What is this Cycling Stuff Anyway?
The first time I saw cycling on television I was 11. World of Sport with Dickie Davis had some footage of some foreign chaps riding up and down a featureless dual carriageway outside Portsmouth. The Tour de France had hit the UK! It was dull but a seed had been planted. A relationship had begun.
Over the next 10 years I followed the sport sporadically, following the Tour through whatever television footage the Saturday sports TV shows aired, checking the dark recesses of newspaper sports pages, when I could afford (or even find) Cycling Weekly I would buy it if I’d heard of the rider or race on the cover.
This all changed in 1984. My first holiday in France, a fantastic walk along the GR 30 in The Auvergne with Ailsa, coincided with Fignon’s crushing victory. L’Equipe and every bit of French media made the Tour an integral part of that trip. As soon as we revealed we were Scots the name “Robert Miller” was uttered and the hospitality we received after the Wee Weejies name broke the ice still humbles me thinking back after all of these years.
By 1985? TV made the whole fan thing a lot easier if all you cared about was Le Tour. Hinault’s last win, The badger finishing with panda’s eyes. I was no longer following the sport sporadically, I was obsessed.
’86 The American triumphed in Le Tour. Magazines like Winning meant even Scots folk could get colour pics of races other than L’Tour. Names that had been faceless or, at best, rendered in crappy newsprint suddenly became familiar to me.
’87 Nico’s dad won The Triple Crown.
’89 Do you need to ask?
By the early 90’s Eurosport meant that the great races I’d only read about were now available to watch (assuming there was no live Yak wrestling preceding the race in the schedule).
You know what’s missing from all of these recollections? An obsession with Doping.
It was happening. A lot. It was amateur pharmacology though. Despite frankly rudimentary testing protocols there were positives returned but I really don’t feel it had that much effect on the racing. The drugs in use at the time could mask pain and help you recover, but a huge percentage of the field was doing the same stuff and they couldn’t fundamentally change a rider’s class. They couldn’t polish a turd or turn a donkey into a racehorse.
A seismic shift happened in the early 90’s though. The goalposts moved. After the 1994 Fleche Wallonne it wasn’t just the goalposts moving it was the earth they were standing on. EPO had gone public. Argentin, Berzin and Furlan heralded in a new world order and since then doping hasn’t been an adjunct to our enjoyment of the sport it’s been the foundation upon which it’s built. It moved from self help by riders and their soigniers to organized doping programs within teams, supported by trained medical staff or vets, and involving huge sums of money. I took my eldest boy to Dublin in 1998 to watch the prologue and if you’d told me the last man that day would be atop the podium in Paris I’d have laughed. None of us were laughing though as events unfolded after Willy Voets was caught with a car full of gear. 1998 was a black year in the history of cycling but I was encouraged by the Vuelta performance of an American cancer sufferer on the comeback trail. I said to a chum “watch for him in next year’s Tour.”
The Armstrong Years.
Surely someone with his medical history wouldn’t put stuff in his body?
Never failed a test.
Around him though the aerobic monsters that he was crushing like grapes were going down like nine pins. Doping case after doping case sullied our sport and when Manolo Saiz was found with a suitcase of cash for Fuentes and his fridge full of blood I nearly walked away.
Entertaining Tours, high drama. Love watching them still but the awesome performances from all the big guys are as much a credit to their doctors as to their athletic ability and diligent training. Climbs done at the watts per kg of a superhuman. Roleurs driving over mountains and winning Queen stages.
A theatre of augmented human performance, nothing more or less.
Lance retires. Landis wins. We know how that went.
Rasmussen and Contador duelling on the climbs, the pair of them with blood like treacle. Where did Rasmussen go his holiday?
Vino caught, Tyler caught, Astana excluded. and on and on and on and on.
For the last twenty years we’ve been conditioned to be cynical. If a performance seems too good to be true it is, because they always are. Time and again we’ve been let down by heroes with feet of clay. They’re not bad men, just cheats in a culture where success has demanded cheating presided over by a governing body only interested in protecting itself and lining the pockets of it’s masters.
If you’re not a cynic after the lessons of the last two decades? You’re a fool.
My Name’s John. I Have Apparently Become a Fool.
This morning on Twitter I asked a simple question. “Philippe Gilbert, doped or clean?.
There have been, as far as I’m aware, no substantive allegations aimed at PhilGil but his performances this year have raised what Scotty used to call “The Roger Moore eyebrow of disbelief”. Landmark victories spread over a period of time that, given our decades of conditioning towards cynicism means he must be doping. Hell, he even dominated the Ardennes week known as doper’s week. Last person to do that was Davide Rebellin! His palmares this year rivals that of Merckx in one day races and short Tours. UNBELIEVABLE!
Well, a substantial sample of my rough and ready vox pop do find it unbelievable. Doper, no doubt.
Some find themselves hoping but doubting.
Some think he clean.
Some regard the very asking of the question as the moral equivalent of beating a puppy to death with your NewsCorp shares certificates.
I’m not going to publish percentages because it was just a rough and ready poll. I’m going to cut to the chase and say what I think.
I think he’s clean. There will always be cheats but the sport has felt cleaner to me this year. There seems a group of riders at the top who are very closely matched and decide the outcome of most of the one day races. PhilGil’s edge may be dopage but I think it’s more likely that in a group of roughly equal peers then brilliant racecraft may well be enough of an edge to appear dominant. Gilbert has that. He’s won a metric shitload of races but not in the manner of some of the ridiculously extravagant demonstrations of force that marked the previous era.
He’s just a great, once in a generation, single day race genius who’s palmares since he turned pro show a credible development curve year on year.
I may be disappointed but I chose not to be cynical.
That’s incidental because I’m not asking for folk to believe in Gilbert, I’m asking folk to take a risk and start believing in cycling again. I think it’s time.
We’ve had a believable, a very believable, Tour. We’ve seen young riders come through, canny riders who aren’t the strongest fill our screens, a measured dosing of effort as opposed to drug fueled extravagant dominance.
People who’ve known me online and via the podcasts will know this is a big step for me.
It’s our sport, let’s take it back and dare to hope.