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Opinion: Of a mess, dignity and grace

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.”

—Emily Dickinson

In December 2009, I interviewed Dave Zabriskie for a magazine profile that was published in Australia. Then at the end of his second year with Jonathan Vaughters’ new Slipstream project, Zabriskie was his usual tangential self, responding to a question about training in Los Angeles not with a predictable rant about bad drivers, but rather a thesis on the lawn care industry.

“They’ve got a Prius car in the driveway, but there’s 20 people working on their yard with jet packs blowing leaves and mowing their lawns,” Zabriskie deadpanned. “All those guys are wearing masks and I have to ride right through it.” Where I expected bad driver complaints, he offered a droll perspective on our human capacity to rationalize behavior that is at odds with our advertised values. It was an aphoristic tale more self-referential than I fathomed at the time.

When I probed about his family life growing up in Salt Lake City, other than saying his father had passed away in 2000 and that his sisters think what he does for a living is cool, Zabriskie did not go on. He did not want to revisit a childhood made painful by a father who struggled with drug addictions. His full-stop silence on the topic of his parents was achingly conclusive, the reticence of a man unwilling to tear open the wounds of his childhood.

Zabriskie told me movies and the bicycle — in that order — became his teenage escapes. “Breaking Away,” he recalled, spurred him to buy a bike. “That’s what great movies do,” Zabriskie enthused. “They inspire. Make us believe we can do things and believe things. Superman made me believe I could fly and blow out fires.”

Zabriskie’s response on Wednesday to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report on Lance Armstrong’s systematic doping brought that conversation back to me. Summarizing an affidavit in which he describes how he came to dope, Zabriskie states: “Seeing what happened to my father from his substance abuse, I vowed never to take drugs. I viewed cycling as a healthy and wholesome outlet that would keep me far away from a world I abhorred.”

The bike that took Zabriskie away from a sordid place carried him back to it again.

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