Thursday, 22 September 2011

Why Take Drugs?

I can make no apologies for writing on the topic of drugs within our sport of cycling but it is ever present, poking, looming gloomily like a dark rain cloud, hiding like an unwanted child.  My stand on drugs in the sport is no doubt felt by many others.  My voice isn't the only one, all too often we are left disappointed by our hero's, the great battles of the tours, knowing that drugs is often or not going to come in there somewhere.

Let me start with an argument from a different angle, and perhaps one I still slightly hold onto.  Lets ask the question, "why do they dope?".  It's often said that money is the route to all evil.  The carrot on the stick.  I'd agree more or less.  But another factor is a love for a sport and the job of actually cycling.  Think I'm going on all hippy on you?  Bare with me.  If YOU got the chance to race and live the life of a pro cyclist how hard would you cling onto the contract that kept you racing, doing the job you love.  For some, particularly in poor countries cycling is a route into a paid job.  Like many athletes who go into professional sport, they do so because they are good at it and want to remain good at it for as long as they can.  It seems at whatever the cost.  A few cyclists have said they doped because they wanted to be competitive and, a very important point, to level the playing field to make the fair fight. 

Cycling is a cruel world and to be at the top you really have to be at your best because if you're not there are plenty of people who will take your place.  The peleton of old and today are absolutely littered with has-beens, those who after a few races or seasons are kicked of the team or are just not resigned as they weren't able to do the job.  Domistiques are the most disposable of cyclists.  They are often poorer paid and struggle to remain part of the team or in the peleton.  How hard would you fight if this was your dream, a professional cycle contract, a wage to support you and your family, to race in countries and be adored by fans the world over.  How hard?  Faced with the

option of drugs to stay strong in a three week race or go home, another name lost in history. Another unknown.

Sadly it seems that those in the lower order often get caught the most often taking the drugs yet its really only the big names that take the lime light.  Are they caught more often because they abuse the system regularly? Or are they caught because the cost of drugs and the agents used to mask them is often just to much?

There is, I have no doubt, a big culture of drug taking throughout the pelton in any race.  Cyclists look out for each other.  Team mates, often share the same doping doctors, and knowledge of how to use them effectively just comes with the territory.  I don't think its a case of turning a blind eye, but more excepting what is seen as the norm.  But cyclist do get caught, not often enough I fear. But more worrying is the reaction from fellow cyclists to these people.  If they fight for their innocence they are often backed, but 'spitting in the soup' and admitting to doping is often met with great hostility.

Paul Kimmage writes a brilliant book on his take on being ousted from former close friends within cycling for talking out on doping.  He never really names people but talks more about the culture of drugs in the sport.  But this goes completely against the 'omarta' of the peleton.  Why is it when a cyclist talks out against drugs in cycling are they claimed liars and segregated, abused, their words filth.  Regrettably the only people that talk out are often those that 'have' been caught.  So for that reason their words are meaningless.  Words of desperate people who want to bring the world down with them.  Maybe to justify why they took it was so because many others did.  I think that we should be listening to them.  How can so many whistle blowers be wrong.  Its time this culture was crushed and I applaud any who will talk out.

I think a prime example of this are the allegations from Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis that they doped and saw Lance Armstrong taking drugs.  Their words are often being dishonoured as they are labeled with just being like angry spoiled children taking everyone down with them.  When someone like George Hincapie speaks up though, a cyclist unknown to abuse and is very respected rider within the peleton and good friend to Lance, people sit up and listen.  We need more people like this.  We need more people to help clean this sport up, because I know for one thing this isn't going to come from the UCI.

I mentioned earlier that I feared people weren't being caught enough.  If you were head of the UCI and you wanted to toughen up on drugs in sport what would you do?  Come down hard and drug test everyone?  Yes that's what they did.  The problem is that just exposed cycing to the public as a sport in a mess.  How often do people flippantly say to you "oh cyclists are all just drug takers"?  That's the result of catching so many people.  Now we have a cleaner pelton.  But can we really believe this? After such an onslaught, the UCI will be desperate to prove that their tough line on drugs taking has cleaned up the sport for good.  Yet to prove this, all they have to do is catch less people.  And whats the easiest why to catch less people? Obvious.  Not test as many, or god forbid hide results(?)  It bears thinking about.

I'm going to leave this ever on going debate on something that just plain worried me about the mentality about taking drugs.  A nurse friend of mine who is a cyclist was contacted by a cyclist he knew.  The guy was asking my friend whether he'd be able to get anything that would help him with an upcoming race.  EPO to be more exact.  My friend was obviously shocked and rightly refused, not just because of his job but knowing the life threatening implications of taking such substances.  The sad thing.  This wasn't for some Pro race.  This wasn't even for British points ranking.  It was for a local weekly bike Crit.  A meaningless race, no real glory but his own.  He was willing to put his life on the line for what?

I continue to live in hope for a better sport.

If you'd like to read into some views on this all better than my own then these two books should be on your must read list.

Paul Kimmage - Rough Ride
Jeremy Whittle - Bad Blood



Bravo Jez! Well and thoughtfully said. Knowing why they do it, and how they can be open about it, I think is a great part of figuring out what to do about it.

That said, the whole Iban Mayo thing still makes me bawl like a baby.

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