Sunday, June 15, 2008
The PRO Life
Suffering is the glamorous part of being a PRO. The visage of a PRO is never more dramatic or memorable than when juxtaposed against his immaculate PRO kit and state-of-the-art carbon machine with complementarily colored saddle, pristine white tape and gleaming chain. With his face twisted in a sweat dripping, snot slathered, lactic grimace, he is the epitome of effort.
We acknowledge the training the PROs do to reach their fitness, but rarely do we speak of the sacrifices they make beyond the restrictive diet. Sure, we know they can’t eat donuts and drink beer with every meal, but pedaling a bicycle at 40 mph to win in front of thousands and in front of television cameras that will broadcast your exploits into tens of millions of homes around the world requires sacrifices most of us are unwilling to make.
After all, the training is only part of the equation. Rest is equally important; under a 30-hour-per-week workload, PROs nap daily and sleep hours of which we can only dream. The routines of a PRO are simple, monastic: Eat, train, sleep. Repeat.
Strolling through shops in the afternoon: not PRO. Hiking in the woods with the girlfriend: not PRO. Driking margaritas on the beach at sunset: not PRO. Dancing at discos at midnight: not PRO. Taking recreational drugs: not PRO.
These are the basic, the elemental refusals a PRO must make his peace with if he wishes to reach the top. It is not so different from getting married: marriage means not playing the field, not if you wish to do marriage well.
What the riders want is not at issue. The crisis the sport faces is one of perception. The specter of performance enhancing drugs makes the athlete look like a cheat and cheating is unacceptable to the vast majority of fans and sponsors. Cheating is uncovered often enough that it is unpalatable to most sponsors.
If, indeed, all that was at stake was bicycle riding, no one would care. Pedro Delgado, Frank Vandenbroucke and Bjarne Riis would all have stayed at home were that the case. But this isn’t just bicycle riding; that’s what we, the television audience do. While we may race, for whatever reason we chose not to pursue the PRO life and its many sacrifices.
No, Delgado, Vandenbroucke, Riis, etc. were in pursuit of the age-old draw: fame and fortune. It may be that cheating doesn’t upset everyone, but most folks like to know that an athlete’s glory was achieved without outside assistance.
It is true that big money sponsorship has brought increased scrutiny to cycling. But no one has complained about the increased television exposure and salaries that came with those sponsorships. Were cycling still the sport of peasants sponsored 100 francs at a time, few would care. However, multinational corporations have an image (whether accurate or honed by the PR machine) they wish to protect. A company like Nike has enough problems with accusations of slave-wage labor not to want to battle the added image problem brought on by the scandal of a doped-up athlete.
Back when dope was an individual affair, which is to say, before science and organization entered the picture, stimulants and analgesics were the name of the game. “Pot Belge” has usually been described as a mixture of amphetamines, cocaine, heroine and caffeine. Recreational drugs, all. There’s been some speculation about just how much Pot Belge can help one’s performance, but whether it really helps or not, isn’t the point. The riders believed it helped and that’s enough to cast it in the dark light of performance enhancing.
With the advent of the biological passport and longitudinal testing as tools to verify that riders who race (that is, all riders, not just the ones who win) are clean, there are no vacations from the PRO life. That’s the deal.
There’s an implicit understanding when you get married: no hookers, no ex-girlfriends (or boyfriends). The same thing goes for cycling: no drugs. It’s a simple formula, really. The audience and the sponsors don’t want to ask questions about the nature of the win. If you have to ask which drugs, you don’t quite get the picture.
Longitudinal testing is intended to show that riders know the difference, that they understand the definition of cheating from the fans’ view. With fans and sponsors leaving the sport, there are no small infractions. There are no acceptable drugs. If drug testing profiles the substance, chances are it shouldn’t be in you, not if you want to be a PRO.
How Tom Boonen might be penalized for his transgression is pretty unimportant. He’s not going to the Tour de France. The green jersey will not be at the Tour de France. That’s a big deal. Would a two-year suspension teach him something more than missing the Tour de France? It seems unlikely.
Boonen needs to get a clue. Every time one rider tests positive, the whole of the peloton is cast in suspicion. It may not be fair, and the dedicated fan might be able to see through it, but big-dollar sponsorships and television coverage demand that price be paid.
Morality is not the subject here. We sit not in judgement. If you need to party like Lindsay Lohan, that’s for you to decide, but because a PRO’s body can be tested 24/7/365, a PRO is on duty for the duration. Those are the stakes of the game. Play it well and adulation and riches will be yours. Play it poorly and embarrassment will be thy middle name.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International