Colombia’s cycling ascent undermined by widespread doping

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MADRID, Colombia — After a punishing climb in the Andean mountains surrounding Colombia’s capital, Armando Cardenas leans against his bike to catch his breath.

In a decade-long career racing professionally, Cardenas never reached the same international heights as the country’s biggest cycling stars. Though with seven national titles and a medal at the Pan-American Games, the 37-year-old got to live his dream of cycling professionally.

Like many of his fellow Colombian cyclists, he also made the decision to dope.

“I wanted to know what it meant to race while doping,” said Cardenas, who now coaches a crop of local talent, “and the difference was huge.”

In the weeks since Egan Bernal became the first Colombian to win the Tour de France, the country has been basking in attention focused on its reputation for churning out specialist climbers raised on thin mountain air and possessing the sort of extreme stamina taught by poverty.

But that wholesome image, a welcome antidote to a sport tarnished globally by scandal, risks being undercut by a festering doping problem that the country has been slow to address.

In August, Alvaro Duarte tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug after winning top climbing honors at the Vuelta de Colombia, bringing to 42 the number of Colombian cyclists currently sanctioned or provisionally suspended. Only Costa Rica has more cyclists suspended by the sport’s world governing body than Colombia. The suspension added to doubts that first surfaced in 2017 after the World Anti-Doping Agency revoked the license of a government-run lab responsible for all doping tests in Colombia and the ban this year of the country’s premier international team, Manzana Postobon, which prided itself on clean cycling.

Part of the problem is the ease with which Colombian cyclists can find an artificial boost: at their local pharmacy. The sale and traffic of performance-enhancing drugs is legal in Colombia, meaning substances such as EPO can be bought over the counter.

While athletes break their sport’s rules by doping, prosecutors are unable to hold users, or their suppliers, accountable. That became clear when a Colombian doctor, Alberto Beltran, was paraded in front of the media in 2016 after he was captured on a Spanish arrest warrant for allegedly leading a doping network in Spain. He was released after Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled Beltran’s alleged crimes weren’t punishable in Colombia.

The veil of silence enveloping the sport was first lifted by Colombian cycling veteran Juan Pablo Villegas during a 2015 interview. Four years later he remains the only cyclist to have taken a public stand on the issue while still competing.

Driving the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs, he says, is the desperate economic situation many of the country’s 5,000 professional cyclists find themselves in. With little prize money available and most professional teams offering only minimal support, many will do whatever it takes to survive in the sport.

“Most cyclists disagree with doping,” said Villegas. “But there are simply times when there are no other options to maintain your livelihood.”

The Colombian Cycling Federation estimates there are over 5,000 professional cyclists trying to eke out a living in the country.

In recent years, the most vocal proponent of clean cycling in Colombia was Manzana Postobon. During the team’s 13-year history its management made a point of promoting its self-described commitment to “ethical cycling,” becoming the first squad to institute biological passports to try and ensure their riders competed clean.

It didn’t work.

In May, Postobon folded after two of its riders tested positive for banned substances, triggering the team’s suspension.

“There has been a series of impatient cyclists that have made this mistake (of doping),” said Luis Fernando Saldarriaga, who was Manzana Postobon’s team manager. “Sponsors invest in their brands so that they are well represented ethically, not for their names to be stained by a series of doping cases.”

Colombia’s sporting institutions have also found themselves restricted in the fight against doping – such as by being left without a functioning anti-doping laboratory.

Since the World Anti-Doping Agency’s intervention, samples have had to be sent abroad to be tested. The anti-doping office says it can only afford to maintain a testing pool of 22 cyclists it has concerns about.

Orlando Reyes, the anti-doping office’s program manager, also claims the information provided by the Colombian Cycling Federation on the whereabouts of targeted cyclists is either inaccurate or arrives too late.

“You need very precise information or when you go to test an athlete you won’t find them,” said Reyes. “A lot of resources are wasted in a missed test.”

Yet there are indications that help is finally coming.

In May, Sports Minister Ernesto Lucena announced a plan to get the Bogota laboratory reaccredited. He is also working to draft new language for the penal code to outlaw the trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs.

“If that law is approved you can be assured that (doping) will disappear,” said Jorge Ovidio Gonzalez, who was president of the Colombian Cycling Federation until he stepped down at the end of August for health reasons. “We can detect those who sell (performance-enhancing drugs) but we don’t have the teeth to be able to sanction them.”

Instead of waiting for change within the sport’s governance, a small cadre of coaches and cyclists around the country continue to push the merits of clean sport.

One is Wilson Sandoval, the manager of a youth team based in Bogota.

His team, Fundacion Esteban Chaves, requires any aspiring cyclist who wants a tryout to take a doping test. He said it’s not uncommon for cyclists as young as 15 “to fall into the trap of doping.”

As the wait for action from local authorities continues, those like Sandoval are left to try and find their own way through a Colombian cycling landscape littered with failed doping tests.

“I believe change can happen,” said Sandoval. “But you have to start with the youth and show them there is another path because in the end it’s these children who will be harmed.”

Primoz Roglic triumphs at Tirreno-Adriatico for winning return from injury

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SAN BENEDETTO DEL TRONTO, Italy — Primož Roglič made a winning return to cycling as he triumphed at the week-long Tirreno-Adriatico for a fourth Slovenian victory in five editions at “The Race of the Two Seas.”

It was Roglič’s first race of the season after the Jumbo-Visma rider underwent shoulder surgery last year.

“It’s just nice to come back to racing this way. I really enjoyed the whole week,” Roglič said. “My teammates were super strong.

“One week ago I was just expecting to suffer. It’s even better to win when it’s unexpected. It feels good ahead of the Giro d’Italia too.”

After winning the previous three stages to build up a significant advantage, Roglič protected his lead and finished safely in the peloton during Stage 7 to end the week-long race 18 seconds ahead of João Almeida of Portugal and 23 seconds ahead of British cyclist Tao Geoghegan Hart.

Roglič won the Tirreno in 2019. Fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogačar won the two previous editions but the two-time defending champion was competing at the Paris-Nice race which he won.

Belgian cyclist Jasper Philipsen won a bunch sprint to take the stage win. The Alpecin-Deceuninck rider edged out Dylan Groenewegen and Alberto Dainese.

It was Philipsen’s second sprint victory at this year’s Tirreno, setting him up as one of the favorites for next weekend’s Milan-San Remo race.

“I was dying in the end, my legs felt really painful, but I’m happy that I could keep it to the finish,” Philipsen said.

“The sprint stage is always different from a classic like San Remo but of course we have some confidence. We have a strong team I think. So now it’s good to take some time off, recover a little bit and try to be on top level.”

There was an early breakaway in the 154-kilometer (96-mile) route that started and finished in San Benedetto del Tronto but the eight riders were caught with just over 3 kilometers (2 miles) remaining.

Pogacar tops Gaudu, Vingegaard to win Paris-Nice


NICE, France — An impressive Tadej Pogacar clinched the final stage with a solo escape to win the week-long Paris-Nice.

David Gaudu finished second overall, 53 seconds behind Pogacar, while Jonas Vingegaard was third at 1 minute, 39 seconds back.

Pogacar attacked during the climb of Col d’Eze with 18 kilometers (11.2 miles) to go, finishing the eighth stage 33 seconds ahead of a small group made up of Vingegaard, Gaudu, Simon Yates and Matteo Jorgenson.

The Slovenian rider completed the 118-kilometer trek around Nice in 2 hours, 51 minutes, 2 seconds, crossing the finish line with both arms raised before taking a bow in front of the crowd and clapping his hands.

Pogacar now has a slight mental edge over Vingegaard, also outclassing him last October to win the Tour of Lombardy.

The duel between Pogacar and Vingegaard has become one of the biggest rivalries in cycling. Vingegaard finished second behind Pogacar in the 2021 Tour de France. But the Danish rider managed to beat Pogacar in the 2022 Tour de France for his first major title.

Vingegaard still has time to hit peak form. The Tour de France starts July 1.

Pogacar is the current leader in the UCI men’s road racing world rankings.

Pogacar and Vingegaard both started the season well. Last month in Spain, Pogacar won the Tour of Andalucia while Vingegaard won the O Gran Camino. Pogacar took the yellow jersey by winning the fourth stage. He dumped Vingegaard in the climb of La Loge des Gardes. Only Gaudu could stay on Pogacar’s wheel.

The two-time Tour de France winner extended his overall lead by taking Stage 7, beating Gaudu and Vingegaard in a small sprint atop Col de la Couillole.

French rider Gaudu finished fourth overall in the 2022 Tour de France but failed to finish in the past two editions of Paris-Nice.

The next race on the UCI World Tour is the Milan-San Remo classic on March 18.