Sunday, July 19, 2015

Could not knowing lead to not caring? Maybe. Maybe not.

In today's VeloNews coverage of the Tour de France, now just a week away from its finish in Paris, VN Editor John Bradley writes an interesting, if somewhat depressing, analysis of his love affair with bicycle racing in the wake of nearly two decades of doping scandals. Is it possible, he asks, to love a sport that probably cannot be truly clean? Is it enough to love the sport because it leaders are trying to clean it up? When a rider performs unbelievably, consistently well, we now suspect that performance-enhancing drugs may play a role. Bradley suggests that, given racing's more recent history, it's impossible not to be suspicious. But the truth, he guesses, is that we'll never really know if someone at the elite level of racing is doping or not.

I think there's something beautiful about the sport of bicycle racing. The speed, the technique, the strange and storied groupthink that passes for etiquette in the peloton and which occurs in no other sport (when a opposing player falls down in football, you don't wait for him to get back up, you run over or around him. And if you're his teammate, you don't stop and help him to his feet again. You run over or around him, too, and finish the play).  Perhaps that odd sense of "gentlemanliness" has contributed to the tension around doping and testing and how much we can take a racer's word for it when he says he's racing clean.

But how, then, to explain the recent hacking into a team's performance records to look for proof against their star rider? How to justify that same rider getting splashed in the face with a cup of urine from an angry fan? Neither is justifiable, but both are understandable, especially for fans of a certain age and older. If you cheered on Greg LeMond in the 80's, you'll take a different view of doping than someone who was a kid when the Festina or Puerto scandals erupted. The younger fans grew up watching racing under a different set of social mores. People cheat. Sometimes they get caught, sometimes they don't. That's racing, because that's life. In short, younger fans of racing seem to accept the rules of life more readily than someone in my generation might. Because if you're over 45, you remember a time when cheating was actually a real scandal, a source of shame.

Today, it's not such a big deal. Today's fans accept an ambiguity that I still have a hard time wrapping my head around, in sports and in life. I grew up thinking that if you worked hard and played by the rules you might get ahead. That's simply not true anymore. The difference is that young adults today grew up with that mindset, while I had it shoved down my throat in a series of rude awakenings between 1981 and, oh, 1998.

So forgive me if I don't follow the Tour more closely.

I still love bicycle racing, the form, the beauty, the suffering (yes, in racing, even the suffering is beautiful, and I can say that as both a spectator and a former racer). But the politics and the drugs and the ever-growing mountains of money involved -- all of which are tacitly supported by the sport's international governing body, the sponsors and race promoters who stand to profit -- turn me off. It is nearly impossible for me to watch a racer in the Tour and NOT wonder what he's using to enhance his performance. Mere mortals cannot ride for 20 kilometers up a 12 % grade without going into cardiac arrest. The only way a racer becomes so invincible is to take drugs. Younger fans may read this, and shrug, and not really care. But I can't NOT care. Because once upon a time, the sport was beautiful. Today it's as sullied and corrupt and lacking in integrity as damned near everything else in the world. And I can't help but feel sad about it.

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