Thursday, February 9, 2012

The PED Conundrum...

Reading and participating in various cycling internet forums over the course of the last few years, I have come to the conclusion that debates over athletes taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is somewhat akin to the lack of civility and absence of intellectual discourse that has overcome the political arena in the United States. This is especially true after the reactions to the Armstrong case were made public.

We have people looking to attack each other, to dissect one another's motives, and to perpetrate various agendas for the sake of trolling and derailing the topic at hand. Then there are the loudest and shrillest voices of all-those who cackle the same tired clich├ęs about the now-defunct Federal investigation into Lance Armstrong. "It was a waste of taxpayer money" is the first one that gets thrown out there, but there are other comments reserved for anyone who is deemed a "hater", another word for doubter and unbeliever in the cult of Armstrong.

Anyone who exhibits the slightest interest in this topic is deemed an obsessed loser with no life. The prescription is always the same-"Why don't you go ride your bike?" As if discussing this is so polarizing and paralyzing that it would keep relatively normal and sane human beings from living their respective lives. These internet Nazis do what they can to shout this debate down to it's lowest common denominator, the personal attack.

I have been called a hypocrite due to the fact that my screen name happens to be one of a former Soviet-era cyclist, a man who (to me) was one of the most charismatic and stylish on-the-bike athletes I've seen in all my years as a fan of the sport. Unfortunately he was also a client of the infamous Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who was the guru behind the doping renaissance of one Lance Armstrong. For this sin I have been labeled an incorrigible hypocrite, despite the fact that I've explained my choice of username ad nauseum, and it has nothing to do with this particular gentleman's doping history.

For those looking to dilute the argument at hand, the personal attack is their last refuge. They attack the opinion holder because the matter being discussed is beyond their intellectual capabilities to grasp without their brains going into overload. What you see on the internet as a whole are a bunch of people incapable of holding a discussion without resorting to name-calling and childish threats. And is there anything more stupid than someone voluntarily accessing a web page and denouncing the topic at hand when all they have to do is not click on said topic? And I'm the loser here?

I've never been threatened more times with bodily harm, to the point where people have actually volunteered to meet me in person for the sole purpose of beating me up, than when I began chatting it up on various internet forums. Never have I encountered such vitriol against my physical person than while interacting on the internet. And I live in the Bronx. Go figure.

One thing the internet has done is given a voice and a platform to the socially and emotionally retarded and mentally unstable. There is also the disturbing trend on cycling forums where anything remotely controversial is either minimized or shouted down. If you aren't talking about retro-grouch crap like some bullshit $300 steel frame from 1985 that someone saw posted on Ebay or the value of downtube shifters over STI's then it's beyond the collective grasp of the forum members to engage in civil conversation.

Whether anyone likes it or not, sports isn't just frivolous entertainment meant to waste time on while you're waiting to die. Sports everywhere is big-business, with even bigger passions involved. Sports leak into our daily lives not only as entertainment but to offset the monotony and drudgery of everyday life. And it gets dangerous to the point of lunacy, as witnessed by the outrageous behavior at the Egyptian soccer match last week where more than 70 people lost their lives. I'm sure there were British soccer hooligans watching the lowlights of that incredibly unwarranted loss of life and wondered "Why the fuck wasn't I there? Look what I missed!!!"

I tire of having so-called experts chime in about crap they know nothing about. On the internet, the less some asshole knows about a particular subject the more they are convinced they are right. Steroids is one of those subjects where people think they know, but in reality do not.

Steroids has changed the landscape of athletics from the top professional ranks all the way down to your average weekend warrior. Type-A personality yuppies, who spend their workdays competing over who gets promoted Vice President by the time they're 30 or fighting over that corner office have taken their obnoxious sense of entitlement to the gym. Not satisfied with success at stealing money from old ladies' pensions, they have taken to ingesting PED's for the sheer sake of vanity. And this attitude has permeated all walks of life.

I've been in police precincts where I've heard officers bragging about "throwing up mad plates" (a euphemism for bench-pressing multiple 45-pound plates on either side of bar). Why does a cop walking a beat feel the need to brag to his co-workers about his bench press? Because that's how we as a society compete against each other. We compare looks, physiques, money, and the type of women we can "bag and tag" because we aren't happy unless someone is jealous of us. Envy from our peer group is what drives us as a society, and it is at the crux of the rotten underbelly of the "American Dream".

This was the driving force behind Barry Bonds' decision to take steroids "despues de viejo" (this is a Spanish phrase denoting someone doing something or engaging in a particular activity when it is clearly age-inappropriate to do so). It certainly wasn't for the home run record. By the time he was approaching it, he knew hardly anyone in baseball would consider the feat legitimate given his physical transformation from slender yet powerful athlete to "Mr. Superfreak". He decided to take 'roids because he was jealous of the attention Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa got not only for their historic and massively drug-fueled home run chase of Roger Maris, but for the unprecedented credit they received for "saving" baseball after the disastrous lockout a few years previous.

Bonds began juicing out of jealousy. And don't kid yourself-the steroids available today can help an athlete do things that are impossible, regardless of natural talent and work ethic. Manny Ramirez was busted twice for juicing. A respected and accomplished gentleman who I know for a fact is not given to fits of gossip and hyperbole told me that Ramirez's marital strife was caused in part by the fact that his body no longer produces testosterone naturally, so he can't get it up. The story goes that his darling wife decided it was a good idea to ridicule him over it to the point where it got physical. Being Brazilian, she must know that Latin men are among the most machista in the world and you do not do that unless you want to get stomped out, to which Ramirez obliged.

He has recently and conveniently found religion and wants back into baseball, promising to be a good citizen and a role model for the youth of America. Lovely. But the bottom line is, without the steroids, he can no longer hit a baseball. Assholes who read this will say "Yeah, but steroids don't help you with hand-eye coordination. If that were true, you'd be playing in the major leagues instead of talking shit on the internet".

Not true. There is nothing that would stop me from talking shit on the internet, even if I played professional baseball. But I digress. No one is doubting that Ramirez was one of the best and naturally gifted hitters at one point in his career. But this is where it gets fuzzy. At a certain point, the natural aging process puts paid to those natural gifts. It does so for every professional athlete. When does that occur? We don't know in this particular case, because Ramirez's steroid use has obscured that fine line that all athletes cross when they can't hack it anymore.

Steroids can change all that. There is testosterone and it's many derivatives. There are cortico-steroids. There is HgH. There is EPO, the wonder drug for any type of endurance sport. An article written by some clown for "Outside" magazine claimed that HgH use caused his eyesight to improve to the point where he could drive at night without glasses. This improvement disappeared the second he stopped with his steroid regimen, but the point was made.

People have a tendency of thinking that simply taking steroids is not enough to make someone a great athlete. This is not the issue. The point is steroids act as a fountain of youth for aging players looking to prolong their diminishing physical talents and in other respects improves on the talent they already have by tremendous leaps and bounds. How the fuck else do you explain Barry Bonds hitting 74 fucking home runs after the age of 40, a feat no other major league slugger has ever achieved?

People act as if steroids do nothing for hand-eye coordination, as if this is such a precious gift from the baseball Gods that somehow it is an aspect of a player's talent that is beyond the influence of 'roids. Oh yeah? Just ask the guys who took steroids for years and then tried to play without them. Look at the players named in the Mitchell Report whose production suddenly began to lag from one season to the next without explanation.

This is the kind of crap I'm talking about. Riders like Lance Armstrong were always going to be better than a regular guy off the street, or someone talking shit on a blog. But was he so talented that he was able to win the Tour de France 7 times in a row after it was pretty much set in stone that he was nothing but a stocky Classics rider who clearly lacked the time trialing and climbing ability to contend for a grand Tour?

Well, steroids and blood transfusions answered that question. It also let Barry Bonds hit 256 home runs AFTER the age of 36 and a half. It is also the reason why Manny Ramirez can no longer play. During his last stint with the Florida Marlins, a fellow player said Ramirez looked like his grandmother swinging the bat. That damning testimonial is a far cry from the Ramirez who inhabited "Manny-Land" when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And it was also before he was busted twice in the span of two years for doping.

Let's get back to the ham-and-eggers, who need to be addressed. PED abuse is everywhere, to the point where even your local amateur athletic competitions are corrupted by this crap. I will tell you this-most of the bike riders I know (some who don't even race) the only thing keeping them from taking drugs is their inability to crack the loop. The majority of cats I know would dope if they had access to a steady and reliable steroid pipeline, and would do so without any hint of guilt or remorse.

This is far from being an individual indictment on their morals-this is also a collective, societal issue. This is the rot that has permeated our thinking, that cheating is OK as long as we can perform better at whatever it is we are doing. And let's face it-cycling lends itself to this type of behavior moreso than others by its' very nature.

Cycling is the saddest of all the sports out there. It is brutal and unforgiving. You can ride for years and years and never come close to winning a race even on the lowest amateur rungs. The quest to stay in shape affects one's life every waking second of every day. For every week you don't ride, you lose approximately two weeks of fitness. And every training ride involves pain and the Kafka-esque quest of trying to recover while maintaining a full-time job and other responsibilities.

Who wouldn't want to juice up, just to make it more fun, just to be able to ride hard and not feel as much pain as cycling usually administers to it's devotees? Out of all the rides I've done in my life, I recall two where everything came together and I was proud of myself. I felt like a rider, going strong over every hill I encountered, really hammering it on the flats without having my lungs burst out of my torso. That is twice in about 14 years. The rest were a series of humiliations large and small, aided and abetted by dickheads who never ceased to criticize my commitment and work ethic-guys who I later found out rode so well because they were on steroids of one sort or another.

The very nature of cycling makes it more amenable to PED abuse than just about any other sport besides running. Cycling is a sport for "brutos" (that's Spanish for uncoordinated dork). You don't need a whole lot of grace or technical proficiency to ride a bike. It is all about brute strength, power and endurance. Unlike say, basketball, a sport I excelled at with much more proficiency (without ever being in what one would call "tip-top" shape-the fact that I could play always got me over), in cycling there is very little skill involved. Unless you suffer from chronic Vertigo, as long as you can manage to stay upright and pedal you can ride a bike. The rest? Not so easy. You can spend years and years developing your form, watching your diet and keeping a meticulous training schedule and you'll STILL suck, even if you're not riding with others who are juicing.

So where does this leave this particular discussion? It is complicated one to say the least, but it should not be attempted on the internet. There are just too many idiots who think they have a right to idiotic opinions or think time spent on this subject is time taken away from riding one's bike. There is no talking to assholes like this, and unfortunately they are the ones clogging up the forums, wearing their contempt and stupidity like a badge of honor.

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