Opinion by Nicholas Tan

Photo by Andres Rueda

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So here we go again with another round of “did he or didn’t he?” The “he” we are referring to is his seven-ness, the undisputed record-holder for most wins in the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong.

The current installment of one of the longest running sagas involving doping allegations against Armstrong now has more of his team-mates pointing fingers, including one whom many consider the closest to Lance himself. Tyler Hamilton, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist went on CBS to tell it all while George Hincapie, who roomed with Armstrong on occasion, has given a yet undisclosed testimony.

I have nothing against Armstrong. I have tremendous admiration for his victory over cancer and the charitable work that he has lent his name to. It is sad, however, that this sport we all love has become known less for the superhuman (and sometimes, heroic) effort and drama, and more for the controversies around drug cheating. How did this come to be?

One look at the demands placed on the bodies of professional cyclists and you get a fair idea why performance enhancement drugs are associated with the professional peloton. A one day race, like a spring classic (for example, Paris-Roubaix), can mean being in the saddle for nearly four hours at a go.

This may seem pedestrian compared to an ultra sport or Iron Man event that runs past six hours. Put a string of six one day races together, followed by one rest day, followed by another six one day races, and then one more rest day, followed by a last week of one day races and the comparison suddenly pales (oh, did I mention too that the last week will have a few consecutive days of mountain climbs that make even motorized vehicles wheeze?)

These mammoth sufferfests are known as grand tours and the three best known are the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. In between these three, the pro cyclist is expected to take part in a variety of one day races, criteriums and shorter tours. All in, just recovering from one event to another looks daunting, regardless of the physical condition of pro cyclists.

Imagine, then, recovering from one day to the next in a grand tour, particularly when it comes to the mountain stages.

This is where the allure of performance enhancement aids shines brightest. Paul Kimmage explained in his book, “Rough Ride” just how difficult it was to go from one day to the next when riding the grand tours. As a pro cyclist in the 1980’s, Kimmage finished 1 Tour de France and 1 Giro d’Italia. His last moments in pro racing were with the 1989 Fagor team led by 1987 triple crown winner, Stephen Roche.

Kimmage, who is now a journalist, has become a lightning rod after coming out into the open with his book that details the suffering of the pro cyclist as well as the shadier means employed, not just to win races but sometimes just to ensure that the pro cyclist is able to get onto the saddle to ride one more day. Kimmage’s point is simple; the grand tours have become far too demanding on the human body for too long.

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If we take our simple comparison above, it is easy to see why. The question then is, why haven’t the race organizers done something to address this?

Sadly (again), cycling, like many other professional sports, has become one where commercial interests (read money) have become a major influence. It is not just broadcast rights that are involved here. The revenue gravy train benefits many constituents; the cyclists, the team principals, the many sponsors plastered on the cyclists’ jerseys, the bike manufacturers, the component manufacturers; the list goes on.

Sometimes, it is not just about money. Major sponsors are in it for the publicity and, sometimes, national pride that goes with winning big events. How on earth can a pressed laminate steel company get more coverage for its industrial products by sponsoring a professional cycling team? Yet, Lamiere Prerivestite has been sponsoring a professional cycling team since 1991. As an Italian company, they carry the hopes of cycling-mad Italians every year that they remain as major sponsor for the team known as Lampre. Lampre is one of the easiest teams to spot in the peloton with its unique team colours of baby blue and hot pink.

Clearly, it would not do anyone any good if the cyclists performed below par. Throw in the fact that each pro team has an estimated running cost upwards of US$10 million a year, and the need to show results becomes all too real.

The UCI is no different from other professional sports governing bodies that have the delicate job of balancing the interests of all constituents involved. The grand tour organizers are part of the equation as well as they hold the key to how much drama can be elicited over three weeks. Indeed, the Tour de France began as a publicity stunt to drive up the circulation of the publication that eventually became l’Equipe.

As with all televised sporting spectacles, drama and controversy capture the imagination just as absolute dominance does. However, once domination becomes extreme or it begins to look too easy, then both the governing body and organizers begin to worry if the event may have become too predictable. If viewers get bored, then the first domino in the revenue gravy chain falls.

Every bike race, in particular the grand tours, therefore has a lot more at stake than meets the eye.

For the pro cyclists, the pressure to perform is always there. Pro cyclists do not have a long career runway; if you are at the top, you have to make the most of it. For the journeymen domestiques, this is even more evident. The top cyclists will make significant sums from both salaries as well as endorsements. The domestique has to make do with his salary and race prizes, hence the need to participate in as many races as possible.

Drug cheating may have been with pro cycling far longer than any of us realize. It almost seems to be the nature of things, given what we have been led to believe is, and have now come to expect as, performance at the limit.

I have no doubt that cycling ranks high as a physically demanding sport. I have no doubt that pro cyclists work really hard for their money while sometimes taking enormous risks with their lives. As a die-hard romantic, I wish for the day when the reset button is hit, so that cycling grabs headlines, not for drug controversies and scandals, but for the drama and excitement that only a bicycle race is capable of.