Cycling’s Top Ten Influencers of the Past 25 Years — Good, Bad and Ugly | Part 2
What started as a quick exploration of who and what influenced cycling over the past 25 years ended up needing more words for a single sitting than we typically like to subject you to, so we cut our list in two. Like Part 1, this list is subjective, un-scientific, speculative and at times sideways.
Doping: An easy target, eh? Perhaps nothing else has affected the sport of cycling as much as doping in the past quarter-century. The oxygen-uptake drug erythropoietin has taken center stage for most of the controversy, and perhaps rightfully so considering the number of drug-related cycling deaths in the early ‘90s, but there’s a lot more to the story.
For the record, and for the sake of those who are either newly converted cycling fans or just haven’t been paying attention, doping and bike racing have been involved in an extremely intimate and very long-term relationship. Yet many followers of our two-wheeled sport were aghast by Lance Armstrong’s comparison of doping to air and water on Oprah’s Next Chapter: “…we have to have air in our tires or we have to have water in our bottles. That was, in my view, part of the job.” You may deem that view unacceptable, but that was absolutely the way it was when I inked my first pro contracts—that was the way the professional side of cycling viewed performance-enhancing drugs. Part of the job. Simple as that.
I’ve yet to meet a team doctor who feels that riding the classics and grand tours completely clean is completely healthy. The ones I’ve known all subscribed to the notion that a few properly administered medical products—banned substances as well as legal ones—are a much better for the physical wellbeing of a top-level cyclist than bread and water alone. In his book, De Zaak Festina (The Festina Affair), former Festina team doctor Eric Rijckaert basically invoked the Hippocratic Oath to support his position that by overseeing a rider or team’s medical program he was keeping them from harm. A doctor of medicine is a far better person to be doling out the doses than a soigneur or mechanic—which when removed from the conversation of sporting ethics, makes 100-percent sense.
If memory serves, it was on about the same page that the good doctor professes to entirely hate the concept of doping. As bizarre as it may sound to have a doctor who was involved in one of the top three doping scandals in cycling to claim that he hated doping, the man I knew was kind and gentle, and I don’t doubt that he genuinely believed he was behaving honorably. In the peloton, he was known as Dr. [Fiat] Punto—as opposed to Dr. Ferrari—because he was against ‘the big program.’ In his mind, and in the mind of others, as long as certain pharmaceuticals were not abused, then everything was okay.
Aye, there’s the rub. If a little bit is good, a little bit more must be better. Let the pigeons loose, ‘cause the arms race is on. That’s nothing new, of course. If you think that ‘doing more’ has been limited to the last couple of decades, read Vernon Felton’s Pack of Lies from our inaugural issue.
How has doping influenced or affected cycling over the past 25 years?
To start with, EPO and Co. was killing folks. Google the names of riders who died around 1990 and you’ll see plenty of EPO-use allegations.
And it changed the way people ride. Watch the way racers wrestled with their bikes as they pushed huge gears back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and compare it with the high-cadence pedaling style of the EPO era. Sure, improvements in sports science and equipment helped point the peloton toward more efficient techniques, but the simple fact of the matter is that one cannot maintain the style that ruled the mountains and TTs of that time with a hematocrit level of 40. Even if a rider wasn’t on the sauce, he’d have to adapt to the cadence and rhythm of pro cycling, though that’s always been the sport’s reality—just like in normal society. Think not? Plenty of people abstained from Hoovering up mounds of Colombian Marching Powder during the disco years, but that sure didn’t stop them from dressing strangely and shaking their booty to the Bee Gees.
Strange a statement as it may seem, doping after the 1998 Festina Affair, widened the chasm between the haves and have-nots. Before EPO became de rigueur, riders who were prepared to be medically competitive really only needed to know a croaker with a good writing arm. Before the Tour de France of 1998, they needed a decent-sized sack of cash and a willing doc. After that, it was like Formula One: Small-budget riders and teams were relegated to the back of the grid. Increased scrutiny and better testing resulted in an interesting paradox: The reward for successful cheaters became significantly greater.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m typically to be found planted firmly in front of the TV for an F1 event, but cycling used to be a sort of everyman sport. Sure, at the top level it required a pretty stellar set of genes—sometimes medically enhanced ones—but our sport was traditionally about creating wealth, relatively speaking, not stealing it.
The old joke goes: How do you make a million dollars in motorsports? You start with 10 million.
Shimano Total Integration: I’ll now shift (yes I did) from doping to bike parts completely sans segue.
Shimano debuted its first STI brake/shift levers back in the late 1980s to a chorus of boos from the crusty, old-guard, pro-peloton wrench-turners.
“What’s the first thing to be damaged in a crash?” went the reasoning. “If you crash, you won’t be able to brake or shift.”
I finally got to experience STI in a race after the 1991 Tour de France—in the Wincanton Cup, to be exact. Instantly, I felt as if I’d spent the majority of my cycling career in the wrong gear. Yes, it required the company’s other gift to the sport, index shifting, but STI forever changed how we ride—and for the better.
Those born after 1980—at least those without ironic facial hair and 10-speed Puch they use for getting to the bar—are wondering why anyone would bother gushing about such a ubiquitous shifting system.
STI and its rivals from Campagnolo and SRAM are the best things to happen to the road bicycle since the invention of the derailleur.
Aero bars: Personally, I’d rather these things had never been invented, and never commercialized by Boone Lennon and Scott Sports. Before they were accepted in the pro peloton and became standard equipment for time trials, I could usually find my way into the top 20 or 30 of any TT—long, short, technical or otherwise. As soon as everyone learned how to use the things, I suddenly found myself outside the top 60 for all but short, twisty prologues. This leads me to believe that I must’ve had a position on the bike that was naturally more aerodynamic than a lot of other dudes, allowing me to slice through the air using less horsepower. One everyone got aero, it was sayonara to my first-page finishes.
Technically speaking, aero bars have been around longer than 25 years. But since they weren’t really popularized in road racing until Greg LeMond’s record-setting ride on the Champs Elysees in the ’89 Tour de France, I’m calling them good for my top-ten list.
Whether my theory about aero bars leveling the aerodynamic playing field is true or not, there is absolutely no denying that the so-called kook bars changed professional cycling. Putting a rider in a wind tunnel back in the ‘80s would’ve been nothing more than a publicity stunt. Today, getting in a wind tunnel to develop the best, most efficient, most aerodynamic position is an absolute essential.
Aero bars have also forever changed the time-trial discipline from The Race of Truth, to something of a race of truth and finesse. They infused a healthy dose of art and science into something that once seemed a fair bit simpler and straightforward.
But I hate them anyway.
Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong: This is the part where folks on either side of the United States’ borders wonder if this isn’t a knee-jerk pledge of allegiance to the two most famous star-spangled bike racers. Whether you love to love them, or love to hate them, their impact on the sport of competitive cycling is undeniable.
Though Greg LeMond’s career and cycling fame crosses my 25-year mark, LeMond’s ’89 and ’90 Tour de France wins fall within it, so I’m ruling him in. His 1983 world championship victory planted the U.S. on the modern international cycling map, and his ’86 Tour helped open European doors for hundreds of American hopefuls—myself included. He influenced eyewear, helmets, shoes, pedals, clothing, aerodynamics and other technology. He was the first million-dollar rider and the first guy to eschew the old-guard tradition of racing everything, opting instead to focus on the Tour. And he took a hors-categorie mountain of flack from riders like Bernard Hinault and the international cycling press because of it.
I had the unique privilege of racing alongside 11 riders who wore the yellow jersey into Paris: Cadel Evans, Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong, Bjarne Riis, Miguel Indurain, Greg LeMond, Pedro Delgado, Stephan Roche, Laurent Fignon, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien van Impe.
LeMond was the greatest example of cycling talent I ever saw. Calling someone the greatest—especially when their palmarès doesn’t reflect it—is kind of silly, but I witnessed him do things on a bike that I still, to this day, can’t fathom.
Perhaps the only cyclist that could even begin to rival Lance Armstrong for printed words and photos is Eddy Merckx. Given that Armstrong had cable television and the internet and the two are no longer in the same ballpark in terms of media coverage.
The story of a cancer survivor winning what is arguably the most grueling sporting event in the world is the stuff of Disney movies—the Tour de France couldn’t have scripted a better PR stunt. And for those seven years [and beyond] his fellow survivors and much of the world wanted to believe the plotline. We all know the ending, but the Armstrong dream does beg the question: Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
I’d argue that Lance Armstrong sold more bicycles than the guys on my yellow-jersey list combined, which is a good thing by my estimation—no matter how you slice it.
And whether you view him as tattoo on the ass-cheek of cycling or a scar on its soul, there’s no denying the dude is one of the most influential figures in the history of our sport.