Tyler Hamilton’s win in La Doyenne in 2003 was one of the highlights in what was generally a fantastic season. A great Spring campaign, a great Giro, a great Tour, a great Fall; unpredictable races, and closely-fought battles littered the events. But, with the luxury of 20-20 hindsight and a quick cross-reference of results listings to doping scandals, it’s safe to assume that season landed smack in the middle of an era of jet-fueled racing that rivals the 1990’s in their indulgence.
It’s a tough time to be a cyclist. Death, doping scandals, corruption in the organizing bodies of the sport. We test our athletes more than any other sport, but the tests are flawed and incomplete, and rumors persist that teams and riders pay off not just the labs to surpress positive tests, but also the UCI. Hamilton’s confession on 60 Minutes this week is the latest in an unsettling chain of events that keep peeling back more layers of the onion. I was a big fan of Tyler’s and part of me even believed in his innocence. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy – much too nice a guy to get involved in cheating. But there he was on television, talking openly about the magnitude of drugs-taking within the USPS team.
On the other hand, I’ve never been a fan of Armstrong’s. I find him to be arrogent, controlling, manipulative. His Tour wins were too formulaic; in sharp contrast to his fight with cancer, his racing showed no element of humanism. I have taken it for granted that his wins came with considerable assistance from a carefully planned and executed doping regimen. But these beliefs were woven together by a thread of doubt, and the possibility always existed that his were clean wins.
Hearing Hamilton talk of the seemingly nonchalant attitude towards doping at USPS and, in particular, by Armstrong, is surprising not in the content of the message, but in how hard the message hit. I expected the words. I had read them. I have even written many of them myself. But there was always a tangible element of speculation about them. For me, that element is now gone, and it feels strange to say the least.
Even as someone who generally accepts that doping is commonplace in the peloton, it hurts me every time another allegation of doping comes out. It takes me days to recover from it. But even if the worst happens, if Professional Cycling as we know it today falls apart, cycling will continue. Because cycling is more than watching others race bikes. It’s about racing or riding the bike yourself. It’s about overcoming your own limitations. It’s about the rider and the machine working together. It’s about cleaning, caring for, thinking about your bike. It’s about taking photos of it so you can look at it when you’re away.
Cycling rides through a storm today, but we will always have the bike. We will always have la Vie Velominatus.