Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.
This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.
Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.
At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”
In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.
In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.
Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.
USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.
Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.
Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.
Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.
Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.
In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.
The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.
One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”
If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
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
There have been entirely too many doping storylines in cycling lately. We’ve had the Alejandro Valverde problem, the Danilo DiLuca suspension and Ricardo Ricco’s imminent return to the sport. His girlfriend, Vania Rossi, tested positive for the same drug—CERA—for which he was suspended, and he subsequently dumped her, months after she gave birth to their child. Bernard Kohl has opened a bike shop and seemingly ended his monthly interviews that teased out details of his doping regimen like bread crumbs for birds. Stefan Schumacher continues to fight his suspension.
And today we mark six years since the lonely death of Marco Pantani. Like Pantani, Jose Maria Jimenez was a once-talented climber who, according to circumstantial evidence, became addicted to cocaine and ultimately overdosed on the drug, cutting short a life that should have been full of promise, even after ending his career as a racer. It’s little wonder that so many cyclists reacted with horror at the news of Tom Boonen’s flirtations with the nose candy.
The constant parade of doping stories has made many cyclists weary of ProTour racing, but worse, it has changed our understanding and perception of racing in the past. We now accept Fausto Coppi’s statement about always doping when he raced, rather than discount it, which is certainly what I did when I first read the statement in the 1980s.
And while many of us took Eddy Merckx at his word when he insisted he had used nothing out of the ordinary when he was ejected from the 1969 Giro d’Italia, we have come to see that event was but one of three positive tests he gave in his career. Certainly questions abound to this day about that Giro test, such as no counter-analysis and questionable chain of custody, it’s easy to see the positive as a not uncommon occurrence in an era ripe with amphetamine usage. Why should Merckx be any different; after all, he ranks as the most successful cyclist of all time. Are we to think he was the only clean champion of his generation?
Looking back on riders I have admired—Greg LeMond, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, Andy Hampsten, Richard Virenque, Marco Pantani, Johan Museeuw, Moreno Argentin, Frank Vandenbroucke, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Alejandro Valverde, Danilo DiLuca and plenty more, what strikes me is that only two of these names have never been broadly accused or convicted of doping—LeMond and Hampsten. Were we to take every doping allegation out there as fact (save anything Armstrong has said to or about LeMond), we might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Hampsten’s win in the Giro was the last by a clean rider, as was LeMond’s last win at the Tour.
I admit, every time a new rider comes thundering onto the scene, I have moments (roughly one for every win) when I wonder, “Is this guy clean?” Even without a single positive test to implicate the rider, I can’t help but wonder if some new phenom is our next Riccardo Ricco or Bernard Kohl. To wonder such a thing is reputation assassination, even if I don’t share it with anyone else.
But this youngest generation of riders, riders who came onto the scene after the EPO problem had been identified, after the test had been devised, those are the guys who scare and upset me. It’s little wonder to me that any rider still in the game now who was there for the rise of EPO and the team podium sweeps of the ’94 Fleche Wallonne (Gewiss-Ballan) and the ’96 Paris-Roubaix (Mapie-GB) might still not be conforming to the memo. But what really troubles me are the new riders who still pursue EPO and its newer variant, CERA. Just as we think we’re making progress in doping thanks to programs such as those run by Bjarne Riis and Jonathan Vaughters, some new rider gets suspended for a drug that we have come to believe is easy to catch.
As a result, many of us have turned our backs on past performances that gave us chills, left us cheering at the TV and maybe even caused us to put up a poster of the rider in our dorm room or garage. Those were the days.
Museeuw’s win at Roubaix in ’96 came at the end of arguably the most dominant ride by any team in the history of the Hell of the North. Now we know that it was EPO that gave their performance the appearance of a Ferrari racing a Yugo.
In comments here at RKP, we’ve seen how many of your have turned against not just Lance Armstrong, but other riders we know to have doped: Marco Pantani, Frank Vandebroucke, Tyler Hamilton and more.
I realized not too long ago that if I disavow every performance that involved doping, I’d be stripped of almost every race that I ever cared about. I’d even be stripped of LeMond’s last-minute win at the 1990 Tour de France because the guy he beat—Claudio Chiappucci—was on EPO. Without him and that drug, LeMond’s win would have been much more dominant. And don’t get me started about 1991.
Despite the lies, the doping, the inability to know who was truly the best on the day, I don’t want to lose the wonder and awe I felt when I saw those performances. If I turn my back on every one of those performances in bitterness, it’s tantamount to saying of your ex, “I never really liked her.”
Those experiences, the wonder I felt at watching Richard Virenque or Floyd Landis winning in Morzine in 2003, the jubilation I felt at Tyler Hamilton’s win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, my astonishment at Armstrong’s win at the Tour in ’99 or my awe at any of Johan Museeuw’s wins at Paris-Roubaix were experiences of genuine and honest emotion on my part. While I have a different understanding of those performances today, and my feelings for those racers may have changed somewhat, I’ve decided I won’t let anyone, any new revelations, change how I remember those performances.
I can’t tell anyone else how to feel about those performances. The bitterness some of you feel at the betrayal of learning some win was doped is as valid an emotional experience as any jubilation I’ve felt for the same performance.
But for those of you who have felt frustration and confusion with each new revelation, I offer my perspective as a different way to process your feelings. I’m not suggesting we capitulate and just give in to enjoying doped riding; like each of you, I want a clean sport, full stop.
Society changes and what we tolerate changes as well. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. I can’t endorse his ownership of a person, but that act shouldn’t erase the work he did in establishing the United States’ democracy.
I truly believe cycling is changing for the better and that doping is on the decline. It is a scourge, though, that we should not fool ourselves into thinking will ever be eradicated. We should not accept the doped performances of the past out of inevitability and resignation, but rather because they inspired us in our own riding. And if we rode with honesty and conviction, then some good came from those tarnished wins.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
You are Marco Pantani. It is 1999, and you are winning the Giro d’Italia, the race you dreamed of winning as a teenager flogging a borrowed bike around the countryside outside Cesenatico. You’ve won four stages. You’re way ahead on GC, and you’re holed up in the team hotel, tired, mentally drained, but, on some level, deeply satisfied with the legacy you’re creating for yourself in the sport you love.
Then you’re out the side door into the bright sunlight, mobbed by press, hounded for an explanation for the impossibly high hematocrit level your tests show. You’re disqualified. You’re shamed. You are no longer a legend, but a pariah.
This is what professionals might call a “precipitating event.” In your life it might be a divorce, the loss of a job, the death of a child. In pro cycling, a doping positive can be the death of your career, the event that pushes you over the edge.
Charlie, the addictions counselor I see every Friday morning, tells me that he sees what’s called “dual diagnosis,” i.e. clinical depression AND addiction, so much that he’s not convinced the two can be separated. Depression can lead to addiction. Addiction can lead to depression. They are the chicken and egg, egg and chicken.
The vast majority of those reading these words will know how Marco Pantani’s life turned out. After his expulsion from the Giro he made a few faltering attempts at comeback, but eventually succumbed to cocaine addiction, dying alone in a hotel room in 2004.
Addiction is a disease, progressive and fatal if untreated.
Last week, in a piece entitled “Love for the Doper,” I connected the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) with the addiction to illicit drugs, the descent into a mental state that convinces you that you need the drugs to go on. At the time, Padraig (our host and proprietor here at RKP) asked me how I would explain the jump that many athletes who use PEDs make to abusing illicit drugs. The recent death of Frank Vandenbroucke, as well as the passing of Marco Pantani, are but two examples of this jump.
And I would say that the answer lies somewhere at the nexus of humiliation, shame, loneliness and the tendency toward extreme behaviors, all of these factors combined with a precipitating event. To use Pantani as an example, though Vandenbroucke’s particulars are fairly similar, you have a unique character type, a self-described loner, a guy who nearly everyone who knew him would call “socially awkward, who also happens to be an elite athlete, an occupation more or less defined by the extremity of the behavior necessary to achieve success. You take this awkward, lonely and very probably depressed guy, who is already completely inured to suffering, and you heap on top a generous serving of humiliation.
Now, that humiliation validates an underlying shame that the guy feels, because he’s doping. He becomes even more depressed. Up to that point he was able to offset the shame and depression with the thrill of victory and adulation. Later, Pantani and Vandenbroucke made an effort to find some equilibrium by turning to the one thing that made them feel better, the one thing that delivered the thrill and muted the shame, illicit drugs.
What was once just a party drug, readily available to them as wealthy celebrities, takes on a new role (Are you listening Tom Boonen?). It moves itself front and center. Forced to abandon the PEDs, the rider sticks with the illicit drugs, substituting the mental effects of one for the mental effects of the other. The central conceit of the addict’s mindset is that he can’t do without the drugs that are actually tearing him apart. Compounding the problem is that the rider believes he can’t make a living without riding and can’t ride without drugs of one sort or the other. It’s a Catch-22 that turned Pantani and Vandenbroucke into corpses in hotel rooms, the saddest possible ending for an athlete in our sport.
To be sure, not every rider involved with PEDs will make the jump to illicit drugs, but a very real link exists between the use of PEDs and depression, and then between depression and the use of illicit drugs. Think not only of Pantani and Vandenbroucke, but also of Richard Virenque, if Willy Voet is to be believed, and Jan Ulrich.
Every time I hear the name of another convicted doper I try to stifle my instinct to judge. Riders don’t make bad decisions maliciously. They slip a little, and then a little more, and day after day, week after week, year after year, they become something they never meant to be. They can make deals with the devil that take them to the very top of the sport, and then one event, one vial of blood spun down in a centrifuge, one tainted jar of piss, pushes them off the edge.
Some don’t make it back.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Hi. My name is Robot, and I am an alcoholic. Fortunately, for me, I’ve been able to stay sober for the past seventeen years, much of that time with the help of a bicycle and the myriad benefits that particular piece of machinery bestows upon its frequent users.
I bring up my alcoholism to make a point about doping that I think escapes most who would judge a young rider harshly for straying down the garden path of EPO, CERA, Ozone, transfusions and testosterone trickery.
And that is, the dope can be addictive.
Bear with me now. When I was thirteen I was small, in fact the smallest kid in the class, and filled with social fear, much of which was based in the bullying I received at school. That same summer I drank a six pack of beer. Alcohol had the effect of doubling my size, sharpening my tongue and lowering my tolerance for the aforementioned bullying. Suddenly I was fearless, and fearlessness can be very compelling to an adolescent. Girls began to take interest in me. Boys began to respect me. I was crazy and funny and willing to abuse myself chemically to prove my mettle in the teen peloton.
Very quickly I developed a mental addiction to alcohol, rather than the physical addiction to alcohol marked by the shakes, hallucinations and possible cardiac arrest. I was in love with the feeling of being drunk and that feeling led me to all sorts of bad decisions with a burgeoning pile of consequences I struggled to contend with. At the end of my drinking I was blacking out for weeks at a time. Eventually, that loss of consciousness scared me badly enough to do what I needed to do to get clear of the demon liquor.
Right. Now lets run through that same story, but rather than the protagonist being a disaffected teen lets try a promising young cyclist, an amateur. He rides for a small but not insignificant club team that serves as a feeder to continental pro teams. Many of the club’s riders have made the jump to the pros after good results in kermis races or in amateur classics events.
One day this young pedaller is approached by his team’s manager or physio and offered an injection prior to a big race. The young rider is curious and acquiesces. He takes the shot, pulls up his bibs and murders his competition. When normally he might flag in the fourth hour of racing, relegating him to a pack finish, on this day he has the juice to follow the day’s final break, and he finishes third.
Encouraged by his finish and thrilled by the feeling of strength, he begins to make regular use of shots and potions, eventually settling into a pattern that catapults him up the amateur rankings and onto the radar of a number of pro teams.
At this point, he’s addicted to the feeling of power, speed and strength the dope gives him. He knows it’s wrong, but he fears that if he races clean he’ll get crushed, slip off the radar, slip out of cycling. Now he’s bouncing back and forth between the thrill of speed and power and the fear of crashing out of the sport. He continues on, and as he climbs the ladder from amateur to neo-pro to pro, he engages in more and more sophisticated doping programs.
Now his drug use is multi-faceted. He uses so he can feel strong, but he also has to maintain and mask his drugs. His body can’t simply stop being doped without serious risk to his health. On certain drugs, like EPO, riders run the risk of their blood thickening and clotting if they simply stop their program. They’re constantly being injected with anti-coagulants and being monitored for blood pressure issues.
Now our young rider has ALL the hallmarks of addiction. He is physically dependent on his program. He is mentally addicted to the results it produces and fearful of losing those results. And finally, his slow, steady descent into nefarious racing has caused him to lose sight of the ethical barriers that once would have kept him from ever taking that first step. Addiction is a gradual process. It rarely announces itself directly, but rather makes itself known by the accumulation of its consequences.
In my view, the great paradox of addiction is that you are at once powerless over that slow steady descent AND simultaneously, completely responsible for it. No one makes anyone stick a needle in their arm. And once you start down that path, as I did when I was thirteen, no one can make you stop except yourself.
Cycling has done a lot of positive things by creating a set of consequences for its wayward athletes. It has become more transparent and more interested in helping riders ride clean.
But, as I can attest, recovery is a slow, steady process. There are no silver bullets. There is no one test that will clean the dope out of the peloton. There is no one protocol. Recovery for cycling is rooted in our continuing to talk about that recovery, and our continuing to support even those riders who have made some mistakes as we move forward with what are, at the end of the day, just a bunch of bike races.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Agence France Presse has reported the death of Frank Vandenbroucke. The one-time great Belgian cyclist who scored 51 wins in his career was on vacation in Senegal when he died. Preliminary reports are that he died of a pulmonary embolism.
Most recently, Vandenbroucke had been riding for the Cinelli-Down Under team and had been a columnist for the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. A byline had appeared as recently as last week.
Readers of RKP are well aware of Vandenbroucke’s troubled past. Following a stellar season in 1999 when he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Omloop Het Volk and two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, Vandenbroucke’s career spun out of control following an initial drug bust in 1999. His additional drug busts, DUI and suicide attempt are well documented and reducing his troubles to a handful of nouns is a disservice.
Vandenbroucke’s descent into depression and further drug use is eerily similar to that of Marco Pantani. It would be easy to reduce his story to a cautionary tale: Kids, don’t do drugs!
However, the reality is much more shocking. Our body of knowledge about the use of performance-enhancing drugs really hasn’t included the assumption that top-ranked cyclists busted for drugs will turn to recreational drugs and a plummet into depression. Following his bust, Vandenbroucke teammate David Millar says he fell into a terrible depression he buried in alcohol, but somehow he turned it around.
Could it be a pattern is emerging? Indications are Marco Pantani turned to recreational drugs following his bust for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Same for Jan Ullrich. We know Tyler Hamilton battled depression following his suspension for a positive test.
What do we have to expect from Mr. Full Disclosure, Bernard Kohl? (I’ll address his ongoing monthly interviews with new revelations in another post.)
I’ve made my peace with Vandenbroucke and the riders who won the Classics and Grand Tours of the 1990s. Given the circumstances, he was truly one of the better riders of his generation and deserves an extra measure of panache in our memories for announcing—before the race—on which hill he would attack at the ’99 L-B-L. The shot above of him at the finish has defined for many the hard-man style the Belgians are known for: the legs coated with embrocation, the shoe covers and arm warmers pushed to the wrists; only a man for the Classics can make 55 degrees look like a bright summer day.
Despite flashes of brilliance (what else would you call his second place at the 2003 Tour of Flanders), VdB never returned to his winning ways following his first bust.
Even if you hated Vandenbroucke for his drug use, I hope you can lament his death and the loss that means for cycling. He was, after all, one of our own, a guy who loved to go fast, a hard man who understood style, had a heart for the red line, and a family man who leaves behind both his parents and a daughter.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International