Cycling & the Search for Significance

Through  the wonders of technology I have met some interesting people. One such person is Jeff Volkmer. Jeff is a professor of Old Testament at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology who loves cycling. We have exchanged e-mails in the past and he always has had an interesting/intriguing point of view. He has been keeping tabs of the ongoing drama with doping and has a unique perspective. Enjoy…

As a historian, linguist, and Biblical scholar, I tend to look for the the common denominators of events, those fundamental animating forces which tie things together into a narrative. No doubt doping fatigue is rampant, but maybe by turning things over and taking a look underneath some clarifying perspective can be found. A lot of this came right after reading the Landis/Kimmage interview and maybe some of it has already been written, but then again perhaps there’s a unique perspective in here somewhere.
1. What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate (Allow me a little line here)

One of the biggest issues that this whole doping discussion suffers from is a fundamental communication gap between dopers and certain segments of the fan base and press. All communication is predicated upon shared analogies. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure referred to language as a relationship between the signified (that which is to be communicated) and the signifier (the part of the communication system that relates, or points to, the signified).
So, for example, if I say the word “dog” you hear the sounds “dah – aw – gah,” but in your mind, you don’t see the letters | D |,    | O |, | G |, but rather you see a four-legged, furry, canine creature that barks. But if I say the word “dog” and rather than a furry, four-legged creature, you see in your mind say, a Trek Madone, then we disagree on the what is signified by the signifier, the analogy is not shared, and thus communication is impossible.
In this whole discussion, words like “fair,” “moral,” “right,” “cheat,” “rules,” “wrong,” and many others are being used by one group (those sympathetic to doping) to conjure ideas that do not agree with those attached to those same words by the other group (those repulsed by doping) or indeed most of the general populace. This is at the heart of a statement like this from Landis:

This was what I wrestled with the most; once I accepted that other people were doing it and I could justify in my mind that I wasn’t really cheating anyone else, I still didn’t know if doing that and getting to the Tour de France was ever going to leave me with the feeling that I had accomplished my goal.

At the end, doping ceased to be a matter of cheating for Landis, because in his mind, it is not cheating if everyone else is cheating. Notice how the significance or meaning of “cheating” has shifted. Outsiders and cycling fans are so outraged at doping pros because their definition remains static, but Floyd’s, along with many other’s before him, became relative. Saussure’s idea of shared analogy has broken down and we’re now dealing with apples and oranges. This also lays behind statements of Floyd’s such as this:

Well, here’s the facts; somebody is going to cheat those guys and I’d rather not be the guy getting cheated.

Look what’s just happened with this statement! The one cheating is actually the one playing fair so as not to “get cheated!” Now the crisis Landis struck against is the fact that his concepts of “truth” and “lie” did not shift with those of his concept of “cheating.” This is what caused him the existential crisis he found himself in. Look at what he says here when asked by Kimmage if he could do everything over.

Well, in the context of what happened since, I would do everything the same and I would just admit it, afterwards.

This is it. His ideals of “cheating, morality, and ethics,” at least as they concern cycling, were allowed to shift only so far. He could, in his own mind, adjust the shared analogy of “cheating” but could not make the shift for everything else that had to necessarily go along with it and this is what made Landis come clean. For him, there are certain things like “truth,” that could not shift, at least not forever.
On this very point, a recent interview appearing in Cyclingnews regarding Hincapie’s uncertainty of the long term affects of doping on the sport shows this same mentality in operation. Consider this statement from Hincapie.

“I think if you ask anybody that’s close to me, they’ll all say that I’m a good person and that I have a good character and at the end of the day, my family and close friends are what matter to me,” he said. “If they were to say I was a bad person or had a bad character, then that would affect me. But the other stuff [media and internet speculation], I’m not going to let that affect me.”

Now if all that Landis has said about George proves to be true along with the myriad of rumors that have swirled around his miraculous transformation from Classics specialist to mountain goat in certain high profile races at points in his career, then he has done the same thing, except to a level that Landis could never do (well at least permenantly).
In this way Hincapie can assess himself as a “good person” with “good character” because he doesn’t rob banks or abuse his children. His sphere of “morality and ethics,” should the reports be true, have been massaged to accommodate those areas in his life where he lines up with everyone else, but has removed his cycling activities from that sphere of ethical evaluation. Because after all, if his family thinks he is a “bad person” with “bad character” then it would matter, because they are the ones who apply the standard ideals of “cheating/ethics” to the other areas of his life. But again, those concepts as they are applied to cycling are “adjusted” accordingly.
These are some recent, high profile examples, but they are certainly not unique. This is a common thread that weaves its way through virtually every single doping admission.
However, more importantly, until this is understood, the echo chamber of Twitter critiques are being shouted in the dark and/or being preached to the choir. Applying ones’ own understanding of “ethics, morality, and fairness” to cycling, at least right now, is a cause perdue (lost cause). Cycling has been able to seal itself off as an ethical island allowing for the emergence of a  unique ethical species in an isolated population.
2. A Hierarchy of Moral Imperatives

Another very interesting observation that can be made in regard to the issue of doping and cycling flows from the first. In what areas of life do “ethics” or “morals” shift in such a manner as was discussed above? Society at large must assume certain degrees of shared ethical and moral ideas (as opposed to “ideals”) in order to function. To depart from these norms and to redefine the associations attached to these ethical and moral ideas according to ones’ own grid is what it is to be a sociopath. The only places where these redefinitions tend to take place are in ghettoized situations where new, societal norms are allow to blossom in isolation to the norm. Most famously this takes place in prisons. In prison, you can have people serving out life sentences for horrible crimes, but within this micro-society there arrises a new set of ethical norms, and those who have committed a certain set of crimes against women or children are singled out by inmates for punishment. Even by those of have done very “bad” things find it “good” to punish others for doing something they find “worse.” This is also at play and the basis of the ethos in mobs and gangs. Despite being largely lawless, these groups adhere to a strict moral code nevertheless, just one that doesn’t line up with the norm.
So, in like fashion, should cycling be allowed, or all of sport for that matter, to establish its own set of ethnical norms? Should we throw up our hands and say, doping in cycling is a fait accompli and get on with it and enjoy the spectacle? Should we suspend reality when it comes to sport and lay aside what we all commonly agree upon as “right” and “wrong?” This is certainly one way to deal with things that both Landis and more recently, Michael Creed, have alluded to when the latter asks the question “When does life become a race to moral high ground?” When Creed takes in any form of “entertainment” he tells us that he disconnects the product of an individual’s creative efforts from their own personal morality. I understand what he is getting at, but will this work in practice? How quickly will this break down?
Were people affected negatively when Gerolsteiner or Festina folded? Want to ask Richardo Ricco if his life, as well as many others who went before him, could have benefitted from a little moral high ground? I’ll never, ever forget Landis’ ride to Morzine on stage 17 in the 2005 Tour de France. Do the ends of that day justify the means? That is to say, does the fact that I was inspired justify the doping it took to make it possible (at least in part)? I wonder what Landis would say given how things worked out for him?
Do the Ends Justify the Means?
From a slightly different angle, in recent months there are certainly some who would agree with Creed if his thoughts are to be carried out to their logical conclusion, although he would, I’m guessing, never intend his remarks to land at the same place as ESPN columnists Rick Reilly and LZ Granderson. These two popular sports commentators have apparently decided to separate the product from the producer when it comes to the exploits of Lance Armstrong.
Says Reilly:

Until then [Armstrong fails a drugs test], doesn’t Armstrong deserve the benefit of the doubt? A man who’s worked tirelessly for and inspired people you know, people in your life, people who don’t even know yet that they will need him for inspiration? A man who, right in front of your eyes, is trying to make calendars stop turning?

Doesn’t he deserve at least that?

For LZ Grandersen, he feels so strongly that the ends justify the means that he is able to write an opinion column on Armstrong’s allegations entitled, “Did Lance Armstrong Cheat? I don’t care.”
Someone cue up Oleta Adams: “I don’t get how you get there (ok, it really says here), just get there if you can.” (
So, let’s test this hypothesis. Bernie Madoff uses the billions he bilked from old ladies and Kevin Bacon to set up a non-profit that helps untold millions. Is this OK? I know he cheated but I don’t care. Many more obscene examples could be adduced to show how this line of thinking is a non-sequitor.
But this is different you say. No one is getting hurt or loosing their livelihood by Armstrong’s alleged PED fueled 7 consecutive Tour de France wins. Sport is not “real life.” I wonder if the pace wasn’t being set by Armstrong in the late ’90’s and beyond what life for Filippo Simeoni or Chris Bassons (not to mention Greg Lemond and Graeme Obree) would have been like? Did Rebellin’s, Schumacher’s, Kohl’s, and Holzcher’s actions not have “real world” impacts for others?
In his book Survival in Auschwitz, Holocaust survivor Primo Levi painfully describes his own tale of the grotesque shifts in ethics and morality that took place in a concentration camp. Those inside the camps had to readjust every set of ethics previously known to them if they were going to survive. One very memorable portion of that book for me was Levi’s retelling of a man in the camp that in the face of a slave labor system that attempted to work people to death, every day upon waking up and before reporting for work, would go wash the dirt off of his face in frigid water, comb his hair, and straighten his camp issued rags as much as he could despite the fact that his destiny seemed to be a forgone conclusion. He found that this man, despite not being the most healthy or strong, was able to survive as he was picked on much less and treated better by his captives no matter what his actions. Primo Levi found out that creating a digestible image works better than facts.
I can’t help but see the parallels in Primo Levi’s observations and what takes place outside of team buses all the time. Look good, put on a good facade, and your actions don’t matter, people will believe the image.

3. The Search for Significance

Everyone who loves to ride and race bikes knows that what it is to attempt to describe the intangible wonders of riding – it is truly a topic only poetry can contain. It is probably for this reason, this entrance into the sublime, that cycling can so quickly become something else and indeed, something much more than it ever should.
Like little else, cyclists are conscious of their place in the “pack” and are constantly trying to assess their place in the pecking order. Perhaps it is because for cyclists equipment is such a integral part of the experience and at the same time an expression of one’s personality. Do you ride a Pinerello, only steel, or titanium and carbon everything no matter the monetary cost? These things engender strong passions.
Maybe this is why cycling has a comparative element that I think is truly unique to sport. When you show up for a group ride or are waiting at the start of a race, I have never experienced such intense visual scrutiny. I’ve recently relocated to a new area and have been the “first timer” on a number of local group rides. Well, never before have a felt more like a woman walking by a construction site. You are instantly judged, classified, and assessed before the first pedal stroke. This initial assessment is of course adjusted after the ride completes when your riding ability along with your initial appearance is taken into consideration. I am a former collegiate athlete and have been involved in sport my entire life and never have I experienced such a comparative quality in another other sport akin to what I find in cycling. It is truly unique in that aspect.
There is another truth that needs to be reckoned with — we are all broken people with insecurities, wounds, and needs, and in order to compensate or treat these deficiencies we often turn to something external. That is where cycling can become simultaneously therapeutic and dangerous.
For those who are broken either due to their upbringing or something perpetrated against them, cycling can provide an identity that is otherwise missing and broken. Because the sport is so assessment oriented those who do excel are quite ready to have their “normal” self substituted for that which is assigned to them by the cycling or racing subculture (a subculture as we’ve already tried to show is willing make ethical adjustments when deemed necessary).
Why are so many great cyclists wounded? Lance Armstrong didn’t have a father and was intensely angry at those men that did come into his life and then cancer, Floyd Landis had an oppressive Christian upbringing that was incapable of providing the answers to those which he struggled with, while Greg Lemond, Graeme Obree, and Joe Papp all experienced a form of sexual abuse.
These are just those who have been highly publicized and I’m sure just scratch the surface of those who have blended their true self with their cycling performance self. But here is the great problem. When one constructs their identity around who they are as cyclists and more importantly their successes as cyclists, the stakes get raised to unprecedented levels in order to preserve that success and acquired identity that goes along with it. Listen to Landis here:

Oh yeah, I loved it. It wasn’t part of what I wanted to do in the first place – I enjoyed racing my bike and still do – but the opportunity for this to happen came along and I wasn’t going to turn it down. I mean, people treat you differently, you get more respect; things are easier [emphasis mine]. It comes with some complications but the people who complain about it are just trying to justify some other behaviour…No, I loved it.

Enter doping. Yes, there are the financial rewards that go along with success as a professional cyclist, but given that Joe Papp has told us that a large portion of his doping customers were amateurs and masters athletes, this is not the true motivator. Papp’s tale tells us that there is a deeper, sicker, need than greed can fix.
If one has constructed their life around what it is to be a cyclist there is no greater motivation to go to any lengths to preserve that identity and avoid the crisis that comes when it is taken away. Why do so many go to such great lengths to dope and risk so much? Because the alternative is so much scarier — the need to face who they really are.
Many have waited a long time to have one in the “inner circle” of the US Postal machine to confirm what many had suspected for quite some time. Is there any surprise that it was Landis?

I have always tried to separate my sense of identity from being a bicycle racer and what I think of myself. I was always afraid – partly because of the doping and the strange politics in the sport – to let too much of who I am inside my head be altered by what I did on a bicycle.

Furthermore, if you survey the New York Times article where the federal investigation into the alleged doping practices at US Postal was announced, who were the two sources cited as confirming Landis’ reports? None other than Dave Clinger and Chad Gerlach, two others whose identities were so laid bare that cycling was no longer an option to provide that opiate for their brokenness.
Listen to this 2004 recording where Frankie Andreu is confronted by Bill Stapleton of CSE obtained by NY Velocity.
What stands out? Well Frankie, multiple years removed from his cycling career as a racer, is still scared to death to placate the powers that be. Why?
If cycling continues to be the vehicle of significance for those who ride, expect more tragic stories in the future. The search for significance needs to be alloyed with something much more profound and abiding than the transience of cycling despite its poetic grandeur.

I have tried to weave some common, fundamental threads through what I’ve been seeing as of late. Hopefully it serves to show that there are forces at work and flowing underneath a myriad of actions that will take more than a blood test to address. Calls for reform and to toughen up will only go so far when so many different groups are operating on competing and conflicting semantic levels. But how about some first steps.
1. Right and wrong, legal and illegal, fair and unfair, need to become static in the sport of cycling. Sorry, there’s no place for Chade O. Grey in this area.
2. The ends do not justify the means.
3. If one looks to success in cycling to find significance or with which to define their identity, then cheating is going to be awfully hard to stop.
By Jeff Volkmer


  1. JEM says:

    I found this from a link describing it as a “philosophical perspective on doping” but it is perhaps the most realistic view I have seen. Nice work, thank you.

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