The blinds made their metallic flutter in a breeze that hadn’t breached the window’s sill since some time last September. Dust whorled in the bright sun. The dog raised his head and looked askance before settling back into his mid-afternoon siesta. Were it only, as they say, a dog’s life.
The weather in New England is finally begging us to ride our bikes. Oh, it had allowed us to ride previously. It had granted permission, but it is now fully knees-to-ground begging.
So we rode our bikes. Not the tepid, slow roll of the early season where you’re just gathering at the meet-up to bolster one another’s resolve, but the lung bursting, leg hollowing runs of which mid-summer form is made. I had not ridden as hard as I did last night since before winter’s first snow flakes fluttered to the ground last year.
I could feel the tension rising as we threaded our way out of the city, a prison break that might actually succeed. Once we’d scented that freedom, we lost our heads a little. The Wednesday night ride is the one with tacit, albeit silent, agreement that we will try to break each other. It’s a full gas ride. It is not a race. We always come back together before the end and roll into town as a group, but the middle is a frantic, tongue-lolling scramble over pavement and packed gravel, really the only opportunity I take to ride this way.
At the halfway point, I had swallowed enough dust that the hunger pang bouncing around my hollow gut over the opening 20 miles finally settled. What is the caloric value of New England farmland dust? Or does it just convert readily to adrenaline when mixed with the sight of your buddy going over the rise in front of you, in the drops.
That my lungs burned would be easily enough attributed to the same swirling grit, but I imagine they would have been burning similarly had I been wearing a surgical mask, such was my desperation to take in more air. I was flying along, my good speed only occasionally sapped by loose patches of sand. It felt awful/fantastic.
I had the distinct sense that I was burning off a winter’s worth of lethargy, that I was airing my lungs in much the same way my wife throws open the living room window to let the couch breathe, the dog smelling, child-battered couch, transformed by a bit of sunlight and oxygen.
This ride was more than the first hard ride in the spring shine though. It was a celebration and a protest, an airing of grievances against nature and against ourselves for having let it all go so long without riding this route in this way. Winter has been over for some weeks now, but we needed to get it off of our chests.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
After a year of alternately surprising and unseemly revelations, truths that are unsettling or perhaps only half-so, we finally seem to have arrived at our great test. The recent nomination of Pat McQuaid to another term as UCI President by the governing board of Cycling Ireland is the great denouement of this era in cycling. Should he succeed in achieving another term as the president of the UCI, McQuaid will be the unassailable impediment to cleaning up cycling. Having shut down the investigation into his organization’s past and derailed what could have been a transparent exposure of the sport’s true nature with a truth and reconciliation commission, McQuaid has demonstrated nothing so much as how much more he prizes his ass than our sport.
Fortunately, Cycling Ireland has put his nomination on hold and will reconsider its vote. But holding my breath isn’t a variety of hope I’ll permit myself.
McQuaid’s tenure has left me with the feeling I had a few weeks ago when the opportunity to increase background checks for prospective gun buyers was shot down in Washington. It may be that only 90-percent of the American people want to see a change in gun laws. I have, however, yet to meet a single cyclist who believes that meaningful change in cycling is possible while McQuaid heads the UCI. Somehow, after a shocking torrent of new details that have disappointed every serious fan the sport has, we are poised to enter yet another grand tour with the status quo not only intact, but inviolate.
This isn’t just disappointment. This is the ache of depression, that deep resignation to futility that leeches color from life.
While I oppose McQuaid’s involvement in cycling down to my last fingernail, I’m unable to summon any more outrage for doped riders. With or without the man behind the curtain, we must address the future of the riders themselves. I suppose I might be able to ferret out some moldy snark should Riccardo Ricco choose to infest a two-wheeled conveyance in public, but that Al Pacino-style bellowing apoplexy found on the Interwebs eludes me at this point. A great many years ago a wise person told me that resentment is a cup of poison you pour for someone else, but drink yourself. I repeated those words to myself for nearly 20 years before I was able to put them into action by pouring out the metaphoric glass of hemlock. And it’s not that I lack compassion for what guys like Tilford suffered at the legs of a doped peloton—I get it. But now I have to ask, where is all this anger getting us?
Lest you think I simply wish to sweep all this dishonesty under the rug so that we can just jump into some new chapter of cycling, the way BP has tried to tell the people of Louisiana and Mississippi, “Bygones …” I must point out that I don’t see a simple reset button. There was a time when, emotions aside, I calculated that once a rider has served a suspension—even ones we believe to be to woefully inadequate to fit the infraction committed—they ought to be permitted to ride again, period.
This spring I went for a ride with a friend who works in the tech sector, one of the smartest guys I know, and arguably the most impressive self-made success I have ever encountered, a guy who also happens to be an ex pro. It was he who re-framed the problem of the “recovering” doper for me. Suppose for a second that every cyclist ever popped for doping was suspended for long enough to return them to their pre-doping form. It was his contention that was not sufficient discipline. It is his belief that the form gained from doping is actually less important than how once you have achieved that form once, in knowing that it is possible it redefines what the doping rider believes is possible about him or herself. The logic here is that once you’ve broken that psychological barrier once, it’s easier to do the second time.
The flip side to this argument is that riders who have doped often develop a psychological dependence on the stuff, coming to believe that they can’t achieve the form they had without it. It’s easy to see the logic behind this: I wasn’t that fit before the dope, so how can I reach that fitness without it?
Corollaries to both arguments abound. Skateboarding shows how once one guy figures out a move others learn it quickly because they know it’s possible. Once something enters the realm of the possible the challenge is merely learning, not invention. On the other side, the arts are full of talents who clung to drugs long after they had become self-destructive, because they believed the dope was braided into their talent, that one could not survive without the other. The tragedies of Marco Pantani and José Maria Jimenez remind us to what dark road doping may lead.
So this is my acknowledgement that there are no easy answers to what sort of riding careers ex-dopers should lead. However, the riding careers, that is the actual racing, of these riders isn’t nearly the source of irritation as the recent announcement of side projects by some of these riders. The outrage I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter in response to the release of a strength training book by Tom Danielson and the announcement of George Hincapie’s new bed and breakfast could send a nuclear sub around the seven seas at least until we solve climate change.
The rub is, of course, that they wouldn’t be famous enough to be authors, clothing company or hotel owners had they not doped their way to success. Surprisingly, the solution to this issue might be the simplest of all. Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Backlash is the force opposite what the Lance Effect was. Sure, Danielson got an advance for the book, but if it doesn’t sell, he won’t see any royalties. And if it doesn’t sell, there won’t be another book. The market isn’t moral, but it can be absolute.
I’ve got friends out there, reasonable people whose intelligence is beyond question, but because they are cyclists are men of passion, men for whom the ex-doper dilemma has riled them to bulging-eyed, steam-eared fulminants. It’s hard to say whether their principles or their passions have led them to conclude that no ban short of lifetime is enough for these riders.
I can’t tell people not to be angry. Well, I can try, but it won’t work, so there’s no point. But I think it’s time we begin thinking about how to move forward, with or without Pat McQuaid. Every justice system on Earth makes some attempt to match the punishment to the crime. Bernie Madoff is the only person I can think of who has effectively received a death sentence—both professional and personal—for crimes he committed in his profession. Does anyone out there really think that the offenses committed by Tyler Hamilton, Christian Vande Velde, Levi Leipheimer, et al, merit professional death sentences? Actually, I know the answer to that question is yes, but what I’m asking is for people to really consider the question in a rational way. In the grand scheme, considering the number of Wall Street villains who did their country-club stints and are now plying their trade once again, do these guys really deserve lifetime suspensions or is this just our passion quitting the game and taking the ball home?
Finally, while I suspect that there are guys like Ricco who have the recidivist streak of skid-row addicts, I submit that there is merit to looking for acts of repentance, that in allowing a rider to make amends and in accepting that apology we both heal. I think accepting Tyler Hamilton as repentant is more about my growth than his. I don’t think every former doper deserves forgiveness, but Hamilton strikes me as worthy a candidate as we might find.
Forgiveness isn’t something that can be ladled out to the masses, like sunshine, but in this regard, maybe we can take a page from skateboarding and show one another what’s possible.
Cycling is a sport in which I’ve learned a great many lessons about life. As a life philosophy, it will fall short of what I want to teach my sons if it can’t include forgiveness, reconciliation. The mythology of cycling is better for me if I can point to Hamilton as cycling’s prodigal son.
It’s time to find a way to move on. Forgiveness is less a gift you give the person who hurt you than a peace you give yourself.
This is likely to be one of the shortest posts of my entire writing career.
There’s not much to say other than thank you. Of course, this is an epic thank you. You’ve pledged not just enough to fund my Kickstarter project, but together you pledged enough for me to publish an expanded collection of my work.
It’s difficult to articulate the elation I felt on Monday when the project funded and I got the confirmation email from Amazong. Even though I was always confident we could achieve the goal, crossing that finish line provided a sense of accomplishment that was particularly sweet. This is the work I’m proudest of, the work I think most deserves to be collected in book form. Of the three books I’ve published, this is the one I hope will endure, staying in circulation long after I’m gone.
Like I said, there’s not much to say other than thank you. I thank you. My wife thanks you. Philip thanks you. And, of course, if the Deuce could speak, he’d thank you as well.
And if you had the misfortune to miss the Kickstarter campaign, don’t worry. I’ll soon have each of the items up on the RKP store.