Cycling’s Immoral Worship: Perpetuating the Problem

August 21st, 2014

In Barry Levinson’s 1990’s crime drama series Homicide, there was a terrifically sleazy character named Luther Mahoney, a king pin that controlled the drug trade in the worst of Baltimore’s inner city neighborhoods. Every few episodes, Luther would crawl out from the underbelly of the city, his shiny black hair pulled back exposing a smooth, unfurled forehead, perfectly manicured finger nails accentuated his boney fingers as he pointed at and lectured the detectives on their naivety. In his world, those attempting to arrest him failed to see that, in effect, his dirty money was being put to good use providing social and educational benefits for the underprivileged children through his funding of after-school programs, social programs, basketball courts and athletic fields. It was almost believable. But regardless of the physical and social improvements, this scenario presents a huge moral dilemma- can a person who breaks the law, who infects society with a disease for a profit, make restitution or rationalize the crime simply by performing some good deed with money profited from the cheating? Does this payoff rectify the immoral act? Certainly infecting neighborhoods with crack cocaine and heroin is far greater a social problem than cheating in cycling, but there is a parallel. Just ask George Hincapie how he amassed his $40 million fortune. And what is he trying to do now? Lay claim that he only wants to help the sport, the very sport he waltzed through with drugs rippling through his veins, smiling while his eyes hid the truth behind his Oakleys, accepting the adoration from fans, attention from the media, millions of dollars and a career that has been left intact, if not further solidified by finally coming clean. As for Luther Mahoney, justice was finally served when he was gunned down on the streets of Baltimore.

It’s no secret how Lance Armstrong hid behind the yellow Livestrong banner and cancer survivor label to detract from the cheating and doping, a façade that he held so staunchly to that he slithered down an immoral path lined with poor judgment, a despicable lack of humanity and a legacy now defined by defamation, lies, character assassination and lawsuits, all while pounding his chest and questioning our own moral fortitude and how dare we accuse a man of cheating when he helps millions of sick people and has survived cancer. The list of riders that doped that was revealed as an integral part of the federal investigation into Armstrong, that we know of so far, reads like an All-Star list of U.S cycling, our country’s stars finally outed as cheats, liars, dopers. In anticipation of finally seeing these cheaters penalized, one wondered what type of suspensions- or deals- would be levied. When a person breaks the law, our governance says there should be a penalty. Typically, for most offenses, it’s a trial, and if guilty, a sentence. Yet, when a person breaks the law repeatedly and profits glamorously from it, the moral line seems to become ambiguous, as if suddenly the story now becomes a bit of a fairy tale and there is some acceptance or admiration for the cheater’s ability to evade prosecution and continue to succeed, even under the sniffing noses of enforcement. The prosecutors are accused of a witch hunt, insulted for their staunch view of the ethics they took an oath to uphold. There develops a sense of a “good for you attitude, you got away with it.” And with this, it seems, there is a myriad of excuses that creep into a sympathetic ear, suddenly a dribbling of reasonable doubt muttered through the trite spoken line of “I had no choice,” and “everyone was doing it, I had to cheat to keep up.” It may well be true that it was necessary to cheat to be competitive, but if you play a cheaters game, you need to play by the cheaters rules. And somewhere, somehow, those rules have been rewritten. And that makes me really angry.

Juliet Macur’s book “Cycle of Lies” delves deep into the rotten core of Tailwind Sports and the U.S. Postal Team and its systematic cheating, bullying, lying, deceit and pulls back the curtain to expose Hincapie; Vaughters; Danielson; Leipheimer; Zabriskie; VandeVelde; Hamilton; Landis. Each one of these riders had moments where they stood on the top step of a podium, fully aware of the methods they chose to get them there, and not one of them stepped forward and said this is bad for the sport. They accepted the rewards and continued to cheat. In reading about the struggles of their decision to dope, I do not feel sorry for Vaughters, or Zabriskie, as much as Macur tried- unconvinced herself-to relay a sense of humanity and compassion for the moral dilemma they faced while crying like children in the fetal position. If you’re going to become a cheater, at least be a man about it and roll up your sleeve, take your needle, and be done with it. You gave up the right to act like a baby once you said yes to the cheater’s rules. So after admissions of guilt, the question then becomes, doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance? Shouldn’t there be an opportunity, after a penalty or admitted guilt, to then choose a higher moral path, admit to the cheating and be an example for a cleaner sport, a cleaner society, whatever. My answer to that is yes. The problem here, with all of these riders, and others, is they passed on that second chance. They were cheaters, they knew the problem, they perpetuated the problem, they built a bigger lie, they constructed larger myths, continued to grace the pages of magazines, newspapers, accept higher paychecks, step onto podiums and parade themselves around like true champions. When they had the chance- knowing the deep rooted cheating that was being exposed, like in Operation Puerto in 2006- and they all chose to continue to lie, or stay silent.

In many ways, I believe the sole purpose of Floyd Landis ever becoming a cyclist was to expose the greatest fraud in sporting history and bring the sport to the point we are now at. Yet, it was clearly never his objective. It never is for a liar and a cheater and a doper. Because what they do, and who they are, is rooted in deceit, their very behavior is constructed on perpetuating the myth they’ve falsely created for themselves and presented to the public. And some will say who can blame them for crafting their characters and cashing the paychecks and living the myth, enraptured by the adulation and adoration of millions? Perhaps we can’t, if you accept that type of behavior. But every time they stuck another needle in their arm, popped another pill or stuck a testosterone patch onto their scrotums, they forfeited their second chance. And their third. And fourth and so on. Not one had the courage to admit their ways when first confronted. Many can praise Landis for coming clean, but what if Armstrong wasn’t so pig headed and actually gave him a job? What if he simply hired Landis to shut him up? While the Luther Mahoney’s of the world are drug dealers, they are business men, and they know how to buy silence, territory, product and protection. As smart as many say Armstrong is, clearly he was ill advised and not a very good businessman. But the issue goes far beyond Armstrong’s arrogance. It strikes at the center of one of the most polarizing issues in our society- the continued deaf, dumb and blind adoration of cheaters.

Armstrong has, rightfully in my opinion, been stripped of his victories, forced to pay back millions of dollars, lost millions in sponsorship money, been banned for life and effectively is paying a huge price for the life he lived. I say he is getting what he deserves. I honestly hope he ends up destitute. The problem is, the others are not suffering the same fate. George Hincapie kept his victories, has a successful clothing company, recently opened a hotel and is wrote a book. Vaughters manages the Garmin-Sharp team, now trumpeted as a do-gooder who tows the same moral high ground he failed to see while a rider and one that took years for him to admit to, all while allowing further damage to occur. Tom Danielson wrote a book and holds training camps; Tyler Hamilton has a coaching service; Leipheimer hosts a popular Gran Fondo every year that has the support of some of the industry’s biggest companies. Zabriskie keeps his National titles. Vandevelde has his mansion in Chicago. So where is the message? The penalty? These guys continue to say they want to do “good” for the sport, but failed to stop the damage they did to it while engineering their fraudulent careers. Only when legally forced to speak, with an offer of a 6-month suspension during the winter as the penalty, did they actually speak the truth. And long after they had made their money. Were their others who cheated? Yes. Does that justify cheating? In my opinion no. You are confronted with a choice. You weigh the options. You make a decision. And you continue to make that decision, whatever it is, with the line of right and wrong still the same. Should we continue to herald them as heroes of the sport? Are they suddenly exonerated from their past regressions, allowed to keep their fortunes and reputations as we continue to talk about their successes, and herald all the “good” they are doing for the sport now? Would I trust my nephew in the hands of Hincapie and his development team? Regardless of the efforts he is making now, he waved off his chance to do the right thing long ago in some filthy apartment in Girona. It would be hard not to tell the young man that the coach he has was a cheater, and all the success and fame he accomplished was through cheating. Why is this so hard to comprehend? What type of coaching plan could one honestly receive from Tyler Hamilton, regardless of what he knows, especially when there are more competent coaches out there? His career as a cyclist will forever be defined by one thing-cheating.
It’s here that I ask the question why do we, as a society, continue to praise those who have crossed that moral line- repeatedly- and accept them in a sport they played such a large part in devaluing, to not have to suffer the consequences of their wrongful action? Some will say they have suffered enough, to give them a break. I say they all should be suffering the same fate as Armstrong. As a sport culture, we are still infected with the personalities that drove cycling so deep into the abyss that we continue to claim we are cleaning ourselves out of. Alexander Vinokourov is managing a team? Does one need to be reminded of the harsh words he had for the sport and cyclists in general when he was caught and suspended? Viatcheslov Ekimov? Bjarne Riis? There are far greater people out there that can contribute far more to the sport than these men, to name a few. And the industry itself is not doing enough to take a stance against the poison that continues to plague cycling and make it a joke. Yes, other sports are also contaminated with doping, but I do not work in those sports, so I choose to not devote my time to them. Rapha Clothing has recently produced a jersey to mark the ten years since the death of Marco Pantani. What is so disturbing here is, apparently, while trying to justify the production of this piece, Rapha CEO Simon Mottram either forgot what he read or failed to read altogether Matt Rendell’s thorough and decisive book on Pantani. Pantani’s story doesn’t detail the struggles of life we find so alluring in cycling, as Mottram claims. It chronicles a very calculated experiment that drove the boundaries of human performance into a ridiculous stratosphere. And this is what we are supposed to relate to? Mottram can spin it however he wishes- he is trying to sell product after all- but the bottom line is, the reason Pantani was so great going uphill was because he was doped. To the gills. Since he was in his late teens. It brought him fame, fortune and glory. And brought him shame, humiliation, addiction and death. Why honor someone who lived this type of life? Why are we so enamored with, and so forgiving of, the Luther Mahoney’s of the underworld and yet we ignore and ridicule, those who walk a respectful, moral path, making their decisions based on what is consciously and objectively the right choice?

The acceptance of these cheaters is only perpetuating a long standing theme- these figures continue to have a presence in the sport for reasons that they shouldn’t. Cyclingnews recently wrote a piece on banned rider Ricardo Ricco. Why are we to really care that this man, for one, is still out there, and that he recently bought drugs? Bicycling magazine recently did a photo shoot at Hincapie’s hotel. Editor Bill Strickland posted a photo on twitter of Hincapie’s Tour de France jersey collection hanging in the hotel and tweeted that he “believes this is a good thing.” How is this good? For who? George? The sport? His $40 million fortune? If we do not penalize those who have corrupted the sport, how do we expect it to change? If we continue to support these cheaters aren’t we exonerating them of their past regressions? Why are we ignoring the severity of what they did, and the enormity of what they gained? Why are we afraid to stand up to these cheaters, stop making them heroes, and simply believe in morality as a heroic trait, once and for all? You may not the like the answer, but I’ll tell you why. Because for those who believed in the myth, you can’t admit that you were taken for a ride. We rationalize the truth because we are afraid to admit that someone we idolize has faults or is not the true hero we set them up to be in our dreams. We cheered for them, shared their struggles, were sad when they failed and happy when they succeeded. But the sad part is everyone has faults. Everyone fails, everyone succeeds. But not everyone crosses the line between right and wrong. Not everyone is a cheater. So the debate is not about doping per se, but about moral fortitude. And I’m starting to believe either you have it or you don’t.

If admission is the first step recovery, maybe we need to do a better job of introspective thinking and look at our own faults and limitations and that may help us get to a better place- a cleaner place, and a place that simply says no to lying, cheating, doping. None of us are without fault, and I admit mine are many. But I take responsibility for my decisions and actions, and I make those decisions based on a moral compass and personal integrity that is a choice. I was raised on honesty and hard work, I live the working man’s life as a working man’s son, a man who grew up with nothing, made an honest living and passed that on to me. It was ingrained in me as a child. I once put a small plastic bingo coin in a gumball machine and actually got the gumball. I was surprised it worked. My elation lasted long enough for my first bite to crack the shell and taste the sweetness, before I was overcome with guilt and spit it out. I walked inside the pharmacy and handed the store owner the nickel I owed him. I waited anxiously for my father to come home from work that night, and told him what I had done. He placed his hand on my shoulder and told me I had done the right thing. And he meant paying the owner the nickel, not getting the gumball. None of these cheaters ever paid the pharmacy store owner back. They stole the whole god dammed gumball machine and sold each gumball to us at 10 times the profit. None of them deserve that pat on the shoulder. And I believe if you support them still, you don’t deserve that pat either. I just hope you enjoy your expensive gumball.

Coast to Coast and Across the Clouds

March 30th, 2011

In our sport, there are a number of iconic places, dramatic locations and desirable destinations to explore with our bicycle. The Spring Classics bring the Monuments, and their iconic elements that are as much a focus to ride as they are to view the drama of the race. Spring and summer brings mountain passes that fill in the most dramatic stages of the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, the Tour de Suisse. The Alps, the Dolomites, the Pyrenees are all mountain ranges that sit and stare at us, begging us to come and challenge ourselves, and embrace an experience that, if looked at beyond the accomplishment, can alter the methods by which we think, and can illuminate our minds and challenge our emotions.

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The Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin, Col de Peyresourde, Col de Marie-Blanque, Col d’Aubisque Col du Soulor, Hautacam. These are the passes that extend across southern France, linking the Bay of Biscay with the Roussillon plain that flattens itself into the Mediterranean Sea. Col de Puymorens, Port d’Envalira, Arcalis, Vallnord. These are the passes that extend over the Catalan Pyrenees and into Andorra and lead to Catalunya. Each rider has his own definition of what makes up a great day of cycling. The experience and accomplishments can be intertwined, and can be defined by perfect weather, strong legs, riding alone or in the company of a perfect stranger. It can also be defined by cold wind and rain, dead legs and hunger knock. Both situations can teach valuable lessons into the beauty of what can discovered when the bike becomes the method of travel that takes you on journey of mind and body.

The extension of this experience can be enhanced with the atmosphere of one’s surroundings for lodging, food and wine and the interaction with the authentic culture that encompasses the journeys day to day. In continuously pursuing the melding of these elements, I have been approached by my friend and colleague Patrick Brady from Red Kite Prayer and Peloton Magazine to put together an itinerary that offers all of these pieces. The result is Velo Classic Tours 2-part version of a route that connects northwestern Spain and Eastern Spain and bookends the Pyrenees Atlantiques, Orientales and the Catalan Pyrenees. Starting near San Sebastian in Spain and finishing in Girona, Spain, two 8-day itineraries link together the most demanding terrain with the concept that by the end it has challenged, inspired and improved who we are as cyclists and people.

Aitor Arguinzoniz, Cedric Roubin, Pierre Chilo, Francois St. Martin Rogier van den Biggelaar. These are a few of the names that celebrate the culinary excellence of France and Spain and dedicate themselves to the impassioned pursuit satisfying the soul. Our riding includes the grandest names in the Pyrenees, and our accommodations and restaurants selection are in keeping with our philosophy at Velo Classic Tours that the bicycle is a means to transcend cultural boundaries. Please contact me for a detailed itinerary and more information on the trip. Patrick will also be posting on Red Kite Prayer, and I will be keeping a link to those posts active here.
Challenge. Pause. Reflect. Move Forward.
Happy riding.
Peter
Tourmalet

World Championships Rewind

November 3rd, 2010

The Day the Cat Got Out of the Bag- ROAD Magazine September 201024886_1326517976832_1647413971_765934_6652489_n
As the bell rung for the final lap of the 1999 World Championships, the lead group eased slightly for a left turn and skirted across the cobbles on the edge of the historic center of Verona, Italy. The arched walls of the Roman amphitheater stood as a monumental sundial in the center of the Piazza Bra, marking time with long shadows spread across the rider’s path in the late afternoon sun. Six hours earlier, the rich palette of colors from the 172 starters glistened in the bright October morning, the chill in the air tangled with a mess of hope and nerves. With hope comes strength, with nerves there is a prayer for good luck and the merry go round that is the World Championships had turned hope into desperation and then surrender for 161 of these riders. In 20 minutes, one of these remaining eleven riders would be world champion. For the favorites, the pressure of performance would prove too stifling, for others they would wait for the revolving roulette wheel to slow one last time and hope they wore the lucky number. But one rider would play the joker, knowingly or not, strength or luck, and would roll the dice, not so much as to define a career, but on a chance to script one. The cat would soon be out of the bag.

Winning a world title is as much a season’s goal as it is a career defining moment. Victory ensures a lifetime membership into an elite circle, one that begins proudly, for some ostentatiously, with a year’s honor of wearing the coveted rainbow stripes. While recent years have seen an overdose of the ensemble on the winner, it is the years that follow, the honorary badge worn as a subtle crest, displayed in a rainbow armband, the classy symbol that immediately elicits respect from other riders. While there is a new winner every year, victory lasts forever. In the NHL, entry into the winner’s circle is rewarded with ones name engraved in the ring of champions that make up the Lord Stanley’s Cup. In NCAA football, one player annually enters the Heisman Trophy club, an elite list of some of the greatest collegiate football players. But unlike hockey, where a season’s worth of teamwork culminates in an equipment shredding, trophy hoisting skate around or the Heisman Trophy award-its winners benefit from season long dedication from teammates-world champions, on the surface, are made in a day. A national team alliance expects trade team rivalries to be neutralized, relies on loyalty and dedication and a pledging of allegiance to their nation, coach, and ultimately one rider all for the glory of their country. But there is no mistaking the win forever benefits one rider, and his trade team reaps the financial reward. Reunions of former world champions are not with teammates, but other winners, sharing stories not of a great season, but of one day and how they captured victory and the city they conquered. But it’s their teammates that are saddled with the burden of loyalty, carrying a thousand untold stories vaulted in their minds, moments extinguished as quickly as they were ignited. For some, there is a persistent burning of regret, a hint of resentment and the dishonor of betrayal. For others, success is found in the solitude that comes with honorary service.

Trixi Worrack’s steely blue eyes seem to purposefully conceal her inner persona, one that is revealed jubilantly with victory and easily with her sharp sense of humor. While the duplicitous, deceitful and unprofessional behavior of national team members in past years has been well documented, there is still a sense of pride that comes with flying the national colors and dedicating ones self for the good of ones country. In the 2008 World Championships in Varese, Italy, Worrack yo-yoed front to back three different times in the final five kilometers, a valiant effort as the wildcard, clearly willing to play roulette with a fully loaded gun, her efforts an attempt to break the will and sap the strength of three of her four breakaway companions and put victory in the arms of Germany with her teammate Judith Arndt. Arndt’s victory was a few hundred meters short, and Worrack was left holding a smoking gun. Was there regret, reflections of a missed opportunity for such self-sacrifice so close to victory again -she was second in 2006 in Salzburg and delivered Regina Schleicher to victory in 2005 in Madrid- made more bittersweet by Arndt’s failure to secure no better than third behind Nicole Cooke and Marianne Vos. Her relaxed smile and laughter recalling the finale quickly dissolved. “No, not at all. My efforts were for the team and for Germany.” Her reply behind those steely blue eyes was without hesitation.

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The city of Verona is well known as the setting for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, a love story destroyed by selfishness, distrust and deceit. The 16.2 kilometer course twisted through the romantic city streets and crossed, then paralleled, the Adige River for the last time. As Belgian Frank Vandenbroucke calculated his odds of victory as he approached the site of his crash ten laps earlier, he surely felt they were worse than
11-1. Admitting pain is an admission of failure, forever planting a seed a doubt that the pressure to be the protected rider is too great. Frank could not take that chance. Such is the temptation, the allure, the addiction at becoming World Champion. It is so elusive, even diabolical, that it has its own curse. Belgian teammates Nico Mattan and Johan Museeuw, when alerted of the accident, sifted through the peloton to judge the damage. Museeuw pressed Vandenbroucke for an answer, and in a moment of weakness that would come to define his career, and life, Frank lied. He had hairline fractures in both wrists. While he did not know this at that very moment, the pain that had been ignited was enough to wage a war in his head.

If the Roman ruins and medieval center itself are the man made pride of the Veronese people, then Lake Garda, in their eyes, is Gods gift to them. The crystal blue waters that smack the eastern shore of the lake glimmer only 25 kilometers west of Verona. In the main piazza in the small village of Lazise, members of the Belgian National team sit together enjoying a coffee. In a final effort of unity less than 24 hours before the start, 1996 World Champion Johan Museeuw has selected a serene spot to listen to Wilfried Peeters, his loyal domestique at Mapei, and Geert Van Bondt, Peter van Petegem’s faithful corner man at Farm Frites, chatter in Flemish, while Peter Farazijn, Frank Vandenbroucke’s domestique at Cofidis, sits unengaged. Delicately managing professional athlete’s egos, insecurities and demands can be enough to drive a stake through a seasoned team, never mind one put together for a day. While the scenic location was not a summit effort to determine their leader, the Belgians, much like Spain and Italy, had an embarrassment of riches that can only happen once a year. In hindsight, perhaps the pressure was too great, his insecurity masked behind brashness and words of bravado that alienated him from even those closest to him, including his absence on this day. Whatever his demons were, Frank Vandenbroucke had gained leadership of the Belgian team. The honor roll he would try to emulate stretched far past Museeuw’s title in Lugano in 1996. At 23, his palmares belied his youth, but his behavior did nothing to hide his immaturity. In a nation as cycling crazed as Belgium, these two had graced the podium of their beloved Tour of Flanders six months earlier on either side of van Petegem, his victory securing a place in the hearts of the Flemish people and assuring increased scrutiny and expectation that comes with claiming the most important crown in Belgium. However the role of leader was decided, 24 hours later Museeuw and van Petegem would be furious, accusing Vandenbroucke of selfish behavior that cost Belgium its two best chances at victory-themselves.

Michael Boogerd could blame nothing or no one but himself this year for falling short of a world title. The climb of the Torricelle rises 207 meters above the city, twisting in on itself to view the Adige River as it snakes its way through the medieval core of Verona. The 4.5 kilometer ascent was the main obstacle on the day and for the Dutchman, it proved to be 500 meters too long. After six plus hours of racing, both his strength and his luck-he narrowly avoided the crash that felled Vandenbroucke- expired. His legs drained, his will emptied and his chance at redemption gone. Boogerd was one of the strongest after 15 laps, but he rapidly became unglued and a desperate chase ensued. He would finish 14th, 59 seconds behind. The previous autumn in Valkenburg, with a deflating front tire slowly stealing his chances, he called for a wheel change, and never saw the front of the race again. Instead of drawing the joker and riding over the Cauberg to victory, a fleck of glass stole his attempt at becoming the first winner on home soil since Frenchman Bernard Hinault in Sallanches in 1980. He finished 6th, one minute and ten seconds back. Strength and luck, both good and bad, share the responsibility of shaping a race’s outcome and defining or shaking a rider’s confidence. And while a rider can work to control the former, it’s only at what is the most opportune or inopportune moment that the truth is told. And there is only one chance to get it right.

“The man who has the patience to wait is the one who will win.” former professional Scott Sunderland said, elaborating on the crucial role mental strength plays and how desperation can impede the primary instinctual tactic required to handle the repetitive nature of a world championship race course. As the 2000 worlds in Plouay, France passed under the one kilometer to go banner, Sunderland found himself in contention for the world title. Having skipped over Verona, Sunderland was in search of redemption after fighting back from a near fatal accident in the 1998 Amstel Gold Race. His season target that year was the world championships in Valkenburg. During a recent ride along the Schelde River towards Oudenaarde, deep in the cycling heart of Belgium, Sunderland recalled the finale that he credits with prolonging his career, giving him the physical proof that he had returned to his best. “I was about 30th wheel going into the final turn with 750 meters to go. I took to the inside, and sprinted up the right hand side, and by 250 meters was third wheel. Oscar Freire was to my left and kept me blocked from Romans Vainsteins wheel and I never got out of the wind.” Vainsteins won, Freire was third. Sunderland finished seventh, a career best. Was the outcome a result of waiting too long, or not long enough? What if there was a bit less wind, a budge from Freire that let him shift one meter to the left, could the result have been different for the hard working Australian? “Yeah, sure, but hey, that’s bike racing.”

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There comes a time when desperation, or seizing opportunity, can produce surprising success, and have monumental consequences. For many newly crowned world champions, victory is the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice and suffering. There are the lessons learned from failure, experience gained from handling pressure, judging a race, gauging one’s strength. Victories leading to a title are garnered through national races, small stage races, and lower tier events that typically slip under the radar. As a career progresses and confidence increases, results become more newsworthy- a semi classic, a grand tour stage, a monument. But what if a rider was to begin his career with a world title? This is, on paper, against all odds. Surely this rider cannot handle the pressure of such an enormous event. And what of the curse that has stricken those who failed to repay their debt, executed in a moment of desperation, the temptation too great to let their chance at stardom dissolve in weakness. A deal with the devil is never 50/50, and sometimes, it’s not a choice.

Unlike Mario Cipollini’s celebrated victory in Zolder, Belgium in 2002, the 1969 title in Zolder went to the wrong man. The favorites were stunned when Dutchman Harm Ottenbros, installed as a reserve, capitalized on the negative racing steered at Eddy Merckx and won a two man sprint. Victory was the worst thing that could have happened to him. Scorned by his fellow riders, he was ridiculed, a nobody that didn’t deserve the honor of the rainbow jersey. “Believe me,” he has been quoted as saying, “I wasn’t in the slightest bit sorry when my year as world champion was over and I didn’t have to wear that jersey any more.” To many, including his own countrymen, he was a disgrace.

When the nine riders swung right onto the Corso Porta Nuova for the final time, only one question remained. A show of strength, the gambling, the luck, calculated or desperate, had led each of these riders to this position, and so far everything had failed to snap anyone’s iron grip on their shot at cycling’s Holy Grail. As the group, led by American Chann McCrae, swung back to the left, completing an inverted S, one rider, in a moment of instinctual brilliance, exploded from the rear with 400 meters to go. In moments before victory, it is said that an athlete’s absolute focus seems to slow time, silence the crowd, and move frame by frame as if in a slideshow. For some, it’s a glance into a photo album of their past, for others it’s a semi-hypnotic vision, replaying hundreds of frames of the same image. For this one rider, it was a glimpse into his future. With each pedal stroke, the boulevard transformed into a red carpet, the next eleven years neatly scripted with every meter covered, the advertising banners on the barriers converting to billboards electrifying a wealth of palmares that would come to include semi-classics, classics, monuments, grand tour stage wins, stage race titles, and two additional world titles. After ten seconds, from the drops, he glanced under his arm, and continued. Then a second look back. By the third, the red carpet now stretched across the finish line and Oscar Freire was assured of victory. After six hours and nineteen minutes, it took Freire less than thirty seconds to become the new world champion. Luck or strength, drifting one meter to the left, sitting behind a different rider, hesitating one second too long and maybe, just maybe, things would have played out differently over those final 400 meters, and perhaps the next eleven years. But hey, that’s bike racing. And that’s the World Championships.

One Man’s Pilgrimage From Stavelot to Liege

June 12th, 2010

I have  recently  begun  to  write  for Road Magazine.  Below is the first of my monthly articles.  Enjoy!

One Man’s Pilgrimage From Stavelot to Liege

By Peter Easton

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Frank Schleck has hopefully learned that image is, in fact, not everything. As he propelled the 2007 edition of the race known as La Doyenne towards the finish, Schleck, lean and powerful and in full command, methodically charged up the final 500 meter incline.  The silver chalice on the podium glistened where his name would soon be etched among the list of greats.  As the television camera panned back, a second rider came into view.  Danilo DiLuca was bolted to the tip of his saddle, grimacing as he struggled to match Schleck’s effort, his discomfort timed by a rapidly emptying hour glass, his shoulders locked against the pain coursing through his body.  As the incline faded 200 meters from the finish line, the sale of DiLuca’s soul was finalized and time stood still just long enough for him to raise his arms in triumph.  And while this finish provides the glossy cover image that defines a Spring Classic, it is only one of thousands of snapshots collected over time that tells the story and paints the picture of what is arguably the hardest single day race in the world- Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

If the Tour of Flanders is in your heart and Paris-Roubaix is in your head, then Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a race that is clearly in your legs.  And while winning its midweek partner La Flèche-Wallonne is surely a great achievement, it’s laying claim to the oldest classic of them all that will keep your name on everyone’s lips. While an intricate knowledge of the cobbles of Flanders and pavé of Northern France is a prerequisite for success, conquering Liège-Bastogne-Liège requires pure strength.  Paris-Roubaix is unmatched in its uniqueness and the Tour of Flanders is, in so many aspects, the most beautiful.  But as the oldest Classic, it is this race that demands the most when it comes to pure strength and battling attrition.  No man has ever won Liège-Bastogne-Liège on luck.

Of the Five Monuments of Cycling- Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Il Giro di Lombardia the others- it is Liège-Bastogne-Liège that lacks the glamour.  There is no medieval market square to celebrate the start, no historic stage to showcase the finale.  There are no shadows cast from the marble spires of a Gothic cathedral, no grand lakeside boulevard for the sprint.  It is, however, the only race that does not depend on its image to sell itself.  It is the only one of the five that dispatches its riders, puts them on a course of systematic and methodical elimination, and patiently awaits their return.  No untimely flats or unfortunate crashes caused by cobbles, no narrow lanes to negotiate.  And if the first 150 kilometers is the introduction, it is the final 85 that activates the race, underscores the visual distinction between country and city, and highlights the enduring history between Stavelot and Liège.

The ruins of the Abbey of Stavelot dominate the center of town, the remains of a once important center of Christianity purposefully destroyed.  The village lies at a critical junction in the heart of the Ardennes, and while it is less than 60 kilometers from Liège, it’s charm is infinitely further from the post industrial apocalypse that has gripped Belgian’s iron city, and even more from its own scarred past.  One, the city on the Meuse, is haunted by the shuttered coal furnaces and abandoned steel plants that once built this region into an industrial power.  The other, the village on the Amblève, is simply haunted by blood stained hands.  Further souring the haunting aftertaste in Stavelot that lingers from its bloody past is the memorial to the citizens and soldiers killed in World War II, a stark reminder of the ugliness man can paint over nature’s canvas. It is here on race day that a new battle begins, an annual pilgrimage again rewarding the aggressor and condemning the cautious.

The Stavelot Triptych is a medieval reliquary that contains two slivers of wood from the True Cross, presented as a gift to the Abbey in 1156.  Centuries before, the Abbey was home to the exiled bishop of Maastricht, Saint Lambert, for seven years, before he returned a martyr to preach his gospel on the banks of the Meuse, and was murdered in Liège.  The Place Saint Lambert, built on the original location of Liège Cathedral that housed the Saint’s tomb, has the honor of hosting the race start.  Before departing Liege, the riders are resigned to the hardship scripted for them.  “It’s going to be a hellish race” laughed Saxo Bank’s Gustav Larsson.  In the face of severe adversity, humor seems to be the best antidote.

Leaving Liège, the landscape, a wave of continuously verdant hills, appears on the horizon, and the beauty of the Ardenne Bleue is lit from the ground up, as blossoming flowers color the grass light blue, almost mirroring the sky.  The indigenous architecture is accentuated with local stone, shimmering in the morning sunlight varying shades of blue.  Villages swell with spectators, pausing to pay tribute- a moment of silence- at the local war memorial. Unlike its Flemish counterpart, the Tour of Flanders, this day is not a wild chase across the narrow back roads of an open countryside.  This is a day that memorializes a dark past as much as it celebrates, at least for a day, the beauty of the present.  It is a day of pride for Wallonia, this fourth Sunday in April, and they are proud to be the center of the cycling world.

As the race taps Bastogne, its furthest point to the south, it’s as if a charred hand rose from the coal mounds of Liège to choose its boundaries, a blackened finger selecting Bastogne, unaware of the ominous designation bestowed.  65 years on from its nightmare, the church bells from the reconstructed belfry ring proudly at 1:00 pm as the peloton navigates the village.  Numerous memorials surround the town, locking in to the horrors of 1944.  The newest memorial was happily welcomed, designating their proud history as patron of this race, a gesture fittingly displayed with the dedication of Le Rond Point la Doyenne.  From here, the charred hand of Liège will begin to open its palm for one rider, caressing him to victory. For the rest, it’s a clenched fist, as tightly closed and cold as the factories it built.

As the race enters Stavelot, it is hard to ignore the timeline of history.  While the path of Saint Lambert’s pilgrimage to Liège is unclear, the climbs in the final 85 kilometers surely mark the most difficult route.  Perhaps its most telling story comes from the poem The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major work of French literature, in which the great King Charlemagne has a nightmare the night before the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. This nightmare takes place in the Ardennes forest.

The race’s climbs through the thick forests and arduous hills of the Ardennes Mountains orchestrate a sequence that is highly calculating.  The seven climbs- Côte de Stockeu, Côte de la Haute-Levée, Côte du Rosier, Côte de la Vecquée, Côte de la Redoute, Côte de la Roche aux Faucons and the Côte de Saint-Nicolas- magnify an increasingly rapid elimination process, leaving the strongest, grittiest, most determined to duel it out through the streets of Liège.  Like the other Monuments, Liège-Bastogne-Liège has its icon that captures the spectator’s imaginations, solicits the expectations, instills confidence in the strongest, fear in the weakest, and produces the drama of anticipation that cycling’s biggest figures willingly tend to annually, battling for the honor to place this squarely on their mantle of success.  This centerpiece is La Redoute, a stifling sequence of steps that rises steeply alongside the A26/E25 highway and whose lifeline is close to being choked closed by the gauntlet of fans that swarm the hill. The irony of it all is the intensely beautiful backdrop this is played out against.

Approaching Liège, the smoke stacks that once heaved and belched plumes of smoke into the sky appear on the riverside. The circuitous chase up the monochromatic street of the Côte de St-Nicolas and through the worn maze of Liège is reminiscent of a high speed chase of cops and robbers with one, two maybe three men in close pursuit, negotiating the tight turns, dips and rises.  If grey was not a color, it would be mournful and miserable. Thankfully the peloton rotates like a kaleidoscope, bringing a prism of color to an otherwise dreary neighborhood.

The innocuous finish in Ans, uphill from the Place Saint Lambert, is crammed onto a boulevard whose main tenants are a Carrefour super market and exit 33 off the A3/E40.  Even if this race rejects any sense of glamour, the honor bestowed on its victor is a success that resonates beyond the podium.  One is forgiven if the silver chalice handed to the winner is thought to have come from the bounty seized from the Abbey of Stavelot,   polished, glistening and reflecting the moment that captures the glory of realization that can only be seen when you close your eyes.  To the winner, the finish is as glamorous as any, and with a finale equal in parts to Schleck vs. DiLuca, who am I to argue?

In 2006, as the race entered Stavelot, a lone rider split the crowd that lined the Côte de Stockeu, the last remnant of a 26 rider break.  I stood alongside the cobbled street in town, staring at the ruined archway of the Abbey. The race was almost five hours old.  As the lead cars thundered into town, the distinct noise of tires on cobbles ignited the air, trumpeting the start of St Lambert’s pilgrimage.  As I glanced back across the cobbles, a lone cyclist’s reflection flashed brilliantly in the window adjacent to the Abbey’s arch.  A second later he appeared, scorching across the cobbled streets of Stavelot before disappearing into the thick crowd.  The path chosen by a martyr is never an easy one.  But that doesn’t mean it cannot be a beautiful one.

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Copyright ©Peter Easton/Road Magazine All Rights Reserved

One Race is One Man’s Legacy

February 8th, 2010

Pave

In 1980, Frenchman Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle finished 2nd to former World Champion Francesco Moser in Paris-Roubaix. The 25 year old Duclos-Lasalle withstood constant attacks from the Italian in the closing stages before finally conceding. Sometimes steely resolve alone cannot change the course of history. While Moser went on to win his third consecutive Queen of the Classics by nearly two minutes, Duclos-Lasalle would come up empty as a Paris-Roubaix favorite for another eleven years. While each year his target was victory, what he did not plan was how his destiny would be written, from being second best in his youth to the oldest winner in history. While one victory is enough for many, Duclos-Lasalle said he still felt the desire to race, and to win, and to prove his point, he defended his title in 1993. The man he beat that April Sunday was Franco Ballerini. Clearly the stronger rider, the 27 year old Ballerini was outwitted in the sprint by the more experienced Frenchman. The photo finish declared Duclos-Lasalle a winner by eight centimeters. After having raised his arms in triumph, Ballerini was inconsolable as second best. When asked by a reporter if he had made any errors, a distraught Ballerini replied “yes, I made the mistake of becoming a bike racer.”

In the 1990 Paris-Roubaix, Steve Bauer lost to Eddy Planckaert in a photo finish. He never came close to winning Paris-Roubaix again. Each year is a new opportunity for a rider to start with a clean slate, to change their history, to rewrite their fate in the record books. A rider can cement his legacy, or create one, with one historic ride across the stones that connect Compiegne to Roubaix. Paris-Roubaix does not need to rely on poetry to market itself. It lays dormant all but one day a year, rising up the second Sunday of every April to mock those riders who avoid it, and unleash a storm of brutality on those who dare tread on it. It is often said that to win Paris-Roubaix you need to rely on good luck and pray you don’t suffer from bad luck. But what of the man who is unsatisfied with his legacy? What if he consciously decides it is up to him to change his destiny, luck or not, and redefine his place in history?

After his narrow defeat, how many nights did Franco Ballerini lay in bed staring at the ceiling, wondering if he had what it took to face Roubaix again, and would he ever have another shot at victory. He could hear the demons whispering, asking him what he would do the next time he flats at a crucial moment, or finds himself in the winning break. What if you have to sprint for victory again, Franco? Is luck, good and bad, just a part of Roubaix, or do the real champions develop a mindful approach and create that winning scenario in their head, turning disaster into victory? How many times can tactics be second guessed, strength analyzed, and weaknesses criticized when missing out on what at the time may seem like your one chance at etching your name into history. Would the sport forever remember Franco Ballerini’s 2nd place photo finish as his almost moment?

In 1995, the Mapei-GB team had an all-star roster at the start of Paris-Roubaix that included Johan Museeuw, fresh off his second win in the Tour of Flanders and the undisputed captain; Andrea Tafi was beginning to show signs of strength that would net him victories in Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, the Giro di Lombardia and Paris-Tours over the next eight seasons; Gianluca Bortolami was the defending World Cup champion and Wilfried Peeters was the ever faithful lieutenant. Ballerini had woken from his nightmare and managed to finish 3rd in the 1994 Paris-Roubaix, and was again looking for his shot at redemption. He seized his moment on this day, and rose above the mental blocks and the nightmares of two years earlier. He took control of the race, and his destiny. I remember receiving the first issue of VeloNews following his victory. A glorious photo of Ballerini graced the cover, alone in the dust and on the cobbles, on his way to cementing his legacy in a race he had dreamt of winning since he watched Francesco Moser on TV in 1980.

Perhaps there is some analogy to be taken from this, some higher meaning. Can riding this course that we know as l’Enfer du Nord be considered a redemptive pilgrimage, an annual penance through purgatory? Each sector methodically removes more sin, the suffering across the minefields slowly purifying the rider until reaching the holy waters of the Roubaix velodrome, the vestige of its winners glistening from the stalls where the finishers weep. After this symbolic cleansing, are we not now ready to face any challenge? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Even the devil has a hard time glorifying hell.

When Ballerini rode his final race in 2001, it was fittingly Paris-Roubaix, and it was for Mapei. He finished 32nd, 8:13 behind winner Servais Knaven. As he crossed the finish line in the Roubaix velodrome, he unzipped his jersey to reveal his undershirt that read “Merci Roubaix”. This was his chance to say goodbye, to thank his supporters, those who never lost faith that he would return and win, to those who felt the heartbreak of those eight centimeters. He had been to hell and back, had felt the heartbreak of losing, and ultimately seized the chance at rewriting history in the race that would ultimately come to define his career as a rider. His untimely death has taken away the opportunity to say goodbye to him, to thank him and to let him know we never lost faith in him. For me, the legacy is Franco Ballerini, 2-time winner of Paris-Roubaix. And that is forever. Merci, Franco.