Thursday, August 2, 2007

Sleight of Hand

Things are pretty bad in the cycling world right now. Or are they? I am still not sure. What I am sure about is that all of my favorite riders from the 90s have either been implicated, convicted, or have confessed to using performance enhancing drugs. Should any of this come as a suprise? Not really. Cycling is either facing its inevitable demise or its finest hour.

The idea that a PRO can subject themselves to a three-week Grand Tour and expect to finish let alone win with only mineral water and a fig bar is the kind of story you tell your kids at bed time. The physical punishment these warriors endure is incomprehensible and there is no way a natural body can recover following the day-after-day abuse of a Grand Tour. Despite the overwhelming evidence of rampant drug abuse, I don't want to view cycling through a tainted lens of doping. That is to say, I know there is drug (ab)use and I've known there was ever since my interest in cycling began. I simply want to say, "not my kid". I guess I am in denial and this is the first step in recovery.

I stood in front of my cycling magazine collection today and 90% of the PRO cover faces are gone from the PRO world. BUSTED. See you in two years fellas - if at all.

In many ways, the PRO world is a suspension of disbelief. When I hear about the wattage a PRO produces or see them grit their teeth in the mountains, I wonder: how much of this performance is natural talent and how much of it is the 50,000 training KMs. And of course, how much of it is chemically-enhanced? The suspension of disbelief is much like a magic show.

Do I want to know how they saw the woman in half or how a magician can pour a pitcher of water into her hand and it disappears? No, I don't. And I don't think I would enjoy the magic act (or cycling for that matter) if they were simply doing things that I am perfectly capable of. Watch how Houdini packs his suitcase while blindfolded, see how I magically dip my frites in this mayo. That doesn't sound very entertaining. Baseball enjoyed a good run in early 2k when homeruns were commonplace at every game. Was that a result of steroid use? I must admit, it was cool to see highlights where balls rarely landed in the infield. Is the sport of cycling capable of retaining an audience and big dollar sponsors without the punishment of the grand tours and subsequent drug use?

What makes cycling so enthralling? The venues, the superhuman performances, or the suffering the riders endure? I see very little TV time dedicated to a Belgian Kermesse. Without a superhuman difference between athlete and spectator the allure begins to fade. And since the dawn of cycling, a superhuman difference required some type of enhancement.

So, what is to come? Where are we going and how much damage has cycling sustained? Is it repairable? And before we ask if it is repairable, maybe we should ask "can the sport return as its former self without performance enhancing drugs?"

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

it's sleight of hand

Fxdwhl said...

Not that I'm that well versed in racing but I'd imagine that the scale of the tours would have to be cut back in order for 'clean' riders to be able to finish them. Either that or longer finish times and a higher dropout rate.

I'm sure their physical prowess alone would still be able to woo spectators and make us feel weak even without anything extra coursing through their veins.

No more smoke and mirrors, just muscle.

Radio Freddy said...

Anon - Oops. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I was listening to "Nobody's Fault But Mine" (Led Zeppelin) with some headphones last night, and I was thinking to myself...what if Jimmy Page hadn't used performance enhancing drugs? And then I remembered the SNL skit about the "All Steroid Olympics", and the guy doing dead lifts and pulling his arms off. I laughed at that memory.

That said...I voted for Mr. Schwarzenegger twice, but mostly because his wife is attractive...how So.Cal of me...

Chet B. (Los Angeles, CA)

Bicimechanic said...

Bravo! Well said. THis pretty much sums up my feelings as well. Let them race! Funny I was downstairs yesterday flippimg through my CycleSports, ProCycling and other magazines from the last 15 years and wondering the same thing....

Radio Freddy said...

bicimechanic - I guess I am not the only one who stashes 10 years worth of old cycling mags. It is incredible that 90% of the PROs featured are gone. Imagine if the political world were the same or the celebs that everyone loves so. It is big news when one endeared public figure falls. This post is not to say "let em dope" but rather it is tough to blame just the PROs and the European PRO cycling that every fan knows and loves has a rich history of cheating.

gewilli said...

a clean tour would see MORE riders finishing. Fewer people out of the time limit. Closer racing (no doped to the gils climber dude taking off and getting 20 minutes in one fell swoop), more exciting finishes.

More stages become make or break. Seconds DO count, no more riders just waiting till their EPO, HGH, Autologously boosted bodies are ready to kill it on the mountains and shell everyone who doesn't have ketchup in their veins...

Super human efforts would still be there.

That is the nature of the peak of all sports.

Bonds would have busted Hank's record, but it might have taken an extra year or two, juiced or unjuiced.

The peak is still the peak. There are individuals who are better than others. Racing clean means unlevels the playing field a bit.

Racing clean means the TTs will be won by the TT dudes and the climbs will be won by the climbers.

our sport ain't going down...

revel in the fact that is, even in the "darkest" hour, still probably one of the cleanest out there.

Brooke Hoyer said...

I agree with gewilli. Riders can finish grand tours without dope. Shoot, some regular punters rode all the stages the day before the pros this year. They weren't racing but neither were they tucked into a peloton with doms taking care of them.

I'll also respectfully disagree with your magic analogy. It requires talent, dedication, and suffering to make it into the pro ranks. While I toil along with a 9 to 5, wife and 2 kids, I can still relate to their accomplishments when I head out on the local roads and do some hill repeats or when I'm grinding though slop in a downpour when it's 45 degrees. I want to know what they feel. I want to know how they do it.

When PEDs are added to the equation, I have a harder time relating. Take drugs? That's like cutting the course. Everybody does it? Screw that logic. What if everybody except maybe two guys cut the course? Would it be okay then?

I don't want to erase the heroic accomplishments of the past 20 or so years of blood doping. There are plenty of gutsy efforts that happened on a level (doped) playing field. Neither do I claim that doping is a rider problem -- it's systemic.

However, I don't think an apologist attitude is going to help cycling. Zero tolerance is the only way.

As a postscript ... have you been following the US juniors racing in Europe this summer? There are a couple local guys over there and K-man (http://www.veloreview.com/obra3/) has been writing some updates on his blog. They are killing! In their last race, they swept the top four spots. They are animating the races. Then in 4-5 years when they head over as espoires, they'll get their asses handed to them since the Euros will have started doping programs by them. Is that any message to send to a kid?

Anonymous said...

where can one purchase the frites & mayo in canada Freddy? . is this really an aquired taste?

Radio Freddy said...

This post was tough to write, mainly because I am still struggling with how I feel about the current situation in the PRO peloton. In essence, the proof is out there, that the wins of my favorite PROs over the years are stained with suspicion and I am saddened when I think of all the emotion and love I have invested. In no way do I minimize the efforts of the PROs, doped or not. Kilometer after kilometer, sacrifice after sacrifice, travel, rain, injury, crashes, being away from family, shitty hotels, bad coffee..these all add up to make for a hard life. gewilli is right on, the playing field would level out and the Tour would be a closer competition. Just look at this year, although doping crept in, the race was closer and the action was non-stop. Funny to imagine that the real battles happened just below the skim of doping, which rested on the surface of cycling. Imagine the effort waged by a non-doped rider to finish in the top 10 or top 20 of a Spring Classic. As brooke hoyer said, doping is like cutting the course. The feeling I struggle with is to think that in '96 Riis cut the course. I feel cheated. Zabel cheated, Jan cheated Basso, Hamilton, Heras, Museeuw, Vandenbroucke, Millar, Landis. A who's who of cycling. I tried to capture the sentiment in my closing that the real racing takes place in local venues, the criteriums, road races that are raced by hardmen and hardwomen who in addition to riding are driving, cooking, washing, massaging, wrenching, all while sleeping on someone's floor. That is hardcore. But there is less interest from the masses. Just look at the Tour of Georgia's struggles. We need to take a moment and look at cycling and ponder the thought that many of cycling's heros were also dopers. And because of this, cycling is not what it used to be.

Much rambling because I still don't have a clue where I stand. - RF

Anonymous said...

I agree with RF...It's a double-edged sword... On one hand, we want cycling to be a viable way-of-life for the PRO's, and this takes endorsement money, and thus advertising, etc...but on the other hand we want it to be competition in it's purest form...the best-of-the-best pitted against each other. If we expect extraordinary achievement from our "heroes", and their professional careers DEPEND on their ability to compete, or dominate, than the motivation to cheat is tremendous...their livelyhood depends on it.

If there's no money in it, than no one will be willing to do it at that level, at least they won't anymore.

The stakes are much higher, and thus the drama more interesting to watch.

talk about rambling...



Chet B. (Los Angeles, CA)

Silas said...

These guys don't need any dope to finish a GT. They were doing 4500+ KM in the Tour 50+ years ago. It was just slower...

Your heroes aren't dead, they just aren't heroes anymore. If everyone is cutting the course, does looking for an even better route make you a bad person? No, just another cheater...

Mike Starr said...

Silas got it right. Dope is not needed. The Tour will just be slower some days and we just have to bear the days they decide to do 35kph for 7 hours after a few hard efforts the days previous. Television and EPO made us think these guys were something they weren't. I need my kids to grow up through sport without "having" to take things to keep up.

Radio Freddy said...

http://www.velonews.com/news/fea/10633.0.html

Jimbo said...

Love your stuff Freddy. You are the Jedi Knight of cycling bloggers... I agree that cheating sucks but for cycling, there was no "time before PED's". The sport has never been pure. These guys have been doping, in one way or another, since the sport began. Early on it was about numbing the pain, but after WWII they started to use amphetamines and in the 70's and 80's they started blood packing, using EPO, steroids, and who knows what else. Now they are talking about gene doping which has the potential to increase the number of mitochondria in your muscle cells and impact all manner of other cellular functions that would enhance performance. Crazy. I imagine they don't all do it, probably a lower percentage now than back in the days when speed wasn't against the rules, and it would be nice if the sport got clean but it never will. They will never be able to catch all the cheaters with 100% certainty and as long as there are guys willing to ride 50K miles a year and suffer, suffer, suffer just to win a bike race, someone will go the extra mile and dope. Cycling will never be clean until the riders decide that they are not willing to do anything to win. That day is hard for me to imagine. Cheaters or not, I still love to watch them suffer and I am not going to stop watching. I don't suspend disbelief, I just watch knowing that it ain't all what it appears.

Anonymous said...

Doping is universal today. Even in porno, they are all on Viagra.

Nothing is sacred, indeed.