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‘Dopers Suck’ All of them?

Nigel Dick is a good friend of ours, and he’s a neat guy to know. He’s best known for his music-video-direction palmares, which include such cultural monuments as Guns & Roses’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and ‘Paradise City’, plus videos for countless other mega-hits by folks like Oasis, R.E.M., Britney Spears, Paul McCartney etc etc. He’s never said it, but I think he detests the music for the videos he’s made as much as we do. But that’s not the point: He’s a man damn good with a camera and lights, and he uses those skills to suck viewers in when they’d otherwise turn off.

We bring up Nigel for a simple reason: Beyond his Hollywood success, he’s also a passionate cyclist. He directed our TV commercials from last year’s Tour de France coverage on Versus, and he’s currently working on a feature length documentary about the Tour named In Search of the Lanterne Rouge. We originally met him through the world of bikes, and the same people who introduced him to us also connected him with Jonathan Vaughters and the rest of the braintrust at Team Slipstream.

Early this year Slipstream hired Nigel to make a short film about their mission as ‘the good guys’ in the pro peloton, i.e. they’re the non-doping team. Naturally, that could be a dull story (Nigel has also directed Celine Dion videos, so he’s not unfamiliar with staring into the abyss of hellacious boredom). It’s also a film that could run the risk of being just plain unenjoyable to watch, since the topic seems so black and white -- ‘Dopers Suck’, right? Who needs to see a film to affirm it?

But Nigel is a skilled guy. He deftly focuses the film on the black sheep of the Slipstream family: David Millar, the yellow-jersey-wearing, world-champion Scot whose hands got caught in the doping cookie jar in 2003. Nigel knows that Millar -- the human car-crash-spectacle himself -- is the best way to make the film watchable. The remarkable thing here is that we’re amidst an anger-fueled ‘Dopers Suck’ crusade in the world of cycling -- but somehow Nigel creates sympathy for Millar where it’d seem impossible to exist.

The film is below. Its working title is ‘The Millar’s Tale’, a worthwhile way to spend 11 minutes of your life, so check it out --

Note: If you’re having trouble loading the video, please see part 1 on YouTube here, and part 2 on YouTube here.

You’ve gotta admit -- Millar comes across as a pretty likeable guy. There’s something about his complete contrition that taps into the lessons pounded into my brain by the ritual telling & re-telling of the Prodigal Son story during my middle-school Catholic education. I like him here. I can’t help it. When I first saw the video of his now-famous Felt discus toss in the 2008 Giro, I felt bad because I instinctively wanted him to win that day. HOW CAN I BE FEELING THIS WAY? I kept asking myself. He’s an avowed cheat. How could I put myself in his corner? ‘Dopers Suck’ -- right?

The purpose of this What’s New entry is to ask a simple question: Why is it that as a collective community of cyclists we’ve been eager to forgive certain professed ‘dopers’, e.g. David Millar and Erik Zabel, but we’ve demonized others, e.g. Vino and Rasmussen? What is the basis of this favoritism? Millar got caught red-handed then promptly confessed his guilt no less than Patrick Sinkewitz professed his own after testing positive for testosterone in the ’07 Tour. Millar is warmly regarded, Sinkewitz is not. Why the favoritism? Why the arbitrary application of forgiveness?

We have no answers here. But what’s spawned this inner conflict (other than Nigel’s film) has been two recent articles in major magazines -- one about doping in cycling, and the other not. The first is the Joe Papp article in the June 2008 issue of Outside Magazine. (I must digress and give full props to the stupendous cyclingfansanonymous blog for bringing this article & the resulting reaction to my attention. We’ve posted elsewhere on our site about the blogs we visit daily. Please note that cyclingfansanonymous is now part of that rotation. They might not post every day, but it makes each post that much sweeter.) Unfortunately, Outside doesn’t post their articles online, so bop on down to Borders and pick up a copy. It’s worth it for that article alone.

In short, Joe Papp is portrayed as an enormous loser -- possessing a Lou Reed-like eagerness to spike his veins with everything short of STP Gas Treatment. Like Millar, Papp holds a college degree and doubtlessly some capacity for societal productivity off the bike. And, like Millar, he got caught with a 5-alarm-fire urine sample after a race win. The distinction between Millar and Papp, though, is that Millar was doping to win the greatest races in the world. Papp was doing it in order to dominate the SE Pennsylvania Wednesday-night criterium circuit & the occasional stage win at a 3rd world stage race.

As Outside and cyclingfansanonymous both explain, Papp is now near-suicidal and universally detested. But, again, in the eyes of the world Millar is hunky dory -- WHY? I don’t ask as a means to criticize Millar, but rather I beg of the anti-doping crusaders: Will Papp ever get his chance? Will he ever get to tell his ‘Millar’s Tale’? Yes, Millar has inherent talent that -- doped or not -- makes him useful to a world-class team. But Millar’s fitness relative to Papp’s isn’t the point: It’s the fact that he can walk down the street and not just feel fully pardoned, but for crying out loud he’s a poster boy for two of the fanciest outfits on the bike scene: Slipstream and Rapha. Will Papp ever get to walk with his head held similarly high?

The other article -- patently NOT about cycling -- is from the May 5, 2008 issue of the New Yorker. It’s about Moldova (ex-Soviet Union) and the incomprehensible scope of human trafficking that goes there on for the sex trade. The New Yorker does post their articles online, so you can read it here. In short, Moldova is literally hemorrhaging its population of young women who bolt the country for, say, the promise of a cocktail waitress job in Dubai, only to find they’ve just gotten themselves kidnapped for brothels at points unknown. It’s terrifying stuff. A similar phenomenon holds true for men --

‘…The commercial sex industry, according to the International Labor Organization, absorbs slightly less than half of all trafficked labor worldwide. Construction, agriculture, domestic service, hazardous industries, armed conflict, and begging are some of the other frequent sites of extreme, illegal exploitation….’

Moldova: Noteworthy to knowing cyclists as the home of Andrei Tchmil, super-mega-hard-man of the Spring Classics throughout the ’90’s -- the era when every rider was super-charged. If you believe the conventional wisdom, the ubiquity and intensity of the doping then was only matched by the inability of science to effectively test for it. So let’s be unfair here: Tchmil kicked much ass, so SURELY he doped to the gills, right? His home was Moldova, and that makes it pretty easy to put the New Yorker article in a cycling-specific context: If it weren’t for bikes, at best Tchmil would’ve been sharecropping sugar beets. Worst case, he would’ve gotten stuffed into a car trunk and ended up as slave labor welding a gas pipeline in Siberia. With that as my central assumption, can I possibly begrudge him his doping?

College kids like Millar and Papp (and the thoroughly undoped Cat 3 me) have an embarrassment of options in life. We’re simply not the same as Tchmil, Vino, Abdu and the legions of kids in, say, Belgium and northern France whose lives provide far fewer paths -- Behind Door #1: The generation-after-generation guarantee of a nasty, brutish, short life in a putrid farm field or ramshackle coal mine. Behind Door #2: Show promise on a bike and get exposed to a future of villas, Carreras, and Italian poontang.

Oh my God, am I making a White Guilt argument here? After all, aren’t I just spewing moral relativism ? How does Tchmil’s rags-to-riches-via-EPO differ from the piss-poor Syrian who finds redemption by wrapping himself in a vest of TNT in Anbar, or the corner kid in southwest Little Rock who pays for his Lexus by slinging crack? I certainly don’t approve of jihad or narcotic trafficking. So how can I show sympathy -- at least within certain contexts -- for doping? I guess it’s for two reasons:

(1) I’m exhausted by the pointless preachiness of people spendy enough to drop $10 on a pair of ‘Dopers Suck’ socks or a $2 ‘I Support Drug Free Sport’ bracelet. What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish with your accessories? If it’s a fashion statement, fine -- you’re a natty bag of bluster, easily ignored. But if yours is a moral statement, I need an explanation of how you think you’re bettering racing culture, because I just don’t see it. I identify with your urge to make noise, but where is your inextricably-related urge to make a difference?

Do you want to make a difference? Take your $10 bill, and mate it to a lot of other $10 bills. Figure out a way to buy a pallet of SRAM Rival-equipped road bikes and ship them to Moldova or Poland or Belgium or wherever -- and give a hell of a lot more kids the chance to ride. Let them learn the life lesson that bikes teach best: More work & more discipline = better results. This isn’t about training and bike racing. It’s about life. It’s called the development of a moral framework, and bikes are an amazing tool for teaching it. Like Millar says in Nigel’s movie: It’s the habit of excellence taught by training that makes cycling so beautiful. Let’s give these kids a Door #3. As much as I like seeing or Jonathan Vaughters’ Windsor knots in magazine after magazine, you’ve gotta wonder if Doug Ellis’ philanthropy would find better long-term ROI invested in the establishment of Boys Club-like cycling development programs somewhere far, far removed from the famous race roads of western Europe.

(2) Magically transform me into a 20-year old Moldovan with the knack for bike racing, I’d dope. I know I would. Faced with a Tchmil-ian choice, it’d take about 3 nano-seconds of contemplation to make my decision. And I’d call bullshit on anyone else who says they wouldn’t do the same. The introspective capacity of a neo-pro aged kid (regardless of country) is already weak enough. Add to that the juxtaposition of sugar plum visions of the bling of a EuroPro’s life up against ex-Soviet privation -- you’d do the same.

Sign me up for some socks that say ‘Rural Moldovan Destitution Sucks.’ And what about ‘Kazakh Existential Terror Sucks’? Can SockGuy fit that many letters around an ankleband? Do you have enough room on those socks to write whether you’re sincerely committed to the fight against doping if you’re not giving these kids other options -- that potential to see Door #3? These no-hope kids, do they really ‘suck’? Are ultra-advanced WADA testing protocols the cure to our real ills? If we want to rehabilitate our sport and our world shouldn’t we be investing in other initiatives? In a sense, the Slipstream/David Millar enterprise is the moral equivalent of donating to the Harvard endowment -- why give to where so many others are already giving? High Road, Astana, etc etc -- who isn’t testing their riders 10 times a week nowadays? Why not take that noise & money and put it where the effect will be culturally-altering, not just sporting? WADA, ASO, Doug -- I’ll put my money where my mouth is. I’ll put up 50 Rival-equipped bikes on Competitive Cyclist’s dime. That’s a start. Where should we send them? Who should administer their use? How can we blaze a trail to a new future? C’mon guys, let’s change the world together.