I grew up in a bike shop. I have worked in shops and on the ‘supply side’ of the so-called bicycle industry most of my life. In all my years riding bikes, selling bikes, fixing bikes, and helping create bikes and the culture they generate, I have never seriously raced. Many of my friends and customers race or at least follow bicycle racing. Not me. I have been to races and twice even sported a number plate. I like to go fast and push myself, but spectating bores me and I’m not interested in competing with strangers. I compete with the clock, with the terrain, with myself and with friends, but in general I avoid races and racing.
Most people who race are not racers. They are average Freds and Betties looking for a bit of challenge, camaraderie, distraction and fun. People like sports. People like competition. They like to test themselves. People like role models as much as they like competition. Role models let people dream a little. For many people it ends there, admiring those who do it better. For some, the bug of bikes or competition bites hard, or the lure of fame, money, and prestige is a siren song they cannot ignore. Beyond that, of course, those who ascend the higher ranks beyond regional competition are truly gifted athletes.
The last few years we have all watched the passion play surrounding doping bubble up as unignorably as a boil on the nose of sports. The basic dilemma is that of honesty, human desire and weakness. Doping, the argument goes, is cheating, plain and simple. Can a person be a proper role model if they cheat? What if this sort of cheating is institutionalized and normal, even if it’s hush-hush? Can we –should we—try to fix something that many think is wrong, but which seems to be a flaw not just of cycling or sports but of the very heart of what makes us human?
The big fish that everyone is angling for in this latest drama, of course, is Lance. As in No Last Name Needed Lance. Is he one of the greatest competition cyclists ever or is he the best ever at cheating and hiding it? It’s been a nail biter for years. Now that the dam of denial he built has begun to crumble, conversations about whether he doped have given way to his vilification. People believed him, believed in him and in the idea that he was in some way a physical and moral superhero, but now that it looks as if he was lying all along, cycling fans are bummed.
It all strikes me as hugely hypocritical. Lance didn’t get where he is simply by racing, or even by doping. Fans put him there. Companies with financial interests in him did too. Anybody who follows racing, who followed the Tour, who bought a team kit to emulate their cycling heroes put him on that pedestal. This does not remove responsibility from Lance or other top-level racers…they pursued their dreams and made their choices. But the better they raced and the more they won, the greater the incentives and the greater the pressures. As pressures and incentives increase, so does the need to find ways to compete. If you’re a competitive person who is inflexibly driven to achieve your goals (I think it’s fair to say that about top level racers in general or else they wouldn’t be where they are) and you’ve put in the kind of blood, sweat, and tears it takes to compete at a significant level, it is unlikely that you would quit before you were good and ready. So when not only your income and notoriety but that of the team are at stake, when your manager and team and your doctor are putting it in front of you, and everyone seems to go along with it, and the payoff is high, you take the dope. And we as fans set the stage for this scenario. At a certain point we are the ones putting needles into arms and paying off doctors because we demand entertainment.
I’m sick of hearing about racing, but more than that I’m sick of hearing people despondent over the fate of some idol they wanted desperately to believe would shine a light in the world. Shine your own damn light. Racing can be fun, but it’s not where heroes are born. Failures are a dime a dozen. In fact, the bigger racing gets, the more I see it as a place where criminals are forged in spite of themselves. The road to fame is paved with hardship, temptation, mostly unattainable desires and the adulation of complete strangers. That’s a pretty lonely place to be, and people do desperate things when they’re lonely. For decades we have mostly ignored itchy issues we knew to be endemic. We spent our hard-earned dollars (or else we raked it in) on products that made us feel connected to the athletes, teams, and culture we were enamored by. We paid for their habit.
If all you want is tragic drama and repeat performances of everything we’ve already seen before, then by all means continue as you have been. Just please accept your role as an active participant in the degradation of whatever promise bicycle racing offers. Accept doping and cheating as a natural, if unfortunate, facet of the human character and quit wringing your hands and bitching.
But if you’re truly serious in your concern and disgust around the doping scandals, then stop being a spectator and fan of professional bicycle racing. Turn off the Tour. Don’t buy the kit. Don’t spend time on chat forums discussing him or her or this or that. Instead, stage crits, time trials, and hill climbs with your friends. Attend or enter local races. But whatever you do, don’t get a racing license, don’t let someone categorize you, and don’t support regulatory organizations by attending their races.
After all these years living with bikes, riding them and making a living from them, I still like almost everything about them, from their utility and efficiency to their natural beauty and magical ability to bestow upon a person a feeling of dreamlike transcendence, a feeling that we are not merely anchored to the responsibilities and limits of our world, but rather that we can fly. Bikes are machines that in some small way ennoble us. They make people happy, something clearly evident in even the youngest rider and which does not fade over time. But racing, which some believe embodies (or should embody) the greatest parts of our humanity, has become little more than a cheap, tawdry drama, a tragedy which blackens the eye of cycling because it isn’t about bikes at all. It’s about dope, money, and fame, all of which are more fleeting than the fastest rider in the world.