A staring contest

Typical Colombian road. Sent in by a reader a long time ago.

I sat at an industrial desk, one with a shiny laminate top, across from a cyclist who had retired from the sport long ago. I knew I was in trouble when I noticed the large puddle of sweat that my right hand was generating as it rested on the desk. Because I noticed this, I was instantly committed to leaving my hand exactly where it was. I didn't want to show the shameful puddle that my hand was creating. I didn't want to reveal how nervous I was. I had been invited into his office for the interview, and there I sat sweating, all because I knew that my last question would not go down well.

Not knowing what my last question would entail, he spoke casually, smiling as he told me a story I would not remember, were it not for the fact that I was recording the interview. I was too preoccupied with that last question, so I lost track of the conversation. A clear sign of my amateur status as an interviewer. But I couldn't help myself. I felt like I was about to sucker punch him. I wanted to know about a positive test dating back some thirty years, as well as a couple of races that were bought and sold.

Why ask about this? Did I think I would win some kind of medal or award for uncovering a part of cycling that absolutely everyone already knows about? No. Was I playing the part of sports journalist, thinking that the tough questions simply had to be asked? I don't think so. I was merely curious. I didn't want to get an answer in order to judge this person. His answer would not affect my image of him. While I respected his achievements on the bike, he was not a hero to me. Additionally, I've always understood that these things are part of cycling, so I merely wanted to know more.

Asking the question
I had spent forty minutes drawing someone closer, developing trust, and letting him know that I understood the sport, while trying to ask pertinent questions that answered my many curiosities. But when I looked down at my piece of paper to read the question (not that I needed to, because I knew it well), I revealed myself as exactly what I was and will always be: a curious outsider.

Photo: Charles "Teenie" Harris, circa 1965

I asked it. I made no judgement, but prefaced the question with every single kind word I could think of in order to soften the blow. But the damage was done. Trying to soften the question was a bit like covering an anvil with a napkin before slamming someone's face into it. It's a nice gesture, but it really doesn't help much. My question was a meandering mess, which combined several uncomfortable queries into one.

It didn't go over well, and my attempt to make the question easier only managed to enlarge the puddle of sweat under my hand.

There was no anger in his voice after I asked. It was far worse. There was no voice or sound at all. The room became silent. I realized that I was suddenly involved in a staring contest, and I was going to lose. He was not going to answer or make a sound. A million thoughts raced through my mind. I reminded myself that I wasn't asking because I wanted to judge him, but rather as a result of my curiosity about the sport, and its historically closed-off nature when it comes to such topics. Nevertheless, this was now a staring contest.

I blinked first.

I backed off from the question dismissively. The awkwardness went away. We continued to talk as if nothing had happened.

Why ask?
Listening back to the recording of that conversation, I now realize that the eternal silence after my question was not actually that long. It was a handful of seconds. In retrospect, and despite of how awkward those fleeting moments were, I don't regret asking the question. I do regret how quickly I backed down though....but what can you do.

I didn't ask it under the delusion that I'm some kind of anti-doping superhero. I'm not an investigative reporter out to clean things up. That's an important role I suppose, but my goals are not that lofty. I asked the question out of sheer curiosity, the same curiosity that leads many cycling fans to study and dissect every aspect of a sport that has always been replete with shadowy lore. I generally knew how things happened, but wanted to hear specifics. I got none.

The idea of races being sold, favors being bought, stages being gifted, along with the shadowy underworld that includes doping are an interesting and ever-present part of the sport. While ongoing discussions about doping often bore me (in part because they are conducted by people with little knowledge but sizable bravado), behind the scenes specifics about these things does interest me.

Perhaps it's unfair to group all these things (races being sold with doping and the like), but I merely do so because they are the subjects that my question addressed. They are, obviously, very different matters. But in a sense, they are just a few items on a long list of topics that professional cyclists simply don't talk about. At least not very often.

Robert Millar and his Peugeot director speak about buying help

A fractured life

The cyclists I've met who race or have raced at high levels don't much care for speaking about such things, and for obvious reasons. The general public understands sports and racing in one singular way. The fast guy wins because he's better, period. Reality, is much more complicated, and includes aspects that we see, and some that we don't see. As a result, reality can be downright messy...and who wants to convey that? Not many. The saying says that you can enjoy sausage but don't want to know how it's made. As it turns out, there aren't many willing to give a tour of the factory either.

Perhaps it's for this reason that we often read accounts by women who were married to cyclists, or people who were very close friends to professionals who never knew much about large portions of their friend's or husband's lives. This is something that comes up often, as individuals with nothing to lose admit to feeling cheated by how they were left in the dark.

We all have some secrets, or topics we don't enjoy talking about (for me, adult braces, and the fact that my wife is four feet taller than me are certainly touchy subjects). That's understandable. But I often wonder just how fractured the lives of professional cyclists are. Some parts of their lives remain secret, only to be discussed among others who have also been initiated into a small fraternity. Outsiders simply wouldn't understand. They are adults, discussing adult matters, as children eat at a separate table, obliviously enjoying the pageantry of adult interaction . It's the way things are. It's perhaps for that reason that many continue to wonder, so others continue to ask. More importantly, it's for this reason that I think I'll be creating many more puddles on people's desks as I get ready to ask those questions. Maybe next time, I won't blink first.

Off topic:

Robert Gesink is doing what all over Gilbert?

Photos of people wearing their Cycling Inquisition attire continue to come in.

I'm not really sure who this Cancellara look-alike is, but I approve of his sock choice.

What's better than living in Bali? Living in Bali and owning a Cycling Inquisition jersey of course.

CI jersey, spotted out in the wild in Australia

If you want to join this elite group of fashionable cyclists, there's still time. White jerseys in size small remain, as do socks in both sizes. Click here if you want to order.