It’s about more than the contents of Alberto Contador’s urine.
In an 1817 letter to his brother, the English poet John Keats expressed the idea of negative capability, which he described as the capacity for accepting uncertainty and the possibility that certain questions might never be resolved. The great writers of our time, according to Keats, are those with the greatest negative capability. Not surprisingly, he credited Shakespeare with the deepest talent in this regard, and thought that the dynamic tension created by perpetual uncertainty made for the most compelling art.
The story cycling has told us over the last century or so has broached several questions, which we, as fans, are still struggling to answer. One of them, perhaps my favorite, is, “what is the value of suffering?” Another is, “what are humans capable of?” This latter question takes in, not only the realms of diet, training and maximum performance, but also the dark side of the sport, including doping.
It is well document that, as long as there have been bicycle races, there has been dope. What began with brandy, evolved to cocaine, amphetamines, steroids and blood boosters. As fans, we have always been aware, to one degree or another, of the things our heroes did to achieve super human ends, but, as the riders themselves aspired to some level of discretion with their “treatments,” as much to gain an advantage over their competitors as to deceive the fans or the authorities, we have been able to suspend disbelief, to maintain that uncertainty we needed to keep our legends on their pedestals.
If it is natural for professional racers to want to dope, then it is equally natural for fans to want to believe that doping is rare or exceptional in some way. And if both of these things are essentially true, then isn’t it also possible that the tension between these inherent contradictions makes cycling all the more interesting, and all the more human?
The sad truth is that our heroes aren’t superhuman. They are men and women with iron lungs and clay feet. In as much as we are disappointed in those who cheat, do we not also have to acknowledge complicity, for it is we, the fans, who have asked them to be so much more than they are?
I have come to believe that the great sin of the doping cyclist is a lack of discretion. Like the Great Oz, allowing an open curtain to betray the secrets of the Emerald City, the pro cyclist is duty bound to keep his secrets better. We often hear repeated the trope that the dopers are always years ahead of the testers, but if that were true, we wouldn’t be asking ourselves who the last clean cyclist to win the Tour de France might have been. If that were true, the back seats of soigneur‘s cars wouldn’t be locations of such great interest for the gendarmerie of France. If that were true, we wouldn’t have such a hard time believing in the ability of man to transcend himself on two wheels.
This may sound a bit like the classic ‘their real crime is getting caught,’ but it’s actually more than that. Their real crime is being mere mortals, not what they were hired for. They were hired to transcend, but, in the end, only managed to transgress.
With the micro-analysis of Alberto Contador’s urine, cycling’s negative capability, its artistic value, is at an all-time low. We’ve been taught over these last decades, not to marvel, but to suspect. More and more our admiration and esteem are conditional. We are less comfortable with our uncertainty than ever. We still want to believe, but it’s hard to maintain that level of willful stupidity.
I hope that doping, in its current incarnations, has very nearly reached its end stage. Sure, the current techniques still seem to be effective, but their continued application destroys the sport, limits its ability to hold us enthralled to the spectacle. Once you know the rabbit was always in the hat, there’s not much point in clapping when the magician pulls it out.
This is bigger than Alberto Contador. Whether he’s guilty or not, the mercurial Spaniard has not killed professional cycling. In the end, he may just be, to paraphrase John Kerry, the last man to die for a failed strategy. Perhaps that’s a vain and naive hope on my part, but hope is like that, the belief that things can get better and the willingness to wait, wait, wait for them to do so, the willingness to remain in tension, uncertain.
It is, in the end, its own kind of art.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International