Making sense of cycling’s self-destruction

No matter how unhinged the skeptics seem, no matter how outlandish the conspiracy theories, pro cycling continues to prove them right.

Things keep getting worse. No matter how unhinged the skeptics have seemed, no matter how outlandish their conspiracy theories, professional cycling continues to prove them right.

It seems odd to admit this, given that I’m the editor in chief of a website and magazine dedicated to bike racing, but almost 10 years ago, I walked away from pro cycling — not as an athlete (never had the lungs for that to be an option) but as a fan.

In the fall of 2006 — the year that gave us Ivan Basso’s “extraterrestrial” Giro win, Operación Puerto, the Floyd Landis Tour, and a Vuelta whose defending champion was serving an EPO ban — I wrote a column for Outside magazine about how the only way I could continue to find joy in cycling was to completely divorce the activity from the sport.

I made my way back, both because I believed (and still do) that cycling had taken the global lead in drug testing and because I felt that denying myself my favorite sport seemed like an overreaction.

Now, with the heartbreaking news of the sport’s first confirmed case of motorized cheating (“mechanical doping” is a euphemism too far), I’m facing the same questions. This time, though, I’m not thinking about walking away. Maybe that’s because I’m working in cycling media and, in the immortal words of Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” But I think the real answer is that I know anyone who believes cycling is worse than other sports is delusional. NFL? Drugs, videotaping opponents’ calls, and deflated balls. Baseball? Drugs, corked bats, and sandpaper. Tennis? Drugs and match fixing. Soccer? Drugs, match fixing, and the Hand of God.

I’m not saying I’ll stick with cycling because it’s no worse than those sports. And I’m not trying to point to those sports to deflect attention away from the fact that someone put a freaking motor in her bike at a world championships. What I’m saying is that to turn away from cycling is to turn away from sport altogether. And I’m not willing to do that. I won’t let Hein Verbruggen or a jerk from Austin or a teenage cyclocross racer from Belgium destroy cycling or any other sport for me. The joy I take from sports is mine. No one gets to mess with that.

Ask the tens of thousands of people who plan their years around the New York and Boston marathons. America’s most prestigious footraces were laughingstocks in 1980, after it was discovered that Rosie Ruiz had most likely cheated at the former to earn a qualifying time for the latter, which she then “won” by apparently skipping most of the course and catching a ride to a spot near the finish line.

Those races are more popular than ever now, even as it becomes clear that track and field’s doping problem makes Operación Puerto seem quaint.

Cycling is not the most corrupt of sports, but it is one that the masses don’t understand. There is real risk in that, especially given the sport’s continued self destruction. On Sunday, the website SB Nation began its story about Femke Van den Driessche with “Cycling has the best cheating” and concluded with a request for other sports to cheat better, with things like “magnets inside of receiving gloves and footballs full of metal filings.” When people are angry at your sport, they’re taking it seriously. When they’re laughing at it, you’ve lost them.

We lost a lot this weekend, some of it forever. But I’m not turning my back on cycling. I’ll continue covering it and directing the VeloNews staff to write about the bad along with the good. Already I’ve seen calls to go easy on Van den Driessche, and already I have called BS on that. The suggestion that this was down to bad parenting and crooked coaches might be well intentioned and could be in deference to youth, but it also seems rooted in a belief that women are more easily led astray than men and should thus be held to a lower standard. Women aren’t dumber than men, nor are they smarter.

If this were an unknown 22-year-old male rider, this incident wouldn’t be more or less damaging to our sport. The people reading about this on SB Nation or in the “New York Times” won’t know what “U23” means or whether “Femke” is a man’s or a woman’s name. All they will know is that the sport of cycling has followed up the shame of Lance Armstrong with hidden motors.

The thing is, as awful a cancer as doping has been — in all sports — it’s not shocking. Performance-enhancing drugs lie within a spectrum on which we all live. Athletes fail tests for things we have in our medicine cabinets at home. And at least with drugs, the cheater’s motivation — while still completely inexcusable — is to push their body with whatever means are available. To skip the body altogether and hide a motor in the seat tube is to take a flying leap into the moral abyss while flipping the bird to everyone who has ever cared about cycling.

Van den Driessche has done massive damage. Races and teams will have an even harder time attracting sponsors. Riders will find even fewer races and teams. And those of us who love cycling will face years before popular culture will be able to see our sport as anything more than a joke.

Like a lot of you, I’ve been through that before. I came to cycling as a teenager in 1980s rural North Florida (read: the Deep South), where merely backing the wrong SEC team could get you in trouble. To care about a sport other than football or baseball — well, during my high school years, I got run off roads during rides, hit in the head with an ax handle by a passing driver, and called all sorts of names because Vernon and Jethro thought I was “out wearing pantyhose.”

That only deepened my resolve. The more people thought my sport was a joke, the harder and farther I rode. My hobby made me an outsider, but it also gave me a sense of self that lasts to this day. I’ll be damned if Femke Van den Driessche — or anyone else — gets to take that away.