In a sport where judgment is most often rendered by a knowing smile and arched eyebrow, this time, the guilty party is holding up his hand.
Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal, the first athlete from these shores to win one of the sport’s grand tours – the 2012 Giro d’Italia – has made a seismic admission: A decade ago, when he was primarily known as a mountain-bike racer, he used performance-enhancing drugs.
Hesjedal, who has raced professionally since 2005, said in a statement issued through his current employers, Garmin-Sharp Pro Cycling, that “I chose the wrong path” and “I sincerely apologize for my part in the dark past of the sport. I will always be sorry.”
In cycling, as in every scandal from Watergate to the Senate expenses imbroglio, the worst trouble often stems not from the initial malfeasance but from subsequent efforts – often ham-fisted – to bury it in a deep, dark hole, then lie about the hole’s existence.
Hesjedal may be spared the public skewering and fall from grace that befell Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner from Texas, who was stripped of his titles for doping, if only because the Victoria native hasn’t aggressively denied or covered up his misdeeds.
It can even be argued the admission of guilt – which was accompanied by a denial he has used PEDs since 2003 – is a small step forward.
“Let’s not make him into a folk hero for admitting he cheated, but at the same time, if he can give us information and help do things to make the sport cleaner, then it’s a good thing,” said Paul Melia, president of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES), the country’s principal anti-doping body.
Melia confirmed Hesjedal will not face a competition ban, given the eight-year statute of limitations on doping infractions.
But his statement isn’t without consequence. Melia likened his admission to “a kick in the stomach for Canadians” and suggested it will only deepen the cynicism with which cycling is viewed.
While it’s doubtless true Hesjedal will be viewed with the jaundiced eye that settles on all former drug cheats – there are dozens who continue to race or are employed in one capacity or another by professional teams – the clear hope within the sport is admission and contrition will limit the damage.
“In any sport, when a doping infraction comes out it’s certainly not helpful,” said Guy Napert-Frenette, a spokesman for Cycling Canada, which supported Hesjedal during his amateur and Olympic career. “That said, we’re very happy he’s entered into a dialogue with the anti-doping authorities.”
It’s Cycling Canada’s view that transparency and honesty from the likes of the country’s pre-eminent racer could encourage others to follow suit.
Skeptics will note it took an investigation by the CCES and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for Hesjedal to come clean and even then, external forces played a key role.
Testimony to outfits such as the CCES and USADA is secret, but revelations he was tutored on the use of the synthetic blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin (EPO), contained in a book by Danish cyclist Michael Rasmussen, are not.
In his forthcoming tome Yellow Fever, the disgraced former Rabobank rider – Rasmussen was caught for doping during the 2007 Tour de France while wearing the leader’s yellow jersey – spills about a two-week sojourn Hesjedal and two other Canadian riders spent at his house in Italy.
“It soon became evident that the three Canadian mountain bikers Seamus McGrath, Chris Sheppard and Ryder Hesjedal had seen the light: a good result in the World Cup  would send them to the Olympics in Athens in 2004,” an excerpt published in a Copenhagen newspaper said.
Hesjedal won a silver medal at the 2003 world championships, and was headed for a medal in Greece before being derailed by a flat tire.
“They moved into my basement in August … I trained with them in the Dolomites and taught them how to do vitamin injections and how to take EPO and Synacthen [a drug that increases steroid hormones],” Rasmussen wrote.
Rasmussen reportedly indicated he never witnessed Hesjedal or the others ingesting EPO or any other banned substance. (Neither McGrath nor Sheppard could be reached for comment.)
Hesjedal, who posted a career-best sixth place finish in the 2010 Tour de France, didn’t confirm the specifics of Rasmussen’s allegations Wednesday, limiting himself to acknowledging nebulous “mistakes” that were “short-lived.”
“I believe that being truthful will help the sport continue to move forward. … I have seen the best and the worst of the sport and I believe that it is now in the best place it’s ever been,” he said.
It may well be Hesjedal’s use of banned substances is a clearer reflection of cycling’s past than it is of the sport’s present.
Melia said the USADA’s investigation of Armstrong led CCES to his Canadian teammate, Michael Barry, a retired cyclist who has also admitted doping; it’s under those auspices the body met with Hesjedal – a former teammate of Barry’s with the now-defunct Discovery Channel team – last spring.
Those leading the crusade against doping in sports understand having athletes recount the whys and wherefores of what they took and who they got it from is an indispensable investigative tool.
“We know that athletes never act alone,” Melia said.
Here's the full text of the statement:
Cycling is my life and has been ever since I can remember. I have loved and lived this sport but more than a decade ago, I chose the wrong path. And even though those mistakes happened more than 10 years ago, and they were short-lived, it does not change the fact that I made them and I have lived with that and been sorry for it ever since. To everyone in my life, inside and outside the sport – to those that have supported me and my dreams – including my friends, my family, the media, fans, my peers, sponsors – to riders who didn't make the same choices as me all those years ago, I sincerely apologize for my part in the dark past of the sport. I will always be sorry.
Although I stopped what I was doing many years before I joined Slipstream Sports, I was and am deeply grateful to be a part of an organization that makes racing clean its first priority and that supports athletes for telling the truth. I believe that being truthful will help the sport continue to move forward, and over a year ago when I was contacted by anti-doping authorities, I was open and honest about my past. I have seen the best and the worst of the sport and I believe that it is now in the best place it’s ever been. I look at young riders on our team and throughout the peloton, and I know the future of the sport has arrived. I'm glad that they didn’t have to make the same choices I did, and I will do everything I can to continue to help the sport that I love.