The Innocence of Bikes

Each semester I ask students in my introductory course to identify their single most significant material thing, securing a few points on the final exam simply by rationalizing why they are attached to a particular wallet, shot glass, or childhood toy.  The exercise is merely meant to challenge somebody to ask reflectively what they consider to be an important thing, which is not easy to articulate.  Predictably, three-quarters of the students who answer that question mechanically point to their phones, cars, and ipads.  Another handful point to things that have some deep if individual meaning, like a keepsake from a grandparent, objects that are invested with some personal memories that are essentially activated by the object.

Few activities can be as seemingly innocent as a bike ride (image courtesy Annieta-Photography).

A precious few objects are strangely innocent things; that is, they are material things that essentially disappear in their description.  These are the things that students rarely describe as functional or stylistic things, instead detailing the unfiltered pleasure they derive from or their experiences with the object.  Bikes are such an object that appear regularly in students’ examples and one that I am especially sympathetic to and understand as a rider.  A bike is embraced for the experience of the ride and not necessarily for the bike itself.  When cyclists identify their bike as their favorite thing their narrative is virtually always about the freedom of riding, the physical sensation of cycling, childhood memories of biking, or the social relationships forged through riding.

There is something wonderfully idealistic and meaningful about this, but like all sport cycling remains a massive consumer industry profoundly shaped by profit.  The vision of cycling as innocent recreation untouched by competitive sport is perhaps naïve, and in some hands it is hypocritical ideology.  For virtually all cyclists—regardless of whether they see themselves as commuting, riding gran sportifs, circling the neighborhood, racing local triathlons, or aspiring to finish a century–a bike is somewhat romantically constructed as a simple machine that is experienced outside anything remotely approximating the sorts of competition in the pro peloton.

This innocence of bikes and professional cycling has been dealt a challenge from last week’s lifetime ban against Lance Armstrong.   No single cyclist on the face of the planet is as responsible for the growth of the sport from the local cul-de-sac to the professional peloton as Lance Armstrong, whose success in the doping era fueled the growth of a host of firms like Nike, Trek, and Radio Shack as they and the governing Union Cycliste International (UCI) awkwardly looked the other way and ignored more than a half- century of performance-enhancing drugs.  A legion of suburbanites captivated by Armstrong’s success and his return from cancer bought bikes, cleaned the ones they had hanging in the garage, purchased a universe of cycling accessories, and hit the roads and trails.  For many of those riders in particular, Armstrong’s guilt is a genuine shock that casts him as a fraud and robs the innocence from their bike rides or the pleasure they take watching professional cyclists.  For many fans and riders who knew or suspected Armstrong was part of a peloton using performance enhancing drugs, the news is at best disappointing.  For all these riders and observers, though, much of the idealistic notion of sport as unmitigated “clean” competition is dealt a serious blow by the acknowledgement of the malleable morality of even sport in the face of consumer society.

Lance Armstrong in US Postal Service team kit at the Tour de France (image courtesy eugene).

We could argue that doping is simply the “culture” of professional cycling, but this is an awkward evasion of cycling’s status as a massive commercial industry that until very recently obliquely if not explicitly condoned performance-enhancing drugs.  Cycling is a commercial industry that took a distinctive trajectory from the 1980’s onward, and much of this trajectory—for better and worse—was profoundly influenced by Lance Armstrong.  Armstrong came to cycling at a moment when doping had reached newly systematic levels subsequently mastered by Armstrong and his teams, borrowing from a long-term acceptance of doping in the peloton and within the sport.

Armstrong’s ignoble fall in the past week reveals much about how we see competition and sport.  Many firms have stood by quite sketchy characters in the wake of scandals, but Armstrong’s greatest offense may be that his dishonesty came in sport itself.  While other athletes have been retained as marketing symbols in the wake of sexual assaults, shootings, and even dog fighting, Lance Armstrong violated the sacred rules of fair play that govern sport, undermining other competitors’ equity in competition, and eroding cycling itself.

Much of the appeal of sport is a romanticized attraction to sport’s teamwork and the notion of competition as being itself “innocent,” fair, and equitable in a way everyday life is not.  Sut Jhally and Bill Levant have argued that we are attracted to sport because it offers an unmediated and direct competition in which we have shared and clear rules, we share the experience with competitors, and the resolution of the contest in sports are absolutely clear.   In contrast, our everyday life involves competition with ambiguous and shifting rules that is much more unpleasant than sport, and we find pleasant escape in weekend bike rides, gentle jogs, or softball games, just as we relish the competitive clarity of professional sports involving athletes clearly blessed with much more skill than we have.  Jhally and Levant suggest that much of our attraction to sport is an oblique critique of the sort of unpleasant competition we experience in our everyday lives.

This notion of “fair play” is a difficult fit to nearly any sport, including cycling.  Since the earliest multi-day stage races, riders fatigued by extreme physical challenges over successive days were compelled to find mechanisms to energize themselves, which came at various moments from cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, peppermint, strychnine, nitroglycerine, and cocaine.  The development of amphetamines in World War II found a ready audience in the peloton following the war, and anabolic steroids that mimic the effects of testosterone were being used by athletes almost immediately after World War II.  In 1951, for instance, the Danish rowing team was accused of having won the previous year’s European championship while on performance-enhancing drugs, and in 1952 a series of speed skaters at the Olympics got sick because of excessive amphetamine use.  In 1955 Jean Malléjac collapsed on the climb up the fabled Mont Ventoux, strongly suspected of over-consuming amphetamines.  A year later, the whole Belgian team withdrew after the 14th stage citing food poisoning, but most observers believed it was the result of doping complications.  In 1960, Roger Rivière took a near-fatal fall into a ravine because he had taken a large dose of the painkiller Palfium, living the remainder of his life in a wheelchair.

John D. Fair’s analysis of steroid consumption in the 1960s suggests that steroids were first taken by world-caliber American competitors in 1958, when American weightlifters were taking Dianabol.  The weightlifters’ doping was driven by their ambition to keep up with Soviet competitors who had dominated the 1952 Olympics taking testosterone.  Fair underscores that weightlifters and many coaches self-delusionally attributed their new successes to fresh training techniques rather than steroids, establishing a rationalization that has been repeated many times by users.  Physicians like John Ziegler (who worked with the US weightlifting team) guided much of this process from the outset, treating athletes much like lab rats even as they lent such performance enhancing drugs scientific credibility:  in a 1969 study, for instance, John Patrick O’Shea confirmed significant benefits from steroid consumption, one in a series of medical researchers who developed steroid consumption as part of broad training plans for elite athletes.

Like many professional cyclistsRobert Millar feels that throughout his career from 1980 to 1995 cycling was a contest of doctors engaged in chemical warfare as the whole peloton doped with more or less effectiveness.  Millar’s comments in the wake of Armstrong’s suspension eerily echoed the 1972 Science article that noted “victory in the Olympics has become a question of which country has the best doctors and chemists,” and it is clear that much of the doping that occurred in cycling was commonplace in a variety of endurance and strength sports.  With an honesty that may now seem shocking, Science openly acknowledged in June, 1972 that “among U.S. Olympic competitors, particularly the weight lifters, consumption of anabolic steroids is probably reaching a peak this month—in a few weeks, athletes will have to lay off the drug in order to be sure of flushing all traces out of their system before the Olympic games in August.”

Armstrong in the yellow jersey leading Joseba Beloki in 2002 (image courtesy eugene)

Riders were long unrepentant and complained that it was impossible to finish grand tours without performance enhancing drugs.  Jacques Anquetil, the Tour de France winner in 1957 and 1961-1964, openly acknowledged using amphetamines in those races and refused to submit to a urine test after his 1966 victory in the single-day Liege-Baston-Liege race.  This position held by much of the peloton might seem untenable from the distance.  In 1960, for instance, Danish rider Knud Enemark Jensen died during the 100 KM Olympic time trial, although there is no conclusive evidence that Jensen’s death was a direct result of doping. The French introduced anti-doping codes in 1965 and conducted testing in 1966 at the Tour de France, but in 1967 rider Tom Simpson died on the Mont Ventoux climb where Jean Malléjac had collapsed in 1955.  The legendary Eddy Merckx was thrown out of the Giro d’Italia in 1969 for a positive test.  Nevertheless, a Science article captured the utter hypocrisy of governing bodies in 1972 when it concluded that “the gentlemen who set the rules seem happier denouncing steroids than trying to understand the trials and temptations of that push today’s athletes into drugs.”

Lance Armstrong entered cycling not long after synthetic EPO was introduced to the peloton in 1990 (Armstrong turned professional in 1992).  A decade earlier, Francesco Conconi began to work with Italian Olympic endurance athletes using blood doping techniques, and by 1993 he reported to the International Olympic Committee on experiments with EPO he had conducted with 23 amateurs (later revealed to be pro riders including Stephen Roche and Claudio Chiappucci).  Hemoglobin transports oxygen to the muscles, so augmenting the blood’s hemoglobin (often referred to as hematocrit) with recombinant human erythropoietin (first synthesized in 1977) theoretically can increase the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity, oxygen intake (that is, VO2max).  Conconi’s colleague Michele Ferrari worked with Lance Armstrong and was linked to the US Postal Team, as well as a host of other pro riders.  Ferrari published peer-reviewed research on endurance runners as well as cyclists and was part of a movement of scientifically preparing athletes through training, nutrition, and lifestyle changes that was widely embraced by elite athletes and weekend warriors alike, and Ferrari viewed steroids as simply another tool in that training arsenal.

The sport’s links to performance-enhancing drugs—and the ways doping risked undoing the commercial fiction of cycling as equitable competition–were underscored through the 1990s.  In July, 1998 a car from the Festina team was found to contain a vast range of performance-enhancing drugs including EPO on the eve of the Tour de France, and within two weeks the team was expelled from the Tour (won by acknowledged doper Marco Pantani).  In 2004 doping on the Cofidis team caught the time trial world champion David Millar, and in 2006 several high-profile riders including former champion Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were expelled from the Tour in an investigation referred to as Operation Puerto.  During Puerto, physician Eufemiano Fuentes was found with 100 blood bags and coded documents from professional cyclists reputed to include Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Tyler Hamilton, and Jan Ullrich, all of whom were subsequently penalized for doping violations.

In 2011 Lance had secured the most lofty of all honors: being a wax figure in Madame Tussaud’s in Hollywood (images courtesy Loren Javier).

In the midst of all this, Lance Armstrong and his teams dominated the peloton, and their techniques for securing those wins illuminate that it is infeasible to accommodate ambiguous athletic ethics with the ideological clarity of fair competition used to market sport.  On the one hand, Armstrong’s fanatic devotion to scientific training and his confident arrogance won him many fans (even as it alienated many others).  Armstrong captivated an American audience watching the Tour de France on television, potentially reaching the lucrative American recreational market long left untouched (Greg LeMond was the first non-European Tour winner in 1986).  Armstrong’s marketing was eased by exceptionally sympathetic American coverage, and Armstrong was a dynamic commercial face for a host of firms.  On the other hand, Armstrong hypocritically made much of his appeal his defiant resistance to doping.  Nike and Armstrong defiantly asked “What am I on? I’m on my bike.”  In the service of Livestrong Armstrong told a noble lie, but it was nonetheless a distortion only important because people in terrible moments placed their trust in Armstrong and his message.  The protestations of the likes of Nike, Trek, and cycling’s governing bodies are hypocritical, but we expect such dishonesty in commercial space and are less willing to tolerate it in the context of a sporting contest.

Armstrong resolutely and without challenge ruled over a team much as team leaders like Merckx, Anquetiel, and Bernard Hinault had before him.  The focus on this powerful individual personality suited advertisers and many casual cycling observers very well, but the sport is increasingly a team effort.  The teams led by Armstrong clearly were dominated by his agenda and resolution to win, attributes that are good for elite athletes, but in the complicated moral muddle to which cycling had been reduced, Armstrong was among the many cyclists who gave in to the lure of victory and the paranoid concern that non-dopers stood no competitive chance.  For those competitors who obeyed their moral vision of equitable competition like Bradley McGee, Armstrong’s story simply underscores the opportunities that were thieved from them.  Like any elite athlete Armstrong arrogantly believed he was the best athlete in the peloton, and he certainly was on most days, but there is always doubt in the mind of any athlete or weekend warrior, and training, nutrition, the best bikes and gear, and, yes, doping attempted to manage the uncertainties.

For the purposes of moral crusaders who hope to make cycling appear clean and rebuilt, Armstrong becomes simply a single person on which we can pin the blame and ignore the vast administrative apparatuses, commercial mechanisms, phalanxes of physicians, and long heritage of expecting superhuman performances from cyclists.  When the UCI’s Pat McQuaid intoned that “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling, and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling,” McQuaid hypocritically ignored his own organization’s failure to be better stewards for the sport or to acknowledge that Armstrong’s phenomenal success had been exceptionally beneficial for the UCI.  Pinning this whole heritage on Armstrong alone or painting his story as unique is at best wrong and at worst an inelegant lie hoping to distract attention away from UCI.

The power of Armstrong’s cancer survival and his Tour victories would have made him a good mouthpiece for any cause, but given his driven personality it made him an exceptionally strong and effective leader for Livestrong.  Few material objects are more universally visible than Livestrong wristbands (including many tattoos), but now they and bikes are trapped in the revealing picture Armstrong’s story tells about cycling.  Livestrong was so firmly linked to Armstrong’s personality and story that its unraveling risks undermining all of the good foundations built by many supporters.  The loss of Armstrong as a voice for cancer research may be more disappointing than any other dimension of this narrative.

How many of us might have contemplated doping to secure the chance to simply ride our bike all day?  This is of course a contrived question, but many riders cling tenaciously to the fringes of professional cycling because, like many of us, they love to ride and enjoy the feeling of being with friends and competitors on a bike pushing themselves and each other.  Bikes have never been truly innocent, trapped in a world of commodity ideologies like any other thing.  Yet bikes’ meanings are never determined by such discourses any more than any marketing discourses dictate how we see and view things.  But it will be difficult to see bikes simply as innocent things.

Benjamin D. Brewer

2002 Commercialization in Professional Cycling, 1950-2001: Institutional Transformations and the Rationalization of “Doping.”  Sociology of Sport Journal 19:276-301.

Kevin R. Filo, Daniel C. Funk, and Danny O’Brien

2008 It’s Really Not About The Bike: Exploring Attraction And Attachment To The Events Of The Lance Armstrong FoundationJournal Of Sport Management 22(5): 501-525. (subscription access)

Thomas M. Hunt

2011 Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960–2008.  University of Texas Press, Austin.

L. C. Johnson and J. P. O’Shea

1969 Anabolic Steroid: Effects on Strength Development. Science 164(3882, May 23):957-959.

Hein F M Lodewijkx and Bram Brouwer

2011 Some Empirical Notes on the EPO Epidemic in Professional Cycling. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 82(4): 740-54.

Ramon Minovi

2006 Drugs and the Tour de France.  Association of British Cycling Coaches.

Marcel Reinold

2012 Arguing Against Doping: A Discourse Analytical Study on Olympic Anti-Doping Between the Late 1960s and the Late 1980s.  Unpublished paper, University of Munster Institute of Sport Science.

Nicholas Wade

1972 Anabolic Steroids: Doctors Denounce Them, but Athletes Aren’t ListeningScience 176(4042, Jun. 30): 1399-1403. (Subscription access)

Armstrong leading Beloki image and Armstrong USPS 2004 image courtesy eugene (Eugene Wei)

Family riding image courtesy Annieta-Photography

Lance in Madame Tussauds image courtesy Loren Javier

Posted on October 26, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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