Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bad Blood

As you can probably guess, Bad Blood is mostly about drugs. Jeremy Whittle was one of the launch editors of procycling in 1999 and he has written about professional cycling for over 10 years, so it is safe to say that he knows what he is talking about on this topic.

He recounts his journey from enthusiastic, but innocent fan who becomes seduced by the Tour and cycling – spending hours watching highlights of the 1986 Tour late at night and cycling his bike through London streets in the early hours – to a jaded, exasperated insider who has fallen out of love with the sport.

It is a brilliant and fascinating read. Whittle has obviously invested far more of his life and thought longer and harder about the problems plaguing professional cycling than I have, but the arc of his relationship with the sport will be familiar to anybody who has followed cycling over the last ten to twenty years.

It isn't a particularly long book and he doesn't go into depth presenting or reporting the evidence of widespread drug use in the peleton. Most of the facts will be well-known to readers but his writing has great emotion and the powerfulness of the writing comes from the way these news stories collide and impact with this one man's life.

The other insider accounts (Paul Kimmage's Rough Ride and Willy Voet's Breaking the Chain spring to mind) I have read tend to be self-serving and resentful and since they are written by ex-riders and support staff tend to be more about settling scores and justifying the protagonists behaviour.

Because Jeremy is one step removed from the actual racing he is more clear-sighted about what is going on and the effects it has on the sport that he loves. Early on in the book he sets out what he hopes to achieve:
... I believe that sport has as much of a role to play in the fabric of our lives as politics or art, and what interests me is not a litany of naming and shaming but the effect of a tacit acceptance of institutionalised doping, both on professional athletes and on their fans.
This he does, but again it is the personal effect on Jeremy himself as a fan and a member of the cycling fraternity that most powerfully illuminates the damage that doping has inflicted on cycling.
There was not any single moment when I realised that a sport – an obsession – that had helped me to come to terms with my own dark places and to rebuild my life had in fact become a prison of its own. Instead, my faith in those working within cycling died slowly – the 'death of a thousand cuts' – as scandal followed scandal, until there was no residue of faith left.
Looking back it took a very long time for me to become faithless ... Yet eventually the sport's inability to achieve change angered me. At the same time, I realised how polluted my own life had been by the melancholy and defeatism of doping. Acknowledging the extent of that contamination was a liberation of sorts.

The essence of doping is cheating and the essence of cheating is defeatism. Doping says, 'this can't be done any other way; this can't be achieved through hard work or talent, through intelligence, determination and honesty'. All that's left is to lie and cheat and make others complicit to that cheating.

And living and working in an environment where those values are the currency of everyday relationships, kills you a little. It colours your belief and taints your faith in human nature.
I will always love the Tour and, because of those magical summer days when as a teenager I followed the exploits of Robert Millar, Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon on Channel 4 in the late 1980s, those three weeks in July will always be special. However, over the last few years I have begun to care less and less who actually wins. I am sure I will always have an opinion about who is going to win and will always follow the sport to a certain degree, but as with Jeremy the dreams and enchantment that I once had are long gone and sadly I think that is true for many other fans.

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