This year, 2012, the whistle-blowing former Tour de France cyclist Stephen Swart was given the award for New Zealander of the Year. The award, started in 1991, has included cultural icons from the arts (Dame Malvina Major, Jane Campion, Peter Jackson), sporting stars from yachting, rugby and the Olympics, as well as authors, scientists, politicians and outstanding contributors to the social fabric of the country. In 1994, the title was given collectively to the residents of Auckland – some 1 million in the country’s largest city – for enduring that year’s water crisis (your author was one of the residents at that time so, if you’ll pardon the pun, a diluted recipient of the award).
Swart’s selection is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, cycling is a second or third tier sport in New Zealand, behind such niche sports as rugby, yachting, cricket and netball or even more well-known sports such as basketball and soccer. Secondly, Swart’s contribution to the dethroning of Lance Armstrong and the cleaning up of cycling was far away from New Zealand. As the editorial in the NZ Herald noted, the accolade normally “recognizes a particularly notable contribution to national life.” In this case Swart “created shockwaves far beyond the confines of this small nation.”
Yet Swart’s courage in talking about his own – and Armstrong’s – drug taking as long ago as 1997 was lauded. “It took courage to expose the much-celebrated Armstrong’s drug-taking when no one else wanted to know he was a cheat,” the editorial said. “Swart’s particular bravery lay in being the first cyclist to break that code of silence that had enveloped the sport.” Strong praise, indeed.
But why would New Zealanders care about a predominantly European sport? The antipodeans like their overseas sporting adventures. Cycling may not be a top-tier sport but it does have solid (and growing) popularity. With cycling finally getting cleaner, the NZ Herald noted that there is now “hope that the increasing number of talented and determined New Zealanders now working their way to the top of cycling will not have to face the choice of doping or accept a lesser career. Kiwis are strong people, they excel so long as the playing field is level.”
Which is what it is all about – the level playing field. Swart receiving the award is testimony to the interests of this small country in acknowledging his contribution to levelling that playing field and giving Kiwis the opportunity to shine on the world stage, no matter what the sport. Fair play and fair chances for all. An award reflecting the idealism of the amateur ethic that has driven so much of New Zealand’s sporting identity.
The rain rolling against the window like the sound of a tom-tom drum. The phone ringing early, way too early. “Smiley, it’s Eighter,” the voice saying through the fog of the early morning. “I’m sick today. Can you cover for me?”
Then, the hurried breakfast, university classes forgotten for the day, pulling on a long-sleeve thermal, a light rain jacket that would do little to protect against the deluge by the end of the day, and plastic shopping bags for makeshift and temporary booties. A long day ahead, of treacherous yellow lines, the spray of car tyres, brake blocks wearing to their quick. The inevitability of cold feet. Everything wet and sodden. Fumbling with envelopes and parcels and papers and notebooks and receipts, unable to keep it all dry. Praying for the end of the rain and a brief respite of sunshine. The worst job in the world.
In the mid-1980s, a forward looking courier company in Auckland (population approx. 1 million), New Zealand expanded its car, van and motorcycle fleet to include the city’s (and the country’s) first bicycle courier (the antipodean name for the cycle messenger). The city’s business community was expanding, Wall Street-like, and the demand for fast inner city deliveries was increasing. It was thus that Andy, an English import, became a familiar – if unusual – sight on local streets.
Andy’s success saw the addition of new riders to the company. Other companies soon followed suit. The riders were all young, early to mid-20s, part-time students or those drifting and dreaming and wanting to reap the rewards of riding fast and outdoors in the city. By the time the new guys were on the road, Andy was already several years ahead in the game – he knew all the routes, the shortcuts, which floor of which tower a company left or received its packages, and which offices had the prettiest secretaries. But he didn’t need these advantages, for Andy was a very, very good bike rider. In typical English style, he didn’t talk much about himself, although some said that he’d ridden in the Milk Race in Britain. He was garrulous off the bike, and liked to spin a yarn or two, and liked a beer with the rest of the boys on a Friday night. But he was older (how much, no one really knew) and had a family to take care of. Weekends were strictly family time.
In some ways he was like Paul Sherwen in his professional years, in both his appearance on the bike and his conduct off it. And Andy could sure ride. He had the easy cadence of someone who has put the miles in, and then some. He never appeared to be really working hard, no matter how tough the day. A true gentleman, he would offer his wheel on a climb if you were going his way, and there was never any ego. But the elastic was always kept taught and one knew that if he stood up in the saddle, he would drop you without much effort.
Which was no mean feat. The rest of the crew were pretty handy on the bike themselves – ex roadies and track racers and part-time mountain bikers. Young, testosterone fuelled and prepared to bury themselves for the work. The distances each day were not massive – less than 100 kilometres over 8 hours. But there was always intensity, fast deliveries that were like interval training. And sometimes these intervals lasted all day. After a summer of riding, all those short and sharp climbs, one’s fitness was like a simmering pot of hot sauce, ready to be ladled out in copious servings.
The incentive to ride fast was twofold. Firstly, there was the pressure to prove oneself. There was no competition among the riders in the company, no poaching of jobs or deliveries, but there was a need to perform, to do your share and to do it well. It didn’t matter if you were a shy, bookish university type who listened to the wrong music, you would still fit in if you could ride. Secondly, there was the money.
The business was simple. A customer would pay $3 for a delivery by bicycle courier in the designated CBD zone. That delivery would be guaranteed to be there within the hour. A ‘double’, for $6, would be delivered in 30 minutes. A ‘triple’, for $9, would be there in 15 minutes. The courier company took 50% of the rate, the rider the other 50%. Not much per job, but it stacked up. On a good day, before lunch or late in the afternoon, the triples might pile up in one’s bag. Six triples on, radio call from the dispatcher (no pagers or cellphones in those days, just RT radios), time for one more. Ride fast!
It added up. $200+ days were unusual but did happen. Sometimes $1,200+ a fortnight was possible. A gross of $40,000 per year was realistic. Not bad for guys without university degrees. Jobs were given by the dispatcher based on the location of each rider – those best placed to take the job – some measure of seniority, and the ability of the rider to handle the load. Andy also had a set of regular deliveries, at a fixed rate. They say he took home $60,000 or more annually – and more than some pro racers would have been making at the time.
The work was not the hardest physically, but it was tough enough. It didn’t require the most brain power, but one still had to think strategically and cope under pressure. In the summer, under blue skies with the warmth of the sun, riding hard and then relaxing to watch the girls go by, thinking of cold beer at the end of the day, it was the best job in the world. Taking the early morning call to fill in, or on a regular shift, in the middle of winter, with the rain pouring down and the wind blowing frigid off the ocean, it was downright miserable.
Tools of the trade
Unlike the casual North American bike messengers, this crew had a uniform of matching company kit. It was a team vibe and everyone pitched in to help out – directions, tips and tricks, pick ups and hand offs when needed. Tools of the trade were usually mountain bikes, with narrow bars and slick tyres, sometimes roadie cassettes or other modifications. Acceleration and manoeuvrability were preferred to straight line speed.
Andy was the exception. His bike was a Cannondale road model, all thick tubes and super-rigid aluminum. There were few concessions to style. Bar tape was grey, dirty and worn; for a time it even disappeared entirely. There was a rear rack for parcels. He may have had a hand-built steed from his racing days in the shed at home, but that seemed unlikely. The weekends were not for riding – unlike the rest of the crew, unable to fully relax after a week of adrenaline highs – but for relaxing with his family. His legs likely switched off entirely on a Friday night and started fresh on Monday morning. Recovery was probably his secret to longevity.
But you could tell Andy was a professional when on his bike. He had an easy style, a hard man’s souplesse that the rest could only envy, superb handling skills, and the confidence of a patron. Deliveries were always on time, always to the right place; no stack of triples too difficult to pick up and deliver. No stress. Not so much a passion for the bike, but élan – taking pride in doing the job right and doing it well. Andy was a reminder that how one is judged on a bike is not about appearances but about how one conducts oneself. Not being, but doing.
Ossification and the ‘rules’
It is not hard to find ‘rules’ on the internet about being a cyclist. These range from style advice on how to look ‘PRO’ (sock colour, bike colour coordination, how to wear one’s sunglasses and so on) to rules of conduct. The site that takes this to the extreme is Velominati, which – at last count – had 91 rules(!). Most of the ‘how to be PRO’ sites are a little tongue-in-cheek. After all, we all like a bit of style advice, even if we choose to ignore it later. Velominati appears to be much more serious, but has obviously been allowed to morph into a rather enjoyable parody of itself, otherwise it can only be read as farcical (some of the rules are sensible, others so ridiculous that critique is unnecessary).
The desire to have rules to govern cycling as a hobby is like Identity Politics 101. We all like the social aspect of being in a group. We worry, however, that the group will get too large and not contain enough like-minded members. So we construct rules and rituals to make it exclusive, to filter out those that don’t ‘fit’. Safety in numbers, but not too many and no non-conformists that might be a threat. There’s usually nothing sinister about it in the cycling context, but there is a risk that rules become not just fun talking points but enforceable rules that lead to the exclusion of those that don’t follow them. This leads to ossification, a fixing in place of a conception of what cycling should be, impervious to change. (In the case of the Velominati, it’s a kind of retro Euro machismo, mixed with what writer Martin Ryle calls “technophiliac consumption” or a fixation on the machine.)
Such an ossification would be lamentable, particularly as cycling is growing in popularity. We all stand to benefit from more people taking up cycling – the industry is sustained, we can enjoy a cycling camaraderie with more people, events become more financially secure, and there is more support for bike lanes and greater tolerance for cyclists on the roads. Trying to ‘protect’ cycling is a backward-looking attitude that betrays a kind of existential fragility. Enforcing some imagined set of rules on your group ride is bizarre, frankly; there’s really only one rule that has any real relevance – be friendly and ride safely.
Andy’s heyday seems like a lifetime ago. What became of his job after the emergence of email and other electronic communication is not known, at least by your author. One is reminded of him, though, with his unshaven legs, his tired grey helmet, his ancient Carnac shoes, his Oakley glasses on a cord, and his road-worn Cannondale, when one reads another iteration of the ‘rules’ of cycling. Would there be tittering from a group of slavish rule followers as they passed him out on the road? Some advice as to how to look more PRO?
Andy’s response might have been to give them a lesson in humility, riding them off his wheel. But that would be unlikely. He would probably shrug and let them go by. For Andy, his rules of conduct, his professionalism, his being a gentleman were not a means of obtaining external validation. They were values in and of themselves. They were how he defined himself. Not as part of a group but as an individual. Ultimately, riding his bike was just a job – not who he was. He did it well, better than many of us could hope for, but that didn’t matter. We can see him through the prism of his riding, but that is not who he was.
We all like to be part of the group, just as we all have our own cycling rules that we follow individually. We often take our bike riding seriously, which is just fine. But as soon as we become fixated on misguided notions of applying so-called rules to others, we make cycling an exclusionary pursuit – when it should be exactly the opposite. The qualities that we should be interested in are those we have as people, not just as cyclists. To put it crudely, you could be a follower of all the rules and still be a dick that no one wants to ride with (particularly if you are prone to lecturing others on the supposed rules). Or, you could be a flagrant transgressor and still be an admirable rider. It’s all about being individuals, not myopic followers of some invented traditions. Ultimately, a more inclusive and less self-righteous world of cycling – that welcomes more and more riders to its membership – will benefit us all. Most of us accept this as obvious.
There was a moment on the 2002 Tour de France, some ten years ago, when Armstrong’s game was almost up. A brief moment where two commentators could have done something unprecedented and simply called it all off, much as some others wanted to do during the Sestrières stage in 1999. But they did not and – one might argue – nor should they have, and the bar for proof of Armstrong’s doping was set that much higher. Extraordinary performances result in extraordinary charges, which then require extraordinary standards of proof. Or something like that.
It was not the doping allegations already circulating around Armstrong that nearly brought him down, not the cortisone positive from 1999 or the Actovegin scandal at the 2000 Tour that almost led him to refuse to race in 2001, but his own performances. On a sweltering hot day, on stage 14, 221 kilomtres and finishing at the summit of Mont Ventoux, Armstrong’s ride was almost beyond belief. Almost.
Some 6.5 kilometres from the top, Joseba Beloki attacked out of a group of riders containing Armstrong and others. Beloki was struggling and the attack was far from convincing. But Armstrong answered emphatically, veering across to the right-hand side of the road, standing up in the pedals and immediately opening a gap. He then settled down into his high-cadence tempo, accelerating up towards the last of the breakaway group, including Richard Virenque (see the feature here). In 3 kilometres he opened up a 3-minute gap on his chasers; Virenque managed to hold on for the stage victory but Armstrong pulled back 2 minutes by the summit.
You can choose any of Armstrong’s rides in the mountains of the Tour, but this one stands out. “We’ve been on the moon today,” Beloki said. “And we’ve seen what the astronaut is capable off.” Armstrong recorded a time of 58 minutes for the ascent, nearly a minute faster than Marco Pantani in 2000. Only in time trials would riders go faster. On a bike with un-badged carbon wheels he tapped out his imperious tempo; with his Oakleys for a time perched on his head like the horns of the devil, molten lava in his veins, dead-eyed with inner rage, he breathed fire across the already scorched mountainside, tearing the road asunder. “Le Mont Ventoux ne tolère pas le surrégime,” wrote Marcel Bidot. The Ventoux takes orders from no one. But Armstrong made the Ventoux submit to his will; the mountain that humbled Merckx, put Thévenet on oxygen, and killed Simpson was at his mercy. He destroyed it.
There is a moment, as Armstrong distances his pursuers and chases Virenque, that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen hesitate. Suddenly, doubt starts to tinge their commentary. Two long-time observers of the sport can see that they’re witnessing something unprecedented, something that not even Armstrong was able to achieve from 1999-2001: true transcendence. “Unbelieveable,” is about the most Sherwen can manage. It was a pivotal moment. Subsequently, no longer would an actual performance on the road elicit scrutiny. Other methods would be required to confirm suspicions of Armstrong. On the Ventoux road, something changed. He was untouchable.
It was not up to Liggett and Sherwen to expose Armstrong. Like all other journalists, they called it how they saw it. They set their own standards of proof, perhaps too high, and now are dealing with the consequences. Would we have acted any different? In an environment where the governing body was more interested in simply the health of the riders, not the wider implications of doping for the future of the sport, and keen to push the onus of responsibility onto individual riders themselves while they reveled in the wider glory, Armstrong exploited any loophole he could. Money talked and it was the currency of his discourse.
As John Wilcockson has argued, he might have won anyway, but that is impossible to know without some sort of baseline to make comparisons. “When everyone can dope, it becomes a contest of who has the best information, who has the best access, who has the best doctor, and who has the most money. That’s what this contest is, it’s a chess game of information, connections and money,” Daniel Coyle told VeloNews. The doping of the era, as we understand it, boosted a rider’s total power and made the efforts at this high level repeatable. The Tour route was insignificant – any course could be bested by being at the top of one’s game all the time. This is what is different today: the type of rider matters; Tours become ‘climbers Tours’ or ‘time triallists Tours'; small differences between riders become magnified. Mont Ventoux cannot be made to submit. These factors would have applied back then.
When the Tour visits Mont Ventoux in 2013, it is unlikely that we will hear much about Armstrong and the 2002 Tour. His name is being removed from the record books, the winner’s name to be left blank. But those years still exist, those victories on the road still stand. No one who has watched the coverage, who still covets those interminable DVDs of the Tours in those years, can doubt it. However he did it, however ruthlessly, however much the doping improved his performance, nothing can erase what unfolded on the roads of France during those years.
We look back, now, with different eyes. We don’t feel the same thrill that we did at the time because we know that victories were achieved falsely. But we can still see them. Awesome, other-worldly, mad, mystical, and terrifying. A pinnacle of performance that will never be reached again. Never. This is what remains. It may be a stretch to far, but let your author offer this quote, modified from an entirely unrelated source, as a kind of coda to l’affaire Armstrong before moving on. “Armstrong will retain an audience because he made himself master not of what the Tour once purported to convey – realistic stories leading to moments of individual revelation – but of what he has given us in retrospect: the least deniable and the least escapable characteristics of modern life – uncertainty, dissociation, absurdity, and horror.”
Italy, it would seem, attracts more than its fair share of platitudes in the cycling world, and justifiably so. We might contrast this, though, with the approbation in receives from elsewhere, particularly over the state of its economy and politics. It also causes many a commentator to fall into what Karl Popper calls the “myth” of induction – inference based on many observations. Take this statement from a recent column by the travel writer from the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail: “Italians live for pleasure, not for work.” Having spent a bucolic vacation in the countryside, the author now becomes an expert on the Italian national character – all its subtleties and complexities reduced to a pithy aphorism.
In keeping with such a tradition, dear reader, your author is going to make some similar pronouncements, on Italian cycling and on the state of pro racing in general. This will be the last post to comment on ‘recent events’ before moving onto other topics – and a fulfillment of the promise made earlier (when the colour of this blog was Giro pink) to offer some analysis of Italian cycling. As way of preface, it is worth noting that your author – although having been to at least a half-dozen European countries – has not been to Italy. Having read numerous books on Italian cycling, however, and at least two books by Ernest Hemingway set in Italy, one should not be disqualified from the game (although perhaps some yellow cards should be raised).
Completely ignoring the myth of induction, one can pronounce with full certitude that the case of Filippo Pozzato best sums up the current state of Italian cycling. You will recall that Pozzato was banned from competition for working with Michele Ferrari, himself banned for his dodgy practices. This case has been covered in some detail elsewhere. Ignoring the ridiculous aspects of the case – such as why did Pozzato not call CONI to check on Ferrari’s status, or why did Ferrari himself not warn Pozzato, or why did his team management not check – it throws up a fundamental problem that will have to change.
The first reaction, it seems, of an Italian rider not able to perform at the level they want is to consult with an external ‘expert’, and inevitably a dodgy one. If all that Pozzato wanted was training plans, as he claimed, was there no local expertise that could be provided, no coaches or trainers or experts to give him training guidance? Apparently not, which points to an alarming absence of expertise in Italian cycling.
Team Sky showed this year that their ‘marginal gains’ strategy – small improvements in multiple areas that add up to a noticeable performance boost – is highly effective. But this strategy costs money, which seems to be absent from anywhere in cycling – not just in Italy – except for where there is state support or funding from generous benefactors. One might conclude, therefore, and perhaps fallaciously, that for Italian cycling to improve it will need to do two things: one, change its mentality that the solution is always to consult externally with dodgy doctors; two, get more money. The first is entirely realistic; the second is more problematic.
A problematic future
Amid all the doping revelations in the last week or so, two things of interest happened. Firstly, the Canada-based pro continental team, Team SpiderTech announced that it was ceasing racing for the 2013 season. Manager Steve Bauer was at some pains to point out that this was not a ‘bankruptcy’ situation but one can certainly infer that the financial situation is not a good one. Continental teams have it tough, caught between the glamour and big money of the WorldTour and prestige events and the races that attract less sponsor interest. The situation is not that much better at the WorldTour level, either, with sponsorship worries a recurring issue for many teams. Securing long-term sponsor support is a big problem in cycling.
Secondly, Michael Barry called for fundamental changes to pro cycling in an article in The New York Times. As erudite as ever, Barry argues that, “The sport cannot continue to risk crushing our children’s dreams and damaging lives.” (Although not everyone has been sympathetic to the positions of the doping confessors.) Barry calls for change and says that national governments need to get involved. He is correct, of course. Numerous changes are needed – the way teams are funded, the way rankings and results are treated, the way the calendar is organized, and the way doping is being handled.
Change will only come from those that have the power in pro cycling. At the present time, that is the ASO – with the suite of races that it runs and the support it has from other big race owner/organizers – and the UCI as the governor of the sport. Both have limited incentive to change. The current structure, despite the scandals, suits them well in terms of control and revenue. If the riders or the teams want changes they will need to get more power.
A union for the riders, as some have argued, could be one solution. Without an increase in bargaining power, the labour of pro cyclists will continue to be exploited – by governing bodies, race organizers, and even their own teams – as Barry complains about. The sport will continue to be driven by what might be called ‘short termism’, a damaging focus on results and money in the here-and-now rather than looking to the future. This is ironic, given the long and storied history that the sport draws upon. The races themselves are the iconography of the sport, while the racers are expendable in the nurturing of these myths.
Steve Bauer argues that the latest doping revelations have nothing to do with the reluctance of sponsors to be involved in cycling. This is probably true. Everyone knows that the sport is improving for the better. But the headlines persist. What sponsor wants to be involved in a sport where past revelations of dodgy doping are driving the popular media coverage? What sponsor wants to be involved given the short termism that is driving the sport?
It is hard not to think that pro cycling is f**ked. This may be too harsh of a conclusion. But there needs to be leadership for change shown at the top and this has been, it would seem, woefully absent to date. Perhaps a riders’ union will be the catalyst (there may be other possibilities). Riders have gone on strike before and they may have to do so again. But the stakes will be high. The ASO has said that if there is a boycott of the Tour by pro teams, for example, it would just run the race with French amateurs. Maybe their bluff needs to be called?
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.”
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.
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.
Back in April, your author posted The Dangerous Summer, a somewhat convoluted discourse on Ernest Hemingway and cycling (an ongoing theme on this blog). Hemingway’s legacy is a mixed one, particularly in literary circles. In reviewing the publication of the first volume of his collected letters (in itself an interesting story, given that all the new letters come from archives in the basement of his former house in Cuba), Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books repeats the typical charge that Hemingway inflated his own experiences into his fiction then did little to deny the myths he had created. “The letters show the moment by moment process of self-enlargement, of fiction taking over from reality, of Hemingway braiding himself a style first and then a history to match it,” O’Hagan writes.
Perhaps Hemingway was complicit in this process, or perhaps it is just easy to see it that way. His writing, so much of it based on experience, skates uneasily between truth and fiction. His early works drew on personal events, although clearly fictionalized. Later, in Islands in the Stream, for example, the main character of Thomas Hudson appears to substitute almost entirely for Hemingway and his life in the Caribbean. In The Green Hills of Africa he sets out to write real events as if they were fiction; his posthumous follow-up, Under Kilimanjaro (first published as True At First Light) is a ‘fictional memoir’ – and much of it must indeed be fiction, although just how much is for scholars to unravel. Indeed, in the book Hemingway acknowledges that truth can be slippery: “…but then almost nothing was true and especially not in Africa. In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon…” But does this matter? Surely it is unimportant that Hemingway may have enlarged himself through the process of his writing. Going wider, do we really care if the author himself was a lying, alcoholic, misogynistic egotist? Do we not read Hemingway’s books for what they are, not what they pretend the author to be?
But personality matters. All the more so, one might argue, in professional sports where much of our fascination is with the personalities taking part and not just the action on the pitch or on the road. Perhaps part of the fascination with Hemingway, and why the publication of his letters from 100 years ago matters, is because of his outsize personality. He was a literary figure but also a public figure and his life was anything but uninteresting.
What your author finds more interesting is that Hemingway, in his works, never seemed to be interested in the big picture, in the big issues of his time. In his fiction (and even his reportage) the focus was often very narrow – the individual swimming in the currents of history, rather than the history itself. One might contrast this with his contemporary John Dos Passos and his sweeping trilogy, U.S.A. Or, to take another tack, note that the Spanish Civil War saw Hemingway produce For Whom the Bell Tolls – a heroic tale of sacrifice for the republican cause – while George Orwell wrote a Homage to Catalonia – the tragic collapse of the revolution into cynical betrayals. Elsewhere, the fate of Hemingway’s beloved Velodrome d’Hiver as the round-up location for 13,152 Jews from Paris and its suburbs from 16-17 July (when the Tour de France would have been running had it not been suspended due to the war) to be shipped to German concentration camps (only 811 survived) never receives a mention in his wartime reporting, surely an interesting story with parallels worth drawing.
Perhaps the newly discovered letters will contain comment, although – as historian Tony Judt has pointed out – discussion of the Holocaust, in France and elsewhere, did not really start taking place until decades later. (A future post will look at the Vel d’Hiv events in some detail.) Hemingway might not have actually known what transpired. When he was circulating around old haunts in Paris following its liberation, there is no mention of whether he went past (frustratingly, in Carlos Baker’s nearly 1,000-page biography, there is no listing in the index for the Vel d’Hiv at all, although it is mentioned in parts of the text). Hemingway was involved in the thick of the action on the approach to Paris in 1944, working as a war correspondent but managing to become the liaison between a group of French irregulars and US troops. He was later mocked for being more interested in ‘liberating’ the Hotel Ritz and its bar, and he did apparently exaggerate his role in the liberation of the Travellers Club, but the most detailed accounts suggest that he did actually find himself in considerable physical danger as the Germans fought their rearguard action. Playing soldier and inflating his successes likely obscured the actual role – minor, but indeed dangerous – that he did play. As always, it was writing he did best and on the approach to Paris he wrote this memorable line: “…I had a funny choke in my throat and I had to clean my glasses because there now, below us, gray and always beautiful, was spread the city I love best in all the world.”
One could argue that Hemingway never really claimed to be more than he was. He took his experiences and wrote them up as fact or fiction, as the experiences of the individual. He wrote what he wanted and should not be accused of sins of omission. His works should judged on their literary merits rather than for what they say about the author. But, for the sake of this discussion, let us take this focus on the individual versus history and run with it a little further and see where it takes us.
The autobiography (and heroism)
There are numerous books on cycling that are excellent and well worth reading (another future post will discuss some of these). As a rule, cycling autobiographies do not make for the most dramatic of reading. They are either self-serving to various degrees (like a Hemingway book, if the critics are to be believed) or just dull: an impossibly-talented youngster enters the rarefied and pedestrian professional cycling world and wins lots of races and suffers some notable, character-building setbacks that are then overcome. Unlike a biographer, the autobiographer finds it difficult to step back, to view themselves from the necessary distance.
The exception to this rule is The Game by Ken Dryden. This is not a cycling book but a book about hockey and the author’s experiences with the almost always victorious Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. Regarded by some as the best sports autobiography available, part of its appeal is surely that the author can indeed detach himself from the various narratives and consider many of the wider questions of sport, although tensions remain: “Even now… I can’t forget enough to get outside my story and see it as others do.” There are echoes of Dryden in David Millar’s autobiography, Racing Through the Dark, where – despite the criticisms that he does not go far enough and still wants to control the narrative – Millar is able to detach himself and give an unconventional and brutally honest account of his experiences and to do so with candour and humility.
Millar’s comeback is a heroic one, but perhaps he is ultimately an anti-hero, in terms that Hemingway would recognize. His downfall was almost preordained by a system that cared little for individuals but saw them ultimately as pawns in a larger game of success, fame, money, glory and power. Such was the milieu in pro cycling in which he participated. His choices were always constrained by the system and it was run by those in power to be thus. Perhaps there is – contrary to the grandiose prose we are often subjected to – little actual heroism in sport, just a mistaken believe in the claims of those who would seek to inflate its essence to sell the sport to the public. On this point, Dryden is illustrative and worth quoting at length:
We are not heroes. We are hockey players. We do exciting, sometimes courageous, sometimes enabling things like heroes do, but no more than anyone else. Blown up on a TV screen or a page of print, hyped by distance and imagination, we seem more heroic, the scope of our achievement seems grander, but it isn’t, and we’re not. Our cause, our commitment is no different from anyone else’s, the human qualities engendered are the same. Instead, we are no more than examples, metaphors, because we enter every home, models for the young because their world is small and we do what they do. But by creating celebrity and mistaking it for substance, too often we turn celebrity into hero, and lose again.
Yes, even if you know little about hockey (like your author, although better informed now), there are some very thought provoking insights in The Game.
The golden age (of cycling)
It was a dangerous summer of cycling for a number of reasons, but perhaps no more so than the ongoing sage of Lance Armstrong and the charges against him of doping. Thousands of keyboard strokes have already been expended on the subject, and many more will follow. The editorials have been engaging but have ultimately said more about where the author has positioned themselves in the debate over the last few years than their actual subject. Indeed, perhaps you, dear reader, took some satisfaction from the pithy statements made by long-time supporting journalists, or took some delight in those long vilified being able to at last been seen as capably doing their jobs.
With the USADA file threatening even more revelations the spotlight of media will again be on the less salubrious aspects of cycling. For some, these revelations will be neatly assigned to the ‘bad old days’ and we can put them behind us and move on. For others, they will represent just a few more cracks in cycling’s edifice, perhaps not to bring it down completely but at least to leave it well scarred. This we might lament, just as writer Jeremy Whittle notes in his book Bad Blood: “In a problematic world, sport should offer escape; it should offer sanctuary from the casual lies and banal cruelties that punctuate everyday life. Rather than embodying the ugliest elements in human nature, it should strive to encapsulate the best.”
Overall, these are noble sentiments, but too idealistic. This is what sports should represent to us, the fans. But to those taking part, it is not an ‘escape’, it is their everyday life, their job and their profession. If your own work does not encapsulate the best of human nature, why should their job be any different? Surely we are not naive enough to think that professional sports, or even Olympic sports, is a pure endeavour instead of one intimately bound up a multitude of forces. As one commentator said, somewhat cynically, of the Olympics: “The Olympic podium is a symbolic package: individual excellence at the service of the nation-state under the overlordship of multi-national capital.” Sport is not some separate arena from the rest of society, but a part of it; we don’t escape, we participate.
Money might be part of the problem, and every professional sport that has grown too fast has had to deal with this issue. As Ken Dryden laments, “money is a threat, not in the stresses it puts on sports’ structures (though that is significant), but what it can do to those who have it,” with over-paid participants increasingly cut off from the public and the fans that sustain them. Still, players (and riders) have to make a living, and determining appropriate remuneration is a fraught process. Are top cyclists really earning too much for their hard, hard sport?
In moving forward, Whittle puts the onus on us: “Ultimately, what happens next is our responsibility.” With respect, not entirely. Amid cries that we need to do more, or that riders need to speak out and change their sport, we have to remember that the power lies with the organizers, the administrators, the owners and the overlords. There is much we can do (witness the Paul Kimmage defence fund, for example), but we should recognize the limit of our power. As well, we should not expect the riders to join in. Their positions are always tenuous and they operate in a top-down management structure where they are employed by a team and that team is ultimately responsible to those further up the chain, particularly those who administer the rules of the sport and organize the races. It is from the top that change must come, and where public pressure should be applied – if it can be. It is the managers of cycling that have put us in this predicament and they should be the ones to get us out. If they will not do so, then the sport will not change. For riders such as David Millar, they were working under the conditions given to them. In this sense, perhaps the interesting debate is not over the details of Lance Armstrong’s (apparently now well proven) doping but whether he was a victim of the system or one of the architects that prolonged its existence. If societies set their own morals, rather than through reference to an external system, and pro cycling is a societal microcosm, then was Armstrong just following the ‘rules’ or was he also shaping them?
Which brings us to the golden age, a lament that ‘back in the day’ things were better and different. Cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world, but at the professional level in Europe, when you strip away the self-serving myth making, it has been a curious, insular world for much of its existence. “There was never a golden age of fair play in cycling’s history,” Whittle writes. “Cheating has always been characteristic of the sport…” Which is perhaps no surprise. Riders have constantly been struggling, labouring under a structure that is ultimately exploitative and places on them intense physical demands for often limited returns (again the subject of a future post). A team sport, it still celebrates and rewards individual excellence and winning is paramount. Yet, despite its quirks, there is still something about its beauty, grandeur and captivating nature that draws in participants and observers – pros are still joining its ranks and we still want to watch them. A curious paradox, indeed.
“Nothing is as good as it used to be, and it never was. The ‘golden age of sports’, the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood,” writes Ken Dryden. Indeed, it is when we are young – still with our enthusiasm intact and not yet cynical – that our indelible memories are formed. This is the time we want to return to, even though we cannot and the times were not as good as we remember them to be. On this, we will give the last word to Hemingway: “The old days were supposed to have been simpler but they were not; they were only rougher.” For pro cycling, maybe those rougher days are now indeed behind us, and it is the future that holds the golden age, a time for childhoods again.
The dangerous summer is almost over. One must confess, dear and faithful reader, that your author’s intention was originally not to return to posting on this blog. One always questions whether one has anything useful or interesting or constructive to contribute to the discussion on cycling, given the crowded marketplace and the already very insightful comments provided by some of the more outstanding bloggers. Still, your author was gratified to receive many supportive comments on the penultimate post back in April; a return to at least some musings on the current – and historical – state of cycling in all its meanings seemed therefore appropriate.
It is perhaps no coincidence the the two occurrences of pro cycling on the front page of the local newspaper here in Vancouver were, firstly, Ryder Hesjedal’s Giro win and, secondly, Lance Armstrong’s – how does one phrase it – fall from grace. Victory or scandal is what is required to capture the attention of the mainstream press. The events must be dramatic, outsized and of historical importance. There must be opportunities for pundits to editorialize on their significance. We need to be able to be invited as readers to assess their wider meaning.
The American writer Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, has said: “Sports are about human character inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they show that you can master anything with enough effort.” This is undoubtedly true: sports may not say much about the human character. But they are at least, however, reflective of the human character. The unfolding sagas of Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Jonathan Vaughters and several others – of which we have heard much over the last few months and will continue to do so in the months ahead – are human stories, with sport at their heart. Sport is not just a physical challenge to be mastered. Sports are the arena where human character plays out, they are the backdrop of suffering, sacrifice, joy, heartbreak, greed and deception. It may not be as important as politics or the economy but sport is still just as interesting, if not for what it is but certainly for those who take part. Why else would we find it so engaging?
Cycling books occupy roughly three shelves of your author’s Billy bookshelves. And these are just the ‘core’ texts, not counting those that have been sold on, given to friends, or donated to the local library. It is hard to think that so many books could have been written about something with very little meaning (but more on that idea, later, perhaps). Thus, the other books on the shelves are always sharing their space with cycling books. Making connections, tortured and disparate but nonetheless hopefully interesting, has been one of the goals of this blog. This is likely to be the primary focus going forward, although there will – of course – be the opportunity to talk about climbs and climbing as well.
Sharp-eyed readers will also notice the change in background colour. The focus here on Italian cycling is officially over and some comments will be forthcoming on why this (dead) end was reached. The chosen colour is, according to some palettes, in the style of a Provence yellow. In his book A Little Tour in France, Henry James wrote: “It was a pleasure to feel one’s self in Provence again,— the land where the silver-gray earth is impregnated with the light of the sky.” With fall approaching, if not already here, and winter coming on behind it, we might all wish we were in Provence. To paraphrase James, “The [ride] itself was charming; for there is an inexhaustible sweetness in the gray-green landscape of Provence.”
Watch this space, therefore, for new postings. They are likely to be infrequent, with monthly being the goal, and may be overly ambitious in attempting to weave together too many disparate strands of ideas. They may also be reflective, indulgent, even solipsistic, or excessively focused on the minutiae of our sport. With only the barest of plans at this stage, one can only hope that a coherent set of postings can be produced. As always, your indulgences are appreciated. As such, the next post will revisit Ernest Hemingway, discuss the meaning of heroism, consider the golden age of cycling, and conclude with disparaging comments on cycling autobiographies and why the Tour de France is sick and depraved. Yes, it will be a wild ride. A bare-knuckle, high-speed decent from the summit of Mont Ventoux, reflexes straining and legs muscles screaming, the brain dulled to witlessness by the preceding ascent, the gray-green landscape of Provence stretched out before us, but with its sweetness exhausted and only our pounding hearts to offer solace as our tyres lose their grip beneath us.