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.

When The Walls

From the Floyd Landis case, to Bjarne Riis' press conference, and all that fell in between, I couldn't help but have Mellencamp running through my head this week, as any number of walls came tumblin', tumblin'.

The walls of LNDD, as we left the sillier conspiracy theories behind and got some concrete evidence on the startling incompetence and inexperience of those who would decide the fate of world-class athletes. Even if they believe they got the right guy, and even if they won't clean up for the sake of the athletes, maybe they will yet clean up, if only to avoid having their incompetence be such a credible defense for those accused in the future. (And, as an added bonus, not so many will be accused!)

The walls of WADA, wherein everyone is expected to be a good citizen and toe the party line, damn the consequences, full speed ahead. Catlin's unabashed candor on this issue was intriguing to say the least.

The walls of Will Geoghegan's life. I'm afraid I don't have the open heart of Paul Landis, Will gets little sympathy from me for his horrendous act. But I wonder if he can ever recover mentally, so devastating was his blow to his longtime friend. The damage it did still leaves me dumbfounded; I imagine Will curled up in a ball somewhere for some time to come.

Floyd's got some pretty strong walls, we'll have to see how that one shakes out. Next week, as the intensity of the hearing wears off, will surely bring a flood of issues and emotions pushed away in the immediacy of the battle. Butch Reynolds' walls crumbled under similar circumstances and it was some time before he built them back up.

The walls of doping - these are falling so fast I hesitate to post, wondering what new confession will have missed the wire. Joe Papp's testimony in the Landis hearing was ridiculed by many as irrelevant to the case and a sacrifice of Mr. Papp to USADA's cause. Whatever the case may be on all that, it was still an important glimpse into current doping practices, and something we need to hear more of.

While we're on the subject of Papp, a few words about TBV and Bill Hue. It's been said ad nauseam, but I don't think it can be said enough - their work, especially during the hearing, was invaluable. I got cranky with Bill and his dancing monkey, as one does with a traveling companion after being together in a car for days on end. But it was a passing thing, on both sides, and what I am left with is overwhelming gratitude and awe for what both he and TBV did, and continue to do.

In one of those bizarre twists of fate, I found this on the inside cap to a bottle of iced tea I had recently:

"Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good." - Joe Paterno

Some found Floyd's similar reasoning in his testimony to be trite, but it rang true to me. And I couldn't help but think of Joe Pa's sentiments in relation to USADA, who relied so heavily on The Call in their closing statement. Is that really how they want to win this case, would that really taste good? We have seen in recent days that some don't seem to much mind the taste, and felt it was the only dish on the menu. But for more on that, I'm going to have to make like Rant and do a two-fer today.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I Remember Mama

I never intended for this blog to *all* be about cycling, it's just worked out that way so far (can you say special interest?). So, on this Mother's Day, I remember my Mama, ten years gone, with a piece I wrote about her some years before she passed.

Not Even By A Diamond

“Her beauty is outshone only by the diamond on her left hand,” read her nursing school yearbook. Some thirty years later, the beauty still shines through. Her silver hair is swept up into a bun, with a wisp or two escaping to frame the delicate features of her face. Her skin is smooth and has a healthy glow about it. She has a bright smile and her warm eyes are not hidden by the reading glasses propped on her nose. The bun and glasses may bring to mind a grandmother, and she has been one for a year now, but a kindly old woman she is most definitely not. Kind, yes -- a loving and giving family woman, but her young face and slim body show that she is an active, vibrant woman as well.

Though short by most standards, she carries herself with a graceful confidence and is a strong presence wherever she goes. She is intelligent and knowledgeable; her soft, clear voice maneuvers deftly through both difficult and fun conversation. Her hands have worked hard in the garden, house, and office, but are still soft and smooth. They have provided years of gentle comfort to fevered brows and broken hearts, as well as strong support for faltering steps and frightening moments. She has saved countless lives, in the emergency room or wherever she was needed. With her husband, she raised five fine young adults and maintains a big, beautiful house and property. She is by no means done with all this yet. She will continue to nurture her family, home, and self, as well as enrich all the lives she touches. As her son said at Christmas dinner, “She’s a constant inspiration to us all,” much more precious than any diamond.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A New Dick In Town

Moby, that is. Sorry, Floyd, I know you didn't want this to be the story from your press conference, but it's hard to let it pass without comment. Not a bombshell really, but provides some unpleasant insight into the motives and tactics of Travis Tygart (or whoever is whispering in his ear). I've been trying to keep an open mind on Tygart, because he hasn't yet been able to speak for himself, so I'll listen when he does get that chance. Having said that, right now it's looking something like this:

Tygart: Floyd Landis, you've just doped to win the Tour de France, the biggest race in cycling, but we don't really care, we just want to get that Lance guy, the one who worked his ass off and brought positive attention and a legion of new fans to a great sport and never tested positive for anything and who doesn't even race anymore. So we'll let you get off with a month suspension, a month you of course wouldn't be riding anyway, 'mkay? We may not actually win a case against him, because your testimony will be torn apart as that of a man trying to save his own career, but at least someone will be casting aspersions on Lance again, because, you know, it's been a while, we miss it.

Now, I don't know if Tygart is the Ahab in this scenario, or if he was just the messenger for someone else's unhealthy obsession, but either way, it calls into question their tactics and motivation. Is this why they're playing such hardball, trying to bleed Floyd dry and obscure evidence? So he will finally break and give them what they want? Is this the only reason they're pursuing a weak case? I'll answer this one myself, it would appear to be the reason they went after those FFF records, looking for hush money I suppose. As if.

I understand pursuing a case with vigor. Maybe we'll hear differently next week, but all indications have been that the ADAs have gone well beyond vigor in this case. I understand wanting to get at suppliers, compliant team directors or doctors or whatnot. That's all important, and I'm fine with deals being made to get at the larger truths about doping in cycling. But a month for cheating to win the Tour? To get at a retired guy? That just smacks of desperation. Mind you, I don't think Floyd cheated, and I don’t think Lance cheated. I'm just talking about the ADA perspective, and how blinded and irrational it appears to be.

As Lance has become resigned to, there will always be questions. But why does that have to be so? There has always been a simple explanation for Lance's success - he was more meticulous, more willing to suffer, and worked harder than everyone else - 365 days a year - indeed, to a fault, but it made him a winner. Wayne Gretzgy, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer - those who stand head and shoulders above the rest is nothing new, nor unique to cycling. The commonality among these, Lance included - certain physical gifts, an uncanny ability to see the playing field, and by all accounts, each are/were the first to arrive and the last to leave the "practice field."

If someone wins by a mile and doesn't show all of those characteristics, that bears a second look. And as we've seen this week, that may well be the result of cheating. But if there is no evidence, and there are logical explanations, what is the obsession about? Where does that venom come from? Internal politics beyond me, no doubt. But it makes you look pretty silly to the outside observer.

Oh yeah, Floyd talked about his case too. Censuring Pound - symbolic, but I'm glad they're doing it, the man just shouldn't be allowed to get away with such outrageous statements. Sticking with the science and not the show - I certainly hope so. Team Landis has used the show too much as of late, I'm glad they're planning on getting down to brass tacks next week. The danger of whipping the faithful into a frenzy is that everyone's on about the kangaroo court and leaving the science behind. Improper procedure is important, but the facts are the most important. If you have a cool customer like Tygart explaining things away and sounding rational (wild deals aside), you need to calm down and go toe to toe on the facts. Here's hoping it gets back to that next week, as Floyd has indicated he wants it to. One gets the idea that Floyd is the one calming his team down, not the other way around. Stop. Look. Listen. Breathe. Here we go…

Update: As it turns out, it appears Tygart did not mention Lance by name, see Floyd's actual statement at TBV. It may have been clear that Tygart intended to include Lance in the cyclists he was speaking of, but still, the offer was not as stark as it first appeared in news reports. This just underscores my call for caution and trying to avoid tunnel vision. It's hard, when it all seems so unjust you can't stand it, but it's a trap that must be avoided, especially by Floyd's team.