When I think back on the moments from this season that excited me to be a cyclist, my mind turns on two events. They are Fabian Cancellara’s attacks that resulted in victory at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Cancellara’s wins were impressive, but what made me love them and return to them in my head, over and over had as much to do with the attacks as the wins themselves. When Cancellara attacked on the Muur de Grammont, he did so for reasons that were more than just strategic. He chose that spot as much for its historic importance in the race.
After the race was over he said, “I suppose it was a perfect race. Even my attacks were perfectly timed. Going on the Molenberg was the right moment and then I had to try on the Muur [de Grammont] because that’s where the legend and history of this race are made. When I realised I’d dropped Boonen it was like having wings on my feet and kept going all the way to the finish.”
Just a week later he accomplished the rare feat of taking the Flanders/Roubaix double, but of course, he didn’t attack just anywhere, but moments before entering the Mons-en-Pevele sector of cobbles—one of the truly decisive sectors with a history of changing the race.
Despite an idiotic effort to dull the luster of his wins with an allegation of using a motorized bike, Cancellara’s wins have given us the opportunity to revel in watching a stunningly strong cyclist ride the world off his wheel.
His wins were convincing. They were well timed. They were brave. They were also incredibly stylish.
I love style. I love PRO. But style is a luxury. It is the flourish that comes only when the rest of one’s craft is assured.
This is a lesson I learned in skateboarding more than 30 years ago. My friends and I could carve a brave line in a pool, grind the coping, even catch air. And while we were competent, most of us were short on the confidence that gave our posture on the board that extra spice that could make our friends cheer.
What I came to appreciate was how the arch of skater’s back sang of assured grace, how balance wasn’t a goal, but a plaything. That gently curving spine was all choice, no question.
Watching Cancellara spin a gear lower than Tom Boonen, stay seated and then drop him on the Muur de Grammont was an attack I could believe. After all the doping scandals, all the questions, it was a move I didn’t doubt. There was style in his strength and it was a moment I cheered.
The end of the season is well and truly here with tomorrow’s Tour of Lombardy. As the fifth and final Monument of the season, this is a PRO’s last real chance to score a win of note and either capitalize on a great season or hope to rescue a lousy one.
Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the winner of Lombardy, the race of the falling leaves, is often a man of the Grand Tours, but not in the way you think. It’s true that the roll of winners included Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly and Tony Rominger, but the majority of winners have been riders who aspired to do well at the Grand Tours, but rarely put together the form for a win. What more of them have in common is a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Indeed, in the last 20 years, only two riders have put together a Grand Tour win and success at Lombardy in the same year. Three-time winner Damiano Cunego did it back in 2004 when he won the Giro d’Italia, and sustained his form all the way from May to October. Prior to that Tony Rominger did it in ’92 following his win in the Vuelta a Espana when it was still held in April.
And while it may seem that a rider should be able to capitalize on great form from World’s, so far, only Paolo Bettini has been able to cross the finish line at Lombardy in the arc-en-ciel.
Clearly, Lombardy is not a race for Thor Hushovd, but Cadel Evans seems to be both hungry and going well. However, following his win in the Tour of the Piedmont, Philippe Gilbert seems to be on track to repeat in Lombardy. Clearly, Matti Breschel and Filippo Pozzato will have something to say about who wins.
I say Gilbert will be too heavily marked to win. I’m going with Evans.
What say you?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In movie making, writers of thrillers and mysteries will often use a device to heighten suspense and keep viewers from guessing too much of the plot. That element is called a Red Herring. Formally, a Red Herring is a kind of fallacy. It’s an argument introduced to distract the audience from the topic by inserting irrelevant information.
The “Miss Lonely Hearts” character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is one of cinema’s great Red Herrings. Her personal drama of a loveless life that deteriorates into a suicide attempt is completely unrelated to the disappearance (and murder) of Mrs. Thorwald. Similarly, the stolen money, and what ultimately becomes of it, is utterly unrelated to the real plot of Psycho. They are distractions of a grand order.
Cycling now has its own Red Herring. It is being called “motorized doping”—using a bicycle with a tiny motor hidden from view to potentially offer the user an extra 60-100 watts at critical times. It comes at a truly inopportune time. The fight against real doping, that is, the scourge presented by engine-enhancing blood transfusions and EPO has proven to be more than the UCI is equipped to deal with.
Even though this story is really just coming to light now, it has been a topic of discussion, even concern, for months. According to the UCI, some bikes were checked at both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Enrico Carpani, of the UCI’s technical commission, says they found no unusual bikes.
And yet, the story persists. One of the problems is that former pro Davide Cassani, who inadvertently alerted the world to Michael Rasmussen’s Italian training regimen (when he was allegedly training in Mexico), carries great credibility and impact due to the fact that he has the distinction of being a television commentator who unmasked a doper. Cassani demonstrated such a bicycle on TV and then boasted how he could win the Giro with its help, despite being 50 years old.
How is it that Pat McQuaid couldn’t dispatch this rumor—it is, after all, only a rumor at best—with a single knee-slapping guffaw? You know, the melting-into-the-couch, uncontrollable, tears-down-your cheeks laugh you’d do if someone told you straight-faced that Barack Obama wasn’t American or even Kenyan, but an alien and he controlled the drug trade on behalf of other aliens who were preparing for an invasion of Earth.
It is more than my vivid imagination can conjure. I have an easier time believing in something that took place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” than I do in the idea of a secret e-bike powering the world’s reigning Olympic and World Champion in the time trial to victory at Flanders and Roubaix. After all, if Cancellara wasn’t strong enough on his own to get the job done at those two monuments, then please, Captain Skeptical, how did he manage a gold medal and rainbow stripes?
Perhaps he’s been on an assisted bike all along? Yeah, that’s it.
And wouldn’t such a bike have required not just complicity, but cooperation on the part of Specialized? Morgan Hill’s favorite employer was ready to sell its Shiv to consumers in the wake of its UCI ban. Joe Cyclist doesn’t have to worry about UCI bans. How many consumers would say ‘yes’ to a road bike equipped with a jet pack? What are the chances that if Specialized actually managed to create a mechanical assist to the crowd-favorite Tarmac that they’d really keep quiet about it? Okay, so they couldn’t really publicize something that offered an illegal advantage. But the cost of developing a frame to handle such an addition (and today’s carbon fiber frames aren’t engineered to have extra stuff crammed in them) would be significant, too significant for most bike companies to do without trying to trickle that technology into other bikes.
So what we have is a Red Herring, a distraction. Perhaps a magician’s sleight of hand. Because certainly the more important question about Cancellara’s performances is whether or not he executed them with no biological doping. All indications are that he was clean, and he’s been tested a fair amount, which is encouraging.
The only question regarding motorized doping worth asking is who started the rumor and what possible motivation they might have to do so.
But instead, we have UCI technicians working to develop a scanner that will tell them whether or not a bicycle is equipped with a motor.
Really? Is that the only way they can dispel this nonsense? How about look for control wires? How about weigh the bikes? How about look for control buttons? Given the current state of e-bikes and the amount of engineering Shimano employed to develop its Di2 group, you are safer assuming there is no motorized doping going on than asking a boy scout to escort you across the street.
Why aren’t we laughing? Why aren’t in tears begging the mongers to stop—that if we laugh any harder or longer, we’ll throw up? This is funnier than Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Every euro the UCI spends developing a motor scanner is a euro that ought to be going to the fight against the real doping.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When you think of great cyclists from North America, Steve Bauer is one of those guys whose name immediately comes to mind. Most famous for his rides at the ’88 Tour de France and ’90 Paris-Roubaix, he was also the silver medalist at the ’84 Olympic Road Race. Just before the Tour of California RKP sat down with him for a chat about his racing past and his career post-racing.
RKP: Of all the editions of the Tour de France, the 1986 battle between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault seems to generate more interest and more unanswered questions than any other edition. Just how tense were things?
SB: I think it started out to be really amicable. In the back of my mind I was thinking it was Greg’s turn to win the tour he was definitely on form to win it. And I think the previous year going back bernard crashed hard he was injured the jersey was under a bit challenge from Roche. Greg had to hold back his chances on Luz Ardiden. So I was okay thinking Greg did his job, he basically worked for Hinault he sat on Roche’s wheel he didn’t attack and he didn’t try to take advantage of the situation. And because he could have.
The preamble in ’85 sort of led me to believe it was Greg’s turn. But bike racing doesn’t work like that. And when you have two guys on the same team that can win the Tour de France it’s a rare occasion such as with Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault.
Bernard was saying to himself and everyone else, ‘The best guy’s gonna win.’ And he probably had that vision in his mind. So we’re gonna race and we’re gonna see who the best guy is. Right? So he took some pretty interesting strategies in the beginning of the race and attacked when our team was in control of the race, which was very brilliant, actually. He took the lead and then Greg, fortunately, was able to fight back due to Bernard’s I would say machoism or trying to do too much. He attacked on the Tourmalet with 100km to go to Superbagneres and he died, right? And Greg took advantage of that and basically he took back the time that he lost. Otherwise he might have lost the Tour de France. If Bernard hadn’t tried to do the double—
RKP: It was an audacious move!
SB: Right! Now we’re in a situation where it was even Steven pretty much and it was really a true battle. The Alpe d’Huez day everybody remembers it to be Greg, Hinault, Greg, Hinault going up the climb. Greg was afraid people would take him down. Bernard said, ‘I’ll lead the climb.’ And they both say afterwards they could have dropped each other. But Greg thought it was pretty much over after that day. He thought, ‘Okay, it’s over, things are good,’ and then in the press conference Bernard says well it’s not over until after the time trial. And Greg flipped. He flipped! So then it got really tense. It sort of seemed to be okay until then and then from Alpe d’Huez to Paris was not.
I roomed with Greg that night. He was furious! He was so angry that Hinault would actually say would keep racing and not help him win the Tour de France when he was in the lead. So it got really tense. The big day that I remember the most was the race to St. Etienne where Greg was in front first over the top of the Col and Bernard was helping the Panasonic team chase Greg. Then Greg got caught and a counterattack went and Hinault went down the road and our team was chasing Hinault (laughing). At least, the Anglophones. It was just crazy. Bernard chasing Greg and us chasing Bernard.
RKP: Hampsten said that was one of the worst days of bike racing he ever had.
SB: Yeah. It was just insane. It was like, what were we doing? So the team was split, obviously. Hampsten, myself and the English speakers obviously helping Greg, and then the French boys were helping Bernard. It was definitely split alliances based on what we felt or who we thought deserved to win the race. And that was it. Then it went to the time trial and after the time trial it was over. I remember seeing Greg after the finish and he was just like pushed to the absolute limits. Completely. And Hinault would say well that’s the way it should be. I pushed him to his limits and now he knows that he won it being the best guy. That’s what Hinault would say; okay you gotta honor that.
RKP: At the end of the day there was a certain logic to what he had to say.
SB: Yeah (laughing).
RKP: If he wanted Greg to prove he was the strongest rider, it would seem that he did so.
RKP: It sounds like it was a lot of stress to put the riders through.
SB: Koechli [Paul Koechli was the team’s DS] was a really good manager. He kept a really good balance, even keel. It must have been really difficult for him as well as director but he seemed to be the right man for that job. To keep the team on track and there were no fisticuffs. I mean, there could have been.
RKP: Okay, on to another great race: 1990 Paris-Roubaix. I recently heard someone say the whole reason you didn’t win was parallax, that the angle of the camera captured the finish line wrong. And it was the first time I’d ever heard anything like that. I wasn’t there; I don’t know, but it sounds crazy. What I’ve always heard was that you were riding into the setting sun, it was hard to see and difficult to judge just where the finish line was. What’s your take on that finish?
SB: Well, I mean, it’s kind of interesting if I reflect on the sprint that—my track experience, because I came from a track background, my track experience actually failed me there because the size of the Roubaix velodrome puts the finish line more before the banking, where most tracks put it down like two-thirds of the stretch. And in the effort, we were just going flat out for the line, I’m expecting the line to be about five meters further. You’re sprinting almost in a blackout you’re going so hard. And in the photo obviously we hadn’t thrown our bikes yet.
RKP: From the photos I’ve seen it looks like Planckaert had thrown his but you hadn’t thrown yours yet.
SB: Well, you look at the photo and Planckaert’s thinking about throwing his bike. He was starting, but he missed it too. He was starting to initiate it, but he didn’t beat me with the bike throw. It was like I hadn’t started the bike throw and he had sort of initiated a bit but he wasn’t going past me with a throw, you know? And that’s just it. I just thought the line was another few meters, so I was ready to throw the bike, I crossed the line and a flash went off and I went ‘shit’ and we’re already past the line. The flash goes off and you’re like ‘awwww, damn it.’
But, like I said, with my track experience you almost sense the line is coming into the banking just as the banking starts to turn and there’s the finish line. But Roubaix is a 400 meter velodrome. Call it a mistake or whatever; other than that I rode a perfect race. That’s what it is.
The photo? Who knows. I saw a photo where he beat me after the finish but maybe I should have had more scrutiny on the judges or the photo or the photo finish. I don’t know. Hindsight. It’s a long time ago. Not really worth digging it up now.
RKP: Certainly, but people remain curious because it was an epic day of racing.
SB: Yeah, yeah, it was that close for sure. I did a perfect race. That’s what I feel about it anyway. That’s one of those days—you do a perfect race and lose by an inch. Or less. Actually it was less than an inch (laughs).
RKP: It made it memorable. Perhaps the best second-place finish ever at that race.
Check back next week for Part II.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Paris-Roubaix is the Angelina Jolie of bike racing. It stunning. It’s mythically proportioned. Everyone wants to win it.
And it’s batshitcrazy.
Liege-Bastogn-Liege is your spouse. It is gorgeous, smart, presentable to your family and sane enough to live with for the rest of your life.
At least, that’s my view of the races. I adore Paris-Roubaix. You don’t have to explain what makes Paris-Roubaix amazing, like you don’t have to explain why Brad Pitt left Jennifer Anniston; you just show a picture of Jolie. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a race you have to get to know. Some folks may never get it, and that’s okay.
Paris-Roubaix is the fling. The weekend you’d like to have once a year, provided you were the sort of person who had flings.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is what makes daily life rich and worth living. Truly, it’s a tough race, tougher than most people really understand, even most devout cyclists.
For starters, L-B-L is modest. Fewer than half the climbs are noted by name. No official record of the race lists its total climbing, which I’ve estimated at more than 8000 feet. There are mountain stages of the Tour de France that don’t climb that much. Not bad for a country many people think of as flat. At 258km (160 miles), it isn’t the longest race going, not by a longshot, but it is a race that very fine climbers can have trouble finishing.
When I think of the sort of riding I like to do on a routine basis, the kind of riding I can do day after day, rides that feed the soul, it’s terrain like that found at L-B-L that I want. Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and the Tour of Lombardy, there isn’t a flat spot to be found in L-B-L. Each of the other three races has long stretches of flat punctuated by climbs. L-B-L features a profile that looks as if it were constructed from the climbs of the other three races.
Below are the notable climbs of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. You are probably familiar with the stats on their length and average gradient. What you may never have seen is their elevation gain. It helps to put the climbs in a fresh light.
Cote de la Roche-en-Ardenne: 2.8 km climb, average grade of 4.9%; 449 feet
Cote de Saint Roch: 0.8 km climb, average grade of 12%; 314 ft.
Cote de Wanne: 2.7 km climb, average grade of 7%; 618 ft.
Cote de Stockeu: 1.1 km climb, average grade of 10.5%; 378 ft.
Col du Rosier: 6.4 km climb, average grade of 4%; 838 ft.
Col du Maquisard: 2.8 km climb, average grade of 4.5%; 412 ft.
Mont-Theux: 2.7 km climb, average grade of 5.2%; 460 ft.
Cote de la Redoute: 2.1 km climb, average grade of 8.4%; 577 ft.
Cote de la Roche aux Faucons: 1.5 km climb, average grade of 9.9%; 486 ft.
Cote de Saint-Nicholas: 1.0 km climb, average grade of 11.1%; 363 ft.
Elevation gain: 4895 ft.
As I previously mentioned, those 10 climbs are fewer than half the climbs your legs will note, though they do account for more than half the total altitude gain.
You’ll frequently hear riders say that Milan-San Remo is the easiest of the Monuments to finish, yet the hardest to win. You’ll also hear riders talk about how the pavé makes Paris-Roubaix the hardest race. What you don’t hear frequently, though it is said consistently, is that L-B-L is the most difficult race run over decent roads.
What I love about these John Pierce images is that as you look off in the background behind the riders, you see towns far below the riders.
These are no ordinary hills.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Following last week’s Paris-Roubaix, the big question on everyone’s minds was why, when Fabian Cancellara attacked, Tom Boonen didn’t react straightaway. While it isn’t possible to know exactly what was on Boonen’s mind, we can perhaps try to see the race through his eyes.
And if you’re wondering why this post is just now appearing, it has something to do with the steady stream of images arriving by e-mail from John Pierce; every day for a week, I’ve received another half dozen or so images. What you see here wasn’t available the day following the race.
When Cancellara attacked the first thought I had was that Boonen was too far back in the group to be the appropriate guy to counter the move. Even though he was arguably the strongest guy left in the group, to jump from that far back in the group would see everyone one his wheel, leaving him to play tow truck for Hushovd, Hammond and the rest. Boonen is a star and wouldn’t submit to so undignified a role as that. It’s like asking George Clooney to be an extra in a movie written for him.
Consider also the other information Boonen had at his disposal. Following Flanders he said he was riding at 55kph and couldn’t bring Cancellara back. That’s faster than the average TTT speed at the Tour in the 1980s and yet it wasn’t enough to bring back one man. (Okay, so that one man happens to be the current ITT World Champion.)
It was late in the race as well; even the best riders have a finite number of attacks in their legs. To counter Cancellara’s move means burning a match you planned to use later. Based on the shots of Boonen trying to rally the group to work together, it’s fair to say he realized he couldn’t pull Cancellara back on his own and knew his best opportunity was to get the group to work together to bring Cancellara back.
Based on what I’ve seen, I’d say Boonen didn’t settle for second; rather, the other riders in his group did. He seemed to be the one rider who really wanted to establish a paceline to bring Cancellara back.
After what happened at Flanders, Boonen can be forgiven for believing the only hope for victory was with the help of the group, and that without it, defeat was certain.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
We took a position near the start of the pavé section of the Arenberg forest – a good 160 kilometers into the Paris-Roubaix. As we waited a few hours for the riders to come, it occurred to me, I was literally standing on history – sections of pavé first laid down in the time of Napolean Bonaparte.
Bombs from both World Wars had fallen nearby.
Team Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara leads part of the pack at the entrance to the Arenberg Forest.
I’d seen the coverage on and off for 25 years, and I’ve seen plenty of bike races before, but nothing could prepare me for seeing the 108th edition of the “Hell of the North” in person.
The fast-approaching buzz of the paparazzi helicopters from above. (If only Red Kite Prayer had the budget). The roar of the crowd, pickled from one too many Belgian beers. The bedazzlement of the many 100-year-plus French farmers, who still appreciate this annual spectacle.
And then there they were. Approaching fast from behind their gendarmerie escort, I could see the flurry of colorful jerseys from the world’s top cyclists.
Though each one was thirsty for blood, all with something to prove, it was the bouncing and vibrating of their arms and legs that said it all. The pavé – or, cobblestones to those of you on the left side of the Atlantic — humbled even the thirstiest of them. The gods of the pavé began to tremble. And tremble they did for the more than 50 kilometers of cobbled road.
And before we knew it, they were gone. In an instant. Nothing was left except the dust hanging in the air and gasps from the crowd — satisfied, but only for now. Arenberg forest dust coated my face and eyes.
And, again, in an instant, the crowd departed. I was off to see the next section of pavé, fully aware of my selfish desire to feed my new-found addiction.
But one cyclist on Sunday was not humbled. Was Fabian Cancellera’s addiction satisfied on Sunday or is he shaking the centuries-old dust off of his jersey in preparation for another cobbled classic?
Images: Alex Armitage
Was it thrilling? Were you thrilled? Were you surprised to see Cancellara ride away with the race for the second weekend running? Were you pulling for Tommeke to reel the big Swiss back in? Did you think Hincapie was going to make something of his good mid-race position? Was Pozzato disappointing? What of Flecha and Hushovd, who seemed to wait for the Champion of Belgium to ride himself out in the chase, before dropping him in advance of the velodrome?
From my perspective, this year’s Paris-Roubaix was a bit of a let down. I successfully avoided learning the results all day in anticipation of the Versus coverage with Liggett and Sherwen (It’s the curse of residing on this side of the Atlantic that you can’t see these great races live), and then plopped myself down on the couch after reading my boys some rivetting bedtime stories about bears and mice having tea together, only to witness a decidedly subdued Hell of the North.
The French police barred spectators from drinking in the Arenberg Forest (above), and so there were far fewer at cobble-side, and thus less crashes. In fact, this version of the Queen of the Classics was just too short of mayhem for my tastes, an opinion not at all backed up by the fact that 85 riders had DNF next to their names at the end of the day.
The favorites rode to the front and stayed there. The usual attrition, the pummeling of the pavé, thinned the race down. And then Fabian Cancellara crushed the rest of the strong men, who scrabbled around in his dust, literally, leaving Tom Boonen alone to put up a fight. Quite how the nine of them couldn’t conjure any sort of meaningful paceline to at least limit their losses underlines how much stronger Cancellara was, physically AND mentally.
This was another aspect I found disappointing, the lack of fight from the guys who were supposed to fight.
After the race, as I noted in comments, Saxo Bank owner/manager Bjarne Riis took credit for his rider’s race-winning move. Apparently he commanded his giant Swiss-bot to attack at just the moment he saw Boonen napping at the back of the group. I’d pay 100 Francs to sit next to Bernhard Hinault while he read that interview and then went off on a profanity-laced tirade about modern riders all being a bunch of gigolos attached to Game Boys, but I’m like that. I love the drama. And badgers.
Getting to our little prediction contest…what’s wrong with you guys? You came up with really every permutation of Cancellara, Flecha, Hushovd, Boonen, Hincapie, etc., etc., et. al., PhD, MBA, PDQ, EXCEPT the right one. How did you do that? Well, now you know how Tom Boonen feels. Good effort, but no prize.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Roubaix! Roubaix! Allez! Roubaix!
I don’t know. It just came out. So … here we are. For some of us, the biggest weekend of the cyclo-spectator year. The Queen of the Classics. The Hell of the North. A Sunday in Hell. Other, clever monikers incorporating the word ‘hell.’ Go on. Make up some of your own. It’s fun.
Paris-Roubaix, which actually starts in Compiégne, north of the French capital, and ends in the velodrome at Roubaix, consists of 28 cobbled sections (see the RKP Roubaix t-shirt here for the full list of cobbled stretches) connected by bits of proper pavement. The pavement serves as respite from the suffering, and allows the riders who have been dropped, crushed, crashed, mechanicalled or otherwise beaten by the cobbles, to regain their senses and climb into a team car or the broom wagon.
I could go on and on (ask my wife), but my hyperbole would be as a smear of embrocation against the elements. Not up to the task.
Here is a list of favorites (some more favorite than others, obviously): Cancellara, Boonen, Hushovd, Flecha, Farrar, Eisel, Maaskant, Pozzato, Breschel, Hincapie, Hoste. The dark horses: Everyone else.
Paris-Roubaix sometimes yields to the strongest rider, but other times bestows its glory on the luckiest. If you’re both strong and lucky, you’ll win. Maybe.
Anyway, let’s do something special for this most special of Group Rides. Let’s say, the first person to name the podium finishers correctly (and in correct order) wins the aforementioned Roubaix t-shirt. We will have one winner, the first up with the right answers. So name your podium … now.
Image: 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