Cycling’s culture has changed, or at least is changing. Thankfully, the latest generations are no longer faced with the same fateful choices of their predecessors. But many of those predecessors are still around, still hiding. And therein lies the problem.
‘Man survives by his ability to forget. It’s necessary to forget many things. But equally, freedom of the soul exists, somehow, in the space of memory. And there’s a point at which we have to walk back in the shadows… and there’s a point which we have to advance back out of the shadows into the light. It is a dance that goes back and forth throughout our lives. I don’t know what my father felt finally, but I’d like to think he came back into the light.’
When he said this in October last year, Richard Flanagan, one of our most esteemed Australian writers, was talking to ABC broadcaster Richard Fidler about his late father’s experience as a slave labourer on the Thai-Burma Railway during the second World War, chronicled in his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Those beautifully eloquent, visceral words could just as easily apply to the last two or three decades in professional road cycling. Particularly the last eighteen months since the public release of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s ‘reasoned decision’ dossier, which precipitated the almighty snowball-like fall from grace of one Lance Armstrong, who, as I write this, is still falling. Where he will land, nobody, not least himself, knows.
Like Flanagan’s father, those from Generation EPO probably view themselves as slave labourers: bound by circumstance, by mateship, by suffering and, perhaps most of all, bound by secrecy – the Omertà. Though the secrecy of kept memories – in cycling’s case, memories of rampant drug use and, by consequence, continual cover-ups – can only be suppressed so long. The misdeeds of hundreds, if not thousands of cyclists, were still in the shadows and had yet to be revealed and reconciled.
That is, until recently.
If Armstrong’s teammate Floyd Landis had not spilled the beans in May of 2010, perhaps these memories would have remained hidden forever, and like their predecessors, taken to the grave. Late 2009, Landis, having recently returned from a two-year doping suspension and hip replacement, wanted a spot on Lance’s team, who was a season into his comeback. Lance said no. So Landis changed tack and set sail on an irreversible course that would change cycling forever.
I, for one, am glad it happened. Like many other journalists, I knew, but try as I did, couldn’t do much about it. We could present the dots, but couldn’t link them, or at least not all of them, to categorically put a generation of cheats to the sword. Besides, it seemed few, including the leadership of the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, were interested in exposing a mess so ubiquitous, and so toxic, it spanned almost the entire peloton. And unlike a federal authority or anti-doping agency armed with coercive powers, we never had – and never will have – the power to compel those who we suspected to tell us the whole truth. If only that were so…
Aside from Armstrong, many others have fallen since: at least a dozen of his former teammates at US Postal; Michael Rasmussen, Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer, Danilo Di Luca, Ivan Basso, Riccardo Riccò, Bernhard Kohl and, closer to home, Matthew White and Stuart O’Grady.
I will not bore you and list them all, or even some you are yet to know, but rest assured, there are many, many hundreds more.
A truth and reconciliation commission, long since mooted, is unlikely to happen. Even if it does, it is unrealistic to expect such a purging of souls from those who still veil memories of their nefarious past acts; immunity from prosecution is hardly a ripe carrot for the taking. But if only for themselves, for their souls, to arrest the nightmares, they must re-enter the shadows and confront their past.
Towards the end of the interview, Flanagan told Richard Fidler that, one day, his father, having confronted his past, could no longer remember the horror and violence and misery during his enslavement on the Thai Burma Railway.
Fidler: He was free because he’d forgotten?
Flanagan: He was free because… he was free because he’d thought about it to a point where… there was nothing left for him to ponder.
Fidler: Yet he constructed a little shrine in your house, to remember…
Flanagan: I can see the paradox you’re pointing to…
Fidler: This need to remember, pitted against a need to forget…
Flanagan: I think it’s an irreconcilable war, deep within the human heart.
Appositely, he quotes from James Joyce’s seminal novel, Ulysees. ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake,’ Flanagan reminds the popular radio personality.
Nowadays, the culture of cycling is such that, for the most part, doping is deemed an unnecessary evil. What we must continue to do, however, is continue to look at the past squarely in the face, so as to not allow history to repeat itself; to bury poisonous dogmas, and create fresh, healthy ones.
Question is: For those still hiding, will the need to forget overwhelm the need to remember?