The Hero and the Villain
I’m not saying I’m Batman; if I was Batman it would be a foolish thing to admit to and if I wasn’t Batman it would be a foolish thing to claim to be. What is true, however, is that Batman is pretty cool and it would probably be pretty cool to be a cool dude like Batman. It bears mentioning, however, that I have never been seen in the same room as him so you can’t prove that I’m not Batman so long as you can’t prove he isn’t real. While I’m on the subject, if I was Batman I’d definitely be the Christian Bale Batman – not Lewis Wilson and those absurd granny panties of his, or Robert Lowrey or Adam West (both were too Spandex-ey, I restrict my Lycra-wearing to Cycling, not running about town like a lunatic vigilante), or Keaton (too mouth-puckery), or Val Kilmer (too contemplative), or George Clooney (I can’t get on board with the sort of vanity that forces a grown billionaire to include fake nipples in their suit of ballistic armor).
Is Batman a hero or a villain? Vigilantes are frowned upon in real life; they are threats to society because they live outside its rules and people who live outside the rules are not to be trusted, like cats. In real life, Batman would probably be hated by about half the public and loved by the other half, with very few individuals faffing about with moderate feelings on the subject. On which side you fall would probably have less to do with logic or reason that it does with how you feel about who the vigilante targeted. It might also have something to do with how comfortable you are with not knowing what morals are guiding an individual’s actions. In the case of Batman, we know he’s a damaged but well-intentioned man motivated by a home brew of revenge and the desire to protect society at large from the agony of his own experiences. In the Real Life Batman*, we’d have no clue about what motivated him and all we’d know is some costumed dude with fun toys was beating people up and the people he was beating up were generally associated with crime; the rest is up to the individual to fill in with their imagination, bias, and predisposition. The question of whether the vigilante is a hero or a villain has less to do with their actions but with the context in which we view those actions.**
I love Marco Pantani. Even today I regard him as a hero. I admire the rider he was at his peak, and I sympathise with the wounded animal he became after his fall. Finally, I regard his passing on Valentines Day to be a Shakespearean tragedy played out in real life: a scapegoat who died of a broken heart on a day founded on the notion of martyrdom.
I despise Lance Armstrong. Even before his downfall I regarded him as a villain not unlike the sort Batman might target. I view his reign as the sort of plot for world domination that any number of DC Comic supervillains may have undertaken, provided they were keen Cyclists. I regard his fall as the triumph of Good over Evil in the fateful sense as plays out in Beowulf more so than the moral sense.
In essence, both perpetrated the same offense, yet I hold them in two entirely different and discrete views, separated by a chasm of irrational logic and untraceable emotion. How is it possible that a rational mind can hold these two opposing views? I have asked this question of myself many times. I suppose it has much to do with the part of my brain which we usually pretend lives in our chest. I throw a rope-bridge across the chasm by stating that the doping isn’t what I hold against Armstrong, it’s his being a bully and all-round ginormous poopy-butt. But in reality, I can’t separate the doping from his behavior any more than I can separate the doping from Patanti’s epic crushing of fools.
Pantani and Armstrong aren’t the only ones, there are many many more. Coppi, hero; Bartali, villain. Merckx, hero; Maertens, villain. Ullrich, hero; Riis, villain. Bugno, hero; Berzin, villain. Even Tyler Hamilton claiming he ate his own twin in the womb rather than admit doping didn’t make him a villain but Ricardo Rico almost killing himself by trying a DIY blood transfusion definitely did despite the tragic desperation inherent in that particular incident. We interpret which are the heros and which are the villains by how we interpret the context around their actions. Context is a malleable thing; by adjusting the aperture to compensate for the shutter, we can alter the nature of the photograph.
I’m not a subtle man. I don’t generally deal in the currency of moderation; I like to love riders and I like to hate riders. I prefer riders who polarize because they give you something real to chew on even when its something you don’t like. It seems the modern era has less of these sorts of riders than past eras. In the wee hours of the night, when the ghosts of all my mistakes and tasks left undone come knocking, I distract myself by entertaining the question of whether I liked the racing better when riders were treating EPO like any other vitamin. I don’t, of course, but the heroes and villains seemed easier to tell apart; these days they’ve gotten all mixed up. Wiggins and Froome are both typical modern Tour winners: ultra-specialized one-dimensional characters with a complete and total focus on their objective. Their ability to control the event during their prospective years was impressive, yet the lack of depth of their public personalities and style of riding made it hard to love them and even harder to hate them; the most you can do with that sort of rider is admire them idly or hope someone more interesting falls out of the sky to beat them. Nibali has much more depth and would be easier to love (or hate) but his too-close association with Count Dracula makes it impossible to view his victory with the innocence I had during the 80’s, 90’s, and even early 2000’s; I can no longer watch with unquestioning eyes.
I don’t think heroes and villains can be manufactured, they have to be a product of their environment. In fairness, I can’t blame the riders when I know the UCI has been manipulating them for the last twenty years in the pursuit of their own villainy, which hasn’t left much room for anything else; like grasping a lump of slurry, the more they tightened their grip on the sport, the more it squeezed out through their fingers. (Princess Leia also had something to say on this matter.*)
The UCI is on the right track; Brian Cookson is showing positive signs. I think opening up the Hour to UCI-approved track ITT bikes is a sensible first step. The next step is to take away the basic obstacles to innovation such as the double-triangle frame and wild handlebar positions. I’m a traditionalist more than anyone else, but innovation is polarizing and polarizing gives everyone on both sides something to sink our talons into. And talons bring out the heroes and villains.
* I don’t want to confuse too many characters from too many fictional stories that I fell asleep during and might have mixed up. That being said, a good parallel for Batman in the sense that when we know the motives of the character is Billy’s Jack o’ Diamonds in Seven Psychopaths with whom we can sympathise; in real life, we’d just see some bloke shooting other blokes, which is frowned upon in most societies. The Empire in Star Wars is possibly the most perfect parallel of power gone wrong to that of the UCI that I can think of, apart from the many examples from actual history that haven’t been packaged up in tidy six-film epics.
** I have clumsily tried to crystallize in one paragraph a question that Chuck Klosterman spent the better part of an entire book examining. For a much more interesting (and funny) examination of the hero and the villain, read I Wear the Black Hat.