Cycling: Thoughts on Fallen Tour de France Winner Bjarne Riis


Yesterday, Team CSC owner and Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis admitted extensive usage of EPO and other banned drugs, following confessions of other former Team Telekom riders Erik Zabel, Rolf Aldag and Brian Holm.

Meanwhile, Floyd Landis is awaiting a ruling on the doping allegation made shortly after his Tour victory last year. In the years between the victories of Bjarne Riis and Floyd Landis, only three riders have won Tour de France, the world’s greatest cycling race: Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong. Marco Pantani died of a cocaine overdose after his career had been dogged by drug allegations. Jan Ullrich was taken out of last year’s Tour following the Spanish drug investigation ‘Operación Puerto’ – which implicates at least 34 top cyclists – and has now retired. Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong has vehemently denied all accusations and allegations of doping, claiming that his superiority has to do with determination, accurate training, riding style, and – most spectacularly – the physical changes his body underwent during treatment for lethal, testicular cancer a decade ago. Übermensch or drugged, Lance Armstrong repeatedly broke the record of average speed in Tour de France, pushing it to amazing 41,654 km/h.

On a personal note, cycling is the only TV sport I care about. Unfortunately, it is a sport that is a little difficult to appreciate, mainly due to its technical and strategic nature. I love it and count the mountain stages of the last twelve years of Tour de France among my greatest moments in front of a TV set. When EPO became an issue, I got somewhat depressed, as did many other cycling fans. At times I would tell myself that I was going to stop watching Tour de France. But I always returned, and everytime I found it exciting and rewarding, even though I knew that what I saw was probably not fair play. Why?

The answer is provided by Danish poet, filmmaker and cycling connoisseur Jørgen Leth, who shortly after Bjarne Riis’ confession stated: “Don’t forget what you have seen. Your eyes don’t lie. What we saw in 1996 was a great Tour de France victory. Bjarne Riis rode in a fantastic manner. It’s not a race you win just by doing EPO. He had a great way of riding. The stages we enjoyed and his dethronement of the dull Miguel Indurain are things we can still appreciate, and be thankful for“.

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that doping is cheating, and doping is breaking the rules. But before Bjarne Riis and the other stars of cycling in the nineties are condemned, we would be wise to pay attention to what Riis emphasized during yesterday’s press conference: “I was a professional cyclist under the conditions given at the time“. Now, Riis took full responsibility for his actions and apologized, but who is to blame for the scandals in yesterday’s and today’s cycling? Here’s Jørgen Leth, again: “Cycling is not a clean sport. It’s an unhealthy sport, an extreme sport. And that is the way it should be. That is what I have always loved about cycling. It’s filled with fantastic, larger-than-life characters, excentrics and people who put their life at stake. The other view is founded in a stupid illusion that cycling should be clean and that riders should be role models for young people. I believe that’s nonsense“.

Leth is really saying that Riis, Pantani, Zülle, Virenque, Millar, Hamilton, Zabel, Landis, etc., etc., aren’t the right people to blame. The person to blame is me. Me and all the other cycling fans around the world, demanding passion, drama, determination, suffering, beautiful victories and entertainment at its very best.

Cycling has changed; today’s riders are tested much more thoroughly than before, as lots of different anti-doping programs have been introduced. Few believe that elite sport will ever be totally clean – the determination to win is second nature to these individuals, and for cyclists who are allowed to sleep in pressurized cabins and enjoy intravenous nutrition in order to improve results, it can sometimes seem rather difficult to understand the difference between legal and illegal. No, I’m not saying doping is okay, I’m saying that elite sport is fucked up. But again, that’s the essence of elite sport.

So, finally: a word to the sponsor: Please don’t abandon team CSC. Though investments in cycling still seem risky, the story of Bjarne Riis’ team and his efforts to change the conditions of cycling might end up a good one.

And oh! …I’m already exited about Tour de France 2007!

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