In my eleven years as a professional cyclist, never has my job title seemed as loaded as it does now in the wake of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s reasoned decision that found Lance Armstrong and many others guilty of rampant doping. During a recent flight I found myself sitting next to a man whose attire- the yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet, matching T-shirt, and shoes-showed him to be a supporter of the charity Armstrong founded in 1997. My in-flight reading was the recently published confessional by Armstrong’s former teammate, Tyler Hamilton. My seatmate noticed and, after I told him my profession and that I believed the charges against Armstrong, he remarked, “Well you guys all do that stuff, right? So personally, I’m still pro-Lance.” He unjustly painted all professional cyclists with the same tainted brush in order to reconcile the painful truths that have been emerging. I swiftly corrected him by telling him that I have been a clean rider for my entire career and that in my opinion I am far from alone in the peloton.
The experience made me realize the importance of telling my story and addressing the misconception that pursuing a successful career in cycling during the Armstrong era necessitated doping. I race for Jamis-Hagens Berman Pro Cycling Team which is a UCI Continental team. This means that our racing calendar is overall a lower-level than the Tour de France teams, but includes top-level events with the major squads such as Tour of California and Tour of Utah. I am proud and happy to say that I have never taken drugs, have never been pressured into taking drugs, and have never been offered drugs in my entire career as a professional cyclist. While I can only truly speak for myself, I do not believe that my story is atypical of my US-based colleagues. Making the choice to race clean for me was never a difficult decision or one that I felt deserved praise. It felt as obvious and unremarkable as paying my taxes. But with the facts that have emerged, it has become important for me to be more outspoken and to shed some light on my experience in the domestic peloton because I believe we do not deserve to be condemned en masse along with the riders whose doping was revealed in the recent USADA investigation.
I started racing road bikes in 2000 and have been racing professionally since 2002, so I have been involved with the sport during much of the time highlighted in the Hamilton book and the USADA reasoned decision. When I was rising through the cycling ranks then on the East Coast, I heard plenty of doping rumors about local competitors and read the accusations that had already begun to emerge against Lance Armstrong. It was all discouraging and disappointing, but not once did anyone tell me that one has to dope to make it in this sport, nor did anyone ever offer me drugs. It seemed to me that if one were so inclined, one would have to proactively and secretively seek out such measures. The rumors on the East Coast were strongest about a rider named Joe Papp, and he was subsequently revealed to have been doping and trafficking drugs. I had the sense back then that befriending Papp or requesting drugs from him might have been the way down that path. Because, for the most part, an active and risky decision like this is required to dope in the US at the Continental level, the culture of doping here differs dramatically from the one described in the USADA reasoned decision.
My experience may be limited by having raced solely for Jamis-Hagens Berman in its various incarnations for the entirety of my career, but here are some scenarios that I have encountered during my decade inside the US peloton: pressure to produce race results from my bosses and peers; seeing dopers finish races ahead of me; determination of my salary and job prospects based on my racing performances; dealing with the reality that my dreams of racing in the Tour de France might not be attainable. I have had ups and downs in my professional cycling career, winning national and international races, but also dropping out, missing goals, and failing to win contracts that could lead me to cycling’s big show, the Tour de France. To me this is simply the nature of employment, and endeavoring to achieve a long-term goal. I have learned along the way that my decisions are the only ones that I can control, and therefore the only ones that really matter to me in the end.
In my more informed opinion, the Armstrong fan I encountered on the plane is mistaken. His perceived dichotomy is false. In addition to the choices of either doping or walking away during the dark Armstrong era, there existed a third option of racing clean. I am certain, using mine as evidence, that a rewarding career in cycling need not include the dangerous and reckless decision to dope.