Notes from the Scrum: Cycling’s cultural conundrum

Without a strong core, the rain of doping and other controversies will continue to fall on cycling

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — People don’t like to lose. In life, in sport, in any arena. To make a habit of losing, from an evolutionary perspective, is to die.

This drive is elevated in the athletes we hold up to the light and toast as champions. It has to be; if they weren’t hardwired to compete at the ragged edges of physical ability, they’d be nobodies. They’d be like the rest of us.

In professional cycling, this type of person is rewarded hugely because riding a bike for a living is excessively, stupidly difficult, and because cycling places grit over sanity. There is a thick dose of syrupy revere associated with professional cycling and the culture in which it’s ensconced: the roads scratched into the Alps, the mid-ride café stops, the traditions of the rainbow bands and the Giant of Provence.

And all that? It’s beautiful, no doubt. But let’s be honest. The culture of professional cycling within professional cycling is winning. This is the inevitable confluence of the human need to achieve and a free market in which skills are individually rewarded. More, and faster, and better. Bike racing isn’t any different than science or business in this regard.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report on Lance Armstrong took a match to cycling’s (recent) flammable past and set the house on fire. Today’s peloton has been peppered with questions about Armstrong’s bunch. Some of them hate talking about it, others tuck under that threadbare “never saw anything” blanket, and others see the moment as an opportunity to throw the long-closeted skeletons into the street.

But this shouldn’t be about one man and his successful quest to turn himself and his Tour de France team into blood-boosted rocket ships. This shouldn’t be about excusing past champions’ drug use because they were nice guys, and because everyone else was doing it. This is a time for deep introspection on the culture that permits staggering injustice and physical shortcuts.

“You just have to have a real shift culturally to how we compete. Yes, we all want to win. Yes, winning is important. But the endgame is not to win by any means, and the win-at-all costs culture does have significant societal costs, as well as can lead to the destruction of individual lives. And we’ve seen that with the Postal case,” USADA’s CEO Travis Tygart told VeloNews.

Tygart, of course, is now famous, and infamous, depending who you ask, for wrecking Lance’s blue Postal train, a feat no one could achieve on the road, and a task even the feds abandoned, for reasons still unknown.

Lance was one rider of many, and he was but a cog (however massive) in a machine that tolerated and even encouraged super-human performances. By now, we know that if a rider didn’t dope he was nobody. That’s not a problem one person created but one that came to fruit through the sad circumstances of culture, tolerance and the basic human desire to win. How do we begin to correct that?

“You have to look at education and you have to instill a set of values from a young age that it’s not just the ‘what’ — that it’s not just being the junior-high school champion, or the elementary champion. It’s the ‘how.’ And we used to, I think, in this country, care about the how more than the what,” Tygart said.

“But all of the sudden the ends have justified the means. Whether it’s celebrity, money, fame, fortune, whatever,” Tygart said, adding that the new systems put in place need to stress a shift in culture to young athletes. “I think that’s part of the importance of, and hopefully a piece of the legacy of the Armstrong case. That hopefully the ‘how’ is more important at the end of it all than the ‘what.’ And there’s no better example of that, I think, than the Lance Armstrong case.”

It’s simple to imagine a better future, and building one is actually going to require a new and unsullied mortar around the sport’s bricks of glory, tradition and cobblestone. More than anything, it seems that riders are still afraid — afraid to talk about doping in their sport, afraid to talk about unionizing, and, as much as anything, afraid to lose.

“Riders are fearful. And this is why doping becomes prevalent,” Jonathan Vaughters told VeloNews. “Because when you’re fearful, and you’re in a sport, what are you going to do? What’s your motive? Well my motive, if I’m fearful, is that I’m going to make as much money as I can in the next two years because I don’t know if I’m even going to be around in two years.”

And it’s that sort of mentality, wed to this beloved, yet in many ways immature, sport that results in systemic cultural failings and iron-curtain Omerta. Cycling isn’t a place where most riders get rich and count on 401ks but rather a place for striking hard while the iron is hot. Guys cheated, mostly, not to win but to not get beat. There is a profound difference.

“That’s obviously very fertile breeding ground for doping issues. For me, a rider’s union, basically stepping in, really making things like pension funds robust … the drug testing process, all this stuff. You can’t have the whole thing built on quicksand,” Vaughters said.

Vaughters is right. It’s going to take system overhaul as much as it’s going to take a shift in competitive values, as Tygart hopes for. One cannot happen without the other.

If the core of the sport were stronger, it would be less likely to sway. We know riders deserve more protections, more value in what they do, and to know the man next to them is pedaling clean.

But the culture of a sport, it’s an umbrella under which all of us operate. And right now, it’s raining right on top of us. And without a hard look from the top down, we’ll never dry off.