Should I be embarrassed to be a fan of cycling? I was told sport would build character. Words like discipline, strength, teamwork, passion, fairness, virtue, cooperation and respect for rules were touted as guaranteed outcomes for participation in sport. But it is one thing to participate, where we can control our own behavior, deciding upon our own moral boundaries, and an entirely different thing to be a fan. Particularly being a fan of a cheating sport where witnessing virtuous behavior sometimes does not come with the territory.
You take the good with the bad in pro cycling
In recent weeks two really bad things happened in the arena of professional cycling. For starters Team Astana produced three positive illegal substance testing athletes (2 for EPO, one for steroids). I would call that an epidemic. I could also describe this as Astana cultivating cheaters, because wasn't it agreed upon a couple years ago that pro teams would get involved and have zero tolerance for doping in their ranks? Yes, that happened, it was part of the New Deal of Cycling which has had mixed results.
In 2007, a group of teams, organizers, sponsors and federations signed a good-faith agreement called Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC). The agreement stipulated that teams would voluntarily pull themselves out of upcoming competition if two or more athletes tested positive for banned substances within a 12-months period - a way of punishing the team for failing to self-police. Team Astana signed the agreement which looked fine on paper and better to sponsors, but that didn't stop them from following the fine print after two positives were reported. The team raced the approaching important Il Lombardia, only later pulling out of Tour of Beijing under tremendous pressure.
Then a third positive test was exposed from a third athlete on Team Astana. Whoops.
Oh that is bad, it must be bad, right? No, not really. The UCI has warned that Team Astana "would likely face scrutiny" (per Velonews). Okay that doesn't even scare me, no way will that warning derail a multimillion dollar team who is basically managed by ex-dopers and has power beyond the UCI governing body or other opposing teams and questioning sponsors.
The second bad thing that happened this week occurred over the airwaves of Denver, Colorado, when a matter of fact commercial intended to sell a Columbia Sportswear jacket stated that pro cyclists are dopers (keep in mind that Columbia used to be a sponsor of pro cycling, remember when George Hincapie and Mark Cavendish were teammates?). It is not simply that they said it, it is the way in which they said it. It rolled off the tongue as if it were conventional wisdom, in as nonchalant kind of way as if they just stated all blonds are dumb. Whether it is true or not doesn't matter, conventional wisdom is a sign that belief has become common truth. Ouch.
Cheating is entertainment
A few weeks ago I read a blog comment that stated "Isn't Vino a great character ..... Lance Armstrong was at least entertaining." Those types of statements are so troubling to me. What I see as intentional poor judgement, wrongful gains and lack of virtue in sports - is entertainment for others. As long as you don't cheat on me and keep me entertained - who cares? Right? So wrong.
When did Pro Cycling start running a parallel to the NFL or World Wresting Federation?
Pure entertainment and being able to spin out of any wrong doing with the right PR moves, effectively diverting our attention off the real issue, gets tiresome. Maybe we need to create a separate sport for the cheaters. Wrestling itself runs two parallel sports - World Wrestling and real Collegiate/Olympic wrestling. What I am saying is that cycling fans are no fools, we get that doping continues in pro cycling but does the choice exist to watch legitimate cycling? Where can I find honest competition, or does it exist?
I only have so many rebounds left in me. I got over the Festina affair, Omertà, Operation Puerto, Floyd Landis, too many books, the nullifying of seven years of Tour de France results, plus the Lance Armstrong era of silencing and intimidation. I cheered as a new UCI President was elected and a new era of cycling was announced with biological passports. I watched as confessions and immunities poured in and teams signed that trusty Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible agreement.
A fresh start? No, there is still doping in cycling. And blondes are dumb, and Irish drink, and Italians are all good cooks, and all those other half / full truths that are conventional wisdom and solidify unjust stereotypes.
A.S.O. needs to step up and control who gets invited to their races.
Anyone who knows pro cycling, understands that A.S.O. pretty much controls this sport by being the biggest most powerful organizer in pro cycling. They own the races that the leading teams must be invited to be a part of to retain the best sponsors and bring in top dollar. A.S.O. could easily create their own guidelines and in a way control the destiny of the biggest teams.
It is a known that the sport looses and rotates through sponsorship annually, continuously. The attempt to correct the poor image of professional cycling has been attempted through disciplining the individual athlete (won't work due to too great a gain by doping), through the teams (won't work unsupervised by a greater power) and through media outrage (the silencing era is not yet behind us).
Should we create two parallel cycling sports? One a World Cycling Federation for entertainment, where anything goes (this is the pool where Astana could compete), and the second one an A.S.O. controlled cycling league, where strict standards must be proven regarding staff, riders and practices. Sponsors could split themselves between the two separate sports according to what audience they were trying to reach. Fans could do the same (that way I don't have to stand next to the "isn't Vino cool" fans). Do you want entertainment or do you want true athletic competence?
A.S.O. and the other race organizers have the power to say "I don't want you playing in my playground."
The future of pro cycling
How many fans has professional cycling lost in the past five years? I don't know the number, but I do know that I feel somewhat embarrassed to be a fan of the sport. I am disillusioned - not emotionally, not as in bummed out - in my opinion, intellectually promoting the sport of cycling sort of feels like promoting World Wrestling.
Why we like some former cheaters and not others is hard to nail down, but I admit I am guilty of dividing better bads from just plain bads. I forgive Ivan Basso, Frank Schleck, Alberto Contador, and Christian VandeVelde. I don't forgive Alexander Vinokourov, Bjorn Riis, Jonathan Vaughters, Tom Danielson, George Hincapie, or Lance Armstrong. Why - I couldn't tell ya.
This is the face of modern cycling; as fans we form our personal fantasy teams based upon which dopers we like and which dopers we dislike, and which ones we still believe are clean. We form our preferences through a totally random subjective decision based upon emotion that cannot be fully explained. I find some comfort and justification in being a fan of professional cycling because "not all dopers are bad." Somehow I can forget they ever cheated.
It's total craziness. It's entertainment without virtue.
The 2014 winner of the Tour de France - Vincenzo Nibali - races on Team Astana. Oh no, I like Vincenzo Nibali! I feel the need to go read a bunch of Vince Lombardi quotes so I can feel good about sport again.
More about the Organizers of pro cycling
The A.S.O. (Amaury Sports Organisation) organizes the most highly revered bike races. A.S.O. is a privately held family company based in Issy les Moulineaux, France:
- Arctic Race of Norway
- Critérium International
- Critérium du Dauphiné
- La Course
- Ladies Tour of Qatar
- La Flèche Wallonne
- La Flèche Wallonne Féminine
- La Vuelta
- Saitama Criterium
- Tour de l'Avenir
- Tour de France
- Tour de Picardie
- Tour of Beijing
- Tour of Oman
- Tour of Qatar
- World Ports Classic
Belgian Flanders Classics organizes many of the well-known Spring Classics races in Belgium. The organization was founded in 2010:
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders)
Dawars Door Vlaanderen
De Brabantse Pijl
RCS Sports is the race organizer of the:
Giro d' Ialtia
My friend Willie Reichenstein told me the story today, "I remember a college lecturer telling us in a lecture that sport is not a character builder but a character revealer." I couldn't agree more.