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.
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