Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike : The New Yorker

The time has come for professional cycling to acknowledge reality: cyclists use drugs. Perhaps the best approach is simply to let them. That way everyone can, for the first time in years, compete at the same level.

As for Lance Armstrong, he should do what a man who cared about the millions of people whom he inspired with seven straight victories in the Tour de France would do. He should stand up, in front of the same microphones and cameras that he has used to berate those people who challenged his honesty, and he should tell the world what he has done. And then he should ask our forgiveness. I am certain that I, and all those other fools who believed in him, have earned it.

via Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike : The New Yorker.

 

Sigh. The reason that cyclists have used drugs since the very beginning of professional cycling has to do with the nature of the sport’s professionalization. Basically, the athlete is at the mercy of the team owner, race promoter, sponsor, and so on. The typical professional cyclist is working class and does not have the skills or education to have more than a working class job. That’s not a bad thing–manufacturing jobs in unionized industries pay better than most cycling jobs–but it points to a certain logic that’s missed by the expectations of the audience.

The modern US audience approaches cycling from its by and large middle- and upper-middle class perspective. It’s probably changing a little, but my impression is that nowadays the audience for what is seen as a European sport here in North America believes that drugs are bad, especially those that enable you to do your work more efficiently and tirelessly, that hard work is good, and that the proof of that lies in themselves and their accomplishments and possessions.

I’m being ironic. I have not done the simple historical research here but my personal impression is that the scandal of drugging in cycling coincides with the American intervention in the sport, starting with Greg LeMond, who introduced all sorts of chemical and mechanical innovations in the sport, and was widely criticized for that at the time–interestingly, by what can probably rightly be seen as indignantly jealous local press, namely, L’Equipe, if I recall rightly.

Yet LeMond was being pragmatic and very American when he innovated the use of the Scott handlebars and special aero helmet for his brilliant ride against Fignon, which he won with such bravado and style that it ranks as probably the greatest race ever. But when the great Scot Graeme Obree started winning hugely on very unorthodox bikes he’d designed and built himself his pragmatism was quenched by what was beginning to seem like a fairly arbitrary cycling authority that banned the “superman” position and the bike design. 

In fact, for road races to be sanctioned, the participants must abide by rules stipulating a lot of characteristics of the machine and body; and these have less to do with the safety of the cyclist–or at least not in any obvious way. Safety seems to take second place; orthodoxy takes first. 

That orthodoxy is the kind that Michael Specter voices. It is one where the sport of cycling (but not only cycling, I’d imagine) is engaged in by those freely able to make choices as to how they are to dispose of their bodies, their work, their future. Almost by definition, the working class men who so characterize the sport, especially in Europe, lack much of that American middle-class freedom.

To be sure, great riders like the British Bradley Wiggins can denounce doping, and David Millar can describe his own doping as something he brought down upon himself:

“Nobody put any pressure on me but I felt it nevertheless (…) I took drugs because my job was to finish in a good place in the results. There were magazines in England, sports journalists, television stations, and I didn’t want to be criticised.” (L’Équipe, France, 20 July 2004) Wikipedia 20121017

But as his own statement suggests, the pressure here, as in American football or any other sport where the career of the athlete depends upon satisfying popular expectations, can be subtle. Yet my impression is that the cycling athlete is a lot more exposed to the exploitations of the owner and has very few, if any, defences, legal or worker.

To whom would he turn if he said he’d been pressured by, say, a team doctor, acting as proxy for the team owner? To the authorities who routinely check to see if he’s doping? To the police? Perhaps, but it’s as if the cyclist were in fact a whistleblower, and like whistleblowers everywhere, more likely to be fired, persecuted and left without a job and profession for his efforts.

Tyler Hamilton says that the culture of “ometa,” or code of silence, must broken. Of course it does. But as the article goes on to reveal, speaking out seems more like therapy than accusation. There is no real mention of the system exploitation of the rider by the team structure and management but a prevailing sense that all one needs is some good moral soap and fortitude to overcome the ick of the past.

The perspective is relentlessly one of middle-class choice. A better account would be to recognize, first, that the riders bring in huge profits to the sponsors and owners. Not all teams so benefit, and many teams, of course, are local clubs, minor-league players, but the ones participating in the top tours are multimillion enterprises, and all their money rests upon the achievements of the riders, especially the star riders, who in the age of television (but even before, though not as much) earn far more for their sponsors than they take home–and that’s not even counting the very poor pay of the support riders. (If you are curious, it’s worth looking into how the support riders benefit as a team from the winnings of the lead–and how Armstrong operated as the chief patron.)

I’m not saying, actually, that doping is good. That would be an idiotic simplification. I’m saying that the middle class perspective, so egregiously voiced by the shocked, even insulted (he demands an apology, no less. Oh, please!) middle class who sees in cycling, or in any other sport, the romance of a pure activity whose reality is a moral obligation and whose failure to oblige a failure that is at once individual (Lance’s failure) and general: the large percentage who won’t take responsibility for their lives.