Road

Top 14 stories of 2014: Shades of gray

Some who confessed to doping have been accepted back into the sport, others have not. What's the difference?

Editor’s note: To close out the year, we are counting down the top 14 stories of 2014. VeloNews and Velo magazine’s editorial staff voted this piece, from the November 2014 issue of Velo, as our second-favorite piece of the year.

That guy’s a doper. A cheater. A liar. Can’t stand him.

That guy seems all right. Yeah, he used to dope, but so did everyone else.

The conventional definition of the word “perception” pertains to the inexact and shifting merger of action and reaction that is constantly calibrating itself, given the context. Perception is both impermeable and porous. Judgments are formed unconsciously. We like or loathe, often before we’ve had a chance to think why.

During July, millions of people heard Christian Vande Velde’s voice commentating on the Tour de France for NBC Sports. If confessing to past use of PEDs ever hurt the former rider, he was certainly able to recover.

Also during July, hardly anyone saw Dave Zabriskie or Levi Leipheimer. Perhaps the riders chose to keep it that way, or perhaps they didn’t have such an option as Vande Velde. It’s hard to know.

Zabriskie finished his term with Garmin-Sharp at the end of the 2013 season, and walked away from the sport quietly. At the close of the 2012 season, Leipheimer was sacked by Omega Pharma-Quick Step following his public admission to using PEDs; after several last-ditch efforts to join a team in 2013 came up empty, he has since faded away from the professional side. But he continues to race, and some riders and fans of the sport seethe when he wins a mass-participation event (as he did at the Crusher in the Tushar this July).

Doper.

More than 7,000 people ride Levi’s GranFondo in Santa Rosa, California. It fills up every year.

Good guy.

In August, George Hincapie signed autographs outside the Hincapie Sportswear team bus in Aspen, Colorado, at the start of the USA Pro Challenge. The next day, one of the team’s riders, Robin Carpenter, won the stage into Crested Butte; Hincapie’s name was, once again, thrust into the international spotlight. In addition to the apparel company, Hincapie has his name on a gran fondo, and owns a luxury hotel in the Blue Ridge Mountains that caters to cyclists. Business seems good, if exposure is any indicator.

Eh, everybody did it.

Tom Danielson sat out the Tour de France, won the Tour of Utah, and was lambasted by a fan in Colorado during the USA Pro Challenge, eventually flipping the man off as he pedaled his way through the Garden of the Gods on a hot August afternoon.

Doper.

A few days later in Boulder, more fans waited outside the Garmin bus to cheer for Danielson than for any other rider on the team. “He was the most popular rider to come out of the bus. I’m just pointing that out,” manager Jonathan Vaughters said. Danielson finished second overall in Colorado.

Good guy.

There is a select crop of riders who embody the binary of the sport; they are the past and present in the same person, as the sport carries its past with it up the long climb to redemption.

“I think there is a small group of people, mainly your cat. 3, cat. 2, maybe even cat. 1 type of riders that feel like they had something personally taken away from them as a result of the doping culture that existed in cycling,” Vaughters said. “And, you know, I don’t think there’s anything I’m going to say, or anything anyone else is going to say, that’s going to convince them differently on that. And they’re angry about that. And that’s unfortunate, but at the same point in time, they’re entitled to be angry.”

Meanwhile, amid the wreckage, Lance Armstrong continues his public relations journey, plodding through a perpetual legal snowstorm, and, generally, making his way back toward some form of acceptance.

A recent Esquire magazine cover line wondered how Armstrong was doing “in exile.”

Armstrong was nowhere to be seen in Aspen during the Pro Challenge, though he lives there, and though, in 2009 and 2010, he played a critical role in bringing the event into existence.

Meeting him in the exile of the Denver International Airport on a September day this fall, hat low, shades on, Armstrong seemed just fine. At this point in his story, which is bound to change yet again, he said cycling was still a positive for him.

“I’m in a comfortable position. I mean, I still have a few things to take care of, but I’m comfortable. I’m sitting here waiting for a connection and not flying on a f—king Gulfstream anymore, but that’s okay. Shit happens; it’s all good, man,” he said.

A gap in likability?

Social neuroscience is the biological study of behavioral underpinnings, things such as perception and social interaction. Psychologists, neuroscientists, and anthropologists work together to weave a tapestry of how and why people believe what they believe, and feel what they feel, based on neurological systems and interactions that occur upon a shifting plane.

A discussion is a series of data inputs. Judgments tick by, quickly — what’s important, what is not. Social perception, the study of how people form impressions and make inferences about others, is heavily based on attribution, an innate ability to understand a person’s actions in a given context.

It helps to explain why people feel the way they do about a given topic, a given athlete, good or bad. It helps to explain how they feel about a doper.

“Basically, it’s how we form impressions of and make judgments about others. [Social] perception is about the assumptions we make about others and these assumptions are influenced by the roles and social norms we expect of people,” said Kristin Keim, a former bike racer who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and a master’s degree in sport psychology.

There isn’t a definitive metric for likability, or why some athletes fare better than others in the perception of the public. But it isn’t any different from why one politician recovers from an image crisis, while another never gets past the doubtful echoes in the courtrooms of public opinion. Sometimes it’s black, sometimes it’s white, but more often, when it comes to those who have broken the public trust, opinions are scattered across a sliding scale of gray.

Compared to most, Armstrong is seen as a darker part of the EPO culture, at least for now. He’s lost sponsorships and his spot at the table of the foundation he started. Inherently polarizing and now tucked away from the sport, today he’s in a much different role than Vande Velde or Hincapie; those who were once in his shadow are now in the foreground in cycling, at least on a commercial level. At least for now.

But why? Was it the act of cheating and lying — the same act that so many committed — or is it because Armstrong’s vociferous cover-up was worse than the crime itself?

“I ask myself that all the time, but obviously those guys are on a much simpler level,” Armstrong said. “They’re friendlier guys, not controversial. They aren’t controversial today with their comments, and they haven’t been controversial for 20 years. For every question, they gave a vanilla answer; I came in and answered with f—king hot sauce and salt. That led to people picking a side.”

For a long time, an adoring fan base chose Armstrong’s side; he partnered with Trek, which helped marginalize his national nemesis and one of his chief skeptics, Greg LeMond. Now, LeMond is the one on TV, commentating for Eurosport.

Armstrong denied much longer than the rest. During the summer of 2012, he, too, was given the opportunity to tell USADA what he knew, and what he’d done; he turned it down. When the music stopped, Armstrong was, by his own choice, the last man standing.

At this point, sitting in the DIA terminal, there is a sense that Armstrong understands how he could have done better to salve his image problem before it actually happened.

“I still could have been a patron in the peloton and been milder with my interactions, and I have deep, deep regrets about [that], for sure,” he said. “And that could be a simple conversation that was totally blown out of context with Christophe Bassons. It could be a press conference where you’re just, ‘You know what, f—k Paul Kimmage. I’m just gonna take him on.’ I mean, I didn’t need to do that. You can still be a strong character in a sport without that shit,” Armstrong said.

If we assume Armstrong is at one end of the likability continuum, at least for now, then someone like Vande Velde sits at the other; he’s a commentator on the sport and does little to inspire outrage. Vaughters, who also admitted to using PEDs in his career and who went on to found the Garmin squad on a clean ethos, is still involved heavily. Since his admission of doping in the summer of 2012 in a New York Times op-ed, Vaughters thinks his treatment has been fair.

“I feel like I’ve been treated fine,” Vaughters said on a bright Colorado day during the USA Pro Challenge. “There are people that would say, ‘Well, he shouldn’t be the director of a team.’ I think the majority of people, by far, have been really supportive and said ‘thanks’ for helping organize various efforts to actually dismantle a system that shouldn’t have existed.

“People are sort of upset over the situation and they’re looking for any target. That’s dismissive of what the overall real situation was. And that’s also very dismissive and almost an incorrect way of looking at how that overall situation needed to be dismantled. I see hundreds of people working in cycling, still racing, whatever else, that have never been involved in a doping case, and [they] doped,” Vaughters continued. “And nobody says a peep about them. Fair enough. Some people took a huge hit; some people took a small hit; some people took no hit. And that’s not completely fair, but that’s life.”

There isn’t a clear road map of how admitted PED-users, still occupying a place in the sport, should be treated. Like Vaughters, Hincapie manages a team. He doesn’t believe there is an issue with his continued involvement in cycling, notably with young riders.

“I can appreciate that some people have the viewpoint that I shouldn’t be involved with a development team. Many of those critics were never at the top echelon of the sport, racing at that level, and do not have the understanding of those of us that were,” Hincapie wrote to Velo in an e-mail this August for another story, when asked if he belongs at the head of a development team. “Critics like to simplify the argument to doping, but that has nothing to do with learning how to read a race, understanding positioning … At the end of the day, I’m not here to sway anyone’s opinion. I’m just trying to provide a positive atmosphere and structure for these young guys to excel in a sport I still love, which is, thankfully, a lot different than when I came into it.”

Not everyone agrees. One Velo reader, William Spence, felt compelled to email a note, with his view on Hincapie’s role: “The fact that he cannot see why his contact with developmental cycling should be limited or banned is somewhat frightening. This is like the corner drug dealer giving our children guidance on college selection. We have to stop blaming Lance Armstrong for the moral failures of those around him and start seeing all of those involved with the Armstrong era of drug use as equally guilty of bringing the sport of cycling to its knees.”

Leipheimer was axed by Omega Pharma unceremoniously in 2012, but still hosts his immensely popular gran fondo. He also races in events, and, sometimes, wins. When he posted his winning ride from this summer’s Crusher in the Tushar on Strava — pro cyclocross racer Jamey Driscoll (Raleigh-Clement) finished second — a young rider, Reese Levine, succinctly encapsulated the debate in the ride’s comments section.

“Levi, I was that 13-year-old kid who grew up watching you race in the Tour de France, and because I started riding in 2006, I looked up to you more than someone like Armstrong,” Levine wrote. “When you admitted to doping in 2012, I won’t say I was particularly surprised, and I don’t blame you personally for participating in the culture of your time. I don’t doubt that you raced clean in the last couple years of your career, and I believe that the top level is much cleaner than it used to be.

“However, I am a little disappointed to see that instead of quietly and gracefully retiring, you continue to race. And not only are you still racing, but you are also beating riders who took the high road and raced clean their entire careers, riders like Jamey Driscoll who deserved the win today a lot more than you did. I’m not naive enough to think that a single Strava comment is going to stop you from racing, which you have every right to continue doing. But I would ask that you step back for a moment and think about how it looks to up-and-coming riders when they see self-confessed dopers still racing and still beating clean cyclists who are the role models that cycling really needs.”

The conversation continued, with a variety of viewpoints expressed, and some professional riders weighing in; commenters quarreled over the long-term benefits of PEDs and if Leipheimer should be considered the winner or not, among other things. Driscoll, who finished second, appreciated Levine’s comment, and clearly did not appreciate being beaten by Leipheimer.

Leipheimer chimed in, too. He agreed with Levine that it wouldn’t make sense to race at high-level national events, but noted that the Crusher was a timed, mass-participation event — essentially, a gran fondo.

“It’s an event unlike the races that [Driscoll], for example, gets paid to do,” Leipheimer wrote on Strava. “I met and spoke to a lot of people today that were happy to talk about the day, their experience, and even my past in this sport. I was able to talk to people about what happened in the sport and my choices, which I hope provides some context for them. I wouldn’t be able to have these conversations if I stayed at home and rode by myself.”

Leipheimer said he and the others who admitted to PED use in their careers all got extreme treatment, both good and bad.

“Each one of us in that group has had the same exact amount of negative reactions and positive reactions — in the extreme, both ways,” Leipheimer said. “Maybe in reality there is a difference, but it all depends on who you’re looking at … We’ve all gone separate ways. Christian has gone on to do TV, so it’s very easy for people to relate to him. They see him talking and see that he’s human, so that’s part of his story. George is out there promoting his clothing a lot. I’m more in my community, doing things here, like local mountain bike races.”

Leipheimer told Velo in September his face-to-face interactions with people are positive, but that it’s the virtual comments that are more biting. “In real life, it’s so much different than what people leave in comments,” Leipheimer said.

Asked if the public is in a better spot now to accept the sport and the way it was, and the decisions that were made, he wasn’t sure. “I don’t know. For us, we lived it for so long,” he said. “We were aware of the whole mess for such a long time, over a decade or more. The public are catching up, so that’s different. It’s a perspective that happened to me a long time ago. I can understand that people are upset because they were under the impression that our sport was clean and we were in a different reality. I completely understand that people were disappoint- ed. I feel bad that I let so many people down, and I always will. Hopefully with time, the perspective of the sport [will change] — how much better it is now and how it’s been a process and a struggle. Now that anti-doping has improved, it’s raised a lot of awareness and it’s a focus. And whenever you have a focus on something, the awareness increases and it usually gets better.”

The trajectories of their lives, after the confessions, are clearly mixed: Vande Velde has a microphone; Danielson runs a cycling camp and still rides professionally; Armstrong is in his own strata, both in terms of public outrage and support; Zabriskie has been a ghost, comparatively.

When Zabriskie walked away from pro cycling last year, he did so quietly, though he completed the Race Across America and the Leadville 100 this summer. Unlike the case with Leipheimer’s racing, there was minimal, if any, backlash toward Zabriskie’s participation. Asked if he had reconciled with the way he ended his career, Zabriskie seemed ambivalent.

“I didn’t wanna be there, really,” Zabriskie said, of the Tour de France. “And then, it’s still a bit transitional. I’ve been home with the family. That’s nice … I don’t know. I’m not sure, still. It’s still something I go over every day, to myself. There’s so many ways to look at it. Every day I think you can look at it this way, look at it that way … I don’t know.”

Then, he added, “I’m sorry for everything.”

The image game

As the USA Pro Challenge peloton pedaled around Colorado Springs, on a circuit through the Garden of the Gods, a roadside spectator repeatedly leaned into the road and screamed at Danielson that he was a doper, and that he sucked.

Danielson rode closer and flipped him off. The moment was volleyed around the Internet; it crystalized the gifts and curses of a sport that is struggling in a gray sky when culture demands black and white. This is a sport that’s contested on open roads with fans close enough to be heard — and loudly. This is the fans’ way of protest, and it’s a right that’s exercised frequently. When Alejandro Valverde won La Flèche Wallonne earlier this season, some fans audibly groaned as he crossed the finish line; given the sport’s history, the door to disappointment in cycling is always cracked open. Though he served a suspension, Valverde, unlike Danielson, never admitted to doping, and has never apologized for anything related to the matter.

“Professional athletes get heckled, day in and day out … I wasn’t telling [Danielson] his momma was fat or anything,” said Colorado pro mountain biker Kalan Beisel, who harangued the rider in Colorado Springs. “I just called him a doper and told him he sucks. It was really simple … I don’t think it’s harsh at all. Personally, I think he shouldn’t be racing in the peloton.”

Harsh? Yes. Middle ground is scarce. The way things are seen and the way things are? They’re often miles apart.

Craig Randall, director of social and digital strategy for Verde Brand Communications, in Boulder, Colorado, said image perception starts at a basic level. Where does the rider live? What can he do to push cycling along? Advocacy and broader appeal, Randall said, serve as good starting points.

“All of those factors, I think, help really change the perception of a rider’s history,” Randall said. “Now they’re using the notoriety that their name carries to create something entirely new and more universal. So the people who may potentially join your ride or your charity event, they’re not people who read VeloNews. They’re people who have a bike in the garage and don’t really ride it, but now they’re seeing why you used your name or your platform to inspire someone to pick up cycling.”

For as much backlash as some riders take, this is a climate that’s perhaps more ripe for redemption than in years past; as more and more riders admit to doping, the sin itself appears less damning than the culture that cultivated it.

“I think one of the factors that goes into that is how media has really changed,” Randall said. Traditional media remains the gatekeeper, or authoritative voice, he said, but social media channels have given riders the opportunity to tell their own stories, and create more of a personal brand than before.

“They have the ability to constantly be telling a story that’s their own, and not waiting for VeloNews or Cyclingnews. They can completely own the bias and the message and they’re telling it a lot, especially if they’re smart. It behooves a rider to really own a social media or an influencer status, apart from just being a member of a team, or just racing,” he said.

As far as why some people manage better than others after falls from grace, Randall chalked it up to inherent bias.

“I think there’s always going to be the [fact that] someone is more likable than another person. That’s true of anything in life,” he said. “The other aspect that factors in greatly: Is that rider making a step toward promoting the sport to non-cyclists, or promoting the sport in a way that benefits someone else? It’s pretty easy to compare one rider that’s cowering and wasn’t very likable to begin with, to his likable alternative who’s doing something positive.”

Though there is a perception that pro cycling has changed for the better, in terms of the use of PEDs among riders, one part of that drug-fueled culture remains: a long-standing trend toward silence, or omertà.

For this story specifically, of the riders mentioned, Armstrong, Vaughters, and Leipheimer agreed to speak on record. Others — Vande Velde, Hincapie, and Danielson — did not reply. The lid that held in so many secrets may have been blown off, but the attempt to control the narrative, it appears, lives on.

Up the road

It’s hard to say anyone aside from those who chose to use PEDs is responsible for the state of affairs now. Travis Tygart, the USADA CEO who pinned down Armstrong, connected a constellation of ex-teammates and ensnared the Texan in a mesh of affidavits and admissions.

If there was collateral damage in the Armstrong investigation, maybe it was those who never achieved the soaring results of the former seven-time Tour winner but, regardless, went down with “doper” stamped on their resumes in heavy red ink — riders like Canadian Michael Barry. That’s not how Tygart sees it, but he isn’t black and white in his vision, either.

“They’re obviously a brave group of riders, to come in and tell the truth. They put their careers at risk by coming in, rather than doing a duck-and-dive, retire and then walk away,” he told Velo.

Asked if he felt responsible for the predicament some riders now find themselves in, Tygart’s short answer was no.

“Nothing we did was aimed at hurting anybody,” Tygart said. “It was the decisions they made to violate the rules and use performance-enhancing drugs [that put them where they are]. Our hope was always to be realistic about the pressure that they faced and the culture that they lived in and just hold them accountable under the rule, but do it in a way that was fair and appreciated. I mean, look, this country is all about second chances, and they did the right thing with coming forward when given the opportunity and being truthful, and I certainly hope that they’re forgiven for the bad decisions of their past.”

Two years after the Reasoned Decision, the situation varies from rider to rider. Fairness has become a malleable concept, in both application and definition. It’s as fussy as perception itself.

There was a time when Armstrong was torn down across all media platforms; the decision had been made that his sporting crimes were enormous and that he was a dark villain. If a national magazine like Esquire is now checking in on his exile, while Outside features him changing a flat tire on its website, it’s clear perceptions have changed yet again — or they are, at the very least, shifting.

As the airport traffic blurred by, no one stopped to say a word to the former champ, though they may have not known it was him. He had a connection to make; there wasn’t a Gulfstream waiting to take him home. He had lawsuits to manage, and his future was an unknown.

Next year, Vande Velde could well be back on your TV during the Tour. Leipheimer may look to defend his title at the Crusher. Hincapie’s name will still appear on the jerseys of young riders. Zabriskie will likely continue entering unsanctioned events. Danielson could well win Utah for a third consecutive year.

In pro cycling, things change, yet things also stay the same. Right and wrong continue to intermingle, and intersect. Truth and fiction are no more well defined than truth and consequences. How these riders will ultimately be received, or should be received, is as subjective as reality itself. In the court of public opinion, everyone gets a vote.