Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

03 May 2016

The Sad Saga Of Vladimir Gusev

Perhaps you have heard of Vladimir Gusev, the Russian cyclist who twice won his country's time trial championships. In July of 2008, the Astana team fired him for "abnormal values".  (It sounds like an accusation Ted Cruz would throw at Donald Trump, gay people or just about anyone else, doesn't it?)  On the surface, it sounds like just another doping case, wouldn't you say?

However, the story is more complicated than I've so far described.  You see, the Astana team--founded in Kazakhstan two years earlier--was kicked out of the Tour de France in 2007 after its star rider, Alexander Vinokourov, tested positive.  Needless to say, the team was in a crisis--one that could have threatened its very existence.

Vladimir Gusev:  Victim of the UCI and Johan Bruyneel

To show that Astana was taking a stance against doping (I see the eyeballs rolling!), it recruited who was undoubtedly the best man for the job:  Johan Bruyneel. If his name doesn't sound familiar, I'll tell you a little about him:  From 1999 until 2007 (Do those years ring a bell?), he was the directeur sportif  of--are you ready?--the US Postal Service Team.  Yes, the team that employed one Lance Armstrong.  And a fellow named Alberto Contador:  more about him later.

To show that he was really, really serious about running a clean team, he brought in the Grand Inquisitor of the anti-doping movement:  the Danish doctor Rasmus Damsgaard (Don't you just love that name?), who successfully established anti-doping protocols with Bjarne Riis' old crew, Team CSC.

OK, so maybe Bruyneel was ready to set his riders on the straight and narrow after all.  But soon after bringing Dr. Damsgaard aboard, which cyclist does he hire?  Why, none other than Contador, who'd just won the Tour de France under Bruyneel's tutelage with the Discovery team. 

Well, not long after, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the sport's governing body, declared that it wouldn't allow the Astana team to participate in the Tour de France.  That meant, of course, that Contador would not be able to defend his yellow jersey.  But, even worse, from Astana's point of view, was that the ban would, in essence, destroy the team.

Bruyneel realized he had to show the UCI that Astana could take care of its own doping problems. So--quelle coincidence!--Damsgaard just happened to find "abnormal values" in Gusev's blood.  The good doctor informed the kindly directeur sportif--who, putting the good of the team and the sport above all else, fired Gusev.

He made the announcement in the middle of a broadcast on Belgian TV, where he was a commentator for its Tour de France coverage.

That went down nearly five years before Lance Armstrong made his confession.  During those years--and before, when Lance was winning seven consecutive Tours--accusations of doping swirled around him.  Now, I am not going to take a stand on Lance.  However, I do believe that it was hypocritical, to say the least, for the UCI to look the other way while Lance was winning the Tour but to, essentially, get Gusev to drop his suit against them so that he could continue his cycling career.

Then again, as loath as I am to defend the UCI, the organization looks pristine compared to Bruyneel, who--from all of the testimony we've heard so far--enabled Armstrong, Contador and other riders' doping but hung Gusev out to dry.

Today, Gusev is riding for the Skydive Dubai Cycling Team.  It's good to see that he's still "in the game" but, at age 33, his best years are probably behind him.  It's enough to make one wonder what sort of rider he might have become had he not gone two years (2008-2010) without racing, just when his star should have been ascending.  Perhaps we'd be hearing more about him than about a couple of other riders Bruyneel managed.

(In the near future, I will write about another Gusev who also has a connection with cycling, or at least with bicycles.)


  1. What a saga, what a TRAIN WRECK. I of course followed all of this as it was unfolding over those years. But it still comes as a bit of a shock to read it all in one short and succinct retelling. The sport of bike racing went from seemingly being the last clean, tough sport left to one of the dirtiest. We really lost something. Even solo riding for conditioning will never be quite the same.

    But your post is timely. We are now witnessing the train wreck that the Republican Party has become. Train wrecks are on our minds. Traumatic times.


  2. Leo--I know how you feel. At one time, we could feel confident that cyclists were winning races because of their own ability and hard work. Yes, there were stories of doping (Jacques Anquetil famously said that nobody wins the Tour on salad and mineral water), but there was nothing like what we've seen during the past fifteen years or so.

    Ironically, I wrote the post just before Ted Cruz announced his withdrawal from the race. As awful as he is, he seemed like a statesman compared to Trump.

  3. Justine,
    Check out Dave Moulton's Blog, and a posting from 2007 you can click on in a column on the right side of his home pages, called "Doping, A Historical Perspective". Dave began his racing career in 1952. The short version is that doping (benzedrine) was used in cycling then and most in the sport knew about it. But only the highest level of cyclists used it. I can say the same thing about long distance runners in the same period: the best ones used it, but not the rank and file. It was known to be dangerous, so only experts were qualified to use it.

    Interesting read.


  4. Leo--I'll check out Dave Moulton's blog. Thanks!