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.
For reasons unknown, this past Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on crashes in pro racing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this year’s Tour ended. Mostly because the reasons that most proffer don’t really explain what’s going on.
The Times article is here.
The biggest problem of all is that we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, and the Times is no different. The reporter gathered his anecdotes and offered them up. Ten deaths since 1995, though few mentioned because, they apparently aren’t worth mentioning. Thankfully, he does point out that no one is investigating. Seems to me that this is a matter for the UCI and the professional rider’s union (CPA) to investigate, but he doesn’t ask Pat McQuaid, nor CPA chief Gianni Bugno what they’re doing about it.
If racing my bike was my job, I’d want them investigating. At the very least, maybe an investigation of the reported crashes at the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. The three big stage races. Maybe looking at them can help point to things that might merit further research.
With the Tour, the biggest cycling stage in the world, every team has an incentive to ride aggressively, everyone wants an opportunity to get in front of the camera, everyone wants a dig at a stage win, just about every racer is probably thinking, no matter what their assignment is, if they just do one more thing, they might be able to score yellow, just for a day, and it won’t derail their team leader’s chances at his stated goal. Seems like a recipe for lots of crashes.
Stakes are highest for most riders and teams at the Tour, no doubt. But there are big crashes at the Vuelta and Giro as well, and they often take out a favorite, or two. And every year, there are crashes at the Tour, and crashes at every race. Every year at the Tour, and other big races, favorites are either caught up in the crashes and drop out or are caught behind them and are knocked out of contention before the critical stages or sectors begin. We’re not always paying attention in other races. But somehow, this year seemed different. There were lots of explanations; the most interesting I read was a cleaner peloton is both more evenly matched and more fatigued.
Maybe more evenly-matched causes some problems, but more fatigued I find hard to believe. It strikes me that such a comment assumes that every last cyclist was doping, because otherwise, the clean cyclists would probably have been more fatigued ten or fifteen years ago than they are now. Even if every last cyclist was doping, there is plenty of evidence that there are both high-responders and low-responders to doping products, EPO in particular, and the low-responders would presumable be at a greater disadvantage than they are today, assuming a cleaner peloton.
I think it’s safe to rule out road conditions as being a big problem, as road conditions are generally better today than they were in the past. I also think it’s safe to rule out “road furniture” on the transitions in and out of towns for most crashes. I know the road furniture theory is a popular one, and the awful Craig Lewis-Marco Pinotti crash at this year’s Giro has been attributed to road furniture, but even their crash deserves at least a little questioning. Was there any footage of it? I couldn’t find any. Maybe road furniture is responsible, but maybe it was just what they hit and the cause was something else. Maybe the crash would have been worse had it not been for the road furniture. I have no reason to doubt either person’s sincerity, but unless we have a better idea of what happened it seems premature to assign blame.
To me, another strike against the road furniture theory is that at this year’s crash-ridden Tour, it didn’t seem like any crashes were the result of road furniture; most of the heavily-reported crashes seemed to have happened on straight roads or in the mountains. There’s also evidence that the Tour and other big races work with local governments to remove some traffic circles and speed bumps where they think their removal will improve safety. I noticed what appeared to be traffic circle modifications during the World Championships as well. I think it’s safe to rule out narrow roads, as not only were wider roads once seen as a culprit, but narrow roads were once all the peloton used.
I’d like to offer up a few alternative explanations to the common cries.
It’s possible that crashes are as common as they’ve always been, but that broken bones are more common today than they used to be, making the crashes more serious and more frequently race-ending. As such, I think one potential culprit is osteopenia. If you haven’t heard of it, consider it osteoporosis lite: bone mineral density is lower than normal. I think it should be considered a factor in all crashes where bone breakage occurs, whether it is in training or racing. Anecdotally, there seem to be more and more stories about guys breaking bones in training crashes the past several years. Even “normal” cyclists can have reduced bone density as a result of all the miles they put in, so a Tour rider, particularly a climber who has meticulously starved himself down to his ideal race weight, probably has thinned his bones beyond what the average mileage-hound has done. I heard physiologist Allen Lim discussing hearing about crashes and thinking that every crash has the potential to break bones during a Grand Tour. When I put it to Dr. Michael Ross, a former team doctor, he unhesitatingly said, “yes.” It also could be a sign of cortico-steroid abuse, something Dr. Ross pointed out, as the result is same. Yes, these guys are racing hard, yes, they’re going fast, yes, they’re hitting the ground hard, but looking at how emaciated riders like Brad Wiggins and Chris Horner are at their Tour weight, I have to imagine their bodies catabolized bone matter to keep going. It strikes me as an evolutionary strategy that certainly helped early humans survive famines, but it also could be how crashes are breaking collarbones, ribs, pelvises, wrists, hips, and so on. For all the discussion about injuries resulting from race crashes, lots of guys seem to be breaking bones training; Dutch rider Robert Gesink had his season ended for him shortly before the World Championships when he fractured his leg while out training.
Some have suggested the culprit could be the machine itself. The bikes don’t seem to be the problem as catastrophic failures from normal riding have largely disappeared, and it’s hard to believe that a bike breaking after hitting the ground is injuring riders. Others point to stiffer wheels and too-light bikes, but I doubt those lines of thinking. I’ve seen little evidence that wheels are vertically stiffer than they used to be, which would be where the problem would lie in straight-line crashes. Tires are just about the same today as they were 25 years ago, and bikes still flex and tire pressure can be adjusted to account for stiffness. Steve Tilford speculated on his blog that some of the sketchy downhill riding was due to racers not training on their race wheels. He may be right. But I think the problem might extend to all racing. Not all carbon-fiber braking surfaces brake equally well. Some are grabby, some pulse, some give the unsettling feeing they’re not slowing down, even in the dry, some work fine in the dry but are questionable in the wet. Most pros can only ride the wheels they sponsors want them to ride, so they could be stuck between taking the risk of crashing or taking the risk of getting dropped more easily. I think many amateur racers would take the same risk, at least in the dry. People might suggest disc brakes, but I even with discs, tire traction, or lack thereof, will be a problem in the wet.
Another potential culprit is the training schedules of racers. At one time, pros probably raced much, much more before showing up to the Tour—the Tour came after both the Vuelta and the Giro and racers typically raced from February into June with smaller training blocs in between. Yes, they might not have been as fast as racers today, their training and nutrition wasn’t as precise, but by racing, they were training themselves to be more skilled in the peloton. And now the peloton is bigger. Riding in a pack takes skill, a skill that is honed by practice, unless there are some Wii games I don’t know about. Some weekend warriors in the US race more than Tour contenders between the start of their season and the Tour. Consider that this year, Chris Horner didn’t race at all between his victory at the Tour of California in May and the start of the Tour. Alberto Contador didn’t race at all between his Giro victory and the Spanish nationals, where he raced the time trial and road race, and then came to the Tour.
Or maybe the converse is true. Cadel Evans barely raced all spring and seemed to be able to race his few races with no crashing issues, though his preference is to race at the front. Maybe the pack as a whole are better bike handlers today and more comfortable riding closer to one another which makes it easier to crash several riders at once when one thing goes wrong.
The biggest issue is probably randomness, volume, and the nature of riding in the peloton. Just take an assembled group of cyclists, 189 riders is 21 teams worth, and have them ride an average of 100 miles a day for three weeks. Even if they were all riding solo, there would be crashes. Knowing how many riders go down in training and how frequently would be interesting to know, and something to compare to all the race crashes.
Some point to the packs being bigger as a culprit in crashes. There could be something to this, though the phenomenon of large fields began in 1986 when 210 riders started. And this time probably is when the super-large fields started occurring at the top races throughout cycling. Previous to this, it seems that races were in the range of 30-50% smaller and largely composed of teams racing in their home country—the Tour with French riders on French teams, the Vuelta with Spanish riders, the Giro with Italian and so on.
For riders, racing is their job and they owe it to themselves to demand research to determine what the real issues and culprits are. At the same time, they probably shouldn’t push for any changes until serious research is done. As a response to the extreme length of the 1987 Tour (22 teams of nine riders apiece riding 25 stages totaling 4231km), there was a movement to standardize the lengths of Grand Tours and shorten stages. This was seen as doing, among other things, reducing the incentive to dope. We know how that worked out.
Race radios are sure to come up as a safety thing. There’s no easy answer with them. Yes, directors can alert their riders to dangers up ahead, but there are downsides to trusting the voice in your ear. What if the director is wrong? What if riders interpret silence to mean everything is safe ahead? When hard helmets were first mandated by the USCF in the 1986, there was an argument that people would take more risks because they knew their head was safe. That never made sense. But I read a story about Erik Zabel’s role for the HTC-Highroad team. Supposedly he’d preview the stage finish and then relay what he saw to the team car, and Ralf Aldag or Brian Holm would then tell the riders. He apparently saw a turn that looked tricky but was convinced the leadout train could take it without braking. Hincapie lead through, didn’t touch his brakes, and Cavendish won the stage. Did this make for safer racing? The first guys made it through and probably so did the entire field. But what if he had been wrong? Is it good for the riders to trust such judgements?
It’s situations like these when I’m glad I’m not a pro bike racer. But it also makes me wonder how safe conditions are for all bike racing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International