Secretariat Was A Doper:
I don’t care. I can’t know that. I do know that when you leave shit lying around, somebody will steal it. Usually. Human beings do dirt when given the opportunity. But you knew that, too.
I love a good horse race, and I love a good horse-racing story even better. Motor sports have their appeal, sure; but muscle powered contests fabricate their own pageantry, write their own score, and inspire the human imagination in ways that no marvel of engineering ever could.
No surprise, this is why I love bike racing. Like a good friend of mine always says, there is just something about pinning on a number that really makes you go hard. That’s why I’m a fan: because it’s real.
If you read the cycling press regularly, you might think you know where this essay is heading when I use a loaded word like “real”, but you would be wrong. Let me get this out straight, right up front: people cheat at life, but I still like life. So when people cheat at bike racing, guess what? Yup, still like it. Love it. And if you invest your money in the stock market, if you have a mortgage, if you accept the interest rates your credit company charges you; or if you watch NFL football, Olympic Skiing, UFC fighting, Major League Baseball, The Oscars, or Jeopardy; if you fail to report “hobby” income on your taxes, or if you drive 15 miles per hour over the speed limit, then you are obligated to—yes you MUST—accept the reality that when the stakes are high, or when it is convenient, some people will always cheat, because they can. But bike racing? Those efforts you see in the Tour De France, chemically enhanced or not, are as real as it gets.
The unmitigated effort of the racing cyclist is completely genuine, and it is a beautiful thing to witness. No amount of technology can ever replicate the intensity of watching a runner finish a sub-2:05 Marathon, or a horse winning Belmont; and no amount of drugs can ever completely diminish the awe-inspiring spectacle of a cyclist at the absolute point of exhaustion, pushing arbitrarily through the pain, simply to experience it, to know it can be done. The sweat, blood, and tears; the emotion and the sacrifice that have made people feel like they could relate to cyclists as athlete-heroes who race by close enough to touch; those efforts are real.
Here is what we miss about Floyd Landis and Contador: in other arenas of life, to most of us, specifics matter. In our legal system, a defendant is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. In the world of cycling, it seems, we have collectively lost touch with the comparative size of some of life’s little transgressions.
So this is the important and, to my mind, terrifying reality that we have all overlooked: Floyd Landis is innocent, and his career was ruined anyway. Why do I say he was innocent? Because we are relying on a skewed, easily-manipulated, disingenuous anti-doping system, that is inconsistently applied, and apparently doesn’t work anyway.
“Yes, I did drugs”, says Floyd. “No, I didn’t use testosterone on that tour”, he says. Why not believe him? And his conviction is supposed to make us feel good about a cleaner sport because he later admitted to other doping offenses? This profiling-based, puritanical, us-vs.-them mindset is the same attitude that the power elite in the legal system display towards the underprivileged. “All of the kids in that neighborhood are drug dealers”, a prosecutor might rationalize. An embittered detective tells himself that “they” (it’s always they) all know who committed that murder, so it doesn’t matter which one is guilty; someone needs to go to jail. That’s a common story. The thing is, the way I think about society, people cheating at sports is pretty ugly, but a populace that demands a higher standard of behavior from its athletes than it demands from its teachers, political leaders, armed service personnel, law enforcement officers or anyone else, is not a populace whose collective judgment I am willing to trust.
Why do I care? Why do I take it personally? Here’s why:
In 2004 I was fat. I tell this story sometimes, because it’s an important story for me, and occasionally illustrative for others. So yeah, a regular fatty, and at the time I was also, at the age of 27, an inveterate cigarette smoker since the age of 12. The rest of my story is easy to figure out, but it’s only interesting because it is the story of a lot of people. Lance raised the profile of cycling in the US, and I started to ride bikes for the first time since I was a teenager. Then I started to ride bikes like I meant it. Not to steal The Boss’s thunder, but truth be told it was Jan Ullrich’s beautiful suffering and Floyd Landis’s unbending loyalty to his team leader that really captured my imagination and took me back to the 80’s and the blurry Sports Illustrated photos of LeMond I remembered seeing my brother mesmerized by.
The point—for me—is that my life changed because of that Tour De France and all of those unforgivably doped up, heartless cyborgs. How dare they inspire me so? Again, I remind you: the efforts are real, the suffering is real, and if Landis has taught us anything, it is that the sacrifice, too, is real.
Does this make me neutral to the issue of doping? Of course not. And to the amateurs and 4th rate professionals around the country who have been busted and made comebacks lately, I can only say keep a weather eye out for a well-deserved knee to the handlebars. For those guys—the guys who gear up to steal criterium prize money from part-timers like me—I have no sympathy and no respect. But Floyd Effin’ Landis? The Tour? Man, I love bike racing enough to admit that it’s another sport entirely from what I do. For real. That is a multi-million dollar industry and none of my business. I expect it to be as admirable, and corrupt, as any other.
Back to that summer of 2004: there I am, sprawled out in a ditch on a 95 degree day with my hairy legs and mountain bike shoes, my 10-Euro Decathlon jersey, fresh from a trip to France, clinging to my rolls of fat like Velcro to a sheep, as rivers of acrid fat-guy-who-smokes sweat trickle down my ponytail and Bin-Laden-worthy beard onto my new aluminum Specialized. As I lumber around my little grotto sorting out how to change my flat tire, I see a cyclist approaching up the hill, and I swear it’s the French cartoon guy from The Triplets Of Belleville.
His back is hunched, his temples are concave; no helmet, jersey unzipped to reveal his delicate ribcage and heaving lungs. He stops and fixes me with a stare through his Rudy Project rydons.
“Need a hand?” He asks.
“No, I got it, thanks.”
“Alright, enjoy your ride.”
And off he went, a picture of beauty and efficiency on two wheels; everything I was inspired by about bike racing—the lonely struggle, the solitary dedication, the sacrifice, the emaciated chest, the glint of sunlight on a new cassette, the wrought-iron calves spinning effortlessly away up that hill that I still needed my triple chain ring to get up without stopping—and he had stopped to help. The other fat guy with a too long beard who happened by, well, he gave me a look and creaked his way on up the hill. Probably less embarrassing for both of us that he didn’t stop. It would have looked like amateur night at the Sumo club with both of us tumbling around in that ditch together.
So I guess being fit and riding bikes a lot makes people nicer. I guess so. That’s my moral, anyway. And my sport? My friends? My group ride? Clean as a whistle.
Remember Sammy Sosa’s corked bat? Mark McGuire’s improbable ascendancy? Pete Rose’s debilitating, heartbreaking cynicism? Marion Jones? Ben Johnson? Tanya Goddam Harding? None of those cheats rode a bike, and none of their sports have been vilified the way ours has.
I’m racing this weekend, and I owe a large part of my happiness at this point in my life to the most beautiful sport there is, so I’ll just be grateful to be there. And I’ll feel that way even if I get beaten by a doper. And the next time some guy (always a guy) asks me what level you have to be racing at before you start taking drugs, I’m going to ask him if he cheats on his taxes, or goes to strip clubs even though his wife would be devastated, or steals office supplies from work. Because we all have demons. What are yours?
*Originally posted 3/1/2011