YORKSHIRE’S highest-profile member of the professional peloton believes the feelgood factor surrounding British cycling will help the sport overcome the damaging Lance Armstrong affair.
Cycling has been shaken to its very core by the findings of the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) that its most iconic figure was at the heart of “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”.
But Rotherham’s Ben Swift, who is part of the new wave of honest home-grown talent hoping to build on the groundbreaking feats of Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, is confident that the zero tolerance policy of Team Sky and British cycling as a whole can help steer the sport towards a brighter future.
The 24-year-old has been involved in the professional road circuit for the past four seasons and aside from being a member of Russian outfit Team Katusha when two of their riders tested positive for doping in isolated incidents, the issue of performance-enhancing drugs is something he thankfully has never encountered.
The Armstrong revelations about controlled team doping have come at the end of a period in which cycling has been pushed to the front of the British sporting psyche by Cavendish winning the world title and Wiggins the Tour de France. And Swift hopes those shining British examples will help steer the sport through such a trying time.
“I hope we are doing enough as British riders to move past this,” he said. “When you look at the amount of people getting out on their bikes, having been inspired by what they have seen from our cyclists, then that is very encouraging and something we want to protect.
“We’ve had a massive push for cycling in Britain in recent years. In the rankings for national teams this season we finished second, which is unheard of, and even a few years ago something we could never have thought possible.
“We have just got to hope as Team Sky that we keep growing and move past this affair.
“Teams like Sky have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to employing riders who have had anything to do with drugs.”
The fallout from the Armstrong affair continued yesterday when one of professional cycling’s biggest sponsors pulled out.
Dutch bank Rabobank, the principal sponsor of one of the top teams, will end their 17-year involvement on December 31.
The announcement came in the wake of the team suspending their Spanish rider Carlos Barredo after the International Cycling Union (UCI) launched a doping case against him.
Former Rabobank cyclist Levi Leipheimer, one of 11 former team-mates of Armstrong who testified against him to USADA, said he took EPO while with the Dutch team, and was assisted by their team doctor. He also testified that other members of the Rabobank team used banned substances.
British cyclist David Millar criticised the bank’s decision, saying on Twitter: “Dear Rabobank, you were part of the problem. How dare you walk away from your young clean guys who are part of the solution. Sickening.”
The UCI said in a statement: “In light of the difficult period the UCI understands the context which has led to this decision being reached.
“Despite inevitable and sometimes painful consequences, the UCI reaffirms its commitment to the fight against doping and full transparency about potential anti-doping rule violations.”
There have been calls for a total amnesty on cyclists who admit to past drug offences but Swift believes that could potentially drag the sport even further into the gutter.
“It’s a difficult one because where do you draw the line?” said the Team Sky rider.
“Are people just going to come forward to clear their conscience no matter how damaging the effect on cycling is? Because we don’t want that.
“What the sport needs is closure on the whole Lance affair.
“We know what effect drugs has on any sport, and we want it out and behind us as quickly as possible.
“What’s happened with Rabobank is bad but they were in the thick of it.
“The bigger picture here is that we are in danger of sponsors thinking enough is enough.”
Swift has been left disappointed by the revelations, particularly as he was one of many young riders who idolised Armstrong as he won seven Tours de France between 1999 and 2005.
The Yorkshireman spent his first year in professional cycling with Katusha in 2009.
The banning of two riders for banned substances that year were isolated incidents, with Swift stressing it was by no means a collective policy .
“I had no clue it had happened,” he said. “No inkling of what was going off at all.
“It was never offered to me and of course, it doesn’t need saying, I wouldn’t have taken it.
“The doping culture in cycling all boiled down to individuals who were desperate to succeed and would go to any lengths.
“In a way I was quite lucky. I came into the sport just after the last really big scandal. If I’d have come in 10 years earlier then drug use would have been much more widespread.
“We are very lucky to be in an era now where they are trying to get rid of it because it is an embarrassment to the sport. Sometimes a sport has to go through all this to get better.
“In a way you almost want to sweep it under the carpet, but you can’t because it needs to be dealt with and the perpetrators need to be punished because it’s wrong.”
ICU president Pat McQuaid will on Monday reveal the world governing body’s response to USADA’s scathing Armstrong report.
Armstrong refused to co-operate with USADA, who last week published a 1,000-page report which concluded the Texan and his United States Postal Service team had orchestrated a sophisticated doping programme.
In accordance with the World Anti-doping Code, the UCI had 21 days to respond, taking them up to October 31, but McQuaid plans to address the issue in Geneva on Monday.
Armstrong announced he would not contest the charges handed down by USADA in August.
USADA promptly stripped the 41-year-old of all results since August 1, 1998, including his seven Tour wins, and banned him for life.
The UCI will either accept the findings and punishments imposed, or reject them, likely taking the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.