Cycling is full of symbolic gestures. For example, who can forget the famous “look” Lance Armstrong gave Jan Ullrich on Alpe d’Huez in the 2001 Tour de France?
The latest gesture that’s destined to go down in cycling history? The Martial Saugy “nod.”
This is the now famous nod that Saugy, the head of the WADA accredited lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, gave Travis Tygart of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. According to Tygart, he asked Saugy if he had explained to Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel back in 2001 how to beat the EPO test. In response, the lab director gave an affirmative nod of the head.
News that the head of an anti-doping lab would reveal dope test secrets to riders would be a shocking breach of ethics. However, Saugy now insists the “nod” was misinterpreted by the American behind the USADA Reasoned Decision that stripe dArmstrong of his seven Tours de France.
“Travis Tygart is an important man in the fight against doping and I think very highly of him,” said Saugy. “But he interpreted this alleged nod wrong. I never made this gesture.”
Thus the “nod” goes down in the annals of cycling, a symbolic gesture in the grand and never-ending battle against the usage of illegal pharmaceutical products.
Did he nod or didn’t he? How big was the nod? Was it an energetic up and down of the head or a subtle movement that left its encoded meaning open to interpretation and perhaps mistranslation?
The history book of cycling has now added another rich footnote. In the Armstrong timeline, a legend that began with chemo and ended in the maillot jaune in Paris, the “look” and the “nod” are now connected. Tapestry, myth, the subject of endless debate and conjecture.
As of Friday, Saugy had refused to give an demonstration of the nod he gave Tygart, the head moment that has touched off a storm of criticism and outrage. Tygart insists that the nod could only be taken one way, that Saugy had in fact given Armstrong the keys to avoid EPO detection.
For his part, Armstrong always claimed the “look” wasn’t personally directed at Ullrich but was a more general survey of the race situation behind him — what teammates did he have left, which rivals were still a factor.
Perhaps this is also the case with Monsieur Saugy. It is conceivable that his symbolic was not meant for Tygart but another person in the meeting room. It could also have been a facial tic, the attempt to loosen a tight neck, an involuntary physical movement brought on by a muscle spasm.
One could even posit that the contentious “nod” was the victims of cross cultural confusion. An American and a European misreading the physical cues. The nod could have been meant to underline Saugy’s understanding of Tygart in the more general sense while not representing a definite answer to a specific question.
It is unlikely that cycling journalists and passionate followers of the sport of cycling will ever truly learn the exact nature and meaning of the now famous Saugy Nod. As much, the nod is not clarification but mystery.