August 25, 2012

Where have all the cowboys gone?

Even the wife - who could really care less about professional sports in general (much less professional cycling) - texted me this morning as the news crackled across her morning drive-time talk radio.  She knew I'd be interested, and she was right.  

For over a decade, I have been a conversation magnet for cycling... maybe not so-much in recent years; to a fine point, not since Armstrong retired.  This time around, people were not flocking to my cube to talk about the breaking news.  What has changed?  

It remains safe to say Armstrong had done more for cycling in the United States than anyone before him, perhaps even Greg LeMond.  Without going too far down the pathways of my personal experience and history, I was still too busy being apathetic and out of shape when LeMond was winning his Tours de France, and while the United States was enjoying it's "golden era" of bicycling in the 70's and 80's, I was merely taking for granted the pristine Schwinn Varsity Jr., American-Made, which I spent many hours cruising the neighborhood and bike trail upon.  The time I speak of, for me, happened later; after the Chicago Schwinn plant closed and after cycling took a dip as a mainstay in American culture.  Fast forward couple years after I started riding again as an adult, after the weight came off and after the news broke in 1999 about a new winner, an American.  In the years that followed, the bicycling industry spun-up into a technological frenzy - an arms race of sorts - which witnessed a spike in recreational cycling in the U.S. from 2000 to 2005, to one point where a large publication called cycling "the new golf."  Hearing that the man who - in my eyes - had been responsible for such a spike in American cycling (at least racing) culture had thrown in the towel with regards to USADA accusations of doping left me confused, annoyed, and - yeah - sad.

Maybe I shouldn't care so much - but I do.  I still want the dream to be real... if it indeed was a dream.

Upon reaching the office, I was greeted with an instant message from a co-worker asking for my thoughts on the matter - and, I found myself more prepared to answer than I'd realized.  I'm not convinced as quickly as many.  There are two sides to this coin:  either he has admitted to this alleged activity, or he has stepped down from the fight with dignity.  Only the individual can decide - until the USADA comes up with their evidence and pursues the stripping of his seven Tour titles with the UCI - which must agree with the decision.  It will take time for me to understand why, on reputation and record, anyone would back down from this fight - no matter how baseless.  I think the most frustrating leftover, far more than possibly having to try and remember who really won in Paris from 1999-2005, remains the fact Armstrong gave up.  No matter the odds, it is sewn into the fabric of modern civilization for a person to fight for their good name, if questioned or dishonored.  Baseless accusations or not, the effort should still be worthy -- and, knowing this, I know there can likely be only one reason for his capitulation.  Only Lance knows for sure.  Honor and dignity, however, are as much about realizing when to bow out gracefully as they are about triumph and persistence.

I do not want to, however, go on-record and hold Armstrong up as honorable for his decision - but, I still struggle with trashing him completely.  The tide has ebbed and flowed - it was cool to follow Lance, then it was cool to hate him.  People bought US Postal jerseys faster than they could be manufactured, and again with Discovery Channel, and - every July - non-cyclists at work constantly asked me "how'd Lance do today?"  I loved cheering for him, too - but, as is the case for many of us - it became harder to cheer after his retirement.  The media almost scolded us for doing so.  Multiple marital issues, a questionable foundation, an abrasive personality and attitude both on and off the bike; all the negative news came to the forefront.  And now, this.

I never considered myself an Armstrong fan as much as a cycling fan.  I've - ironically - always liked George Hincapie better, maybe Laurent Jalabert.  But, in my world, where I never knew how to throw a football, shoot a basket, hit a home run, or jump a hurdle -- I knew how to ride a bike, and in a time when I couldn't cheer for myself, I had an American winning the Tour to cheer for.  Armstrong filled that need, and for that, I am grateful.  Nothing will change the elation, the screaming in joy at the television as he'd cross the line after another time-trial victory.  The battles between Ullrich and Armstrong play out in my head as some of the finest moments in sport.  That was real.  I'm thankful that his impetus helped elevate cycling coverage in the States from sketchy internet radio and text updates to the live HD television coverage we enjoy today.  I don't want to be a blind supporter, or a hopeless fan-boy - but I don't want to discount Armstrong's accomplishments, either.  Let's assume for a second that EVERYONE was doping (and, yeah - most will say they all were), and it really was a level playing field during the Tours he'd won.  He still had to pedal.  He still had to use his brain, and team strategy, to win.  And win he did.  Over and over.  It was never a game of milliseconds, either.  If you think it's just "riding a bike", and doping somehow renders ANYone super-human and able to win a three-week bike race, fine:  try it.  The foundation MUST be there - and while this ordeal has already left a dark asterisk next to seven Tours' history - I don't really care if he doped or not.  It is not the drugs that won the race.  I still, no matter how uncool it may be, want to believe a few simple facts on the matter:  he was an athletic anomaly in his teens when he was winning triathlons.  He developed into a terrific cyclist - enough to win the World Championships, the youngest professional to do so at the time.  He was strong enough to beat his particular brand of cancer - and his specific medical case would have outright finished nearly anyone else with the same diagnosis.  He fought back, experienced a new level of suffering through chemo and radiation and surgery, and took that experience into his post-cancer cycling career, where he began to best his rivals on the premise of hard work and knowing how to suffer more than the next guy.  Is it really so unimaginable he'd have been able to win so handily?

I think, in a way, that's Armstrong's point: whether there is an admission waiting, or evidence that will eventually either exonerate him of, or confirm, the accusations - he still had to pedal, as everyone around him did.  IF they were all doping, heck, even if only the top 5% of the GC contenders were, then he still won against them.  Take all the performance-enhancing drugs AWAY, then, you would have the same result.  Cycling - clean OR dirty - still has an eventual winner.  The USADA can fight their fights, and I appreciate the premise of what they are attempting for the sport -- but, with the logic above (albeit, admittedly, blotchy on my part) in place, what's the point?  What's their motivation?

Still, I struggle - I want to stand up and cheer at the genuinely remarkable stories of athletic performance, and aspire to make myself a better person.  But there's always a sense of pause, especially with cycling, and especially now.  It's in the back of my head, every time I watch someone win.  I'm waiting for the same allegations to surface about Bradley Wiggins, this year's winner.  It's inevitable.  Somewhere in Italy, I'll bet they're writing the case, right now.  It sucks - but it's how this particular machine works.  It's just unfortunate that --- keeping in mind in either Wiggins case, or in Armstrong's -- neither athlete has ever failed a drug test.  The same can be said for Marco Pantani -- perhaps the most tragic example of the damage these anti-doping witch hunts can leave in their wake.  The "machine" has created this automatic reaction to outstanding feats of physical prowess.... instant doubt.  I, for one, am tired of it all.  OF COURSE I'd prefer a completely clean sporting culture - I even sorta get why someone would stoop to PEDs in the first place at the professional level, despite my disagreement with their use - and that's NOT a condonement.  As my old bumper sticker says:  Dopers Suck.  But, no sport is immune, from auto-racing to college wrestling. 

Drugs or not - people love and hate a winner.  This is the age we've created, however it leaves us in history's eyes:  we judge the military, our religious and political leaders, our friends, and our athletic heroes.  We judge their every move, demand to know their every motivation, and demand to expose every flaw - lest we observers be so perfect.  And we will ultimately pay for this.  I see this cynicism in myself, and I see it in my children - and I am ashamed.  I'm mad at myself that I held someone up on a pedestal, but I'm madder at the ones that forced me to question why I was cheering in the first place.  I - we all - need to cheer, to hold fast to our convictions and passions - on the hope that our kids might see us NOT giving up on someone who has come under pressure and doubt.  Instead of sheepishly tearing posters of "fallen heroes" down from the garage wall, I'd rather explain why I still have them up there, should anyone care to ask.  I would like to think that no amount of temporary fame or fortune would be worth the risk - that competition, personal sacrifice, and sport itself, are enough.  It's not that I need a hero so much as I need to believe in genuine, unquestioned human triumph over odds - and I need a world where that's okay to stand behind, without having to explain it.  Passionate idealism... that's me.  

So, why AREN'T people coming into my cube to ask about Lance this time around?  What changed?  It's hard to tell -- perhaps they have already made up their own minds.  Perhaps the media has decided for them.  And, honestly, perhaps none of this --- to me, or my family --- really changes anything, or matters at all.  The sun will still rise tomorrow.  I will still ride my bike.  I still think we need heroes - and if yesterday's are dethroned, I look with hope at the ones that might rise to replace them.  (Are you listening, Tejay van Garderen?)  I hope that those who do wrong are punished.  I hope that those who actually - all this time - have done right, survive - and that their stories would be told, to clear their good name. 

Meanwhile - since 2005, since my own adult maturation has lent me to holding my own head up for the things I have accomplished, I still like watching the Tour.  I still love bikes, talking shop, and getting excited in July.  But, in much the same way I abandoned big arena shows in lieu of seeing live music in small clubs, I tailor my search for heroism in smaller circles.  I cheer for the guys out at Longview Lake that continue to reach for the new high average speed.  I cheer for Mark Cavendish.  I cheer for Tinker Juarez, and Ned Overend, and Steve Tilford.  I cheer for Cameron Chambers.  I cheer for Kenneth Walker.  I cheer for the wife of a great friend, whom is taking on cycling with such fervor she may overtake us all.  I cheer for that kid in the Specialized commercial - because that ad represents EXACTLY where my passion starts... and I see my son in that ad.  I still remember and cheer for George Brett, Frank White and Dan Quisenberry, et al.... because you can't front on the '85 Royals, ever.  I hold up Lon Haldeman and John Marino.  I hold up my Dad.  I hold up Oscar Pistorius.  I hold up my randoneuring friends.  I hold up those that adopt and foster children.  I hold up those that work with children with special-needs.  I hold up my friends and my family.

Heroes don't have to be complicated, and neither does explaining them.  But, it's still - definitely - okay to have them.  It's still okay to believe in the dream.  Despite this situation's impact and weight, it won't kill professional cycling.  It won't kill the passion for sport... I can only hope it teaches a broader lesson, and cements behavior which dictates that - when given the choice - our future heroes would choose defeat and honor, rather than desiring to win at any cost and someday apologizing.  Only in this way, can this talk of doping and anti-doping become a thing of the past. 

Until then - let's keep doing what we do.

Thanks for reading.


Steve Williams said...

Finally, an opinion piece on this subject that doesn't claim to know the truth of what happened, whatever that truth might be, and instead focuses on how what we do know affects us as individuals. And here's hoping Tejay has a good time trial tomorrow!

Anonymous said...

How many sports magazine editorial pages can you het this into? A lot of people need to see this kind of attitude on both the fan side and the officiating side. Nicely written & well said.

Personally, I don't care whether he ropes or not,I agree he made a huge impact on cycling in the US regardless.

Thanks Dude.
Rick the Workin' teen...

Monkeywrangler said...

A great and thoughtful post! Thanks for writing some of the things about LA that I have been thinking too.

dmar836 said...

Well Said!

Assisted Pedestrian said...

Your last two paragraphs are very beautiful. If only more people held on to these thoughts.