Friday, July 18, 2008
Songs of Ourselves
You know how you can tell when the public’s hunger for news exceeds the available supply? Journalists start interviewing each other. There is a bit of new news today, of course, but nothing you can build a big story on without re-using a lot of the background you already burned yesterday. Right now, it looks like Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval), winner atop Hautacam, has been fired from the team along with Riccò, and rumours are starting to circulate about whether there’s a system of institutionalized doping run and financed by the team. See, I pretty much just gave you all the new news in a single sentence.
And so, with another long sprint stage on tap and some column inches to fill, we find ourselves with some hot journalist-on-journalist action in the Tour de France pages today. VeloNews’ John Wilcockson focuses his lens on Philippe Brunel, head cycling writer for L’Equipe (which, to set the record straight, is not the crappy, muckraking rag it’s often portrayed as over here. It’s a highly respected sports paper. When people call it a “tabloid”, they’re referring to the format, not the meaning of “tabloid” we’ve adopted in the U.S.) Wilcockson notes that Brunel has long been a Riccò supporter, and seemed visibly upset at his recent fall from grace.
The article brings up an interesting point. When scandals such as Riccò’s break, fans often report feeling betrayed – that they’ve been sold a product that didn’t match the advertising copy. Fans aren’t the only ones – the journalists feel cheated as well, and what’s more, they can feel that they’ve been made an instrument of the deception. But what can you do? When you write about a sport like cycling, it’s your job to talk about the folks doing the big rides, and ending every story with caveats like “but he might be doping, so take it all with a grain of salt” would be career suicide. And it wouldn’t make for a fun assignment, either.
But when you’ve written extensively about a rider’s achievements, with the entirely justifiable aim of bringing the sport’s big stories to your readers, and that rider turns out a fake, it’s disappointing to say the least. Not just because it’s another scandal, but because, to the untrained eye, it can seem that you somehow haven’t done your job, that you should have known. There’s the lingering feeling that out there in the audience, people are saying, “he’s a fool to have bought that guy’s act, we knew it all along.” But you can’t let that get to you, and you have to be comforted by the fact that the rules of professional journalism aren’t the same as those for posting on an internet message board or blog. Brunel sums it up nicely in cyclingnews.com’s own peer-to-peer coverage:
"It was not a surprise for me. Journalists do their work, but when you don't have proof you are not able to do anything. If you write in a subjective manner, then you too become a judge or a policeman, so you have to watch everything and when the proof arrives, then you write."
I’ve never written about cycling at the same level as Brunel and Wilcockson. On a good day, I’m maybe a D3 water carrier to their ProTour superstars. But just like cyclists of all levels know what it is to suffer, we’ve all seen and written about things that don’t look as good in retrospect as they did at the time. For instance, my first on-site race coverage assignment for VeloNews was the 1999 Red Zinger Stage Race in Colorado. It was an attempt to revive the Red Zinger/Coors Classic days of old and it was, to my eye then, a pretty good race – a prologue in downtown Boulder, a road race along the Peak-to-Peak highway, an uphill time trial, a brutal stage to the 14,000 foot summit of Mount Evans, and a criterium around the Celestial Seasonings headquarters to close.
It was the only edition of the race in that format – it would evolve into the one-day Saturn Classic and disappear entirely after a couple of years. But the big news in 1999 was that Jonathan Vaughters (then U.S. Postal), who had crashed out on the Passage au Gois at the Tour, was coming home to compete on a composite team. He ended up winning the Red Zinger on the same day Armstrong took his first Tour crown in Paris, and you know, I still like the story I wrote about it. You can see the problems, though, when you look back at the Peak-to-Peak highway stage in particular. I was sitting shotgun in the Saturn car while DS Rene Wenzel slept alongside the mechanic in the back seat, so I had a good view of the race-making break ahead, which consisted of Vaughters, Scott Moninger (then Mercury), Chris Wherry (then Saturn), and Floyd Landis (then Mercury).
Since that time, Wherry, god bless him, has kept his nose clean as best I can remember, and has a notable domestic career to look back on for it. The rest? Vaughters was implicated by his little IM conversation with Frankie Andreau, and though he smartly keeps mum on the details of his past, I think he’s done his penitence for any transgressions in a far more valuable manner than spending a couple years on the bench at the UCI’s behest. Moninger had a steroid positive several years later, which he claims was the result of a tainted supplement. And, well, we all know what happened to Floyd. Sort of.
So that breakaway doesn’t look quite so good in retrospect, but at the time, and based on what I knew for sure – which didn’t include what anyone there was smearing, swallowing, injecting, or sticking onto or into their bodies – it was a good story. So I wrote it like I saw it. And without a crystal ball, that’s all we can really do, isn’t it?
To be honest, I’m not really “hurt” by my little example – it was pretty straightforward race reporting, and any scandal associated with those riders would only occur or become evident much later on. But when, like Brunel and Wilcockson, you see riders whose houses you’ve visited for in-depth interviews, who you’ve shared meals with, and whose hopes and ambitions you’ve helped telegraph to the world come up positive, the sense of betrayal must be palpable. Not only because you, yourself, have been lied to, but because you’ve been used to pass those lies along. Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done about it, assuming you want to keep writing about cycling for a living. You can try to limit your exposure with due diligence, but in a sport simultaneously full of rumour and omerta, where everybody's talking but nobody's saying anything, sometimes you just have to let ‘er rip, write what you see, and hope for the best. And if and when things go south, then as Brunel said, “when the proof arrives, then you write.”