Erik Zabel. Photo by Berndt Fernow (Wikimedia Commons)
There's no air, there's no oxygen. There's no vegetation, there's no life.
This was Lance Armstrong talking about the Ventoux a long time ago; the brutal mountain near Marseilles that (with the help of a demented will to win, a half bottle of brandy and some speed) killed the legendary British cyclist Tom Simpson. No air, no oxygen, no vegetation, no life. If there is an excuse for doping in cycling then it is embodied by this colossal piece of rock.
It is unforgiving and alien, and I know how Armstrong feels. This morning as 5am came around I was slipping in and out of consciousness, the alcohol in my system wearing off, the speed stupidly neglected at the starting gate. Certain I was near the end I pushed on, but there was no defeating it. The sepia hues, and the polished, bland apologies that made up Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey got the better of me. I fought back sleep in the hope that he might still take aim with his 12-bore at the elephants in the room that would make the pastel shaded spectacle a little more gratifying, but just couldn't get over that final climb. “Put me back on my sofa,” I muttered to the cat, but he is a poor helper. At best he is a disinterested soigneur.
Armstrong, of course, said that he wasn’t alone in doping, and pointedly that the USADA claim against him that he was at the heart of “the most sophisticated doping programme ever” was wrong. He knew how to counter that, easy. Just chuck in the East Germans. Not only were they at it, but they were cheating for communism, Armstrong was only cheating for cancer. Come on, he implored the good people of America, communism or cancer, which side are you on, eh? As a doping version of Godwin's law it works perfectly. How long until someone brings up the GDR in vindication of what they did? It’s never that long.
There was an insidiousness about much of the GDR’s doping programmes that is magnified by the fact that a lot of the time the people that were being doped weren't too aware of it, taking their “supplement and vitamins” without asking too many questions, but surely this is a better excuse for the athletes in question than, say, East Berlin-elite-sport-schooled Jan Ullrich who (post-Wende) was pumping more shit into his veins from Dr. Feelgood, sorry Fuentes, because “there was a lot of pressure on me”.
There was pressure on Ullrich, he had finished second behind Armstrong so many times that he had a permanent version of the Turin Shroud burned into his corneas in the shape of Armstrong's arse. He was joined in his ignominy by the likes of Rolf Aldag and the Marzahn born Erik Zabel. Zabel’s excuse was the best, invoking not the GDR, but Bill Clinton. He had only doped once, for one week in the Tour, but it made him ill, he didn’t like it and was very sorry. He was a second away from saying he didn't inhale, and that blowjobs don't count.
Zabel is still lauded as a hero in Germany, his record of six green jerseys in the Tour de France still stands. He retired from the sport with a win in the six days race in Berlin a couple of years ago, and he, no doubt, remained pretty well remunerated for his efforts. Herein lies the problem. We will forgive dopers, whilst saying, “Well, it’s not as bad as it was in the GDR,” but Zabel's Dad, Detlef (about whom there is no written accusations of doping that I can find), represented the former country for years, winning student world championships and doing the donkey work necessary in the peloton so that Gustav-Adolf Schur could win all the glory, and what did he get as a pay-off at the end of his career? An accordion. And he even donated that a couple of years ago to a museum.
There is a film called Hell on Wheels about the former Telekom team including Zabel, Jr. and Aldag, showing them fighting their way through one of the toughest races on Earth without, so they said at the time, resorting to doping. Naturally, when they announced that they had indeed at least tried it on occasions it took on a different light.
But, for me, they come across as far more human than the stars of the film Blood Sweat and Gears, which shows a year in the life of the Garmin / Slipstream team trying to get to the Tour de France as the sport's first "clean team". Watching it is like being sent to a camp for born again Christian non-smokers, such is the unbridled, whining, self-righteous smugness on show. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, I’d gladly get rid of doping in cycling if it meant that the cyclists wouldn't all become like them.
So there you go. Lance may or may not be forgiven, but it's a moot point now. He has already won his PR battle and didn't even have to turn to God to achieve it. He is a bully and cheat, a reprehensible man who has the audacity to claim that his crimes against a sport pale into insignificance next to those of state that hasn't even existed for over 20 years.
And I'd forgive him too, if I had slept better last night, but for making me try to get through that soft focus, nightmare of self-flagellation in paisley, he’s going to have to take a hell of a lot more drugs.