Sunday, October 21, 2012

Strong arms, yes, but feet of clay [updated]

I have a favorite picture from the 2003 Tour de France.  It shows Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Joseba Beloki, Ivan Basso, and a couple of other riders struggling through the last few hundred meters of the climb to L'Alpe d'Huez.   I took this picture, sharing a bit of the roadside with a few hundred thousand cycling fans from a babel of countries.  It was a hugely memorable scene.  At the time, I was a fan of pro cycling, with a subscription to VeloNews and up to date on who was on what team and how they were doing.  I was not the huge Lance Armstrong fan that others in our party were, but the reasons had more to do with attitude than anything else.  I wasn't a huge fan of any individuals, really--maybe Laurent Jalabert for his very French attaque a outrance attitude, or Johann Museeuw for is lowland toughness.  What I really cared about was the racing.  As I sweated through a ride over the Col de Colombiere or Old La Honda, I could imagine being one of those guys.  I can't deny that I was pretty excited to see those guys in person.

I was also pretty aware that there was a lot of ethical questions churning up the hill along with those riders. This was years after the Festina Affair, and every year more riders got caught doping.  I remember being kind of upset that Virenque was there, spoiling my view of the other riders--wearing yellow no less!--and wondering how many of the others with him were similarly tainted.

Well, we now know that the answer is pretty much all of them.  They all had a variety of public images: the loyal domestique, the hard man, the hyper-focused time trialer, the playboy with lots of talent but no focus, the redeemed doper, the frustrated always-a-bridesmaid, and so on (and if you followed the sport then, you could probably identify each of those characters with a name).  But now, alas, they all share the same public image, Doper.

I stopped following cycle racing within a few years of this photo.  The stink of dope got too strong,
and I also realized that riding a bike was a better use of my scarce time than watching others ride. 

I can't say that I am mad at any of the individuals in that photo, or any of the other riders on the mountain.  As I mentioned, I didn't have much personal investment in any of them, and dope or no, they were all stupendously gifted and dedicated athletes.  However, I am mad at the sport.  It's not in the least an exaggeration to charge the sport with the murder of some of its best and brightest--some who got caught and fell into a suicidal vortex of drugs and shame (Il Pirata, VdB), and others who didn't get caught but whose hearts stopped when EPO thickened their blood into ketchup.  I wonder if everybody came clean back in 1999, would these guys still be alive?  Would I still give a rip about who won Milan-San Remo?

Never mind.  The fall of Armstrong won't bring those guys back to life, and I doubt I'll return to caring about pro racing.  I'm told it has cleaned itself up, but I've heard that before.

There is one thing that the sport of pro cycling hasn't taken from me with this photo.  The Real Doctor and I rode our bikes up to where this photo was taken.  Riding a bike--even up a grueling climb like L'Alpe, and especially up L'Alpe while being mobbed by epically drunk Dutchmen--will always be fun.

[update, 22 October 12--I read that the organizers of Le Tour have stripped Armstrong of his titles, and rather than bump everybody up a place--since the peleton was doped da capo al fine--there will be no winner of Le Tour from 1999 to 2005.  This is completely appropriate.]

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