Tuesday 16 October 2012

Lance Fall-Out: Reflections on the Pro Cycling Doping Scandal

A teacher friend who started a cycling club for the kids at his previous school tells me that as a result of the Lance Armstrong/US Postal doping scandal, two parents have pulled their children from the club and my friend is not sure it will continue at all next year.

Have people no sense of proportion?  By letting their children join a high-school level club did these parents think they were launched into a pro racing career?   A cycling club, where children would learn to ride safely and efficiently in a group, train properly and enjoy athletic accomplishment with their peers has nothing to do with the cheating and corruption at million-dollar commercial teams.  When Linford Christie was suspended for doping were kids pulled out of track and field clubs by their parents?   Did Mark McGwire’s steroid revelations end Little League baseball?  No.  Are professional sports rampant with cheating and corruption?  Yes.  The danger is that people rationalize them as more than the mere entertainment and spectacle they are and when the truth is finally out fans feel used as their loyalty has brought fortunes to people who maybe never were deserving of their support.

Lance Armstrong’s return from cancer to extraordinary athletic success on the road was an heroic story, resistible only by cynics.  He was admirable for his professional approach to the sport, his dedication to training, his control of a powerful, unified team.   For jingoistic Americans he was the Texas outlaw beating the effete Euros at their own game over and over.  Less attractive aspects of his personality were not so visible to those wanting victory.  Sports fans who had ignored cycling forever were inspired now by it and not just in North America: while riding the recent Gran Fondo  associated with the World Championships in Limburg one was struck by how many of the 7,000 mainly-Dutch participants were riding Armstrong-era Treks.  Add in the highly-visible Lance Armstrong Foundation, the rock star connections and the millionaire lifestyle and here was a totally different kind of cyclist.  But eventually the truth will out, as Marion Jones (track) and Dwain Chambers (track) and Nina Kraft (triathlon) and Duncan Spencer (cricket!) and Detlef Hoffmann (canoeing!!) and so many others discovered when they were caught.  And now Lance Armstrong, to deafening howls of indignation.

I began watching pro cycling in the Indurain era and it has afforded me great pleasure over the years.  It was wonderful to stand in a square in Bonn  watching a big screen television and seeing Lance ride away from Jan on the Alpe d’Huez or to see Lance chase down the pure climbers on the Hautacam in the rain and pass them without looking back.  To stand on the Alpe myself as Frank Schleck tore off alone to the summit and stage win.  So many challenges addressed, so many memories made.  Even now I admire the attacking spirit of Alberto Contador at the Vuelta this year or think of Johan Museeuw at the velodrome in Roubaix, pointing to his knee.

People who knew of my interest in racing would say: “But they’re all doped” not because they cared about cycling but simply to deflate the bubble, to diminish the pleasure of watching the riders.  There was real effort-- sweaty, painful, eye-popping, screaming-muscle effort--here on the roads of Spain or France or Italy, even if chemically-enhanced.  Nobody ever won a three week long race by sitting on the couch and eating potato chips and taking a shot of EPO at the start line.  But is seems that an awful lot of cyclists were taking that shot.

The argument that they all did it is no argument.  They cheated wilfully and while entertainment was provided to the fans it was at the cost of authenticity as well as theft from those who did not cheat.  The cheaters should be punished or pardoned and the UCI needs to sort itself out and the sponsors need to rethink what the pro sport is to them.  Sports results are ephemera; they are really yesterday’s newspapers and will be recycled as the next race begins.  In truth, fans don’t actually live or die from the results of a sports match, whether soccer or cycling, although from all the indignation over the Armstrong case you would imagine they did.

Instead, I prefer to think of what cycling really means to me.  It has very little to do with being a wanna-be-Armstrong but takes me back to cool mornings riding with my friends, great friends I would never have met except through cycling.  Or cycling alone across Spain on the path of the pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago.  It is about training hard and enjoying the rewards of that effort spent.  It is about competing against myself on the 15 km time-trial course, aching for that 40 km/h average but not quite reaching it.  It is about fixing a flat tire effortlessly.  It is about planning and riding great roads through fantastic scenery, whether on the California coast, the Adirondacks, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Dolomites, the Vosges, the Black Forest.   It is that epic ride over the Blue Ridge and through the Fort Valley when you forgot to eat that you laugh about for years afterwards.   It is about pride of possession or admiration of beautiful purposeful machines, whether conceived by artisans working in steel or the product of the highest of high-tech.  It is the joy of speed downhill on smooth asphalt, the tires whirring.  These are the things that those kids in Nick’s cycling club will lose because their parents cannot differentiate between the important and the less important.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Well said, Leslie. Spot on with your dissection of pro-sport however I must disagree with your premise that high profile doping has no effect on the numbers at grass roots level. In track & field participation is indeed down in the wealthier nations, and plummeted, I'm told, post Ben Johnson, et al. Yes, doping/cheating is but one reason (access to a myriad of sports, games and pastimes; the rise of the home entertainment generation, terrified overprotective parents, etc.) however for many it may well be the polariser! Most people laugh, snigger and/or snort loudly with derision whenever I mention pro-cycling, none treat it with any seriousness. The ship was listing badly, Lance and his posse may well have blown a hole in the sports hull.