The approach would never work for the four major sports (or even soccer - hi, futbol fans). There's too much to lose, and there are plenty of "clean" stars to replace those who fail drug tests. Cycling, on the other hand, has next to nothing to lose in terms of fan interest (close to zero at the moment) or television ratings (ditto). At present, the sport has little to offer beyond scandal, hollow indignation, and misplaced morality - which, come to think of it, is actually pretty entertaining stuff.
Consider: Unless you live in the Pyrenees or you have an unchecked spandex fetish, you probably don't pay attention to the sport until one rider wars with another rider over yet another drug accusation.
Tyler Hamilton went on 60 Minutes not long ago, admitted he had been "instructed" by Dr. Michele Ferrari on how to take EPO, and did some snitching, too. Hamilton joined a line as long as a time trial and claimed his former teammate, Lance Armstrong, cheated.
"I can't say I saw Michele Ferrari ever give Lance Armstrong performance-enhancing drugs," Hamilton said. "But, do I know for a fact that they talked about performance-enhancing drugs and how to take it and when and - when, how and why? Yes."
Thereafter, Armstrong reportedly ran into Hamilton at a restaurant in Colorado - of all the microbrew joints in all the world, right? - and threatened to give him a good beating. What a shame that their screaming match didn't develop into a full-fledged slap fight during the Tour de France, while Phil Liggett gave running television commentary. That is precisely the kind of publicity cycling needs. The sport shouldn't try to disavow its attendant madness - it should move the foolishness under a Big Top and bill itself as an unstable, lawless, can't-miss circus. Cycling is already an absurd sideshow. Might as well market it properly.
It's the best way for cycling to avoid irrelevance - by accepting (and selling) the debauchery that has long defined the sport. Punch the most recognizable names in cycling into Google - Armstrong, Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador, George Hincapie, Frankie Andreu, et al. - and the words suspended and/or doping inevitably pop up. Clear their names and bring them all back - then put cameras in the training rooms to capture their "recovery" sessions and back-stabbing comments. The ratings would be huge - or at least better.
Ah, but doping is illegal in many countries, you say. And so it is, but no one goes to jail for taking PEDs, they go to jail for selling it or lying about it to grand juries. The only other option is to continue with business as usual, and that's really no option at all. At the moment, pro cycling might as well be pro wrestling, only without the hordes of dedicated followers.
Think about it: The stars in both pursuits wear form-fitting gear, rant regularly about various perceived injustices, and have a fondness for superior pharmacology. And relationships in both disciplines often rapidly mutate from friendship to deep and lasting hatred. Cyclists could learn from wrasslers, actually. They should stop in between stages and deliver trash-talking promos into hand-held microphones in their best Randy "Macho Man" Savage voices (may he rest in peace, ooooh yeaaaaah). It could be like a wrestling-style mad lib:
The allegations made against me are false. I deeply despise (insert name of rival, teammate, or media member) and plan to prove (him/her) wrong. I will exact revenge by (pick one: winning the race, framing my accuser, taking a less detectable drug, running him off a cliff when no one's looking). In the end, when the truth comes out, I will be (forgotten/branded a liar).
Might as well strip away the pretense and lay bare what we already know. Let the cyclists puff out their skinny chests and their drug-swollen hearts and peddle up twisting mountains with spindly legs made strong by the best pharmaceuticals money can manufacture. Let them stand on the podium and pull on the leader's jersey and thank the chemists for making it all possible. Let them embrace the performance-enhanced show while trash-talking their rivals. Let them make it a true spectacle, complete with big-pharma sponsorships and devoid of phony apologies. Let them stop pretending.
Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813, email@example.com or @gonzophilly on Twitter. Read his past columns at www.philly.com/philly/columnists/