Think back to when you first discovered cycling.
When was it? How did you find the sport? How have you, and your view of it, changed since?
Everyone has their own moment which drew them in; for me, the hook dates back to April 1986. I was fourteen, I had little interest in most sports, until my father called me into the living room to look at a contest I’d never imagined – let alone seen – before. Watching Sean Kelly battle it out over treacherous cobblestones and scoop his second Paris-Roubaix title was enthralling, not least because he was Irish and because, back then, Irish people didn’t win very much at all.
That success had an effect, but so too the mud, the grease, the skill and the spills. The sport was alien, the tactics bewildering, but it sparked an interest that no other sport had.
Later that year my father brought me to see the finale of the Nissan Classic in Dublin, where Kelly was neck and neck with Steve Bauer for the overall classification, but still marginally behind on time heading into the final sprint of the race. Thanks to time bonuses, whoever was first past the line would win the race; roared on my father and thousands of others, Kelly rounded the 180 degree on O’Connell Street, kicked hard and held off his Canadian rival to the flag.
The suspense had been awful, nail-nibbling stuff, but the relief was immense. Kelly’s win was hailed by a massive roar from the crowd and the fans were delirious afterwards. For me, the effect was the same. The sport was mysterious, unpredictable, dramatic, and gripping. I was completely hooked.
That addiction grew further the following year when Stephen Roche completed a historic Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and world championship treble. Both riders’ posters were on my bedroom wall, and the thoughts of emulating them gave me fuel on long, rain-lashed training rides and in underage races.
It wasn’t all about the Irish, though. Two years later, the 1989 Tour de France marked another important point. Greg LeMond’s duel with Laurent Fignon in that race saw our family transfixed by the see-saw battle and moved things far past a nationalistic interest. The suspense-filled drama brought home the point that sport was more than just backing your home nation, that there were big exploits and even bigger personalities out there. It reinforced the notion that cycling had an international appeal for fans, that the deeper you dug the more there was to like.
Well, to a point. It’s fair to say that I – and many others – had rose tinted Oakleys at that point, seeing the sport as an utterly glamorous one. That’s why Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride was necessary. Accepted, reading it was akin to a child learning the sobering truth about Santa Claus, but the Dubliner’s unique writing style, the vivid pictures his words painted and, most of all, the grit and tough reality he documented represented another important moment.
The book brought home a simple truth: sport was beautiful, but it also had its scars and its shadows. The passion remained but, for the first time, teenage dreams of becoming a pro waivered. Few had the talent and drive to become professionals, and fewer still made a decent career out of it. And if you did, what choices might you have to make? The conclusion was that perhaps looking from the outside in was enough.
Years later, Kimmage’s words would have another effect. After taking a meandering track studying European languages, business studies and then exercise physiology, a Rough Ride and the work of a handful of other writers wormed their way back into my consciousness. A college project on the psychological effects of sporting injury led me to read, and quote from, a number of those texts; typing out extracts brought back a love of words, and rather than knuckling down to completing a Masters thesis, I spent time learning about journalism and sending a stream of articles to newspapers.
Like every aspiring writer, there were some early rejections, but over time the reactions became more positive. The Tour de France came to Ireland in 1998, starting in Dublin, and in the build-up to that Grand Depart I worked hard on writing a 24 page supplement for a Sunday newspaper. My thesis became more and more overdue, particularly when I, in the words of my Australian supervisor, ‘buggered off to cover the Tour de France for a month’ without telling him of my plans.
That first Tour should have been a great adventure, and was in ways, but it almost caused me to walk away from the sport. Being exploited by the Sunday newspaper I wrote for was difficult, and so too losing a laptop I had borrowed when our car was broken into in Grenoble. However by far the biggest problem was Willy Voet, the contents of his car boot and the hornet’s nest that customs seizure raised.
Covering my first Tour amid the Festina Affair was utterly demoralising, with the buzz utterly quenched by the realisation that the riders I was writing about were mobile medical experiments. “Surely there are some clean riders in the bunch?” I asked an experienced ex-professional, who had retired nearly two decades earlier and who was travelling on the race.
“It’s what they all have to do,” he replied, or words to that effect.
The response compounded the daily revelations on that race, making things even more gloomy.
I returned home after three weeks and considered selling my bikes; however, after a couple of months I started riding again with my local club, and the interest gradually returned.
Still, a scar remained. Seeing the Festina Affair close up was harrowing, and a succession of other scandals in the years since reminded that the official story that the problem stopped in July 1998 wasn’t true. There was the Giro raids of 2001; Operacion Puerto of 2006; Floyd Landis’ positive the same year, and Michael Rasmussen’s issues twelve months later.
Then there were the CERA revelations in 2008 and, in the past three years, the Armstrong/US Postal Service scandal.
More recently, though, there have been encouraging signs and statements. The biological passport has helped, even if it isn’t the cure-all solution that it was first billed as. The UCI is working more closely with WADA and other such bodies, and there seems to be a commitment there to clean the sport. There are also more riders willing to speak out, including guys like Taylor Phinney who have taken public stands calling for grey area medications like Tramadol and other painkillers to be banned.
Nearly three decades on from that Paris-Roubaix, the sport still intrigues. There’s a different generation of riders in action now and the professionals of the eighties and nineties, the guys who raced in the era of the asterisk, have long retired. Others from the early 2000s are also leaving the sport each year.
Things look better and there is reason to be optimistic. Still, what happened before has reinforced the need to be vigilant, to celebrate the sport but also to ask questions too. To report the victories, to profile the competitors, to detail the technology and the drama, but also to write about doping and politics and power struggles when necessary.
It’s all important, all part of the bigger picture. We’ll cover all the angles here on Cycling Tips, and hope there is far more to celebrate than question in the years ahead.