Steve Stannard: Cycling's constant moral dilemma

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Pressure to win keeps drugs in sport but the past is less likely to catch up with you if you say no.

Steve Stannard, pictured leading on the Te Mata Peak climb in the Hub Open Two-Day Cycling Tour, still cycles competitively. Photo / APN
Steve Stannard, pictured leading on the Te Mata Peak climb in the Hub Open Two-Day Cycling Tour, still cycles competitively. Photo / APN

Some years ago, I was at a cycling coaching course in Australia surrounded by a bunch of current and former accomplished cyclists.

One course presenter, a coach of note, remarked that "some of you have made it and some of you haven't".

I thought at the time he was referring to me as a "haven't", as although I had represented my country, I had never turned fully professional like my more esteemed and highly regarded colleagues who had made a good living from the sport.

I actually thought that I had done okay in my short time as a rider, but this guy obviously judged a person's worth by their cycling resume.

I had done a couple of summer seasons racing in Europe. The first mainly in Belgium and the second in the Netherlands, Germany and numerous other countries. I was a naive young twenty-something with legs of steel and lots of hope.

The first summer I boarded with one of the working members of a Belgian-based professional team. In return for paying rent, he'd look after me and take me to races around the country. I shared his house with one or two other riders, notably a skinny young Englishman in his second European season.

After I'd performed well in my first few races, my Belgian manager obviously thought I had some potential. Just before the start of the next big race, he came to me with a bunch of different pills and vials indicating that I should "take the purple vial" on the start line, the blue one at half way, and the brown one with 20km to go.

"What's the [glowing] purple stuff in the glass vial?" I asked suspiciously. "Vitamins" was the answer. But I'd been warned about purple hearts (amphetamines) before I left for Belgium so knew what it really was.

I finished in about 12th place or so, enough to make a little money, but with my pockets still containing the unused "vitamins". When my manager found out, our relationship changed; it was clear he thought I wasn't serious about my sport.

The Englishman, I later learned, did on occasion take the "jelly beans" and subsequently won a race or two, earning accolades from the manager and others for doing so. In my whole summer there I did not see any drug testing.

These were the early 1990s and the Spaniard Miguel Indurain was winning the Tour de France from the Swiss climber Tony Rominger. A brash young Lance Armstrong was crowned world professional champion prior to his fight with cancer.

Rominger and Indurain had come out of nowhere over the space of a year to be the main challengers for the Tour, and it was known that the former was trained by the mysterious Dr Michele Ferrari, who was issued a lifetime ban in June this year by the United States Anti-Doping Agency for trafficking banned substances.

The Rominger versus Indurain battles up the long climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees are the stuff of legend, in cycling circles at least. These guys were heroes and had "made it".

I went back to Europe the following year to race in a small team, but knowing that the stakes weren't high and never considering turning to the "dark side". It was more about seeing the world while getting someone else to pay. I had confidence that I could get a job when it all finished because I already had a university degree. Most others had nothing to fall back on.

When people ask me about my short time as a cyclist and why I didn't keep it up I reply that I didn't want to become a Belgian pin cushion. This is closer to the truth than the humour suggests.

If I'd taken the jelly beans and won some races, I was hardly likely to stop taking them and still try to win. It would be the beginning of a spiral that would stop who knows where.

The impressive ascent of riders like Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis has reversed at a rapid rate. Some like Marco Pantani and Frank Vandenbroucke are dead from drug abuse, others dying from causes unknown.

A few remain high-flying legends, but I hope it's just a matter of time before their wings are clipped.

Others have come and gone, while some of my former colleagues in the peloton - after winning accolades and plenty of money - are probably now working in sport or the cycling industry based on their reputation. Some of these riders took drugs to win.

As I look back on those comments from the presenter, I feel I was one who made it. I have a doctoral degree, a good job, a healthy family, the respect of my peers, and I still ride my bike - all without cheating.

The future of cycling is unclear. Science will uncover the drugs used illegally, but until cycling's governing bodies resolutely commit to a drug-free sport, young riders who seek a career will be forced to make that same moral decision I faced 20 years ago.


Professor Steve Stannard is the head of Massey University's School of Sport and a former Australian representative road-racing cyclist. He won last year's Wellington to Auckland Cycle Challenge.

- NZ Herald

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