On a recent morning in Toronto, it was so muggy that riding my bicycle to meet Andrew Randall felt like pedalling through industrial-grade sludge. Mr. Randall, who retired from pro cycling to become a coach only last year, has let the hair on his legs grow out and no longer spends 25 hours a week on the saddle. His clients, however, are nowhere near as lucky.“Some of [them] are riding full-time now, pretty much,” he says. “They’ve taken their A-type personalities and applied it to something else.”
By something else, he means racing. Most of these men (and they are mainly men) are already success stories at the office – Bay Street suits and the like – but now their attention is on the road. Their bikes, premium carbon-fibre machines, range in price from $3,000 to $13,000. Anything less than 10 hours of training a week means being lapped by their jeering peers. And they ride in the Masters categories, which is where older amateurs go head to head like old bulls in a ring.
These are “amateurs” – who dress like pros, talk like pros and think like pros. Sometimes, they are also caught doping like pros.
“In a way, doping has become normalized,” Mr. Randall says. “There are definitely a few guys doping.”
Because of the spotty nature of drug testing at amateur events, even Paul Melia, chief executive officer of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) and the man primarily responsible for tackling Canada’s doping habit, can’t pinpoint how “few” or “many” guys are out there. But given what he calls the “well-entrenched culture of doping in cycling,” he believes that medicinal cheating has certainly “filtered down.”
Some recent flare-ups prove the point. At last year’s Gran Fondo New York, a heralded 170-kilometre race, two amateurs tested positive. They joined eight others busted in an 18-month span in the U.S. amateur ranks (where many Canadians spend a portion of their racing season).
Closer to home, cyclist Greg Cavanagh – a member of the SUL (Shut Up Legs) team in Toronto – tested positive last summer during an in-competition test. He waived his right to a hearing and is still sanctioned by the sport for another year.
The question is why these cyclists do it. We certainly understand why professionals dope. Their livelihood and legacy are inevitably connected to performance. As the Tour de France winds up this weekend, the odds-on favourite to win, Christopher Froome, is swamped by suspicion because of his unparalleled dominance.
But what drives someone to cheat when all that’s at stake is a made-in-Vietnam plaque, some free handlebar tape and a branded cap? And even if drugged-up amateurs turn out to be exceptions rather than the rule, do they taint the sport for the rest of us?
As with any subculture observed from a distance, serious amateur cycling can appear insane. There’s the obscene spending on gear, the impenetrable terminology, the obsessiveness about weight – both bike and body – and the sheer physical cruelty of it all.
However, among hard-core “hobby” cyclists – for example, the 10,000 members of the Ontario Cycling Association who sign up for fun rides and races – all this is natural. Even necessary.
I know, because I am part of the shaved-leg demimonde. I have been riding road bikes for 10 years, racing on and off for almost as long. My shoes look like they’ve been designed for a Star Trek prequel. I have a perma tan on my quads and biceps. And I have seen up close how guys – usually a bit older than me, in their mid-40s and up – have turned their entire focus to winning.
Something rational is lost when one joins the religious order of serious amateur cyclists: Self-worth is measured against how thoroughly one thrashes others in the same cloistered sect. The outside world shrinks, dims and disappears. In this context, regardless of how meagre the stakes seem to those on the outside, cheating becomes about the survival of the self.
Andrew Tilin, whose book The Doper Next Door details his year as a middle-aged amateur on performance-enhancing drugs, has said in an interview that, “even in a stupid bike race, metrics pull on our self-worth and sensibilities as if they were gravity.”
Drugged or not, serious amateurs tend to behave like junkies, always on the lookout for the next hit.
Take the outrageously popular app Strava (Swedish for “strive”). Synced to any GPS device, it allows users to designate patches of road as “segments,” ride them as fast as possible and upload their results – which can include power, heart rate and, most important, speed. Part of the appeal is the capacity to luxuriate in a bubble bath of numbers. But so is showing off. Those with the fastest times are given King of the Mountain status (a brrowed term from the Tour de France) on the app’s leaderboard.