Friday, August 28, 2015

Domestique: Charly Wegelius' True History of the EPO Era

In pro cycling, the span from 1995 to 2007 is an era without winners, even if all of them have not yet been expunged from the record book. Lance has argued that this is unfair to history; without the names of winners, he suggests, there is no story.

The best rebuttal to this is to understand what cycling is really about; that is, it's not about winning. It's mostly about losing. That's the true story of cycling, and it's especially fitting that the EPO era should lack anyone coming out on top, because no one did, in the end, really win.

Thankfully, this isn't an aberration. Losing has long been the story of our sport; it was only the brightly lit, garish cancer surviving era that somehow changed this.

The story of suffering--that is what sold newsprint back when the Tour was first created. It was Paul Kimmage's story (Rough Ride) and Joe Parkin's (Dog in a Hat). This story, that of failure and sacrifice--more than the names of winners--of a rider merely being paid to race and failing to win, this story should be what we recall and what we tell our descendants.

Unending suffering and mostly losing is, after all, what distinguishes bike racing from any other sport--from investing thousands of hours in training and incomparable self-imposed misery, the payoff of only penury, broken bones and an inability to understand a life not wreathed in daily pain.

Wegelius' tale is near-Calvinist in its acceptance of total depravity: the path of the professional (at least, in Wegelius' experience) is "no fairy tale." Bike racers are mercenaries, the sport is brutal, and choices are bleak. He doesn't make any moral claims, like those of Brian Smith,  He doesn't hold himself up as a role model. He admits to making questionable moral choices (selling his services to the Italians while riding for the British squad in the World Championship Road Race is the most glaring example), and it's not definitive that he raced cleanly, since no one is definitively clean from that era.

Wegelius' story should be the doping era's true history, for the reason that it returns the narrative of the sport to its roots--not only to Kimmage and Parkin, but to La Madonna di Ghisallo and Henri Desgrange, the journalist who thought the Tour performed on anything less than a fixed gear was not the Tour; hell, he thought everyone under 45 should exclusively ride fixed-gear bicycles.

The true story of cycling has always been one of suffering, not to win, but for almost no explicable reason. That, for more than seven Tour de France wins, should be what people see when they look back at the story of what happened in bike racing way back when.

Bike races, like books, are more than their finales. And sometimes the finale doesn't really happen until decades have passed and confessions are made. It may yet turn out that Carlos Sastre, David Moncouti√©, or maybe even Fillipo Simeoni  turns out to be the greatest cyclist of that era.

Or maybe, in the end, it was Charly Wegelius.

But probably not.

We fail at grasping victory, but we sometimes catch a glimpse of why we didn't win. Wegelius' understanding of failure ties his tale to those of the Greek tragedians and all the great, true metanarratives. The tragedies are merciless to heroes: they kill Hamlet, put out Oedipus' eyes, drive Leer mad, and lead Anna Karenina to throw herself in front of a train. Greatness, they tell is, precedes great misery.

And this turns out to be the most resonant and lasting story we can take from that era of bike racing--we can hear Oedipus of our fall(ing) heroes, "Count no man happy [or a Tour champion] till that day he goes down in the grave."

The story we thought was truest in cycling--becoming virtuous through athletic endeavor--turns out to be the opposite: a story of corruption through obsessive focus on athletic endeavor. As Wegelius observes, being good at cycling is closely tied with being bad as a person: "The paradox of cycling is that if you are riding well then you are kept from your failings as a human being."

Wegelius' book is full of such bubble bursting statements. He recognizes, as most of us do, how being fast on a bike requires a certain misery: "The happier I was at home," he laments, "the slower I would ride." Like many of us, Wegelius regrets some of the misery his obsession inflicts on his personal life and well-being.

The tale could come off like a lead balloon.  And that is the dilemma he faces not only as a bike racer, but also as a writer trying to weave a tale--how can you write about sports greatness without being great? Everyone wants to vicariously win. We want to believe that the world is a place where dedication brings rewards.

We don't want to hear that our idols are assholes, as Wegelius finally admits:
I looked around at my fellow teammates, the riders that made up the peloton. There was no sign of the good, clean, 'noble' desire to achieve sporting excellence that people seemed to imagine was the driving force behind athletes. These finely tuned sportsmen were more often than not fucked up. They were lost sons looking for their fathers, or desperately seeking acceptance from themselves or elsewhere. It is quite normal to love cycling, and to love racing bikes as a pastime, but to do it for a living was something else. There is nothing normal about a professional cyclist.
And yet, even as Wegelius notices the pathology of his sport, he continues racing and, even today, he continues his involvement in it.

I came to Wegelius' book through a Rouleur piece on one of Wegelius' riders, Joe Dombrowski, who had this to say about his DS's book:
The American admits to recognising a bleak period in his own life when reading about the breakdown of his directeur sportif Charlie Wegelius in Wegelius' autobiography, Domestique...
He now enjoys living in Nice, and a routine of core exercises, training rides, afternoon naps and evening barbecues keeps him focussed and happy. It wasn’t always thus. When Dombrowski read Charlie Wegelius’ (above) acclaimed book Domestique, he recognised a period in the career of the man who is now his directeur sportif at Cannondale-Garmin, when the attainment of the goal he had worked so hard to achieve – the life of a professional cyclist – suddenly left him empty.
“At one point he [Wegelius] talks about being in Italy and going on this drinking binge and he completely cracks and goes off the rails. And he’s just at his point where, ‘What am I doing here? I wanted to do this, this was my dream, and now I have zero interest in doing this,’ and there are just certain points in the book where I felt, ‘I know exactly what you are talking about.’”
Dombrowski highlights the parallel between Sky and Wegelius’ former employer, Mapei: the big budget team with a grand plan to do things differently.
“I remember my first year at Sky coming and living in Europe. I was living by myself, I got to April in the first season and I finally just broke down. I was in my apartment all alone. My friend Ian Boswell came to the team with me, and he had been out of town, so every day I was going out and training by myself,” Dombrowski recalls.
“I remember at one point, I Skyped my mum and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve spoken to anyone in five days.' All the guys were out of town, and I thought, ‘I haven’t talked to anyone for a week.’ I just remember how hard that was.”
Wegelius is, at the moment, driving one of the cars behind Joe Dombrowski, Ben King, and Alex Howes at the Vuelta. 

Maybe he feels a kind of gratitude that he never achieved greatness on the bike. He had the sense, as he married and grew older, to stop being a dick just to go fast on a bike. Yet the book ends with a deeply felt memory, one in which the his tale drives home the theme, the timeless story of those who strive.

The solace, hopefully, is that there is seemingly a happy ending for Wegelius, the man who found cycling so miserable finds himself once again in the system. Wegelius works in the sport he loves, and does it with (hopefully) a clean conscience. More than that, he can take some cheer in having avoided the kind of hubris that befell Lance and those of his era. And, that he can tell his whole tale, from root to leaf, of failure, and know that his story is more ours than Lance's ever was.

But he may wish to keep the words of Oedipus at the ready, knowing happiness, like a victory in a bike race, is no sure thing.

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