Editorial: young riders on EPO…?
10 December 2015
18-yr-old Gabriel Evans will be a familiar rider to many followers of YCS. The news broke today that he has admitted to using EPO this year, going on to win the National Junior 10 Mile Time Trial Championship after taking the drug in August.
This is the first time that such a young club rider (barely out of the Youth ranks) competing in the domestic UK racing scene has been found to have used drugs to improve their performance.
First, the outrage
The cycling forums and social media are already glowing red-hot with understandable outrage, expressions of huge disappointment, angry criticism of the rider, and calls for substantial punishment for depriving other (clean) riders of their rightful medals & titles.
In particular there is scepticism about the rider’s motives for making a statement of apology now, and astonishment about his decision to compete in (and win) the National “10” even though he knew he had already been caught and was awaiting his sanction from UK Anti-Doping.
Now, please don’t use this feature to comment on any of that – there are already lots of places elsewhere on Facebook and the web to take part in that discussion. And some of it is pretty ugly, rather resembling a witch-hunt… Instead, let’s focus here on what we and our Youth riders can take from this.
How could this happen?
Let’s be honest: I’d say that right now hundreds (thousands?) of super-keen children across the country are absolutely obsessed with cycling. It’s quite possibly what they enjoy most in their lives. When they’re not actually cycling themselves they’re talking about it, reading about it, or watching it on TV or YouTube. Their biggest heroes and biggest influences in their lives are our Olympic champions and our magnificent Tour winners.
These kids live and breathe the sport, and they probably want nothing more than to win. To become pro cyclists themselves. To become the next generation of heroes. I expect that might be what Gabriel Evans has wanted for the last few years too…
Is Gabriel a unique exception? Or is the use of performance enhancing drugs likely to be more widespread in domestic UK Junior ranks than just one rider? And is it present even within Youth racing? After today’s news we can expect increased suspicion of riders’ outstanding performances, and a lot of clean riders will inevitably be suspected of cheating. We can also expect an increased focus on how drug-testing for young riders is approached in and out of competition too.
So how confident are we as parents and coaches that our own kids could never find themselves splashed all over the cycling media like Gabriel today, their reputations in tatters, their sporting careers and dreams ended, and their own lives changed in an instant?
The decision to use drugs in sport is complex: the motivations, the ethical judgements, the risk of exposure & punishment, the desperation to succeed (or simply not to fail), the paranoia. You just need to read any of the books on the subject written by whistle-blowers, reformed drug users, or expert commentators.
Is it enough to say that with the right upbringing, family values, club environment, and responsible coaching a single-minded youth rider will never succumb to the temptation of cheating? What if they thought it might mean the difference between becoming a full-time elite rider or having a “normal” job and competing at the weekends? What if it might mean the difference between clinging on to a rung of the development ladder or being dropped from the British Cycling “Rider Route” pathway?
What can be done?
So let’s look at how we could help them steer clear of that nightmare:-
Help them understand the moral rights and wrongs of using performance enhancing drugs, and the potential health issues. But they probably know that already.
Sanction and punishment
Help them understand the severity of the action likely to be taken if a rider is found to have used PEDs, and the effect it could have on their whole lives. But they probably know that already too.
Give them clean heroes
We already have plenty of clean heroes who have achieved greatness, and they are the best role models for children that you could wish for. But their influence is partly cancelled out by a few unrepentant pros in the bunch and team managers who have returned to the sport and achieved further success. And there’s still a steady trickle of rider bans showing that the problem certainly hasn’t been eradicated.
The waters are muddied further by the celebration of past champions who are now known to have used drugs to help achieve their success. They are often regarded as heroes from a more romantic age of the sport in which “everyone was at it anyway”.
Improve the system
Most people who have looked closely at the British Cycling development system have a high degree of confidence that the governing body itself has a tight grip on the issue for young riders within the higher levels of its pathway.
But what about the ambitious riders, teams and coaches outside BC? Those who have more freedom to make their own decisions or are more likely to be influenced by others? Or those who are talented and performing just below top-level but are desperate to break in to the top ranks?
Is there anything that the sport can do to support such riders further and prevent them from making a catastrophic mistake?
Where does this leave us?
In time hopefully we’ll know more about the circumstances of Gabriel’s usage of EPO, and then we can use that knowledge to make whatever changes might be needed.
In the meantime, though, let’s not let this disillusion us nor our young riders. Cycling has come a long way and it’s in a much better place than it was ten years ago. It has already been through the same painful process that sports like athletics, swimming, and football look like they might be facing soon.
For me, cycling is still the best sport in the world for kids. 🙂