Evanescent riders of the 90s: Zenon Jaskula

While the talk of the week has been on the Fraud Landis Chronicles, whether he cheated (of course he did), whether or not he's telling the truth (he is, this time) and whether or not Pharmstrong is a doping, fraudulent COTHO (he always has been), my head has exploded trying to make sense of the naivety of those still duped by the belief that one man, and one man only, is the sole clean rider of the last twenty years.  For the sport that we love is a dirty, corrupt one.  And I really don't give a flying fuck.  I've known for a long time that our heroes are flawed human beings, just like you and I, yet I still love it.

So I got to thinking back to the early days of my love affair with pro racing and Le Tour in particular, and the July evenings rushing home from work to catch the half-hour highlights package on SBS TV.  How enthralled I was watching the classic battles in the heat of the French Alps, as these giants of the road repeatedly attacked each other, in huge gears at speeds that seemed superhuman.  Because they were.

And while I was recalling these great memories, some names were dragged from the recesses of my mind, pushed back there by the fact that they weren't big names of the peloton, but nonetheless were elevated among those legends whom we still revere. For a fleeting moment, three weeks to be exact, these transients became superstars, transformed somehow magically from nobodies and elevated to the highest level in one of the toughest races in the world, then disappeared just as quickly.  Miracles do not happen, no matter how much some shamen try to make you believe they do.

The 1993 Tour stands out in my mind for some of the best racing I've witnessed in the race to this day.  I still have the VHS tapes of the race and love to revisit them occasionally, marvelling at the pure diesel power of Big Mig, the accelerations of Rominger, the Lazarus-esque rides of Chiappucci, the long, failed solo escape of Robert Millar over the Bonette.  Classic stuff.

But it was the performances of some previously undistinguished riders that stood out.  One Bjarne Riis, 107th two years earlier, suddenly 5th.  One Johan Bruyneel, who finished 7th and set the fastest ever winning average speed in stage 6 (since bettered only twice, once in 1999 by coincidence).  Two days later, one Lance Armstrong took his first Tour stage win, before abandoning while in 97th place.  One Alvaro Mejia, a Colombian grimpeur who was ever-present in the mountains.  And one Zenon Jaskula, a Pole who'd had some solid results, but never anything to match his remarkable 3rd place in the 93 Tour.

So who the hell was he?  Apart from success as an amateur in Polish national time trials, and also in the Sun Tour in Australia, his biggest result was 2nd in Tirreno-Adriatico behind one Tony Rominger in 1992.  He rode for Team MG-GB in 92 and 93, alongside the likes of  Tchmil, Cipo, Ballerini and later-proven dopers like Rebellin and Museeuw.  He was in good company, at the right time as EPO was flooding the peloton and the racing was becoming supercharged.

Every night as I watched, his name would be mentioned more and more by Phil and Paul.  They had no idea who this guy was either, but were equally as impressed/surprised/baffled by his performance as I was.  With Indurain and Rominger doing their best to annihilate each other over the big Cols, there'd always be the same faces hanging on to them like barnacles on a ships hull.  Riis, Mejia, Jaskula.  They were revelations.  They were riding like men possessed.  They were juiced to the gills.

Rather than just hanging on, defending his GC position of third, not making too many waves, Jaskula must've been thinking it was all too good to be true, and with the magic potion coursing through his veins probably making him feel like Superman, he took his chance for ultimate glory.  Stage 16 to Saint-Loury-Soulon saw him outsprint Rominger and Mig after they decimated the field on the last climb.  The speeds and ferocity of the attacks were incredible.

Jaskula looked somewhat sheepish on the podium in Paris, and Indurain and Rominger had a look of “who the hell is this guy?” as they shared the steps with the unheralded Pole.  Perhaps he knew that he would never reach such heights again, that this performance couldn't possibly be repeated, and that he would rest on his laurels and fade into obscurity with a huge question mark over the validity of its credibility.

And then, he was gone.  Other riders would emulate his ephemeral performance in years to come, products of the influx of doping programs masterminded by the new breed of team management and sports 'doctors'.  And of course, the wonder drugs they administered.  I didn't really know what was going on back then, but I knew the racing was enthralling, and in hindsight it's easy to see why.

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33 Replies to “Evanescent riders of the 90s: Zenon Jaskula”

  1. Nothing more to add to that. Brett has comprehensively covered my experience of the early 90’s in a swipe of the keyboard. Looking at the results now makes me feel cold, much like looking at most of the results until last year and even that doesn’t make for great reading.

  2. @brett, @Jarvis
    Amazing post. The racing was jet-fueled, but I’m with Brett on this, the racing was incredible, too. These were also some of my most formative years of watching bike racing; at that time I had been doing it long enough to understand how amazing the sport was, but was too young to understand what they were doing and how they were doing it.

    Knowing how many drugs were in the field does little to diminish how much I loved it. Bottom line is that none of them are clean and the competition is still on a level playing field. The only real difference is that it’s hard to compare my own times on a climb or a ride to see how I compare, but I can live with that, so long as I get to ride my bike and watch some incredible racing – like today’s Giro stage, incidentally.

  3. Agreed Brett, well written.

    It does little to my memories of the greats of that time, in fact one of mine is Pantani. Sure, he doped, but he was the quintessential Italian and cyclist all in one. He was magical, classic and troubled, but so are all the greatest.

    The question is where do we go from here?

  4. Great post. My fascination with the Tour started during the Greg LeMond era during the ’80s. For you kids, that’s pre Internet, cable coverage, or anything approaching real time. Only thing close to real time was weekend highlights on CBS. I was glued to the set and recorded them to VHS tapes. In a move of massive stupidity, I threw all the tapes out about 15 years ago. Would have been cool to watch those again – even the ancient commercials would have been a goof.

    Only other coverage was via magazines, months after the Tour was over. I remember a local book store carrying French cycle magazines, with an English translation supplement included. I’d bring ’em to work to read at lunch. Coworkers thought I was insane.

    Were riders juiced in the ’80s? Sure – on whatever was available at the time. When it comes down to it though, none of that crap really did much, until EPO came along in the ’90s.

    With Floyd finally confessing, and the countless other pros caught or suspected of doping – it seems Greg LeMond is proving to be correct with what he’s been saying for years – doping is widespread – even more then we suspected. Andy Hampsten tells a similar story.

    Floyd’s method of finally confessing may be awkward at best. His public front of fighting the doping charges – book and related tour, defense fund funded by donations, etc – a huge sham. But, maybe he just carried his sham out a little longer then most pros did – or continue to do so.

    I do give Floyd credit for finally coming clean – no matter what his motive is.

  5. Souleur :Agreed Brett, well written.
    It does little to my memories of the greats of that time, in fact one of mine is Pantani. Sure, he doped, but he was the quintessential Italian and cyclist all in one. He was magical, classic and troubled, but so are all the greatest.
    The question is where do we go from here?

    +1 to Brett
    But Souleur, while I was in awe of Pantani, just one word in reply to that last sentence “Eddy”?

  6. OK sprewing forth…

    @frank @Dan O
    we’re probably all the same age, give or take a year. First time I watched the Tour on TV was ’84, but the first year I followed it all the way through, in detail (so I can remember all the details of the race) was ’88.

    Until EPO came along the arguments were that doping was “merely” recovery, but to say it didn’t do much is a bit disparaging for those who wouldn’t submit to the needle even then. Equally to say that EPO didn’t turn up until the 90’s is a little way off the mark. There are reports of it first being used in the late 80’s – although I have recently read something to counter this claim. Around ’89 or ’90 Italian cycling suddenly had a revival and they started winning everything, the history is well documented on the web and I think I’ve got a copy if it all as well.

    The claim that it was all a level playing field is also bollocks. One, by taking the drugs they’ve immediately created an un-level playing playing field. Two, using the 50% hct “limit” as an example: Christophe Moreau had a hct of 39% (true), A N Other has a hct of 47%. Obviously Moreau is going to benefit far more from boosting up to 50%. Some of the best riders choose not to take drugs and were made outcasts. How was any of this fair on them?

    Maybe it was because my favourite rider in the late 80’s and early 90’s was Gilles Delion, who rode clean, won clean and then got fucked over by dopers and Hein Verbruggen and the UCI (what, you say, another one?)

    Flangis doesn’t hold the record for carrying out the sham the longest, I think Armstrong has that with Vlav.Piti nudging Flangis into third.

    I’m glad he dropped the bomb. Where we go from here is wait for the Federal Investigators to follow the trail and see where it leads. None of this is going to be pretty. Fucking loving it.

  7. @Rob: agreed…I should have known:-) Enough said by me on that.

    @Jarvis: Your right on the timing of EPO. I first tuned into the same era, actually it was the Lemond winning Tour that captured my attention and cycling has had it ever since, whether it was eclipsing a mtn top or cutting through the darker valleys….I still love it.

    We can say what we want, but as I have always held: even if its an impotent effort, at least cycling gives a rats arse about it, looks into it and deals with dope…all arguements of fairness/logic/rational aside. The major leagues DO NOT, NFL DO NOT, NBA DO NOT, Boxing does not, other sports are too worried about the money impact and at least I can hold my head up and say we at least try.

  8. @All

    Finally, some words of sense on the whole Landis confession. Yeah, he went about it all wrong, I never believed he didn’t do it, and he’s ripped people off for sure (which is the worst part of it, not the actual doping). But did he have a choice? No, in fact I believe he was probably being paid off or even threatened to keep his mouth shut by a certain egotesticle bully. (Cool, I just came up with a new Lexicon entry!)

    In the end, he’s been left out to dry, and it’s a bold move to come out with the allegations in the face of possibly being fucked up the ass by The Ego-testicle. I admire the guy for his balls (and he has two, which probably pisses Lance off too).

  9. Uhm. I feel like I just walked into the middle of another family’s long-running, bitter dispute. And, just like the temptation to step in and become a party in another family’s dispute would be too great . . .

    . . . It seems brett’s ravings were sparked by what Geoff wrote originally about Landis, or what Geof wrote and then what I wrote then wrote in agreement with Geof. If I recall correctly–and I have no desire at all to read past postings to find out–I don’t believe that either Geof or I were unhappy with this latest Landis episode because he confessed to doping. What made me unhappy is the tawdry, bizarre, and pathetic way he forced himself into a fantastic month of bicycle racing, and hence into my consciousness. The dude is so loose and unhinged that if his doctor were doing his job he’d prescribe Floyd a heavy dose of Rule #5.

  10. @david (the poster formerly known as SGW)

    I agree totally; he was an asshole in the way he denied, lied, made Hamilton-esque bizarre excuses, slandered, extorted and embezzled. I never believed a word he said.

    But just because of that, there is no need not to believe him now. If you didn’t believe him the first time around, that he was clean, then surely by saying ‘I doped’ now he must be telling the truth. And anyone with half a brain would have already known before last week that Armstrong was a doper, because many, many others have said the same things.

    I think Landis has taken a dose of Rule #5 by standing up to Pharmstrong and the Omerta. Now SHamilton, Heras, Vaughters etc need to do the same and do their bit to help restore some credibility to the sport.

  11. @brett Unfortunately, I agree with much. There’s two things: Pharmstrong-style attacks on his credibility for the purpose of denying the charges, and my, and perhaps Geof’s, attacks on Landis just and simply for annoying us and being a douchbag. The latter does not entail anything about my stance on the truth or falsity of what he now says. I.e., I’m not lashing out at him in order to cast doubt on his charges. And, I’ve never liked the “lawyer’s argument”: once having lied, never to be trusted again. It’s too quick, too easy.

  12. @Frank
    I always jokingly refer to people as kids – young and old. Not to mock them, but for people with the same mindset – who still have passion for things – even in our “advancing” age. I’ll be 49 in July, hard to believe 50 is around the corner.

    I may remembering incorrectly, but I thought EPO really took off in the early ’90s. I’m sure it’s been around a little longer then the ’90s though. I also remember reading about some young pros dying in their sleep, due to EPO thickened blood and fitness related low heart rates. Sleeping with heart rate monitors on and other crazy stuff.

    Stick and ball, mainstream sports fan I’m not – but you are correct. Those sports do nothing to prevent drug use. It’s like cycling was 20 years ago, basically a blind eye. My coworkers, most mainstream sports fans, not cycling fans, always mention to me when something like the latest Floyd episode hits the sports pages – knowing that I’m a cyclist. When I ask them what kind of testing exists in the NFL or MLB, they have no idea. I think most NFL fans could care less if players dope.

    I think the difference between something like the NFL and pro cycling is the fact many cycling fans are cyclists themselves (especially in the US). We’re more connected to the sport, we know what it’s like to ride and even race. Sure at much lower level, but it still hard and hurts at times. To know someone cheats, just plain sucks.

    How many adult NFL fans actually play football? Percent must be in the microscopic range. So, to many, pro football is purely entertainment – with huge, huge amounts of money involved. That will kill any interest in seeing who juices.

  13. @Dan O
    My sentiments exactly. I’ve had that same convo with friends/coworkers many times and couldn’t have said it better myself.

  14. @Dan O
    Yeah, I’m with you – seems like the amphetamines etc of the 50’s through 80’s were pretty tame compared to the dope used these days. If someone in the bunch is truly clean, then I feel badly for them to compete against the dopers. But I always say, they’re all on the same shit, so it’s all still a level playing field.

    But, to watch yesterday’s stage, to see them go over several mountains and then finish on the Zoncolan, I love it. But can we really ask them to race like that and then act betrayed when they use drugs to do it?

    I don’t think so.

  15. @Jarvis
    What’s interesting to me is to watch the average speeds in the mountains.

    I’m going from memory here, but I seem to recall the first ride up to Luz Ardiden to be in 1985; at an average speed of about 25kph. LeMond placed well on the stage. I believe the next time they rode the stage, it was ’86 or ’87 (fairly sure it was ’86), and again they rode in the 26kmph range.

    Every year, the race follows a very similar and comparable route, usually over the Aspin and Tourmalet on their way to Luz Ardiden (the valley there precludes a lot of different routes).

    LeMond rode to Luz Ardiden with Indurain at an average speed of 39kmph. That is a pretty substantial increase in speed, and one that cannot be whisked away merely by saying bikes were lighter and training was better.

    The notion that LeMond was clean is bullshit; he was just as involved as everyone else, and until he comes clean himself and admits to whatever he did, I continue to have my reservations about his motives.

  16. @frank
    Speed never made you have more capacity it just gave the illusion to your brain that you could do more. EPO increases your abilities.

    No to the last question but lets get it out in the open – that is the part I do not like, I want to know is this time up this hill, a time I could do if I trained as hard or do I have to do shit too?

  17. @david (formerly, SGW)
    It’s interesting, this claim that he ruined a great week of bike racing with his claims. I agree, and I hate having drugs come to boiling to the top of the pot during a bike race, when athletes are flogging themselves and ripping up the roads.

    But, if you wanted to get a story out and have people pay attention to what you’re saying, wouldn’t you choose the time when the most people are already watching? From that perspective, it makes lots of sense; it’s not just self-promotion, it’s capitalizing on attention in order to get the word out.

    Or he’s an unbalanced douchebag who needs a Rule #5 prescription.

  18. @Rob
    I totally know what you’re saying; how do I compare to the pros? That question goes out the window; absolutely. But, I guess what I’m saying is, would I rather see great bike racing or compare my time to Basso riding the Zoncolan? Well, I can tell you I don’t want them shorting the GT’s or the stages, or doing less brutal rides in the mountains.

    I guess I can give up the comparison if it means I get to watch some good bike racing.

  19. @frank bollocks, Lemond was clean. Next thing you’ll be saying is that Boardman was eating pills as fast as he could TT.

    @formerly sgw

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the Giro was Flandis’ intended target, it just goes down as collateral. Flandis isn’t as flakey and mental as people make out. He took aim and probably got as good a result as he could have hoped for. It seems that the favour tide is finally turning away from Mr Armstrong.

  20. Not convinced by the “Lemond doped” allegations that often come up…. Throughout 89-90 (and then clearly in 91 onwards) he still had the 1980’s star quality, which is to say:
    1 )imperfect
    2) showed signs of weakness
    3) looked like he suffered lots during efforts

    roll in the 90’s star quality which was:
    1) flawless smooth riding
    2) no sign of weakness (ever)
    3) never looked like they were suffering

    BEsides the science, just the way you see the guys ride changed a lot. And Lemond always seemed to be on the human, non-epo-fulled side of it.

  21. are your 1993 VHS tapes live recordings or later edited compositions/summaries? If they are recordings of the liver transmission I would be highly interested in purchasing copies. Was also for me one of the best ever Tour de France races. Unfortunately, didn’t record it back then. I would be grateful if you could send me an email to SHAAARK[at]gmx.net – appreciated!

  22. Lachlan, agree with your statements totally – non epo fueled – loved the racer and his heart but…

    Unfortunately, at the end of the year Lemonpants was a first year pro (I do not have a good memory – for many reasons but mostly because I have never had a good memory, even pre ’69), I think he was 19-20, I was in a late Sept/Oct pro-am race with him in the states. The race was great it’s this story I have always found unfortunate.

    For him the race was like a Crit in Belgium – show up and get paid but also I assume (never having met him before or since) that it was fun to be with the guys who he used to race with.

    One evening a few of us went to the beach and the conversation (we were relaxing a few beers or a joint, – oh get a life, it’s the end of a long season) turned to steroids. Two of the group talked about doing them that past winter to put on muscle mass quickly to be competitive at their age with the pro peloton. How they could not have done as well without it and they would never do it again. They knew it was bad for you.

    So did I hear the man say this? It was a small group and the other rider is someone I knew from a distance of quite a few races. I really liked him as a person and have huge respect for him and his palmeres (the same with L. but never felt that he was as nice a person – big, well deserved ego…etc.).

    Geof will tell you that this eyewitness account is very suspect for many reasons but I heard what I heard. At the time it sounded reasonable to me – not anything I was interested in (a friend wanted me to shoot up B12 and that freaked me out, I was just a punk amateur with no illusions of grandeur). But here you have two young guys who by great talent have made it to the big show and they knew that by doing these new drugs (that I think were perfectly legal then) for a few months they would speed up their entry by 2-3 years.

    It still seems reasonable, not right, not something I wanted to do, not that I am some puritan church going fool (see above) but I saw what drugs did to half my friends and it never seemed a good idea. But then I was never going to be a pro and would I have had my mind changed for me?

    The reason I write this is that I do not like the hypocrisy – how much more class would it be if all the ex-riders who did shit came forward and said we did it? By the by Lemonpants has yakked so much about others but the other guy has always been silent.

  23. @Rob
    The Velominati Media Czar, KRX-10 (of kit and site design fame) has an intimidating collection of live VHS footage from all through the late 80’s and 90’s; he is in the minority in terms of him not having thrown them all out and is in the process of converting them to digital and they will be posted here in the Velominati Archives for everyone to view; if you want a VHS version, I’m sure he can hook you up.

    It’s slow-going, but we’ll let you know when they start coming online.

  24. @Rob
    Wow. What a tale. You are a legend. Robicus Maximus.

    I agree with the hypocrisy. We all know what goes on; show us the respect to say, “I did it” and lets all move on.

    Another great point of your post here is the psychology of the temptation to dope. A rider typically has only a few years at the top; to take some drugs and speed up the development and get into the ranks a few years early means they have the potential to be there significantly longer. I can see how tempting that would be for an under-education, ambitious talent who sees little other attractive options.

    And by “under-educated” I don’t mean unintelligent in any respect. I mean someone who has skipped college in pursuit of a sports career, who thereby necessarily has less choices in terms of alternative careers should their sports dream die.

  25. No No Frank, just a little guy (fat now) who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  26. Dan O
    I think the difference between something like the NFL and pro cycling is the fact many cycling fans are cyclists themselves (especially in the US). We’re more connected to the sport, we know what it’s like to ride and even race. Sure at much lower level, but it still hard and hurts at times. To know someone cheats, just plain sucks.
    How many adult NFL fans actually play football? Percent must be in the microscopic range. So, to many, pro football is purely entertainment – with huge, huge amounts of money involved. That will kill any interest in seeing who juices.

    Wow, this is an excellent point and I never thought of it like that! Yeah, a lot of us are still cyclists, not pros, but ride a lot of miles and work hard at it. That makes is completely different from many Americans who follow the big time sports. Probably none of them play football. Some might play softball or even pickup basketball, but drinking beer and swinging a bat a few times a week is much different than riding hundreds of miles a week, watching your food intake, sleep right, avoiding too much alcohol.

    Great point! It does make our connection to cycling different than the connection of many people to the sports they follow. Plus, when you add in the bikes, the wrenching, the gear, etc…no wonder we are all a bit wacky;)

  27. They aren’t “all” on drugs, and I think anyone who has lived the life would tell you that. There will always be the guys who do dope and the guys who don’t, and probably some who have dabbled too. That’s life, that’s reality. Even if most were/are doping saying they all are is a massive disrespect to the many clean riders.

  28. He also won Volta a Portugal in 97 and has palmares going back to 85.  I mean come on, sure most of these dudes are doping, but you make it seem like they won one race and that’s it.  Reads like a troll piece most of these, especially the gunderson one (wtf? even he calls himself amrstrong so why the trolling)

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