Wednesday, September 5, 2012

La Passion du Velo: childhood dreams & adult realizations,

I first loved bikes when I first rode with out training wheels at age 6. It took me a week to learn how to ride, and then I was unstoppable. I only knew that I loved the feeling of freedom and discovery that my bike brought me, practically every day. I discovered cycling, however, at age 12. I began to explore the local bike shop to find my first 10 speed bike. I quickly discovered both race bikes, and bike racing. The guys who ran the shop were amateur racers. They carried Bicycling and Winning magazine. I devoured every issue of those magazines. In them I found a whole new world of speed & glory. I became enthralled when Greg Lemond won the world championships in 1983, the first American to win a Rainbow Jersey on the road. Watching Greg win the Tour de France 3 years later meant everything to me. Only a couple of my friends and my father had any notion of the Tour de France. I didn't care, it was spectacular just to dream about.

But living in Kansas in the 1980's meant that bike racing was much more a dream than a reality. I got a Fuji Club racer for my 14th birthday, my first race bike. I rode it as hard as I could. I went on training rides sometimes with the local college club. Mostly I rode by myself planning to race someday. I spent hours in the winter riding a Vetta wind trainer in the garage. But as I got into high school I had to make some choices. Bike racing was not practical since it was hardly available to me. So my dreams of bike racing were put aside.

After I took a desk job in my mid 20's I began putting on weight. Funny how riding an office chair will add 20 pounds to one's waist in 2 years. I bought a used Bianchi race bike to try to shed a few of those pounds. I immediately rediscovered the thrill of going fast on two wheels. I soon realized I needed to loose more than a few pounds, and discovered that my little town in New Hampshire had a community of cyclists. Like most cycling communities, some racers & ex-racers gathered every Wednesday night for the fast group ride. (the Wednesday Night Worlds Championships). I quickly understood how out of race shape I was. I spent two years trying to get fast enough to hold on for a full forty miles at their pace. I thought that if I had to work so hard just to sit in on Wednesday night, I might as well race on the weekend. The following summer I started racing Cat 5 criteriums and road races. I was thrilled to finally be able to race on any weekend I wanted, like I had hoped to when I was young. I didn't care whether I was last or dropped, I still got a chance to race.

My rediscovered love of cycling also rekindled my interest in following pro road racing. It was 1998, Bobby Julich made the podium of the Tour de France. An American team was more than just competing in Europe, they were winning too. The next year began the phoenix like rise of Lance Armstrong from terminal cancer to champion of Le Tour. It was a spectacular time to be a long time American fan of cycling

But it was also a troubling time. The Festina affair brought pro cycling's long time doping problem out into the open. Rumors about abuse of EPO, cortisone, and pot Belge were now facts. The only questions were "just how bad is the problem?" and "what is it going to take to clean it up?" Over the next 12 years we would learn that the problem was extremely bad and it would take enormous efforts to clean up cycling.

The hope during this period was that Lance represented a new sort of champion. His practical resurrection from cancer meant he wouldn't risk his health with dope, right? He publicly proclaimed his virtue by always testing clean and declaring his righteousness. The LiveStrong foundation burnished his image as one of the hero's of all sport. Yet there were always nagging questions about his performance and methods. Early on it was easy to dismiss the inuendos as sour grapes, or the conspiracy theories of a few cranks. While Lance was winning in spectacular ways, other pro cyclists were getting caught for doping. The last decade has seen more pro cyclists booted from the sport for cheating than any other era, and perhaps more than any other sport in any period. Many times I have been so disgusted that I wanted to find a different sport to follow. (You tell me there's a a tour in France in July? But its really a race?, yet they call it a tour? crazy)

But Lance was still clean, even as the rumors of his doping increased, even as half of his former top team mates tested positive. The best summary of the case against Lance is found in the Science of Sport. I agree with most of it, though I do not know whether Lance used dope or not. No one outside his team members truly knows. But the reality is that a whole generation of pro cyclists have been wasted by a system of doping and denial. Scanning the top ten results of the Tour de France from the last decade, it is harder to find a reputedly clean rider than an accused doper. Some of the most talented racers ultimately paid for the system of dope in the most tragic ways, such as Marco Pantani and Frank Van den Broucke. Greg Lemond was right about Lance in 2001 when he said,  "If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sport. If he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud." Ultimately I forecast that Lance will go down in history as the only cyclist to win 7 Tour de France titles, and the only to throw his titles away.
World cycling champion Lance Armstrong, left, stretches out as he rides with Greg Lemond of Medina, Minn., during the fifth stage of the 81st Tour de France cycling race around Portsmouth, southern England, Thursday, July 7, 1994.
the great American champions in a more innocent time

I am at a point in life were I could easily abandon my interest in pro road racing. I have so little time or energy for the drama. I have enough activity in my own racing, riding with friends, building trails, organizing cycling events, as well as a career, family, and community roles, that watching pro road races seems a waste. It seems especially wasteful in the era of big dopes.

But I would be dishonest to suggest that pro road racing did not lead me to "la passion du velo". It was that part of the sport that ignited my desire to ride when I was young. I can do with out pro road racing now, but  should it be diminished will that weaken the sport for new cyclists? I wonder if my young son will  have the same chance to love the sport if he is less aware of racing's highest level. Is riding in the woods with friends enough to create a passion for cycling? Then again, if my son shows any talent in cycling, I wouldn't want him to get anywhere near the doping that has corrupted the sport to its core. Perhaps Adam Myerson is right, pro racing has to be burned to the ground to be rebuilt. For the sake of guys like Gavin Mannion and Danny Summerhill, and Taylor Phinney, I hope it is now a clean sport. I only know that my love of cycling will continue, but my original passion for Euro road racing has faded, perhaps permanently, perhaps not. I will continue to ride and continue to race cyclocross, mountain bikes, and even on the road. My hopes and joy now rest in the friends I ride with and the kids who may learn to love cycling.

Just as there is more to road racing than the Tour de France, there is much more to cycling than pro road racing. My childhood dream of road racing glory has transformed into a wonderful life of riding and racing with a strong community of cyclists. I thank my friends and competitors for granting me the chance to be a cyclist. I realize that regardless of the latest scandal, my passion for cycling will remain.

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