I first started watching road bicycling back at a time when many Americans got introduced to the sport: as Texan Lance Armstrong was dominating the Tour de France. At one point, and still in his mind I’m sure, he won seven Tours in a row, 1999-2005. However, all of those wins have since been negated in the wake of a doping scandal that scandalized the bike world more than any other finding of drug use prior to or since.
What I learned, as a novice cycling fan, was that if some ride seemed truly incredible, unbelievable — well, it probably was. It was likely fueled by illegal drugs designed to enhance a cyclist’s performance.
It’s hardly just cyclists, and there are legions of athletes who were very talented who dropped out of their respective sports without ever being able to determine just how exceptional they might have been, because they weren’t willing to dope and the only way to get to the top of just about any sport is to try to skirt the rules.
Now, you may tell me that sounds cynical, and your sport is above reproach, but even if your sport is the Bee Game, conducted for many years at the used-to-be-annual September Baby Bee-Day Bash, someone is bound to issue accusations of cheating against the top performers.
Barry Bonds. The incredible chutzpah of the Russians (whose chutzpah really knows no bounds no matter what theatre we’re talking) establishing a state-mandated means of trying to cheat the drug tests during the Sochi Olympics. Sprinter Ben Johnson, whose “improbable bicep” got pointed out in a picture in Sports Illustrated.
We could go on and on, because there are lots of dopers in sports. Maybe most athletes are dopers, and some just don’t get caught. (Cynical, I know.) There are also lots of arguments about what constitutes cheating — those shark-like full-body swimsuits that cost hundreds of dollars and could only be worn one time come to mind — but when Lance Armstrong was riding and winning, he was well aware that he was injecting substances banned by the sport, and taking great pains to hide this.
Huge pains. There was another American cyclist in Europe, Tyler Hamilton, who right as I started watching the sport was launching a vociferous multi-million-dollar campaign to establish his innocence after he was dismissed from the sport for doping.
He swore high and long that he was innocent. His friends and family staged fund-raisers to help him come up with the roughly $2 million he spent trying to clear his name. Only, as it turned out, he had cheated. Willfully and knowingly.
He eventually confessed — apparently, telling his parents was the worst thing he has ever had to do in his life. And then, like most people, he went on to write a book about his experiences at the top level of the sport, pinning substantial blame on Lance Armstrong, the “don” of the bicycle cheaters, to hear many folks tell it.
Armstrong has subsequently been blamed for destroying careers of fellow cyclists who weren’t willing to stay in line with his protocols, as well as journalists who knew he was dirty and tried to break the story. His power was such that he broke all of them — until he himself was eventually found out.
But the doping was so pervasive in the peloton that when they negated Armstrong’s titles they couldn’t find any clean riders in the top 10, or even further down, to award the Tour championship to anyone. So those seven years sit blank to this day. No winner of seven Tours.
Getting rid of Armstrong did not rid cycling of the problem. I believe it was the very next year that yet another American, Floyd Landis, a nice Mennonite boy, started gaining notice as the stages wended their way around the French countryside. He earned the yellow jersey, showing that he was leading the race, and then he had an off day.
The next stage, he went all out and clawed his way back into the yellow jersey. But when you win a stage, they automatically sample your urine — and his turned up an overload of testosterone. His excuse was pathetically weak: he’d felt so bummed about the day before that he’d had a beer before bedtime. Beer. Yeah, that’s it. The beer gave him too much testosterone.
Landis, who now runs a pot shop in Leadville, Colorado, was immediately drummed out of the sport, which ultimately is what brought Armstrong down, because Landis went to the authorities, and then others started talking. Now, although he keeps trying to make himself relevant, cycling isn’t terribly interested in anything Armstrong has to offer.
The lesson I learned was not a good one, and it’s always in the back of my mind: an unbelievable performance is usually just that, unbelievable.
I want to believe, that’s the thing. And maybe if everyone in the peloton is cheating, using the same enhanced bags of blood, maybe that somehow makes it all equal. But I’d really rather the riders were clean, and that’s what I try to believe. And then days like today happen.
This morning in America (afternoon in France) was the penultimate stage of the 2020 Tour de France. Since the final stage is almost always a ceremonial parade up until the final 250 meters, this is the last chance for the yellow jersey to change shoulders. That’s what happened today.
Two Slovenians have been vying for the yellow jersey, one in the lead and one in second place. The one in the lead has a reputation as a good time trialer, which was the format for today; the other turns 22 on Monday and is riding his first Tour.
In an absolutely thrilling stage, the youngster blistered his way through the entire course. My chat room peeps all thought he’d gone out too fast, and the older, more experienced Slovenian would catch him as the course went up the last mountain of the race. But this didn’t happen, and the youngster never let up on his gas, winning the stage in a time almost two minutes faster than anyone else.
It was unbelievable.
I want it to be clean — although I felt very bad for the other Slovenian as the camera watched him slumped over in horrible defeat before he gamely picked himself up, went over to his countryman and gave him a genuine congratulatory hug.
This Tour was far less predictable than so many have been lately. The British team that has more money than most of the rest of the teams combined did not dominate from start to finish — in fact, the one thing it had going for it got chewed up by the young Slovenian, the youngest winner of the Tour since someone back in 1904 (I think).
The whole thing was exciting, and a distraction from all that is awful about this year. But two minutes faster than the rest of the field? I don’t know.
I read Tyler Hamilton’s book twice, and when a high school classmate of his who is now on the faculty at Western Not State brought him to campus, I went to hear him speak. His lectures are kind of sermons: the truth will set you free. He wanted so badly to be among the best cyclists in the world that he was willing to do whatever it took, even if it took lying to his parents and the rest of the world.
My cynical self, with my 18-ish years as a cycling spectator, assumes today’s performance was drug fueled by a rider willing to do whatever it takes. But my spectator self, who really enjoys this sport, wants to say nothing more than, Wow! What a finish!
I can hope, but I don’t know that I really believe.