Lance Armstrong and countless other riders have made talking about cycling very difficult these days. You almost need a medical degree just to understand what they did and the lengths they went to hide their transgressions. It is difficult to even talk about what should happen to all of the vacated titles. Do you leave them empty in the record books to show how tainted the sport was? Do you award them to riders that supposedly cheated less, or at least less effectively? It is difficult to talk about the sport’s leadership and governing body. No less that Greg Lemond is calling for UCI leadership to step down. Even the Tour de France’s new conference unveiling the route for the 100th edition is peppered with questions about the state of the sport and the cheating. It is hard to remember why we want to be involved or follow a sport with all of these issues.
I want to step back for a little while. I want to remember some fundamentals about cycling that make it worth spending so much time on a bike. I want to talk about the most basic tenant of our sport and how it will never change. Courage. There is courage everywhere in our sport, and not just at the highest levels. Perhaps there is less there anyway. Lance Armstrong is currently defined by this scandal, but even in writing about his cowardice in cycling you have to admit his courage in fighting cancer. We don’t need to talk about the courage it takes to ride the Tour de France. It does take courage, but that is also the rider’s job. Get on the bike and climb that mountain. It is no one’s job to fight cancer. No one is sponsoring someone’s attempt to live and then regain what they have lost in the fight. There is courage in doing what you must to survive even when the outcome is in doubt. So as we castigate Armstrong for what he has done to cycling, we must admit his courage elsewhere. Perhaps that is what makes this a true tragedy. A fallen hero that had the courage to do the impossible, but not the morally correct in another situation is a more difficult story than the evil doper that did it for the money.
There are simpler, and powerful, displays of the courage in cycling. There is the story of a man in Massachusetts that is changing his life by climbing onto a bike. Ernest Gagnon started cycling in 2010 as a way to regain his life. He weighed 570 pounds. He had to loose weight or loose his life. He talks about being depressed, isolated, and unhealthy. He turned to cycling to regain his life and found so much more. I can’t begin to do his story justice, but please check out his blog. Ernest became a philosopher as well, creating his Spandex Theory. Paraphrased, it is that one must display who they truly are to ever be happy or change.
There is the story of my friend Katie as well. Again, her blog tells her story far better than I can, but I want to touch on it here. She didn’t learn to ride a bike as a kid like most cyclists. She started to love cycling by watching the Tour. She had to borrow a bike to learn how to ride, and to overcome the fear of falling. We all have that fear as we ride, especially after we have fallen a few times. You never get over it, but you know how to fall, and how to ride, so it is easier to live with. Katie didn’t know any of that, but she learned to ride anyway. She kept picking her feet up and trying again. It is easy to learn to ride when you are a kid. You don’t know how hurt you can get from falling, and the ground is a lot closer. She learned how to ride when the mental stakes were so much higher than they were for most of us, but she did it anyway. That is courage.
These are the stories that inspire me and the people that I think about when I hit the wall on a ride. They are what keeps me going when I hit 35 mile an hour wind on Martha’s Vineyard or when I found the courage to wear spandex when I ride myself. If Ernest can, so can I. If Katie and learn to ride, I can push into the wind a little while longer. How can you not respect other’s courage with a little of your own?
So it is difficult to talk about professional cycling these days, but perhaps it is the rest of us that will make it a little easier to talk about cycling in general. Maybe we spend too much time admiring the riders as they climb the Alps and not enough time seeing the courage in each other. Anyone can cheat. Not everyone can change their lives when it would be so much easier to stay the same. Let’s take some time to celebrate those that make the effort.