Over the past few years the cycling community, primarily the professional cycling community, has come under fire for massive doping practices. Really, this is nothing new as cycling and almost all sport has had doping and/or cheating scandal nearly since their inception, based on reports and accounts. I think this is more a statement of unfortunate human nature more than anything else, that some people will do anything it takes to gain a perceived advantage on the competition. Clearly, that doesn't always scale, especially when one's livelihood not to mention large sums of money are involved.
However, cycling has chosen to take the high road and crucify those who are caught breaking the rules with performance enhancing drugs. At least, that is what they have been saying. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter has been then the governing bodies have long known of the practices and have been party to bribes and coverups in relation to those systematic programs.
There have been a number of movies and books as well as the federal investigations which chronicle in depth the horrors of the programs. The numerous first person accounts to the hard core gritty details of the actions of the cast of characters, athletes, management, sponsors and officials has left such a bitter and unpleasant taste. After each of the books I've read detailing the practices and the personalities, I have felt sullied, left dirty and wanting to wash my hands. I recognize and sympathize with the arguments that doping became an arms race and that it was pervasive and to a degree, was mandated. That doesn't make it right, doesn't make it better and doesn't make it less sad or disgusting.
What can we expect though, when money and jobs are on the line. When the sponsors are making money, the athletes are making money, the promoters are making money and as we have come to find out, the governing bodies are making money in a whole host of different, often inappropriate, ways. It is the nature of the beast and happens each and every day on Wall Street, in boardrooms, in politics and basically any other place where there is something to be gained. Again, unfortunate human nature.
Don't get me wrong, I love cycling and always will. I honestly live for it, even though it is just an avocation and I am simply an amateur athlete. I think that is part of the attraction though, that on the surface cycling much life many endurance sports, is so pure. It pits us against the competition but more importantly, us against ourselves.
So yesterday we finally got around to watching this year's version of the Paris-Rubaix race which we had on DVR. Part of the reason I watched it was because local American racer Ted King was in it and I'd met and spend time riding with Ted this past weekend at the Rasputitsa dirt road race in Newport, VT. I'd raced with Ted (and his brother Rob) once before and had spoken briefly with him a couple times in the past at CX races. More, he is good friends with a number of folks that I know well in the cycling community. They have always spoken highly of him and with great respect. From my limited first hand knowledge, Ted seems a witty, intelligent and humble man, not to mention a very gifted athlete with a stunning fashion sense when it comes to toques.
In watching the Paris-Roubaix race, I couldn't help but think back to the now exposed doping practices that many of those same racers had been party to. I also couldn't help but think that despite the cries of a cleaner sport, cries that we have all heard time and time again, I still wonder. That doubt or really, disbelief leaves me at odds. I love the sport and it is great to see the young local talent, kids like Ansel Dickey who we have literally watched grow up on the bike at the races and whom I also had a chance to ride with this weekend, sign professional contracts. Let me make it clear, I cast no doubt on these men what so ever. I'm torn simply that it feels more like war that they are sent off to rather than what should be simple, pure athletic competition at the top level.
I'm left hoping against hope that none of these young people are faced with the choice requiring them to have to do something illicit in order to continue their cycling careers. We owe it to them, and to those junior racers who are the next wave, to be able to compete without having to risk their health and well being by partaking in systematic program of illicit practices. We should be ashamed of ourselves for letting it go on as long as we have, treating these young athletes like animals that we tweak and modify via any means possible to gain advantage on the competition through which we gain personal or financial advantage ourselves.
It sickens me to read just how open the doping practices were and how spouses, families, sponsors, management and even doctors all knew and not only allowed it to continue but in many cases, facilitated it. The federal governing body, the UCI seems to be making some change hopefully for the better however, we here in the US still seem to cling to the same management that has clearly been a big part of the problem. Conflicts of interest should be taken into account when appointing or electing our leaders, shouldn't they?
Hopefully the changes really are in the works and the sport if becoming cleaner, safer for all. For us amateurs, it is just riding bikes, which is probably why we love it so. For the professionals it is also a job. It would be nice if it wasn't also a long term health risk. Just look at so many ex-professional athletes who were part of the doping programs of the 70's and 80's, who are now dropping dead. Do all the people who made money off of them, who encouraged them to use, who provided them with the where with all, the pushers, dealers and pimps (to call them what they are) really care or were the athletes just meal tickets, meat?
This is why I am left disenchanted with professional cycling and have had little or no interest in the international racing scene. If I'm saying this, as a life long cyclist, what are others saying? In America, I suppose it's is back to the norm, where the majority are oblivious. They are sold on fiction and fairy-tale.
I guess that I will start to believe when things really do start to change. When a race like the TdF has massive dropout rates, which would be expected of any other super-human feat or when a race like the 150 mile Paris-Roubaix isn't continually being completed faster and faster year over year (apples to oranges but this year was the slowest average since 2010) . I'll believe it when I see the data that suggests it. Then, we can truly stop believing in fairy-tales.