This seems to be the week of doping news. First, Armstrong’s investigation is dropped. Then Contador’s case is overturned and the rider is suspended and stripped of wins he accrued while apparently riding clean. Moments ago it was announced that Jeannie Longo Ciprelli’s home was the subject of a doping raid. And what will tomorrow bring? Well, the proverbial other shoe will finally drop in the Jan Ullrich case. Ullrich? Remember him?
Whether you believe Lance Armstrong raced on bread and water or was as supercharged as a Corvette, the case wound to a close with nothing like a conclusion. What we’re faced with is a succession of doping scandals with finishes that can’t be called resolutions. No matter whose side you’re on in any of these cases, you’re probably not happy with the outcome.
In any discussion of doping and cycling the conversation seems to take an inevitable turn. “What if there were no rules against doping?” It’s impossible to discuss the toping without something electing to remove the moral implications of cheating and just asking the obvious question of what the ramifications might be if we simply allowed professional cyclists to take oxygen-vector drugs, anabolic agents, amphetamines, pain killers and—holy cow—even cortisone.
It’s the ultimate parallel universe fantasy for cyclists. No ethical dilemmas. No charges of morally repugnant cheating, just a scenario in which the absolute fastest guy is the winner.
Allow me a brief digression if you will. While I consider myself an athlete and someone interested in many forms of physical fitness, body building has always creeped me out in the same way that shows on surgery do. I’m fascinated at some visceral level, but before I can examine anything truly interesting I get so grossed out I have to flip the channel.
Some years ago I found myself in the curious circumstance of dating someone who worked for a bodybuilder in his 60s. Yes, you read that right. Body builder. Sixties. He could have bench pressed me for an hour, maybe two. He, and his numerous friends, were “naturals.” No, don’t think hippy commune; he and his friends used no anabolic agents. And the funny thing was that they didn’t need testing to tell the difference. It was readily apparent in the physiques of competitors. The “naturals” didn’t have the crazily herniated muscles that seemed to bulge to the point of an unprotected astronaut’s head in outer space. Pop!
Here’s what surprised me, I found the physiques of the naturals interesting to behold. They had arguably done the same amount of work to get to the competition and for the guys in the open categories, you’d see someone rather Incredible Hulk looking alongside a guy who wouldn’t frighten children. It was a juxtaposition on the order of eagle and pterodactyl. Yep, both birds, but….
I could identify with the naturals at some elemental level. I suspect looking at the juiced up guys had the same effect on me that looking at kiddie porn would. It just felt wrong, not something I wanted to continue to gaze at.
Okay, with that out of the way, let me pose a scenario: Suppose that two different Tours de France were run in 2013. Let’s imagine that WADA folds and Pat McQuaid throws in the towel and allows the rise of a top-fuel category. On July 1 there are two different pelotons ready to roll. Both have adequate TV coverage ensured for the three weeks of the race.
And let’s pose yet another hypothetical: Suppose for an instant that you had time enough in your day to watch as much of both different races as you wanted. Say four hours or more.
Would you really watch all of both races? Or would you favor one over the other?
I know what I would watch.
Sure, I’d tune in to the top-fuel race. But I’d do it for the prologue, a couple of sprints and then the odd mountain stage. At a certain level it would be kind of like watching top-fuel dragsters. It’s cool at first, but after a while that straight track gets boring. I find grand prix and touring car racing much more interesting. And World Rally Championship? Whoo-ee! Put real-world challenges in a race and that has a big effect on my interest level.
So, I’d be glued to the natural race. I can identify with those guys. They are me with more talent and discipline. I understand the choices they’ve made. The guys in the natural race have a similar, if not the same, moral compass I do. That matters to me.
You see, I don’t think you can ever completely repeal the taint of doping. There will always be a threshold you’ll have to voluntarily cross. Some of those willing to cross it never saw it in the first place. To some, cheating is a semantic point, a distinction of no great import. Racing, after all, is about winning and losing. Right?
Let’s try this a different way: I couldn’t ride with a guy who was a bike thief. Similarly, someone who will do anything possible to be as fast as possible isn’t someone I understand. That inability to see how respecting a social contract is an important part of how a community derives strength by creating bonds between people means that he and I simply won’t connect. If that part of the social contract is meaningless, then what about the other bits? Is my car safe? Is he going to try to seduce my wife? Where does it end?
So those guys in the top-fuel division? I’ll never really understand that thinking and as a result, I’ll never really understand those riders. But understanding them isn’t even really the issue.
Drug testing, after all, was a response to a PR nightmare that makes the current flaps over Armstrong and Contador seem like spelling bee cheating. The major events that have led to overhauls in drug testing were deaths. No scandal is worse for the sport than a death. One need look back no further than the 2011 death of Wouter Weylandt at the Giro; there wasn’t a news outlet that didn’t cover the tragedy that day. Instantly, our non-cycling friends asked us why we participated in such a dangerous sport.
And that’s the rub. Any time an athlete dies—no matter the cause—sport is scrutinized. This isn’t specific to cycling. In a world where all doping is okay, rider deaths would surely increase. Given the blind eye and lip service Hein Verbruggen paid to the heart-attack deaths of Dutch cyclists in the early 1990s due to EPO, it’s unlikely the UCI would feel any great motivation to address the issue. That leaves the audience, teams and sponsors to deal with the fallout.
When you consider the devastation that a rider’s death plows in his family, his team and through the company personnel at each of his team’s sponsors, it wouldn’t take long before family, fans and sponsors would begin to cry out for an end to the deaths. But as we know from the studies performed by researcher Bob Goldman, more than 50 percent of Olympic athletes have said they would take a drug that would ensure they would win a gold medal—even if it was guaranteed to kill them within five years of taking it.
While we don’t know if you can transpose those results 100 percent to the pro peloton, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that if that drug was available something like half of our living Tour de France champions would be dead today.
Hannah Arendt wrote, “No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes.” And if death is not a punishment, then nothing is. We can’t depend on the athletes to choose sanity, so we must do it for them.
If my entry to the hereafter were arranged today, against my will, my wife and son would be against the wall. I’m simply not worth enough, dead or alive, to ensure them an easy future.
Each time I try to picture Wouter Weylandt’s wife and the pain she must be experiencing, I’m immediately derailed by thoughts of my own family. I try to picture my bereaved wife bringing our son into the world without me. The loss is so monumental it’s like trying to picture the distance between stars; his widow’s loneliness is no less great. Not a day has passed that I haven’t cried over our loss and her pain.
It’s nice to know that our community has turned out for him and that people are donating to a fund. The cycling world is a big community, but not that big. There’s simply no way to donate too much. I’ve added what I can and hope you will too.
I have gambled with things that were not wholly my own to lose. Certainly when I was younger and invincible I would fly into city intersections with little concern for the color of the lights guarding them. I would improvise, mainly without incident, but sometimes with great honking of horns and brandishing of fingers and the pure, dumb luck of the young. I could have died any time the way I was behaving, and I was unconcerned. No. Worse. I was defiant. Proud.
I was the very worst sort of cyclist. I cringe to think back.
Wouter Weylandt died today on Stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia. He crashed hard on a Category 3 descent, and never got up. I didn’t know him, was only vaguely aware of who he was and what he’d done in our sport. I learned of his death on the Cyclingnews live feed of the race and confirmed it on Twitter. Tragedy is the easy but obvious word to describe Weylandt’s death.
How we connect to them says a lot about our human condition. I didn’t know Wouter Weylandt but he’s a cyclist like I am a cyclist. He was an expectant father, as I have been. Our human nature seeks these similarities, makes the connections in some sort of empathetic short hand, looks to divine the meaning and the signs, so that what happens to others does or doesn’t happen to us. Empathy comes with implications for us and the way we go on.
When I was younger I didn’t understand the ways people connect to one another. I was always contemptuous of spirituality and other nebulous propositions about things unseen. But, fortunately I matured. We do, in fact, connect to the people around us, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in ways more obscure. Those connections, intangible as they seem, clearly exist. They are spiritual. That is what spirituality is, in my mind.
I’m afraid to ride home now.
My riding is an order of magnitude more conservative than it was twenty years ago. I don’t take nearly as many risks, but I still take them. Coming across town in the morning, I have jumped in front of buses and sprinted for the lane. I have run lights that were beyond yellow. I have put myself between a truck and a hard place. Why?
Professional cyclists don’t die on the road with nearly the frequency of race car drivers or top-level rock climbers. It’s a dangerous job, but racers don’t expect to die. Commuters don’t either.
On a day like today I recognize the gamble that crossing a busy city on a bicycle represents, and further, I recognize that what I am gambling with isn’t solely mine to bet. It belongs to my wife and my kids and my parents and my friends too. I am connected.
I wonder if Wouter Weylandt knew how connected he was. I hope so. I will ride home better tonight for his passing. It’s all the tribute I can make.
So it comes to this. Competition is the domain of life, an expression of all that is vital, a chance to tell the world who we are in the most visceral of ways. We know the elements required—muscle, heart, brain and bone. And yet, they are each a statement of how fragile life is.
We know the risks of racing a bicycle, of riding, itself. To reject it for its risks would be to deny ourselves the opportunity engage the world, to reject joy itself. In accepting the dangers, we concede that this world is finite, that a life lived—no matter how fully—still ends.
But not like this. Not on TV. Not so young. Not so full of promise. Not with a pregnant wife and new roles to fulfill and new love to feel.
That’s the great irony to be found in death. In a life full of choices, sometimes we can’t choose how or when we go. Not like this. Not yet.