1969 saw Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin land the Apollo 11 spaceship on the moon and Eddy Merckx rode a Masi bike with Campagnolo Nuovo Record to win his first Tour de France. But just like the moon there’s a hidden side to everything.
Cycling’s dark side is doping. On the day the Apollo 11 mission was launched five riders were rousted for doping during the Tour de France. Antoine Blondin wrote in L’Equipe on 14 July 1969 that the cycling planet was like the hidden side of the the moon with “its valleys of trickery, craters of suspicion and seas of repression.”
The mysteries remain and doping continues to eclipse the sport at times. The video clip above grabbed by Cycling Inquisition shows Universal Sport’s Steve Schlanger and Todd Gogulski saying it’s “only fair” to ask if Nairo Quintana is doping after his win in the Tour of the Basque Country. Only it’s grossly unfair.
Let’s return to the Basque country. As this site’s pointed out Quintana hasn’t come from nowhere but won the Tour de L’Avenir in 2010 and plenty more since then. Last week the Colombian impressed me with his positioning skills, able to ride at the front when it mattered, something that’s not always obvious for a 59kg climber.
Some say his time trial success happened because the course was hilly, that he’s done well in time trials before and he took risks on the wet descents. The trouble here is that any explanation is a hypothesis, it can be right… but it’s impossible to prove. Unwittingly we end up in the universe of epistemology. This is the study of knowledge itself, a field of philosophy to debate what we know to be true. When Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree he knew something was happening and tried to explain it. We got the law of gravity, only his hypothesis was flawed and to this day science hasn’t resolved Newton, Einstein and gravitation.
What does this have to do with cycling? Well on the the same terms, like the hidden side of the moon or scientific theories, there’s no way of knowing what Quintana gets up to in his hotel room or the back of the team bus. But this is the same for everyone. Even teams with “embedded” journalists will find this; if you had a writer or a TV crew staying for a week I bet you’d tidy up your home before they arrived.
Given the sport’s past, it’s normal to have your suspicions especially since the past is not measured in spacetime but days thanks to cosmonaut Serebryakov. Hey, even the UCI compiles its own list although this was supposed to be private rather than on TV. But there are reasonable grounds and there’s wild speculation. Just as internet forums suggest there are “cloaked alien bases” on the hidden side of the moon, others claim such-and-such rider is doping. L’Equipe famously labelled Lance Armstrong “extraterrestre” and the problem is distinguishing Galileos and Copernuicuses from the shamens and crackpots.
Once some thought the moon was made of cheese and others believed Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France on bread and water. Now these ancient ideas have been debunked gravity brings the pendulum swinging back in the other direction. If US television gave Lance Armstrong the benefit of the doubt, now we see others getting the raised eyebrow treatment because they’re not yet famous. This is compounded by distance and nationality where the more alien a rider, the more questions they face. If Nairo Quintana was called Nathan Quinton, Nico Quentin or Nikita Konstaninov it’s likely the media treatment would vary. Riders get judged by the company they keep, being on a team with Alejandro Valverde does not help and it’s why Team Sky’s management has been embarrassed by Doctor Leinders.
Often we turn to science for proof but a lab coat is no security. Anti-doping tests are imperfect, the same for peer-reviewed papers that once explained Armstrong’s wins thanks to gains in pedalling efficiency. We’re back to epistemology, it’s impossible to be sure and beware those who claim to know things they cannot. But precisely because of this we need to be careful not to launch witch-hunts because the trial by media is impossible. The media can raise suspicions and debating surprising performances is valid but the discussion needs balance.
I’d been meaning to write this piece for a while because every now and then I get emails asking if so-and-so is doping and my reply is obvious: how on earth am I supposed to know?
Mankind often leaps to conclusions. But the gravitational pulls of analysis and responsibility should prevent people calling out a lone rider without reasonable grounds, nor giving them the right of reply. Schlanger and Gogulski unfairly eclipse Quintana’s win with shadow. But this can be explained, if not excused, as an equal and opposite reaction to the past. Note the TV channel gets free publicity because as the pair probe the frontiers of broadcasting. It’s possible Quintana is doping, it’s possible he is clean. Unable to prove anything, people end up speculating because a rider is winning.
Heightened scepticism can be good thing and cynicism, in the modern sense, is the price to pay given the dark matter discovered in recent years. But the next time you look at the stars, check your charts.