Seriously, why bother? We love a sport that hurts. It hurts if you participate and it hurts if you’re a fan of the professional side of it too.
As a rider you spend a great deal of time suffering, head bent over stem, muscles screaming, tendons taut, sweat pouring out of every pore and a string of saliva hanging from your gob.
Better halves and non-riding friends often just don’t understand why you’d want to do this as a ‘hobby’.
Make one mistake and you’re on the ground scraping skin on tarmac and dirt, left with bleeding, seething sores that will make you wince for days, unable to sleep properly.
They burn when you wash and sting when you move. On top of that, it costs a small fortune just to get started. Never mind the upgrades and the breakages that can cost thousands of dollars.
Following the pros is painful too. You’re left wondering if they all dope, because that many get busted. Time and time again the veil is lifted, a car gets stopped full of drugs, or a favourite rider gets popped by the anti-doping authorities.
Those you believed in often prove to be a sham, nothing more. They offer up denials and all the rest, and you want to believe but, deep down, all you know, even if you still admire them, is that you’ll never really know.
The Tour de France is the pinnacle of the professional tier of the sport, and yet on the record books there are three glaring sections that list no winners – from 1915-1918, 1940-1946, and 1999-2005.
The first two gaps were caused by world wars. The third was caused by Lance Armstrong. The man who stood on that podium in Paris and railed at those who “don’t believe”, he who told us he was clean. Well, we know how that turned out.
But it wasn’t just Lance. Look at the list of winners and there’s a lot of uncertainty there.
Henri Pelissier, the winner in 1923, spoke about how hard the Tour was and what it took just to compete. In short, guts, courage, and dope:
“You have no idea what the Tour de France is,” Pelissier said.
“It’s a calvary. And what’s more, the way to the cross only had 14 stations – we’ve got 15. We suffer on the road. But do you want to see how we keep going? Wait…”
From his bag he took a phial.
“That, that’s cocaine for our eyes and chloroform for our gums,” he said.
“Here,” said Maurice Ville (another rider) as he tipped out the contents of his bag.
“Horse liniment to keep my knees warm. And pills? You want to see the pills?”
They got out three boxes apiece.
“In short,” said Francis Pelissier (Maurice’s brother), “we run on dynamite.”
Henri takes up the story.
“You ever seen the baths at the finish?” he asked.
“It’s worth buying a ticket. You go in plastered with mud and you come out as white as a sheet.
“We’re drained all the time by diarrhoea. Have a look at the water. We can’t sleep at night. We’re twitching as if we’ve got St Vitus’ dance.”
Among early riders strychnine and alcohol, along with ether, were the drugs of choice. But riders took whatever they could to dull the pain. The French author Pierre Chany, speaking of doping at the Tour, said, “It existed, it has always existed.”
So accepted was the use of drugs throughout the Tour’s early years that in 1930, race organiser Henri Desgrange actually sent out a letter to the invited teams informing them that drugs would not be supplied by the organising committee.
Looking further up the line of winners of the great race who were known to have doped, we have Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Laurent Fignon, Bjarne Riis, Jan Ulrich, Marco Pantani, and Alberto Contador.
If that is not enough to provide evidence that the sport has its troubles, and has had from day one in regards to cheating, look at the top ten during the Armstrong era in every Tour and it’s obvious that this goes deep.
It’s 2014 and the Giro is about to begin. Last year we had two positives in the race. Testers say that they often suspect a riders’ sample suggests a doping offence but there is little they can do.
Things however are getting better, but if anyone thinks we are over ‘the hump’, well they must have ‘McQuaid’ for a surname.
And yet, we still flock to the roadsides in our hundreds of thousands, in our millions, year-in and year-out.
We sit up at all hours enduring Sean Kelly on one channel and the Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin comedy duo on another to catch a glimpse of the multi-coloured lycra brigade traversing mountains in far-flung lands.
Why? Why do we do it?
Madness? Yes, for sure.
Ignorance? In a sizeable minority, yes.
But the real reason we do it, the real reason we come back year after year, frothing at the gills for the Classics, amped up for the Giro, enthralled by the Tour, is because this is still the world’s greatest sport.
Ridiculous to say that I know, and yet it’s true.
I wrote this three years ago about why I love this sport despite it all, and re-reading it today proved the inspiration for this article:
We chose the most beautiful sport. The most epic. The daftest. The most furious, the most poetic, romantic, brutal, life-affirming and soul-destroying sport of all, the sport that drives its flawed geniuses to destruction and its devotees to distraction. Itʼs the simple love affair of man with machine, human-powered machine, and itʼs the one toy from childhood we get to keep, that grown men and women still get to play with, all over the world, no matter how old, no matter what culture, race, creed or ideology.
Itʼs the thing that gave you the freedom to leave your neighborhood and to explore the world around and when we race, itʼs the same barnstorming thrill you had when you sped down your block, racing home from school against Pete Barnes or whatever his name was to see who could get to the edge of the cul-de-sac first. It’s that same rush, that same freedom, the same Breath of Sheer and Unadultered Life. The sport of Kings, kid. Beat that.”
The bicycle and the men who rode them over the mountains and the cobbled lanes of Europe in those early years were so admired for two reasons.
The first was that they were using a form of transport that was the common mode of getting around for a majority of Europeans. The fact that these men could achieve these amazing feats on a humble bicycle resonated with the common people in a way that was only rivalled by football.
The other factor is entwined with the first, and it’s this: the bike made these men noble.
With the majority of early riders coming from poor farming and mining backgrounds, they had a connection with their communities – in short, though they were often seen as superhuman, they were also of the people.
Yet their achievements raised them up.
The bike freed them of their backgrounds, unchained them from circumstance and environment, and could even lift them from poverty. They became princes, and that transformation sparked the imagination of millions who fell in love with the sport in the same way we did.
Remember the first bike race you saw? Or maybe it was a magazine article you read on Coppi, Merckx or Stephen Roche. Or maybe it was a bike ride. Whatever the impetus, once you’re hooked, you stay hooked.
It’s a love that can be kicked and beaten, and it surely has, if you believe that the notion of fair play truly means something. They know it too, the dopers and the cheats, otherwise they’d all come out and say, “Hey, you know what, I cheat, lots of us do, so tough.”
But so very few have the courage, whatever courage that would take, to do that.
Despite all the tribulations and the heartache, we love this sport, even though the feats of the rider who first got you intrigued were later shown to be drug assisted. It messes with your head, and yet… you’re still here, still watching.
In a very real sense though, we are the sport.
We make it what it is, us idiots who cheer ourselves hoarse in front of the box or on the hillside, us fools who drag our arses out of bed at 6am to ride ourselves to near-oblivion on a perfectly decent Sunday.
It’s not a ‘hobby’, pal. This is my life. And that is why we watch, still, in spite of it all.
It’s a flawed love for sure, but heck, it’s our love.