The Armstrong affair has the potential to shake us from the clutches of self-deceit, to break the cycle of cheating that has become a common law of cycling, and to defeat the absurd notion that the sport cannot survive the truth.
As David Hume lay dying in the immortal year of 1776, he famously told Samuel Johnson’s biographer that he was no more afraid of dying than he was of his nonexistence before he was born. Mark Twain, possibly paraphrasing Hume, said many years later:
I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.
Samuel Johnson (not a fan of Hume) bristled at Boswell’s account of Hume’s close-to-last words and ended up getting into a rather nasty scrap with Adam Smith at a party, culminating in the father of modern economics calling Johnson a “son of a whore.”
Johnson, a famously devote Anglican, displayed an unswerving view of the prevailing dogma not unlike the incumbent cycling hierarchy. Even the best critical thinkers, even those like Johnson whose views have stood the trying test of hundreds of years of exploratory analysis, are prone to bouts of irrationality. That it might be possible to depart from the prevailing view, which in cycling’s case was the wilful denial of the doping omerta, and face an alternative outcome for the sport is impossible for some to believe. This orthodoxy, which has its genesis as far back as the 1960s, has resulted in an anomie in cycling that is about to be laid bare. Cycling lends itself to hermeneutics and has long been associated with a breadth of superstition and religiosity which is unique to the sport.
Call it an end to naivety if you will – I would argue that my cynicism has always defeated cycling’s fairy tales – but I finally feel free of needing the sport’s elite to be an axis that my cycling world spins around. I’d rather think of it as a steady realisation that in the world of cycling, heroes no longer matter. It dawned on me that the visual and textual clues I see in publications like Rouleur – a magazine that explores cycling’s history more than any other – no longer invoked nostalgia. I do not ache for the past; I look back on it with a jaundiced eye. Rather than feel inspired by past achievements, I now bitterly long for the opprobrium.
In the past I have felt some regret, or wilfully failed to remember the context that lies behind old images. Do we instead turn to our own histories even though they might feel hollow and detached? Like Samuel Johnson, should we light a pyre of old literature and our own writing, or try to scrub the memories and shadows left by inspiration that was genuinely felt at the time?
How far back to we go to celebrate the history of honourable cycling, and where do we end it? Perhaps the safest assumption would be Gino Bartali, who heroically helped Jews and the Italian Resistance in WWII. Yet Bartali rode alongside Coppi, who is infamous for introducing drugs into cycling (which were not illegal at the time).
The problem with cycling is that whilst we all have our own personal histories, no sport identifies as much with the professional element. This is because no sport is as visceral – their roads are ours, we can suffer equally with a long procession of black and white and then colour protagonists. Cycling is one of the few sports to utilise a public good as its arena. There is no Wembley, no Yankee stadium, no Centre Court.
This is a blade that cuts both ways, however. How does cycling retain this special connection without disavowing its history entirely? There is an argument for discarding the reference point of the peloton. We don’t need to witness the exertions of the peloton to transmit what it feels like to ascend Mont Ventoux. The suffering is universal; so are fluency and form. Cycling fitness is merely a function of degree, an objective separation by strata from the weakest to the strongest. I will never know what it is like to rally like Roger Federer, but I keenly understand the full range of pain that a criterium or mountain pass can dole out. And, what’s more, the satisfaction when body and mind are no longer fighting each other.
So how to reimagine cycling, and by this I don’t mean merely riding your bike for exercise. For some, it is an immersive construct that is so much more than turning legs in circles. I would begin with a new visual tradition, one where cycling can be a celebration of the amateur spirit: of beautiful locations, of ramshackle local racing, of work for its own sake rather than emulation. Hopefully this is where Rouleur will choose to mine for most of its material in the future. We will view cycling’s history well aware that a huge asterisk sits alongside much of it. Yet this does not mean we have to discard it entirely. Indeed, that would be a great mistake. The long shadow of Apartheid in South Africa is a constant reminder to its leaders of how much needs to be redressed and how they should be conducting themselves whilst doing it.
And so it is with the above in mind that I make this modest yet monumental proposal to amateur cyclists, manufacturers and administrators: no more heroes. The sport is beautiful and life-affirming so that I don’t need a pro, whose form has a dubious provenance, to draw inspiration from. Mainly, we simply cannot trust the majority of riders to live up to the following:
Every one should consider himself as intrusted not only with his own conduct, but with that of others; and as accountable, not only for the duties which he neglects, or the crimes that he commits, but for that negligence and irregularity which he may encourage or inculcate. Every man, in whatever station, has, or endeavours to have his followers, admirers, and imitators, and has therefore the influence of his example to watch with care.
Samuel Johnson, 1750.
They haven’t yet begun to earn back our trust – far from it. I believe that we are only beginning the long process of truth, humiliation, and contrition that is necessary before the sport can truly move on. To extend the South African example further, we need some kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that honour in the sport might be restored whilst removing all lingering traces of doubt. To paraphrase James Russell Lowell, truth is like a knife that either serves us or cuts us, as we grasp it by the blade or by the handle.
As fans I’m not suggesting we scrub professional cycling off the agenda altogether, but rather acknowledge that here is a danger in investing too much esteem in fame. It clouds judgement, narrows critical thought to confirmation bias, and allows the formation of incumbent modes of behaviour. In cycling the same is true of fans as for administrators and sponsors. The omerta that has long existed around doping stems from a misheld belief, actually an irrational fear, that the sport would simply cease to exist in its professional capacity should the truth come out. And doping became so pervasive because the omerta effectively meant that it was impossible to win clean. As riders graduated to management roles, and doctors were shuffled between teams, the chance of a true break in the chain was all but impossible. Pity the new riders, naïve and ambitious, who also fell victim to a system where doping was considered the only pathway to success and income. Indeed, faced with a hierarchy beholden to a system where doping had somehow become an elemental orthodoxy, how could young riders resist?
We are easily shocked by crimes which appear at once in their full magnitude, but the gradual growth of our own wickedness, endeared by interest, and palliated by all the artifices of self- deceit, gives us time to form distinctions in our own favour, and reason by degrees submits to absurdity, as the eye is in time accommodated to darkness.
Samuel Johnson, 1750.
The Armstrong affair has the potential to shake us from the clutches of self-deceit, to break the cycle of cheating that has become a common law of cycling, and to defeat the absurd notion that the sport cannot survive the truth. The flood of evidence and, in earnest hope, a changing of the guard that is due to come, is the cleansing this sport needs. However, adhering to the principal of making this sport your own, where personal histories are more cherished, the scope for disappointment is greatly reduced.
As we leave the antediluvian period behind, I would seek to inspire the young, and admonish the guilty with these startling simple words from Saul Bellow:
Everyone has the eligibility to be noble.