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.