pro cycling

How to Talk About Doping

It’s tricky to write about doping in cycling; come across as hopeful and optimistic and it sounds a bit naïve, write negatively and focus on the cheats who are no doubt still out there, and you begin to think ‘why do I even watch this sport’. There is plenty of evidence to suggest the sport is cleaner than it has been in a long time, but it is only ever one big scandal away from the gutter.

If you want some definitive answers and explanations on the subject you should probably read the likes of David Walsh, Paul Kimmage, David Millar or Tyler Hamilton; writers, journalists and pro-cyclists who have an intimate inside knowledge of all this. But the following quote from earlier this year struck a chord with me because you rarely hear doping described in such simple, human terms:

“I think it’s a moral-fibre thing…in every report now it says, ‘They are not doping because the testing is so good’. But the cultural aspect is very much overlooked. I don’t dope for the same reason that I don’t walk out of a shop with stuff without paying. I’ve never stolen anything in my life. I’ve never cheated in an exam. Why would I take drugs?”

Dan Martin (Irish pro rider, winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2013)

In other words, I don’t dope because it’s wrong. End of story.

Dan Martin
Dan Martin

I’ve read the same books and media articles as everyone else and while Martin’s take on it is pretty compelling, to me the distinctions between dopers and non-dopers are rarely black and white – I don’t believe that dopers are simply bad people who’ve done bad things. Of course doping is a bad thing, but the reasons people do it are complex.

Take the business model of professional cycling; teams are bankrolled by corporations who want immediate results to justify their investment and make a return – if results aren’t forthcoming the guy paying the bills will likely pull out and take his money elsewhere. If it’s felt that others are breaking the rules, it’s easy to understand why plenty of cyclists and teams have caved in to the pressure to gain the advantage they feel their rivals are getting, simply to keep the show on the road.

To understand the full picture you have to consider the pressures involved, and not everyone has the strength of character to resist these pressures. Former French pro Christophe Bassons (famously known as ‘Mr Clean’ in the Armstrong era peloton) has talked about it previously in these terms (I’m paraphrasing):

Imagine a young rider, 20 years old, signing his first pro contract and fulfilling his dream. He’s spent his formative years being conditioned to obey authority; by his parents, his teachers and his cycling coach. Imagine he joins his new team – no doubt a pretty intimidating new environment – and he’s expected to fit right in and join in with the doping culture of this team. Is this 20 year old really equipped with the strength and the skills to say no to this?

Of course Dan Martin is now a well established pro rider and not some wet behind the ears neo-pro, but it’s good to hear a top rider talking as if he is not subject to these pressures. Maybe this comes from being on a team (Garmin-Sharp) who push an anti-doping agenda and insist that winning is not the be all and end all.

As Martin puts it:

“I don’t need to win races, I enjoy it, but what’s most important to me is to push myself to the limit and just do my best and if that’s first or 100th or not finishing, well, that’s how it is.”

So Martin is clearly on strong foundations which allow him to talk openly about doping, but when riders do speak out it demonstrates that the much discussed omerta within the peloton – the code of silence – really is becoming a thing of the past; by speaking up against doping a rider is no longer signing his own death warrant. When Bassons spoke out a decade ago he was hounded out of the sport.

Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage
Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage, the famously hard nosed anti-doping journalist and author of Rough Ride, talked in an interview in 2012 of his amazement at an impassioned speech by (reformed doper, and co-owner of Garmin-Sharp) David Millar. Following his individual time trial win at the 2009 Vuelta Espana, Millar had jumped from his bike, sought out the nearest TV camera and made the point that he’d “won this on bread and water, no syringes – nothing”.

As Kimmage has pointed out, this was a remarkable thing for a pro cyclist to say; no skirting the issue, no coded messages – to make that point in such forceful and unambiguous terms was unheard of in the sport.

Perhaps this kind of watershed moment opened a door that the likes of Dan Martin have pushed on through. Of course, the Armstrong situation – among other things – has well and truly opened the floodgates and placed doping firmly in the spotlight; it’s no longer the elephant in the room and it’s up for discussion.

David Millar
David Millar

Despite this progress no-one is suggesting that cycling is suddenly clean – that would require quite a leap of faith – but it seems that the ‘peleton a deux vitesse’ (two speed peloton), where the race is divided between those who dope and those who ride clean and trail in their wake, might be a thing of the past.

But how can the informed cycling fan enjoy the spectacle whilst being under no illusions about what lurks in the murky corners of the sport? The best explanation I’ve heard comes from ‘Blazing Saddles’ by Matt Rendell:

“Is the Tour de France the supreme sporting event or… the stuff of cheats? A hundred and three years from it’s origins it’s clear that (it) has always been both  – and probably always will be. The riddle of the Tour will never be solved. Each of us must interpret it as he will, knowing that each interpretation is as personal as the conductor’s interpretation of a score…Everything that is human is in it: striving and overcoming, some who don’t go far enough, and others who go beyond all reasonable limits.”

10 comments on “How to Talk About Doping

  1. Reblogged this on Cyclingworld and commented:
    Interesting reading about doping. Doping is something that is usually connected only to cycling and especially road cycling. But I believe doping is a part of any sports today, cycling just is one step ahead of many other sports in the testing. Also it shows something is working when people get caught.


    • Thanks for your interest. I agree 100%, there’s no proof out there bit there have certainly been whispers about the likes of Eufemiano Fuentes being linked to football teams in Spain, among other sports. Tennis is another sport where, to me, the drug testing seems pretty half hearted and the top players are doing incredible things physically…as for baseball, NFL, basketball – make of it what you will.


  2. Thanks for a great blogpost!


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