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Tour de France 2008 - Have We Hit Rock Bottom Yet?
 
By Staff
Date: 7/22/2008
Tour de France 2008 - Have We Hit Rock Bottom Yet?
 

2008 Tour de France - Have We Hit Rock Bottom Yet?
Cycling has put itself through purgatory in order to purify. Itís resulted in negative exposure greater than any other sport has endured...  The suffering is only worthwhile if it has a purpose, though. Can cycling emerge from this experience better and stronger than before?

By Dave Shields

In 2003 I hopped aboard Cloud Nine and itís taken me to some incredible places. Running alongside Lance Armstrong during an epic Alpe dí Huez climb was one of many highlights of a year that Iíd finish as the proud author of a novel titled, The Race. The book would eventually win the Ben Franklin Award, show up on several bestseller lists, and become the platform for me to appear on hundreds of television and radio shows ranging from CNN to local news broadcasts in towns Iíd never previously heard of.


Dave Shields (far right) shouts encouragement to Lance Armstrong on Alpe d' Huez during the 2003 Tour de France. Photo © 2008 Graham Watson  

I also attended hundreds of bicycle races and cycling events to sign my books. In the process I got the opportunity to meet many of the biggest stars in American cycling including all of my boyhood heroes. Iíll always treasure riding through Northern Utah with Greg Lemond, sitting on a curb in Georgia chatting with Frankie Andreu, hanging out on Marty Jemisonís deck as he helped me perfect details of my manuscript, and pedaling through the hills near Dalton with Saul Raisin as he told me the nitty-gritty details of his epic recovery.

What a journey itís turned out to be for a middle-of-the-road tri-athlete and aspiring author like myself. I guess I just happened to stumble into an unoccupied literary niche at the right time. Some of my adventures have been epic, and Iím not the only one whose been surprised by the journey.

For example, I always chuckle when I think of the time a man approached me and introduced himself as Jeff Pierce. Years before Iíd watched Jeff ride the Tour de France for Team 7-Eleven so I was honored to sign a book for him now. Then he said, ďIím pleased to meet you too. I was listening to a national sports talk program the other night and they teased an upcoming interview with a Tour de France expert. Of course I stayed tuned to listen, wondering which one of my old buddies theyíd be talking to. Then the interview starts and itís some guy named Dave Shields answering the questions. I said to myself, who the hell is this guy and how come I donít know about him?Ē


Dave discusses Tour de France tactics live on CNN.
Photo © Dave Shields

No wonder he was surprised. Elite level cycling, especially in America, is a pretty tight fraternity. Membership is earned in exchange for years of legendary effort on the bicycle. Somehow Iíd crashed the party through the back door using only a pen.

Sometimes I got more than Iíd bargained for. For example, in a series of interviews CNN anchors asked me questions about the hot topics or the day, which increasingly included doping. Early on Iíd give, what I now know, were naÔve answers. It wasnít that I was unaware of the history of drugs in sport or that I meant to be dishonest in any way, but maybe that Iíd never personally been under the pressures elite athletes deal with on a daily basis nor had I been exposed to the ethical challenges that each and every pro athlete (cycling or not) has had to face. In addition, I didnít want some of the accusations Iíd heard thrown about to be true, and I despised the increasingly prevalent supposition of guilty until proven innocent.

On top of everything else, I didnít enjoy telling a national audience that hadnít yet embraced the sport I loved about dirty secrets that might prevent them from ever tuning in. Despite all of this I often found myself admitting on camera that this sport was in trouble, and I wondered aloud how bad things would have to get before they began to improve. Just how low would rock bottom be? With each subsequent year Iíve discovered that it is at least a level or two lower than I imagined it might be before the year began. Despite some great moments, the last several seasons have been pretty tough on the fans.

As I mentioned before, The Race did well. It accomplished many of my primary goals including introducing new fans to the sport. I got thousands of e-mails from readers. One of my favorites was from a guy who told me Iíd written ďThe Rocky of Cycling.Ē If my book could do for cycling what Rocky did for boxing I could hardly ask for more. Consequently, when readers begged me to write a sequel I was thrilled with the idea. Since the driving force in The Race was the protagonists personal transformation (not the race itself), and since I knew I couldnít rehash that ground in a second book, I began looking for a central theme for the new book. I didnít have to look far as doping had become such a hot topic. By this time I was being questioned about it constantly. In many peopleís minds doping seemed to have become nearly synonymous with cycling.

So I wrote my first draft of my sequel and then shared it with pro athletes for critique. Because of the success of The Race I had more access to people in that category than Iíd ever enjoyed before. To some degree, thatís when my education began. They showed me just how much Iíd underestimated the challenges. Several of them shared stories of their experiences on the way up, or on the way out. They told me things they wouldnít share with a regular reporter because, even in retirement, ratting on the system could have very negative consequences.


Saul Raisin takes a photo while he and and Dave Shields climb Fort Mountain.  Photo © Saul Raisin

By relating their tales anonymously I believed a revamped version of my novel could make a difference, possibly preparing the brightest young athletes to deal with the inevitable pressures and subsequent ethical decisions from a more informed perspective. After all, could anybody expect a young man whoíd invested everything in his athletic career to abandon his dreams upon confronting the realities of pro sport under extreme pressure? Obviously, some do, and there are others who achieve varying degrees of success while continuing to compete clean, but in their indestructible late teens and early twenties should we be surprised that many athletes accept the risks associated with drugs, secure in the knowledge that even though fans might consider their choice dirty, their colleagues will understand?

Each step down that path makes a return to clean performances increasingly difficult. For decades, each individual move toward the dark side collectively entrenched doping as the norm. Eventually cycling found itself in a quagmire with no apparent exit. It was an even greater paradox because the sport is so pure at the hobbyistís level, and the typical fan is very often a participant. Unfortunately everything changes when an avocation becomes a profession. Everything. That transition is in no way unique to bicycle riding, but for people like me the problems in this sport hit close to home. Cycling, like all pro sports, is a businessÖ a big business. Millions, sometimes billions of dollars can hang in the balance. Youíd better believe that the competitors are under pressure to produce results.

For a long time I held sympathy for athletes caught in this vice-grip of a decision. As much as I abhorred their choice to use illegal drugs, I saw those who did so as victims of a corrupt system. Each time a new cheater was exposed I was both happy and sad. It was nice to see the process becoming more transparent even to the extent that the actions were damaging the sport I loved. But until this year I considered the punishment that the athlete faced (especially the portion inflicted by the media) to be incredibly unfair given that the facilitators (the people who encouraged the drugs use, the people who made the drugs available, the people who reaped the greatest profit from dirty victories) simply moved on to another victim. Floyd Landisís name, for instance, has been dragged through the mud. What are the identities of the men who provided the dope and medical advice heís accused of using? They remain unknown, and nobody really seems to care who they are. Itís not a situation unique to cycling. Roger Clemmensí reputation has been destroyed in the past year. Who are the facilitators? They remain anonymous.

But in the previous paragraph I said, ďuntil this year.Ē The reason I did is that, despite numerous missteps I believe cycling is finally finding its way. Iím very encouraged by the drug controls adopted by teams like Garmin, Columbia, and CSC. The French based teams have also been under this sort of scrutiny for the better part of a decade. To me their resurgence this season is telling, and a strong indication that the peloton is becoming cleaner. The doping checks that cyclists from the above referenced squads are submitting to are far better than the screenings athletes are required to pass by cyclingís governing bodies. The internal team checks Iím referring to are designed to identify unnatural variations in blood parameters, even if the exact cause of the variation is undetectable. There are many, many reasons to be encouraged by this approach and Iíll cheer for any athlete who voluntarily subjects himself to such scrutiny, especially knowing that doing so is inconvenient in the extreme. If you donít believe that statement then take a look at the protocols these men have signed on to.

But thereís an even bigger reason for my delineation between 2008 and previous years and that is the action of French authorities during this yearís tour. First they sounded clear warnings, then they took decisive action. After seeing what happened to Manuel Beltran Iíd think any dirty cyclist would get the hell out of the race as soon as possible. Obviously some didnít, so the decisive action has continued. Eventually everybody is sure to get the memo: Times have changed. Change with them, or find a new profession.

To date several more cyclists, an entire team, and yet another sponsorship have fallen victim. Is that enough? Where will it end? Will cycling survive? No doubt the damage has been great, and unquestionably the interest level among casual sports fans (at least in America) has decreased. Despite all of this pessimistic news the attendance at races (both in America and abroad) is hitting record heights. Not only do the rabid fans remain committed, but others are showing up to watch as well. Thatís obviously a great sign.

Cycling has put itself through purgatory in order to purify. Itís resulted in negative exposure greater than any other sport has endured (though I donít believe for a second that cyclingís transgressions are unique in the pro ranks). The suffering is only worthwhile if it has a purpose, though. Can cycling emerge from this experience better and stronger than before?

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Capitol Reef Classic Bicycle Race in Torrey, Utah. At that fantastic event I got to re-experience the purity of cycling at its finest. I enjoyed watching men and women test themselves against one another, the elements, and their self-imposed limitations, all while experiencing a spectacular environment.

Letís hope that all of this misery that pro cycling has inflicted upon itself ultimately serves the purpose of reconnecting elite level competition with these elements that make our sport such a unique and compelling contest. Certainly the recent developments must be encouraging to that subset of elite cyclists who have unequivocally committed themselves to competing clean. From their perspective it must be gratifying to see the cheaters dragged away. It is from mine, too. Itís about time cyclingís greatest race got a worthy winnerÖ one who will dare speak up for clean sport, one who will lead by example, one with the guts to submit himself to the most reliable testing protocols available. Hopefully we are on the verge of seeing this happen, if not this year then maybe the next. Already this year members of the clean teams have recorded numerous victories and other accomplishments. Wouldnít it be fantastic if our next Tour de France champion could point to his extensive testing regimen to prove his worthiness? For me, thatís the sort of an event that could not only signal the end of this downward slide, but prove that the battle for clean sport has been worth it.

Dave Shields is the author of several books including two cycling novels - The Race & The Tour. Heís also the co-author of Saul Raisinís award winning biography, Tour de Life.
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