It is hard for people who have not been a part of professional cycling to understand: the human body, no matter how well trained, is not capable of healing fast enough to continue racing in grand tours like the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia – at least not how the courses are designed today. Race organizers, in pursuit of fan-captivating drama try to outdo the difficulty of last year’s course. The result is that riders often have to take something to heal or recover or face the humiliation and pay cut that goes with dropping out of the race.
“The organisers must do things differently. The courses should not be so brutal; you can still have a good show with shorter stages and less mountains – if it’s so hard then it will encourage riders to ‘take something’ to help them get through.” — Cristian Fanini, owner Amore & Vita
The issue isn’t just going fast. It’s going fast every day, often with little time to recover emotionally, energy-wise and physically. As the season (or the race) wear on, you pile up lots of little injuries that require Wolverinesque healing superpowers in order to keep a contender in the race. Since no one has “mutant healing factor” they turn to science to recover from everything from dead legs, saddle sores, muscle and tendon injuries and even respiratory ailments.
So far a Armstrong goes, Amore & Vita owner Cristian Fanini really sums up how most people who have participated in cycling at a high level feel about the situation:
“Maybe he took something, but if he did he was only a part of the 80% of the peloton who were doing the same thing – he’s a man in a million.” — Cristian Fanini in an interview with VeloNation
Which brings us to the waste of time and money that is the investigation into Lance Armstrong and the media whoring of Tyler Hamilton. Like it or not, today’s professional cycling is a superhuman sport. When team owners like Fanini say that 80% of the peloton dopes, that’s an understatement. Cycling has a rich history of using drugs to get through impossible races. In 1967, British Rider Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux due to amphetamine use combined with dehydration. Looking at a history of Tour Winners, you’ll find names like Eddy Merckx (5 time winner), Laurent Fignon (two times winner), Miguel Indurain (5 time winner) all have tested positive for doping in their careers.
Does the fact that the Canibal (Merckx) and other grand champions doped make it right? No. But before cycling is ready to end doping, it’s time to make the grand tours compatible with human limitations. Sure, there will be cheaters, but at least then the cheaters will be distinguishable from someone just trying to survive to ride another day.