Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cycling is this ...



So unless you live under a rock, chances are you've seen the big news on Lance Armstrong. It's all over the web - CNN, NY Times, Slate - all the big news and commentary sites are carrying the story that Lance has dropped his battle against USADA and is accepting a lifelong ban from cycling that includes the forfeiture of his record seven Tour de France titles. Armstrong himself released a statement on his website. Whatever side you fall on in this thing, that statement is a textbook case of how to defer a conviction - his lawyers definitely earned their money on that statement. A quick look at Facebook shows why -- I see hundreds of comments from people all over stepping up to defend his decision and accuse USADA of wasting everyone's time and money. Sure, some sites are decidedly slanted against him -- the Huffington Post headline, for example, simply says "Disgraced" over a picture of Armstrong in Paris -- but I have a feeling Lance is going to come out of this without his image quite as tainted as something like this would normally leave it. I also suspect that outcome will bother many who consider themselves "cyclists" (and thus perhaps better able to understand the greater meaning in this whole scandal) because, for them, the integrity of the sport is what this is really all about. The other points of view - well, in some people's minds, it's either a justifiable means to an end (the Livestrong foundation and it's fundraising efforts wouldn't even exist were it not for Armstrong's inspirational story) and the doping is just a part of a strange world of uber-skinny weirdos who ride up and down mountains they don't care to understand. I've already received a bunch of emails from people whose only association with cycling in general is that they know I "race bikes", but all of them had something to say about Lance and USADA and the whole big mess - pro or con. One guy even said that it's all a big non-story, but then went on to explain in several paragraphs why he thinks both sides are despicable.

And that's the thing of it: everyone has an opinion on this. The case has the potential to touch so many nerves -- notions of fairness, how tax dollars are used, a superstar's legacy, the future of the sport in this country and beyond -- you name it. People care because it's become bigger than just a simple story of possibly improper behavior by an athlete. It's been all over the "blogosphere" for sure. Indeed, there's at least one that has focused on nothing else but this case for some time now. I've read a lot of opinions over the past few months, and some pretty cogent arguments in both directions from people I respect. Considering all of this, though, I find my own opinion hasn't really changed over time. My opinion?

I don't care.

I really don't. I don't care about doping in cycling. I don't care about whether or not Lance is guilty. I don't even care that the government pursued him after the fact with help from my tax dollars. I don't care that the entire professional peloton has become synonymous with cheating. Sure, I wish it weren't so, but the fact that it is isn't really a big deal to me. Why? Because I am a cyclist.  And whatever else this whole thing is about, it sure as hell isn't about cycling.

As a clarification, this case is at least in part about professional cycling. And I am neither qualified nor interested in speculating on the pressures of being a pro cyclist. On that matter, I tend to think that John Vaughters' explanation of what leads to doping in the first place makes sense, and I can't say for sure that I wouldn't do something similar were I in that position. I can speculate that I would be honest to the very end, but that's all it would be - speculation. There is an added factor that pros have to deal with that changes the game. This is their livelihood. This is how they make ends meet. And to say with righteous anger that I would not succumb to the temptation to cheat if it meant the difference between getting paid for what I do or not would be, frankly, self-serving bullshit. I can't know what I would do unless I was in that position. And neither can anyone else. I'm not excusing the act - I just think the decision to break the rules - and risk the penalties Armstrong now faces - is more complicated for the riders at that level because saying no in their case is saying no to more than gaining some advantage (or, as some believe, merely leveling the playing field) - it's saying no to a career, saying no to a paycheck, and perhaps saying no to how they've spent an enormous portion of their time prior to the moment they have to decide. And I simply think all of that could weigh heavily on a pro cyclist's mind as they consider whether or not to start doping.

But most of us are not at that level, and that's my point. For most of us, that level only exists on tv and in the media and perhaps occasionally on a closed criterium course near our hometowns. What they are doing is not cycling. It's a piece of cycling. (And, yes, perhaps even a piece that has been irrevocably corrupted by the introduction of a business component.) But it's a small piece, and it bears no relevance to the broader world of cyclists that most of us know. I can't speak for everyone else, but my motivations for getting on my SS every chance I get have a lot less to do with some singular desire to stand on top of a podium than they do with a desire to accomplish something by my own effort. The reasons I ride my bike have nothing to do with the sort of thought process that would lead one to dope in the first place. Thus, the concept of doping for me is in direct opposition to one of the key reasons I ever get on a bike. I mean, how could I know that I've exceeded my own limitations if I add an external variable that is designed to do just that independent of my natural ability to do so? I can't. 

But yet many people will disagree with me. There is a recognition that this type of behavior if not explicitly shunned is thus implicitly accepted. And that insouciance can lead to the sort of thing that recently happened in NY. This is sort of a "trickle down" or maybe a "slippery slope" concept of the dangers of cheating at the highest levels. To that, I'd say ... maybe. But, again, it doesn't change what the experience is for me. If I was robbed of a podium spot by a cheater, that sucks. But did that guy's cheating change my effort in any way? No. It may have changed the recognition of my effort, but I honestly don't really care that much. And don't get me wrong - I'm not saying exposed cheaters shouldn't be punished. Hell, kick 'em all in the ass. But whether or not they get caught or punished or whatever, it won't change what I take from the sport.

Fundamentally, I believe that cycling is an internal experience. The reasons we engage in this activity run the gamut, but they're always personal. For some of us it defines who we are as much or more than what we do for a living. For many of us, it's our most often used pressure release valve for the regular stresses of mortgages, families, and whatever other unwelcome realities pop up in a given day. And for many more of us, it's perhaps a way to embrace the positive benefits of physical suffering or maybe just enjoy rolling through a quiet and scenic section of the woods. And sure, it's a chance to test ourselves against worthy adversaries or maybe collect number plates to hang on a basement wall. All of that is what cycling is. And none of that requires (or even suggests in my mind) a need to add some kind of chemical advantage to the mix.

In the end, this whole thing will go away eventually and likely be replaced in the media with new and bigger scandals. Do I believe that Lance doped? Well, I can see both sides of that argument -- logically, it's hard to believe that the guy who consistently won against countless cheaters never had any unfair advantage of his own. On the flip side, I can see where some might believe that the likelihood that he'd have never been caught in over 500 tests is pretty slim and thus should be taken as evidence of his innocence. All in all, though, I believe he did something to enhance his performance, if only because of the "walks like a duck" argument. I don't pretend, however, that this is actual evidence. And on that point, I agree with his website's statement about the hypocrisy of USADA. I don't think that, as the agency responsible for determining who does and does not cheat, they can have their cake and eat it to. They can't be the ones who decide what cheating is through their testing procedures and then call someone who passed every one of them a cheat. So, yes, I think he did something to improve his performance and, no, I don't think USADA has the right to call him on it now. He passed their tests. By their standards at the time of the alleged offenses, he was innocent.The evidence they gather after the fact doesn't change that. How many criminals are tried repeatedly for an offense for which they were found innocent? None. 

But even on this, I would say the same thing: I don't care. I owe Lance and Ullrich and Vino and all the others for making this sport fascinating to me at a time when I was just dipping my foot in the water. The 2003 Tour in particular cemented me as a fan of cycling and drove me to want to ride more. But even then, I did so knowing my own motivations would never be to mimic some professional. Those tours merely provided a means by which to flame an ember. And for that I will always look back on Lance's tour wins fondly, even if they are stripped away. They provided riveting drama and heart-racing action. They happened and saying they didn't doesn't change that fact. But more importantly, it doesn't change what cycling is.

Ultimately, I don't care about this stuff because I don't think it can touch the thing I do care about in all of this. It really can't - or shouldn't - change anything about cycling for any of us. I don't think cycling itself is in any danger because, for all the polarizing media coverage, legal ramblings, and personal perspectives of individuals with their own visceral feeling on the subject of Mr. Armstrong, cycling itself isn't any of that. Cycling is alive and well and living in the personal motivations and efforts of every one of us who take part in weekly LBS rides, group mountainbike rides, solo epics, local races, workday commutes, or even short trips around the block for a little exercise. And there will never be a doping scandal sensational enough to change that.

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