New York Times, Oct 15, 2012. Click here .
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Cycling has always been a part of my life. As a boy my dream was to become a professional cyclist who raced at the highest level in Europe. I achieved my goal when I first signed a contract with the United States Postal Service Cycling team in 2002. Soon after I realized reality was not what I had dreamed. Doping had become an epidemic problem in professional cycling.
Recently, I was contacted by United States Anti-Doping Agency to testify in their investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs on the United States Postal Service Team. I agreed to participate as it allowed me to explain my experiences, which I believe will help improve the sport for today’s youth who aspire to be tomorrow’s champions.
After being encouraged by the team, pressured to perform and pushed to my physical limits I crossed a line I promised myself and others I would not: I doped. It was a decision I deeply regret. It caused me sleepless nights, took the fun out of cycling and racing, and tainted the success I achieved at the time. This was not how I wanted to live or race.
In the summer of 2006, I never doped again and became a proponent of clean cycling through my writing and interviews.
From 2006 until the end of my career in 2012, I chose to race for teams that took a strong stance against doping. Although I never confessed to my past, I wrote and spoke about the need for change. Cycling is now a cleaner sport, many teams have adopted anti-doping policies and most importantly I know a clean rider can now win at the highest level.
I apologize to those I deceived. I will accept my suspension and any other consequences. I will work hard to regain people’s trust.
The lessons I learned through my experiences have been valuable. My goal now is to help turn the sport into a place where riders are not tempted to dope, have coaches who they can trust, race on teams that nurture talent and have doctors who are concerned for their health. From direct experience, I know there are already teams doing this but it needs to be universal throughout cycling.
Progressive change is occurring. My hope is that this case will further that evolution.
The Montreal Grand Prix was officially my final race as a professional cyclist as I will not be racing in Italy this week or China in October because the arm I broke in August has yet to fully heal. During the race in Montreal, it became increasingly painful and swollen around the fracture, plate and screws. I hoped it would improve with a few days of rest but almost three weeks later it is still bothering me. The risk of falling and re-fracturing it in another race it is too great. The Montreal GP was a race day I will remember fondly and nice place to finish my career. It was a well organized race, on home turf, in front of my family, friends and supporters that was capped off by my teammate Lars-Petter’s fine victory.
After a lifetime of bicycle racing and experiences that have taken me around the world, introduced me to my wife and my closest friends, I am ready to retire as a professional cyclist. 2012 will be my last racing season. The Tour of Beijing will be my final race. Cycling will forever be my passion but it is time to change direction to spend more time with my family. I’ve reached a period in my life where I want to grow in other directions and experience some of what I had put on hold while racing.
As a boy, I was fortunate to have supportive parents who surrounded me with a nurturing community. Through the most challenging moments in my cycling career and life, my family has been the safety net that gave me the confidence to persist. Firstly, I must thank them for their unwavering support and love. My wife, Dede, a retired professional cyclist, supported my career and goals and understood the sacrifices a cyclist’s family must make.
Through my 14 year professional career I’ve been fortunate to race with many of the top teams. From my first coaches and clubmates to Dave Brailsford and my Team Sky teammates I’ve had the opportunity to race and learn from many of the best. The last three years on Team Sky has been ideal on every level. Racing is the job I dreamed of doing. I must thank my teammates, coaches, and rivals for making the job satisfying and memorable. The emotions after crossing the finish line, sitting on the bus with teammates and recounting the day will be hard to recreate.
Many of my fondest memories involve the bike but reach far beyond races: riding through the parks with my mother on the way to school, riding with my father, uncle and aunt through Provence, riding with my wife in the Rocky Mountains, and teaching my sons to ride their bikes. On the bike, our relationships developed. That will continue long after I retire as cycling will always be a part of me. Cycling has given me something that reaches far beyond finish lines and race results. Over the last year, as I’ve thought of retirement and reflected on my career, this has become increasingly clear. The racing journey has been a thrill but the cycling journey will continue.
Oh, they’re catching them fast now. The gap is only one minute twenty-three.
Hey Dad. You know Froome is the guy that was second in the time trial in London. And was second in the Tour.
He’s pretty tall. Taller than his teammates.
Oh that guy in blue from Spain is attacking now. Look how steep the hill is. Sky is chasing.
The commentary continued as passengers formed a line, waiting to board the plane. Dressed in Barcelona Football Club shirts, flip-flops, and dark with tans, most were summer tourists at the end of their vacation in Spain. Now, they were going home to Canada. I was on the same flight as I am scheduled to race in the GP Quebec and Montreal, two one day races which would mark my return after a month away from racing due to another broken arm and another surgery.
Sitting in a row of grey chairs, I listened to the boys who were sitting behind me with their parents. They gave a play-by-play commentary about the race that was being broadcast on the muted Samsung flat screen television. I already knew the outcome. It was a rerun of the Vuelta stage I had seen fifteen hours earlier. While packing my suitcase, I had watched it at home, folding my jerseys and rolling up my cycling shorts. As the splintered peloton raced the last five kilometers up the steep ascent, attacking each other, I screwed a new pair of shoe plates on my cycling shoes and then packed them in my carry-on bag for the trip.
Of course, the racers I watched were friends, rivals and teammates. Mine is a biased view of a bike race. Sitting at the gate, watching the race again with a different commentary, my perspective shifted: it was now an enthusiastic child’s. And, through their eyes it became a far more interesting race to watch.
A boarding announcement was made and slowly the line shuffled forward down the bridge and into the plane. The boys, who I now realized were from two families, made no move to get in line. They were fixed on the race as were their fathers. One, who was about my son’s age, seven, knew more about the riders and racing than the others. Occasionally, one of the fathers pointed out the riders’ gearing or explained who was in which group. But, it was the boys who animated the action we watched.
Their voices had a naïve purity that was lovely. The essence of our sport is often clouded and lost.
In the middle of the peloton we are focused on the goal and our attention is to the details that will get us to the line first. The profession eclipses the purity of sport. From a child’s perspective there is little on the screen but bike racers sprinting up mountains. Very likely, the boys didn’t know two of the four riders they were watching had been suspended for doping. They didn’t know about the internal dynamic within the breakaway, which teams were likely to lose their sponsors, which directors were dishonest, which riders rode dangerously, or even, who would be the likely victor. At home, the boys would ride through their neighbourhoods pedaling like madmen on their far-too-heavy mountain bikes as if they were Froome spinning away in a time trial.
When the broken bone took me away from the bike, a surgeon said that I could race six weeks later. In the hospital bed, sipping on tea and eating cookies, I poked at my iPhone, and studied my race calendar. Eneco was out. San Sebastian out. Denmark out. But in seven weeks I could race in Quebec and Montreal. I had a goal. Experience had taught me that a plan and a goal help me heal.
The crash, the surgery, blood loss and forced time off my bicycle would consume most of the fine form I had developed in the previous two months. My rehabilitation had to be gauged and progressive. First, I went for short hikes with my wife. Then longer hikes up a mountain. Then I began running and riding on the trainer but without holding the handlebars. As the pain in my armed abated I was able to push myself on the bike, feeling a different pain that would bring back my fitness.
Watching the stage at the airport gate, I massaged my arm in the way a dog licks a wound or a child plays with his loose tooth. The ache was almost gone but it still somehow felt soothing. I smiled to myself, as the boys commentary continued, as their voices rose with each attack.
It isn’t the job that drives my desire to get back up from each crash to race again but the sport, the fans and the youthful feeling of freedom we all experience when pedaling like madmen.
Harry Zernike, a photographer who publishes 9W Magazine was in Girona a few weeks ago. Here is a beautiful gallery of photos he posted on his site that capture life in the Catalan town and countryside: http://9wmag.com/2012/05/27/girona/
And, a link to another Spotify Playlist I put together for the Tour of Luxembourg: Luxe
A good friend sent this to me some time ago. A lovely couple paragraphs by Roald Dahl.
“It was my first term and I was walking home alone across the village green after school when suddenly one of the senior twelve-year-old boys came riding full speed down the road on his bicycle about twenty yards away from me. The road was on a hill and the boy was going down the slope, and as he flashed by he started backpedalling very quickly so that the free-wheeling mechanism of his bike made a loud whirring sound. At the same time, he took his hands off the handlebars and folded them casually across his chest. I stopped dead and stared after him. How wonderful he was! How swift and brave and graceful in his long trousers with bicycle-clips around them and his scarlet school cap at a jaunty angle on his head! One day, I told myself, one glorious day I will have a bike like that and I will wear long trousers with bicycle-clips and my school cap will sit jaunty on my head and I will go whizzing down the hill pedaling backwards with no hands on the handlebars!
“I promise you that if somebody had caught me by the shoulder at that moment and said to me, ‘What is you greatest wish in life, little boy? What is your absolute ambition? To be a doctor? A fine musician? A painter? A writer? Or the Lord Chancellor?’ I would have answered without hesitation that my only ambition, my hope, my longing was to have a bike like that and to go whizzing down the hill with no hands on the handlebars. It would be fabulous. It made me tremble just to think about it.”
-Roald Dahl, Boy.
In the hospital bed, I tried to recount the crash. Images ran like a film through my head but then suddenly cut as if moments key to putting the sequence together had been edited out. I replayed it countless times, unable to recreate the lost moment. Frustrated, I reached for some more stale cake, trying to satiate my sadness with gluttony. As I devoured the pile of cakes and croissants then slugged down water to wash it all down, my mind shifted away from the challenge. The pain throughout my body faded with the sugar and medicine. Crumbs tumbled to the floor landing on the pile of torn, salt crusted, blood stained races clothes. At the top of the dirty pile were crumpled race numbers. I had been wearing number 13.
Superstition creeps into every athlete’s mind as we try to control millions of variables, pressures and fears. Some turn their worries in prayer while others wear lucky bits of clothing, chain a crucifix to their necks, tattoo a saying on their arm, or perform odd rituals. Few riders speak of their superstitions. But in the hotel room, in the bus, on the start line and in the peloton they are ever present. We all try to trick our minds into believing we are not ultimately responsible for our destinies.
Perhaps I could have shifted fate had I only pinned on my unlucky number 13 upside down like so many other riders often do. Considering that, I began recounting everything I had done prior to the start. I had been determined not to believe in chance, that my destiny could not be moved by a number but by my actions. But lying in bed broken and burned, without answers or reason as to why, I suggested to myself, that perhaps I was foolish not to believe in luck.
As a boy, I had a lucky pair of florescent yellow Assos race socks. Their powers related to the fact that I had won a few races while wearing them. The lucky socks soon wore out, were replaced with new ones and I continued to win. I no longer believed in lucky socks, or charms. I was in control.
Then when I was 14 and at a criterium in downtown Toronto, I heard a few pros chatting about their superstitions on the start line while standing behind the barriers. A florescent clad Suburu-Montgomery rider on a pristine Merlin, said he had gone out for a spin around the block the night before at 11:00 p.m. because the mechanic had put a fresh roll of handlebar tape on his bike. To him, new tape was bad luck so he had to break it in with a ride before the race. An hour into the race, he was off the front, winning prime after prime then nearly snatching the victory from the sprinters. My faith in luck returned.
In 1996, a few months before the Olympic Games in Atlanta, a good friend gave me a four leaf clover that I carefully sealed in a tiny Ziploc bag. Then a young underdog few expected to make the team, I kept the clover in my race bag, determined it would help me get selected. With consistent performances I was on the team. And then in the Olympic Road Race, I rode beyond expectations. A year later, the clover had degraded, losing leaf after leaf until I was left with a stem and a tiny bag of dark green dust. Despite the degradation of my lucky charm, my life continued to progress. It wasn’t the clover but my determination and faith that made the difference.
Over the years, I’ve developed superstitions and with time, experience or maturity, my charms or beliefs changed. Crashes happened with or without lucky socks and I won even when I pinned on my numbers the night before a race. Good things happened, bad things happened. But, even with a lifetime of racing experience I still try to control what I can’t comprehend or fear with the irrational.
In hospital, I continued to question why I had crashed. Of the 128 riders in the race, why was I behind the guy who lost control of his bike? On the way to the start in the team car that morning, the directeur sportif and the team coach had chatted about injuries in races, medical support, and evacuation. Cyclists rarely talk about the crashing and when they do they’ll look for some wood to touch, in the hopes that it will erase their fears. In the car, we spoke frankly and I didn’t touch any wood. A fateful error? Perhaps, the words that were spoken had subconsciously affected the outcome of my race.
As the risks increase, we look for more guidance and control. Without clairvoyance and under ever-present pressure to perform, we grasp at luck to control our futures.
But, as Pierre Trudeau, the long time Canadian Prime Minister said, “Luck—that’s when preparation and opportunity meet.” Whether we place false hope in an old piece of clothing or a rock to deceive ourselves in an attempt to comfort our swirling minds, through each of our actions we are truly in control of our destiny.