TORONTO – Star Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal responded to doping allegations Wednesday, saying he “chose the wrong path” and made “mistakes.”
Excerpts from a new book by former Danish rider Michael Rasmussen say Hesjedal was shown how to use performance-enhancing drugs at the start of his career.
“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,” Hesjedal said in the statement.
The 32-year-old Victoria native and Giro d’Italia champion did not explicitly say he took performance-enhancing drugs, but he apologized to fans, sponsors and other cyclists.
“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,” he said.
Excerpts of Rasmussen’s autobiography “Yellow Fever,” released Wednesday in Danish newspaper “Politiken,” claim that Rasmussen taught Hesjedal and fellow Canadian cyclists Seamus McGrath and Chris Sheppard how to use EPO, a banned substance used in blood doping, in 2003 when Hesjedal was a young mountain bike racer.
Rasmussen did not claim he saw any of the Canadians actually take EPO or any other banned substance.
His allegations are just the latest in a long list of doping scandals as cycling battles to rehabilitate its image as a dirty sport, especially in the wake of Lance Armstrong’s admission earlier this year that he took performance-enhancing drugs in all seven of his Tour de France victories.
Neither Sheppard nor McGrath could be immediately reached for comment on the allegations, which have not been verified by The Canadian Press. Messages were left with Sheppard’s former sponsor Rocky Mountain and with a cycling camp that McGrath was recently affiliated with.
A Cycling Canada spokesman said he didn’t know where they could be reached. According to cyclingnews.com, Sheppard tested positive for EPO in 2005 and was banned for two years by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.
“Point blank I wish to acknowledge I cheated; I’m not trying to raise sympathy, nor have people feel sorry for me,” the cyclingnews.com reported he said in a 2005 statement. “Cycling is a tough sport and after years of racing clean and pointing the finger, I gave in during hard times.”
Hesjedal’s statement comes a little over a year after the now-retired Michael Barry admitted to doping.
Rasmussen, a climbing specialist and veteran of four Tour de France races, admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs throughout most of his career in January.
Hesjedal switched from mountain bike to road racing and won the Giro d’Italia last year to become the first Canadian to capture a major European tour event. The 21-day grind through Italy’s mountains, valleys and coastlines is one of the world’s three Grand Tour races. He went on to win the 2012 Lionel Conacher Award as The Canadian Press male athlete of the year.
The Garmin-Sharp rider battled injuries this past year.
He broke a rib in a Stage 1 crash at the Tour de France but soldiered on and finished 70th. Hesjedal had to withdraw from the Tour de Suisse after crashing out in the early stages and a virus prematurely ended his bid to defend his Giro title.
A three-time Olympian, Hesjedal finished sixth at the 2010 Tour de France.
Hesjedal said he has co-operated with the United States Anti-Doping Agency and its investigation into doping in cycling.
“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,” Hesjedal said. “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.”
Hesjedal’s pro team Garmin-Sharp, which prides itself in being “100 per cent clean,” backed Hesjedal because he agreed to work with U.S. doping authorities.
“As we have previously stated, our expectation is that anyone in our organization contacted by any anti-doping authority must be open and honest with that authority,” it said in a statement. “Ryder is no exception and a year ago when he was contacted he co-operated fully and truthfully testified to USADA and the CCES. For this reason and because of our desire for 100 per cent truth and reconciliation in the sport of cycling, we support him.”
The U.S. doping agency confirmed that Hesjedal had testified in its ongoing investigation.
“Athletes like him, and others, who have voluntarily come in, taken accountability for their actions and have been fully truthful, are essential to securing a brighter future for the sport of cycling,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a release.
Because there is an eight-year statute of limitations under World Anti-Doping Agency rules, an admission of taking drugs 10 years ago is not considered a doping violation.
But Christine Ayotte, director of WADA’s accredited lab in Laval, Que., said Hesjedal still deserves to be punished.
“It’s just like the Lance Armstrong or Tyler Hamilton cases — it seems carefully designed to touch on a period beyond the eight-year range of the world anti-doping code,” she said. “But in some cases, exceptions were made. That’s the case with Lance Armstrong. The USADA went back farther than eight years by relying on legal arguments that, in my opinion, seemed to hold up well.”
She said she doesn’t know whether similar punishment could befall Hesjedal.
Cycling Canada said it was “shocked and saddened” by Hesjedal’s statement.
“To his credit, he has been open and honest with the anti-doping authorities that investigate such matters in a confidential fashion as we learned today through his statement and the subsequent statement of Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA,” it said in a statement. “We continue to urge any athletes that have information about doping in the sport to come forward to the CCES to help with the ongoing fight against doping.”