A cycling fan’s descent into cynicism
Lance Armstrong has both energised and tarnished US Cycling - can it continue to grow? (AP Photo/Franck Prevel, File)
I must confess something. 95% of the reason why I decided to start cycling was because of Lance Armstrong. As a 16-year-old schoolboy rower, I was introduced to Lance’s story by my rowing coach.
He used his story and his various quotes as inspiration for us.
I soon became a huge fan and came to love the sport of cycling. I loved the heroes, names like: Armstrong, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain, Cancellara, Hushovd, McEwen.
I loved the villains: Pantani, Ullrich, Basso, Vinokourov. I shunned those who thought all cyclists were dopers, thinking they were bitter or had tall poppy syndrome.
But as I grew older, I read more about the history of cycling. Cheating has long been ingrained in the culture of the sport. From its infancy, the Tour de France has been riddled with it.
It began with riders jumping on trains between checkpoints in the towns and villages along the stage routes. They also threw tacks on the road to puncture their rivals’ tyres. While this doesn’t sound so bad now, back in the early twentieth century, it was a nightmare.
Eventually, riders cottoned on to the fact that if you rode half-cut on whisky, it numbed the pain sufficiently to give you a competitive advantage. Eventually, half the peloton began riding drunk.
Shortly thereafter, the craze was methamphetamine. Of course, all British cycling fans will be able to tell you how this turned out. Tom Simpson collapsed and died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux on July 13, 1967 from a mixture of dehydration and methamphetamine overdose.
Steroids took over and combined with meth and, later, cortisone, dominated for many years. Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist ever, was even caught and banned for taking anabolics.
In the 1990s, erythropoietin (EPO) and blood doping became vogue, propelling riders to even great levels of performance. The average speeds of races took off.
For the cycling fan who’d just had his eyes opened, I refused to accept it. How could Lance be a cheat? Or anyone who hadn’t been caught?
Surely the testers weren’t that useless or had their hands tied behind the back so completely that it was nearly impossible to catch smartly-managed riders?
So I came up with another well-established excuse: well, if everyone else was doing it, it doesn’t really matter right? Level playing field, blah, blah, blah.
For a while, I convinced myself that this was okay. I disregarded the ethicality of cheating, almost legalising it in my head. Again, I dismissed those who saw it as wrong. How could they just focus on Lance? He wasn’t the only bad egg.
But in light of the federal investigation earlier in the year and the USADA’s doping investigation, my confidence in Lance was crumbling.
And as it crumbled, so did my confidence in the athletes. How could they have pathologically lied for so long? Not just Lance but Hamilton, Landis, Basso, Ricco. The list goes on.
It was untimely that Bradley Wiggins was having the season of his life, appearing near unbeatable for much of it. I couldn’t accept it as clean.
It was not helped by the fact that I’m an Aussie and I dislike the Brits beating us in any sporting event. Neither him nor Froome’s performance seemed logical. How could they now climb with some of the best in world cycling in Evans and Nibali?
Eventually, I read Tyler Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race. Then I read Jeremy Whittle’s book, Bad Blood. And finally, David Millar’s Racing Through The Dark. And the walls I’d built up to protect me from the filthy truth came crashing down. My cynicism was complete.
Now, all I can ask is: are any of them clean?
That’s not a fair question to ask. It’s not fair for the riders who are clean. In all likelihood, Wiggins is clean. He joined Garmin-Sharp back when it was Slipstream-Chipotle and embraced their doping controls and ethics, an ethos which I believe can lead the peloton into a new era.
Cadel Evans too has been lauded for his anti-doping activism and moral stance on the matter. I know its not saying much but ex-doper Tyler Hamilton has championed Evans as a beacon of hope for cycling. I also think that not everyone on US Postal was doping.
There are always going to be guys who will resist, as David Moncoutie did at Cofidis for years, according to ex-teammate Millar.
It’s also not fair on me. How can I ask this of the sport I love? It pains me so much to think that I will never view the sport in the same way again. I was there, watching Cadel win the Tour in 2011, standing on the Place de la Concorde singing the national anthem, and have never felt more proud to be an Aussie.
It was a tremendous moment. But the events of the past six months have put a sour taste in my mouth. I can no longer trust the athletes I once held in such high esteem.
Moreover, as everyone says that cycling has moved on, that it has changed for the good, that cycling is no longer controlled by doping, I cannot accept that there has been any real progress at all. Many of the old guard of the late 90s and early 00s are still involved in one way or another.
Matt White is a perfect example, so too are Neil Stephens , Jens Voigt, Alexandre Vinokourov, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Pat McQuaid and…well, how long do you want the list to be?
If the UCI appeals USADA’s case to the CAS, despite the more-than-overwhelming amount of evidence that Armstrong was part of a systematic doping culture, it will be the final straw. It will be the nail in professional cycling’s corrupt coffin. And that is not fair on the current batch of cyclists who have made it their livelihood and dream to win the world’s biggest races.
I really hope that we see resolution, that we see those who have done their best to ruin the sport in the past confess their mistakes, learn from them, help the sport rehabilitate its image and move on.
But, what frightens me most is that the Armstrong case may be just the beginning. Then I, along with the rest of the cycling fans around the world, will be left wondering how deep the rabbit hole goes.
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