The Opera

In every bike race there is a race, and there is a performance, a narrative of sorts that plays itself out over 130 or 150 or 212 kilometers. On occasion, the race and the performance are the same, which is to say that the driving force of the narrative is the winner of the race and the manner in which he or she has won. But then, much of the time the race and its result are distinct from the performance. In fact, sometimes the two diverge later, as when a rider wins a big race, but is later separated from the result by a doping conviction. Reading the order of finish or scanning the standings of the general classification don’t usually tell you, in any compelling way, what happened on the road.

It is this dichotomy that crept into my brain as I continued to ponder the enduring value, the legacy, of Marco Pantani, or, for that matter, Johan Museeuw, Bjarne Riis, Frank Vandenbroucke, Floyd Landis, Richard Virenque, Tom Simpson, or even riders not tainted by allegations of doping like Raymond Poulidor or Gino Bartali. The comments on my last piece here, É Andato da Solo, sent me back to the proverbial drawing board.

The thing is, it is easy to look up a rider’s palmares and think you know what his or her career was like. I do it all the time, especially for those legends of the sport I never got to see race. But then how do you explain why some riders, indeed some individual performances, remain in memory, while others do not?

Bike racing is hard. No other statement, perhaps, has been written so often, by so many, about our sport. It’s hard. Its conflicts and denouement play out at the ragged end of human capacity. It is epic, operatic and internecine.

And this narrative quality explains a lot about the way we see our past as well as our present. For example, on paper, there is no qualitative difference between the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. They are three-week stage races that include difficult climbs, time trials, beautiful scenery, etc. They all attract the very best riders in the peloton. And yet, the Tour remains the most important, I would posit, because it spins the best narrative about itself. Call it history. Call it marketing. The Tour captures the imagination more completely than the other two Grand Tours.

And though Pantani, Museeuw, VDB, Landis, Riis, Virenque, Simpson, et. al. all cheated (either by conviction or by their own admission), they also told us these amazing stories about cycling, about what happens out there at the ragged edge of things, where most of us will never get to go, and so we hang onto them.

You might even argue that the performance is more important than the result. For this reason, we can elevate a rider like Pantani above a rider like Andy Hampsten, though Hampsten is likely more worthy of our reverence. Hampsten was a great champion, but Pantani told better stories. Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi both won five Grand Tours, but we don’t talk about them as much as we talk about other riders of that caliber. Why?

Among those who are ostensibly more pure than the Pantanis and Virenques, Poulidor or Bartali for example, it is still the performance that matters. Poulidor is revered because of the efforts he made and the grace with which he lost, first to Anquetil, and then to Merckx. Bartali’s rivalry with Coppi was itself a great story, but further, the character of Bartali, the devout, working class hero, always plays well, regardless of results, though his were pretty good.

If we tell ourselves that only the results obtained in perfect honesty matter, we retain only a few threadbare icons. Many of us will, however, choose to perform the complex calculus of weighting the manner of cheating against the quality of the performance. Merckx is legend, perhaps, because his use of amphetamines is gauged less egregious than blood-doping AND his performances were bravura, dominating, crushing and relentless. The recently deceased Frank Vandenbroucke was a blatant cheater, but his brilliance on the stage was, perhaps, equally blatant.

It is difficult to express the creation of a legend mathematically. Each of us gives different weight to the performance versus the result, but we all most certainly do it. We have to. In cycling, because of the evolving manner of cheating, a simple asterisk won’t serve to differentiate the pure from the chaste. Our cheating exists on a continuum that starts with a bidon full of brandy and spans the illicit universe to include, in the present day, bags full of oxygenated blood. Shall we create a code to denote all the forms of illegality to which a rider has prescribed? Their names might trail strings of alphanumeric characters, like pscyho-pharmaceutical periodontists with legal degrees.

It is good and right to acknowledge those who have done things the right way, the aforementioned Andy Hampsten, for one. Riders like him deserve a special reverence. Greg LeMond too. But we can’t factor out the quality of the performance either. The opera is full of overblown characters, usually heavyset men and women with lungs like…well…like cyclists. Some of them are good and some are villains.

I love them both.

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  1. b

    …overblown characters… good guys and villains… you say opera, but you might as well say pro wrestling… doped riders may be able to put on memorable performances, but they’re just that- a performance, an act, not real… sure there’s real blood, sweat, and tears (and real suffering on the climbs), but there’s all that stuff in the WWF, too (minus the climbs). To hold up these riders and these performances is to put style before substance. The “amazing stories” told to us by the doping icons you’ve written about in this article are dime store romance novels, not literature… sensational, engrossing, but ultimately unsatisfying and trashy.

  2. SinglespeedJarv

    Nice article and the opera need not always be retrospective, such as with the current train of thought from Da Robot. Look at Stage 4 of Oman, an opera in it’s own right and one that the result of which will never tell the story of what has happened on the road.

    We create heroes and villans all the time and it doesnb’t matter whether they doped or didn’t, that just adds colour to the picture, normally at a later date.

  3. Souleur

    b, you are correct on the wrestling, especially in Mexico, I love the opera style of mexican wrestling, its quite the performance.

    Robot, you make the brilliant observation in comparison. thanks, simply.

    As I tried to reconcile the differences between the good, bad, and ugly in cycling, I thought at one time that it could be differentiated between the good riders who race clean, and those who doped, say the bad and ugly. I thought initially that historically our legends raced clean like Merckx, Anquetil, Coppi, and Poulidor, thereby, today we needed to continue the same. However, the more I look at our past, historically, its so full of cheats its ridiculous. In fact, at one time in history it was believed it was UNSAFE not to use drugs! Look up Charly Gaul, Simpson and others. It was an era. It does not however change my current station nor hopes for us and ours. I hope for a clean sport and a clean rider who both perform and win. The problem is, that seems to be a very unrealistic expectation today given technology and the sincerist desire to cheat and cheat well. But….just perhaps one day there can be…and I hope.

    For anyone who doubts it, read joe parkins book and bill mccanns historical writing, they will both open ones perspective of how cyclings best racers have raced.

  4. Touriste-Routier

    Robot- Great piece and analogy!

    I think we obscure our vision with our assumptions. As for doping, we honestly don’t know who is clean, and the only ones we know with certainty who are guilty, are those who have confessed. We think and believe that most of those who are caught are guilty, but we don’t know with certainty; our biases tend to believe the claims of innocence of some, but not those of others; the cult of personality.

    As much as I dislike doping and desire for things to be clean, I long ago accepted that purity was an ideal and an illusion. There will always be a push in sports (and life) to gain an advantage. Some of the efforts will be legal, some will not. The “criminals” will always be a step ahead; enforcement is reactionary.

    Each of our spheres of influence are rather limited. We make choices for ourselves based upon our beliefs, as do the athletes. At some level, for our own sanity, we must recognize things for what they are, and to set aside the shock and disappointment. As with opera or Mexican wrestling, you might as well enjoy the show, even if all is not as it seems.

  5. dacrizzow

    as much as it breaks my heart when someone is pulled out of a tour for pos. results, it sill doesn’t erase the inspirational rides etched in my memory. like Landis’ beautiful 80(?) mile break away or practically any stage that Vino raced in. it’s seeing those performances that make me go out immidiatly and ride. i just figure they’re all doping and that sucks but it is still a beautiful opera taking us to places we might not otherwise be inspired to go ourselves.

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  7. Cyklopath

    Wonderfully written piece.
    You’ve captured in word what I’ve struggled to understand in thought for many years. I loved to watch Pantani, but I hate the ever-present negative portion of his legacy. In the above, you’ve reconciled the positive vs the negative while showing that it is possible to understand both. At the end of the day, for us mere mortals that only project 150 watts, pro-cycling is entertainment.

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