What’s Viagra Got to Do With It?

Pro cycling has never had powerful, effective leaders. It’s something I cover in depth in the last chapter of Argyle Armada. Now, however, the Lance Armstrong implosion may be precipitating positive change, including the November, 2012 gathering of a summit in London that includes Jonathan Vaughters and John Hoberman, a fascinating professor from the University of Texas, Austin.

In this piece for VeloNews, I spoke with Hoberman about his 25 years of scholarship on doping in sports and society. Because he does not focus solely on pro cycling, Hoberman, 68, brings illuminating perspectives into our understanding of how our culture handles doping in sports.

For example, the fact that performance-enhancing drugs like Viagra have been seamlessly adapted into the fabric of our lives–and without stigma–affects how we judge athletes who cheat.

Hoberman was an expert consultant in the 2005 SCA Promotions lawsuit against Armstrong, and he also discusses how nationalism can compel national and intentional sports governing bodies to turn a blind eye to cheating.

Hoberman does not feel that more punitive measures are the answer to performance enhancing drugs in sports. Rather, he argues that the approach that a team like Garmin is taking–creating a team culture where doping is neither supported nor expected–is a more promising way forward.


David Millar on the team bus at La Flèche Wallonne. April 20, 2011.

In chapter three of Argyle Armada, “The Ardennes Classics,” I spend an afternoon on a bus in Holland talking to David Millar. The Scotsman began using EPO in 2001 and confessed to doping in 2004. He served a two year suspension and came back to pro racing with Slipstream.

“The majority of people who work in pro cycling today have experienced doping,” Millar told me. “That’s a hell of a statistic.” After the release of USADA’s findings on Lance Armstrong, we know Millar’s statement is not an exaggeration.

At the end of our conversation Millar explained why he got involved with Slipstream: “Our original mission statement was to give people hope again in the sport in what was a very dark time. And be proactive in our stance and make it clear that we were going to do our best to guarantee to you that we are clean.”

Millar made mistakes and came back into cycling wanting to be a positive role model.

Millar’s words came to mind as I scrolled through reader comments to a piece I wrote on how Slipstream was a refuge from a corrosive and corroded pro cycling culture.

I was struck by the number of readers who felt Vaughters and the Slipstream riders who doped should be forever banned from pro cycling.

I understand the emotion driving this sentiment. Cycling fans have been burned over and again by pros who claim innocence then later confess they were lying all along. Why would anyone want to give the time of day, let alone another shot at a career in cycling, to these unflinching con men?

But I don’t agree with the logic.

To ban Vaughters forever is tantamount to telling a repentant and reformed drug dealer he cannot return to his inner-city neighborhood to teach the error of his ways.

Keeping a reformed criminal out of the churches, schools, and community centers that were once the theater of his sins might seem to solve a problem–keeping bad guys away–but it does not solve the problem; how to create a culture where young people are not assaulted with a multitude of bad choices. Solving the short term lets the larger long-term problem grow.

In the case of the riders who finally spilled the beans to the USADA, yes, their date with honesty came too late, and for the wrong reasons. But at least the truth finally came out from the Vande Veldes, Zabriskies, Danielsons, and Vaughters of the world. They also apologized for their ways and have chosen a more honorable path since renouncing their doping.

Of the late Who drummer Keith Moon’s creative genius, writer James Wood wrote that “Making mistakes is simply part of the locomotion of vitality.”

Like Moon, the pros who doped are flawed characters. They are human. Acknowledging their humanity takes humaneness on our part. Forgiveness.

Banning a Millar and a Vaughters from pro cycling might grant fans the satisfaction of knowing ex-cheaters are no longer in the pro cycling neighborhood.

But quenching an emotional thirst for retribution would also closet forces who have truly dedicated themselves to ending a doping culture. Not just confess and sit silently, but take action to change pro cycling. Throwing them out might salve our personal need, but at the expense of allowing a dishonest way of life to to flourish.

When acknowledged and owned, missteps can be the locomotive of human improvement. And when matched by a spirit of mercy on our part, that’s an engine that just might pull pro cycling to a better, cleaner, more honest place.

Tiger Talansky

Andrew Hood’s recent interview with Garmin-Sharp rider Andrew Talansky captures the fiery personality I also found during my year with Talansky and the Garmin team.

In Hood’s interview, Talansky is offended by riders who challenge his ability to ride in Europe without doping. Talansky, who finished seventh at this year’s Vuelta a España, calls out Andy Jacques-Maynes, a domestic U.S. rider who Tweeted his opinion that “everyone racing in Europe has been doped at some point.”

When I spent time with Talansky at the 2011 Vuelta (his first Grand Tour), he showed a similar flash of anger when I brought up the topic of Paul Kimmage, the author of Rough Ride and a long time anti-doping critic. Even though Kimmage is complimentary of Talansky’s team, the young Floridian told me he found the Irish journalist’s very presence among the pro peloton deeply offensive.

From chapter 7 of Argyle Armada:

    Talansky is visibly saddened when he talks about fans and journalists who don’t believe any riders are clean. Yet, upon hearing that doping denouncer Paul Kimmage finds Vaughter’s team a beacon of hope, a shadow crosses Talansky’s face again. “I think it’s great” that Garmin-Cervélo gives Kimmage hope, he says. Then he says, darkly: “I also think that somebody like him has no place in the sport of cycling and doesn’t deserve to write about it.”
    Talansky explains that there are other clean teams out there, and he feels it’s unjust of someone like Kimmage to only focus on Garmin-Cervélo while tarring the rest of the peloton. “I’m really sad for him,” he confides. “It is puzzling to me why these people are still around the sport….I get a little angry about that.”

A year has passed since I interviewed Andrew on that quiet September afternoon in Northern Spain, and the wall of silence surrounding pro cycling’s dope-ridden past has begun to crumble since then.

It’s good to see that this young rider, the vanguard of a different generation of pro cyclists, has not lost the moxie that makes him one of the most compelling men in the pro peloton today.

You can read more about Talansky in Argyle Armada. 

Meet Mark Johnson and Jonathan Vaughters at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango before the USA Pro Cycling Challenge

Mark Johnson and Jonathan Vaughters will be at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colorado before the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

Johnson and team founder Vaughters will speak and sign copies at 11 a.m. Sunday at Maria’s Bookshop, 960 Main Ave. For more information, call 970-247-1438 or visit www.mariasbookshop.com.

“It is a mark of a well-done book when a reader opens the pages and, despite a lack of previous interest and knowledge, is drawn into the fascinating world of pro cycling. Mark Johnson pulled this feat off through intimate, detailed photography and up-close and personal portrayals of the members of Team Garmin-Cervélo.” — Durango Herald

Argyle Armada Durango Herald

Mark Johnson’s VeloNews Op-Ed: Cycling Needs a Riders Union

In this op-ed for VeloNews.com, Argyle Armada author Mark Johnson offers reasons that the sport and business of cycling would benefit from a union of riders. Johnson’s thinking on this topic came in part from his interactions with Garmin-Sharp team director Jonathan Vaughters, who has long advocated for fundamental changes in the structure of the sport.

Johnson’s op-ed comes on the heels of Vaughters’ admission last week in this article for the New York Times that he doped during his pro cycling career. In the article, Vaughters says that his team has worked to eliminate the choice of doping for its riders.

Johnson’s op-ed addresses doping. How would a pro cyclists union affect doping in the sport?

Johnson’s article is a thought-provoking, independent look from the only journalist to have spent a season within the team that began cycling’s most recent anti-doping crusade. Click below to read more.

Argyle Armada Marvin Miller cyclists union VeloNews