Friday, February 25, 2011

Things we owe Fignon and Talansky

I recently read Laurent Fignon's We Were Young and Carefree. Floyd and Joe Papp allow us to look backward on a peleton with institutionalized blood doping programs; Fignon shows us what cycling was like before EPO. To those who say, "doping has always been in the peleton," Fignon provides an answer: yes, doping has been around, but until EPO, drugs were not that powerful.

There's a strong case to be made that blood boosting changed the nature of cycling in a way that other kinds of doping did not. Fignon himself was caught using amphetimines, and cortizone use was common. Drugs of that sort have always been around. Blood boosting, when it became prevalent in the early 1990s, upset the balance of natural talent. It made domestiques into champions (see Bjarne Riis) and it turned champions like Fignon into domestiques.

But Fignon is a poet, a ponytailed mystic; he can't just say, "my career ended because everyone else was on EPO and I was toast." Cycling became obsessed with money and with the science of things rather than the artistry; Fignon laments the loss of beauty and aesthetic.

It's hard to blame Fignon for blaming Greg LeMond for what he sees as cycling's decline. Fignon lost the 1989 Tour by 8 seconds to LeMond; he despises LeMond's thick sunglasses, his aero helmet, his focus on a single race--all of which have since become commonplace. Fignon's cycling life split into two periods, the period before the 1989 duel, in which Fignon won two Tours and a host of other races, and the period after the Tour, in which Fignon won the Giro, but gradually found himself no longer dominant.

LeMond won another Tour, but like Fignon, his career tapered off rapidly. Within four years of their historic battle in the 1989 Tour, both had retired from cycling. Fignon had tried attacking in a middle of the 1993 Tour. To his surprise, a group of "20 to 30 cyclists" bridged to his attack, all looking as if they were hardly breathing. These were riders like Bjarne Riis, riders Fignon had easily beaten in previous years. At the time, Fignon had simply despaired. He literally dismounted, right there in the middle of the Tour, and quit.

Although Fignon had heard of EPO, he had assumed it was no different than other drugs--none of which, in Fignon's opinion, could transform a typical rider into "a champion." For Fignon, a champion is another type of being, an almost mythic figure--Hinault, winning with supernatural willpower.

At the time, LeMond likewise blamed his poor results in 1992 and later on his own fitness problems--overtraining and mitochondrial myopathy. Only later did he become an outspoken critic of doping in the peleton.

We've had almost twenty years now of EPO in the peleton. We've allowed the riders from the EPO era to continue racing, even after they're busted. Riders and director sportiffs from teams of institutionalized doping programs continue to dominate. Maybe we shouldn't throw out the results of the era; we can put asterisks next to their names. It's all in question. It's all dubious.

How do the new riders coming into the peleton feel about entering a sport for which a necessary skill is a mastery of the science of blood boosting?

One such fresh-faced rider is Garmin signee, formerly of Cal-Giant, Andrew Talansky. In a blog post from several weeks ago, Talansky urges us to "BELIEVE! If you are capable, believe in me, believe in my team, believe in my competitors, believe in this sport." Just last week, in his first pro race in Europe, Talansky finished fourth in a stage of the Tour of the Mediteranean.

While I want to believe in Talansky, I think he's facing a corrupt organization. Floyd and his fugazi law firm, Grey Manrod Associates have argued that case fairly effectively. Every time I see tainted riders (Contador, Basso, Millar, Valvarde, De Luca, Riis, Bruyneel, Levi, Vinokourov, (and so on)) dominating races, I wish the UCI would have had the balls to institute lifetime bans. We owe it to kids like Talansky and Dombrowski--not only to give the next generation a clean peleton, but to make the consequences of doping totally clear. Because Fignon, may he rest in peace, was right--we need a sport in which authentic champions are possible.