Detachment

Orchies Paris Roubaix 2011

Dan said, “You just know one of these young guys is going to break our hearts,” and I nodded and had to concede that he was probably right. Dan and I still love pro racing, and we talk about it regularly, but it’s hard to deny the shine has come off. We’re looking forward to the Spring one-day races, but it’s different now.

Neither of us was naive. We’d both known the scale of the doping problem in the pro peloton, but the collective confessions that came down in the wake of the USADA reasoned decision filled in details that made what we already knew hurt just that little bit more. It’s like finding out you didn’t get a job and being disappointed, and then finding out the boss’s kid got it instead, that twist of the knife that comes from knowing too much.

I won’t say which  young pro rider we were talking about, because it would be deeply unfair, given the problem of guilt by Google, to even mention a rider’s name in conjunction with a problem he or she didn’t cause and haven’t yet even been suspected of. But we’re at that point, the point where you expect more shoes to drop, even if you simultaneously believe things are better now. There is no one in the new generation of pros that I think is obviously cheating, but I’d feel like an idiot if one of them got caught and I was surprised.

I find myself holding back from falling in love with any of them.

And it’s just so deeply unfair, but I’m afraid it’s the reality. What the last generation of riders taught us, over and over again, was not to trust, to stay detached. I am not looking to give up on pro cycling. I enjoy the races too much, and it almost doesn’t matter to me who is racing, men, women, sprinters, climbers, all-rounders. I enjoy the tactics and the spectacle, even if the personal side of the show is more problematic.

Is this what it’s like when you get cheated on by a boy/girlfriend, but try to save the relationship? Some feeling remains. You’re still attracted, but the trust only creeps back very slowly. In public you can smile and laugh, but behind closed doors, in your mind and in your heart, you play it much cooler. You stay angry much longer than you knew you could.

For now, I will go on watching. Look at the image above. How can you not be attracted to a thing like that. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is just two days away. But things are different now. Things are different.

Image: Photosport International

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20 comments

  1. Scott

    I’m with you Robot.

    This year, the final stages of the Amgen Tour of California occur in the SF Bay area — a TT with an uphill finish; a stage finish atop Mt. Diablo; and the final stage across the Golden Gate bridge before a bunch sprint in downtown Santa Rosa. It could result in some really exciting racing.

    From year two on, I’ve attended at least one stage of the AToC. I froze my ass off in a flooded ditch on top of Bonne Dune when Levi broke the race open in ’09. I’ve published stage preview articles and ridden full stage routes ahead of the peloton. During the comeback, I stood outside Armstrong’s bus with several thousand other fans to get a glimpse. I had the “Hope Rides Again” poster. I was a fan.

    This year, I’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’.

    I’ll probably attend but I’ll have to dig deep. I’ll adjust my expectations and call it a training ride. In the end, that’s the best way to enjoy a bike race; beside the road in a spot only attainable upon the seat of a two wheeler.

    I’ll probably give them this chance, this year. If you’re a pro rider and reading this, don’t screw it up.

  2. Michael Levine

    yessir! well said. it’s an awfully great sport, full of beauty, drama and the opportunity for many to give it an honest shot. those of us who have derived great joy from it and have learned many a lesson about who we from it, still love the hell out of it for all it’s given to us with all it’s warts and human elements…good and bad. glad to be a part of it all these decades.ride on.

  3. Alan

    I hope hope hope the new generation is clean. Especially Taylor Phinney, Tejay Van Garderen, and the many young French, Germans, Brits and Aussies. Cheering for MTN too. I am still a fan.

  4. Hoshie99

    Enjoy the show, but be your own hero. You’ll be happier that way.

    When I was 23, I got to meet a few cycling greats during the off season. One of them was a little “forward” with the ladies in a very sloppy way during some late night carousing. I learned then that it’s best to enjoy sports for what it is, but hero worship is an illusion – a need to believe. Although that is natural, best to be careful who you put on that pedestal and why.

  5. Maremma Mark

    Well said, that’s it in a nutshell. Still love it after all these years but as Hoshie says, no hero worship. When you really know pro racing and how vulnerable these athletes are it becomes a tiny bit easier to understand the temptation, not to forgive or condone but to understand. The temptation to, not the use of.

    As a result, I find myself respecting the riders who are upfront about not using anything, not caffeine, not painkillers, nothing. Hard work and sacrifice, that’s what racing bikes is supposed to be about. That’s the utopia that so many of us fell in love with only to discover that it was a bluff. Perhaps this new wind currently blowing through the governing bodies and federations will help clear the skies. Time will tell, for now I am looking forward to the “Strade Bianche” and Tirrenco-Adriatico just up the road from here.

  6. Aar

    I’m afraid it will be many years without new doping positives before I “trust” bicycle racers again. I just can’t root for riders who I suspect of cheating and every outstanding performance today should be suspected. I’ll probably continue to watch but it all has the aura of WWE now.

    Eliminating the UCI and rebuilding bicycle racing from the ground up with a strong anti-doping culture, full of individuals (athletes and officials) with spotless records is the only way to accelerate my trusting bicycle racing again. I don’t believe in zero tolerance but I more strongly believe we should not reward negative behavior. Lance Armstrong over illustrates that rewarding negative behavior is the FOUNDATION of cycling, if not all sports – or even our entire culture. I’m disgusted by it all.

  7. groundchucky

    Watching bike racing has never really been about the people on the bikes. I have never been able to get wax romantic about someone else’s bike ride. I watch to see the roads I will never get to ride. Chances are I will never ride the Stelvio, Alpe d’Huez, or the cobbles of the classics and that’s okay. Dreams of the mythic roads keep cyclist going…

  8. Paul

    Mythic roads, Mythic weather, Mythic fitness, Mythic friendship is what drives my cycling. If anything, the pro peloton’s effect on me is the urge to get back on the saddle and seek the “experience”.

  9. gmknobl

    For me, to borrow a phrase, “it’s about the bike.” It’s always about the bike. Like any rider who loves riding, even loves the suffering, it’s about the experience you get, the wonder of it all, the breath-taking scenes, the epic rides (ever do a century in rain and temps from 35-41F?), the memories and the celebration afterwards. It’s about what you did on the bike. Watching the sport confirms that for me. If they cheat, shame on them, but I still identify with what they must experience in some part. And I love that. Keep to that and not the sometimes horrible people behind the sport – any sport that you love – and you’ll be all right.

  10. Steve

    First, thanks for putting this in print, as it appears no other publication has the stones to speak out like you folks do.

    I don’t believe those who are winning are clean athletes, period. I want to believe in a kid like Taylor Phinney… mostly because of his parents who I looked up to as a young bike racer in the 80s – but I cannot say that I think he’s a clean athlete. It is a shame on so many levels – for all of us: Taylor, myself, his parents, the entire peloton, the fans… This is the legacy of a century of fixed, doped, and paid off cycling “champions”. I’ve come to see it as a show that is not genuine, which, while entertaining, is not really a race where anyone can win on any given day. I am sure that there are clean riders in the pro peloton, but its not those standing on the podium. When an athlete like Marianne Vos is so completely dominant over her rivals, I’m not buying it. Eddy Merckx was busted for doping, a few times if my memory serves me correctly, but he is still celebrated as one of the greatest cyclists ever. I wonder how long we will keep our heads in the sand.

    I may watch the Classics, but, as Hoshie99 said, I certainly don’t see any of them as “Heroes”. The races have come to be a form of entertainment, like a pre-scripted sitcom. My inspiration comes from the friends I ride with who are getting stronger and better through their own hard work. None are racers yet our own comraderie and respect makes us want to do better. I get as much joy from watching a friend beat me on a climb that I usually take, as taking it myself. I know that he or she has been working on their climbing and now, they’ve shown that their work has paid off. Now, I want to work on my climbing even more! The best part is that said friend will be the first one to show me how to improve.

    The pros have burned their bridges… I don’t believe them. I’ll pass on the USA Pro Challenge is year.

  11. RobbieCanuck

    Good article. I think Aar has hit the nail on the head.

    There is a tendency in sport especially in the USA to glorify a successful athlete. To make them a celebrity, a hero, a role model. This results in a fawning obeisance to the celebrity status of the athlete.

    Armstrong fruadulently created a cult of celebrity around his cycling “success” in conjunction with his cancer recovery, when it is clear the cancer was probably the result of his doping.

    There is a tendency of all of us to overlook the usual human foibles we all possess and be objective and critical when it comes to atheletes as celebrities.

  12. Running Cyclist

    Perfect. Your words, that is, not this situation. But, you know, professional sport is often referred to as “entertainment” and “a reflection of life.” I’ve always believed this and in this context, I will continue to enjoy it. Heroes? Nah. Entertaining? Absolutely.

  13. Anthony F

    The thing that most disgusts me about doping in cycling is the flood of admissions from fans that their hearts have been broken.

    What is that? What were you all thinking?

    Why would you, grown men, fall in love with, develop man/ boy crushes, pin your hopes on, worship, and generally fawn like adolescent girls for a bunch of guys whose greatest skill is to turn a crankset better than you?

    You romanticize these guys while having absolutely no idea what a bunch of self absorbed a–holes most of them actually are.

    I’ve known lots of pros and there will always be exceptions. The stars, the polished, the bright eyed and bushy tailed, and there are one or two who are genuinely nice ( you all like Jens )

    But for the most part, pros are miserable and pessimistic, paranoid about losing their jobs, and whiny about their equipment and pay, they whine about their team, team mates, travel, sponsor obligations and pay. They complain about a lack of money. A lot. Especially the euro pros. Many pros are dumb.

    Unless you’re giving one a push up a mountain, these guys have no use for you. They avoid you by hiding behind their glasses or by staying in their buses till the last possible moment before a race. I’ve seen grown men running after a pro, trying to get an autograph, The pro, meanwhile, pretending not to hear. It’s a sad sight. Euro team staff even have a nickname for some fans. They’re called chamois sniffers.

    Enjoy the pro show. Celebrate your own and your friends’ cycling. But please stop being a bunch of chamois sniffers.

  14. Steve

    Thanks for putting it to print.
    Pro cycling is just like every other sport that we can fall in love with except for the fact that most all of us do it in some form or fashion. Kind of personalizes it a bit too much and then we loose all perspective and forget who and what we are falling for….. A bunch of young, obsessive, marginally educated yet physically talented young men (and women!) who are led to believe that the only way to success is to “do whatever it takes” regardless of the collateral damage. Makes me wonder if any of these folk will live to see 70 years much less the actuarial life expectancy.
    I Watched Merckx through Museeuw make it look easy, and though I never bought the lie it was always inspiration to let it all hang out for the local “tough guy ball-show” that made it glorious fun to suffer in front of all of my friends- the ultimate compliment was to be cursed at and be told that “you rode like a Belgian”!
    Sorry that Scott, Aar and Anthony feel the way they do, perhaps they can try to find the joy that my brother Steve finds climbing with his buddies- That’s where the real story lies, not in living vicariously through another’s exploits.
    All the same, can’t wait for the Classics to start…It’s gonna be awesome!
    Let’s ride,
    F’ing Steve///

  15. Aar

    I’m sorry if some of you misunderstood my comments above. None of the self-centered idiocy bicycle racers engage in has ever had an impact upon my enjoyment of my own cycling and never will. I was speaking solely of my approach to bicycle racing as a spectator.

    Yes, I once was naive enough to think of bicycle racing as actual competition and that was one of the reasons I watched it on TV, went to the occasional race and cheered for riders I liked. No, I was never sucked in to the whole athlete as hero garbage and never sought to see a racer outside a race. I usually found racers that I wanted to win more than others for whatever reason. The aura that there was a possibility that they were competing within the rules in a healthy manner within a reasonably fair system made the competition intriguing. Realizing that the sport is corrupt from top to bottom and no rider is clean basically lowers bicycle racing to the level of scripted entertainment – a work of fiction, IMHO.

    None of that changes the fact that bicycle racers are performing my second favorite form of exercise in some of the most beautiful settings in the world. Those aspects will continue to draw me to watch the sport. Just not as much as when I thought it was fact – fair competition. For me to perceive the sport as fair competition again, the governance of the sport must be completely reformed.

  16. Carrie

    Although I disagree, at times I feel exactly the same way. I feel sad and hurt and jaded – but I don’t want to be detached and not trust. I don’t want to call into question every cyclist’s accomplishment. I’m going to choose to be as passionate and trusting as I was before because the athletes that aren’t doping deserve that. But maybe what you’re doing here is the thing that needs to happen that isn’t happening. Maybe we need to tell the people that have disappointed us how hurt we are and how their choices affect us.

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