Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Racing bikes: a beautiful cul-de-sac.

As most of you have already heard, or read, last Sunday, an op-ed piece ran in the New York Times titled "How to Get Doping Out of Sports" penned by Garmin-Sharp team director Jonathan Vaughters in which he admits to doping during his career as a professional bike racer.  If you've not read it, you can find it here

For any of you that follow professional racing, this was not really news.  Vaughters has been hinting about using performance enhancing drugs ever since forming the early Slipstream team, which has since evolved into the current Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda squad.  In fact, the subject of his hints of a doping past were, in many ways, the inspiration for wanting to form a 100% clean team.  That said, he never came out and fully admitted to doping before, and certainly never revealed any details about the who, what, why and where of it all.
In his op-ed in the Times, he does fully admit to doping, but still does not reveal the who, what, why and where of it all.  At first, the response to his article from bloggers and writers was universal praise and gratitude.  Individuals on Twitter, and bike forums thanked Vaughters and even claimed to be moved to tears by his tale of growing from a small boy with a weird alarm clock, to a young adult who never got to go to Homecoming or the Prom because of his dogged pursuit of a dream to race in Europe which was ultimately realized, only to have his dream crushed by the pressure to dope in a widely corrupt sport.  The story worked in generating a lot of sympathy from a lot of observers.

But since the initial positive response to his admission, there has been a slowly building backlash not directly against Vaughters himself, or his admission necessarily, but rather to how and why he chose to air this confession.  As most know, the USADA is on the cusp of getting jurisdiction over the Lance Armstrong case and moving forward with arbitrating his alleged doping, and Vaughters is widely thought to have provided witness testimony of doping practices while on the US Postal team.  Neil Browne, cycling analyst and writer, suggests that Vaughters authored his recent piece with motivation not purely by what would benefit the sport, but what would benefit him personally, and is thus a "Jedi Master of Spin." 

Not coincidentally, JV has offered up his admission in advance of the USADA potentially releasing the names of all the eye-witnesses and their accounts, in a well-calculated preemptive move which allows him to control the story and appear more a victim than perpetrator.  Appreciative of the honesty, yes, but Browne suggests that it may all be too little, too late to actually benefit the sport with any significance.

Cyclist and blogger Seth Davidson (aka Wankmeister) has issued a far more caustic appraisal of Vaughters' piece...

"Too bad he [JV] doesn't read my blog......He could have....saved himself some embarassment.  You know, the embarassment from saying totally ridiculous shit that makes him look like a liar and a hypocrite, and that makes us look like tools for taking the time to read it."

Davidson bullets JV's thoughs on why doping is bad in his post and then contradicts each and every one of them.  Of particular interest was his response to JV point #3: "Doping forces young athletes to abandon their sport if they choose not to dope." To which Davidson replies:
"Wait a minute....that's a negative?  Trading in your stinky bibs for an Armani and a cubicle at Goldman-Sachs?  Sign me up! Cycling is a cul-de-sac, and the only people in it are broken, or deluded, or drug-addled, or all of the above.  The more young athletes who give up this ignoble pursuit as a profession and go get real jobs, the better.  You can bicycle chase on the weekend."

All of this from a guy who has raced.....a lot. 

Or try this one:

JV point #4: "Riders who refused to dope, and walked away, were punished for following their moral compass."

Davidson: ".....The whole point behind morality is to do what's right, regardless of the consequences.  In fact, it is only by taking the punishment of an unjust system that morality makes sense,  You're never punished for taking a moral stand, you're rewarded for it because, asshole, morality is its own reward.  Which is the main reason it's so unpopular."

Why do I bother referencing Neil Browne and Seth Davidson on this topic?  Because they are smart and savvy and completely non-saccharine.  Are they jaded?  You bet.  But I don't think I am alone in saying I'm weary of every commentator and blogger (present company included) trying to turn the story of some cyclist into a fairy tale, replete with humble beginnings, aspirations of grandeur, an arduous journey, a climactic challenge, a fall from greatness and a chance at redemption and then victimizing anyone that would challenge this pursuit.  None of us actually live like that - why should we press-fit the lives of professional cyclists into that mold?  That everyone thinks they deserve some kind of experience like this is probably the reason why those who dope do it.....to not have to face the reality that a very, very few of us will ever be considered truly exceptional at anything....least of all pedalling a bike around.

All of that said, I do think Jonathan Vaughters is good for the sport, currently.  He manages a respectful and intelligent team of gifted and seemingly conscientious athletes.  Yes, he doped, and if I am speculating correctly, it will soon become public knowledge that he told some investigators that Lance Armstrong doped too.  But if that does come to pass; if he is listed as an eyewitness and a snitch to Armstrong and Bruyneel's drug program, how is it that he comes off smelling like a rose, when people like Floyd Landis, and Frankie and Betsy Andreu lost so much in testifying the very same thing not that long ago.

I often ask myself, what would have happened when Floyd came clean and began suffering the backlash, if Vaughters, and Zabriskie, and Hincapie, and Leipheimer and Hamilton all came forward and said, "Hang on - we all did it.  We all saw it.  Floyd's not alone.....The sport is fucked right to the core."  Maybe, just maybe, that kind of altruistic maturity to prevent a single person from having to dangle alone at the end of the noose could have changed the sport and have prevented the past 4 years of accusations, threats, investigations and insinuations.  But that's just not the way the race is run.  After all, if you are one of the lucky few to get into the break, you form allegiances quickly and then use everyone with you to stay away until you get the chance to screw them all and go for the glory on your own. 

In his post, Seth Davidson says that cycling is not a beautiful sport in one of his responses to a commentor named Matt, and lists quite a few reasons to justify his answer that make, on the surface, a pretty convincing argument that I couldn't even begin to contradict as eloquently as he lays out.  But maybe that's the point.  Cycling is filled with pain and anguish and if you are racing - 95% of the time, full of wasted effort.  There are always a million reasons to quit and walk away from it (whether you are riding or watching)..and yet we come back to it.  If that's not beautiful, I don't know what is.

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