Thursday, December 08, 2011


Notes from the Rocking Chair

This week’s popular diversion for those who consider themselves crusty old cycling fans is to loudly pooh-pooh the broader cycling community’s feelings of shock or outrage at the whole Vinokourov-Kolobnev race-fixing allegation. I get that. I have those tendencies, too.

To seasoned ears, newer followers of the sport – those who haven’t read all the same books, heard all the same stories, or talked to all the same people by all the same roadsides over the years – can sound like howling, reactionary banshees when confronted with cycling news that feels like a gentle, nostalgic trip down memory lane to folks who have been around awhile. Then all of that howling and self-righteous moral indignation gets amplified by Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and message boards until it’s finally so loud that we can’t just turn down our hearing aids anymore, and we have to go out there and give those whippersnappers a crack across the bridge of the nose with our canes. It’s good to get out – makes us feel young again.

So what a relief when, just when knocking the kids about with the long and romantic history of doping was starting to wear thin, the Eastern Bloc suicide brigade handed us fresher fodder. Thanks to Vino and Kolobnev, we get to club them young’uns with how Freddy Maertens and Tom Simpson bought and sold races. How it’s all there in Joe Parkin’s book. How sometimes, even the immortals had to reach into their pockets. How can they be surprised? How can they be outraged? Study up, boys, it’s all part of the sport’s rich tradition.

The whole thing is a crotchety bastard’s dream.

But while I believe that modern cycling fandom’s knee-jerk moral outrage and occasionally loose grasp of history should be stamped down even more often and more vehemently than it is, I also think the old guard should avoid dismissing Kolobnev’s alleged sale of the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege to Vinokourov just for the sake of pounding our chests and reciting some stale history. Two simple reasons:

First. This isn’t some ditchwater kermesse in West Flanders we’re talking about here, or even a Tour de France stage win which, despite their prestige, are relatively plentiful things. No, Liege is one of the five monuments of the sport, La Doyenne, the oldest classic, one of the hardest and most beautiful. And though the best Liege will never unseat even the dullest, most mundane Paris-Roubaix in various website and magazine year-end readers’ polls, it’s one of the highest value targets in the sport. Winning it can’t make you a legend on its own – every race has flukes on its roll of honor – but if you’re a legend in the making, it can certainly help you well along. It's valuable, and its damn near as close to sacred as the sport has.

Ah, yes, grandpa, I can hear your spleen rumbling now. “Big races have been bought and sold in the past.” True. Which is why I’m equipped with a second reason.

Second. It’s just not 1972 anymore. Or 1982. Or 1992. Or 2002.

Information travels more quickly and easily now than ever before. Obviously, when it gets out that a rider buys a race in 2010, word travels far and fast, and the hard reality of email chains and electronic bank transfers have replaced the usefully ethereal properties of verbal agreements and cash. In an era of information access and traceability, bought races can’t be as easily dismissed as rumor as they were in the past, the rumors have more power, and what would have been a saucy little paragraph in a post-career bio even ten years ago is now far less likely to make it to the point of being a quaint book tour “revelation.” Transgressions discovered today don’t have the warm glow of history attached.

None of which might have mattered, except for the fact that there is far, far more money in cycling today than ever before. But still not quite enough, according to many. So if the sport and its fans want all the benefits and progress that come with secure, high-dollar, long-term sponsorships, they’re going to have to be able to assure sponsors that victories and their value aren’t being sold out from under them to fill riders’ pockets. For active sponsors, riders selling race victories is tantamount to stealing from the cash register. And for potential sponsors, race fixing is a tell-tale sign of a corrupt sport. That warning is rendered even more ominous not by fans’ cries of shock and outrage, but by a nostalgic chorus of “it’s always been that way!” If the dope hasn’t scared them off, a tolerant or perceived tolerant attitude towards race fixing should.

Its fun to be blasé. To pointlessly and self-satisfyingly revel in long experience, and to casually point out that hey, we’ve been here before, and life’s gone on. Because it has. But we’ve been blasé about other things in cycling, too, and where has it gotten us? We have the number one team in the world folding for lack of sponsors, team “mergers” that are little more than liferafts for select riders, and undeniably poor governance. Look, I hate the shrill cries of youth and inexperience as much as the next jerk, but maybe its time to start letting the howling go on a bit longer.


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