A Season in Sobriety — 2016 year review
In Thomas Dekker’s new book, Mijn Gevecht, or My Fight, there is a line that I would translate as, “if the truth doesn’t come out then the sewage will never come out and the sport will stay the same.” Professional cyclists rarely espouse deep philosophy (Laurent Fignon was called ‘the professor’ not because of his intellect, but because he wore glasses). However, Dekker’s financially self-serving semi-platitude could easily be applied to one’s life, although a cyclist’s life isn’t just about cleaning out the plumbing, it’s about a gradual struggle toward a kind of personal betterment, the persistent tussle between the mind and the body over the virtue of the soul.
At the end of a stressful week, a cyclist rides out into the quiet expanse to shed the burdensome trivialities consuming our daily grind. We do this so that we can get back to who we are, the core of our being, pedaling out into solitude hoping to loose the figurative dirt, peaking at a spiritual cleansing that will leave us fit and fortified for the week to come.
Like the few eccentric American kids who were passionate about road-racing, cycling helped me expend stress accumulated from the hardest times of my lower, middle-class upbringing. In college, I no longer had the time to put hours on the bike so, as an escape, I drank like college students do, lots of beer, occasionally shots. I really learned to drink when I spent a few years working in the former Soviet Union, bottles of vodka piled upon tables, guzzled as if spritzer. After my stint abroad, I moved to New York, a city of functioning alcoholics. I went to graduate school for writing, a profession that turns the best drinkers into pros.
Early last spring, at the beginning, of the 2016 racing season, my pregnant wife sat on my lap and surveyed me with concern as I slavered down my second double-vodka tonic of the night. “Are you going to drink this much when the baby is here?” she asked.
It was then that I was struck by the kind of existential angst that one gets after weeks of dieting, when it becomes apparent that instead of losing weight one is, instead, putting on weight. I was overcome with a feeling that maybe some things never can be changed, an uneasy dark fate similar to watching interviews of the Van den Driessche cyclo-cross family clumsily masking their daughter, Femke’s, motor-doping by blaming the witless brother. First chemical doping, then mechanical doping… Is it even possible to clean up cycling?
Compounding the gooey, omnipresent cynicism, I found it hard to stomach that the Belgian noble, Eddy Merckx, was publicly flogging the nineteen year-old commoner while seemingly forgetting that he had been suspended for doping more than a few times in his own career and, like the lecherous, drunken uncle asked to stay away from an alcohol-free sorority Christmas party, the Germans, in a disingenuous attempt to morally cleanse the 2007 UCI Road Championships VIP crowd, had similarly asked The Cannibal, among others, not to show his face. Topping the Femke-flogging hypocrisy were the internet cycling trolls who were one-minute drooling over the glimmering technology of bikes that cost five-figure, while the next minute declaring war over a tiny motor in a teeners cyclo-cross hub. The only justice I could find during the lynching was that the trolls were confined to the comments sections while Merckx was pulling headlines.
However, what became apparent to me, a soon-to-be father of three, was that Eddy’s son, Axel Merckx, who was Floyd Landis’s teammate and staunchest defender, a rider who came up on a 2013 French Senate list of riders who tested ‘suspicious’ for EPO, had internalized his father’s hypocrisy. And it was then that I realized that if I wanted to be a father whom my boys could look up to, a healthy father who truly believed that eating their vegetables was the right thing to do, a father whose moralizing should transcend instead fall flat in ‘mechanical-doping lifetime bans’, if I really wanted to set an example, I had to stop drinking.
The Femke Van den Driessche affair came and went quickly, but was an ominous beginning to the 2016 season, one that found Greg LeMond, the only American to have won the Tour de France without having the yellow jersey stripped from his Yankee body, a man whose immortality rested on bending technological rules with aerodynamic handlebars, calling for the UCI to sweep all bikes with infrared guns. LeMond had been right about Lance Armstrong playing the protagonist in professional cycling’s version of Trainspotting, perhaps the Californian was right about mechanical doping. In fact, the whole Van den Driessche affair showed how a male dominated sport could spread its sexist wings by nailing Femke upon a UCI-cross with a six-year suspension, the best years to be bled from her petite body. Eddy Merckx, a guy Lance Armstrong seemed to consider as a second-father, continued to wag his finger as if he had never heard, “ye without sin, cast the first stone.”
A few weeks after my declaration of sobriety, I went to the 100th anniversary of the Tour of Flanders. The one-day classic came just days after the terrorist attack in Belgium. On the drive from Amsterdam, my wife and I stopped in Brussels for lunch. We dined amongst the heavy police and military presence, meters from the Eddie Merckx subway station. There was something dark and melancholy to this decimated part of Brussels, the tanks, the armored personnel-carriers and Merckx’s name glowering above them.
Nonetheless, when we arrived at the centennial celebrations in Oudenaarde, it was a glorious spring day for even the nuclear power plant steaming in the distance seemed as fresh as a field of narcissus. Everyone was drinking Belgian beer, a torturous challenge to my soggy constitution, but just like the plump septuagenarian amateurs that ride up De Muur on the day before the Tour of Flanders (one whom died this year), I remained dizzily resolute in my determination to deny myself even the frothiest drink.
Hours later, while Luca Paolini,wobbled merrily through the crowd, on the Jumbotron screens World Champion Peter Sagan broke away from a retiring Fabian Cancellara (it was also either symbolic or ironic or neither that Luca Paolini won the 2015 Gent-Wevelgem while Sagan won in 2016). Thousands upon thousands of people stood, breathless, as the Slovak superstar bounded from the comfort of the cobblestones to the awkward smoothness of the asphalt, then pulled a wheelie right across the finish line with all the bravado and brass of the Flanders greats. Afterward, it was announced that classics Greg Van Avermaet, winner of this years Tirreno, Omloop, and soon-to-be Olympic gold road race champion, had crashed and broken his collarbone. Another World Champion, Lizzie Armitstead won after a photo-finish sprint with Emma Johansson (to watch the women race on cobblestones is a magnificent brutality – or to borrow and paraphrase Quentin Tarantino poorly – violence among women is a spectacular violence all in itself). Nonetheless, it was a fantastic race and it felt as if truly, cycling was not only heading out of the darkness, but speeding into the light, with all the power and strength of Sagan’s legs.
After nearly two weeks of sobriety, I had already begun to feel better. I was surprised by how much work, exercise, and playing with kids I could do without one of those middle-age hangovers that linger for days. Since I was turning older than Matteo Tosatto (who announced his retirement after twenty years racing) and a seemingly tireless, ageless Chris Horner, I had convinced myself that my physical virility was behind me. But then, on another glorious clear spring day, I watched 38 year-old Aussie Mathew Hayman carry his aging body from the distant Parisian suburb of Compiègne, over the hills, through the forests, across the Napoleonic cobblestones, and onto the smooth Roubaix velodrome, ahead of a pack of early-season, twenty-something riders. It was hard not to be encouraged.
I was further inspired by the thirty-five year old Italian, Enrico Gasparotto, who won the Amstel for the second time, dedicating his win to his teammate, Antoine Demoitié, who had just died in a crash at Gent-Wevelgem. Stig Broeckx might have fallen into a coma (which he recently came out of) at the Tour of Belgium, but Wout Poels won the Liège-Baston-Liège and Taylor Phinney won the 1st stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico and later, the national time-trial, two rail-thin hipsters, shining on the rare twenty-million dollar teams, had both spent the last few years clambering back from brutal crashes. They represented cycling as regeneration not decline, as progress, not regress, even if Phinney’s organ-grinder mustache harkened back to the early days of road-racing with Lucien Petit-Breton, Henri Desgrange, and the Pelissier’s who once claimed that they took so many drugs, they “raced on dynamite.”
Much in the way that northern European countries are moaning over bailing out southern European countries, in 2016 the Dutch came to the rescue for Italy. The RCS, which organizes the Giro, is forever losing money, so the Dutch province Gelderland, of all places, a gara di partenza as far away from Italy as figuratively and literally possible, came to the rescue (it does say something rather prescient or precious when Gelderland pitches in to save a country’s national treasure). Irregardless of the circumstances behind the race, it was truly magnificent to see hundreds of thousands of pink Dutch bald heads or sunburned, sweat-engorged faces matching their maglia rosa rugby shirts.
Dutch pretty-boy Tom Dumoulin won the first stage and thus the pink jersey. As a result, his preening face was splashed across newspaper front pages, enflaming the loins of young females across our great European Disunion. Dumoulin lost the jersey for a time then got it back, before losing it for good. It was later taken up by a precocious, lithe Luxembourger, Bob Jungels, who was winning national championships before he could legally drink and who, at the tender age of 24, was part of the UCI Worlds Time-Trial winning Etixx Quick-Step. Steven Kruijswijk, one of the four Dutch cyclists (the group being Poels, Dumoulin, Kruijswijk, and Mollema) that is returning the Netherlands to greatness after years floundering in darkness, donned the jersey for a few days, crashed into a snowbank during a dramatic stage 19, and eventually conceded the pink jersey to one of the greatest all-around racers of his generation, Vincenzo Nibali.
This year the contentiousness between the ASO, UCI, RCS, and Velon was something out of Jersey Shore. When the ASO threatened to walk away from the UCI earlier one could only imagine Oleg Tinkoff tingling with Twitter fever, ready to pick apart the remnants of a fallen institution in true oligarch-style. It is true that the UCI and ASO have had too much power for far too long, but if anything was a symbol of the intrinsic need for these massive organizations, it was that Gelderland forked out 12 million euros to have the first three days of the Giro on Dutch soil, a staggering amount for a sleepy, little province. And while Gelderland became a household name in an estimated 63 million homes and gained a half-million new tourists, the province wound up losing half-a-million euros. To read the final financial report on the costs of three days in Gelderland is to understand that while Velon might be, at first glance, a much needed thorn in the side of the UCI and ASO. Velon and organizations like it, might open the market which would benefit riders, patch the annual sponsor-hunting scrum, and make teams more profitable, but in the end, the hosts of races, such as the Giro, might actually be the ones to suffer financially, at least without the deeper-pockets and long-term, continuous commitment of organizations like RCS.
In any case, by June of 2016, I was finding it more palatable to drink a cup of tea before bed instead of a cocktail. Without drinks however, I found socializing and parties tedious. Dinners with bottles of wine were even harder because apple juice doesn’t wash down a filet mignon the same as a Bordeaux. Besides the Van den Driessche affair, there hadn’t been any high-profile doping scandals. The sport seemed clean so far. This is not to say there was no doping, but just that no one had been caught and perhaps, it was no longer as widespread as the drug-fest, glory days of Floyd Landis.
The Tour was quickly approaching and those lazy summer days sitting on our roof-deck would be difficult without a beer or a glass of cold white wine. Worse, the weeks between the Giro and the Tour is like the time at a party between 9:30 and 11, when you know people will be arriving, yet no one has shown up.
It was during that time that Chris Froome won his third Critérium du Dauphiné, Maurits Lammertink of Roompot won the Tour of Luxembourg, Miguel Ángel López won the Tour de Suisse, Megan Guarnier, another soon-to-be great, won the women’s Giro, the Philadelphia Cycling Classic, and Tour of California, and the UCI Women’s World Tour. And Stephen Cummings won the Tour of Britain amongst a multitude of supporters.
The Tour de France has always been one big, alcohol-guzzling, amphetamine-loving, EPO-shooting, blood-bag swinging, mind-altering party, so I wondered if it would be different now with so many clean riders. In fact, if one goes through the history of the race, especially after the World Wars, when riders were poisoned, drunk, literally too high to descend, an entirely clean Tour de France would be an anomaly.
When I first moved to New York City, Times Square was a mess of drunks, hookers, and drug-dealers. It was seedy, messy, dirty, but colorful. A perfect place for a writer to go drink and observe. When Rudy Giuliani cleaned up Times Square, he did away with the low-class criminals and gave tax-exemptions to the high-class criminals. Now, Times Square is a climate/corporate controlled, grotesque Disneyland that most New Yorkers avoid at any cost (speaking of drug-dealers, my favorite photo of the year had to have been David Millar’s photobomb of Pat McQuaid and Johan Bruyneel hamming it up in the VIP section at Bradley Wiggin’s successful Hour record attempt – a photo so perfectly emblematic of how the UCI and the biggest offenders of doping were not only in collusion, but comrades as well).
This year the whores, junkies, and dealers had been removed from The Tour de France and replaced by Murdoch’s dark Empire of SKY and their stormtrooper army of Skybots. For years the riders on second-tier UCI teams struggled to pay for performance-enhancing drugs. Now, even the little guy on a top-tier UCI team could barely compete with SKY. It seemed as if SKY controlled the Tour de France universe, blasting down any rebellion with their Pinarello destroyers. Froome Vader with his Turbine breathing aid, glowered amongst his armada. Any break-away was reeled in, the yellow jersey was guarded trough the crashes, any interruption in the force was handled swiftly by the lightsaber known as Wout Poels.
The Tour began with few surprises. The sprinter kings Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel, Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish bumped knees regularly and Cavendish came close to breaking Bernard Hinault’s winning streak. With the exception of flirtations by Cavendish, Sagan, and Van Avermaet, almost daily Froome secreted the jersey away to his Death Star.
Bauke Mollema became my favorite rider. The Groninger, a voracious reader and speaking a compressed sort of susurration, was like the troublesome Jedi knight causing trouble for the evil empire. The new inequity of the SKY corporate take-over became apparent when, on the 19th stage, just as Mollema seemed as if he might actually get the yellow jersey, he and Richie Porte ran into the back of television motorcycle. Because Mollema didn’t have a multi-million dollar team to bail him out, he was knocked out of contention.
To make matters worse, during the Tour the geriatric Contador, along with his Dutch coach Steven de Jongh, agreed to push Mollema out as Captain the following year, a choice as short-sighted as moving the finish line in this year’s windy stage 12 of the Tour de France. Mollema has vowed to support the Spaniard, but I hope that it will be more like how LeMond ‘supported’ Bernard Hinault during the 1986 Tour de France before dropping him in the Alps. In fact, Mollema, in an effort that spoke louder than words, made his feelings about El Pistolero clear by winning the Clásica de San Sebastián, a race that almost all great Spanish cyclists have won with the exception of Contador.
The province of Groningen is the perpetual underdog of the Netherlands, but, crashes aside, it is doubtful that Mollema will remain the underdog of cycling. He is indeed one of the finest climbers the Netherlands has produced in years and unlike Froome or Contador, there is nothing polished, nor generic about him. Indeed, he has the kind of working-class grit that we love to cheer for in cycling. Mollema reminds me of Dave from the 1979 Oscar-winning cycling film, Breaking Away, harkening back to the line: “They’re gonna keep callin’ us ‘cutters’. To them, it’s just a dirty word. To me, it’s just somethin’ else I never got a chance to be.”
Admittedly, there was a certain banality toward the end of the Tour de France. The fact that SKY would win was almost a forgone conclusion. Most of the disintegrating Tinkoff team had signed contracts elsewhere so even Sagan’s presence in the green jersey seemed threadbare. Adam Yates took the best young rider jersey after literally crashing into corporate sponsorship (a Vittel banner).
Watching the 2016 Tour de France was about as exciting as listening to me, sober, another middle-aged man regurgitating opinions culled almost entirely from the newspaper in which I subscribed. Without a drink in my hand, I became allergic to anything edgy, exhausted by controversial topics, and I found myself rambling on endlessly about how my dog is a rare Romanian breed, the weather, Dutch versus French speed limits, or whether Froome’s jog up the Ventoux was sport or spectacle. On that final day when team SKY drank champagne as they rolled into Paris, I found myself aching to drink alcohol to calm the turbulence of emotions swelling in my gut. I wanted to celebrate that cycling had been reformed, but also mourn that it had been sanitized as well.
With Apple TV I was no longer locked to watching badminton or pole-vaulting at the Olympics. I could bounce between events, watching track racing for hours (and with a phone in one hand, I was able to Google the arcane rules of Keirin) and while Great Britain took home the lion-share of cycling medals, as a dual-citizen I could cheer for the Netherlands and the United States which took second and third place in medal count respectively.
There is always something special about the Olympics, the hope, the excitement, the amateurness of it all. Sometimes exuberance overtook the athletes, as in the case of Annemiek van Vleuten. Mara Abbot and Van Vleuten had broken away, but the American dropped off after awhile, unnerved by the risks that the Dutch racer was taking. When Van Vleuten crashed we were held captive to the power of cell-phone video as a spectator hovered uncomfortably long over Van Vleuten’s lifeless body. Coach Johan Lammerts left the race to be with Van Vleuten and even though Anna van der Bruggen won, there was an air of remorse and remiss about the ceremony.
On the other hand, Greg Van Avermaet who won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tirreno–Adriatico, crashed terribly at Flanders, then was out for a good part of the season, came back and wore the yellow jersey early on in the Tour, and furthered his success by taking the gold at the Olympic men’s race. The Belgian is a bit too old to be a successor to Eddie Merckx, but he does seem to be heading to the top of his game.
There were other wins of course, too many to mention here. Fabian Cancellara and Kristin Armstrong won the time-trial and, unsurprisingly, the Brits dominated track. Ed Clancy, Steven Burke, Owain Doull, and Sir Bradley Wiggins winning the men’s team pursuit. Katie Archibald, Laura Trott, Elinor Barker, and Joanna Rowsell Shand won the women’s team pursuit. And Elia Viviani and Laura Trott won the Omnium.
The Vuelta was a remarkable race in that Froome and Nairo Quintana set up a fantastic match in the mountains. Contador came to Quintana’s help a few times, but the Colombian held his own. The Vuelta was a real treat for it felt like what the Tour had lost, the authenticity of a real competition.
2016 was a special year for Quintana, who is on his way to becoming a great cyclist. He’s only 26, but he was ranked second in the World Tour, won the Vuelta, Route de Sud, Tour of Romandie. In comparison, when Froome was Quintana’s age, he came in second at the Vuelta, but failed to win any major races.
By the time the World’s rolled around this year, I was back to a glass of wine or two at dinner. I could no longer handle the staid tediousness that came from a sober conversation. I had managed to get through most of the summer without drinking. I had effectively changed my bad habits. To celebrate, I went out a bit too late one night and wound up watching the men’s road-race with a hangover.
Lying there, on the couch, promising myself that I would limit the interval of drinking nights to months instead of weeks, that same vague, existential feeling I had felt months ago, at the beginning of the season, crept over me. But this was different. Now, there were a hundred professional cyclists in Qatar, riding through a desert devoid of spectators. The scorching heat and rolling sand storms were perhaps an apt good-bye for the corruption and decay that Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen had left behind, a hangover if you will.
Qatar has some of the worst human rights abuses in the world, while the UCI under McQuaid and Verbruggen looked away from doping and punished anyone who spoke out. Now, they had left us this spectacle. There is little doubt that Qatar paid handsomely to have the World Championships and, as a result, McQuaid was most likely sitting in some posh villa somewhere, drinking fine wine, and watching the women cyclists faint from heat exhaustion. While Sagan, who won the men’s World road-race, back-to-back, has infused cycling with a much needed charisma and charm, watching a heat-worn pack riding past the only spectators who were slave-wage laborers, cross a finish line to a handful of cheering ex-pats, all in the shadows of pre-fab hotels, it became painfully aware there were so many people bent on profiting and ruining something that so many people loved. What added to dizzying sensation was that the dictators might be gone, but their cronies are still lurking in the shadowy halls of the UCI.
As a teenager, I would look at the poster of LeMond winning the 1989 worlds, covered in mud and screaming over his win and think, “this is what cycling is about.” In 1988, LeMond had come back from a hunting accident, was consistently placing at the bottom of the GC. He had just won one of the most remarkable Tour de France’s by eight seconds so his World’s win validated his yellow jersey. LeMond, a man who later had been so humiliated by Lance Armstrong, mocked by the UCI, was nonetheless a perpetual symbol of rebirth.
Sagan’s win and capitalization of UCI points, a completely clean Vuelta, and with the exception of the Van den Driessche affair, there were relatively few doping scandals in 2016. This meant that professional cycling, which seemed on the verge of death for so long, was poised for rebirth. As Dekker had hoped, the sewage had been mostly cleaned out and what was left was a season devoid of drama.
It had been a busy year, filled with so many races and winners, too many to list here. The Tour hadn’t been quite as exciting, the Giro had gone by, the World Championships were in the Middle East. But within all those lacklustre events, it did feel that cycling was transforming into something more positive and healthier. We were seeing the beginning of what cycling could be. Even new-millennium temperance hero, Jonathan Vaughters in a Cyclingnews opinion piece, had moved on from his deservedly anti-doping righteousness to a less glamorous open market/UCI reform movement.
Doping has been and will always be a part of cycling, but, like my excessive drinking of the past, habits could be changed, certain cultural vices curbed. Let’s hope that Sagan was right when he said recently, cycling has become a clean sport. And he, along with so many other brave riders, coaches, journalists, and staff, had successfully taken cycling away from the obsessive need to win, at any cost, and toward something more wholesome, toward the thing that got most of us into cycling to begin with, the health, the spirituality, and the inspiration.