In the dark

October 25, 2021

Well, October is nearly complete, which means two things: 

  1. Depressing afternoon darkness trying to shorten my afternoon bike rides.
  2. I’ve invested body, mind, and soul to my annual Lance Armstrong novel study.

Fall in Colorado can’t be beat. With it winding down, I’m always pulled by some force to enjoy the yellow leaves and clear roads while I can. For whatever reason, I always find myself lengthening my rides as daylight simultaneously shortens. My hand absentmindedly will reach for a bike book (for my ‘lighter reading’) and before you know it, I’ve shared a google calendar invite for the November 6th Velo-Swap with my wife sixteen times. 

My diurnal fall bike craze usually ends with the first ‘real’ nordic ski session, and I move on from that third Lance Armstrong documentary and second Tyler Hamilton biography. I fold up my Floyd’s of Leadville jersey and tuck away my Velo Swap steals. Speaking of Floyd, the 2021 version of “SederCyclo Fest” has included the reading of his 2007 biography Positively False

My garage sale find’s opening chapters were fuel to my fall fetish. They detailed the 12-year old, sweat-pants-wearing, steel-framed-mountain-bike-riding Mennonite pedaling 30 miles one way, through snow and slush filled roads to a group ride along a 15-30 mile stretch of plowed road, before riding back. His parents were clueless as to the nature of his obsession, and, based on the anecdote, Landis probably was, too! The guy would strap on three layers of plastic bags – one over his sock, one over his shoes, and one over the pedal, as he and his buddy – no matter the weather – disciplined themselves to a routine arbitrarily plucked out of an old training manual. Suddenly, slipping into my Northwave winter cycling shoes (another brilliant Velo Swap deal) and Gore-tex jacket (Velo Swap – $5), cycling-specific pants (Velo Swap, $5), and insulated gloves (Swix, no comment on price) for a ride in 35-degree temperatures which may fall when the sun goes down, didn’t seem so hard. 

After the effectual hook, my disappointment increased as I turned each page. The text didn’t lack a literary lemon juice; rather, there was too much lemon. The sour taste from reading Landis’s point blank doping denials and harsh presentation o USADA as a disorganized, crooked organization left me confused. Worse, his detailing of the vast amount of errors made by the French lab which presented his failed tests back in 2006 left me completely baffled. I have had to keep Google handy as I read a page and then look up what Landis has said NOW on the matter. Of course, Landis’s tune is in a completely different key as of 2021, rendering readers helpless in handling the contents of the book. Somewhat disturbing is my own introspection: had I read this when it came out, I would have had ample reason to side, 100%, with Landis. 

He is a straight-shooter, fearing no one (even Lance), and seems incapable of lying, even when the social situation probably demands it. Furthermore, the combination of grit and talent, coupled with a lifelong demonstration of both are evidence enough for me to at least hope he could be telling the truth. Finally, experts weigh in with logical analysis, breaking apart the details in his favor.

Even his damning portrayal of USADA is not completely without merit. In 2006, they dropped two failed drug test cases (a cyclist and runner), so they could pour all of their resources into nailing Landis down. The book gives an early inside scoop to what we now are privy to, namely, USADA’s desire to bring down the biggest fish – Lance – with the help of a smaller big fish – Landis. 

I’ve already given way too much space in the column to Armstrong. He produced an ESPN “tell-all” docu-series in 2020, unnecessary after the famous appearance on Oprah in 2013 and a 2017 documentary. I’ve read his books and Tyler Hamilton’s revelation in previous fall cycling phases. I wonder if Armstrong is richer now, after capitalizing on cheating and lying about it, than he was as a cyclist!

Alas, I titled this “In the Dark,” for a reason, and it’s high time I get to it. Thesis: Cheating takes place in sports at every level, and the doping at the top should bother us the least. 

A prominent former athlete I’m friends with recently engaged in a fierce Facebook conversation over the recent allegations surrounding Marit Bjorgen’s 2017 drug tests. I respect his analysis, and read through the comments. After reflecting on both party’s claims, my primary takeaway ended up being the realization of just how much time and energy had been put into this case. Now, one could argue my friend has some skin in the game as a former Olympian who perhaps was effected by dopers at the highest level. However, I’m using this case as simply an example. I can think of many other times where not just the media, but the everyday social media member dedicates far too much sweat equity to stating their case against high level cheaters, from Tom Brady to Absel Kiprop. 

When I was in Park City last week, I was chatting with head coach Andy Newell (a 4x Olympian for Team USA) and one of his athletes, a very talented and successful former NCAA All-American, while we drove to the Soldier Hollow rollerski track. This athlete was hoping to hop in with the US team members for speeds. I couldn’t help but feel they were, as I would have been had I been in a similar place, trying to keep their face relevant in the eyes of Chris Grover and Matt Whitcomb as much as possible. 

 Our conversation drifted to the concept of moving up the pipeline and making national teams in the US. We each put in our two cents. My belief is that the nature of skiing – lacking the objectivity found in running and requiring the fastest equipment on the right day – makes for cloudy skies when it comes to assessing who the best athletes truly are. The athlete’s sentiment was congruent, supporting with an additional anecdote: placing 11th instead of 10th at a Junior Nationals as a 15 year old because you didn’t have great skis might have cascading effects. You maybe don’t get invited to a National Elite Group camp, and then you don’t get the attention of the coaches, and soon, your history is written. Failure to hop on the train early typically leads to no ride whatsoever.

I might be naive to comment on this, but I think it is absolutely true. I will say, however, it isn’t unique to the US, and for what it’s worth, our coaches have made incredible strides in how they assess and develop and inspire young skiers. They deserve recognition in this area. We compete on snow, not a track, and therefore, the problem described above is somewhat unavoidable. What might be avoidable, however, is the cheating which takes place when it comes to ski picking/selection and preparation. To me, this is the kind of ‘doping’ no one really gets punished for, even though it impacts a much larger population than a Tour de France winner’s actions. Sure, cheating there means millions of dollars, endorsements, and careers are at stake – but they are the careers of athletes who are already professionals

When an NCAA athlete gets a secret stash of racing skis from a company looking to “woo” them when their college days are done, the humble athlete shopping at the Ski Hut and putting down a summer job’s worth of income to pay for a fleet of three skis doesn’t stand a chance. When the former gets complimentary grinding services and better wax technicians, the gap to the latter increases. We never get to see what the less endowed athlete could have become because the door is slammed shut early on in their physical development. 

Don’t get me wrong – athletes who have been cheated out of podiums at the highest level deserve our sympathy, too. There is no greater athletic tragedy than the athlete who gets mailed their bronze medal 24 years after their Olympic final, living with a nice hunk of metal to lose in the garage, a constant reminder of how on the night which should have been a culmination, a celebration, and a chance for them to have their moment in front of millions, was robbed because someone else cheated. It’s disgraceful. 

Even so, we villainize these perpetrators a little too much, leaving none of our attention to the under-the-table actions and blatant forms of rule breaking youth coaches, zealous parents, and even irresponsible teens commit right under our noses. In skiing, where equipment and access can’t be won over simply by entering a road race and slamming down an Olympic qualifier (like in running….if you want to make the Olympic team, no one – literally no one – is stopping you), I think this deserves an investigative journalist or former athlete to say something. 

By the way, I’ve sat on this column for a while. One reason: I don’t anticipate my writing will matter much in any positive way. Seder-Skier.com averages about 40 views per day – during a good week. I have nothing to gain and everything to lose. Some of my guests on my show are the exact people I’m referring to! They sit on 50-ski fleets, get special stone-grinding privileges, and are on the inside track to current and future national teams. As writers, we hope to develop relationships with these athletes – great people – while also trying to voice concerns. Often, there is a conflict of interest.

Cross country skiing is a great sport – maybe the best sport. The community is small, which is both good and bad. Negative cliques sprout up as often as lifelong friendships and helpful hands. I’ve benefited tremendously from the welcomeness of high level athletes and coaches who have little to gain from conversing with me, and I’m extremely grateful for it. My hope is not to call out certain groups or burn bridges, but instead ask, in a time when we are all quick to pull the trigger on drug busts and World Cup cheats, we look inward and assess how “in the dark” our domestic ski community is in regards to unfair advantages. I’m ok if my Olympic viewing experience is sullied. I’d rather see that than witness people I know be helpless in developing and maximizing their potential to the fullest because they are unfairly – indirectly – denied opportunities. 

Now, I suppose I better get in the saddle before the darkness comes. … and the snow falls :).

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