Friday, August 02, 2013

riding high

There was a time when this blog was losing readers by the handfuls.  The numbers still haven't recovered.  I wrote about cycling twice a day, telling stories of me on the bike and in front of the TV.  Cycling was big in my life.  I rode hard, I rode often, and I watched the epic battles fought in the professional circuit.  I picked heroes for inspiration, amazement and awe.

In 2007, in my memory anyway, I went to see the Tour at the Col de la Croix de Fer, raced the Maratona dles Dolomites, almost dying on the Giau in the process, and put my Cannondale away, missing the bin only for faintness of heart.  Then I moved to London, and nothing was as it had been.

There was no riding apart from the daily commute, no terrain that could tempt me away from the city.  And there was increasing evidence that doping was endemic in professional cycling and that there was no interest whatsoever to change that and clean things up.  I left the world of cycling.

While I was in London, the Tour started in Hyde Park, the Olympics road race passed through my borough, and a couple of Englishmen won successive Tours, creating a hype for the sport that's only topped by that around tennis.  (Some guy won a tournament he had failed to do so for years.)  I didn't notice any of this more than in passing.  I couldn't care less.

Also during my years in London, Lance Armstrong, seven-time dominator of the tour, finally confessed that his doping efforts were as world-class as his efforts in the saddle.  His confession made a splash that even I couldn't ignore but only served to increase my emotional distance.

Professional cycling has been rotten for a long time.  Everyone took drugs, at one point or another, and most probably did it with as much diligence as they followed their training regimens.  (Laurent Fignon says in his autobiography that "We didn't feel like we were cheating: each of us settled matters with his own conscience.  And in any case, everyone did it.")

I don't have much of an issue with doping itself.  Doping might make you a better racer, but it doesn't make cycling easy.  It's never the best doper who wins but the best racer (who dopes).  Lance won seven Tours because he was the hardest ass in the peloton.  I wouldn't have wanted to train with him for even a day.  I would have cried after ten minutes.  His name might have been purged from the palmares, but he will forever remain the best cyclist of his generation.

What I have an issue with is the hypocrisy, the false profession of surprise whenever things come to light that were supposed to remain secret forever, and the piecemeal admissions of guilt, only when it can't possibly be denied any longer.  Last week, a French Senate inquiry revealed the names of dozens of riders with fishy blood values, calling some confirmed doping offenders.  Erik Zabel's was one of them – six years after his tearful admission that he had tried blood doping once but it hadn't worked for him.

Like Lance, Erik was a great cyclist.  Doping didn't make it easy for him to win stages or suffer through the Alps.  You only have to watch Hell on Wheels to see that for yourself.  Eight years later – and knowing the outcome – it's still gripping entertainment.

But I'm having none of it because the duplicity of the whole business is just too much for me.  With cycling booming in the UK at the moment and RideLondon, a festival with 27000 participants, sucking in converts left and right (and clogging the entire city this weekend), I just wanted to remind myself of this – even at the risk of losing a few more readers.