On doping and the utility cyclist

Tour riders

Every now and then, a reporter calls.

I must be in a media directory somewhere, filed under Boring People Who Can Be Easily Located over the Weekend. Or perhaps those who might actually know something about the current state of competitive cycling were still making their way down from Mont Ventoux at the Tour de France, which is what the reporter wanted to talk about.

Did I see Sunday’s stage? Yes, of course. Despite all the scandal, I’m still a sucker for the Tour. Ventoux borders on the mythical. It’s Mount Doom in the heart of cycling’s Mordor — and one does not simply pedal into Mordor.

An unanswerable question

“Would you like to comment on the possibility that Froome doped?” blurted the reporter.

No, not really. How could I possibly know? It’s true that Froome went up the side of that mountain like a brush fire, but domination isn’t necessarily the same thing as doping. Racing is about relative performance.

On Twitter, I moaned a bit about how every performance in cycling (or track and field, it turns out) now carries with it the taint of potential doping. That won’t change anytime soon. Nor will Froome get away with cheating if, in fact, he did. Someone will eventually talk; testing will catch up with performance technology. In the meantime, somebody find Froome a sammich. He’s earned it.

Almost nobody dopes

Increasingly, I find it difficult to care about doping: It’s beyond my control. I’d rather doping not be an issue, as it’s yet another reason for the general public to hate cyclists. Among fans, doping has dulled hero-worship. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Only a tiny fraction of cyclists dope, anyway. With all the money behind it, competitive cycling casts an oversized shadow. Weekend warriors sometimes dabble with performance enhancing drugs, but it’s mostly among elite competitors that there’s pressure to risk one’s health and reputation for an illegal advantage. I think it’s fair to say that fewer pros dope now than a few years ago. The closer you look at doping, the more exceedingly thin its margin appears.

This is because the overwhelming majority of people on bikes are riding to get to work, fetch groceries, or just get some fresh air. Even in the United States, which is just starting to develop a native, non-sporting bike culture. A little over 39 million Americans rode six times or more in 2012. USA Cycling licenses about 71,000 competitive cyclists (this includes coaches and mechanics). While there are other sanctioning bodies, the math remains pretty lopsided. Doping is irrelevant to cycling at large.

The slippery slope to hell

Then again, maybe these clowns are going to screw it up for everyone. Yeah, people are racing cargo bikes. It’s bad enough that I might bunted into the weeds by some bony Chris Froome wannabe, blowing past in a blur of improbably hued lycra and carbon fiber.

The gates of hell have been thrown wide. Now I may have to encounter a new breed of ultra-competitive utility cyclists, seeing how fast they can flog their bakfiets while balancing a 30-pound sack of fertilizer, two preschoolers, a keg of beer, and a couple days worth of groceries.

Come to think of it, that sounds like a blast.

Photo credit: Creative Commons image of Stage 8 in the 2007 Tour de France by Flickr user Bas Kers (NL).