|Photo by ELIZABETH KREUTZ for The Telegraph|
For years, I watched professional cycling when I had the chance, bought team jerseys and proudly wore them when I rode my road bike on the hot rural roads of Georgia. I even flirted briefly in the mid 90s with mountain bike racing and later, when I went back to college to work on a second degree, I idly considered joining the collegiate cycling team, even going so far as to regularly accompany them on training rides. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s and on into the early 2000s, I saw professional cycling as the only major sport that I could follow. You see, I was raised in an environment where my father derided professional sports and where intellectual and creative pursuits were rewarded. This isn't to say my brother and I were denied the opportunity to participate in sports though. My brother played several seasons of soccer in his early teens, and I played exactly one season myself. That one season was enough to know that I'd never be an athlete, especially participating in a team "ball" sport.
So, growing up with an inherent disdain for all sports and an awkwardness that led me to continually be "the last one picked" for sports teams in gym class all through primary school, cycling was something different. I could hop on a bike and pedal fast. I could don the kit and look the part of a professional cyclist even if I wasn't. Even in those brief months where I rode a few times with the collegiate team, I was encouraged to join because they felt I was a strong rider and could contribute something to the team as a whole. I really felt as if I had a connection to the top riders in the sport. They were true competitors, I was but a pretender. However, I could ride up a steep grade, hammering on the pedals, dripping with sweat in the 90 degree heat, and thus I could feel the same sensations as those vaunted competitors.
Cruising down steep inclines, top gear maxed out, we would tuck into our "Superman poses" ala Lance Armstrong. We'd have sprints for the mile markers, and the rider who crossed the imaginary line first would sit up in the saddle, arms outstretched in the same victory pose that the pros would have when they gloriously finished a stage of Le Tour. Cycling gave us a connection to the pros in a way that no-one playing baseball or football in their backyard could have. Let's face it, most other sports fans simply participate by watching, while most cycling fans participate by watching and doing. For years, I watched races when I had the chance, read about them when I didn't have access to a television, and otherwise tried to follow the pro cycling scene.
Then the doping scandals began. Richard Virenque, of the Festina team and multiple winner of Le Tour's KOM (King Of the Mountain), jersey was one of the first to fall. Both my brother and I saw Virenque as an inspiration. Stolidly climbing mountains took amazing amounts of endurance, and in hilly roads of northwestern Georgia, it's something we could sympathize with and emulate ourselves. Later, it seemed like every time I began to appreciate a cyclist for their prowess, they'd eventually fall to doping allegations. There was Marco Pantani, aka Il Pirata as he was known because of his flamboyant gold earring and his "dew rag" head coverings. Pantani, an amazing climber was caught doping, and later was in and out of the sport. Finally, battling depression he died from a cocaine overdose. Then there was Telekom phenom Jan Ulrich. Ulrich, the gigantic young German seemed to be one of those cyclists would could excel at almost all aspects of the sport. During "the Lance years" Ulrich was one of the few cyclists who seemed able to challenge Armstrong. And yet Ulrich's time would come and he too was caught doping. All the while in those later years Lance Armstrong climbed to prominence.
As his wins were racked up, the criticism mounted. He continued to deny doping allegations, saying all the while, "I've never tested positive." In retrospect, it was as if he was taunting everyone. Refusing to come right out and say that he'd doped, but instead subtly saying he'd repeatedly beaten the doping tests. When it finally all came to a head a few years ago. I almost refused to believe it was true. How could some of the most amazing and inspirational Tour wins I'd ever seen have come fueled by doping? It became more and more obvious that Armstrong's seven year winning stretch was built on lies, intimidation, and doping. Supporters claimed that in a field full of doping what difference did it make? If the second and third place finishers were doping as well, what did it matter? Armstrong had simply been the strongest doping athlete amongst the top tier riders who were all doping as well.
For me, the subsequent scandals, Armstrong's final public admission of guilt, complete with crocodile tears, it all came to a head. For me the sport was forever ruined. Professional cycling had become tainted. Even following the blow up around the years of deceit and treachery, Armstrong's criminal empire of doping and intimidation, teams continued to test positive and bans continued to come down for riders caught doping. Today, the sport is still as broken as it ever was, with even the top leadership of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), being implicated in looking the other way when it knew that doping was occurring. Even vaunted champions from cycling's earlier years like Eddy Merckx we were reminded had tested positive at one time or another for doping of some form.
I began to view pro cycling as rotten to the core. I couldn't even bring myself to watch any races post-Armstrong, not wanting to root for someone only to find them being banned later on for testing positive for some form of performance-enhancing drug. Professional cycling had been ruined for me. This thing that I had loved and followed for years was spoiled. The many hours of sitting in front of the television watching the Tour, the Spring Classics, all spoiled. In a way I felt dirty for having watched and supported the riders. For cheering on Armstrong all of those years, when others like three-time Tour De France winner Greg LeMond cried out that he was cheating, I feel guilty. I championed him. I believed that what he did was purely because he was a supreme athlete, and I genuinely believed that he was riding clean.
These days, I don't follow any professional cycling of any sort. I've grown so disdainful of the sport, that even the local amateur cycling teams have earned my ire, simply because they choose to participate in and emulate the trappings of a broken, tainted sport. I see them pass me on my commutes to or from work, riding in a pace line, usually at a high rate of speed in an area where they can't do so safely (a topic for another posting perhaps), and I shake my head ruefully. They may not be doping, because who the hell would dope to win a local race where the winner takes home a few hundred bucks? What they embody though, as they carelessly whip around slower cyclists and pedestrians, is the same arrogance as Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong arrogantly thought he could build an empire on lies and deceit, and for years he did. Competition in and of itself requires a certain level of confident arrogance. It's that arrogance that I can no longer countenance. It took me years to see it, and this is what professional cycling has become. Winning at all costs. Whether it's pros doping and willing to risk their lives for a marginal edge against the competition, or amateurs out on their training rides, tooling along with blatant disregard for other trail users, it's all left a bad taste in my mouth that I don't know will ever wash away.