Saturday, May 26, 2007

Diamonds and Stones

"A diamond is a diamond and a stone is a stone, but man is part good and part bad.
I recognize the fact that I'm part good and part bad."

That was Johnny Cash on 60 Minutes many years ago, in the first line paraphrasing a Roy Orbison tune, in the second line owning up to his manifestation of it. Johnny Cash's whole life is a profound lesson in acceptance and forgiveness, and his crystallization of it there has had a lasting effect on me. And so we continue the discussion alluded to in the previous post - the flood of admissions this week by members of Team Telekom in the '90s. (See Cyclingnews for extensive coverage.) I suppose Riis is the bigger fish, but it was Rolf Aldag and Erik Zabel that had the biggest impact on me. (Side note to Basso: g'head, you can have a confession do-over, but make it quick. We have the retired and the soon-to-retire, you can lead the charge for the young and active.)

The irony of it is, all during the Ten Days de Floyd Landis, I kept meaning to take a break and watch Hell on Wheels, as relief, as a reminder of what I love about cycling. And I tell you what - I watched it Thursday night, after Erik and Rolf's confession, and it still did just that. It was more poignant, watching Zabel wistfully lament about being a step too slow, watching Aldag gently sift through his newly-acquired polka-dot jerseys and softly talk about paying for each dot with a year of his life. But it was also a solid reminder of how much the drugs don't change - these are still highly-trained and highly-talented amazing athletes who go through indescribable pain and suffering over the course of a Grand Tour, let alone a career. Hell on Wheels should be required viewing for any member of the ignorant general public who wants to make snide comments about cyclists.

I don't know how one could watch Hell on Wheels without falling in love with cycling and the Tour. And without falling in love with Aldag and Zabel. Roommates for a dozen or so years, their mutual love, admiration, and gratitude comes shining through in the film as a moving testament to the team aspect of cycling. Zabel pulled out of Catalunya to join Aldag at his press conference on Thursday. I have to think Zabel, whose EPO use was much more limited, simply didn't want to let Aldag go it alone. One of the more moving passages in Hell on Wheels is Zabel talking about how much Aldag sacrificed for him, and how humbled Zabel was by it. Zabel is the bigger name, and still an active rider, so it was a shock to see that he was there on Thursday too, but also fitting, and comforting to see them side by side again, supporting each other through a rough day.

I think the horrible irony of all this is the question of how much the drugs really change the overall results. Does it just re-level the playing field and the best still win? Joe Papp took everything under the sun and didn't reach the top tier. Basso and Ullrich still didn't beat Lance. If you think Lance doped, do you really think he had a secret stash of some new Wonder Drug that no one else had? For seven years? We have yet to know the full story of the 2006 Giro, but 2nd-place Gutierrez is a Puerto guy, too, and Basso still beat him by nine minutes. All of these top cyclists showed their talent and promise as teenagers, before - if you want to be the most cynical about it - they could afford drugs. And they all trained hard, and suffered hard, and battled with every fiber of their being. Of course the clean riders in the peloton have more than a legitimate gripe about who suffered more, and so be it, but nobody skates by to win a Grand Tour. In terms of what it takes to be a top racer, and what goes into winning a Tour, drugs are just a wave, they're not the water.

The point is not to say all is forgiven, but to acknowledge that these are not "dopers," some evil other, they are human beings, part good and part bad. Many of them with some very redeeming qualities and much still to give to the sport of cycling. I was encouraged to hear that so far, Aldag at T-Mobile (with the full support of his riders) and Christian Henn at Gerolsteiner are keeping their jobs, and that both companies as well as Milram plan on honoring their sponsorship agreements. Zabel's future with Milram is uncertain, but T-Mobile has said they will welcome him back if need be. The general cycling knowledge and experience of these riders is valuable, but so too can they be valuable in the fight against doping. Apologies for the comparison, but it's like ex-cons helping kids on the street avoid the bad choices they made. You need someone who's been there, who knows what that choice looks like, and what the personal consequences are of making the wrong ones.

One of those insights into suffering in Hell on Wheels comes when Zabel and his endearing mother-hen of a soigneur Eule describe the process of taking a brush to road rash. The rider scrapes the wound raw to let it bleed. They can use ointment as an alternative, but it takes longer and isn't quite as effective. The scraping is insanely painful, but lets all the bad stuff come out and the healing begins. Well, you see where I'm going with this - what's happening in cycling right now is painful for the riders, the teams, and the fans. But it seems that some bad stuff is finally starting to get out, and only then can we even think about starting to heal and save the sport we all love so dearly.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Julie, my first comment was made before reading either of these entries. Gotta tell you, your writing and your thoughts... mind-blowingly good. Great metaphors and analogies throughout, and your genuine deep love of the sport is so obvious. I've never seen Hell on Wheels... looks like I need to watch it.


Amy B said...

Great post(s) Julie, and I LOVE Jimmie Dale Gilmore :)

Theresa said...

Julie, I loved "Hell on Wheels". I own it! And you are right, you can't watch it without feeling intense about cycling, T-Mobile, and especially, those two cyclists!! I want to watch it again tonight! I remember Zabel talking about Pettachi(sp?), I think. When he's constantly 2nd to him. And he tells Ole, that he'd feel different if it was different guys, but since it's the same one beating him over and over, it's easier to take. Yes, that movie is awesome. And talk about real feeling about the Tour. It's in some many languages, that you get a true sense of the peleton and the cycling world. Thank god it 's subtitled!! I'm reading your other post, then I'm watching Hell again TONIGHT! Thank you for a great post!

Julie said...

Thanks Camille! And thanks for defending my womanhood at TBV! Yes, you must see Hell on Wheels, if not own it. I had barely finished watching my rental copy last year when I ordered one for myself. It stands up to repeated viewings, so you can alternate between reading subtitles and just taking in the amazing footage.

Amy - Jimmie Dale rocks! I used to go see him often when I lived in Austin, even got front row center once!

Theresa - You're welcome! Don't you love the little French guy with all the historical facts? He's so adorable! And so passionate about the Tour, it's great.

Anonymous said...

damn girl, who knew you could write so well. Camille says it all. Really great work, very eloquent. catherine (from IA)

Anonymous said...

Wow Julie! Good stuff!
I'm glad you let us know over at IA when you have new postings -- I'd hate to miss them. I've tried to rent Hell on Wheels, but to no avail around here. Guess I'm going to have to try ebay, because I've never seen it either.

Loved your last analogy about the state of the sport! Excellent writing!!


Anonymous said...

Awesome commentary- your certainly the glass is half full person (as am I), and want to believe that in spite of what is being seen as "everyone is doing it, so I have to just to stay in stay in the game", I still believe in Floyd and Lance. And it just seems that the whole world is watching cycling as the druggies come out of the woodwork- every day my newspaper has more accounts of athletes being suspended/ banned in nearly every sport. The best hope for cycling is that the teams and the sponsors ($$$) have to be the policemen. We will get past this and the tour will go on.

Julie said...

Greg - Thanks, I'm not always so optimistic, but am coming to see just how fine and gray the line is around doping and cycling, and I think that helps to see the bigger picture. I still believe in Floyd and Lance, too. If nothing else, logic is still strongly on their side (more on that in an upcoming post). I'm hoping the cyclists themselves will be the policemen, too. Maybe it's too much to hope, but if in the '90s, there was the general acceptance, "everyone's doing it, so I have to," maybe now we can have the same phenomenon in reverse, "it's not the thing to do anymore, so I don't have to." And the ones who persist can get "flicked" by the clean riders. I don't think you'll ever get rid of it completely, but if we get the tipping point in the right direction, it will just be a sorry few.

Anonymous said...

I join the others who say Good Writing, clear, concise, and makes sense. You're also right that the only way the current situation will change is if the riders and teams are the cops. I'll be watching Hell on wheels and hoping. Keep on writing. Phil