By now, they’re holding on by the barest of threads, hollow-eyed and jittery, discolored and discomforted by knotted stomachs, blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight. They are those journalists who have written so much, so exclusively, about cycling’s doping problems that the very topic has become their addiction, their habit. Devoid of a score this spring until Toni Colom was kind enough to give them a quick taste, they came to the Tour de France desperately in need of the big fix, and it’s no secret that the Tour is the biggest open-air market in town. But so far, the village has been dry of good dope, so now they’re hunting around for whatever they can get.
They descended on Monaco so hopefully, with their carefully packed works –laptop, recorder, camera – ready to pull out with shaking, eager fingers if one of their connections came good, relieving the sickness and bringing them back to life. But until that happened, the gear would stay tucked safely out of sight, clean and unused. And there it still sits, despite all the other newsworth things that have gone down. That’s because, despite the veritable three-ring circus around them, like any junkie they don’t notice a damn thing that can’t somehow be connected to the score. Those things they do notice – the exceptional performance, the breakout ride, the sudden illness – will be set in that context, one that doesn’t for a second consider careful training, undiscovered talent, or hard luck, but concerns itself only with an ever-present, all-encompassing underworld where deception is the rule rather than the exception.
Ah, junkies, to be sure. Which is not to say they have no point, no purpose or no value. William Burroughs, after all, was a proud and self-confessed junkie, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t produce some groundbreaking work on the object of his addiction. So have those most famous of cycling journalism’s dope addicts – Walsh, Ballester, Kimmage, and now Lemond – produced noteworthy work on their obsession. Yet, for any number of reasons, they’re either disregarded as nutters or hailed as infallible bastions of the one, true word. As with most things, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.
Yes, they sometimes seem to have an irrational tenacity and preformed conclusions that can quickly erode their credibility. Despite those issues, however, they’ve also done some informed work that can’t be ignored simply because of their own dogged pursuit of the topic. But I’m not interested in writing some endorsement or refutation of any of their work – everybody will pretty much take what they need from it and leave the rest, anyways. I’m more interested in the how and why of journalists and former riders turning into tunnel-vision dope addicts. There are a multitude of personal reasons it can happen, of course – Kimmage’s drive seems to come from the ugliness he perceived firsthand as a rider, Walsh often cites a fundamental need for honesty embodied by his late son, Lemond seems to need continual reassurance that he was as good a rider as he believes, and Ballester, driven from a top cycling spot at L’Equipe over his pursuit of the dope issue, seemingly needs to convince himself and everyone that he was right to pursue it.
All of those are good enough reasons, I suppose, but I’m more interested in the more broadly applicable and much simpler reason that will be coming into play right now, as writers seek the right phrases to sum up the 2009 Tour de France: fear. I believe that most journalists, good ones, anyway, have an innate fear of being wrong. They dread the moment they received that “Aha!” email, letter, or phone call, telling them that yesterday’s story is wrong, erroneous, a sham, despite all the work they put into researching and writing it. They’re terrified of that one, unknown-to-them fact that might emerge just after the presses roll, changing the entire plotline, turning their story upside down, making a mockery of what they thought was the truth they were reporting. They fear looking stupid, or incompetent, or naive. That sort of fear can be positive -- it can drive hard and careful work; it can also be crippling.
For journalists covering cycling, that killer fact looming just over the horizon happens to be a little less of an unknown than is typical, and the “known unknown” of the doping spectre will have a chilling effect on some of the writing used to describe this Tour de France and its seemingly inevitable winner. Few will stray too far in their praise for him, his performances, and for those of his most vigorous challengers. And that known unknown will, as always, have a downright cynical effect on the writings of the dope junkies, who, until the cold, hard positive dope test they’re pining for comes down the pike, will have to content themselves with a simple, “it can’t be true.” It’s unfortunate, if understandable, that nothing that’s seen in cycling can be admired, believed, or even accepted, simply because the minute that test comes back from the UCI, anyone who’s put their admiration of a hard attack on paper or been impressed by a good time trial will feel they’ve been played for a fool.
But if you only write about the dope, and how it’s everywhere and everyone is doing it and nothing can be trusted, you avoid all that fear. Writing those articles is a safe bet – people may think you’re a little single-minded and fairly paranoid, but it’ll be very, very hard to ever prove you wrong. So the message becomes, “He’s doping, and you’re just all too foolish to see it. They just haven’t caught him yet.” Many times, nothing ever confirms the declarations of suspicion, leaving the “haven’t caught him yet” to quietly cover the writers' reputations in perpetuity. But on those occasions when the proof comes in a positive test, they’ll be right there with the “I told you so. How could you have believed?” The beauty is that you can keep that act up as long as you want to. Nobody, after all, is ever truly proven clean – at best, they’ve just “never tested positive.”
The fact that I’m pointing out these fears in no way means I’m immune to them – I fear the “gotcha” as much as anyone else. But I’m also steadfastly trying not to give into that fear. I’m not blind to the problems in the sport, but I refuse to let them consume every moment I watch it. I could take the guarded approach, or the cynical one, and view everything I see through that lens. It’s tempting at times. But then I realize that if I did, I’d never be wrong, but I wouldn’t enjoy the sport very much, either. So for me, I'll write what I see and think, and I'll somewhat grudgingly place my faith in the testing process. It's not a perfect approach, but it beats the alternative.
- Not much in this post about yesterday’s Stage 18 time trial, was there? Unless you read between the lines, I suppose, and those lines are pretty far apart. Anyway, long time readers will know that I don’t have a terribly long attention span for time trials, so I'll leave you to find most of what you need to know in the results or, if you’re really into it, in the time splits.
- Many are decrying Contador’s refusal to answer dope questions from LeMonde at yesterday’s press conference. Having read the questions, I don’t blame him a bit. First, there’s no satisfying answer to “explain, you dirty bastard, how you can be so good” – whatever he could have answered, people who wanted to believe him would, and people who didn’t want to believe him wouldn’t. As for the VO2 max question, related to the questionable physiological/topographical theories Greg Lemond’s been writing in LeMonde, there’s no good answer to that one either. If Contador’s number is too low to fit Lemond’s calculation for how fast he believes a person should be able to go, it’s because Contador is doping. If Contador gives a number that would make his performance believable according to Lemond’s equation, well, I’m pretty sure that would somehow be because he’s doping, too, or lying, or both. So there’s all that, and then there’s the risk of providing answers that will be subsequently dissected, endlessly scrutinized, and variously interpreted – all after being translated on the spot into a dozen languages other than the one you answered in, which is also different from the language it was asked in. If I were Contador, I wouldn’t like those odds either, even if the strongest thing I’d ingested all year was a glass of iced tea.
- As predicted, the battle for the podium seems to be the best thing going with the Ventoux roaring up tomorrow. Contador (Astana) and A. Schleck (Saxo Bank) are looking pretty secure, climbing as they are. What will be interesting will be the Armstrong (Astana), Wiggins (Garmin), F. Schleck (Saxo Bank) battle for the final step. There are so many variables in play that it’s hard to know where to start. While Wiggins suffered on the multi-pass day on Wednesday vis a vis Armstrong, the Ventoux is only a single peak, and Wiggins looked OK on a similar day at Arcalis. Of course, Arcalis was not the airless, exposed slope of the Ventoux, either. Armstrong had stated that if he had a single second over F. Schleck after the time trial, he’d feel secure against him on the Ventoux. I thought that to be optimistic, and he has more than that one second in hand, but I’m still not sure the older Schleck is out of the picture. And while I railed against the mechanics of the Astana 1-2-3 scenario yesterday, there is a chance that Astana could use a now-secure Contador to help Armstrong get the Ventoux win he’s missing. That, of course, brings up yet another variable – the prestige of a Ventoux win in the Tour, which could introduce the influence of non-GC stage threats like Kreuziger, Nibali, and Pellizoti into the GC battle.
- Yesterday was a pretty good site traffic day, thanks in part to someone posting a link to yesterday’s post on a cycling message board in Finland. Unfortunately, I don’t speak the language, so I can’t tell if there are a few hundred Finns who think I’m brilliant, or a few hundred Finns who are laughing at the raving American moron. Judging by how the whole Contador/Astana issue is polling in English, I’m guessing it’s actually about half-and-half. Anyway, hello Finland!