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Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 20

In Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 19, I looked at a bunch of different factors related to cycling including how racing developed in the US (mainly crits and time trials) versus in Europe.  I finished by look at single day races called the classics and want to continue from there.  Because while the single day races were hard enough, grinds of 70-200km over horse-tracks, that wasn’t enough.  Someone decided to intensify the stupid and that led to the development of the tours.

The Minor Tours

Because after guys got bored trying to murder one another in a single day race over horse-tracks in the classics, some guy got the idea of holding multi-day events and the mini-tours were born.  Usually 3-7 days of racing including multiple road races and usually including a time trial as I described yesterday.

At this point, the racing had moved to something Americans didn’t get and couldn’t follow; at least in the classics it was fairly simple racing even if it was still boring as hell because of the length.  But in the tours you had the screwy racing structure with the winner not being determined the winner until the end.  The whole team thing where you help out a competitor.  Hell, giving everyone the same finishing time in a pack race is too close to Communism or Socialism for us; everyone is equal even if they aren’t?  I don’t think so.

Remember, America is the country that had to invent the concept of a shot clock and play clock so games wouldn’t stop moving for more than 8-24 seconds and start boring us. Watching a guy ride a kid’s toy for 6 hours across the country (isn’t it just faster to drive) is not our idea of fun and especially not 4 days in a row where you don’t find out who won until the end.

Add to that the following: most road races in Europeland are raced from point to point (or occasionally around a city) so as a spectator you don’t even get to see that much of the racing.  In crits you see the racers go past tons of times; in Europe you see them exactly once or a few times on the big loop courses.  But ultimately, who wants to watch this for 3-6 hours 4 days in a row? Bored Europeans that’s who.

Europeans are different.  For the Tour De France, Europeans will camp out the way sci-fi nerds camp out for Marvel comics movies.   They’ll camp for days and then sit there and watch the pack go by for 5 minutes and that’s it; they they go home. It’s the highlight of their year but I guess it beats watching the sheep all day.

The tours basically came down to having to watch a bunch of guys in tight clothes ride a bike for 3-6 hours per day for 4-7 days at a time and you don’t find out who won until the end. It’s just 4-7 days of the same boring shit every day (even the most rabid NASCAR fan would get bored after day 3 of watching cars circle a track) with no immediate payoff. Why would an American watch that when they can watch Lawn Mower Racing?

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The Grand Tours/Tour De France

And then the pinnacle of stupidity was reached with the creation of the grand tours of which there are three: the Giro d’Italia held in Italy, the Vuelta a España held in Spain and the Tour de France held (nominally) in France. All three are three week monstrosities created by someone with a mean streak and a bit of the crazy. I’ll focus only on the most famous, the Tour De France, THE premier event in European professional cycling.

It was started in 1903 when at least two guys, clearly pre-drugged out of their mind thought it would be a good idea to race bikes around the entire country of France. Remember that in 1903 the bikes had at most two gears and apparently the cutting edge of PED’s was smoking (look closely at the picture). This is the winner of the first Tour; note his jaunty cap, long trousers and all of one gear on his bike.

1903 Winner Tour De France

It was just absurd, lasting twenty-one days (at least in its modern incarnation) and 3600km (2236 miles for American readers); in recent years many of the days are not held in France but the concept is the same. It’s just a general murderer of men and Wikipedia even has a list of Cyclists Who Have Died During the Tour De France. I’ve joked that cyclists started doping 6 minutes after the sport was started but it’s really no joke. And the Tour demonstrates why.

Because over the 21 days of the tour, without support, cyclists just fall apart. Hematocrit levels drop across the race from the 40’s to near anemia, testosterone goes to castrate levels. Some of the doping that has gone on had as much to do with PREVENTING the destruction of health as it did to actively IMPROVE performance.  Some actually feel that racing the tour clean is less healthy than using drugs because of how impossibly hard it is.Whoa.

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Racing the Tour De France

The Tour de France is so shockingly hard that, to simply finish the race at all is an enormous accomplishment. Many racers, of all levels start the race and give up a few days or halfway in (called abandoning). And not just because they get hurt or crash. They just can’t do it anymore. And they quit. It’s that hard.

To win a single stage of the Tour De France is one of the greatest accomplishments in cycling. Many racers have no delusions about ever winning the race; but racing on the hardest course in the world against the best in the world; to finish first is huge.  The other team-members in the Tour are often given single stage wins when they can do it; it’s huge for their race resume and they get paid (and laid) for it.

Winning the Tour itself? That’s the stuff of legends. To win a single tour is the ultimate in the sport and will seal a cyclist’s legend into eternity. To win it multiple times is the stuff of insanity. The nature of the event, the nature of road cycling all adds up to the fact that for a single rider to win it more than one time (much less multiple times in a row) seems an abject impossibility.

Yet many have done it. Surprisingly, several have done it consecutive times. Usually when someone is just so dominant in cycling that he can just crush everyone (and he has a really good team behind him). Mercx won it 5 times total and 4 times straight, Indurain 5 times straight. It’s like a Major League Baseball team winning the world series 5 consecutive times. It happens but not often. A Texas boy I’m going to tell you about momentarily holds the record for most consecutive wins.  Because USA#1.

A lot of guys can win classics, it requires racing your brains out for one day; that plus a little luck can get you to cross first. Racing for 3-4 days (or even the 7-day tours) is another thing entirely.  Be consistent, have a good team, strong time trialist and survive the mountains and you can get that.

But the major tours and the The Tour De France is on another level.  It’s 21 days of insanity, an absurd distance, against the best in the world (I haven’t even touched on doping yet).  You need a strong team.  You need fitness like you wouldn’t believe.  You can’t crash, or flat.  Nothing can go wrong.  If nothing else you have to be able to recover quickly.   Everything has to come together to win that event.  And it’s mostly Europeans who have done it although not for entirely the reasons you think.

But that was the nature of European cycling, the classics, the minor tours, the major tours, the Tour De France.

 

European Vacation

If you think about everything I talked about yesterday and above, you may see part of the problem and why the US (who did well at the Olympic level) couldn’t compete overseas.  The racing that developed in America was based around crits because of the structure of our cities.  Time trials were also focused on because of their role in the Olympics.  Both types of racing require specific types of physiologies and strengths and training.  And neither really prepared American cyclists for the structure of European road racing on any level.

Some of it was just cultural, the racing scene is different there and there is a different skill set required to do well.  Americans would occasionally go of their own accord, USA Cycling actually has a long-term program of sending developing cyclists to Belgium (where some of the hardest racing and racers in the world is) to learn how to do it as detailed in one of my sources.

And over the years, Americans didn’t do as poorly as folks thought.  Once they got the hang of the style of racing and got a bit more endurance, they could actually do well in the single day races.   The nature of these races, at least the shorter nature, meant that Americans, after training overseas and turning their latent talent towards that type of racing sometimes did well in them.  Many cyclists are known as great ‘single day’ men.  Which is sort of a compliment and sort of an insult: it means they can’t produce in the tours.

And even when you moved to the smaller tours, Americans could occasionally do well or even win.  Primarily because of the time trial focus in the US due to the Olympics.  Because the time trial, as I stated is often where a lot of time can be gained on a competitor.  Strong time trialists need merely hold their own on the other days of the shorter tours, win the time trial and they can get victory.  It also only required racing for a few days straight and most can work their nuts off for that period of time before they have to lie down for a couple of weeks.

But for an American cyclist to be taken seriously either in Europe or by Americans meant winning it all.  Europeans don’t care about much beyond the Tour De France and American sports audiences aren’t interested in guys who can only win the little stuff.  The Tour required it all, the ability to suffer for 21 days straight on the toughest courses imaginable against the toughest opponents in the world.  You had to be a physiological specimen, have the right team.

And no aspect of the US cycling scene prepared American cyclists to win it. Hence doing it that was thought to be trés impossiblé.  Especially by French sports writers.   It was their race won by their riders.  Ugly Americans need not apply.  Mon dieu.

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Back to America

Mind you, even as Americans were starting to produce overseas, Americans by and large still didn’t care.  Cycling was a cult sport here, pursued by a lot of dedicated maniacs and ignored by everyone else.  TV coverage was rare and sporadic, it just didn’t matter.  Americans might have watched crits and probably did watch during the Olympics but European cycling was not a sport which we understood or gave the first damn about.

The nature of the racing, the sheer unadulterated boringness of it, the fact that it was dudes wearing the tights (put chicks in tights and we can at least jerk off to it) riding a bike for 3-6 straight hours.  Blah, blah, bored now.   Why ride a bike from Paris to Roubaix when you can drive and sightsee and eat croissants and make fun of the French from the safety of your car?  And the nature of tours defies American sports logic because of the way the winner is determined.  That’s along with the team aspect, helping out a Frenchman and the ‘everybody gets the same finish time’ Commie bullshit.

The talent was there to at least some degree, the interest and support was not.  Athletes who tried to go overseas did it on their own dimes, paying to stay in countries where nobody spoke the language around people who didn’t like them.  It’s a good thing they came from at least some money.  Usually they returned tail tucked, broken down by a culture that they didn’t understand, people who didn’t like them and races they couldn’t win.

And that’s a big part of why we didn’t seem able to succeed overseas.  It was just all wrong: the culture was wrong here, the cyclists were not prepared to do well overseas for the most part, even if they had the impetus, and even with that they needed money and support which they sure didn’t get early on.  There would be the occasional exception, mind you, but that’s all it was.  Someone would go overseas and win races that no-one in America could care about.

And we still hadn’t won the big one.  To make it matter to Europeans (and maybe Americans) someone had to take the whole enchilada.  That meant winning the Tour De France.  And Americans hadn’t produced there.  Or had we?

 

Ugly Americans Tour France on Bicycles and Kick Ass

The first American competed in the Tour De France in 1981.  Keep that in context: for the first 78 years the race was held, a single American wasn’t in it.   The Europeans have the highest percentage of wins for the same reason the US had dominated the World Series is what I’m saying.   And as I write this in 2011, that means that it’s been run 30 times with Americans present.  Prepare for you first mindfreak.

Because throwing out Floyd Landis who won in 2006 but lost his yellow jersey for a failed drug test, would you believe that an American has won the Tour De France 10 total times?  Wait, what?  Let me restate that more clearly:  of the 31 total times Americans have been in the race, we’ve got a ~33% win rate.

Not too shabby for a race it was thought to be ‘impossible’ for us to win and I’d suggest that Americans who think we suck at European road cycling or the Tour might wish to reconsider the concept.  I’d have to dig through data which I’m not doing but I’m quite sure that this makes American cyclists the dominant country in the event over that time frame, simply because the other wins are divided up so much between other countries.

But the above is a bit disingenuous of me.  Because like I said, sometimes someone is so incredible that they don’t just win the tour once but do it multiple times.  And, as it turns out, America’s 10 total wins in the Tour have been accomplished by exactly two men.   Those two men were Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong and I need to talk about them both.

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Greg Lemond

The first American cyclist to do well much less win the Tour De France was Greg Lemond.  An up and coming cyclist with amazing talent, he went overseas and proved he could hold his own.  He won several tour stages, got shot in a hunting accident and then came back and managed to win three tours, two of them back to back. This was in the late 1980’s.

He was the dominant American cyclist of his era, amazingly talented and innovative (he was the first to use aero bars in a Tour de France time trial and that is now standard practice; he used mountain bike shocks to survive Paris-Roubaix’s cobbles).  He created a huge boom in cycling in this country as bike shops will attest to.   And almost nobody noticed or cared outside of the cyclists themselves.

Part of this was assuredly that the media and Internet wasn’t in place to really publicize it.   It was the late 80’s and the infrastructure just wasn’t there to make everybody aware that an American had won the Tour De France (the net wouldn’t become prevalent until about 1992 and I know that because I was there).  Even if it had been, I doubt it would have mattered and here’s why I say that.  It’s part of why I spent so much time talking about American sports heroes and what they have to be.

Because Lemond didn’t fit the cultural mold of a proper American sports hero which is crucial for something like this to matter.  The book From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France by David Walsh describes how Europeans loved Lemond, describing him as trés gentil; he was soft-spoken and polite and everything they thought an American racing in their country should be.

Which meant that, almost by definition, he wasn’t someone that the majority of Americans could really get behind or care about.  We don’t like Europeans nor Americans who act like Europeans. He was a great cyclist but he just wasn’t the right guy to make America care about the sport or put any effort into it beyond what already existed.  We still needed a hero.  And we were about to get him.

Because almost exactly a decade later, a kid from Texas with a rather interesting history and background would change the face of road cycling in America.  He’d affect both how we looked at both European road cycling in general but also our belief in an American’s ability to do oversea.  His name was Lance Armstrong and it’s worth looking at him in the context of this series and what his impact on American sport has been because it gives some indication of what it takes to turn a sport that nobody in this country cares about to one what we absolutely care about.

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Deconstructing Lance

Lemond may have been an amazing cyclist but he was too much like a European for most of America to care. His talent and success wasn’t enough and that’s a key point.  Clearly something about Lance was different, not only did he have the name of a freaking action figure but he gave Americans a classic success story (just as Pre did in running decades earlier).

He was a kid from a broken home, raised by his mom (he would print shirts that said ‘I love mom’ early in his career when he couldn’t get sponsors), a talented junior cyclist who turned pro pretty young and had a fairly mediocre career overseas.  He won one or two smaller races, entered the Tour and got shelled (as all newbies do); in his first several years in the tour he was smack in the middle of the pack.  Just another guy in the race who was nowhere close to the leaders.

Then he got testicular cancer (which some think may be related to an alleged drug injection he may or may not have received from his coach as a junior) and spent two years not only fighting it but kicking its ass.  In addition to everything else he did, he’d set up the Lance Armstrong Foundation to raise money for cancer research, everybody you know wears those Livestrong bracelets because they are trend following idiots.  Other athletes have even been diagnosed (and cured) of testicular cancer because of how Lance raised awareness of it: the man doesn’t just ride a bike, he is a savior of men’s testicles (the most important thing in their life).

And then had the gall to attempt a comeback. Which was crazy enough.  And decided to win the Tour De France.  Which most thought was simply insanity.  He had dropped weight and was leaner and meaner, he is claimed to have changed his training (he certainly brought higher cadence riding to the forefront and now most have adopted that), his involvement with a certain controversial Italian cycling doctor named Michele Ferari may have contributed to his success (I’ll come back to this below).

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More Like the Tour De Lance

And starting in 1999, for 7 straight years, Lance proceeded to just hand the French (and everybody else) their ass in France in the race that they created and said no American could do well in and win.   He didn’t just win the Tour De France.  He dominated it and won SEVEN straight times (beating the previous consecutive win record of 5).  And he did it by crushing his enemies, seeing them driven before him (actually, seeing them eat his dust), hearing the lamentations of their (French)women.  This is what is best in life.

As the patrón of the tour (effectively the godfather who decides what will happen), he ruled with an iron fist.  There is a story in the Walsh book about how a cyclist that had pissed Lance off got into a 6-man breakaway (a group that gets away from the lead pack).  Even though it potentially hurt his chance as Tour leader, Lance chased down the breakaway and told the other 6 riders that if the individual he was mad at was allowed to stay with them, he would ensure that the pack chased them down.  So the six kicked the one out.  That was Lance.

Lance was brash, outspoken and arrogant as hell.  He pissed everybody in Europe off but they couldn’t do anything but suck it up and take it because he was just too good.   And he did all of that with one ball while drinking Texas beer and banging Cheryl Crowe.  I can’t tell you what Europeans saw in Lance other than defeat; but what Americans saw was a one-balled countryman beating Frenchmen with two balls at their own game (and I’m only being mildly hyperbolic).

In short, he was a down home Texas boy who raised money for cancer, loved his momma and just happened to ride the sheer hell out of a bike.   You couldn’t write a better sports movie if you tried.  And Americans just ate it up and went back for more. Even folks who couldn’t give the first damn about cycling could get behind Lance as a person.

Like a certain Austrian bodybuilder that I’ll talk about later, Lance was just a force of nature that made people sit up and listen.  Who happened to ride a bicycle.  He also seemed to come out of nowhere, nobody heard about his mediocre junior career.  Suddenly it was “American wins Tour De France” again and again and again, year after year.  And cycling is at least a sport that shows can do highlight reels on.  Americans won’t sit through 6 hours of a bike stage but they’ll watch the exciting bits (and the crashes).

And while I was going to detail his comeback, it’s not relevant to my overall thesis and you can read my sources below for more details.  The short version is this: he planned his attack on the Tour in meticulous fashion.  He surrounded himself with an ideal team, anybody who wasn’t on Team Lance was kicked to the curb.

He had a brilliant team director, he settled for nothing less than the best equipment, he pioneered riding the actual Tour stages to learn how to best attack them, I believe he pioneered the use of ear radios to stay in contact with his team and director.  His team, US Postal was backed with a shitload of money, all predicated on his ability to produce.  Without the resources, he couldn’t have done what he did.   He focused on nothing but the Tour and the Tour alone. And it paid off with 7 consecutive wins, earning his place in cycling (and American sports) history.

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Cycling in the US: 2000 Edition

And in the past 10 years or so, the face of American cycling has changed completely. With his absolute domination of the only event that mattered (and his backstory and personality), Lance single handedly put a face on road cycling that America could give a crap about (because he fit the cultural mold of an arrogant American who just happened to be able to back it up) along with proving that the US could compete overseas with the best of the best.

Interest in the sport has skyrocketed and the number of cyclists on the road has increased exponentially.   Mind you, the number of total racers in the divisions that matter (juniors and seniors) still isn’t large, about 10,000 total (masters cycling is huge but they don’t win races overseas).  And those 10,000 from those internally motivated middle and upper class folks; they may not be large in number but they are driven.  Big races are watched on television and people care about who’s involved. Because the guys doing well are Americans.  That’s KEY because we don’t care about sports where we aren’t winning.

There is a growing race circuit including small tours of 3-7 days long in the US, something that never really existed before; there are even big fan numbers (one race is claimed to have had 80,000 spectators).  It’s no longer just about crits so cyclists with the potential to do well in the big tours overseas will start to be selected for and train to do well overseas.  There are are a number of American based teams with American based riders who will select a less talented American rider with potential over a foreign rider.  This will give American cyclists the support and training that they need.

There are now incentives to ride a bike.  For most of the time that Americans pursued cycling, they made nothing.  They paid their own way to races and overseas if they could afford it.  It was a good thing they came from money.  But unless they got signed to a foreign team there was no pot of gold, no money to be made.  Now pro cyclists are getting paid in the US.  Sometimes it’s not much, just enough to travel overseas to try to make it big time.  It’s still more than they had before and it gives them a chance to go overseas and give it a shot.

Some American pros can make $50,000 a year racing bikes, some events have $20k prize purses.  Still chump change compared to the 6-7 figures you can make overseas but it makes it a worthwhile pursuit and maybe it acts as a stepping stone to go to Europeland.  It gives American cyclists the initiative to pursue the sport, go overseas and try to really turn pro.

Colleges are starting to race and offering scholarships.  There is HUGE recruitment among the women because the collegiate cycling championships are based on co-ed results which means you have to have women on the team to win it.  And since the sport is smaller for women (at a given race you might see 70 men in a given race category but only 20 women) it’s relatively easier for women to reach the top.  That means more female cyclists.  That means more hot chicks in lycra to draft behind.  Epic win.

USA cycling now puts $500,000 into development, sending 100+ American riders to Belgium to learn to ride contintental style in some of the harshest racing conditions that exist.  If they can make it there, they can make it elsewhere.  It’s already paying dividends and American racers are starting to produce.  I already mentioned Landis and Hamilton but there are plenty more a new crop of US cyclists working their way up the European ranks and showing that Americans can not only compete overseas but win.

Even the attitude in cycling has changed.  For decades, cycling was an elitist snob sport, especially road cycling.  Between the 100 year tradition, the European flavor and the small numbers, folks involved in the sport often made it difficult for newer people to enter the sport.  If you didn’t have the right gear, the right clothes, the right vocabulary you were a ‘Fred’ and weren’t accepted.  Which meant you usually quit.

That’s changed as America has made the sport it’s own; there are lots of groups that just want to see everybody get involved in this ‘new’ American activity (prior to that cyclists seemed to want so badly to be Europeans that they adopted the smug attitude and elitism).  And that will pay dividends because elitist prick sports (I’ll tell you about the worst I’ve ever experienced tomorrow) are their own death; they chase newcomers away because the hammerheads and elitists are such dickheads to newbies that the newbies just quit.  Who wants to be involved in a sport where everybody is a total asshole except maybe MMA?

In Austin you can go on no-drop group rides (even the slowest rider will be kept within the group and everybody stays together) or death training rides where you get hammered but both are available depending on your skill and desire.  The hardheads can suffer but newbies can get the support and help that they need to enjoy the sport.  For the ladies, there is a women’s only team called the Austin Flyers that runs no-drop rides for women and everybody is accepted.    The sport needs more women and that’s how you get them involved.

When men run group rides, they turn it into a competition (because that’s what men do) and the newbies get embarrassed because they can’t keep up.  Or they get exhausted trying to keep up and it’s no fun.  When women run rides, they make sure it stays sane and everybody has a good time. There is a lesson in this for guys who complain about the lack of women in their sport and that lesson is this: stop being a macho dickhead to women who show up and they might hang around.

But all of this means that going forwards people will continue to get involved in cycling.  The landscape has changed, the attitude has changed, everything has changed (except the road conditions, drivers are still assholes to cyclists). Even folks who never want to race will ride bikes and will support the guys willing to suffer for their entertainment.  Because now they know, understand and actually ENJOY the sport.  This is key.  This is huge.

Kids will grow up wanting to be like Lance or be like Landis or Hamilton and they will make up the next group of cyclists who succeed who then motivate the next block of kids and…. And as you’ll see when I eventually get to talking about Ol’ing, you’ll see that the situation in US cycling is in no way comparable to the situation in OL’ing.  Which is why I wanted to discuss it in the first place.  And to get all of the above out of my brain.

But all of the above, every chance is due to one man and what he accomplished.  As relevantly it’s about how he accomplished it and who he was as a person.  That man was Lance Armstrong.

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Cycling vs. Olympic Lifting

Which is why I really don’t think that US cycling in general or Lance Armstrong in specific has much relation to the situation in US Olympic lifting.  Because what Ol’ers seem to think happened isn’t what happened. The totality of the situation with US cycling was just completely different.  We had a large pool of talent that could produce as shown by our Olympic success.  We clearly had some level of coaching and the rest or we wouldn’t win medals.  It may not have been much but it was clearly enough.

The US already had a large talent pool of cyclists and clearly they had the physiological talent as shown by our Olympic success.  Coaching, support, etc. was all there too because USA Cycling is not a small organization and they do seem to have their act together.    We just couldn’t cut it overseas for reasons related primarily to geography and our racing scene.

Individually, Lance was a great cyclist but, coming out of the US cycling system, it took him some time to adapt to the European mode of racing.  Which he did by setting up a team, a support system, etc. when he made his comeback.  He had the personality and the potential to do what he did and I just don’t really see it as comparable to OL’ing in the US right now.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The point is that Lance Armstrong changed cycling.  His talent added to the support system he created for himself (more or less identical to every other system but based on his talent and personality) has made America care about cycling and turned it into a sport that we will probably see more success in down the road.

And this has occurred and will keep going (it has too much momentum) despite a bit of a pickle that Lance found himself in a few years ago regarding something he may or may not have done and may or may not have lied about.  Because no piece about US Cycling would be complete without addressing the drug issue.

This is especially true especially in the context of what I talked in terms of how America looks at it’s athletes in terms of drug use and how being found guilty of drug use ruins an athlete in the American mind.  Because some of what I wrote above seems to contradict what I wrote the other day about drug use in this country.  I’d be remiss not to explain.

 

The Doping Issue

I’ve mentioned previously that road cycling has a tradition of doping and, honestly, that’s putting it a bit mildly.  From about the time that men started racing bikes, guys started using drugs.  It started with mix of strychnine and cocaine, caffeine suppositories were popular for quite some time and at one point the cutting edge was corticosteroids (to numb pain and mobilize fuel); anabolics entered the picture as well.

At one point in the modern era, some teams were supposedly receiving over 20 injections per day of various substances.  Some vitamins and minerals.  Some distinctly not vitamins and minerals.  Most top teams had a ‘medical program’ which you can read as ‘drug program’ for all practical purposes.  One team member on most European teams is the soigneur.  This is a difficult to translate word and tends to encompass masseur, lackey and, to some degree, drug coach.

But things really took off in the 80s-90’s with the development of EPO sometimes called the EPO era.  This is the compound in the body that stimulates the production of red blood cells; used primarily in cancer patients when healthy athletes take EPO their red blood cell count goes up and they can carry more oxygen.   An average hematocrit for someone healthy might be 42-44 or so (men being higher than women).  During the EPO era some were rumored to run a hematocrit of 60 and there is now a cutoff of 50 for drug testing reasons.

Mind you, take too much EPO and the blood thickens to soup; combine that with dehydration and athletes die in their sleep as happened to about 6 Dutch cyclists.  Supposedly cyclists started sleeping with heart rate alarms that would go off if their heart rate dropped too low during sleep; this was to wake them up so they wouldn’t die.  Many also kept centrifuges in their room to check their own hematocrit to see if they needed IV fluids to pass a drug test if it came to it.  That’s cycling.

Prior to this, boosting blood cell level was done with blood doping (living at altitude does the same thing mind you; but it’s considered legal); an athlete had some of their blood taken out and frozen, waited for the body to replace it and then reinfused the blood to get a big boost in oxygen carrying capacity.  Or they had blood from someone else infused (fraught with any number of dangers).   EPO avoided a number of problems with blood doping, better yet, until the early 2000’s there was no test.  The main drawback was cost.

The EPO era of cycling was really thought to have begun in the 90’s, Greg Lemond went from winning the tour one year to being unable to keep up the next; the entire peleton had found a new gear and guys were going up the mountains in their big chainring at speeds they used to only hit on the flats.

Some think he may have developed mitochondrial myopathy due to a concept called passive doping.  This is an idea whereby clean riders try to keep up with their doped brethren.  They can do it for a while but they push their bodies to such a degree that they do damage to themselves.  That is, clean riders are the one getting health problems because others are doping: passive doping.  That’s cycling.

The doping issue really came to ahead with the huge Festina bust in 1998 when Willy Voet, a soigneur for the Festina team got caught carrying a staggering number of banned substances (including anabolics, GH and EPO) across the French border; he had a dose of something called Pot Belge, a mix of cocaine, heroin, caffeine, amphetamines, and other analgesics stuffed down his underwear.  This is what cyclists used to party with after big races.  That’s cycling.

Cycling went nuts, the drug issue that they’d kept hidden and ignored (there is a tradition of omertá in cycling, an unwritten code of silence where you just didn’t talk about the issue and anybody who did was blackballed from the sport) was international news and the UCI had to do something about the drug issue.  Teams started dropping out of the Tour, lots of police busts going on. It was as ugly time for the Tour De France and cycling as a whole.

The UCI had to go from just making noise about cleaning up doping to doing something about it; the development of an EPO test along with the use of something called a biological passport has been installed and based on the 2011 Tour results, something has changed.  Speeds are down, power outputs are down, the nature of the race is different.

It used to be that athletes would finish a 6 hour stage and look, at most, a little tired.   They’d come back and do it again day after day after day.   Now a cyclist giving it their all is wasted for day, the same race is hitting people harder and that suggests less drugs are being used.   Some think the Tour is now more dangerous for being clean.  There were far more crashes and injuries in the 2011 tour (and speeds were way down) and some think this is due to the lack of drugs.  People are losing bike control because of fatigue, the playing field is leveled so you have 50 maniacs on bikes riding 40km/h in a pack (rather than 6 getting away) and shit goes nuts.

But this is relevant because Lance’s domination of the tour was from 1999 to 2006.  After the Festina bust and before the UCI really cracked down.   And in the late 2000’s, Lance was taken to court. I’m still not entirely sure if he’s being taken to court for allegedly having taken drugs, allegedly having lied about it or both.  I’m also entirely unclear on why the federal government gives a damn but that’s not important here.

And the only reason I’m mentioning this is this: during the 7 years when Lance was establishing his legend and changing the way America looked at European road cycling, he never failed a drug test, made sure to either deny or ignore all allegations.  And whether or not he used (no, I’m not sharing my opinion on the matter) is thus irrelevant to what he singlehandedly did for cycling in this country.   His court case came to a close a few years ago and a ‘not guilty’ verdict was given.  In a legal sense, he’s clean which is all that matters.

But even if he had been found guilty, I’m not sure it would have mattered.  Because during the time his legend was being established, all anybody cared about was a tough talking Texan kicking French ass.  That started the ball rolling and changed the face of cycling in this country, maybe forever.

 

Sources
It’s Not Just About the Bike by Lance Armstrong and Sally Jenkins. The first of two ‘autobiographies’ detailing Lance’s early life, his early career and his battle with cancer.
Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong. A detail of his preparation for his second Tour De France victory.
We Might As Well Win by Johan Bruyneel and Bill Strickland. A detailed look at how Lance’s approach to targeting the Tour developed and was implemented by his team director.
From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France by David Walsh
. An eye opening book examining the culture of doping that exists in cycling and has always existed in cycling, along with examining the issue of drug use among riders like Lance and Floyd Landis (who did fail a drug test).  Highly readable and highly recommended.
Breaking the Chain: Drugs and Cycling the True Story by Willy Voet.  This is Voet’s story of his involvement in cycling, as a soigneur and looks very bluntly at the drug use in cycling, along with his bust in 1998 as part of the Festina scandal.
The Crooked Path to Victory: Drugs and Cheating in Professional Bicycle Racing by Les Woodland.  I sourced this before but it’s worth repeating, an excellent look at the culture of doping in cycling from the start of the sport up to the Festina bust.
Blood Sports by Robin Parisotto. A somewhat tediously written book about the EPO era of sports and the drive to find a test that could determine if an athlete had used it or not. Kind of a detective story.

And that’s where I’ll cut things today. I have only one last seemingly irrelevant detour to make as I’m going to tell you about a true oddity in American sport, a sport (winter of all things) that has consistently produced results at the highest level being set up even worse than US cycling was.  It’s set up to fail and yet hasn’t so maybe things aren’t so cut and dry when it comes to sports success.  Tomorrow, prepare to be mindfreaked for real.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 21.

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