Perspectives on doping in pro cycling: Will Frischkorn
Editor’s note: VeloNews contributor Steve Maxwell and his TheOuterLine.com partner Joe Harris spoke with retired professional Will Frischkorn for this third installation in a series of in-depth personal narratives about the impact of doping on the lives of people within or now outside of the sport of pro cycling.
Will Frischkorn is a well-known and popular figure around Boulder, Colorado. A former racer for the Mercury, Saturn, and Garmin teams, Frischkorn and his wife Coral are fixtures in Boulder’s hip wine and “foodie” scene, and are the proprietors of Cured — a successful European-style charcuterie and cheese shop located on the town’s main drag. Will enjoyed a successful career as a top-level racer — culminating in the 2008 Tour de France, where he missed victory by only inches in stage 3 of that year’s race. More notably, Frischkorn was a clean racer throughout his career. Realizing that he would never reach the very top level of riders in the pro peloton, he walked away from the sport when he was 29 years old — which many consider to be about the prime age for pro cyclists — to “get on with his life.” Enthusiastic and unfailingly upbeat, he has some level-headed perspective and insights to share about the doping culture and ethical practices in the sport.
Will started out riding mountain bikes, as a self-described pudgy 13-year-old kid, around the hills of southern West Virginia. When he went off to a private high school in New England that participated in an interscholastic bike racing league, he began to get more interested in the road sport, the teamwork, and the strategy behind road racing. It quickly became apparent that Will had an unusual talent for the sport, and by the time he was 16 years old, he was standing at the top of the podium at the junior national championships. Soon thereafter Will was invited to move to and train more seriously at the national Olympic Center in Colorado Springs. “That was my first big decision,” he says. “Basically staying in school and heading towards college, or essentially discontinuing my education and getting on the track towards becoming a professional cyclist. But my parents and I talked it over, and we decided that I should go for it — sometimes opportunities only come once.”
This experience exposed Will to the commitment and dedication required to become a top-level athlete. There were eight other kids on the national junior team that year, and none of them are still in the sport. “Most just got burned out,” Will explains. “It wasn’t that they weren’t talented enough athletes — they just couldn’t take the mental and psychological pressure, and the sacrifices you have to make at that age. You just completely live and breathe cycling, with pretty much no time to do anything else. A lot of kids just couldn’t take it and went back to the real world. Others kept going in the sport, though most not for long.”
Will, however, continued to improve and move up in the national amateur racing picture. Somewhere around this time, he and his parents were approached by the coach Chris Carmichael. “We decided that if I was really going to make it, I was going to need specialized coaching, and Chris was sort of the up-and-coming coach then.” He began working more closely with Carmichael, but concerned about the lackluster educational program offered by the center in nearby Colorado Springs, Will decided to transfer back home to West Virginia his senior year to finish high school. Even so, he continued to work with and pay Carmichael for years.
Despite the controversy that Carmichael has experienced recently — Floyd Landis once disparaged him as an “empty suit” — Will has nothing negative to say about him. “He was a great coach, at least back then. It’s been a while since he’s been involved with athletes in the way he was in the early days. He was good at keeping my head straight as well, sometimes just as important as the physical work. And big picture — he basically invented the business of professional coaching. A lot of people now making a living in the cycling world owe that to him.” Frischkorn doesn’t really have a bad word to say about anyone, and when pressed about Carmichael’s role in the now-collapsed Armstrong regime, he simply says, “It’s pretty hard to believe that he didn’t know what was going on.”
During his senior year, Will raced with the Hot Tubes team — still one of the country’s most successful independent development programs — and by the time he was getting ready for his last year as a junior, he was approached by the U.S.-based Mercury professional team. This was his second big decision — join a pro organization or go to college. Again, after talking things over with his parents, Will decided to join the team. “The decision was sort of — let’s give it a shot. If it doesn’t work out, college will still be there.”
Will rode with the Mercury junior team in 1999, and then turned pro to join Mercury’s pro-level team. By 2000 he was racing in top events across the country and starting to compete in a few big races in Europe, like the GP Plouay and the Tour de l’Avenir. In 2001, the Mercury team signed additional sponsors, including Lemond Bicycles and Viatel Communications, and Will could suddenly start to see his path to the big-time. “Instead of racing with guys like Gord Fraser — an amazing bike rider, but on a more familiar or tangible level — I was suddenly riding alongside guys like Peter van Petegem and Pavel Tonkov. It was pretty cool.” After that team lost its sponsors and collapsed at the end of 2002, Frischkorn jumped over to the highly successful Saturn team for a couple years, where he rode with other emerging American stars like Tom Danielson and Chris Horner (a teammate on Mercury as well).
At the end of the 2000 season, the U.S. Postal Service team came knocking on Frischkorn’s door. Carmichael, by then working closely with the Lance Armstrong camp, told director Johan Bruyneel, “Here is a young American kid you should talk to.” Will talked with both Armstrong and Bruyneel, and thought it carefully over with his family and friends, but ultimately decided to turn down the offer. Will made that decision because he truly thought that Mercury would be a better place for a young and developing rider, who was working for the longer-term success. “I thought of myself as sort of a long-term project” he says, fearing that he might get a bit lost in the powerful Postal Service machine. And in hindsight, it was probably a good decision, as he ended up being injured much of the following season. But after he turned them down, neither Bruyneel nor Armstrong would ever speak with him again. “You didn’t do that to Bruyneel in those years — nobody said no,” he says. That final spot on the Postal team was later taken by Dave Zabriskie.
There was never any single “eureka” moment, when Will realized that doping was fairly pervasive in pro cycling — that there was another darker side to the sport. “We all sort of knew that there was doping going on, particularly in Europe, but we didn’t really think about it much, and we never really thought it would affect us much, at least as juniors in the U.S.” But as more and more Americans like Will were exposed to European racing, it gradually started to become clear that doping was pretty rampant in the peloton. For example, Will says, “Filippo Pozzato was my same age and a competitor as a junior, and he’d already been caught several times trying to dope and transfer drugs across borders, and so on. So it wasn’t like we didn’t know something was going on. We did — but it all just seemed kind of distant and hazy.”
By 2001, Will recognized that if you wanted to compete at a high level or win in Europe, you were going to have to go onto a doping program. The story in Europe was pretty clear, he says. “If you wanna make it, you gotta do it.” A lot of the American riders, according to Will, didn’t want any part of the scene and avoided the problem, or got around the whole situation by making a conscious decision to stay at home and race mostly in the U.S. — where they could win races clean. Will cites a prime example as Scott Moninger, who raced mostly in the U.S. — and who was open about his decision to do so and why.
But Frischkorn suggests that there were also several other American riders who decided to take a different direction. He cites some well-known riders who were utilizing EPO programs during the Saturn years, and who had “unnatural” performance breakthroughs. “People knew it — that EPO could really change their performance.” Frischkorn tells of one older rider — still active in the professional peloton — who essentially explained to him the ropes of EPO usage; where to buy it, how to store it, and how to use it. “It wasn’t anything really dark or evil, and nobody was pressuring anyone. It was more just like your big brother showing you how to do something — just kind of trying to take care of you.”
But Will had already decided that he just wasn’t going to join that crowd — and he indicates that this wasn’t a back-and-forth or half-hearted decision. “It was a pretty solid stance — I just knew I wasn’t going to go that way.” Will was not outspoken on his thoughts or his decision — he was pretty quiet and introspective about his thoughts on the matter, but that his resolve became stronger as time passed. He credits his father as being very outspoken against doping — and that this helped give him the grounding or confidence to take that path. “It wasn’t a specific decision at any specific time — I just sort of knew that wasn’t the right choice for me.”