The Suspension of Disbelief

The Ardennes Classics concluded yesterday with Liege-Bastogne-Liege, La Doyenne, a hell of a long race, and one that’s been run 108 times. As has been the case lately, the women’s version was more competitive and interesting than the men’s, but they were both good. Bike racing is good. I am enjoying it again after many seasons of paying no attention. You know why.

So what has changed?

Now I see that pro sports (not just cycling) are fiction, not wholly different from Star Wars or Harry Potter, in fact pretty similar to the Marvel movies. As regular workaday humans, we are meant to draw a continuous line from our participation in sports, as kids or even as adults, to the ways those sports are presented on our screens. This entails a paradigmatic suspension of disbelief, because the people who earn their livings in top level sports are not like us, either physically or mentally. The way they practice their sport is not the way we have done it. The line is not continuous.

Supremely engineered for your fastest efforts. With its ultra sleek lines, optimal power transfer, and refined pro-grade features, the RC903 is the culmination of Shimano’s most advanced technologies for a performance elevating race shoe that feels and functions unlike anything you’ve worn before.


Any good story will be character driven, and our interest in stories is very often governed by how much we identify with its characters. Obviously, I’m not Ironman, but I have the same good intentions, the same urges toward justice (and sarcasm). In a very real way, I want to see what someone like me would do with superpowers, and I enjoy believing I could and would do those things. It’s not different watching bike racing. I would make my move on that climb. I would bridge that gap. I would throw that victory salute.

To watch pro racing now, you have to forget that some, or many, or all of them are doping. I don’t know how many or how much or by what methods, but pro cycling has taught us this, just the way pro wrestling has taught us that the referee is a prop and outcomes are scripted. Pro cyclists dope. They do. They have done in every era. If they are clean now, unfortunately, the sport has already taught us they are not, and so to watch means to accept this. Accepting means pushing this knowledge to the very periphery, because there is a bike race right in the middle, and it is engrossing.

To watch pro sports (again, not just cycling) you have to suspend your belief that what you’re watching is clean or fair, or healthy for that matter. The people who choose these paths are taking massive risks with their bodies. Many pro cyclists will have eating disorders. Many will emerge from their careers with asthma and other lingering problems from frequent crashes (or from heavy blood doping).

But again, and I stress this, all the pro sports you might watch in your leisure time are affected by drugs, questionable medical practice, and outright cheating. One is not better than another.

And so, I focus on the story these fine actors are presenting. As with any human processing a narrative arc, I assign moral values to the characters. This one is good. This one is bad. This one is warm and funny and sincere, that one cold, calculating, and soulless. Pro cycling is highly dynamic. There are not just riders, but teams too, and those have character traits. Some team sponsors are stalwart and loyal. Others are just money deployed in the name of public relations.

The races too have their stories and their characteristics, long historical threads that connect points in histories larger story. Bike racing contains multitudes. The closer you look, the more you find to look at.

I am not recommending you watch pro cycling. Time is precious. You’re under no obligation to watch or go back to watching if, like me, your interest lapsed for a time. All I am saying is that sports are stories, highly fictional, but also relatable in their way. When I recognize that what I’m watching, a hundred something riders dragging themselves over cobbled climbs or down narrow roads through ancient villages, is just one more permutation of our deeply flawed human story, I can enjoy it. A lot.

And maybe the problem was never the doping (it was always the doping) but rather my own naivete.

Help us keep the lights on here at TCI. Get your Cycling Independent t-shirt today.

Join the conversation
  1. bart says

    I’ve never had a big moral problem with doping. I think all athletes “dope” in some way and some of it has long-term negative consequences for human health. My working definition of doping is that its the ongoing search for ways to find an advantage. Caffeine, vegan diet, ice-baths or hot-tub soaks, and EPO are all doping. This can be done WITHIN the established rules or OUTSIDE the established rules. These rules include things that are written down as well as the “culture” around an activity. What I have a problem with is the behavior that happens in the shadows and people who try to find an advantage OUTSIDE the rules. Especially, when said people go to great lengths to cover up or keep their activities hidden by destroying other people (He Who Should Not be Named).

    There is so much $ in pro sports at the top levels that people will push themselves, their teams, and their support staff up to (or way past) the edge of what is within the rules. I find that more and more, my interest in “pro sports” is moving away from the top levels of any given sport. I’d rather watch the minor-league team over the major-league team. I’d rather go to the local D3 college football/basketball game rather than the D1 Major Conference football/basketball game.

    I used to be a Pro-Sports junkie. Loved it all. I loved learning about and watching how they did what they did. But, now when I watch the top levels, all I see is that “feel” and hard-earned “intuition” has been replaced by metrics. And, with greater access to minor leagues and D3 college sports, I just gravitate to those options.

    I have to say that I disagree with the comparison of bike racing with WWE. Pro wrestling is scripted. Everyone in the “cast” knows who is supposed to win, the basic “plot” of the event, and they “rehearse” so that they get it right. I don’t think that is the case in bike racing. I think each team is fighting for the finish line without colluding on the outcome.

    Many will disagree with me and I’m OK with that. But, I’m curious to hear what other people have to say and it may influence my thinking.

Leave A Reply

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More