Commentary on the latest nutrition and exercise science will have to wait. I just whacked my head on low-hanging fruit for Cycling Wednesday.
Today’s Washington Post report on Lance Armstrong’s newest (and most serious) doping allegations has set Twitter and Facebook abuzz. Though The United States Anti-Doping Agency (or USADA) cannot bring criminal charges, their sting is far from painless. They have banned Lance’s recent foray into Ironman Triathlon, and hold the ability to strip him of his Tour victories. Reading the article makes this time seem more serious.
Let’s chat about Lance.
I am guilty.
I watch Lance. It’s likely you do too. He does this to you.
As a fan of sport, I watch Lance in the same way that people watch Tiger. Exceptional sporting talent comes around only a few times per generation. He’s just that good at endurance sports. It’s amazing really. And it’s highly watchable. Even the tenth time watching old Lance videos of the Tour gets your heart pumping. Adrenal glands do not factor in doping allegations; they can’t help but squeeze out adrenaline when the Texan pounces.
As a fan of science, Lance’s aerobic prowess astonishes me. The man is a watt-generating machine. Biologically speaking, I would go as far as putting him in the same category as Secretariat—or Swiss cyborg, Fabian Cancellara, who once rode so well the NYTimes implicated his bike had a motor. (A sure sign you are going good.)
These are the obvious lures.
I have another. It’s not entirely safe to write about.
My cardiology personality type appreciates Lance’s testiness. Though I don’t condone or desire to emulate his less than warm and fuzzy demeanor, I find such prickliness highly human. Lance gets mad and pretty mean at times. He publicly shows raw emotion. In our sterilized and highly recorded world, this stuff not only stands out but also remains permanent. Do I admire meanness? No, definitely not. But I do appreciate humanness. What can I say, I grew up in a family that admired baseball heroes. I don’t mind champions with flaws.
Now let’s deal with the herd of elephants stomping around the room.
Let’s talk about doping.
Lance and his inner circle are not accused of puffing on too many asthma inhalers. The USADA has gone all in. They are saying what many cycling people (the doubters) have once thought: that there was a widespread systematic doping program that occurred over a decade.
In addition to more mundane hormonal manipulations (ie…testosterone and human growth hormone), USADA essentially alleges that doctors and team directors set up systems where packets of blood were transported into the team’s hotel and riders were transfused with blood before important stages. They allege a conspiracy—an inner circle of secrecy and silence. That’s big.
Smarter people than I will weigh in on Lance’s doping allegations.
I’ll make three brief points:
Let’s glance back at cycling history. Look at the old videos that show Lance shredding the world’s best cyclists. He looks like an accomplished racer dropping local touring riders on a club ride. Now, after watching the videos, go read about the men he shredded: Pantani, Ulrich, Zulle, Vino, Hamilton, Landis and Valverde, to name just a few. They were all admitted or convicted dopers. A clean rider can ride dopers off his wheel?
This brings me to my second point: the whole idea of Grand Tours. The notion that men can, or should, race 100 miles per day for three straight weeks reminds me of the lesson not learned from Pheidippides. Overcoming this amount of inflammation tempts the honest to cheat. I’ve been in races where competitors look at each other when someone does something unbelievable. You may not say it, but the look in the eyes of other riders suggests they are thinking the same. Is it real? Then comes temptation. If he is doing it, should I? Or…must I?
Finally, if you have watched the Tour and other major cycling races in recent years, you see different things. Riders and teams don’t sit on the front day in and day out. Riders look less like machines. They get tired and have bad days. You might even get the impression the racing would be better if the stages were shorter and dare I say–less epic. A B-student mind wonders whether racing over reasonable distances with adequate rest might help control the urges of human nature.
Don’t misunderstand; I’m not suggesting Lance is guilty of doping. He deserves a fair trial and should be presumed innocent. I’m not even saying that if he did dope, I would think less of him. Nor am I saying the hardness of Grand Tours should act as an excuse for doping.
All I am doing is trying to state the obvious.
Humans will be humans.
P.S. I have linked two of the many representative videos below. They both offer commentary from Phil and Paul in which they think out loud about the possible explanations of such dominance. My favorite mechanism: the one where Cancer helped Lance lose the weight needed to be a great climber.
Observe the cadence and fluidity of Lance’s pedaling on the steep climbs. Compare his pedal stroke to the World’s best climbers–who were reduced to pedaling squares when he rode away.
Lance on Sestriere in 1999–The action starts at about 20 minutes.