Alex Massie

Say it Ain’t So, Ricco...

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The other day I was all poised to praise Riccardo Ricco, whose two stage wins in this year's Tour were thrilling pieces of cycling. I was going to suggest that if Damiano Cunego could show some better form there might be some hope that we could enjoy a modern rivalry that might offer a pale echo of the great Coppi-Bartali tussles of the past. Not so fast, my friends. Ricco has been kicked out of the tour (though, as always in cycling, the details remain less than clear) and the Saunier-Duval team has withdrawn from the race. Perplexingly, the organisers say this shows they are winning the battle against doping. Here's some of what I wrote about doping last year, most of which still stands today, I think:

Cycling fans have a complex emotional relationship with their heroes, but one should never forget the role of pity. That's not an emotion associated with many other sports. But it's an important part of the tifosi's relationship with the bike riders. One feels for their suffering. The attitude is simple: you would take drugs if you had to do what they do too. The miracle of bike racing is, pace Dr Johnson, not that it is done well but that it is done at all.

EPO changed that dynamic slightly. Cycling didn't become easy, exactly. But it did become easier as riders were able to operate at full tilt for longer and recover from their exertions more easily than had previously been the case. The road was still rough, but not quite as brutal as it had been. Suddenly you could, once you;d learnt how to do so safely, take drugs to thrive rather than just survive. The distinction may seem bogus to non-cycling fans or to moralising hacks but it is, I believe, real.

Even then I find it hard to blame the riders. They still suffer for their sins after all. And how different, really, is taking EPO to, say, having the advantage of a revolutionary bike design that gives one an advantage over the rest of the field? Neither are exactly a product of your heart or guts or ability; both are means of exploiting those qualities to the fullest.

And yet, perhaps times need to change. The range and sophistication of the chemical enhancements now available are such that the old days of cocaine and amphetamines (poor old Tommy Simpson being th e classic example here) do seem quaint and innocent by comparison. The point is not that cyclists have always sought to take drugs (we know that and are relaxed about it) but that today's drugs are too good. They risk stripping riders' of their essential humanity, transforming them into robots from some futuristic movie: Terminators on Pedals. Consequently, the risk is that the link between the fan who honours the Kings of the Road for their suffering may be weakened...

...If I have a problem with EPO it is not so much the risk to riders' health as an aesthetic objection. It makes the racing less varied and, consequently, less interesting. If the peloton can go at it hammer and tongs all day it becomes that much more difficult for a breakaway to succeed. That makes for duller racing. Equally, faster average speeds on the flat are tough on the (relatively few remaining) specialist climbers who arrive in the mountains having exerted more energy just to keep up with the pace on the flat and consequently less able to take advantage of their strengths. My suspicion is that modern drugs help non-climbers in the mountains more than they aid climbers on the flat. This too makes for more boring, more predictable racing.

I'd stand by that today, I think. And add that, in the name of better racing, I'd ban the radio ear-pieces the riders' use. That's a trivial thing when placed beside the problems of doping, of course, but it would help improve cycling too. You can have fine racing when everyone is doped and you can have good racing when no-one is; the problem comes when some people are doping and other's aren't... So, no, I don't have much of a solution either.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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