In the blood: Heroics, doping, and new hope for bike racing

Throughout my life, I have found a great deal of enjoyment on a bicycle; as a child careening about on a Huffy with a coaster brake; as a teenager bombing down mountain trails in Alabama; in my early 20s as a bike commuter and endurance rider. In all its variations, the feeling of riding a bike is inimitable. The bicycle, with its mechanical advantage, allows us as humans to surpass our natural capabilities for speed and distance. It seems only natural that the Wright Brothers fostered an enthusiasm for cycles and bike parts via their bike shop. It’s the perfect half-step between walking and full flight.

The natural high of riding a bike was eventually replaced by a runner’s high. Post-college, I found myself entering 5K runs, and later half-marathons, as I discovered my love for endurance sports and nurtured my competitive side. I capped this off with an Olympic-distance triathlon before realizing, once again, that the bike was where I needed to be. Except this time, I wanted to race them.

I dove headfirst into road cycling in early 2011 when I joined a local bike club, began riding longer distances with faster people, and got completely swept up in the Tour de France. I’d never felt anything like the passion that I discovered in the culture, camaraderie, traditions, and sport of cycling. That summer, I discovered a cycling hero in Thomas Voeckler, a Frenchman who would hold the coveted leader’s jersey for several stages of the Tour, seemingly racing beyond his physical limits as he attacked the grueling climbs of the Alps. Astonished at his capabilities (compared to the Tour favorites), I had no reason to believe that Voeckler or any of these riders I saw on TV were involved with blood doping. This, of course, was the Tour, post-Lance Armstrong.  I mean, we were past all that, right?

I had been a huge fan of Lance, as many were and still are. Despite the allegations that he’d used performance-enhancing drugs, his seemingly infinite endurance and will to succeed were an inspiration in my days as a competitive athlete. In sharing this inspiration with fellow cyclists, I was faced with the countless dismissals: “That dude is using drugs. You know that, right?” For years, my reaction was stubborn: I didn’t understand blood doping and I didn’t want to. But more than anything, I had a hero, and I needed to keep him heroic.

But every time someone accused him, I started to see cracks in the hero myth. I didn’t want to. I trusted in Lance’s superhuman genetics and cardiovascular system, his comeback story. (I believed just as strongly in my new heroes like Voeckler—after I lost faith in Lance.) I was torn between my will to believe in something great and the inevitable bite of losing my hopeful naïveté.

As I eventually found my way into the delightful world of amateur racing, it became hard to stay that way. In my final moment of defending Lance, a fellow rider explained “Look, it’s not just him. It’s everyone. It’s just how the pros do it.”

Among bike racers, it’s understood: If you want to succeed as a WorldTour pro—the highest level of bicycle road racing, featuring the longest and hardest races known to man—you have to augment your body’s capabilities. Not because these guys can’t complete the races without drugs, but because they’re racing at the very highest level, where there’s no room for error. The tiniest increases in efficiency are sought fanatically, both in the riders and in the machines they ride.

Among a peloton of the world’s fittest athletes, the incremental performance boost from doping is enough to annihilate the competition. Period. One guy does it and then everyone has to, just to keep things competitive. I was disappointed, and thoroughly so, to hear about this. But then it became the reality of pro cycling to me, and I learned to accept it as a bitter, pragmatic truth.

As Armstrong’s former teammate, George Hincapie, put it, "Given the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by cyclists at the top of the profession, it was not possible to compete without them." I think the important word here is “compete.” Strong, successful racers were suddenly finding they could no longer keep up with their rivals. They were faced with the decision to start doping or lose, and they doped to level the playing field. (Well, not everyone. Read about one former pro who refused to follow the trend.)

As the revelations of doping in cycling continue to make news, what’s become clear to me is the pervasive presence of disappointment, not only for fans and amateur racers, but for the pro riders themselves. As riders issue apologies, accept punishments, and explain their regrets, you can almost feel the collective sigh of catharsis.  

As we take a deep breath and look ahead, my hope is this: With this fresh and startling level of truth-seeking comes a healing process that follows up “the doping years” with a new era of heroes. An era where today’s junior racers might find their way to the highest level of the sport and have the opportunity to race “clean,” with no pressure to do otherwise. An era in which the inspirational elements of cycling—the personalities and legends and superhuman feats—might one day be something else: Just human.

Simply, wonderfully human.

Afterword: Following the submission of this post, I read this article, written by someone with significantly more first-hand experience than myself. Pro cycling may be closer to reaching a new level of honesty than I thought. 

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