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On Biking: What's wrong with my favorite sport?

Posted by Your Town  May 23, 2011 09:22 AM

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I wish I could say that I am shocked, shocked, to hear of another doping scandal in professional cycling. Sadly, I’m not.

Tyler Hamilton’s (the former Olympic and Tour de France cyclist) confession of drug use on 60 Minutes is just the latest in a long line of doping and cheating scandals that have plagued bicycle racing for over 100-years.

What’s notable is that Hamilton implicates both himself as well as the whole culture of racing, Lance Armstrong and all.

What’s wrong with my favorite sport?

First off, a little context. There have been accusations of drug use in the peloton for over 100 years. In the late 1890’s, cyclists were reported to have used PED’s (performance enhancing drugs) in the form of cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol, and even strychnine, all in the service of gaining a competitive advantage.

Fast forward to the post-war era. In the past 50 years, most of the winners of the Tour de France have reportedly been suspected of, admitted to, or tested positive for doping.

More recently, the Festina Affair, Operation Puerto, and countless other scandals seemed to have confirmed what former pro racer Paul Kimmage alleged in his book, Rough Ride: doping (aka cheating) is widespread throughout the sport of cycling.

As is omerta: the code of silence, of never ratting out your fellow rider.

Until now. Reports suggest that George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s former teammate and BFF, may have implicated himself and his patron in front of a grand jury.

It’s true that these are accusations, not proof. Remember, we’re all presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

As to the question I am so often asked, Did Lance dope? I can only say, “I don’t know. But it doesn’t look good.”

As much as I deplore doping, I can understand why someone might choose to cheat. It’s nice to think, “I wouldn’t dope if I were a professional cyclist,” but I’m not sure it’s that easy. Especially if you think your competition is “preparing” (biker slang for doping).

I say this not to absolve Hamilton (or any other rider who dopes) of cheating, but to put that cheating into context. I’m glad I never was fast enough to be put in the position of having to decide what I would have done.

So how to get the cheating out of the racing? If Hamilton is to be believed, cleaning up cycling must begin with a full accounting, a truth and reconciliation that acknowledges the depth of the problem. Only then does my sport of choice have a chance for redemption.

Is this possible? Yes. Likely? I don’t know. Years of sordid allegations have shaken my trust and faith.

So why do I still care? For one, racing is beautiful, even if rigged and fraudulent. Also, like the title of Armstrong’s autobiography reads, “It’s Not About the Bike.” It’s about fairness. Which is not possible if the playing field is neither level nor transparent.

Bike racing has plenty of drama. It’s also more interesting to me than the average theatrical production. And unlike Shakespeare, you don’t know in advance how things will turn out.

Unfortunately, doping turns this drama into farce (think professional wrestling). It can also become deadly: in the past 20-years a number of young riders have died suddenly (sometimes in their sleep), possibly from using EPO.

Cheating (that’s what doping is) suggests that the means justify the ends, that winning at all costs is okay. Just make sure you don’t get caught. Though even if you “get away” with cheating, it takes more energy to keep up the façade than it does to race up a mountain. The truth is, at the end of the day, living a lie hurts you the most, no matter how many medals and trophies you have on your mantle.

So will racing get cleaned up? I hope so, but frankly, I’m just not sure.

In the meantime, I’ll keep riding my bike.

Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.

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