Oh, the feel of spring, as my legs come back to life. Finally, the grip of winter has gone and my legs wake from latency. The tightness in my tendons eases as that the cold north wind turns to a warm southerly flow, and old man winter is but a fading memory. And the anticipation of spring’s warmth is enough to elevate one’s will, and I welcome the change in season.
Everything in my universe rotates around cycling and the lengthening days of spring now offer more opportunities for riding, more regularity daily and none of the hesitation of dealing with the perils of winter. Spring is Utopia for the cyclist, you may say. There is however one caveat in spring: The acrimony that comes from realizing spring doesn’t come free of charge.
Each spring riders must swallow a bitter pill of atonement. Even PROs have to regard this helpless estate. Less daily mileage during winter, Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pie and a daily morning Cappuccino all translate into at least some weight gain during winter. Not to mention the legs suffer without having the long daily rides, or the regular grind we take for granted in summer and fall. Lucky for me (or not), it affects many of my fellow riders similarly, and it is during spring that the rider must pay back for all those extras that have been lavishly enjoyed.
Just as the priest goes before the tabernacle and offers sacrificial atonement for the sins of many, so too must the rider pay penitence now in spring for winter’s excesses.
For some, they may never acknowledge winter’s decline, nor ever ride in their best form come spring and summer. For those riders who are honest though, there is a payback required in spring. Padraig wrote of a similar concept, of being ‘at terms’ during a race, when a few individuals come to the reality that they control a destiny, an outcome, and they are at terms with themselves and with the race. It’s a harsh thing, honesty with oneself, yet a fruitful outcome is possible if one recognizes it. There can be no excuses, no denials, and no transference of accountability at this time.
Atonement for the rider in spring is useful. When the rider comes to this awareness of form or lack thereof, in an honest self-assessment; spring’s work will be obvious. In such an assessment, we move toward being at one with ourselves. It is an utterly essential process, that the rider be ‘at onement’ in order to move up and move on. That is literally what atonement means, to be at one. I have also heard it explained that ‘the end depends upon its beginning’ and in fact spring marks the beginning for each rider each year. It’s a very orderly concept. The rider can focus on those weaknesses that can be mastered, and realize what lies ahead. The sting of self-affliction, the torment of correction, the lactate thrashing, and the effectual gasping for air are all required at the hand of spring.
And now we can accept this because we, in fact, realize we are indebted only to ourselves. Acceptance of this allows the rider to taper the body down, to chisel and to prepare for the season ahead. The dividends of such work will also be paid as we anticipate pulling the group with respect, hanging with riders better than ourselves and dropping our buddies in friendly local ‘world championship’ rides on summer evenings.
The catharsis of atonement in spring enables the rider to master all physical and mental aspects of riding. In the end, atonement liberates us from winter, seeking pardon and purification of those lavish excesses we enjoy. Atonement can allow us to prepare for and anticipate moving us into summertime form with success.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We’re featuring another tag-team pair of posts regarding doping and our views on how well sanctions are working … and what might be done to improve the situation. What follows is my post. You can find Robot’s post here.—Padraig
For reasons I can’t explain, doping has yet to kill my enthusiasm for professional bike racing. My knowledge of what takes place in private has changed my view of the sport and injected a frustration into what would otherwise be a pursuit devoid of downside. Even so, I continue to watch.
And while I temper my tongue, I admit that because I’m a connect-the-dots sort, whenever anyone crosses the line first, there’s a moment, a moment I try to reduce to something even shorter than an eye blink, but a moment I can’t wipe away. I wonder if the winner is clean.
There are people in cycling who have, following various positive tests, claimed that cycling is winning the war on doping. People in high places, such as the ASO and UCI. If by winning they mean more positive tests, well then yes, we seem to be leading the race by 10 seconds with 40k to go.
How anyone ever had the epiphany that we should declare wars on concepts such as doping, facism or terror, I’ll never know. Weirder still is the fact that too few intelligent people have observed an undeniable truth: You can’t stamp out an idea, no matter how good or bad it is.
The underlying practice of doping—the desire to gain a competitive edge over one’s rivals by any means necessary set down roots in the very nature of survival. At its most elemental, the desire to win is the very desire to live. It wasn’t so many years ago that our ancestors were competing for food and shelter on a literal basis. Today, we’re competing with SATs, GPAs, income and Fortune Magazine rankings. It still comes down to a fight for resources.
That some athletes will go to whatever length is necessary to cross the line first should not surprise us. There’s a dark side to the human condition that emboldens some people to ignore rules that society has agreed to obey. These days, most everyone can find ready examples at hand in Wall Street and oil companies.
In 1982 a researcher named Bob Goldman began asking elite athletes a question. Would they take a drug that would guarantee them an Olympic gold medal but would also result in their death within five years?More than half the athletes surveyed responded yes, they would take the drug. From 1982 to 1995 Goldman continued to survey elite athletes and the survey bore the same result each time—more than half the athletes said they would take the drug.
The question became known as the Goldman Dilemma.
Recently, a group of researchers decided to pose the Goldman Dilemma to a population of non-athletes. Some 250 people were asked the question. Only two responded that they would take the drug. That’s less than one percent of the respondents.
The British Journal of Medicine published the paper last year. One of the study’s authors, James Connor, Ph.D., summed up the findings thusly: “We were surprised. I expected 10-20 percent yes.”
His big conclusion? That “elite athletes are different from the general population, especially on desire to win.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious.
In reading the study, which was drier than sandstone, I drew two conclusions of my own. First, that doping isn’t going to go away. Ever. The drive to achieve fame, power and glory is too strong with some athletes to simply leave the result to chance. No length is too great for those athletes; stacked deck doesn’t begin to describe the lengths some would go to ensure a win. If you are willing to die prematurely to get a gold medal at the Olympics, then ordinary doping isn’t much of a threshold to cross.
The second conclusion I drew is that this population is very, very small. If the 250 respondents are representative of society, then less than one percent of the population will show this predilection. Unfortunately, I expect that sports will draw these people to an unusual degree. But here’s where nature steps in: No amount of drive can overcome a lack of talent. Not everyone who has the drive to achieve gold will also have the requisite talent necessary to reach the elite ranks of a given sport.
Without spending too much (any) time with the statistics regarding these slices of population, I suspect that less than five percent of all the cyclists with enough talent to make it to the pro ranks will also have the amoral inclination to take any drug necessary to guarantee a win.
In his book “From Lance to Landis,” cycling journalist David Walsh divided pro cyclists into two camps, the “draggers”—those who tended to initiate doping as a means to win, and the “dragged”—those riders who were essentially coerced into doping as a means to survive.
That less than five percent are your draggers, not the dragged. Get rid of them and you can have a reasonable hope for a clean sport.
A few years ago I wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times in the wake of Bjarne Riis’ confession that he used EPO on his way to winning the 1996 Tour de France. Getting the LA Times editorial page interested in cycling is as difficult as getting a vegan interested in steak tartare. And yet somehow, they thought my idea—a truth and reconciliation commission a la South Africa to get at doping practices and doctors—had enough merit to warrant their attention.
The piece made it its way to the powers that be at the UCI.
I barely had space enough to get the idea out before I had to close the piece. It amounted to a political campaign ad—great idea with few details. It’s worth spelling out the finer points of my suggestion. Even if the UCI is as likely to listen to me now as they did in 2007.
The idea is simple. It is based on an invitation: Come tell us what you know. Tell us what you’ve done, and tell us anything you have seen with your own eyes. Give everyone until the end of 2010 to fess up with anything on their conscience. Add a little caveat: if you test positive after December 31, 2010, you will be banned from the sport for life.
For those who confess, they will be granted immunity for all past misdeeds. You did blow on a stripper’s ass in Geneva? No worries. You won a stage of the 2009 Tour de France hopped up on growth hormone and pig’s blood? Your win stays in the record books.
However, for the confession to count, you have to tell everything you know to the tribunal on the spot. You can’t hold monthly press conferences and tease out details like kite string in a weak wind as Bernard Kohl did with the German media.
What’s more, I’d add yet another incentive. For every rider who tested positive sometime in the past, if they didn’t tell the full story and divulge everything they knew, were they to confess their full knowledge, they could get their salary reinstated for the term of the previous suspension. Back pay.
If the UCI pursued such a course of action, here’s what I think would happen: All the riders of the ilk of David Millar and Tyler Hamilton—guys who undoubtedly doped, but would be counted among Walsh’s dragged—would fess up before Thanksgiving. A few guys would weigh the odds and confess by Christmas. And there would be at least one bombshell as everyone was about to pop New Year’s Eve bubbly.
After that, each doctor implicated by a rider could confess his part and agree to cooperate with the UCI and WADA or face losing his medical license.
But the guys we would most like to catch, the ones who ultimately coerce the rest of the peloton—either implicitly by being faster or explicitly by telling them they need to step up and deliver for the team—won’t say a word.
Would we hear from Vinokourov, from Basso, from Ricco? Don’t hold your breath. Would Ullrich speak up if he knew the truth could restore some of his tarnished reputation?
So could this be a one-time house-cleaning? Not likely. It is something the UCI would almost certainly have to bring back at irregular intervals (say three to five years depending on how fast the racing is) just to find out what the latest bunch of doctors have cooked up. In nabbing the doctors there would be a reasonable hope of plowing that field under for a few seasons.
If we are lucky, years from now we will remember Bjarne Riis as a heroic figure not for his incredible talent for managing a team of talented riders and encouraging them to work together, nor for his Tour de France win. If we are lucky, he will be remembered as a hero, the first rider to have the courage to stand up and tell the truth without first being caught.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
We’re featuring another tag-team pair of posts regarding doping and our views on how well sanctions are working … and what might be done to improve the situation. What follows is Robot’s post. You can find my post here.—Padraig
Last night I was finishing Graeme Fife’s excellent Inside the Peloton, published in 2001, when I read the line “We have now, I think, won the battle against EPO…” I chuckled aloud. My wife looked at me askance. So did the dog.
The fact is that EPO, it’s younger cousin CERA, and an array of other doping practices are still alive and well in the pro peloton. Apparently even my dog knows that.
So, what to do about it?
The UCI’s current system of “justice,” provides one set of punishments for “non-negative findings” from anti-doping tests conducted both in and out of competition. The first offense earns a two-year ban from competition, the second a life sentence.
In our discussion, last week, here and here, we mostly agreed that there is a difference between a rider who is caught and then confesses and repents, like David Millar, and a rider who denies everything, simply serves his time and then comes back, a la Alexander Vinokourov. The problem with the UCI’s one-size-fits-all approach to convicted dopers is that it sees no difference between the two, and so offers no incentive for riders to cooperate or formal ways for them to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of cycling fans. Today’s regime is simply one of punishment, not rehabilitation.
Here in the US, in many states, they punish murderers with the death penalty. As a punishment, there is no stronger sanction allowed under law. And yet, people continue to kill each other at more or less steady rates, year after year, decade after decade. What is apparent is that the punishment is not a deterrent. There is an amoral portion of the populace who just don’t respond to punishment. Padraig makes excellent points about these folks, and their representation in top level sports in his post today.
The way most modern justice systems deal with transgressors is through a sort of remediation process. For example, if you’re caught with a pound of cocaine, you’re charged with a crime. If then, you are willing to say where you got that cocaine from, you may receive an offer of reduced sentence, an acknowledgment that your cooperation will remove more than just that one pound of cocaine from circulation. It’s a way of using a small conviction to gain a larger one.
As Padraig suggests in his post, a sort of amnesty deal, a truth and reconciliation process, would be one way to cull dopers from the pro ranks. Another might be to apply this same principle of remediation to convicted dopers.
My proposal would be to instate an initial three-year ban, but to offer a reduction of up to two years if the rider explains how he or she doped, who provided them with the drugs and which other riders are involved. Failure to cooperate on that level leaves the ban at three years. A subsequent conviction would lead to a lifetime ban that would extend, not just to racing, but also to pro-level coaching and management. A rider who dopes and gets caught, and then dopes again, can reasonably be assumed to fall into that amoral category, that group that simply won’t respond to sanction or rehabilitation.
The point of raising the initial ban to three years is to make the prospect of comeback just that much more tenuous for an athlete who doesn’t wish to cooperate. The ability to mitigate that sanction to as small as one year’s absence from the peloton gives the athlete a real incentive to participate in cleaning up the sport, because it incorporates a strong element of self-interest.
To be sure, there is still some code of silence in the pack. A rider who implicates a teammate is in for a rough ride upon his or her return. By formalizing the process by which this information is drawn from convicts, the peloton‘s embrace of the omerta is loosened. Any one of them would be able to see why a sanctioned rider had cooperated. In a group dominated by that self-serving ethos, self-interest is one motivator that is widely accepted. In other words, it’s one thing to rat out a teammate and still sit on the sideline for two years. It’s quite another to cooperate in order to gain a swifter return to racing. Further, by using each conviction to gain others, the UCI can remove more riders who are involved in doping at one fell swoop, thereby reducing the influence of the doping tolerant riders in the peloton considerably.
The UCI can continue with their punishment only approach, but I believe this is something like the kids’ game Whack-a-Mole. You hit one doper with your hammer, and another pops up, ad infinitum, ad absurdum. If, instead, you cut the dopers out, and their doctors, the managers who participate, and the soigneurs who traffic in these things, then you stand a better chance of ridding the sport of its worst sickness, that thing that erodes public support and interest, that drains away sponsorship dollars, and even the confidence of the most ardent fans.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Wow! I’ve not seen consensus like that in the RKP comments section since … uh … since … okay, I’ve never seen consensus like that here. To whit: Fabian Cancellara, Jens Voigt, Tomas Voekler, Jens Voigt, Philipe Gilbert, Oscar Freire, Michael Barry, George Hincapie, Sylvain Chavanel, Stuart O’Grady, Chris Horner, Johan VanSummeren, Thor Hushovd.
That list is notable for not containing the names: Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. World Champion Cadel Evans had a passing mention, but no real advocate. So, what I’m getting is that winning doesn’t give you class. It just gives you a trophy, a bouquet and lipstick smears on each cheek (also possibly a hotel key … I’ve heard stories).
The Cancellara lovefest just went on and on. Here is a rider of supreme power, humble demeanor and team first attitude, a guy who clearly loves his family and rides with a smile on his face. The guy’s so classy he probably eats his pomme frites with a knife and fork. He most assuredly never farts in elevators or litters. I actually think in Switzerland littering is a capital offense, so maybe that doesn’t count. But still….
We also heaped the love on Herr Voigt, though he’s a different sort of rider than Cancellara. Voigt is not so much a dominant winner as a hammer par excellénce, the guy who, as he passes you on the way to the front of the peloton, you think, “Crap! There goes the morning!” Oh, and he smiles. First he crushes you, and then he grins. Nothing says class like a man who can smile while YOUR heart is breaking.
Also, clearly deserving and oft mentioned, was Philipe Gilbert, who is not the fastest or most powerful, not the strongest climber or sharpest sprinter, but a tactician and all around attack-minded rider, the guy who lights up the one-day races like a halogen in a coat closet.
I, for one, need these riders desperately. As the revelations spew out of Festina and Puerto and Mantova and little, out-of-the-way sports clinics in Austria and Germany, I need to remember that there are riders of true class in the peloton. There ARE reasons to keep watching.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International