Seasons in the abyss

It was cold coming down off the mountain. A low mist had settled across all of the city, and the air was cold and biting. I was falling like the barometer, the last vestiges of our late summer dropping away, my legs prickly in the wind, recalling – for some reason – high school years of uniforms and shorts in winter like some English Victorian throwback to building fortitude and character.

It was ironic in some way that the glory days of sunshine were coming to an end. There was not much enthusiasm in my climbing, some of the energy sucked away. We all knew that the bombshell was coming, most of us had already made up our minds, had our suspicions, but to see it laid out so explicitly and so clearly with so many collaborating details was jarring. The commentary will be endless, but Bonnie D. Ford laid it out in perhaps the most literary way: “…there will always be people who loved those three-week travelogues every July and don’t want to give up on their longtime protagonist, either. Sunflowers and lavender and Alpine switchbacks are far more appealing images than syringes and blood bags and a cult of personality channeled into coercion. Armstrong’s legacy lies now not only in the eye of the beholder but in the willingness of that beholder to take off the blinders and see.”

Expendable youth

It is very easy in any analysis, to focus on the system – ‘cycling’ – and to provide explanations along the lines of the system being corrupt and venal and self-serving and only interested in its own preservation and glory. But the system is ultimately made up of individuals, and the report from USADA sets out an alarming record of – to use Ford’s term – coercion. If one wants a case study of organized workplace exploitation then look no further. Pro cycling as sick and depraved, it’s all right there. One cannot but read with sadness, for example, David Zabriskie’s account of the pressure he was under to dope, with no consideration of his objections or his view on drugs having lost his father to substance abuse. Struggling to perform in 2002, his salary was just $15,000(!) for his sacrifices. It was pretty clear what he needed to do to stay in the sport. It was either that or give up and go home.

These are not the glorious accounts we have read in the latest publications, and one can only look forward to the announcements by John Wilcockson and Bill Strickland, for example, that the royalties from their hagiographies will be donated to support anti-doping messages for youth cycling. Churlish? Perhaps. In fairness, We Might As Well Win pretty much sums up the ethos of the time, all other considerations pushed aside.

Spirit in black

Ironic, too, perhaps, that your author has just finished reading Le Métier. I had been stretching it out, not wanting it to end, reading each chapter – as it is divided into the seasons – as the weather changed here. Autumn, or fall if you prefer, is the final chapter. “Autumn is arriving on the mountain slopes,” Michael Barry writes. “And the sun that burned the plains has lost its strength in the late afternoon. My shadow is long and lone.”

The book achieves two things. Firstly, it reminds us that what we do on the bike is far, far away from what professionals do. For us, the bike is leisure, an escape. For them it is work. Tough, unrelenting, soaked with suffering. Rewards are few while disappointments are many. It is a world that is difficult to understand. Secondly, though, Barry answers the question, ‘why?’ Why do they do it; why does anyone want to be a professional cyclist? Why does it become an obsession? Barry writes: “Cycling has become spiritual, as it is a passion that I can pursue in the natural environment. I can pedal away angst, find calm and clarity with rhythmic motion and freedom. The commitment gives me focus; the love gives me panache. Whether it is pedaling to a victory or training in the mountains, I find peace.”

Bewilderment, or some other emotion, therefore, when we read his affidavit to USADA: “I used EPO and testosterone off and on from 2003 until 2006.” Yet there is much more to Barry’s story. His childhood dream of riding the Tour de France, which he only achieved late in his career. Of terrible crashes with poor medical support, frustration in the late 90s with the pervasive doping culture, but then the gradual slide into that very culture as a requirement to be competitive. Of pre-doping crushing realities at the 2002 Vuelta, before another terrible crash: “The speed of the peloton was incredible. David [Zabriskie] and I were struggling to hold on to the back of the peloton. It got so bad that David was literally in tears on the team bus because it was so difficult.” Then yet another terrible crash in 2006 at the Tour of Flanders when no one from his team, Discovery, came to see him in the hospital. “That is when I realized that I was competing and taking risks for people who did not care about my health or value my well being.” He then stopped doping and campaigned for change.

Barry in tatters at the 2002 Vuelta after being hit by a press motorbike (La Vuelta)

Temptation

The skill of Barry’s prose in Le Métier is that he takes what we do on the bike, which has no wider meaning, and shares his experience on the bike in a way that does, and feeds it back to us so that in some small way we can be part of that meaning. Accounts of life inside the peloton rarely capture our imagination in the way that Le Métier does; it draws us in. But there is a temptation to feel that in some way we understand exactly what the meaning is. We grasp at it, and take away what we need for our own inspiration, but we cannot fully understand the milieu without experiencing it and knowing of the darker side. In the book, we want to lose ourselves in the pleasure of the text, but should not slide too deeply into its embrace.

Therefore, being part of that experience, or taking meaning from it ourselves, is a fraught process. We are captured by the panache, the victories, the mountains. But it has come at at cost. For many of those involved it has been a terrible personal cost of shattered dreams and dashed expectations. Barry doesn’t cover that in Le Métier and one can only hope that future writings will give us more of an insight. We will do our best to understand. Ultimately, we can walk away and the travails of the pro peloton do not affect our time on the bike, our escape and our spiritual passion for riding. In riding for ourselves we can find more of our own meanings.

Looking forward, we can be optimistic that a new future is ahead. “Nothing can erase what has happened in cycling’s history, but we can learn from it. We can look back and say: never again. We can look forward to the crop of young athletes coming up not just on our team but on other teams and have confidence that the future of the sport is here,” according to a statement from Slipstream Sports. For now, though, the doping wildfire continues to suck the oxygen from pro cycling, leaving us with little air to sustain our support. Perhaps that is why I had little energy to attack the climbs on my ride, the mist like the smoke from the ashes of the recent past.

An addendum: In his book Nous étions jeunes at insouciants, Laurent Fignon also talks about le métier. “If you wanted to be the best, you had to learn to improve in every area. And obviously drugs were part of that panoply. At the very least, the riders made sure they were informed. And then made a decision. That’s the ‘cycling way’. That what faire le métier means. Do the job the best way you can.” (In the original French version, the last sentence is omitted and its inclusion in the English version likely a translation clarification.)

In Fignon’s definition, drugs are only part of a rider’s tools for preparation. Attention has to be given to every aspect. In Le Métier, in the introduction, David Millar writes: “…the things that have stood strong and proved their worth are the elements that make up le métier: the traditions, experience and knowledge gained.” We are still peeling back the layers of those traditions, as if everything now has a hidden meaning. C’est la méthode cycliste.

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