Commentary: Appreciating clean riders in the EPO era
Editor’s Note: Phil Gaimon, 26, is a Velo magazine columnist and third-year pro racer for Kenda-5-hour Energy. He has an English degree from the University of Florida, and owns online stores at podiumcycling.com and sharethedamnroad.com. The following is a column Gaimon submitted for the November 2012 issue of Velo, which focuses on moving forward in cycling in the wake of the U.S. Postal Service case. The column did not run due to space and we offer it here, in its entirety.
I’ve been writing the “Ask a Pro” column for Velo for a couple of years now. Normally, I have a semi-obnoxious response for the questions posed to me, but the events of the past few months have had me thinking a little more seriously. There’s a huge group of cyclists that never broke the rules during the sport’s doping era, and they’re largely unrecognized. I wasn’t around then, but I’ve come across a few who have had a huge personal impact on me as I’ve come up.
I met Colby in 2007. I was riding for Sakonnet, living with teammates in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, where we raced the track during the week, and drove to road races in the team van on the weekends. Colby was in town to race the Madison with his partner, Bobby Lea, and they bummed a ride to a crit with us. We chatted about training, racing and life the whole way, there and back. I didn’t have much money to afford a coach, but he helped me out anyway, and still coaches me today, five years later. He’s brought me from amateur to professional, and has built up a long list of high-level clients since then.
Colby was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado. He was an only child, and his parents died when he was young. That’s obviously a tough hurdle to go through, but fortunately, although they weren’t wealthy, what they left allowed him time to find his way, so he didn’t have the tough years of juggling racing in college and working at a bike shop, as a lot of his generation did. He was a time trialist, setting the U.S. hour record in 1995. Over the years, he trained himself into more of a crit racer, and finally moved to the track, where he found success in the points race. He won his first national championship in 1995, and has won 13 more since then (I was racing the national championship points race finals in 2008, and he would not stop lapping us). Colby won a World Cup in 2004, and finished 14th in the points race in the Olympics later that year.
Why did Colby stay clean? He never really considered it as a factor for the type of success he wanted, so the temptation to seek it out wasn’t there. He admits, though, that he was never quite in the position to make that choice.
“If I was one percent better, it might have been a different situation, because I could have been on better teams with bigger programs, and then faced whether or not to continue to progress. I may have seen the only route to that progress as doping,” he said. “Cycling is internally sacred to me… I am not a guy who will start drinking and smoking after he stops racing. I am a cyclist for life.”
Colby is still racing today. And by that, I mean there’s a good chance he’s racing right now, as I write this, and as you read it. He’s the only rider I know of who can win a crit, a hill climb, a points race, and a mountain bike race in the same month. I watched him get second at the Bannock Crit in Denver in 2010. It was raining, everyone was crashing, Alex Dowsett had all but sealed up the solo win, and the Tour of Utah was in a week, so I pulled out and watched. Colby crashed, and I was looking forward to an early ride home, but he got back in the race, torn shorts and all. I kept thinking, “Colby’s old. He has a wife and a seven-year-old daughter. What’s he doing risking his neck in a local crit?” And then he won the field sprint for second. You have to love that kind of fire.
Speaking of fire, you’re probably familiar with Adam Myerson if you follow cyclocross. He’s the guy with the tattoos, and big plugs in his ears. You might have seen him crying in a video interview after an ill timed flat, or grimacing as he leads out one of his young teammates in a field sprint. Either way, there’s no question that he’s giving it everything he has.
I first met Adam through a teammate when I rode for Fiordifrutta in 2008, and worked for his Cycle-Smart coaching company that year. He taught me a lot, and although my employment was short-lived, he’s remained a friend and influence since then. Living in Athens, Georgia, I often find myself racing criteriums with no teammates, and end up working with SmartStop-Mountain Khakis. If I can’t win, they’re the next best thing.
Adam grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts. He had three younger sisters, his parents divorced when he was 11, and his dad committed suicide when Adam was 19.
“I started getting high and drinking when I was in third grade,” he said. “By the time I was 15, I was already over it and looking for something else, and I found both punk and sports around the same time.”
That became his new family. He got into cycling to train for speed skating in junior high, and eventually put a Bianchi Nuovo Alloro on layaway, working three paper routes to afford it.
“I got my first racing license for my 16th birthday, qualified for junior nationals, and was all in from there,” Adam hesitated. “Or, almost all in.”
Myerson credits being a straight edge punk with turning the subject of doping into a black-and-white choice.
“Racing was about chasing a dream, and it would have been impossible to achieve it if I didn’t do it clean. It would have ruined what I was after.”
As an amateur, he lived off a mix of student loans, work/study jobs, professional body piercing, stipends from teams, and prize money. As it turns out, you get pretty good at sprinting for primes and winning crits if you need the gas money to get home. He’s won countless road and cyclocross races, including a stage at the Tour of Ireland in 2003, and was national collegiate cyclocross champion in 1997.
Today, Adam manages and rides for the SmartStop pro team, and runs Cycle-Smart. His feelings on the past range from depressed to bitter, but he’s incredibly optimistic about the future. He knows what cycling did for him and what it can do for his teammates and coaching clients. Doping scandals can’t take that away.
I’d hoped to add another interview to this article, but he ultimately decided that he didn’t want his name mentioned. Having talked to him at length, I understand completely. It’s hard to deal with the doping issue without drawing lines between clean and dirty. By any definition, Racer X was clean himself, but he doesn’t like that it distinguishes him from those who fell on the other side of that line. He had friends call him in tears when they realized that they had to dope to keep their jobs. If you’re not cheating the sport or deceiving the fans, you’re cheating your teammates out of prize money, or cheating yourself out of the results and career you deserve.
The game was rigged in a way that both options led down dark paths, and the gray area was so wide that it often didn’t come down to right versus wrong when you were in the thick of it.
Racer X understands that side well enough that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone by calling himself clean. One way to look at it is that they wanted to win at all costs, while he just vaguely preferred to win, but the risks were too great in his mind to dope, and outweighed the benefit of winning. Maybe to be a champion, it took hard work, perseverance, and the extra feeling that winning was better than being clean, and he simply lacked one of the crucial traits for success in his time and place.
Another factor in his anonymity was that he’s still making peace with it all. Putting his name out there, even with the intent to recognize and appreciate his respect for the fans and the sport, would also inevitably lead to accusations of bitterness and “You didn’t have what it took.” He’s read enough about himself from armchair athletes on the Internet that this recognition wasn’t worth the trade-off.
I’ll leave out the specifics of what my final interviewee is doing these days, but he is still involved in the sport, and in developing the new generation of riders. He’ll tell his story, but it will take more space than I have here, and he’ll do it when he’s good and ready.
In a way, this aborted interview is a good message for this article to get across: there’s still a lot of pain on both sides. It’s tough to know how a fan could show appreciation for this generation of riders who chose not to use drugs. From my conversations, I’ve gathered that the best thing you can do is try to understand that it’s not always black and white, and it’s not really about who did it or who didn’t, but the environment and situation they were all in together.
Even a guy who raced clean can’t be proud of it, because he understands why others were dirty and doesn’t entirely blame them. Before the EPO test, you knew you wouldn’t be caught, so the best reason to stay clean was personal. Adam and Colby were clean because accomplishing their goals and also doping were mutually exclusive. Racer X did it so he’d sleep better in the future. Here we are in 2012, Racer X’s principles are intact, and cycling is cleaning up fast, but he’s still having trouble sleeping.