Could it ever have been any other way, with the fall of Armstrong? It seems cycling has been on a collision course with this moment for the better part of its history. From riders dosing up with brandy in the early days, to the scourge of amphetamines, to modern day blood doping, top level racers have always pushed beyond the rules in search of an advantage.
And now we have, arguably the greatest grand tour rider of all-time stripped of his titles and banned from the sport. Looking back at the great champions of the past, each of them with their own sordid side story, can we say this outcome was inevitable?
Perhaps we can forgive the modern day rider for believing that dope is simply a part of the sport. Almost everyone is willing to acknowledge that Lance Armstrong, if guilty as charged, was only doing what everyone else was doing, was only following in a long line of champions before him who had employed the dark arts to stunning effect.
How is it that, after decades of sabre rattling and bluster, an authority finally stepped to the fore to apply the rules, for better and for worse? It should be lost on no one that the UCI was not the authority in question. Perhaps this also was inevitable.
We can ask if where we are now is better or worse than where we have been. We can take issue with Lance, Johan and their cohort of co-defendants. We can impugn the motives and methods of Travis Tygart and USADA, but all of this seems to me to be beside the point.
What has happened has happened. Cycling is a sport that has been rife with dope and cheating. It has been poorly governed. We have tried to find the middle way, managing outcomes, either by the authorities turning a blind eye or by prosecuting infractions. We have tried small penalties, medium penalties and lifetime bans. We have tried selective enforcement.
Cheaters evolve. Tests develop. The rules struggle to contain them both.
Fans are upset when the rules aren’t enforced, and we are upset when the rules are enforced in ways we don’t like or don’t think will be helpful, because we hate to see the sport we love self-immolate.
But if we believe in our rules, if we really think they will produce better cycling, then don’t we have to accept their enforcement, no matter the short or even medium term consequences? It seems, when you subscribe to a plan for the sport, you have to hold firm, even if the result isn’t exactly as you would have wished it.
To be sure, the calculus will be difficult for everyone involved. Some will be able to both accept the penalties levied against Lance and his co-defendants, and still remember his (their) victories fondly. We can know what happened, at least partially, without retroactively revising our enjoyment of that era.
Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The world does not arrange itself in neat packages. Human behavior and emotion are not digital, black/white or right/wrong. We are gray creatures. We are, of necessity, ambivalent, and we should allow ourselves the latitude of inconsistency. Neither, should we fear foolishness. This is only sport, after all.
You can say that, once a rider decides to break the rules, he knows what the consequences of his actions might be. There are sanctions printed in ink in by-laws and on contracts. But this is a short-sighted reading of the decision for there are myriad consequences beyond our knowing.
I would venture that when you first decide willfully to take the wrong path, you very quickly lose control of the narrative. In your mind, there is winning. There is glory. If you are unlucky, you sit out a suspension.
In reality, you are unable to begin to parse the threads of consequence that spin themselves in every direction. Did Lance and his team imagine Travis Tygart and the role he would play? Did they imagine the myriad judgements they were letting themselves in for? Did they imagine court cases and Pat McQuaids and Hein Verbruggens? Did they think of Greg LeMond or Le Monde or l’Equipe? Do you ever race the Tour de France wondering if a plea deal will torpedo your legacy?
All the PR and litigation money can buy will shift a narrative, but clearly, in this case, couldn’t alter the eventual outcome, and that’s true for Lance and for the UCI and for USADA. The chips always fall where they may. They’re funny like that.
Now, we are in the hand-wringing phase of this particular (cycling) life event. And just as the prime players could not have known that they would arrive here, we also can’t know how what has happened over the last week, or over the last decade, will play out in years to come. Is this a death-knell for our sport? Or a birth announcement?
The answer is quite possibly: YES.