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The uncertainties surrounding Ryder Hesjedal’s doping confession

On Wednesday, something rotten in the state of Denmark spread to include Canada. Details from disgraced Danish rider Michael Rasmussen’s upcoming autobiography, Yellow Fever, appeared in that country’s press. Rasmussen held the yellow jersey in the 2007 Tour de France, but shortly before its conclusion, he was withdrawn from the race and fired from his team, the Netherlands-based Rabobank, for irregularities in the records of his whereabouts program. It wasn’t until Jan. 31, 2013 that Rasmussen admitted to doping. In the newspaper Politiken, the Danish cyclist said he showed three Canadian mountain bikers—Seamus McGrath, Chris Sheppard and Ryder Hesjedal—how to use EPO in 2003. The Dane didn’t say he saw Hesjedal take EPO. Yet, Rasmussen also claims the three Canadians left with elevated hematocrit levels.

All three riders performed well in that year’s mountain bike competitions. Hesjedal and McGrath represented Canada at the Athens Olympics in 2004. Hesjedal looked as if he would win the Olympic XC event, but a flat took him out of the race. McGrath finished in ninth place. In 2005, Sheppard, later a two-time Canadian cyclocross champion, admitted to using EPO. An out-of-competition urine test revealed that Sheppard had taken the drug. He was given a two-year ban.

Hours after Rasmussen’s words appeared online, Hesjedal issued a statement via his team, Garmin-Sharp, and its management company, Slipstream Sports. “More than a decade ago, I chose the wrong path,” Hesjedal said. “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.” He goes on to say that he stopped what he was doing many years before joining Slipstream Sports, led by Jonathan Vaughters. Vaughters is himself a confessed doper who has promoted an anti-doping stance within his current organization. As for the details of what Hesjedal was doing 10 years ago while he was on that wrong path, he didn’t say in the statement.

Too early for all the details

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport also issued a statement on Wednesday saying that, in the spring of this year, CCES and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) had met with Hesjedal as part of an ongoing investigation into doping within cycling in Canada. Slipstream’s statement indicated that Hesjedal’s co-operation with USADA goes back even further: at least one year.

In October 2012, USADA released the Reasoned Decision, a document that had testimony from some of Hesjedal’s Garmin-Sharp teammates—including Tom Danielson, David Zabriskie (who recently retired from pro cycling) and Christian Vande Velde (who also retired this year)—and Vaughters regarding doping by Lance Armstrong. The testimonies not only led to Armstrong losing his seven Tour de France titles, but to six-month bans for the three Garmin-Sharp riders.

Clues that Hesjedal’s doping was known to USADA appear in Canadian cyclist Michael Barry’s affidavit. In Line 62 of Barry’s statement, it reads: “In 2004 I obtained EPO from [U.S. Postal Service and later Discovery Channel trainer] Pepe Marti and split a shipment of EPO obtained by [name redacted] and professional mountain biker [name redacted] from a contact they had learned of from [name redacted].” While Hesjedal hasn’t been confirmed as Barry’s mountain biker, CBC’s The National reported on Wednesday that Hesjedal’s name came up in the affidavits as well as those of other Canadians. It seems there will be more bad news for fans of Canadian cycling in the future.

As for the details of what Hesjedal did more than 10 years ago, those will have to wait until a later date, too. “Because this is part in an ongoing investigation into cycling, Ryder can’t comment at this time beyond what he has already said,” said Marya Pongrace, Slipstream’s director of communications, to Canadian Cycling Magazine. “I am sure there will come a point where he will be able to talk. But to honour the investigation process, he can’t right now.”

When did it end?

Hesjedal is not only unclear about what he did, but also about the time frame of his transgressions. “More than 10 years ago” puts events within the alleged date of Rasmussen’s tutelage. But “short-lived”? Does that include Athens in 2004? What about 2005 on Lance Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team? Floyd Landis’ Team Phonak in 2006?

There is something about 2006. In many of the affidavits in USADA’s report, cyclists report they stopped doping after that year. Barry: “I have not used any prohibited substances since 2006, my final season with the Discovery team.” Zabriskie: “In late May and early June of 2006, for two weeks, I used EPO and growth hormone provided by Floyd Landis….I stopped after the two weeks and never did it again.” Vande Velde: “Since April 2006 I have not used any banned substances.”

A cynical take on the watershed year of 2006 would be that these riders are simply continuing to keep their stories straight. However, that analysis is too facile. Why would cyclists coming clean add that element of perjury to their statements? Each of their stories led to a certain exhaustion with doping at that time. Further, the effects of Landis’ bust and Tour de France disqualification made their way through the professional peloton in 2006. The year seems a natural tipping point.

After Phonak was disbanded in 2006, Hesjedal was without a team. “All I wanted to do was get home and be with my friends and family,” Hesjedal said to senior editor Dan Dakin in a 2010 interview. In 2007, Hesjedal raced for the U.S.-based team Health Net-Maxxis, which he felt allowed him to regroup following his time racing in Europe. He signed with Vaughter’s team in 2008. While it’s still not clear when Hesjedal stopped doping, he’s positioning his trip down the wrong path to more than 10 years ago, or at least, more than eight.

The consequences of doping for Hesjedal and others

Unlike Danielson, Zabriskie and Vande Velde, Hesjedal won’t be facing an sanctions. “It is important to note that the World Anti-Doping Code has an eight-year statute of limitations,” the CCES said in its statement. “As such, unfortunately Mr. Hesjedal’s acknowledgement of doping in 2003 will not result in a violation or any sanction.” The organization was not exactly pleased with the gap between Hesjedal’s doping and confession. “The CCES is disappointed that Mr. Hesjedal waited more than a decade to publicly disclose his past involvement in doping,” the CCES statement read. “His conduct has deprived many clean Canadian athletes from the opportunity to shine in the sport of cycling.”

When dopers excel, non-dopers get shut out of competition or careers. However, even if a cheater cleans up his or her act, the advantage of doping remain. In a study published earlier this week in The Journal of Physiology, researchers at the University of Oslo showed that mice exposed to steroids gain a “muscle memory” within their cells. After a brief exposure to steroids, and then three month period without steroids, the muscles in the mice grew 26 per cent more than those of “clean” mice after six days of exercise. The scientists speculate that the doping advantages for humans could remain for as long 10 years. It’s still not clear how Hesjedal doped. If, like many cyclists who broke the rules, he used testosterone, the gains he received likely continued into his clean years.

While Hesjedal’s confession will no doubt be another blow for professional cycling, especially in Canada, his admission should be kept in context. Like Barry, Armstrong, Zabriskie and others, Hesjedal’s actions are from a particular time in the sport. They predate the introduction of biological passport (pre-2008). According to former SpiderTech directeur sportif Kevin Field, the biological passport—a means to track an athlete’s blood and hormone levels for abnormalities—has made doping a much more difficult affair. Also, Hesjedal’s co-operation with CCES and USADA is voluntary and predated his “outing” by Rasmussen. Without a formal amnesty program by the UCI, the way forward for dopers who want to come clean, or for the sport itself for that matter, is not clear. It’s uncertain how exactly to stop the rot in cycling. But Hesjedal’s admission is definitely a necessary part of the repair.