On July 23rd I watched my then favourite cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov pull off the type of stage he had become legendary for. We had seen him win in the Alps, in a time trial, on the cobblestones of Paris, and it was to be his first win in the Pyrenees. He seemed to have demonstrated, once again, to put aside all the obstacles but the race at hand. The crowds urged him on, I urged him on. I was glad to see him win. I immediately turned away from television, the internet, phones, all modern communication for the next 36 hours. When I came back into contact I was minus a favourite cyclist.
Upon first hearing of Vinokourov’s positive test for blood doping, a rush of negative thoughts raced through my head. I thought of never following the sport again, of never returning to France to take in the race, of turning my back on cycling. I felt betrayed. Here was someone who I had deemed one of the most courageous and respected athletes in all of sport, not just cycling. In a flash it was all dashed. It was similar to the feelings I had around Ben Johnson in 1988. I distinctly remember the moment I was cheering, and I distinctly remember the moment I wanted to turn away forever in disgust.
Then, time passed. I read the reaction of redeemed rider David Millar, who broke down in tears upon hearing of Vinokourov’s cheating. He was heartbroken, disgusted, and ready to quit. With time though, rationality came to him, and me, and his hope for cycling rekindled mine. Cycling is bigger than one rider. The Tour de France is bigger than one unfortunate stage. Sport is bigger than any one bicycle race. Vinokourov getting caught, Rasumussen being dismissed, Moreni testing positive, and Mayo being disgraced after the race, these are good signs. It means that cycling is catching cheaters, it is discrediting even those that are suspected of cheating, and it is not concerned about their status. There are those in the media and in anti-doping agencies that want to point the finger at cycling and wail about what a horrible sport it is, what a disgrace it is. I am just as disappointed with those views as I was a year ago. I don’t believe cycling as a sport is the problem anymore. In fact, as a sport it continues to do more than double any other sport on the planet in its attempts to catch and penalize those who dope. If the San Francisco Giants applied the same standards to their athletes as the cycling team of Rabobank does its cyclists, Barry Bonds would have been sent home long ago. It is not even a question of testing positive in cycling anymore, it is a question of continually and consistently appearing credible. The slightest slip can send you out. This is harsh, but necessary. Media, officials, and fans should be rightly disgusted with the cyclists who cheat, and who are caught. But reporters, drug officials, and spectators should not be disgusted with cycling for catching them. Instead they should scrutinize the drug policy of every other sport before cycling’s, because rather than being a farce, cycling is an example. Pursing fitness perfection, pushing the boundaries, competing with honesty and integrity, these aspects will survive, because cycling will survive as it pushes out the athletes who choose drugs over respect. Even if they are stars, even if they are favourites, they should go. Other sports should consider doing the same.
I hope Vinokourov gets the help he deserves. Cycling, with its highs and lows, teamwork and individuality, successes and tragidies, is a mirror to human life. Just as when a non-athlete makes a choice to use drugs, there are complicated reasons behind it that require the individual to seek help. I hope Alexandre finds the help he needs.
-Congratulations to Axel Merckx on another well ridden Tour, supposedly his last. Everyone was pulling for him in the break-away of stage 18, but it was just not to be.
-Merckx, Juan Anotonio Flecha, Jens Voigt, George Hincapie, Sandy Casar – while only one of these riders won a stage (Casar, after hitting a dog – oddly the second time it happened in this year’s race – and receiving some serious road rash) they are still some of the best reasons to follow cycling. They are the true work horses of cycling and every great team needs a rider like them.
-A lot of youth on the podium in Paris, only increases the hope for cycling.
-Let’s bring on the Vuelta.