Perhaps pro cycling can be seen as some sort of ethical proxy for society. A sort of moral canary, warning us of when our behaviour is becoming too toxic. Over its hundred plus years of history the nationalism that contributed to WW2 was also evident in the peleton.
The win at all costs attitudes of the 90’s too permeated the peleton and, as in the wider society, coincided with technical advances which meant that individuals willing to ignore ethical constraints could go further and faster, and cause far more collateral damage than ever before.
Professional cycling has always been a tough sport and has therefore motivated a higher level of creative “preparation” than almost any other sport, from the earliest days. In the 1990s pharmaceutical companies developed a synthetic form of EPO as a blood booster particularly for use in kidney disease and cancer. It was not long before a few doctors were exploring alternative markets for these products
It was great to believe in Lance Armstrong. The sensational comeback story, the commitment and the intensity. Armstrong came into cycling at a time when drug use, in particular EPO was rife. A few years previously sport doctors had worked out that blood played a bigger role in endurance sports than muscles. If they could boost the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity they could boost performance.
With no test available and a governing body with two blind eyes cycling became a contest of who was willing to take (and pay for) the greatest risks with their health. Boosting the bloods oxygen capacity also makes it thicker, the thicker it is the harder it is to pump and several pro cyclists died in their sleep, when their slowly beating hearts just couldn’t keep moving the gloop.
In response cyclists started setting alarm clocks to wake them in the night so that they could jog up and down the hotel corridors to keep the blood moving. in 1997, still with no test for EPO, the UCI (the governing body of cycling) introduced an arbitrary 50% hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells) level to protect cyclists health. Bjarne Riis, who won the Tour de France in 1996 was known in the pro peleton as “Mr 60%”.
This was the world to which Lance Armstrong returned in 1999 after advanced cancer had nearly killed him. He was already a gifted and exceptional athlete, cancer had caused him to loose considerable weight (a big advantage when cycling up mountains) and gain even more extraordinary determination. He was, apparently a man in a big hurry to prove himself and not too fussy about the methods used to achieve it.
His strategy involved getting the best (corrupt) sports doctors available to innovate a cocktail of performance and recovery enhancers. To take these himself and also to ensure that his top team mates took them as well, so that they would have the strength and endurance to support him, particularly in the mountains. And to make sure he didn’t get caught he personally enforced the code of silence, the omerta with intimidation and allegedly also bought off others who might expose him or the team. Anyone who did speak up or try to was subjected to abuse, intimidation and character assassination.
Finally a test for EPO was developed and it’s popularity diminished slightly in the peleton to be replaced by blood transfusions, it is only in the last few years that the Tour has begun to look more like a race between athletes and not pharmacists. Crucial climbs are now ridden considerably more slowly than they once were, in spite of better bikes and better training.
Cycling has turned a corner and continues to inspire with courageous individuals speaking up and telling the painful and ugly truth about the sport they love and the lives they are not proud of (David Millar and Tyler Hamilton in particular).
The parallels with our wider society are easy to spot, the greed is good, win at all costs 90’s leading both to the collusion between bankers and regulators, leading to our present global turmoil.
Society’s attitudes to integrity and authenticity have changed both in cycling, in business and in government. We expect far higher standards of behaviour today than we did twenty years ago. Cycling is cleaning up it’s culture with, sometimes painful honesty.
I look forward to the unexpurgated telling of the bankers tale of the credit crunch, by insiders and the consequent cultural shifts in politics and finance.
Do you think it will happen?
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