Tuesday, October 16, 2012

USADA Report: Now That You Know, Which Knee Warmers Will You Wear?

It was called “Clarity.”  As they adjusted the plastic mask over my face, I recall it having a hint of lemon lime.  It was what I ordered from the bar at the “O2 Lounge,” 9600 feet above sea level on Main Street in Breckenridge.  For lack of a better term, the barista at the oxygen bar turned on the flow and my wife and I sat back in hopes of relieving our pounding headaches on day two of our cycling vacation.  It worked.  If only for a few hours the headache subsided and my labored breathing eased climbing the trail.

While widely accepted, and being no hard and fast rules or sanctions against it, mountaineers are divided on the subject of using supplemental oxygen in their summit bids.  It’s also widely accepted that I’m no mountaineer.  Still I wonder, had I cheated in a way?  Absolutely not.  I was not trying to set a speed record on the local 14’er Quandary Peak, but simply trying to ease a day on the bike path to Frisco and a hike up to the Colorado Trail.  There are no rules in recreational cycling and hiking.  In more or less terms, nobody gives a hoot.  However in pro cycling we do, give hoots that is. 

Now with temps in the low 50’s and falling, I pulled on my knee warmers.  Blue, warm and sag-free, I love them.  Days earlier, I read Hincapie’s admission on his website, as well those of the others who cheated.  Like watching the slow helmet motion footage of a Red Bull Rampage rider casing an 80-footer, I followed the live blog of the USADA release at the WSJ website.  Even though we could all see this coming like semi-truck headlights in the fog, my stomach sank.  I began to feel played for a fool.  While there are a dozen companies that make blue, non-saggy, toasty knee warmers, I chose to buy Hincapie.  A few days ago, like many personal decisions we’ll make down the road based on our scruples, I chose to take them off.

Errmahgerd George!
The Hincapie I knew made those knee warmers as cool as the consummate right hand man I cheered for on TV and sought out for a photo when I vacationed at the Tour of California, the perfect teammate, always up there toughing it out in mud, in rain, and on the steeps.  I identified with that.  While I can count my personal solo wins of my 14 years of amateur racing on the fingers of one hand, I’ve always tried to encourage my teammates, give them the perfect lead-out, help with a draft, and lend equipment or advice.  I’m not going to say Hincapie knee warmers were like putting on Superman’s cape, but they did make me feel more like the bike racer I wanted to be.  Now instead of being a symbol of cycling’s team and hard-men nature, the knee warmers are a reminder to keep role models at a distance while trying my hardest to hold the sport dear. 

“Don’t be naïve Joe,” I can hear you say.  Everyone was doping.  Get over it.  “People suck and they cheat,” a reader posted on our Facebook page.  I know.  I know.  I know.  With taxes, the stock market and their spouses it happens everyday.  We all get screwed sometime or another.  However, I do feel cheated and I’m entitled to feel that way.  For (insert name of hero you can believe in here)’s sake, the accomplishments of the greatest American cycling team, the results of every race I saw them compete, the fame gained by the coaches and management, every dollar earned directly or indirectly because of that success is all ill-gotten. 

You motherfuckers have a LOT of work to do to pay your debt back to all of us.

The root of my feeling lies in the fact that doping is not a one race thing.  To me, it’s preposterous to think, and as far as I can tell, physically impossible for a rider to stop doping and continue to masquerade as a clean athlete.  Doping is a tattoo, permanent.  Even if for a short period of time, the muscles built, the cardiovascular system developed, the knowledge gained at the top of the sport will always be with these riders till the day they die.  The phrase “former doper” is a joke.  Once a doper, always a doper. 

Nooo!  Him too?
By using EPO they were able to train harder and recover faster, win, get their name in the headlines, generate fans, and be in touch with industry people.  Now, years later these riders, team managers, coaches and doctors are going to ask me to participate in their Grand Fondo, read their book, go see their new team race, watch the movie, believe in the new crop of athletes under their wing, sign up for that triathlon, purchase their training program, to toe the line with me at a non-sanctioned mountain bike race, buy their brand of bikes or feel comfortable in their knee warmers.  I’m sorry.  They may be able to race a UCI event in 6 months, but I think I’m done with them and their knee warmers.    

However, I do somewhat sympathize with the riders…somewhat.  I’m sure you noticed a hint of victimization in the USADA report.  Many riders allege management more or less said it was dope or go home.  It reeks of coercion.  Yet a Barry, Hincapie and the others made the decision.  They were 10-12 years younger than now, hungry to go big time, pressured and perhaps a bit narrow minded to realize that there were more options than doping or going home. 

In mountaineering you’re judged by your peers, be it bottled oxygen or team support, on what type of assistance you used to get to the top and back down.  Maybe that’s what divides us from the those that doped.  From the USADA document, most riders seem to hint that they felt there was no other way to the top of the mountain.  We the fans feel otherwise, until now having to assume we were witnessing a monumental accomplishment.

I Booked a Plane Ticket and Got Up Early for This?
The real victims in all of this are the people that didn’t make the cut, the riders who lost to the dopers, talented prospective staff members that didn’t buy into the program and ended up trying to make the most of other avenues and/or cycling’s minor leagues.  I also feel sorry for the fans that booked a plane ticket, drove up the mountain in a rent a car at 5am to be a tiny part of something they thought was great.  It turns my stomach to think of all the people in the last decade that bought into the Trek marketing machine.  I feel bad that I once poked fun of Floyd Landis showing up for the Mohican 100 NUE Mountain Bike Race and thought LeMond was a loud mouth buffoon.  Looking back, at least they had the courage to speak out against a momentous opponent. 

Doping is against the rules in cycling.  Cycling is not anything goes like fighting cancer.  It’s not kill or be killed.  You practice, you eat right, you persevere, you find a mentor, you play by the rules, you lose, until one day…you win, and it’s glorious.  As a fan, I cheer for the guy dangling off the back in danger of getting dropped as much as the one goosing the pace at the front.

Floyd Landis and I (I'm the Fat One)
People jump up and down.  They scream.  Some have followed you since you were an amateur.  Some heard about you and came out to see if you could pull it off.  Now, they surround you cheering.  You get a trophy, sponsorships, book deals, and cameo roles in movies.  They want the same brand bike you have.  They want the same clothes, now with your name on them.  They want to get the advice of your coach.  They want to ride alongside you on a Grand Fondo.  Your success creates a worldwide movement.

However, doping makes all of that lying, stealing and cheating.  So don’t tell me that it’s okay for any of these cyclists, managers, coaches, doctors to continue in the sport, to continue their endorsements, to put on rides, to start or consult other teams, to show up at local mountain bike races and triathlons, endorse products, and create foundations based on the very color of the ill gotten glory.  It’s not.  All their perceived success in cycling is tainted by doping.  They gave up that chance the moment they went down the wrong path.

I’m not a strong enough voice to sway cycling one way or the other.  I’m not qualified to come up with a fool proof way to insure pro cycling is clean nor have the authority to change its direction.  I am however qualified to not attend events tainted by the presence of a doper.  I can impress on our local racers about what it really means to cheat and that there are other options.  Like Adam Myerson, I am qualified to question those at the highest level of the sport, raise an eyebrow when things don’t look right and be vocal about it.  For now, I can choose to remain a fan of the sport, but not the individual.  I can choose which bike to buy and which knee warmers I wear.

1 comment:

D.A. said...

You have put into words exactly what I have been thinking.
Excellent as always.
Thank you.
Cheers, D.A.