There was always something about him. Something not quite right. The story was phenomenal. A young, good looking, talented, sportsman. Cut down in his prime by that most frightening of illnesses. Cancer. The word old women like to whisper. He battled it and won. He then went on to win a record amount of Tour de France victories. Almost a Disney; seven. Then the whispering started. “How could he win that many in a row?” “Does he dope?” “I’m sure he does, don’t they all?” “No” “He isn’t human!” and now we know the truth about Lance Armstrong.
Sadly it’s true, doping has a long proud history in the professional world of cycling. As long ago as 1924, two brothers openly spoke to a journalist about their doping activities. They claimed to have used aspirin, strychnine and cocaine. Whether the aspirin was necessary is neither here nor there.
In over 30 years in following cycling which is now quite difficult as until only recently it is now possible to follow the sport on Eurosport and online streams on the internet. I initially would only have a few column inches of information in a national newspaper and not being able to put a face to a name. I don’t know of any other sport that is as tough as cycling. I have tried it, it hurts, it’s painful, very painful and when I look at a comparative of other sports no wonder the easy route out is taken. Before the great rise in the use of EPO in the early to mid-nineties, amphetamines use was rife.
The great Laurent Fignon said in his autobiography, ‘suddenly average cyclists seemed to be flying when before they were nothing more than participants’. It seems to me that cycling was looking for a way out for participants to relieve their pain. Can you think of any other sport that has such a heavy schedule? Footballers whine if they have to play two games per week. The total miles in the Tour De France 2013 is 1973 miles over 18 days with two rest days. 109 miles on average a day taking in Alpine and Pyrenean peaks in high summer. A season that starts in January with the Tour of Qatar and concludes with the Giro Di Lombardia in October. That does not include the UCI’s obsession, not unlike FIFA’s and UEFA’s obsession with spreading their sport around the world to the detriment of its participants.
The famous one day classic, Paris Roubaix (L Enfers du Nord – The Hell of the North), is set up to make cyclist look foolish where in certain sections of the race, crowds gather at the ‘pave’ to watch and cheer the cyclist if and when they fall, almost like gladiatorial Rome. This ridicules the professional, so much so that Bernard Hinault was quoted as saying: “Paris Roubaix est une connerie” (Paris Roubaix is bullshit); where in 1981 he fell seven times in the race suffering the humiliation of riding over a dog. He went onto win just to prove in typical French fashion, being a proud Breton, that he was never to be beaten in a race that had a place more in Jeux Sans Frontieres (It’s a Knockout).
Cycling has its history in being a ‘peasant sport’. Never in history has any sport treated its participants so badly that the label ‘domestique’ means a professional sportsman who dedicates his life for a poor salary to dish out bottles of water and food bags and sacrifice his entire career for his team leader.
This may sound like I am trying to justify the reason that cyclist may indulge in doping just to get through their daily work, but sadly this may be the case. I cannot justify the doping to such an extreme level that Lance Armstrong rose to, but this peasant sport seems to have accepted the use of drugs to a dangerous level. So much so, that the use of EPO was ignored at a high level by everyone from top to bottom in the sport.
When the Tour De France started in Dublin 1998, the story goes as the cyclists flew into Dublin Airport, the team cars left from Liverpool by ferry and the word went out that there would be a search by Police and Organisers (sic). The paranoia was such that supposedly mechanics and soigneurs were tipping drugs and paraphernalia overboard.
Yet again this brings the sport into a circus like quandary. They expect riders to participate in a heavy schedule of races but don’t expect them to dope. I am often reminded of The Beatles when they used to play in the Star Club, Hamburg from 2pm to 2am. No wonder they indulge in substances to keep them going.
There is no protection for the rider. Just an expectation that they should turn up and perform, three or four times per week. Not only races that matter in the UCI calendar, but in pointless town Criterium, which the result is a forgone conclusion and earns money to keep them going. Like any other sport the high earners are a small few and the remainder of the prize money is spread amongst the lower ranks of their teammates for their eternal sacrifice.
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Part Two of Doping in Cycling will be available next week.