Armstrong and our fallen dreams

armstrong-9I wrote this in early 2013, after seeing Lance Armstrong’s revelatory interview admitting he had taken performance enhancing drugs.

Sitting here, looking at Lance Armstrong opening up, or really breaking down in front of Oprah Winfrey, it’s hard for me not to feel sorry for him but also hard not weep for all of us and our fallen dreams.

In 2001 when I had first got interested in the sport of cycling I watched Armstrong, Armstrong the proud, the bold, turn to look into the eyes of his great rival Jan Ullrich and then launch a devastating attack up Alpe D’Huez. Out of the saddle he seemed to glide up the mountain, his face impassive, his legs chopping out his savagely high cadence. Ullrich’s pained face, puffing out of his mouth as he tried to follow, seemed to show the difference between gods and men. Armstrong, spinning into the clouds, rounding the hairpin corners as if they were descents, was ascending to Olympia.

It was not that I particularly liked Armstrong, it was plain even then that the saintly cancer survivor image was only one part of a complex personality. Any teammate who questioned his authority – Jonathan Vaughters, Levi Leiphiemer, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, immediately got the boot. Armstrong, it seemed, did not have friends. His only friend was victory.

Gracelessly he would never acknowledge weakness or favours – when Ullrich waited for him after a crash in 2003, when Marco Pantani narrowly beat him up Mont Ventoux in 2000. Armstrong would simply deny that it happened. That just wasn’t Armstrong’s way. He was the kid who had to always win grown up.

Like most people, by the time of his late Tour de France victories in  2003, 2004 and 2005, I fervently wanted to see him beaten. His performance was too well drilled, too controlled by his team, too risk averse. It was also highly suspicious. Riders who had previously suffered in the mountains such as Floyd Landis and George Hincapie were suddenly climbers, were now leading lithe mountain men like Roberto Heras and Joseba Beloki up the Pyrenees, paring down the field for their boss.

It was obvious, especially in 2004 and 2005 that Armstrong’s US Postal and then Discovery teams were operating on a different plane of human performance to the others. Obvious too from Armstrong’s ugly bullying of Italian rider Filippo Simeoni ,who was outspoken on  the use of drugs in the peloton and who had testified against Armstrong’s doctor Michele Ferarri for ‘sporting fraud’, where this advantage was probably coming from.

American journalist Daniel Coyle nailed the attitude of most European cycling fans to Armstrong. We didn’t dislike him because he was taking drugs – we sort of silently accepted that they all did that, it was that he didn’t give us the spectacle we craved, of man struggling against fate. He didn’t do heroic breakaways, he did military precision, attacks only at specified times, calculated down to the last millimetre. Winning was all.

So most of us would have forgiven Armstrong his doping, but even we had limits. I lost all interest in professional cycling the following year when Floyd Landis, an ex-team mate of Armstrong’s went to pieces one day in the mountains while leading the Tour but the following day recovered the 20 minutes that he had lost, fresh as a daisy, as if the previous day had never happened.

My feeling was like the circus customer who finally turns away in disgust from the show – ‘they really want us to believe that?’ Not too surprisingly, Landis failed a drug test shortly afterwards and was stripped of his Tour title. That year also, most of cycling’s major stars, including Armstrong’s great rival Jan Ullrich were caught up in a Spanish police anti-drug operation – Operacion Puerto – and banned from the sport.

That was it for me. It just wasn’t feasible that Armstrong had ridden clean and still beaten a man like Ullrich when he was doped. And yet when Armstrong was finally caught and stripped of his Tour titles in 2012, all I could feel was sorry for him. I didn’t think he was innocent but for some reason I didn’t want him to get caught. It would have tarnished all the memories of his greatness. In the years leading up to that, including his ill-advised comeback of 2009-2010, I just wanted him to keep his mouth shut and not to comment on the allegations, it was just making his inevitable fall all the harder and more gruesome.

Pride truly does come before the fall, and there never was a man prouder than Armstrong and no man whose fall was more humiliating. Armstrong the man who controlled his team as a military commander. had to watch his former team mates, under threat of committing perjury, line up one after the other to incriminate him. Armstrong who had appeared to make conquering the mountain passes easy since 1999 had been doing it all with oxygen-boosting EPO. Armstrong who had called his accusers liars, finally admitting that he was himself a liar.

The point about cycling is that it represents in some way a conquering of nature and our own physical limits. We now know that to do this honestly is not possible. Weep, weep for our pride.

As for the actual confessional interview, I’m afraid I’m not impressed. It started off promisingly, with him admitting doping, (though, ‘not a lot’) during his 7 Tour de France wins. ‘It was like putting air in our tyres and water in our bottles’, he said. That much, at least rings true.

But there was too much evasion and dishonesty. That he never forced team mates to dope. Extensive testimony from former team mates – or should that be subordinates – contradicts him. That he was clean in 2009 and 2010. Why would a rider who admitted doping since the mid 1990s start to ride clean suddenly when in his late 30s? And how could he still finish third against men two thirds his age? That his doctor Michele Ferrari was an honest doctor. The Italian Court that convicted him of sporting fraud would disagree.

But in a way most galling of all was this story that, ‘I’ve changed’ and, mere weeks after denying utterly any wrongdoing, that he’d now seen the error of his ways – proof positive that he has not in fact changed. Armstrong – a knife fighter by instinct – pretends that he’d put away his blade. In fact, winning is the only thing that ever mattered to Armstrong, the truth is not in him.

Wicklow 200 2014 – Sebastian Strikes Back

rain w200 2014

Readers of Dorneythoughts will have encountered already the story of our 2013 Wicklow 200 and Sebastian’s unfortunate demise right on the brink of finishing.

As 2014 rolled around there were ominous signs. Sebastian had armed himself with; heart rate monitor, cadence monitor, turbo trainer, and most importantly, an all carbon bike with Italian flag painted on the side. None of this boded well. I had since developed mild ashtma – the unfortunate product of a viral chest infection and stag weekend in Brussels – and had been off the bike for nearly two months. I noticed the return of a moderately sized belly.

When cycling I began to notice too Sebastian’s rear  wheel beginning to get away from me and to fade into the distance as I huffed and puffed up climbs. This was ominous as Sebastian is a competitive type and had long sworn vengeance on the Wicklow 200 and me in particular for the debacle of 2013. I steeled myself for a long arduous day of chasing him around Wicklow.

As it turned out though it was to prove as much a battle against the elements as with Sebastian.

One of the most difficult things about the W200 is actually its early start – 700 am in Greystones, meaning that most riders turn up knackered and sleep deprived even before it starts. So it was with us. We managed to get there in plenty of time this year, but as we did, the heavens opened. Great streaks of rain piled down the car windscreen as we pulled into the carpark, where hundreds of riders were milling around.

I went for a quick toilet break, hanging up my helmet on a coat hanger outside the cubicle but keeping on my little peaked cycling cap, which I would need to keep out the rain. After we registered and pulled away, joining hundreds of riders up the first climb of the day, the Long Hill, the rain eased off a little. During the climb (just a warm up for the real things later) I chatted with guys from the Dublin Fire Brigade cycling club. At the top the sun even came out for a moment, displaying my shadow beside me. I looked at it. Then I patted my head. I turned to Sebastian, ‘I’m not wearing my helmet’. ‘Oh yeah’ he said.

I’m not a helmet warrior, when commuting by bike (as opposed to ‘proper’ cycling) I usually don’t wear one. But (a) the rules of the W200 demand you must wear one at all times and (b) today of all days, with increasingly heavy rain and long dangerous descents it would’ve given me some peace of mind. Too late to turn back now though. I just had to put up with the odd steward shouting at me, ‘where’s your helmet man?’

helmetless w200

On the road to Laragh there was not rain. There was a deluge. We sloshed through rivers that flooded the road before taking the turn right up towards the 8km long climb of the Wicklow Gap. The previous year we had done this climb in baking sun. This year streams of water passed us going the other way as we ground up the Gap. Rainwater sluiced off our waterproof jackets. I say ‘we’ but in fact I saw Sebastian only for the first half of the climb. The previous year I had had to wait from him on this climb, but now he was dropping me. I just gritted my teeth and met him at the top.

Descending in the rain is not a joy. Particularly not when helmetless. Faster riders zipped past us, throwing up sprays of muddy water. About halfway down I realised my brakes were no longer really slowing me down and just let go. On the long flat stretch from Hollywood to Baltinglass I was for the first time, grateful for Sebastian’s increased prowess, chewing his back wheel as he rode me up to a big, fast group of club riders. I got a couple of funny looks. ‘Do you know you’re not wearing a helmet?’ Sigh. ‘You see what happened was…’

A soggy food stop in Baltinglass. So far so good. But the hard part starts now. The rolling countryside through Hacketsown and back towards Aughavanagh really saps you. Particularly in this weather. And I spend most of it chasing Sebastian, who seemed particularly keen to drop me. The hardest part of the W200 is a middle section with three climbs one after the other. First a 2km dash up Aughavanagh. Then a punishingly steep 5km ascent up Slieve Mann and then another hard 5km up the Shay Elliot (Drumgoff). Sebastian sprints up the first climb with me hanging on for dear life.

At Slieve Mann though, I had an unexpected revenge. At the bottom of this spiteful climb we stopped to take off our rain jackets – the rain had eased for now and we knew we were going to sweat. The process then begins of the long slow grind up the 10% gradient on road surfaces that feel like they’ve been bombed from the air. You have to just get into a rhythm and see it out. But after doing this for a few minutes I looked over my shoulder. No Sebastian. It seemed his efforts in the first half of the event had cost him dearly. I spun joyfully to the top and tried not to gloat when he arrived.

More hairy descending in the wet and then up the Shay Elliot climb. Again Sebastian dropped back. I silently patted myself on the back. There is no victory quite like a spiteful pointless unacknowledged one. But in fact this year he is only maybe a minute behind me on the Shay. I internally noted that the future can only bring this gap down, and shuddered.

Of the descent I can remember nothing except squeezing wet squealing brakes and hoping they slowed me down a little. But of the road to Rathdrum and the second food stop – around 150 km in – I can remember the following; rain so torrential we could not see the road ahead. The floodwater soaking through my cycling shoes so that my feet began to lose feeling. Our wheels sloshing through small ponds on the road. Sebastian and I  chasing a rider in an orange Euskatel kit. Sebastian and I looking at each other and laughing. With conditions so horrendous there is sometimes nothing to do but laugh.

Final leg – Rathdrum to Greystones. This section on the W200 always hurts the most – mainly because most riders are already spent by the time they reach it. There are a seemingly never-ending series of small climbs that sap your energy further. And of course this year there was the rain. We were constantly taking off (optimistically) and putting back on (realistically) our rain jackets.

At one point a herd of cattle crossed the road, leading to a traffic jam of riders behind it. But no one objected. We were glad of the break. ‘I don’t think this is a bad thing at all’ I remember saying. As the road leveled out we get in a fast group and gallop towards Greystones at about 30km/h. Which after all that time in the saddle is fast. Driving the group are some tough women cyclists. ‘Pick it up’ one shouts at us when we get on the front.

As we approach the final roundabout in Greystones, Sebastian is almost deliriously happy. He has erased the shame of 2013 when a mechanical failure right at the end prevented him from finishing. He sings an improvised song based on my name, then he sprints for the finish. I am too tired to chase him.

I never did find my helmet.

My Wicklow 200, 2013

On the Wicklow Gap.
On the Wicklow Gap.

My first time doing the Wicklow 200 since 2006. It hurt.

Wicklow 200 2013

Stress. It’s 6.10 am and I get a text from Sebastian *; ‘Where are ya dude’? I was supposed to be at his house at 6.00. He comes to pick me up. But he’s not happy.

We get on the motorway after a few twists and turns and motor it out to Bray. Sebastian is not loosening up. We get there just before 7.00. After some more messing we roll out at about 7.30. Along the long brooding N11. There’s no mass start in the W200 anymore so we pass by groups in dribs and drabs and get passed too by others, including one guy in a time trial skin suit and sperm shaped helmet. It really does take all sorts. Lots of hybrids and commuting bikes as well as road bikes, but we skim by them quickly enough.

Up the Long Hill, a long but gradual climb on a good road over the shoulder of the Sugar Loaf, generally we cut through the slower riders, passing lots who’d started earlier. One or two stay with us or go faster. At the top a lot of the 100 riders on their hybrids have pulled over either to rest or maybe to wait for their friends. Sebastian is not impressed by this. Not professional enough. It doesn’t reinforce his self image of cool powerful purpose.

I’m glad to get them out of the way. On the long flat road to Laragh we try to get in a good group, but as Sebastian remarks, ‘there are no groups’. Every time we follow some fast riders into a group, they don’t settle in, but fly past them, us following. We try to sit in some groups but find ourselves going too slowly, so we hop on to the next. Same thing. In a fast group coming down through Annamoe we let the leading riders go and roll into Laragh and the turn off point for the 200 on our own.

A few more pedal strokes and it’s up the Wicklow Gap, that long slog of 8km uphill. Never very hard but not easy either. I exchange pleasantries with group of guys in black, I think we were talking about weddings or something but I honestly can’t recall now. I drop Sebastian for a short time at the steep part but drop back for him then. We reach the summit together. There’s a water stop which is kind of chaotic (there is for instance no water, just carbohydrate flavoured stuff). The sun is beating down already – it’s about 9.00.

W200 drink stop

The descent is fun and fast and we end up rolling along in a very big group, smashing down the rolling terrain towards Hollywood, led by two very strong old Northern guys. Lots of Nordie and semi Nordie riders are here including fast group of racers from Carrickmacross, Monaghan. Another climb and then a steep descent into Hollywood. Then it’s onto the Blessington Road and banging away down to Baltinglass and the first stop. We decline to match the 40kph speed of the Carrickmacross boys and plough along ourselves until we finally get overtaken by a fast, but not too fast, group led by the Blessington club,’ Reservoir Cogs’ and get dragged into the first food stop.

It’s the Wicklow so there’s queues for the check in. But everyone’s in good form, there must have been 500 riders there. The general sentiment seems to be ‘80km in, this isn’t so bad’. Experience and pessimistic nature has me telling them, ‘the tough part is yet to come’. And so it is.

There’s a long 40km stretch of rolling road between Baltinglass and Tinahely, after which the climbs start again in earnest. But first we roll through sleepy southern Wicklow and County Carlow, including a steep little hill through Hacketstown, before again facing north and back into the mountains. One little ramp downwards on this section gets us up to 78 kmph I’m told by people with the right equipment for measuring such things.

But then, as I knew it would, the fun starts. First a quick 2 km climb and descent up Aughavanagh. No big deal. Then signposts for the Glenmalure valley, which means we’re going up Slieve Mann. I just spin away and soon leave Sebastian behind. There’s no waiting in middle of hard climbs, this one c.5km at an average of 9% gradient. In other words for every ten metres you travel, one is straight up. I’ll see him at the top.

The scenery is beautiful in this quiet valley but all you can see is long lines of cyclists struggling very slowly upwards. I’m feeling fairly good and I’m passing most riders now, apart from the odd accomplished guy who spins past me. Christ it’s not easy though. The sun is scorching down, the road is steep and broken. You have to weave to avoid potholes and slower riders, some of whom are reduced to walking. Gradually, very gradually the road levels out. Around a bend is the summit and the water stop. Which is great but there are massive queues of thirsty cyclists. The strong northern guys from the road to Hollywood appear over the crest as I’m waiting and shout that they’ll get water at the bottom. But I’m completely out and it would be foolhardy to go on with empty bottles.

Besides I have to wait for Sebastian. When he does arrive, I let him skip the queue by standing beside me. But on the plus side he does persuade me out of the mad idea of getting out of the queue and continuing with no water. This is wise advice.

The reason it is so is that I had completely forgotten what lay at the bottom of the Valley – another 5 km climb, the Shay Elliot. I remember virtually nothing about the descent, just blessedly fast and easy kms and a cooling breeze. But I can remember plenty about the unanticipated Shay Elliot. The gradient is never as steep as Slieve Mann. I’m grinding away fairly handily, but I’m tired now, 130 km in, my legs ache and above all I hadn’t been mentally ready. Some riders start walking right at the bottom

Sweat stings my eyes and now my upper lip too where it’s been sunburnt. At the top riders are flaked out all over the place. One or two appear to be asleep. There’s a van selling food and drink here. I buy a can of seven up for me and two bottles of water for Sebastian, who arrives maybe ten minutes later. ‘Genius’ he says. I’m impatient to get going again. Another beautiful descent and we’re back down onto the Laragh Road, heading for Rathdrum. The surface is terrible, my ass hurts, my wrists hurts, my neck hurts. But after ten km or so we roll into Rathdrum. I meet one or two of the people I’d been talking to in Baltinglass. ‘I told you it’d be tough’. They nod. ‘It was’. Everyone seems relieved though, the worst is over. But as I recall from the 100 last year, the final 50 km or so are not easy.

At first it is. We get in a good group and fly downhill into Avoca. But then the road turns skywards again, another 3-4 km climb into Redcross. It seems like unnecessary punishment. Sebastian groans, ‘I don’t want this’. We’re all hurting though. Another water stop at the top. Another wait. On every hill I’m passing a woman in Killmallock club colours who’s not stopping.

The descent is better suited to motocross than cycling. Massive potholes span the road like tank traps, filled in only with sand. You have to either jump them or smash your back wheel into them. You know there’s one coming up when the riders ahead of you shout ‘hole!’ if they see it in time, or ‘fuck!’ if they haven’t.

The course at this point seems designed to break your spirit. Every time you think the climbing is finished you turn a bend and go up again. People are complaining. Their bodies are protesting.

But then it appears as if we’re home and dry. The terrain levels out. A good group, powering along in the big ring, headed for Greystones, less than 20km away now. I take a turn at the front, feeling really good. My phone rings, but I ignore it. I can’t reach it anyway. But I take a look behind me to make sure Sebastian is there. No sign. I check my phone, missed call from Sebastian. Oh bugger. Goodbye fast group that was going to haul me home. I pull over the side of the road. After maybe ten more minutes Sebastian appears. His spoke has broken – probably on that dodgy descent.

We limp off, losing the route momentarily before finding our way back. Then from behind me ‘FUCK!’. Sebastian’s bike is gone. His buckled wheel has snapped off his rear mech, which is now wedged in the wheel. He does not take this well. His sun glasses fall off and he kicks them into the gutter.

He hurls his bike onto the grass verge. And says something along the lines of ‘why are these things always happening to me?’ and ‘I’m cursed’. He has to call the service wagon to pick him up and take him to the finish, a mere 7 km away.

Finishing.
Finishing.

He tells me to go on. Which I do, with the relief of the unburdened. After a pleasant chat with a veteran rider I fly into Greystones, to get my card scanned, pick up my medal and get something to eat. About 10 hours have passed since we left this place. I still have to deal with Sebastian, who is inconsolable when he arrives. His chance to prove his worth to the universe has again been foiled. Still, he’s driving me home. So I make comforting noises.

*Not his real name!

First Post, February 6, 2015.

Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.
Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.

Just a little first post to whoever comes across my blog. I’ll be posting thoughts on more or less whatever interests me; culture, world affairs, sport, cycling and life in general.

The main idea is to write things not connected with Irish history, which I do on my other site http://www.theirishstory.com