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Mix of emotions from runners-up

Few men in the American domestic peloton got the short end of the stick quite like Andrew Bajadali did.

Three times at the U.S. national road championships Bajadali was up against riders who later admitted to doping for most of their careers, and three times he lost. One of those losses was in a knockdown sprint against George Hincapie in 2009.

Bajadali was a domestic racer who retired last year, after a final stint with Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies. He was talented, for sure, but not the kind of talent that signs with the world's biggest teams and rides the world's biggest races. Unless, maybe, he had won a national title or two.

He finished second at nationals in 2009 and got popped on the final climb by Levi Leipheimer in 2007. He was there in every sense, until he wasn't. And "there" translates not just to the race but to its laurels as well. A national champion is a national champion forever.

"I struggle with it. It's a difficult thing. It's one of those things that defines your career," he said. "It's everything. It's a lot of pride. You're the national champion of your country. It's a fantastic achievement in any endeavor. It would have been just a dream come true, and for years to come, it opens doors later on in your life. That's a big thing as well. When you spend your career riding a bike, at some point you need a résumé."

Bajadali has a résumé. Among other things, it reads: second place, USA Cycling Professional Road National Championships, 2009.

Tainted champions

The U.S. national road championship results from 2006 to 2009 are a who's who of recent admitted dopers.

Hincapie won the title in 2006 and 2009 and finished second in 2007. Last year, he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career, from 1996 to 2006. Yes, Hincapie won a national title on the road in 2006, a year in which he admitted to doping, but he didn't lose the championship result.

He lost his results from May 31, 2004, to July 31, 2006, but the nationals were held a short time after, in early September. It's a story that repeats itself.

Leipheimer won the road nationals in 2007 and also admitted to using PEDs for the bulk of his career, from 2000 to 2007. Like Hincapie, Leipheimer kept a national title he won in 2007, a year in which he admitted to doping. He was stripped of his results from June 1, 1999, to July 30, 2006, and from July 7 to July 29, 2007. Again, the nationals were held in September.

Tyler Hamilton won the national road race in 2008 and also admitted to cheating throughout his career. He left the sport in 2009 after testing positive for a banned substance that he said was used to treat depression.

Sean Petty, USA Cycling's chief of domestic and international affairs, wrote in an email to Velo that his organization had not been instructed to amend any of its results from the national road championships by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which delivers sanctions and penalties. In this instance, USADA worked closely with the suspended riders on minimizing their penalties in exchange for their testimony.

"USA Cycling does not have the ability to extend or modify the sanctions that are determined by USADA," he wrote. "Per the terms of USADA's sanction, all riders in question were eligible to retain their results from those national championships."

USADA did not respond when asked by Velo why riders were allowed to keep titles they earned in such close proximity to times in which they admitted to using PEDs.

The should-have-beens

It's a tired notion that different champions would have emerged in an alternate universe free of doping. But it's a notion that the sport has to consider as it emerges from a relative black hole, both in terms of physiological practice and results.

Riders like Bajadali, Neil Shirley, Danny Pate and Blake Caldwell all could have been national champions. It's impossible to quantify what it would have meant to them, to their careers and to their finances.

Pate finished third behind Hincapie and Leipheimer in 2006, and Shirley finished third behind Leipheimer and Hincapie in 2007. Had USADA treated their sanctions differently, Pate would have been the 2006 national champ, though 2007 is less clear.

Shirley lives in Southern California now and is an editor at Road Bike Action. He rode for Kelly Benefit Strategies most recently, and Jittery Joe's prior to that, during a 14-year pro career. Looking back to the day he finished third, he isn't angry.

"At the time, I was ecstatic to even be on the podium with those guys. I had an incredible race. The team had a great race. I had a great race," he said. "I was really happy how everything turned out. Now, obviously, in hindsight, it's different."

If USA Cycling were to call him up and offer him the stars and stripes jersey, Shirley said he would take it "in a heartbeat."

"And I would be very proud of it," he said. "But the types of material gains you could make by winning the jersey -- if I would have been on the top step of the podium that time, all that stuff -- that's all dusted. That's never going to happen. Those opportunities, the team opportunities, your role within the team, all that stuff, you can't capitalize on that."

The possible financial gains of a national title are incalculable, and the esteem of a national championship won't ever come to Shirley. But hearing him talk about it today isn't to hear someone who's bitter at the prospect of what could have been; it's more the sounds of someone at ease with his career.

"It sounds weird, but honestly I don't think about it," he said. "Because, to me, I'm very, very satisfied with what I've been able to accomplish in my cycling career, and I'm really happy with where I am in life now. If I were to look back and think, 'Oh, man, if I could have done this or that, where could I have been,' to me, right now, I don't want to be anywhere different.

"This is exactly where I want to be. I'm still in the industry. I have a wonderful family. The important stuff is all there. I really don't look back and think what could have been different."

That grace amid an imperfect situation seems to run through each of those interviewed for this story. Caldwell finished second by a tire width behind Hamilton in 2008 and, like Shirley, looked at himself first, as opposed to anyone else.

"It actually was the best ride I've ever had," Caldwell said. "I felt spectacular the whole day. I just had that feeling. I was riding at a level I'd imagined I would get to with a whole year of training. That year, my big race was at the end of the year. And things went according to plan in the race. I knew I was just on a great day. I was also satisfied with myself. And getting there, just me with Tyler Hamilton, even that was successful."

Asked if the national title should belong to him, Caldwell said he didn't think so and that he didn't feel cheated.

"With everything that I've heard today, no, I would not take it," he said of the winner's jersey. "It doesn't mean anything to me, if I didn't truly earn it. As far as I'm concerned, [Hamilton] earned it on that day."

His only regret? What he didn't do, not what someone else did.

"There's feelings of 'I wish I would have had a little bit more at the end' or 'I wish I would have played the race differently.' They're purely tactical. How could I have set up the sprint differently?" Caldwell said. "I wish I would have won, but I felt satisfied that day.

"Really, when I look back on it, all of the woulda-coulda-shouldas are centered around my performance, how I could have improved myself. It wasn't what other people said or what I read in the news sources. I was satisfied with second place."

Caldwell left the top level of the sport in 2010, when he rode for what's now Garmin-Sharp, due to the onset of osteoporosis. He won two stages at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, one in 2006 and the second in 2008. He works in a computer science laboratory in Knoxville, Tenn.

"I feel like it's been a long time ago by now," he said of that stage win in 2008, when he was the second-best rider in the United States.

Bajadali, on the other hand, feels some annoyance, because some riders doped and received minimal bans from USADA in exchange for testimony and there were significant financial gains for those riders who used drugs. There's also the résumé issue.

He was a very good rider but never a national champ, something that could go a long way to helping his new coaching business. The results will stay as they are, though Bajadali doesn't know if there is any sense in changing them anyway.

"I was pretty bitter and angry, but I've kind of come to grips with where I've come from, what I did and how I did it," he said. "And I'm kind of proud about that. And that's all you can really do. I can't change a result. It doesn't matter at this point. You hear about athletes getting gold medals years and years later. That's not the point, you know?

"The point is winning on the day -- holding that gold medal up and being Olympic champion. How do those people feel years later? It's not really vindication, I don't think. It doesn't fit with justice."

There isn't justice in professional cycling, only an imperfect balance of admission and penalty. And it's impossible to say what should have happened on the roads those days, because races ebb and flow depending upon the riders competing. For all of cycling's clarity on the road, results can vanish beneath a thick fog in the rearview mirror.

"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter," Bajadali said. "You didn't win. That's one of the things I loved about racing my bike. It's black and white, man. Did you win, or did you lose? Did you make the break, or did you not? Did you get dropped in the crosswind, or didn't you?

"You come to grips with what happens, and you move on," he continued. "And you get less and less bitter about things. It's over quickly. Cycling careers, they come and go. And you've got to look at the high points and not dwell on what could have been -- or what should have been."