GENEVA – Mired in a crisis caused by the Lance Armstrong doping affair, cycling faces a long uphill trek to regain credibility.
Still, the head of the sport's governing body said cycling can succeed despite the doubts of many, including anti-doping leaders who on Tuesday called for Armstrong-era officials to be removed.
"By the decisions we have taken it has given us the moral authority," UCI President Pat McQuaid told The Associated Press after his group accepted the sanctions that stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and all other race results since August 1998.
Skeptics insist that the UCI protected Armstrong from scrutiny for many years, and was reluctantly forced to disown him by a devastating report published this month by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Across 1,000 pages of evidence, the report detailed how Armstrong's teams used and trafficked banned drugs — coercing some teammates into the conspiracy — to dominate the Tour from 1999-2005.
"We really had no option but to make the decision we made," McQuaid said.
McQuaid's denunciation Monday that Armstrong "deserves to be forgotten in cycling" was surprisingly strong after the UCI had previously backed Armstrong's failed legal fight to deny USADA jurisdiction in the case.
"We haven't tried to find a way to defend an icon in our sport — we've accepted reality," he told the AP. "We've accepted the facts and the facts are there. I'm a pragmatic person and I believe no matter how bad the situation might be, you take the decision you have to take and move forward from there.
"The sport has to take what it can from this and use it as a means to convince athletes that there's no future in doping," McQuaid said.
A day after Armstrong was stripped of his Tour titles, former teammate Steffen Kjaergaard acknowledged using banned performance-enhancing drugs. The 39-year-old Norwegian, who has since retired, said Tuesday he had used EPO and cortisone. He was immediately suspended from his job at the Norwegian Cycling Federation.
But five-time Tour champion Miguel Indurain said he believes in Armstrong, saying the entire case was "bizarre" since Armstong never tested positive for doping.
"It is strange they take away his Tours because of the testimonies of some teammates," said Indurain, a Spaniard who won the Tour from 1991-95.
Armstrong has lost a slew of sponsors over the scandal, and even Dutch bank Rabobank has pulled out as a team sponsor. However, some Tour de France backers said Tuesday they would stick with the race.
"We don't sponsor a team or an individual, we sponsor a sporting event that each year attracts great public enthusiasm," said Pierre Baillot, the spokesman of French bank LCL, which sponsors the race leader's yellow jersey. "The wider public knows how to draw a distinction" between the jersey and the wearer.
On Friday, the future of cycling will be shaped at a meeting of the governing body's management committee. On the agenda: how to revise race results, including the 2000 Olympic time trial in which Armstrong won bronze; possible efforts to recoup Armstrong's prize money; handling riders' doping confessions; and restructuring the sport to guard against doping conspiracies.
There is also to be discussion of a commission that could offer limited amnesty to riders and officials confessing to doping.
"Why did this happen?" asked McQuaid, who became UCI president two months after Armstrong's seventh Tour victory. "What is it about our sport that forces athletes to do what they are doing? If we can make changes in the structure which weakens the possibility of athletes and teams getting into doping programs, we will bring those forward."
McQuaid suggested that some ideas he plans to share Friday will not be popular, with speculation that nine-rider teams at the Tour could be reduced.
"They may be unpalatable for the teams and the riders but we will bring them forward," he said.
What is unpalatable to the World Anti-Doping Agency is that McQuaid's predecessor, Hein Verbruggen, can attend the board meeting as honorary president.
Verbruggen led world cycling from 1991-2005 and has been sharply criticized for presiding over an era of rampant doping. Though the USADA report expressed concern at some of UCI's conduct, it stopped short of repeating unproven allegations relating to Armstrong's urine sample with suspicious levels of EPO at the 2001 Tour of Switzerland and his donations to the UCI totaling $125,000.
On Tuesday, the head of WADA — which has long had fractious relations with cycling — said the UCI had to "take the blinkers off" and examine its past behavior by ousting those officials who were in charge during the Armstrong era.
"I don't think there's any credibility if they don't do that," WADA President John Fahey said.
McQuaid defended his UCI mentor at a news conference Monday.
"There is nothing in the USADA report which implicated Mr. Verbruggen in any wrongdoing," said the Irish official, who stated he would not resign and will likely stand for a third four-year presidential term next September.
After five hours of defending his organization, McQuaid directed his most pointed frustration at former Armstrong teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, whose whistleblower testimony exposed the depth of cheating in the U.S. Postal Service team and cycling's entrenched doping culture.
"They are not heroes," said McQuaid, explaining that he was angered by riders who repeatedly denied doping during their careers and who tried to make money from their confessions.
The outburst conflicted with his earlier statement that "the UCI is listening" and welcomed riders telling what they knew about doping.
"Pat McQuaid's comments expose the hypocrisy of his leadership," Hamilton said in a statement to the BBC. "Instead of seizing an opportunity to instill hope for the next generation of cyclists, he continues to point fingers, shift blame and attack those who speak out, tactics that are no longer effective. Pat McQuaid has no place in cycling."
Asked by the AP who represented a brighter future for cycling, McQuaid pointed to riders such as Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, Geraint Thomas of Britain and Tejay van Garderen of the U.S., winner of the best young rider classification at the 2012 Tour.
"They are looking at what is happening (in the Armstrong case) and they are saying to themselves, 'I never want to be involved in anything like this. I never want to be near anything like this,'" McQuaid said. "They are the riders who will bring our sport forward."