Giro d'Italia

On the eve of this year's Giro d’Italia, I was told that my cortisol levels from a routine pre-race blood test were considered too low to start the race (in accordance with the MPCC-movement for credible cycling- criteria). The team issued a short press statement and I left the race early the next morning before it even began.

I have not said anything to the press since…every rider in my situation would claim they have nothing to hide and I know words don’t go very far in a sport with such a tainted history. Instead I wanted to wait and come to you with the proof.

The following story is not to convince you that I’ve done nothing untoward, this has already been done through the independent testing undergone over the last few weeks which has shown that my low cortisol level was caused by my 100% legal, declared and prescribed allergy/asthma medication.

The next few paragraphs are to help me vent my frustration at a flawed system, to show my appreciation for those around me and to tell my side of the story.

It was pretty surreal getting the news…I was about 2 minutes into a massage when our director Jan told me I needed to come to the bus. It definitely took a while to sink in. The first thing the team said was that I had returned low cortisol readings from the test and according to the MPCC, I could not start the Giro. In the same sentence they added that they were 100% behind me and that they knew I had done nothing wrong and together we were going to prove it. That changed my initial reaction from a panic to me being very angry that all my preparation over the last 3 months was going to be p*ssed away by politics. I guess though, I was more angered about the hit to my reputation. I have always been vocal about anti-doping in our sport and especially about guys pushing the limits with things like cortisone, TUE’s, glandular medication… the grey areas. I was talking to a friend about it and told him that when this happened to other riders in the past, my instant thoughts were “those cheating b*stards have been smashing cortisone”. He replied “Yeah but in your case it is different and people don’t think that.” Why though? “because I don’t win races like the other guys who have had the same problem?”…my counter argument to him was to look at Lloyd Mondry…he tested positive for EPO and didn’t win anything.

Anyway in the aftermath of receiving the news that my Giro was over before it began…I immediately rang my manager Andrew McQuaid and within a few hours he was down in Italy putting together a plan and trying to stop me doing anything stupid with modern day tools like Twitter etc. At the time, it was pretty hard to say nothing while “keyboard warriors” tore shreds off me (suggesting cortisone abuse etc.), but it reminded me of a story about my brother who is a veterinarian. A while ago he was pregnancy testing cows and received a nasty kick from one of them which broke his rib. In a moment of rage, he retaliated by punching the cow…however the cow didn’t flinch and instead my brother now had a broken hand to add to his list of woes. I guess between them, Andrew and the team staff stopped me from punching the metaphorical cow. Now that I have the concrete proof I’d like to see that cow go to the meat works!

So to the MPCC…firstly I appreciate what they do. I love the idea of banning Tramadol in races. I also think getting rid of cortisone use from our sport would change things too. However until now I didn’t realise the flaws of their testing system. If I was on any of the 10 teams at the Giro that are not part of the MPCC, I would be riding the Giro today, not writing this article at home. For all I know I might have been under the cortisol limit ten times in my career to date and not even known about it. I was having coffee with a guy in Girona a few days ago and he was telling me that his normal haematocrit level is around 44. Last December he had spent a lot of time in the off season at altitude…he was fresh and had just travelled to team camp where the first quarterly blood test was done, his haematocrit was 51. If that was 15 years ago he would have been stood down for a period and everyone would assume he was using EPO. In a few years time I hope someone returns a low cortisol reading and says “thankfully this wasn’t in 2015 or I would be stood down”. At the same time how do we stop cortisone use in our sport? I don’t know the answer to that at the moment but I know a few guys like me taking the fall to stop guys that are genuinely abusing cortisone is not the answer.

So since my return from Italy, I will say it has been a pretty rough few weeks. I spent the first week more or less up in Holland with a cortisol specialist doing tests. I had to p*ss into containers for 48 hours straight. One day I had blood drawn at 4 different times…not an enjoyable experience! I also tried to kill another bird while I was up there, to see if the specialists could determine the cause of the “stitch” (ETAP) problem that is plaguing my career. I underwent a MRI but no luck yet (feel free to send me any ideas/solutions)

Anyway if you include the taper for the Giro, by the end of the first week post Giro flop I had had essentially 2 weeks without proper training. I got back to Girona at 1am and the next day started a 3 block of panic miles to try hit my new goals. I racked up 19 hours in the saddle in 3 days with good company. I also bought an altitude tent in an effort not lose everything and then it was back to Holland for more tests. Next on the cards for me is the Tour of Belgium. Nothing like some cobbles and a few days lined out in the gutter to bring back the speed. I hope the work I have done is not lost. I’m still light. I’m still strong and I’m very motivated.

I consider myself an optimist, for better or worse. Until the point when I got on the plane back to Girona I even held a faint hope of starting the Giro. Leaving New Zealand at 18, thumbing my way around Europe to race and come up through the system on Swiss, French, Italian, American and Dutch teams, I think you grow up pretty fast. Facing something like this has a similar effect. The last few weeks have been some of the toughest for sure but in between feeling angry and deflated I’ve had a few patches of feeling really awesome thanks to the people around me. I’ve spent a lot of time in contact with my inner circle of friends, my family, team mates and staff, past and present. Also Directors of other teams rang to tell me that everyone in their camp was behind me and that they knew I had done nothing wrong. Not for one second did my team try and distance themselves from me or show any seeds of doubt. After many conference calls and meetings their only concerns were my mental health and getting the proof I needed to show the public. This has made me feel pretty lucky about the more important things in life. So to all those people...a big THANK YOU. Of course not everyone was so supportive, I made the mistake of looking on the internet a few times. People are a lot braver behind a username on a computer. I’ve never had a lot of time for ignorance. The empty can rattles the most and uneducated people are quick to voice their opinions in public.

So what’s next? All roads for 2015 had led to the Giro. I lived like a monk at the top of a mountain for 3 weeks in the build up and felt really strong. In one week up there I rode 30 hours, 20,000 vertical meters with effort sessions like I’ve never hit before. I’d shaken a kilo and mentally reached a new height. I won’t say being locked up there is something I’m in a hurry to repeat but life goes on and I guess the option is to sink or swim. I have every intention to swim, even if at this moment it feels like it’s against a strong current. However to continue with the ocean/swimming theme, tides can turn very fast.

So there’s a quick insight into my nightmare. I’m sure there will still be people who have their minds set on the causes for my low cortisol. But I truly couldn’t care for their opinions anymore. I hope we can all learn something from this…I sure have.