because he was the best doper in the peloton or not. Some say that Armstrong would never have won a Tour without doping, some feel that his ‘positive’ influence, which did drive bike sales up considerably, was still overshadowed by his doping and all that that entiled.
I still think Hushovd is a decent guy, but I also think that these comments from him, which are naiive at best, show how ingrained certain destructive attitudes are and how deep the culture of the Omerta lies.