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From Inside Peloton: Omertá in 3 acts

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Omertá, n. [Italian] a conspiracy of silence

Act One
It’s been strange, to say the least, over the years, to witness the developments in professional cycling and to see how fans have been shocked and/or angered at the stories that have been reported. Now, it’s hardly ever a certainty that that reporting is always very accurate, given the complexity of the sport, the many thousands of people directly involved on the “inside” (riders, directors, medical personnel, chefs, mechanics, soigneurs, etc.) and the cultural intricacies (languages, customs and attitudes) that are involved in any sport that crosses as many international boarders as cycling does. It’s fair to say that a star American rider on a French team in an Italian race often finds himself in a very different place than, say, a French star cyclist on a French team racing on home soil.

Words: John Madruga
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

Beyond the race, which seems like the easy part of the equation, the American rider obviously has much more to juggle being a foreign athlete in a foreign land. Along with this, riders’ roles quickly shift as the parameters of their situation changes, and so being adaptable to a myriad of important non-cycling-related influences becomes almost as important to success in the world of pro cycling as training and diet. This is the reality of the life of a pro cyclist, but what has often been reported about cycling, particularly here in the U.S., where the sport gets little to no play in the day-to-day commentary about football, basketball and baseball (with some peripheral references to hockey, tennis and golf), are the doping stories that have become such a significant part of the sport for so many years. A look at the daily headlines reveals a clear trend in the psychomachy of cycling, and this kind of reporting has created a near-equal balance between stories of great riders winning great races, and stories of other riders (great and otherwise) being involved in and/or admitting to using banned substances. For example, today is March 25, 2013, and here are the cycling news headlines—at least according to one American mainstream online sports source, nbcsports.com: “Sagan Wins Ghent-Wevelgem,” “Danish Cyclist Rolf Sorensen Admits Doping,” Froome Beats Porte to win Criterium International,” “WADA seeks harsh punishment for Puerto Defendants.”(1) The word “psychomachy” is rarely used these days, especially in the context of a sports-minded publication, maybe because at the heart of it’s meaning is a kind of huge-scale relationship between body and soul that most people never really think much about—it’s too big, too complex, with too many implications to fully wrestle with. Nevertheless, the word signifies “a conflict of the soul (as with the body or between good and evil),” and so suggests a kind of inner struggle, one that is always deeply felt but not always seen, pervading over an individual or situation. That nature of that struggle is somewhat vague but still involves large questions about being, belief, purpose, the body, values and morality—the very concepts that bracket the individual lives of many WorldTour riders, the organizing structure of the UCI, and the general, overarching culture of the sport.

Most athletes train for competition and then compete. The process is never easy but it can be that simple. But it’s not that simple for the pro cyclist who, upon signing his first contract, may become part of a distinct system, a code, that is both known (visible) and unknown (hidden)—even to those with the best behind-the-scenes media access or fans interested in the most detailed aspects of the sport. On one hand, the requirements of the system come naturally: put in the long hours in training (on and off the bike) to prepare for the year’s racing schedule ahead, and once there, in the race, ride in the best interests of the team. If that means going to the front to be part of the break, you do that; if it means being the first of three guys in the lead-out for the team’s top sprinter, you do that; if it means attacking on the final climb to be properly positioned for the long run-in to the finish, you do that. Playing the role as rider is not the hard part of being in the system, it comes naturally to those who have ridden for years. There is nothing remotely strange about being asked to be part of the peloton and to utilize one’s skills to ride to one’s strengths. It’s like the painter in the act of painting or the actor in the middle of a monologue: the performative act becomes the fulfillment of the one who performs. This is what we pay to see: the performance—the rider riding, the actor acting, the painter’s painting. But what is important to keep in mind is that the performance we see is always the end result of the performer’s prior history of training, practice or education into what he is doing to the fullest of his given talents, without much additional pressure that would alter their performance in any way. The cyclist, on the other hand, performs within a system that can directly influence his performance, and in a number of ways—to the extent that his success or failure may be determined by how willing he is to conform to what the system asks of him. This makes cycling different. It’s this ever present but hidden pressure to conform to a system of behavior and follow the “conspiracy of silence,” the omertá, that has largely created this difference, and it’s influence reaches well beyond what happens on the bike.

Assuming that riders adhere to the omertá built into the culture of cycling is to assume that those same riders are willing to accept all that comes with it: to lead a kind of double life, on the one hand being a world-class athlete performing on the bike, but also living within a realm of pressured silence about what that experience is actually like, never able to fully reveal how the sport actually operates. It’s this influence of the omertá on the individual lives of cyclists all over the world that, to me, is the most interesting issue at stake. That it puts a veil over the faces and a gag in the mouths of the riders we wish to really see and hear from—that’s no trivial matter, no small cross to bear, because it has to do with one’s identity and the fundamental right of self-expression. To be relegated into silence usually means that there are a whole set of consequences in place to bring down upon those who should break the silence, and so those living within the conspiracy know where they stand in the hierarchy. And in the cycling hierarchy, it’s the riders who are at the lowest level, dispensable cogs in the machine, and they can be easily replaced if they challenge the implicit agreement among those within the system that silence is golden. And, as an additional element to being silenced, these riders also live with the fear of being discovered for any indiscretion, always paying attention to saying and doing the “right” things so as not to appear too suspicious to the media or fans. Seemingly, not a pleasant way to live at all.

Forget the interviews, daily news reports and court documents, and the carefully-crafted position on the matter of performance-enhancing drugs offered by the UCI and USADA. The omertá, to a large degree, dictates the reality of the lives of cyclists who are good enough to be at the top of their profession. But what sounds like a privilege—to be included within a select group of riders—also sounds like a kind of jail sentence. The default conclusion in all of it, according to the implicit rules of cycling, is this: ride within the parameters of the system, keep quiet to maintain the omertá, and automatically deny any and all allegations that might arise having to do with any banned substances that may involve you, your team or anyone associated with the team.

Act Two
Last October, when several of the most well known and respected U.S. pro cyclists responded to the USADA sanctions that were brought against them, it was an opportunity to learn firsthand about the pressure they must have felt to live under the omertá, what it meant to them to be silenced, and what it was now like to be finally free from its authority. However, the statements that were released by Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie and Tom Danielson all read as if they were written by the same person at the same public relations firm. With introductory comments like, “When I was a 13-year-old kid, it was my dream to ride the Tour de France,” “I love cycling, it is and always has been a huge part of who I am,” “Cycling was refuge for me,” and “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a professional cyclist,” it’s clear that the effect of such language is to establish, right up front, a level of purity of purpose to both the rider (writer?) and the overall statement he is in the process of making. As far as strategy goes, it’s no doubt a good way to begin a statement that then admits to participating in, as Leipheimer says, “the dirty past of cycling,” but insofar as the statements address that essential conflict between body and soul (good and evil) that is built into the lives of those participating in doping and the omertá, they leave much to be desired. At best, the statements all share the same overall three-part structure: 1) an expression of love for or lifelong dedication to cycling; 2) an admission of choosing to take banned substances; 3) some self-promoting remarks, followed with a hopeful statement about the clean future of cycling and wanting to be part of that future. That structure is all well and good, but what about providing information regarding the actual lived experience of the ordeal? That’s where, it seems, the real information lies. There is nothing in the statements addressing the lived culture of doping and what it was like to undergo the pressure to conform, the pressure to keep quiet, the pressure to deny any and all accusations. No information about how all of this actually effected how riders live their lives. Perhaps that stuff is too personal and has no place in a press release meant for a public audience, but still something more compelling than the standard 1-2-3 PR format would have been welcome. Plus, using such a business-like strategy and tone also leads to strange logic. Consider, for example, the following remarks in Leipheimer’s statement: “I could have come forward sooner. But would that have accomplished anything—other than to end my career? One rider coming forward and telling his story in the face of cycling’s code of silence would not have fixed a problem that was institutional.” This is then immediately followed by the next paragraph, which states: “When USADA came to me and described a solution—where my admission could be part of a bigger plan that would make the positive changes we’ve seen in recent years permanent—I said, “I need to be involved.” I don’t want today’s 13 year olds to be discouraged by their parents from dreaming about one day riding the Tour de France.” The motivation behind Leipheimer’s thinking is understandable. Surely, given his situation, it would be far easier to be part of a larger group of cyclists (a peloton of sorts) than to be alone in the matter of coming clean and thereby helping to shift the culture of professional cycling when it comes to questions of doping and its code of silence. Granted, the power of the omertá is far too great to confront as a soloist, but Leipheimer’s quick turnaround from “I could have come forward sooner. But would that have accomplished anything—other than to end my career?” to “I need to be involved,” ends up sounding like both phrases are motivated by the same guiding principle: conforming to a standard of behavior that is outside of his own and has nothing to do with his real personal beliefs or values. “I could have come forward sooner” is shorthand for “I chose to conform to the desires/standards of the omertá,” while “I need to be involved” is shorthand for “I chose to conform to the desires/standards of the USADA.” Either way it is presented, the common thread is that these riders never really established to the public an authentic admission or confession of guilt, because with that comes a lived, personal trajectory of change, a real, self-motivated demonstration of having emotionally moved from wrong (evil) to right (good) and to have this change genuinely presented out in the open, made visible by one’s actions.

But there is also something else about these riders’ statements that prevents them from becoming very convincing, very real, in a way that would give readers a true sense of what they experienced as racers faced with the difficult choice to conform and dope or suffer the consequences. As presented, the statements set out to accomplish two things: admit to using banned substances, and preserve their own personal “brand.” It’s unfortunate but true that today’s athlete is a kind of hybrid being, part human and part brand, and so from a PR standpoint it’s vital to keep the corporate side (which of course equates to future earnings, marketability and professional reputation) of the beast intact. And so, rather than having to approach a statement of confession on a human level, which is hard because it deals with the inner life of emotions, memories and personal feelings, the alternative is far easier to do as a kind of generic brand positioning strategy by mentioning one’s accomplishments, pointing out proud moments of the past, and placing oneself at the center of cycling’s new clean image. Of all the American riders to issue statements of apology under the USADA sanctions, Christian Vande Velde uses this branding strategy approach to the fullest extent: “Today, I am proud of the steps that I and cycling have made to improve the future of the sport that I love so much. I am proud to be a part of an organization that implemented a no-needle policy. I am proud that I published my blood values for all of the world to see after almost reaching the podium at the 2008 Tour de France, showing first and foremost myself that it was possible to, and then confirming it for the rest of the world.” The language here seems more about maintaining balance, trying to offset the natural negative reaction the public will have in reading Vande Velde’s confession of guilt, with a bullet-point-like series of positive, self-promoting remarks. The result is that it helps Vande Velde look good, which naturally is also good for his brand image, and this makes sense given the fact that his statement, like the others, is from a rider still caught in the middle of his dilemma. These are guys admitting to a dirty past but who still have current viability in the sport and need to do some damage control. I understand that that viability must be maintained and protected, but why does it have to presented in such a directed tone, devoid of any real expression of emotion regarding cycling’s omertá—which is, at the heart, a very real, very human and very emotional issue—and how it surely disrupted many lives? David Millar, in his book, Racing Through the Dark, offers a more refreshing and authentic way of looking at all of this when he writes: “I loved racing, and I loved being a cyclist, but I struggled with the people and the environment. The world of doping and the law of silence—the omertà—that went with it were eroding my self-respect.”

Act Three
The concept of an omertà is nothing new, and it’s not special to cycling. Omertàs have been uncovered in other sports, police departments, governmental agencies and financial firms—anywhere codes of conduct and secrecy regarding privileged information are part of the job to be done. However, what is ironic about doping and cycling’s omertà is that their joint existence are so well known and well established, engrained into the sport to such a degree, that we have become almost blind to their presence. According to Leipheimer: “I came to see cycling for what it was: a sport where some team managers and doctors coordinated and facilitated the use of banned substances and methods by their riders. A sport where the athletes at the highest level—perhaps without exception—used banned substances. A sport where doping was so accepted that riders from different teams—who were competitors on the road—coordinated their doping to keep up with other riders doing the same thing.” Here, Leipheimer defines cycling in terms of how banned substances played a vital role in its day-to-day existence. Hidden in plain sight, the culture of doping and the omertá that controls that culture has defined cycling as much as anything else, so why are we shocked and outraged at the news of another doping scandal or seeing a rider’s stage win or GC victory being crossed off the books due to a positive test for some banned substance? Even Dave Zabriskie, in his statement, acknowledges the surprise he felt when he was first confronted with the prospect of doping: “After distinguishing myself in an important race, management presented me with drugs and instructed me on how to proceed. I was devastated. I was shocked. I had never used drugs and never intended to. I questioned, I resisted, but in the end, I felt cornered and succumbed to the pressure.” Maybe its one thing for a top-level pro who is getting good results racing clean to be surprised when he is asked to dope, because he thinks, perhaps, that his superior physical ability makes the drugs unnecessary. But to be actively participating in the middle of that environment on a daily basis, where doping is rampant and widespread, and then be “devastated” and “shocked” when asked to join in is, to say the least, strange. I assume that the words “devastated” and “shocked” were not accidently selected, but used to emphasize Zabriskie’s horror at the thought of becoming part of cycling’s faithful, one of the many within a tight-knit community who would carry out doping programs and follow the rules of silence that come with one’s participation. The strange part of the Zabriskie example is how unconscious it sounds, as if he’s unaware that he is part of a cycling culture that he is already a part of. Author David Foster Wallace has described this common state of mind as a “closed-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.” This is not so much the fault of Zabriskie himself as it is the cumulative effect of doping and the omertà on the cycling world over so many years—we have all felt it as well. And so it’s not just racers that have been “locked up” in the influence of drugs and the code of silence, the cycling media and fans around the world have also fallen into a kind of weird somnolent state regarding how the built-in doping/omertà combination was debilitating riders and the sport as a whole. The result is that we, in time, started not to see the pressure any longer. Instead, we watched with anticipation, mouths open, mesmerized as racers got faster and stronger than ever before—both the media and fans falling in love with what we were witnessing riders do on the bike without really considering anything larger at stake in the matter. How was doping and the omertá allowed to prosper to such an extent, and how have we so unconsciously come to accept the problematic reality of the cycling culture we are now a part of? Again, consider Wallace’s words when he writes about “the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.” We’ve become so captivated by the outer surface of the sport, the physicality of speed and strength and stamina, that it made it almost impossible for us to really consider what was happening on the inside—inside team buses, hotel rooms, and training camps, those moments far away from the camera’s view. Not to mention what was happening inside the bodies and lived experience of the racers we were watching. As a simple value equation, we came to prize the physical, visible, superhuman efforts of our cycling idols and set aside concerns about just where these abilities were coming from and what to do about it.

Simply stated, the nature of any conspiracy is that a select few benefit at the hands of many. Usually, that benefit comes in the form of money, power and privilege—the very stuff that motivates countless people and organizations into countless forms of activity, legal and otherwise. The entire financial crash of 2007-2008, it could be argued, was due to a kind of conspiratorial quest for the material gain of many “insiders” who devised the concept, language and playing rules for things like NINJA loans, derivatives, mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps, creating an investment environment that many millions of people around the world unknowingly became a part of and did not understand. Those on the inside intimately knew the rules of the game, and leveraged their knowledge over the average investor to record massive profits for themselves and their companies. Then, like a house of cards, the insider system crashed under the weight of its own myopia and greed, and the principle masterminds of the disaster were allowed to walk away unscathed, not one being prosecuted for their blatantly illicit actions, while the outsider millions suffered the consequences. The problem with our response to the financial crisis is the same problem to our response to the problems created by doping and the omertá in cycling: we tend to remove the human element from the issue and focus on the laws that were violated, deciding on how to react on the basis of organizational regulations, the amount of money that was lost or the punishments (if any) to be handed out (if at all). We somehow find it easy to be shocked or offended at the news of another doping allegation, which is weird given the clear history of the sport in this regard, and yet tend to forget the real day-to day reality of the suffering that comes with living under any system of control and silence. Living this way, it would seem, would not just change one’s life as a cyclist but as human being, and in ways that would be profound. This, to me, is the real story—the human story—of cycling’s issue with doping and the omertá. In the deepest sense, it’s a story that deals with an essential conflict between body and soul, and it needs to continue to be told.

1- Footnote
My first attempt to find cycling news headlines on what I thought would be the best mainstream online source, espn.com, proved useless, since the website doesn’t even include a drop-down tab for Cycling in its list of 29 sports it does provide information on, some of which, like Poker and Bassmaster, could hardly be called sports at all. Where cycling does reside on espn.com is under the tab for Endurance Sports, sharing news space with stories about relatively unknown marathoners and triathletes.

From Issue 21. Buy it here.