El Tour de Tucson, Tucson’s best-known cycling event, released a photo of their special guest riders at the 2023 event. The riders are (l-r) George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, Rahsaan Bahati, Mari Holden, Jens Voigt, Bobby Julich and Bob Roll. Their cycling achievements are the dreams of everyone who has raced a bike. They’ve won Olympic medals, National Championships, Grand Tour stages, not to mention some of the most prestigious one-day races on the planet.
However, four of these riders were exposed as dopers as a result of the many investigations that culminated in Lance Armstrong’s downfall. Hincapie and Vande Velde were part of Armstrong’s team (US Postal) and doping program, while Voigt and Julich were teammates at another team (CSC) and part of its doping program, and their team was run by an admitted doper, Bjarne Riis.
Put simply, these four cyclists are part of the darkest chapter in professional cycling. I don’t want to rehash their many sins against cycling, but each of these guys maintained that they rode clean until someone else outed them. It’s hard to say any of them especially suffered at the revelation.
Let’s contrast that with Tyler Hamilton who, when faced with a grand jury—the same grand jury Hincapie and Vande Velde faced—told the truth (albeit for the first time, following years of lies) and the whole of it. And he told quite a story; his testimony was the single most important step in exposing all of the systematic and systemic doping that was going on in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Hamilton isn’t celebrated the way these riders are. I’ve never seen him standing alongside these guys at some charity ride. I can’t say I’m surprised, but I do wonder why. Why is it that Hamilton and Floyd Landis are generally spoken of in villainous tones, but Hincapie, who rode at Armstrong’s hip for every one of his Tour wins, is largely exempt from criticism? Is it that we turn on anyone who is caught? Or is it that we turn on those who confess? Or is it that every enemy of Armstrong’s is our enemy?
My gut tells me there’s something primal at work here, a Darwinian sense of being okay with the slowest of the wildebeest being gobbled by the lion. It strikes me as a mob mentality that reflects our ugliest urges.
Why don’t we value the complete admission? Why do we frown on the guy who finally comes clean and stops fighting?
I’d prefer to appeal to our better nature. Cycling, as a culture, as a community, shouldn’t turn its back on any of these riders. There should be room for forgiveness, rehabilitation, amends.
But I’m over the notion of cycling heroes. The guys I used to think I wanted to introduce my sons, to? Nah. That said, if I were putting on a ride and my sons were going to be at the ride, I’d give some thought to what it would say about me based on who I invited, who I introduced my sons to.
I’d invite Tyler. What he did required guts, resurrected integrity and the strength to move past his shame and embarrassment (and we all know how hard it is to suck that up).
I’d invite the guy who admitted he was wrong and has spent the intervening years attempting to make amends. I’d want my sons to hear how telling the truth finally unburdened his soul.
Whitewashing doping’s worst, biggest scandal by continuing to celebrate the guys who only admitted their doping after being outed by others sends the wrong message to anyone who thinks a moral compass matters.