Today Lance Armstrong gave up his legal fight against allegations of doping. Consequently his results from 1998 onwards, including seven consecutive overall victories in the Tour de France, will be abolished. It's also becoming apparent that cycling was heavy with doping during
For post-Lance cycling fans, their love for the sport will be irrevocably shaken. The very idol that drew them to two wheels has been smashed. For pre-Lance cycling fans, today's news was a new chapter in a continuous cultural narrative. However there is hope that it could be the last chapter.
Being a fan of road cycling involves a certain amount of cultural assimilation. Road cycling is a quintessentially European phenomenon. A basic understanding of European geography is good. A basic understanding of language and culture better. The difference between a muur, côte and col is critical to understanding differences between races. Further, the difference between Walloons and Flemish are essential to deciphering the magnitude of a win. Although the most foreign concept for North American fans to grasp is the central role of doping in cycling.
The first road racing events were races of great spectacle designed to increase newspaper sales. As circulation increased, races were driven to greater and greater spectacle. Inhuman exploits of endurance were repaid with elevation to a national hero, mythologies printed and circulated overnight: A lone man conquering unimaginable hardship with only his machine and hard work.
Unfortunately, most paid little mind to the cost of this spectacle -- although there were early hints. In 1924, the Pélissier brothers revealed to the public what helped them conquer the Tour de France: Pills for the pain, cocaine for the eyes, chloroform for the gums. Sympathy was offered rather than outrage. They were painted as "Convicts of the Route," driven to chemical supplementation by the rigors of cycling forced on them by the autocratic elite.
Ultimately, doping was resigned to as a remedy to a brutal sport. Here, cycling showed a new face. The hope offered by courageous exploits was now tempered with a cynicism of the true source of these exploits.
For many fans of road racing, this cultural narrative continues. For me it seemed impossible to escape the cycles of hope and cynicism. My love of cycling started in the late 90s. Marco Pantani rode away from the field in the 1998 Tour amid rain and fog. He literally disappeared among the clouds and left the mortals behind on the Col du Galibier. In 1999, he returned a suspicious blood sample while leading the Tour of Italy.
Frank Vandenbroucke destroyed every notion I had for how strong a man could be after 260 km of racing over vicious Ardenne hills in the 1999 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He was caught in a car full of doping products with a notorious doping supervisor in 2001.
Johan Museeuw dominated the 2000 Paris-Roubaix so completely that you could hardly tell he was riding over brutal cobbled roads preserved from the turn of the century. By 2007 he had confessed to a sophisticated blood doping program administered by a veterinarian. In 2008 he was convicted of sporting fraud.
Almost all my heroes from this time have been exposed as dopers. I do not care. The myths of their exploits are still fresh in my heart. On the slightest incline I sprint, channelling Marco into every pedal stroke. On every rough road I release an imaginary roar for the Lion of Flanders like Johan did. Before a hard ride I use a sharpie to inscribe 'VDB FOREVER' in clear sight on my handlebars.
Like many before me, these dopers form the images and sensations that are my monument of road cycling. Their spirit is bigger than the bike or the road. How could I ever care if the monument's foundation is crooked?
However, restoration of the flawed monument is underway. Although the dopers will always be part of road racing to me, a new generation is building a more lasting and glorious structure. Part of this work has been undertaken by the sport itself. Cyclists must submit to more doping control than any other sportsmen competing today. Under this increased scrutiny even more heroes have fallen. But after years of failed tests to increasingly invasive and sophisticated anti-doping controls, it appears the number of doping cyclists has decreased. In addition, criminal investigations by French, Italian and Spanish governments have exposed a number of doctors and coaches at the centre of doping rings.
A significant amount of the burden has been taken up by individual riders and team management. For example, the Garmin-Sharp team has been committed to riders free of doping suspicion and requires riders to undergo team-based testing to ensure that there are no sudden fluctuations in their physiology indicative of doping. Eventually the sport as a whole embraced this idea of a "biological passport" to help monitor rider safety and provide hints if doping or blood manipulation was occurring.
In May, Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Sharp became the first Canadian to win the Giro d'Italia. His victory was the result of passion, confidence and nuanced strategy that belies his birth outside of the insular Eurocentric culture of road racing. His exclusion from this dope-apologetic culture and his team association make me believe his win was a major corner stone for the monument of clean cyclists.
Some riders have taken an openly outspoken approach to anti-doping. The first British winner of the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins, faced a rough introduction to road cycling. In his early career he was a world and Olympic champion track cyclist and began road racing for French teams.
Throughout his career he maintained an open and adamantly anti-doping stance. In 2007, a teammate returned a positive doping test and French police descended upon the team. Wiggins was released and on his way home he threw out his all his team clothing, sick that his team would deceive him and the public. He would never wear that team's clothing again and joined HTC-Highroad, a team founded in anti-doping philosophy. After careful improvement as a racer and a transfer to the British Sky Procycling team he finally won the 2012 Tour de France in methodological and dominating fashion.
Where Hesjedal laid a cornerstone for clean cyclists, Wiggins has produced the first lasting structure. He entered the culture of doping as an outsider, openly rejected it, and in it's absence carefully sculpted his body into a Tour de France winner.
I will never care that Marco and Frank weren't clean, but that Ryder and Bradley are clean is critical to my love of the sport. They have been instrumental in breaking a cycle of hope and cynicism that is at the heart of traditional cycling culture. All that remains is hope and open road.