“Being cynical is the only thing that is still fun about cycling,” wrote Willard Ford, and I love that line so much that I might put it on a t-shirt. But here’s an interesting thought – which came first, the doping, or the cynicism?
There are several different kinds of cycling fan, of course, but for the sake of argumentative journalism, please allow me to generalize. We’ll say there are three broad types.
Type One never believed a word of it from the get-go and knew these guys were popping something akin to rocket juice straight into their butt cheeks from the early 90s. Hardcore riders and/or racers themselves, they knew that what they were seeing was not physiologically possible. They understood the history of the sport and knew that from way back in the late 1800s all the way up to Mr. Merckx himself and beyond, cyclists had been cheating.
Why did they cheat? Because they were human, plain and simple.
They spent years in the shadows, these Type Ones, whispering under their breath and looking over their shoulder lest they accidentally let it slip that they believed that 99% of the peloton was more chemically enhanced than Timothy Leary on a three day bender.
Few spoke out because if they did they would be vilified, labeled as envious and bitter. Some were writers and broadcasters but they still kept schtum, lest they find themselves out of work. They were, however, vindicated in the end, even if it never made anyone really feel too good.
Type Two believed in The Lie for a long time then realized, finally (despite Festina, Puerto, the Italian with the big ears and all the rumors about needles, vials and exercise bikes being brought into Grand Tour hotel rooms to help riders keep their blood thin at night), that yes, their heroes doped. For this, we can thank Lance Armstrong.
It took the fall of the good ol’ boy from Texas to finally convince Type Two that even English speakers dope too. Heaven forbid. So, David Millar was not an isolated case. Turns out, in fact, that it had been these American guys that were at the head of the most sophisticated doping fraud in the history of the sport.
Was nothing sacred? Could we please just go back to blaming the Spanish and the Italians? Wouldn’t that be easier for everyone?
Then we have Type Three. Denied sufficient oxygen at birth, Type Three sees nothing wrong in doping and wishes everyone would just shut up and allow the dopers to get on with it. Who cares? Type Three certainly doesn’t. Happily unburdened by the weight of intellect they will tell you that they just don’t give a ****, which, as we all know, is one hell of a powerful argument.
Personally, I’m either an optimistic cynicist or a cynical optimist, so in my case I’d say I was definitely ready for the dawn of the EPO era, because I was already pissed off. When a bunch of Dutch kids died in the early 90s because they didn’t know how to use blood thinning agents to counteract the thickening of the blood that EPO causes, I got pissed off even more.
Later when these man-hulks were racing up mountains so fast that even the Colombians were shocked, I delved even further into my natural store of cynicism. It was a match made in heaven, professional cycling and me, because I have always loved having something to complain about. And here it was. A beautiful thing being destroyed by chancers and pimps, enablers and drug addicts. The cheats rose to the top and the good guys got zilch. Less than zilch, in fact, because they even got a kick in the teeth as they were being thrown out.
All of which brings me to Jonathan Tiernan-Locke.
When he rocked up in 2012 and started winning stuff and putting riders who had for a long time, on paper at least, been better than him to shame I thought ‘hmmmm’. You probably thought that too. My Gran even put a bet on him eventually getting busted, he looked that dodgy.
‘Give him the benefit of the doubt,’ some said.
‘Hey, innocent til proven guilty!’ clamoured others.
Why? Because so often when a rider has come along and shown form that he had never previously exhibited they don’t later on get busted for doping, or ‘admit’ it when the gun’s to their head? Like, Bjarne Riis. Or Levi Leipheimer. Or David Millar?
I wished JTL was clean. I am that stupid that I wanted to believe it. I wanted to believe because I love those stories, I’m sure many of us do, of the underdog who rises to the challenge, who comes to the stadium to watch then gets asked to play and hits the skin off the ball to bring home the win.
I wanted to believe because I’m human. But something said ‘hmmm’ in my head because I had reached the point where I just could not take it anymore. The data shows that a vast majority of cyclists throughout history have doped. Recent years show that for every step forward we take 5 back. It all shows, indeed, that if you think anyone is really, really clean, then you’re conning yourself.
This doesn’t mean no one is clean. It just means that you really, seriously should not believe any of them.
Yes, a brilliantly ridiculous conclusion, but you go check the numbers. Let’s hear your summation.
JTL’s rather Boonesque excuse for his results was that he had necked 17 pints just before the test, but that he couldn’t be bothered to challenge the results cos he has no cash and he figured he’d been stitched up enough.
You know what that ’17 pints’ excuse really is? It’s like when you’ve done something really quite wrong at work or at a party or indeed anywhere where there are people you have to face later, and you’re not brave enough to admit the truth. So you spin a yarn that is outlandish and frankly pathetic, but because everyone is nice they go along with it. For those who weren’t there at the time of the misdeed or who aren’t so close, your little lie does just enough to sow a miniscule grain of doubt in the mind.
‘Oh of course he did it,’ they think… ‘But he did say that he…’
And that is what JTL’s excuse essentially is. He will go back to his pals and his family and they’ll be able to pretend to believe that he is innocent. The veneer will survive, just. It’s the coward’s way out though, make no mistake, but, amazingly, it works.
A study in the USA found that sports fans prefer their idols to lie about doping, despite the evidence of a positive test. Denying works. Your ratings might take a dent but hey, he said the reason was this, or she said that. Admit it though, and your popularity will really fall.
So yes, people would rather be lied to than hear the truth, in a great many circumstances.
For me though? Sheesh, gimme a break, the kid is as guilty as OJ. But then, he did have 17 pints.
Come on cynicism, don’t desert me now…