Braveheart has left the building

Now that the USADA report is out,  I’ve been thinking about how it could be that the sport of cycling was so dirty for so long; that an aggressive and single-minded athlete like Armstrong, for whom winning at all costs is more important than any else, could be so successful. I also wonder why we focus so much on medals. In Canada, I know there was been some discussion about why it is that government sponsorship for athletes destined to the Olympics is so heavily weighted in favour of winning medals, as opposed to excelling in a sport, whether that leads to medals or not.

There is a kind of contradiction in highly competitive sports. The intense competition brings out the best athletes, and their best performances. But it also brings out, and encourages, our worst qualities – like we have seen with Armstrong. Maybe the shocking extent of the problems in cycling will push the organizations and corporations attached to this sport to rethink their values – that competing in sports should not be about winning at all costs, and that we (the fans) need to stop looking to these athletes to fulfill our cultural fantasies about heroism. After all, the Tour de France is not Braveheart. If a person needs a hero, why don’t they get on a bike, or put on some runners, maybe get out the skis, and become their own hero? Failing that, why not just go see a movie?

A litte progress on a long road

I rode 18 k yesterday and 17.5 k today. Finally my knee, which has been bothering me for a couple of months, has stopped hurting. I didn’t road ride for a couple of weeks, and only did one off-road ride that involved a lot of crashing, walking through rocks, and getting stuck (!) in mud.

So I was surprised to get on my bike yesterday and go faster and farther than I have any other time this year. It felt so great! It seems kind of strange that by not cycling I seem to have gotten better. Of course in the meantime I was walking 1 to 2 hours a day and doing yoga.

I still have not lost much weight, but I am back in the weight loss program that I was in before, weighing and measuring everything; logging all my food. I seem to have my calories back to the right level and I am never hungry, so hopefully things will start to move now.

Before I had my son, I was super-fit. I never expected that I would ever be that fit, but I actually achieved something I had only dreamed of. I really miss how I felt then – like I could do anything I wanted – try a new sport, run top speed for the bus, do a century on my bike, x-c ski with my super-fit friends (one is even a retired pro cyclist).  I hope to get back there again. I do realize that I’m older and it will be different, but just the same.

Other than when I’m writing – poetry, an article, or something else that really means a lot to me, exercise is pretty much the only time when I feel completely alive, as if I am in the right place at the right time and couldn’t be doing anything else. Of course, I don’t necessarily feel that way when it is 35 degrees outside and I am coughing up a lung on my bike and my knee is aching. But I did feel that way today.

I wonder if I will regain that feeling of so many possibilities – that  I could do so many things physically – I really miss it.

The Secret Race – Inside the competition machine

Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race, accomplishes many things. First and foremost, from Hamilton’s perspective, it frees him from lies. He had lied so much during his cycling career that telling the truth in general was not enough. He needed to retell his whole story in detail – truthfully this time – in order to free himself.

It was as if he had gotten caught in a web of deceit and the only way out of it was to weave another, truer story. Surely all autobiographies are to some extent fiction, in that they only reflect the past as the teller remembers it, in a subjective way. But Hamilton engaged Daniel Coyne to help him tell a truer tale. The writer and journalist corroborated the details of Tyler’s account, making it more accurate and complete. The end result is a detailed, excruciating tale that recasts Hamilton’s past as a competitive cyclist in a much more painful and accurate light, freeing him from the lies of his past.

Not that Hamilton’s motivation is only to exonerate himself to his own conscience. The book is intended to shake up the sport of cycling, and given that it was originally scheduled for release on Lance Armstrong’s birthday, Hamilton no doubt intends for the book’s revelations to shake Armstrong’s resolve to continue lying about his own use of performance enhancing drugs.

So, exoneration for Hamilton, and (yet another) challenge to Armstrong to tell the truth:  two things this book does.

A third is dispelling the myth that since during the era when Hamilton and Armstrong competed, all the professional cyclists were doping, it was a level playing field. Not so, says Hamilton (and David Millar, and Jonathan Vaughters). Some riders responded really well to drugs, and this gave them an advantage over others who responded less, meaning, for example, that slower riders could surpass superior riders because of how their biology interacted with EPO.

Also, the richer and more influential the cyclist, the better his access to doping doctors, cutting edge methods for avoiding detection, the latest drugs, etc. He would have a lot of advantages. If you were doping without these advantages, you would be more likely to be caught, more likely to damage your health, and you would probably be slower too. Not exactly a level playing field.

But, really, even without the drugs, cycling, like other very competitive sports where athletes and their sponsors stake their reputations and their fortunes on winning, would still not be a level playing field.

Athletes from rich countries have great advantages over those from poor countries – they have better training, equipment, nutrition, coaching, education, travel, competition opportunities – the list goes on and on. And in cycling, athletes win prize money and sponsorships, which in turn allow them to further cement their advantages.

Getting rid of doping is probably important not because the sport would be more fair (I don’t really think it would be), but because it would be safer for athletes. They would not have to risk their health by taking drugs that could cause heart attacks, cancer and other serious problems.

And finally, it would free athletes from having to choose between living an honest life and living a life of deceit and constant stress. As Hamilton has made clear, no amount of glory, adulation or money could compensate for the loss of an honest life.

Hamilton has said many times that he takes full responsibility for doping – that it was his own free choice. I disagree. Many of the top cyclists of that period were pressured to take PEDs by doctors, coaches and mentors whose job it was to ensure their well-being and success.

These riders were also under a pressure to keep their teams winning so that riders and staff would not lose their jobs.

Doctors are among the most trusted of all authority figures, and coaches are a close second to athletes who rely on them. To expect a young athlete to freely choose not to dope when his doctor and coach are handing him EPO is unrealistic to say the least, and to place all the blame on the individual cyclists misses the point – doping was a part of a very compelling, high pressure culture, and refusing to participate meant giving up any chance of winning.

Cleaning up cycling is in no way the sole responsibility of individual athletes, and neither is the choice to dope. That choice is the product of cycling’s competition machine.

Bicycle Love

At Bridgehead in Westboro – I biked here from home, and the round trip will be about 14 kms. After a long time without much regular biking, I am getting back into commuting everywhere on my bike. Learning how Tyler Hamilton rode for weeks with broken bones (his shoulder or his collarbone, depending on the race) has made me realize that I can do FAR more than I realize. I do long to be in shape again like I was before my son was born – at that time I was working out at the gym and biking between 50 and 140 kms per week, including commuting, mountain biking and touring. And I could ski for hours in the Gatineaus in winter.

Even though I have never been thin, and have struggled with my weight off and on, I didn’t really have a serious weight problem until I developed asthma a few years ago. Apparently it is the kind of asthma that medical residents (at the clinic where I am a patient) have a very hard time diagnosing. I must have seen about 4 of them over the course of a year, and even though I complained of wheezing and exhaustion, they all insisted I did not have asthma. To be fair, I did have severe sinusitis, which probably tricked them into thinking that was the problem. Finally, on my fifth try, I got a really experienced doctor who, after listening very carefully to my lungs, said I had asthma – or “reactive airway disease.”

Whatever! The Advair worked like a charm and in a few days the exhaustion lifted and I had energy again. Unfortunately, I was a good 40 pounds heavier than I had been six months before. At the weight loss clinic that I eventually attended, the doctor pronounced my sudden weight gain “unusual,” but nobody really knows why it happened, other than maybe a new medication I started, or the asthma. Or maybe all the Thai Express, but the question is why I wanted all those Thai Express curries in the first place (I later learned that each individual serving has 1000 calories – horrors). And nobody knows what caused the asthma either.

So anyway, I lost 20 pounds, but stupidly (or not), I took a really high-stress job with sometimes odd hours. It was exciting and I learned a lot, including how stress causes weight gain, since I am now almost back to where I started, give or take a few pounds.

This is where Tyler Hamilton comes in. Surely the task of losing the weight again and getting back into really good shape (like I used to be) will not be as daunting as his crazy journeys with broken bones, and teeth that wore down from clenching against all the pain.

Tyler crashing
Tyler crashing during the 2002 Giro d’Italia, where he broke his shoulder.

Unfortunately, what might be as daunting as Tyler’s journeys is contending with the self-consciousness and revulsion that I feel because I am fat. I have tried to like myself as I am, but I just don’t, no matter how I try. I feel that part of the reason is tied up with the pressure that is placed on women to conform with the images of young, thin women and girls that are used in advertising everywhere.

What a world we live in – everywhere, beauty is linked to thinness and youth, and everywhere, there are advertisings and offerings of food – junk food, gourmet food, pastries, chocolates, candies – and always, the people depicted enjoying these foods in ads are young and thin.

But it is not just the crazy beauty images combined with the crazy food world that leads me to feel this…intense dislike for my appearance sometimes. I think it also has to do with the kind of person I am. I am at my best when I can go mountain biking or x-c skiing for hours at a time, and I love being able to suddenly run for a bus without feeling like a sack of potatoes.

I think being fit and active is part of being fully human for me. Even though I am a writer and spend my working life in a sedentary occupation, I probably have never experienced as much joy as I have hurtling downhill on skis when the sky is the colour of the mediterranean sea, and the snow sparkles with millions of diamonds. I think this latter reason for disliking being fat is a legitimate one, and something worthy of acting on.

The former reason, that the world is a mess and corporations are lying to us about what beauty is, and what good food is, does not strike me as a good reason at all to whip myself back into shape. In fact, it almost makes me want to stay fat, or become even fatter, as a way of saying “fuck you” to these stupid structures.

I suspect that this beauty-as-thinness-junk-food complex might be behind the phenomenon of young women purposely making themselves ugly, or at least un-beautiful, with piercings in weird places, extra fat, shaved heads and lots of black stretchy clothing. I admire this response, because it defies the pressures to conform to everything we are taught, as women, about beauty and how to be attractive.

However, in the end, I think I would like to get back to being the super-fit mountain biker / pilates fanatic, since it is such a positive part of who I am and have been. And besides, I really enjoyed riding my bike today. Since dear Tyler inspired me with his broken bones and flying through the Alps, I have not reset the odometer on my bike.

By the time I get home today, I will have biked 80 kms in about a week and a half. I have enough experience to know I have to ease back into cycling slowly, and weather has also intervened. I am curious to see how many kms I will have on the odometer by the end of the season, in October.