The other shoe has not dropped. It is actually raining shoes now. Tyler Hamilton’s doping confession, grand-jury induced or 60-Minutes inspired, is just the latest drop in the Armstrong-eroding downpour.
I’ll come straight to the (question) point. How do we feel about this?
Hamilton was going to be the next Armstrong, the first Lance domestique to break free of the US Postal orbit. His days at CSC and Phonak were full of promise and gritty almost-wins. We all recall the broken collarbone that Hamilton rode through to fourth place in the 2003 Tour de France. He had broken a shoulder and still finished second in the preceding year’s Giro d’ Italia.
And yet, for all Hamilton’s hard man brilliance and quiet humility, his long history of blood doping violations, suspensions, denials and recriminations turned many of his erstwhile fans against him. In the end, he was banned for eight years for a final doping positive related to DHEA. It was a whimper of capitulation, rather than a bang of vindication.
His marriage dissolved. He was treated for depression. It was all a heavy price to pay for heavy crimes against the sport.
Now a cycling coach living in Colorado, Hamilton appears to be coming out of the dope-fueled haze of his racing career. As with Floyd Landis before him, Hamilton’s motivations will be parsed and questioned. His credibility will be debated. It is hard for a long-time liar to re-establish himself. Ask Landis. But in a room full of liars, where does the truth actually live?
And yet, here is another former-Armstrong aide corroborating the stories and suspicions, impeaching both the greatest American champion and the sport’s governing body with simple confirmations of what many of us have believed for some time. In the end, does this say more about cycling or about Hamilton’s own often bizarre role in the doping soap opera of the last two decades? Is this a turning point, or just another way station on the road to dope-free cycling?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Internet told me that, “Gray is a neutral, balanced color. It is a cool, conservative color that seldom evokes strong emotion although it can be seen as a cloudy or moody color.”
When the news broke that Alberto Contador had tested positive for Clenbuterol on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour de France, I made a promise to myself that I would withhold judgment as best I could, that I would remain agnostic until the news stopped breaking and started coming back together. Keeping this promise has been more challenging than I anticipated, for with every new development in the story, I have been tempted to pronounce a verdict, at least within the cacophonous courtroom of my own head.
The Internet says, “The lighter side of black, gray is a cool color seen in storm clouds and some metals.” Storm clouds, indeed.
The truth is that I am too impressionable. I want to believe everyone. When German media outlet ARD reported that plasticizers were detected in Contador’s urine, along with the Clenbuterol, I thought, “Well, that’s the final nail.” But then Contador came out with the offer to make all his previous tests available now and in the future, for when more advanced testing has been approved. That’s not the sort of thing you say if you’ve got something to hide.
Of course when Sylvain Chavanel and another French rider came out firmly on the side of “not surprised,” I took that as some indication that Contador’s strategies are an open secret in the peloton. That is, until David Millar took up the opposite position.
The Internet says, “Like black, gray is used as a color of mourning as well as a color of formality. Along with blue suits, gray suits are part of the uniform of the corporate world. Dark, charcoal gray carries with it some of the strength and mystery of black. It is a sophisticated color without much of the negative attributes of black.”
Then the report came that Clenbuterol has been banned in Spanish cattle production for some years and that its incidence in current samples is ridiculously low, so that created the impression that Contador’s story was as plausible as Tyler Hamilton’s legendary unborn twin defense.
Then Spanish police uncovered a cattle doping ring operating out of Tenerife and the Canary Islands that made Contador’s story believable again.
The Internet says, “Gray is the color of sorrow. People who favor gray can be the lone wolf type or narrow-minded. Gray with more silver in it can be a very active color. Native Americans associate gray with friendship. Gray is the symbol for security, maturity and dependability. It connotes responsibility and conservative practicality.”
This business with Contador is not black and white. Gray is a variation on the theme of “Negative Capability” we discussed last week. Gray is Contador, the lone gray wolf. Gray is the patience we need to wait for his case to be resolved properly. Gray is the horizon for the Tour de France, regardless of the outcome. Gray is the sorrow we feel for our beleaguered sport. Gray is the steel we will need to overcome and rebuild.
The Internet says, “Gray is the true neutral color. Its energy imparts void, emptiness, lack of movement, emotion, warmth and identifying characteristics. Because of this, gray can be restful. It has a detached and isolated feeling.”
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Joop Zoetemelk finished on the second step of the Tour de France podium six times. He won once, in 1980. And like Raymond Poulidor, who is known as the Eternal Second, many believe he could have won more races if he’d attacked more, if he’d been more ruthless, but Zoetemelk wasn’t an aggressive rider. He didn’t choose to win. When the race was on the line, he was as likely to let the moment pass as riders like Hinault and Merckx were to attack.
Today, in Boston, it was as hot as the devil’s undercarriage. I pushed away from the office into the murky swamp of the city and made the crucial mistake of jumping onto the wheel of a fellow apparently in a big rush to get someplace else. We rode fast. I thought, “It’s too hot to be riding this fast,” but then I kept pedaling until I washed up on the shore of the steep hill that leads to my house, mostly spent, soaked in sweat, and unable to pull any more air out of the air.
Sometimes, the indecision that might have cost Zoetemelk greater success is the same indecision that keeps a rider in a race he ought to abandon. Think of Cadel Evans, with a broken elbow, hauling the world champion’s rainbow jersey over cols and up monts at this years Tour, or Tyler Farrar sprinting on a broken wrist. Maybe even remember Tyler Hamilton finishing the 2003 Tour in 4th place after cracking his collarbone on stage one. These guys haven’t decided to finish the race. They’ve just put off deciding to quit until the finish line slides past.
Zoetemelk was a classy rider. In the high mountains he floated, his wispy form disappearing up around the next switchback as lesser men toiled away below. Despite his lack of aggression, he still won Fleche Wallone, Paris-Tours, Paris-Nice, the Dutch national road race championship twice, the world championship at the age of 38, Amstel Gold at 39. He’s a legend. Indecision may have cost him some wins, but he still managed.
I arrived in my driveway completely spent, sweating from every pore, absolutely gasping, but still trying not to look too pathetic in case the neighbors were watching. After dismounting, I sat next to my bike, in the garage, trying to compose myself before entering the house. It took a while. And then when I did go inside, it took another twenty minutes before I was convinced I wasn’t maybe having heat stroke.
They say the only reason Zoetemelk ever won the Tour is that his DS told him he had to. There was no one else. He would never have forced himself on the race. He was under orders.
When Louison Bobet finally hung up his Tour hopes, after a series of miserable stages in 1959, he was asked why he kept riding when he knew he couldn’t win. He said, “I’d never climbed the Col de l’Iseran. It’s the highest road in Europe. I wanted to ride up there.” He quit on the descent of the Iseran, on his terms. What looked like indecision was actually a declaration of intent.
It’s only supposed to get hotter here in Beantown. This was the second day of our heat wave. The humidity will get worse. The mercury will rise. It’s supposed to break on Friday, when Hurricane Earl arrives with torrential rain. When I was finally convinced I wasn’t dying, I thought, “Screw that. I’m done riding for the week. It’s only going to be more misery.” But we’ll see what happens. Sometimes he who hesitates is lost. Sometimes he who hesitates is simply enduring, until better days come.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I believe that Bjarne Riis holds the keys to the future of professional road racing in continental Europe [Cue the sounds of a needle scratching a record/glass shattering/monkey's rioting at the banana packing plant].
For years we’ve been talking about the impact that each new doping scandal would have on the sport’s ability to attract sponsors able to support teams on the financial level necessary to race the UCI’s evolving, global race calendar. And, certainly, sponsors have dropped out after prolonged exposure to the negative publicity of having their athletes frog-marched out of the Grand Tours, heads hung in shame. What brand benefits from having their name associated with a bunch of anorexic junkies?
And yet, every time we lost a stalwart sponsor like T-Mobile, we gained a Garmin or a Columbia. Even the recent emergence of teams like RadioShack, Sky and BMC suggest that there are still deep-pocketed brands who believe in cycling. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the Shack is built specifically to support Lance Armstrong, a marketing juggernaut independent of cycling. Sky comes out of the British Cycling Federation’s successful track tradition, a group without doping-related baggage to carry around on tour with them. Among those three, only BMC, formerly Phonak, has struggled through years of dope-conjured setbacks, specifically with Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Oscar Camenzind and others. Their survival can be put down, completely, to the iron will of owner Andy Rihs, who loves cycling, perhaps to his own detriment.
On the European continent, things have not gone so well. Formerly dominant Italian teams have self-destructed or soldiered on, shadows of their former selves. Spanish sponsors have fled nearly wholesale, and the French, well, they seem to be underachieving on every front. Milram, the only ProTour team in Germany, will end their sponsorship commitment at the end of this season. Doom? You’re soaking in it.
That brings us back to Bjarne Riis and his Saxo Bank team. Among the ProTour horde, Saxo Bank stands out. They have dominated the Spring Classics through Fabian Cancellara, a rider who will also bring them Grand Tour stage wins in any race against the clock. They also have the Schleck brothers, Andy and Franck, who, in addition to contending for GC honors in the Tours, also represent the fresh, young face of cycling. Few teams bring to the ProTour what Saxo Bank brings, and much of that is down to their owner and manager, Riis.
And now that Saxo Bank is ready to end its sponsorship of the team, it is Riis scrambling around to find funding for what is, arguably, the best team on the continent. The irony is that Riis himself is a repentant former doper, who confessed, without coercion, to having won the 1996 Tour de France with the help of the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO), even offering to give back the yellow jersey he won that year.
A polarizing figure in cycling, Riis is clearly at the forefront of modern team managers, bringing new training techniques and technical innovations to the table more aggressively than any other. Many cycling fans are ambivalent about his influence though, disgusted with his participation in the drug culture of the late ’90s peloton, but intrigued by the performance and tactics of his team. Never a particularly warm presence, Riis has managed his team in the same ruthless way he raced. It wins races, if not always fans.
So now it’s down to this man to find a title sponsor for his team. It’s a proposition that tests the very premises of continental racing. Can a former doper with the best squad on two-wheels secure the funds? There is probably not a more valuable commodity than Team Saxo Bank, not a better end product to sell. But Riis may well be his own albatross. The deal maker might just be the deal breaker.
And this dilemma is not peculiar to this team. Every continental team has baggage to contend with when talking to sponsors. That is what makes Saxo Bank such a clear litmus test for the ProTour.
Let’s not be too dramatic. Pro cycling will not die. Where teams fail, others will spring up, but the new shoots of growth might come from unexpected sources, Australia or Japan maybe. The UCI has undertaken a globalization project for the sport. This can be looked at as either an effort to grow into new markets, or a tacit admission that the peloton has simply poisoned the well in mainland Europe.
Let’s hope this isn’t the case. Whether we like him or not, let’s hope that Bjarne Riis can present a business plan that overcomes the trepidation that must come from shaking hands with a former cheat.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International