It’s all too easy to make Lance Armstrong into the scapegoat of modern cycling. It’s easy and convenient to fix blame on a single person – but the doping scandal is about the culture of cycling, more than about the transgressions of an individual person.
More evidence came out of the USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency] investigation today. What a heart-break. George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson and Dave Zabriskie [among others] all admitted to doping and were suspended for 6 months. Financial records and journals told the story of a doctor whose list of services read like a take-out menu. Classic races were put up for sale for $15,000. Grand Tours were sold at upwards of 1 million dollars.
Armstrong is the most recognizable name in this whole mess. I agree that stripping his Tour de France wins is an appropriate – though somewhat abstract – penalty. You can take away the yellow jersey after the fact: after a rider has enjoyed all the benefits of the win. But the question that nags at me is this: What is it in cycling culture that enables, allows or encourages performance enhancing drugs? It’s about Lance and a lot more. A lot of the suspended riders talked about the pressure to be competitive with guys who doped. Maybe that’s a start.
Part of the what makes the sport great is its difficulty. The suffering factor in cycling ranks higher than any other sport – with the exception of boxing. What the athletes endure in a 21 day grand tour is nothing short of heroic. What made Armstrong’s comeback story after cancer so compelling was the quality of heroism. When we find out that our heroes have cheated and lied to achieve success, something dies within our collective soul.
The qualities in others that make us believe that we also can overcome are a precious commodity – particularly in a time where villains are becoming more popular than victors. Some people will say that I’m naive to think that there are such things as heroes, anymore. So be it.
I need heroes, and I’d like to think we all do. They inspire and challenge us to be better than we are by ourselves. Heroes aren’t just good…or possessed of style. They compete with energy and integrity especially when no one is watching. They work not only toward their own success, but for the success of others. Brad Wiggins showed us this in the final stage of the 2012 Tour de France when he led out for Mark Cavendish and launched him for a sprint stage win.
This is the real greatness of cycling.