La Niña and a winter of discontent

No, La Niña is not an exotic Spanish doping technique but an ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that lowers the ocean temperature in the Eastern Pacific by 3-5 degrees. This phenomena is going to be the primary driver of the winter weather here in British Columbia and, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, “Winter temperatures will be a bit below normal, on average, with below-normal precipitation and above-normal snowfall.”

The Fall season, if it is agreeable, can be a fantastic time for riding – days that are cool and clear, with the change of season producing fabulous new colours from the trees. But it is but a temporary hiatus from the weather to come – cold, dark, and wet; each ride becomes delicate balancing act in choosing between how many, and which, layers to wear and making the right choice of gloves, rain protection, hot toddy, and riding route. Foraging for one’s old booties from the bottom of the drawer is essential, as four months of fighting off wet feet awaits.

Yet Winter riding can have its satisfactions, if nothing else than the relief it brings from short days spent mostly indoors, and the opportunities it affords for plotting and scheming about plans and exploits for more agreeable weather. Plus, it’s an opportunity to explore new routes, which your author hopes to do – avoiding the dull monotony (but obvious training advantages) of the indoor trainer, a most disagreeable invention.

No riding today.

A season of discontent

By most accounts, the season of professional racing just passed was the most memorable in years. Thrilling, engaging racing with some great individual performances and a variety of winners; plus, the spectre of doping seemed to be retreating further into the background.

Then came the news of the two positive results from the Vuelta, one from the runner up himself, Ezequiel Mosquera. The rider from the Xacobeo Galicia team gave a climbing master class during the Vuelta, epitomized by his performance on the Bola del Mundo summit finish. Mosquera tested positive for hydroxyethyl starch (HES), a banned masking agent that expands plasma volumes to lower hematocrit levels; it can only be taken via blood transfusion – a banned procedure. Oscar Sevilla also tested positive for the substance in Colombia.

If this was not enough, the news then leaked out that Alberto Contador, winner of this year’s Tour de France, had tested positive for clenbuterol, a steroid apparently used to control weight gain. The case to date has followed a familiar theme: media leaks from the laboratory, accusations of foot-dragging at the UCI, a convenient – possibly plausible, according to some – excuse of tainted meat, and suggestions that the clenbuterol was part of a wider doping regime involving blood transfusions.

Once again, cycling is under the popular spotlight, a spotlight largely oblivious to the technicalities of the case but which is shining a bright light on the sport and concluding that it is business as usual for doping.

This, of course, may not be too far from the truth. We now have all of the Tour winners going back to 1996 having been suspended for doping (not necessarily for the Tour they won), under suspicion of doping, under investigation for doping, or having tested positive for doping – with the exception of Carlos Sastre in 2008. By some accounts, you have to go back to Greg LeMond to find a clean winner. Does this mean that Bernard Kohl (“People know in cycling that’s it’s not possible to win the Tour de France without it…”) is correct?

Given that most serious observers and participants have argued that this year’s Tour (and this year’s season) was the cleanest in some time, and given that numerous riders who have never been suspected of doping won races and stages, it is more accurate to say that doping is not required to win the Tour – but it certainly helps. Such is the nature of professional sports, where the rewards for winning are fame and, more importantly, fortune.

Grey days bring a strange satisfaction to riding.

Sport as work

Your humble author has already noted the tension between the mythical status given to cycling and the hard graft undertaken by the riders themselves. This issue – sport as spectacle versus sport as work – was taken up directly at the anti-doping conference in Geelong recently, to coincide with the World Championships. The report by Australian and other researchers, I Wish I Was Twenty One Now – Beyond Doping in the Australian Peloton, which drew extensively on interviews with Australian pros in Europe, is worth quoting at length.

The difficulty we’ve consistently struck up against in preparing this report relates to a point of tension between regulatory and legal frameworks designed to maintain certain social values and the practical ‘coal face’ experiences of our participants. That tension reflects a difference between what sport ‘means’ as a cultural spectacle or social force, and what it means to its workforce and the industry that surrounds it. Of course, the two are inherently linked. As participants constantly pointed out, being a professional cyclist isn’t just another day job. The values of fair play, athleticism and competitive spirit are part of their sense of self just as much as they’re part of the wider social appeal of sport. At the same time, it’s hard to have a healthy sense of identity when you’re faced with pressing poverty or you know full well that a minor crash might result in an untimely return to a ‘career’ stocking supermarket shelves. (Page 143)

The idea of the values of sport being part of cyclists’ identities is not so far from Henri Desgrange’s idea of l’ouvrier de la pedale, so we have been grappling with these ideas for some time. The broader point is important, though, and the report goes on to note the somewhat precarious situation that pro cyclists find themselves in – entering into the sport early in life and having little or no tertiary education or other job skills, and having perhaps only 10-15 years to get ahead financially and perhaps find another place for themselves in the sport or elsewhere. Also noted was the lack of financial support given for retirement savings and so on. Given that only a small percentage of the peloton would make the really big money, being part of that super elite group provided a major incentive. One interviewee told the authors, “…it’s no wonder that all those poor Spaniards with little education, they were prepared to do whatever it takes.”

Compared to other professional sports, cycling is not a big money sport. To see the real money, one has to look to professional football/soccer, or to US sports. Given that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg for doping scandals in these sports, it is clear that money is a major issue.

Given our attitudes on doping, one wonders if the current model of professional sports is hopelessly flawed. Big money is simply too much of an incentive to take shortcuts. One cannot help but wonder if a new model could work. What if all the salaries were divided equally among the professional teams; what if the prizes for winning were simply the glory? Sponsors would presumably still be happy; would the racing be any less exciting?

Still, we are a competitive bunch. As anyone who has raced a local amateur road race or a mid-week world champs criterium knows, fair plays soon gives way to heated competition fairly quickly. There may be no doping, but attitudes – although friendly in the main – are not always so convivial. We are a competitive bunch. As one participant told the study’s authors, “I guarantee you right now… you will never stop doping as long as there’s money and people who want to win.” You can take away the money factor, but racers still want to win.

Distant mountains a reminder of a new season on its way.

Changing norms

The biggest change in pro cycling regarding doping happened after the Festina Affair in 1998. The sport set itself, slowly but surely, on a path of not ignoring doping and treating it like a fact of life in the sport. Public attitudes have subsequently hardened. Doping was previously seen as necessary for the spectacle of cycling; past champions like Coppi and Anquetil talked openly of their use of amphetamines. But as the EPO era finally spiralled out of control, the majority of fans and the sport’s organizers were changing their view, and a new norm was emerging.

The peloton has been slower to react, as the ongoing, incessant doping scandals bear witness to. But norms are changing there, too, as one participant in the study noted, sounding typically Australian: “I think one of the things that’s changed the most with the peloton at the moment is that, back in the old days, everyone would talk about doping, and everyone would talk about what they’re on and how much they’re having, and this guy’s was on this, and this guy’s taken that and all this sort of thing and just a completely open forum about doping basically.

“And it’s got to the stage now, where if someone gets caught using something, there’s guys in the bunch, and everyone just – they’re on the outer, they’re the ones getting the piss taken out of them, they’re the ones that are not get… that are getting fucked over in the cross winds, and they’re the ones that are getting slowly outed from the sport because socially they’re not, they’re not one of us anymore. They’re the ones ruining the sport.”

The future, therefore, towards a cleaner sport lies with the changing attitudes of the riders. Anything that can be done by the powers-that-be and by fans to assist that process can only be for the better.

The yellow jersey, R.I.P?

As this post was being written, the Tour de France route for 2011 was announced, with the usual fanfare but without the defending champion at the presentation – yet again. This year’s edition produced some absolutely thrilling racing, but mostly that was not important for the overall – sprints, breakaways, and mountain wins by plucky adventurers provided more entertainment than the top tier of the yellow jersey competition.

Not exactly one for the history books, despite the hype. How about a pastis instead?

Given the nearly total invisibility of Tour winners free from doping suspicion in the last 15+ years (take your pick as to your standards of evidence), one can only wonder whether the carnival and hoopla that accompanies the maillot jaune is simply now just hype devoid of any standing or significance. Is it simply a magnet, still, for those riders who won’t change, who are still ruining the sport? It is a sad thesis to posit, but any cycling fan could surely not be blamed for searching for more satisfaction for their support of the sport in other jersey competitions or in other races.

We have had a feast this season of great racing action, with winners that are surely clean and at races that have been slightly below the usual radar of the mass media. These are the riders and the races that will continue to sustain cycling well into the future, until the yellow jersey can be finally claimed back.

May La Niña pass quickly this winter and, too, this season of discontent.

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