Obviously, one of the biggest stories from the 2016 Cyclocross World Championships was Femke van den Driessche being caught with a motorised bike. Of course she’s denying it (along the lines of “I sold the bike to a friend, who motorised it, and it weirdly got added to my bikes in the pits but it was nothing to do with me” – click the link, or if you understand Dutch, this video, or this video in English), and there’s a great couple of summaries about the case so far on Ella Cycling Tips and inrng, who sets out the rules and possible next steps. I am gutted for all the u23 riders who rode their hearts out in a wonderful, historic race, the first time there’s been more than one category for the women riders. But I’m also gutted, because when teenagers are done for doping or cheating, it always makes me really worry about them.
I should stress, I’m not saying teenagers aren’t culpable for their own actions, but I think about when I was 19, and passionate about achieving things, and made some of those mistakes that are part of growing up. And I’m glad I was brought up to think for myself, and have an education in critical thinking – but I know that’s luck, too. I can totally understand how kids fall under the sway of a charismatic coach or an overbearing parent – and I also can’t help remembering the stories of Genèvieve Jeanson and other riders, whose coaches doping them was just the tip of an awful iceberg. I’m not saying that’s happening here at all, but that’s an extreme example of how sometimes riders who dope can also be victims.
I know there’s no clear cut-off line about when a teenager is an adult, but a lot of teenagers who’ve been riding since they were children have had more of a sheltered life than their peers, or have lived in more of a bubble of ambition, so I always hope they have people watching out for them. And if they are caught for doping or cheating, I always hope there are proper, in-depth investigations into who has facilitated that – and extra-tough sanctions on the dodgy doctors, coaches, staff, and yes, parents. Especially the kinds of parents who end up with one child banned for EPO and another caught with a motorised bike. And I hope the cycling Federations can provide support for all riders, but especially the young ones, who probably don’t know how to access things like counselling, or help dealing with their life being turned upside down. If parents are involved, it is especially important, because it’s so much harder for a rider to admit things without feeling like they’ve betrayed their parent – or even recognise that by encouraging them to cheat, the parent has betrayed them.
Of course the rider should be punished for cheating, with sporting sanctions (and not just a 6 month ban, when that means “no racing in the off-season”), losing endorsements and so on, but they should be supported as a person too. I hope the UCI, when it hands out the sanctions, also provides support links, and I hope Federations are pro-active about helping riders too. Personally, I want longer sanctions, and cheating riders out of the sport – but I don’t want it to ruin a rider’s life, especially when they’re so young and they may feel like they’ve got nothing else.
It’s hard for me to be coherent about this. So many conflicting emotions, like the disappointment it over-shadows the amazing races and being super-pleased it’s been caught, and will hopefully deter other riders from trying it. And worry for this young girl, and frustration I’m talking about this rather than the fabulous, wonderful racing. I’m going to go back and watch all the race highlights again, and focus on the positives.
Update: Cyclingnews report that bike manufacturer Wielier Triestina is threatening legal action against Femke, which is interesting, given the way a) I don’t think anyone thinks it’s to do with them, or even would have remembered what bike make it was before this, b) big bike manufacturers supply products to dopers, ex-dopers and teams with doping connections all the time, and never sue dopers when they’re caught, and most of all, c) what can suing a 19 year old female bike rider possibly prove? How much money can a teenager have, even before any fine she has to pay to the UCI? This would purely be about trying to destroy her life, and that seems vengeful, and has no positive outcome at all. It strikes me that it’s easier to go after a teenaged cyclocross rider than a big name road rider with the resources of his team behind him, and I don’t think this paints the company in any kind of good light.