'Pedaling' a Drug-Free Message18 Mar, 2015 By: Erik Gruenwedel
Lost in the disgrace of Lance Armstrong’s 2013 admission to systemic performance-enhancing drug use was the fact German professional cycling was finally emerging from the fog of doping among its marquee riders.
Up-and-coming German sprinters Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb spearheaded a small Dutch cycling team with a mandate to race clean. With Kittel and Degenkolb’s success, the team earned a spot in the 100th edition of the Tour de France in 2014.
Their exploits are chronicled in documentary Clean Spirit: In the Heart of the Tour from Dutch filmmaker Dirk Jan Roeleven and released on DVD March 24 by First Run Features at $24.95.
An economic power in the European Union, Germany from the mid-1990s had been a hotbed in professional cycling. Sponsors such as T-Mobile underwrote multimillion dollar budgets of UCI Pro Tour teams featuring 1997 Tour de France winner (and first German) Jan Ullrich and points champion Erik Zabel, among others.
T-Mobile’s Tour success is well-documented in Hell on Wheels, also available on DVD from First Run.
The euphoria, however, began to unravel in 2006 when Ullrich (and a teammate) was barred from competing in the Tour following speculation of blood doping. It was later disclosed that most of the T-Mobile squad, including Zabel, had doped. More suspensions ensued and T-Mobile dropped its sponsorship.
Even worse, German media — notably television networks — refused to broadcast professional cycling, citing rampant drug use.
Filmmaker Jan Roeleven’s desire to capture the rigors of competing in the Tour with a drug-free team was unexpectedly surpassed by Kittel, who won the opening stage and briefly wore the yellow jersey as race leader.
Kittel would go on to win three more stages, including the ceremonial Champs-Élysées last stage in Paris, which he also won in 2013.
“Kittel and Degenkold were chosen because they are friends and both are equally dedicated to fighting the image of pro cycling as a drugged, corrupt sport. They were able to tell the story in a compelling and almost philosophical way,” Jan Roeleven said via email. “And, of course, they are so talented that filming them makes for great video footage.”
Unfortunately, with that talent comes speculation the riders are doping — a stigma they admit in the doc will take years to diminish. Even Jan Roeleven says he doesn’t know how clean the sport has become — despite evidence suggesting winning times and physiological outputs by racers have fallen significantly.
“That’s a hard question to answer,” he said. “I would say no, according to the most recent investigation by the UCI (cycling’s governing body). But I think it is getting better and better.”
Indeed, in the last year or two, German media, sponsors and cycling fans have regained their enthusiasm for the sport largely because of Kittel, Degenkolb and a few other extremely talented German racers, according to First Run Features’ VP Marc Mauceri.
"There is also the feeling among fans in Germany and elsewhere that the stringent anti-doping laws, the increased testing, and even the 'look-the-other-way' culture of drug use within the peloton has changed in a very positive direction," he said.