walking around in tap shoes and pyjamas since 2010 - my cycling log (opens in new window)

Friday, June 04, 2010

Some Thoughts On The Topic of the Times

Yesterday I wrote about racing. John Romeo Alpha's comment made me realize A) that I really am an idealistic sap :), and B) I skated around the topic of doping. I thought about it and realized that I did so because I'm violently uncomfortable with it.

I like to write about how riding my bike makes me happy. I also like to write about how other people riding bikes makes me happy and them happy.

I don't like to write about the bad things that happen in the world of cycling for a couple of reasons: first, I'm a bit of a magical thinker, and some part of me believes that I'll jinx it for everyone. Second, I often feel that I don't know enough to offer any intelligent commentary. Somehow, "BEER GOOD, NAPSTER FLOYD BAD" (ph34r my old-sk00l intarwebz references) seems a little simplistic.

Last night at dinner with his Mom and Aunt, PT Guy described me as a 'happy guy.' I think the context was something like, 'He smiles all the time. He'd be smiling even if a shark was chewing on his leg. He's one of those happy guys.' (Just for the record, my Mom would probably shocked. I have not always been a grand champion smiler. Come to think of it, my co-workers know me as snarky little crab with an extremely low frustration tolerance, so that might surprise them, too, though I do laugh at things constantly because it's cheaper, quicker, and far less illegal than actually going postal. The 'lot frustration tolerance' thing is much less true when I'm riding a lot, but right now it's extremely true. Border collies don't do well in cubicles.)

Thinking about doping in sports makes me feel hurt, angry, and most of all afraid, because I very viscerally don't understand it and, being what I am, I tend to be afraid of things that I don't grok. In fact, I am desperately uncomfortable with cheating in all forms because I am essentially a very simple person a few simple and very black-and-white morals. To me, being a good person even if nobody ever knows is much, much more important than being famous or successful or even passing a test for which I'm not prepared.

As I see it, it's up to me to prepare adequately for the task before me; if I don't, and I cheat, and I succeed, my success is still a failure. It takes guts to stand up and take your lumps when you fail to prepare, so in a way, forthright and honest failure is its own kind of success. It's brave, and true bravery is never a failure. Folks who get out there for love of the game, bravely fight the good fight, and DNF on a hard course win our respect when they're honest in effort and in failure. Some days you give all you can and it's not enough to carry you the whole way: that's just part of the game. Amateurs who are in it for love don't have to make excuses — and just as importantly they don't have to keep theif fans and sponsors happy.

When Jane and Joe Schmoe from down the street finish a triathlon or a road race or a long, hilly brevet, we love them for it. We also love them when they try and don't finish. They, being fairly ordinary people who live in our neighborhood, remind us that we can transcend the supposed limitations of our everyday lives and do something grand. The fact that they could even make it to the starting line strikes us as a pretty great thing.

On the other hand, in pro ccyling, it isn't about just getting to the starting line or even to the finish line. It's also about expectations — from both inside and outside — and about the ever-spiraling pressure to put on a better show, I think. Pro cyclists have to perform not only for themselves, but for their fans and sponsors.

These days, it seems that doping has invaded almost every sport on earth in one form or another (are there doping problems in downhill skiing or ice dancing? On a lighter note, because I am constitutionally unable to resist humor, is taking an antacid tablet before a hotdog-eating contest considered doping?). At certain levels, even the amateurs have doping problems — in the equestrian world, performance-enhancing drugs (given to the horses) were a serious problem for a while at A-rated shows in the junior and amateur divisions: if I remember correctly, much more so than in the pros, who had a lot more to lose and operated under a lot more scrutiny.

At my gym, which trains pro- and amateur mixed martial arts, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Muay Thai fighters, not to mention plain ol' boxers, there's an ongoing thread of discussion about whether or not performance enhancing drugs should simply be accepted as part of the Mixed Martial Arts package. All of us, however, agree that using performance enhancing drugs under the current rules is cheating, and that cheating is for punks.

The gist of the idea goes something like this: the drugs themselves aren't the problem. Consenting adults have the right to make stupid decisions about what to do with their bodies, as long as they're willing to deal with the repercussions (which can be nasty), keep those repercussions to themselves ('roid rage is for losers) and not leave everyone else to pay the bill. Each individual is left to grapple with the moral question of whether or not the laws of the land constitute unreasonable and excessive oversight and should therefore be changed.

The problem everyone has with doping is the dishonesty and unfairness associated with the drugs.

Imagine, if you will, a rock-smashing competition between two cave men, Ugh and Garr. Garr's coach gives him an invisible hammer, while Ugh uses his fists, because that's what the sport is about for him — breaking rocks with his fists as hard and fast as he can — and because neither he nor his coach are under pressure to produce a win. Ugh doesn't know Garr has a hammer, and neither do the fans. In fact, everyone knows that hammers — especially invisible hammers — are illegal in pro rock-smashing.

Given his hammer, Garr already has an unfair advantage — but it doesn't end there. Human nature loves nothing more than a rematch, so time and again Ugh returns to duke it out with Garr. After losing enough times and busting his butt trying to get better at smashing rocks, Ugh becomes demoralized and loses his fighting spirit — or he goes and finds out what gives Garr his edge, so he can try it himself.

Likewise, if the pro rock-smashing fans don't realize what's going on, and see nothing but Garr's phenomenal smashing skills and giant piles of rubble, they come to expect more spectacular results than someone like Ugh, who's playing by the established rules, can hope to produce. If Ugh gets on the train and starts using an invisible hammer as well, the spectators get the results they're hoping for. The rock-smashing sponsors see their sport becoming wildly popular; rock-smashing coaches trade 'secrets,' and upcoming pro rock-smashers find themselves trying that invisible hammer one day because they have a big match and they're not feeling on their A-game, then trying it another time because, well, why not, when you've already done it that one time?

The fans never see the undercurrent of invisible hammers, though, and to them things just look more and more exciting — until one day someone reveals the fact that invisible hammers are now rampant in pro rock-smashing, and then everyone sees they've been duped. It's not the hammers themselves that everyone's hurt and mad about — it's the lies.

I don't know about you, but I feel kind of ambivalent towards a lot of cyclists who doped (oddly, I am able to look at cycling, a sport I sort of participate in and at least understand a little, with more objectivity than I can baseball, a sport that continues to simultaneously mistify and bore me: doping in baseball makes me mad as a cat in a carwash).

As some have pointed out, there's a fine line between treatment for performance-related stresses and doping. Likewise, while doping is not something I believe I would do even if I somehow found myself competing in the Tour De Lance France, I understand how your personal sense of ethics can get kind of skewed when you're surrounded by other people who behave a certain way. We humans lose our perspective easily (it's kind of like how even slow drivers find themselves automatically keeping pace in a fast group on the highway).

One part of me is pissed at all these guys for participating in a sort of mass fleecing of all the pro cycling fans out there. Another part understands that most of them would never, ever dream of such a thing if they were really looking at it with clear eyes. I would guess that most, for example, wouldn't cheat on the GRE, because it's a question of context. What seems really freaking wrong in one context may seem less wrong in another. That doesn't excuse their actions, but it does make them easier to understand, and it brings them back to a human level.

Floyd Landis, on the other hand, really burns my bacon, because he caused harm to innocent fans who loved him and stood up for him. He asked for money to aid in his legal defense when he knew full well he was guilty, and deceived people who were pulling for him, who believed he was a symbol of something right in a sport where so many things seemed to be going wrong. A lot of people — people who really love cycling, many of them passionate amateur racers themselves — believed in him and stood beside him. A lot of those people are feeling pretty bitter right now, and nobody should ever have to feel bitter about a game they love.

I refuse to believe that this whole debacle is going to taint the sport of bike racing forever, because I'm an optimist and I believe it makes more sense to do something about a situation like this — even if doing something means rewriting the rules so people who just can't stay off the EPO can have their own division — than to just be pissed about it forever.

I am, however, sad that I came so late to the game. I was only vaguely aware of pro cycling for most of my life, and only discovered that I actually thought it was interesting and worth paying attention to after the fit really hit the shan. However, this is par for the course in my life: perhaps because I am somewhat oblivious by nature, I often feel that I have arrived late at the party. In this case, however, I have arrived so late that everyone already knows the pie was store-bought.


I guess I could've accomplished more with this post if I'd set out with a goal in mind. My blog here is sometimes thematic but rarely what you would call composed — I get a bug in my ear and write 'til it's out. This is not, of course, how I approach technical or academic writing.

Ultimately, I don't think my thoughts on this topic are particularly original — in fact, I think everyone else on the internet has already been over this discussion and written about it far more eloquently than I. That being said, I'm kind of glad I wrote about it, because doing so helped me sort out my own thoughts ... and I guess that's part of why I write this blog in the first place.

I wonder where pro cycling will be in a few years. I wonder how this will all shake out: whether it will continue to be handled with the heavy-handed yet ineffective 'test early, test often, test every time someone has to pee' approach, or whether we'll rethink things entirely.

Ultimately, PT Guy is right. I am a happy guy, if somewhat irritable, and I will continue to be happy about bicycles and continue to think about trying to race mine one of these days.

I suspect that in the end I will shake out much as I have in the equestrian world. Not long ago I came to grips with the fact that I am less interested in going to the FEI World Games than I am in going to a local hunter/jumper show or a small horse trial at a nearby farm.

I would rather watch ordinary people with ordinary, low-budget horses (if you think a titanium bike is expensive, wait 'til you price a titanium horse!) challenging themselves and each-other on a level that almost anyone could achieve with hard work and dedication than watch sponsored pros on million-dollar genius horses. This isn't to say that I don't find their efforts inspiring — especially when we're talking about the down-to-earth pros that still go out and feed their own horses at 6 AM —. It's just that there's something I find even more inspiring about the working Mom who makes time in her busy life to train one racetrack reject, and does it on her own, entirely out of love.

That's the same spirit I see in the crazy guys who own three very good road bikes and live in a one bedroom apartment (wherein the bikes get the bedroom) so they can afford the hobby. They may never 'make it big,' but they're riding for the love of it, every freaking day, and I love that. Those are the guys against whom I want to test my own mettle — not against the pros who don't have to try to balance a job and the bills and a family against the demands of the sport.

I would guess that there are probably a few pros who do it because it's the only thing they're good at, but not many.

As for the rest of us, I hope in the end we're all doing it for love.

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