June 5th, 2011, the AidsLifeCycle ride took place once again. Since doing the ‘Ride’ last year with my brave son Adam, I’ve found new appreciation for professional cyclists.
The Tour de France is the Olympics of cycling although there are other such feats. The Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia are just two of the many mind-boggling, super-strenuous, physically excruciatingly demanding cycling competitions. Like most extreme sports, cycling hasn’t been spared its problems.
Just this year, Floyd Landis, a former fellow cyclist from Lance Armstrong’s team Radio Shack admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs. Because of this admission, he was stripped of his title for winning the Tour de France in 2006. He seemed sincere in his interview on 60 Minutes, when he said all cyclists who want to rank among the best take these drugs. He went on to say that if you’re part of the Peloton (the group of cyclists from the various teams that ride together), or just one of the regular cyclists, you don’t have access to these drugs. But if you stand out for your talent and lead the pack, then the drugs, the way to take them and avoid detection, can be your ticket to a Maillot Jaune.
I’m a big fan of Lance Armstrong. I feel a kindred spirit with him. He battled prostate and brain cancer to come back and win not once or twice, but seven times the Maillot Jaune (Yellow Jersey) of the Tour De France, the coveted overall winning jersey that comes with prize money in the amount of 450,000 Euro or $700,000 and tons of glory. We all love someone who rises above the worst imaginable scenario, only to soars to the highest of all heights by winning over and over again the most prestigious ride among all rides.
I wasn’t surprised when Landis accused Armstrong of doping. While this hasn’t been proven, I tend to believe Floyd’s got a point. I have no doubt that all of the top riders including the stage winners who adorn the green or polka dot jerseys are doing so as well.
Illness sets you back tremendously. It took me three years to fully recover from liver transplant #2. But illness is also a powerful motivator. For someone like Lance, a competitive and ambitious cyclist who had just cheated death, the choice was clear. Do whatever it takes to prove to himself and the world that no deadly disease can get the best of him.
Personally, I’m convinced that the Tour de France can’t be undertaken without performance-enhancing drugs. Not at the speeds they go, not at that level of competitiveness and athleticism. I believe that all involved in the sport know this. The occasional victimization of a champion such as Floyd Landis serves no other purpose than to send the message that the cycling authorities are doing their best to keep the sport clean. Floyd became the sacrificial lamb for the sake of the public.
It reminds me of the war on drugs. Every now and then, a big fish gets caught, and the public at large is relieved to know that something is being done about drug trafficking. Never mind the fact that this multi billion dollar industry is alive and well, and will continue to thrive as long as people take drugs.
In cycling it’s pretty much the same. The committee, cycling official, managers and cyclists know that drugs are an integral part of their sport. Doping is alive and well among riders and will remain so as long as it’s a multi million dollar televised event, with tons of sponsors and scores of tourists.
I enjoy watching the Tour de France. I love that it’s a grueling feat. My muscles tense every time the cyclists tackle a ridiculously long and steep hill labeled ‘hors categorie’ or ‘out of category’. These hills, harder than the hardest category 4 hills, demand more than just performance-enhancing drugs. In fact, I say let all cyclists take the drugs and thus even out the playing field. I firmly believe that regardless how many drugs one might take, they won’t make you win. The race to the finish line, the title of best accomplishment will go to the cyclist who wins the mental challenge. More than any drugs, it’s determination, willpower, inner drive and a ‘mind over matter’ matter.
In my opinion, Floyd Landis deserved to keep the Maillot Jaune. He deserved to be rewarded for his mental tenacity, which is the real stuff that allowed him to win in 2006.The fact that the cyclists are doping didn’t and won’t stop me from watching the Tour.
Among all of today’s extreme sports, cycling requires the most endurance. I have respect for any athlete that crosses 2,263 miles (3,643km), up hills and over cobble stones through three countries (Netherlands, Belgium, France) in 23 days, drugged or not.
Having said all of the above, none of this applies to any other sport.
As for the AidsLifeCycle ride, there were times when I wished I had some performance-enhancing drugs; especially when tackling the hills called Evil Twins and Quad-busters. They might not have been ‘out of category’ hills for anyone else, but they certainly were for me.