A glance around the start line reveals several types of rider; those that will win only in their fantastical daydreams, those that are capable of winning but lack the mental fortitude, and those that are out to win, seriously, at whatever cost, and anything less would be a painful disappointment.

The real contenders in a given race will often only be split by a few percentage points in ability. In fact, it is often not the most able that crosses the line first. So what is the deciding factor? Luck plays its part, as does tactics. But I’m guessing that most races are won by the guy who simply wants it the most, who is most willing to step further into the cave of pain and who rummages around the deepest into their suitcase of courage.

One of the achievements of Dave Brailsford and his coaching staff behind the track successes of Team GB in the Beijing Olympics was that he was able to instil the idea of being a winner into the British riders. For too long it had been acceptable to turn up to an Olympics and be happy to walk away with a medal of any colour. Now only gold would do. In recent years Britain has embraced winners once again – once a nation that lavished affection on the plucky underdog, it is now a nation that expects results, and asks questions when performances fall short.

There is no sin in winning of course. But in our modern world where taking part isn’t all that matters, where more is more, and the winner takes it all, the uglier face of success can emerge: greed. If the only goal in sport is to win, then it seems obvious that the inevitable consequence will be a bending of the rules, and the exploration of every avenue of advantage over your rivals. When your ambition becomes dishonest, then it becomes a form of greed – no longer satisfied with what can be achieved by honest means, the cheating athlete (and the team and management surrounding that athlete) excessively pursuing success and wealth is a greedy one.

Doping in professional cycling has become something of an inevitability, like a recurring plot device in a particularly tiresome soap opera. It seems that every outstanding performance is later accompanied by a UCI announcement, some vague mumblings by the offending rider (contaminated food supplements, a rogue cough remedy, and sometimes even an admission of guilt and responsibility), before then accepting the two year ban. Some form of public rehabilitation then follows, and in time a return to the peloton with varying degrees of acceptance or suspicion.

True, doping isn’t always about glory or winning – the convicted are often not the stars. The reasons are various; some are not driven by greed or the desire for success, but simply survival in a competitive profession, where any sign of physical weakness can end a career. Not many ex-pros can walk into jobs with TV broadcasters, or launch their own branded range of bicycles – most will return home to resume very modest lives. Straying outside the rules in the twilight years of a career is simply a roll of the dice in the hopes of bolstering a deficient pension plan.

And so those caught dopers in the twilight of their careers are booted out – by the sport that was about to give them the elbow regardless – and disappear quietly. The loudest protestations of innocence are squealed by the young or ambitious, by the likes of Ricco, Contador and DiLuca, the ‘winners’ with jerseys to be stripped and palmares to be scrubbed.

A massive cultural shift needs to sweep across professional cycling before we see a significant reduction in the numbers of riders taking shortcuts to success. Garmin for example are not simply keeping their team clean by continuously testing their riders for doping, but by having an ethos built on honesty rather than winning. There is no pressure on a rider to perform beyond their capabilities, and therefore no pressure to dope. Garmin have proved that success – both on the road, and in attracting fans and sponsorship – is possible without chasing winning at any cost.

For an insight into how a cultural shift in professional cycling is needed it’s worth reading the New Cycling Pathway report “I Wish I was Twenty One Today” (download it here). Their conference that ran alongside the World Championships in Geelong last month was overshadowed somewhat by the stink the UCI made at the attendance of Floyd Landis. But the report puts forward such a convincing case for protecting riders from the pressures to dope, that even Pat McQuaid and the UCI can’t afford to snub its findings.

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