TCI Friday

It’s complicated. Of course it is. Cycling’s history with doping. It’s so complicated, in fact, that I can’t even type the name of a certain cyclist, because if I do that, the internet will bring people here to read about him, and then I am capitalizing on his fame. It is not lost on me that the cycling media benefited from the Age of Doping. The whole thing had this car accident quality. You wanted to look away, but couldn’t.

It was hard not to get sucked into the moral vortex of it.

For a while I was angry about blood doping and the riders who did it (i.e. all of them). It’s cheating, and that’s wrong, but really I think what bothered me most was being treated like I’m stupid. I may well be, but I hate to have it pointed out.

Today, I have this perverse sort of nostalgia for those days. The racing was exciting. The personalities were bombastic. The coverage was better. The Tour de France became Wrestlemania on two wheels, complete with heroes and villains, bizarre plot lines, outlandish claims, and men in tights.

The downsides are pretty easy to pile up. Young cyclists had their dreams taken away, or were forced to make a deal with the devil. A lot of talented riders got cheated out of a living. There was bullying. The women’s side of the sport got tarred with the same brush as the men, without any of the benefits that accrued to the latter. And in the end, blood doping destroyed the sport’s credibility. Today’s riders are arguably cleaner, but they’re still riding out of the shadow of the blood doping era and may be for a while.

Cycling’s dalliance with drugs for performance enhancement didn’t begin with oxygen-vector doping, and it likely won’t end there either, but up to this point, the reign of the cyclist-who-can’t-be-named probably represents the low point on this particular timeline.

This week’s TCI asks this, though: Is pro cycling better off for having gone through that whole saga, even if it may take decades for it to return to its place in the sporting pantheon? Did doping need to reach some logical conclusion, before letting cycling moving on? Or would we better off if we could wipe that history off the books? Are you over it yet? Do you feel the nostalgia I feel? Or is that just crazy?

Join the conversation
  1. jlaudolff says

    My yard stick for whether or not it is better is would I support my child (or anyone else’s) if they want to get into cycling as a pro? On the subject of doping, it’s undoubtedly better. A pro these days is not going to drop dead in the middle of the night due to what they put in their body. I hope.

    In some ways it feels more physically dangerous these days but that is just a feeling.

  2. khal spencer says

    As much as I loved turning on the TV and following The Blue Train (or Pantani, or Indurain, or LeMond, or Hinault, or all those great guys) up the hors categorie climbs, I think doping put a permanent stain on bicycle racing. People risked their lives to make a living and the whole era of EPO and blood bags put a Mafia or East Germany like hue on the European peloton. Now we count on testing to ensure people don’t cheat. It would have been better, I think, had it not happened but it was inevitable that it would happen once the chemistry was figured out. Doping in bicycling has always been there; Tom Simpson, RIP. It just was not so scientific. Reading Tyler Hamilton’s book was fascinating to me as a professional chemist and half-assed bike racer, but depressing as far as having been an ardent fan of the Postal guys.

    Its probably better now that, I presume, we are back to the days when it is how good you are rather than what you are willing to inject. I’ve pretty much moved on. Bicycling is an intensely personal endeavor to me; heading out the door onto the roads or trails is my form of Zen. I really don’t care what the racers are doing. I wish them well, still think bike racing is amazingly cool, but I have stopped following it.

  3. Rosé Dave says

    I’m conflicted about doping in cycling. The days of L@nc# were my introduction into the sport of professional cycling (as the fondly remembered Paul Sherwen named it). My own personal circumstances- starting to ride as an adult, becoming a morning person, dreaming of European travel- opened the door to spending my July mornings with the Tour de France. Phil and Paul kept mentioning other races, and so July in France, became Spring in the low countries, May in Italy and late summer in Spain. And then we got the Tour of California in my home state! Following the story of European road racing also meant confronting the doping in the sport. Even engaging in black-and-white pictured nostalgia for the glory days of cycling required a brush with doping. (Yes, I know that blood doping is another animal from the uppers and downers of yore.) Doping is a violation of the rules and is part of the sporting landscape. That’s my conflict right there. It is, and it is prohibited. Kind of like racketeering or tax fraud, which is how the feds bust those gangsters whose stories are glamorized on the big screen.

    I’m also fascinated by what the response to doping has done to the nature of the sport. My observation is that the riders are all generally on the same level. Stage races have eliminated the 6 to 7 hour mountain slogs in favor of shorter, hillier days that make for tactical, open racing where almost anyone can win. The time trials are shorter. The sprinters are often locked in battles over the last hour of racing to eliminate some of their number on the hills that now dot the right-side of race profiles. GC riders like Primoz Roglic build three-week victories on time bonus sprints. Yet, the time gaps are generally small. It’s like American politics: control swings between 51/49 margins. The heroes are gone and the tacticians here. We’ve left the comic books in our parents’ garages and we now read the how-to manuals, the biographies and the critical analyses.

    But somehow the spark can still be found. Richie Porte leaves his wife and new baby to ride the 2020 Tour de France with his wife’s words stuck in his mind: “I don’t want to see you moping at the back of the peloton.” He rode those words to a podium spot in Paris. Joe Dombrowski spends 10 years trying to get that win in a big race and combines his strength with the peloton’s decision to set the breakaway free to snag a Giro d’Italia stage. Somebody has to win, and every win has a story behind it. No doubt some of those stories contain a chapter or two on doping. It is part of the sport, a smaller, less potent part than 10-20 years by all appearances, and certainly a less deadly side of the sport than in the days of Tom Simpson or the early EPO blood thickening days.

    So this is my conflict. I can say much about doping and professional cycling. But I cannot reach a satisfactory conclusion. I don’t have a resolution. There is no moral to this story. The tortoise and the hare cross the finish line but another stage has started, and their racing calendar is full.

  4. alltheusernamesaregone says

    For me the difference is that if I saw Bjarne Riis climb the Hautacam in the 53 x 15 without panting today, I’d be sure he was optimized.
    I like to think that the sport got religion after the endemic oxygen vector PED abuses were revealed. But I don’t know.
    The racing was exciting and we were told that these guys were genetic freaks with superpowers. We learned otherwise. They made it look easy, and we found out the hard way why that was so.
    I’m still watching pro cycling. It’s a nice escape and the scenery is usually spectacular.

  5. bluezurich says

    I’m very happy to have been following Pro Cycling since the Hinault/Fignon/Lemond/Roche days. The hero worship in the Lance era was a bit much and for all that to come crashing down, well…I think there’s a few thousand Treks that went on Ebay and CL after Oprah. Our sport has a high enough dropout rate what without egomaniac liars representing all we love and do. Now seems to be a good time to get involved minus the ‘I have to spend as much as a ProTour Rider to get started’ philosophy. Starting with crappy gear helps you appreciate better things to upgrade towards and creates self reliance in regards to mechanics. It’s all credit carding now. Oh and pick me up, I punctured and my TLR kit is out of bacon….(either that or the bulge from mini pumps and/or CO2 makes me look fat)

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