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Is watching pro racing an essential part of being into cycling?

Frank Strack
8 Jan 2019

The Velominati’s Frank Strack used to take his inspiration from the world of pro cycling. Now he’s not so sure

Dear Frank,

My mates are all obsessed with the Tour de France, but I’ve never really been into watching pro racing. Would my own riding enjoyment be enhanced if I made more of an effort?

Findlay, Sussex

Dear Findlay,

Had you asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have answered a resounding ‘yes’. I’ve always been a huge fan of pro cycling, whether watching it, reading about it or spectating.

But over the course of the past decade or so, I’ve found myself increasingly disheartened by the nagging question of whether or not the performances are too good to be true.

And the riders’ defiant and incredulous attitude towards such questions has resulted in a loss of interest in it. Not in cycling itself, but in the sport.

It is impossible not to come across as a hypocrite when talking about doping in cycling.

My favourite era was the 1990s and of course I was blissfully unaware of how super-human those performances were.

Somehow, knowing the truth hasn’t affected the tint of my rose-coloured glasses when it comes to the likes of Pantani, Bartoli, Zulle and Ulrich.

If the 1990s was my favourite era, the 1980s was the most formative, a time when I was getting into the sport and trying to understand what it was all about.

The doping went all but unnoticed to fans, but it certainly went on.

As my knowledge increased, my eyes turned towards Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx and De Vlaeminck for additional context and a clearer appreciation of the heritage of the sport.

Throughout all of those eras doping was rife, but there was always a humanity to the athletes, a fragility that all of us possess on varying levels and that made them sympathetic to us.

We can identify with self-doubt and fragility. It is why we love Shakespeare’s tragedies – they are stories about humans who are just as flawed as we are.

Beginning with the Armstrong era, the humanity in the athletes slowly started to erode.

If memory serves, Lance Armstrong had one bad day in seven Tours de France. That is not natural, not normal. While it may be impressive, it’s not relatable on a human level.

The final straw was the recent business with Chris Froome's adverse analytical finding for Salbutamol at the Vuelta. Team Sky launched with the most hard-lined ethical stance any team in pro cycling had ever taken.

It was a new attitude, where no rider with a history of doping was allowed to participate as a rider or in management.

Given the history of our sport, that position seemed unrealistically staunch, but it was refreshing nonetheless.

There would be a culture of purity – no Therapeutic Use Exemptions – and riders would ostensibly self-suspend if there were any suspicion over them.

But then the team started to feel an awful lot like one of Armstrong’s trains, and the same incredulous attitudes in the press conferences by David Brailsford sounded a lot like Lance’s team director, Johan Bruyneel.

And when Froome returned his AAF, he stubbornly continued to race, going so far as to win the Giro d’Italia in spectacular, eyebrow-raising fashion. For me, something finally broke.

What I’m left with now is my undying love for riding my bike, competing occasionally and watching my teenage nephew evolve into a successful young racer.

These are all very fulfilling things and I don’t feel any poorer for not following professional cycling.

That said, I do feel my appreciation for the sport would be much weaker if I didn’t fully understand its history and culture.

If you aren’t into following the Tour, I would encourage you to get some classic cycling films such as Stars And Water Carriers, A Sunday In Hell and La Course En Tete to help build an appreciation for how staggeringly rich and beautiful the sport of cycling truly is.

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