Decade’s have a way of making their mark in the ledgers of time. In cycling, as with life, it’s generally possible to delineate betwixt the ages merely by the fashion choices gracing the participants. Hair styles, music, cars and pop culture all contribute to the social fritto misto that make up any given decade. In addition to the usual melange of defining what-have-you’s, cycling enjoys a uniquely boisterous anomaly. Yes there’s the pompadour of Anquetil, of course there’s the mutton chops of Merckx and De Vlaeminck, without a doubt there’s the headbands of Fignon and who can forget the TT body suits of Cipollini? Yet apart from all these defining components there is one that has stood the test of time. Like the blind servitude of the Swiss Guard it has transcended the epochs and solidified its presence as a stalwart of professional cycling. I speak of course of doping. Yes that four letter word so reviled in the cycling community yet so impossible to ignore. I wish neither to defend nor laud doping or the dopers in this entry, instead I choose to merely point out the idiosyncrasies in its progression. In particular, one decade specifically stands out amongst the rest for the sheer outrageousness it fostered. That decade is the 90’s.
Since the inception of professional cycling doping has existed. In the late 1800’s, not content to climb unpaved mountain passes in a fixed gear on a bike made of lead and mercury, the riders upped the ante by apparently trying to commit suicide beforehand. It wasn’t unusual to find racers imbibing cocktails of cocaine, heroine, scotch and strychnine in search of a competitive edge. Who exactly thought hard drugs and poison was a performance enhancer is questionable, but, France was still in a position of relative global power so we’ll just go ahead and chalk it up to different times d’accordo? As the times progressed we crept into the era of speed and amphetamines which saw professional cycling get the closest it will ever come to having something in common with The Jersey Shore. What was great about the amphetamines influx was that in addition to the increased stamina and speed there was a directly proportional increase in sheer stupidity. Countless PROfessional riders speak of young neo-PROs coming to the front of the peloton looking like Sloth from the Goonies then dropping the hammer 2 km into a 300 km race thinking they could solo to glory. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you swing, amphetamines advantageous properties all but evaporated as ambient temperature increased which led to the always hilarious “bad fish” excuse when entire teams would have to pull out of competition. The roots of tainted food run deep in our sport. As cycling passed through the roleurs of the 80’s the chiseled physiques of John Rambo, Apollo Creed and John Connor’s assassin introduced Hollywood and i ciclisti to the advantages of steroids. Testosterone, cortisone, corticoids and and a myriad of other ‘sones got heavy use with PROs increasing muscle mass, decreasing fat storage cells and popping leg veins so defined Random House published a book entitled “Varicose Vanity: Charcoal Etchings from Le Tour”. The downfall of these products was the ease with which they were detected. Amphetamines and steroids showed up in tests that already existed at the time requiring creative but often ill fated methods at beating the system. And then… there was the 90’s.
Race Official: Excuse me Virenque but what may I ask is in that water bottle?
Virenque: Oh this bidon here?
Race Official: Yes
Race Official: It looks like the DNA cluster from Jurrasic Park.
Virenque: Yes it’s EPO
Race Official: Fantastic, vive le France!
Doping in the 90’s was like cocaine on the set of a John Hughes movie. Those involved in the sport knew of its widespread use while we “regular” consumers got to sit back and naively reap the rewards. It was a different era of doping because of what became possible to witness. EPO was introduced and with it racing was changed forever. By increasing the red blood cell count in athletes EPO made it possible to literally ride people to hell. Water bottles filled with ice and syringes were passed around race starts and jumping jacks became the new jogging in order to keep the sludge that was riders blood from coagulating in their veins at night. Despite the health risks and clandestine practices the racing was unrivaled. Frank Vandenbroucke big ring’ing Liege-Bastogne-Liege single handedly increased the nationwide copulation rate in Belgium that year. After mistakenly hearing that the race motos had failed to show up for the Ardennes Classics, Bianchi Gewiss took it upon themselves to ride ahead of the peloton to make sure everything along the course was up to snuff. Averaging 40 kph. Up 9% grades. All while breathing through their noses. And never getting out of the saddle. The attacks of the 90’s were violent and complete. When a rider decided to play his cards in the Alps it was done with singular dedication and ferocity. Take this video, for example, of Lance putting in his first attack on the Sestriere in ’99. At 0:29 he goes so hard and so fast that he’s actually riding the climb like a descent, utilizing the apex and BRAKING before entering the turn. Then it continues, the attack doesn’t stop it’s a constant assault of devastation. At certain points when the camera is next to Lance it would appear he’s riding on the flats. Insanity. These guys were literally sprinting through the Alps and the Pyrenees yet looked like they were out on a Sunday coffee ride. I remember watching a filler piece with Paul Sherwen in which he incredulously describes the riders utilizing a 53 x 23 to make it through the climbs of the Tour de France. He simply cannot believe they are going to have to resort to the 23 tooth granny gear.
Yet I believe Marco Pantani best personified the brashness and over the top spectacle that was cycling in the 90’s. He still holds the record for fastest ascent of Alpe d’Huez and he more than likely completed most of it while in the drops. No helmet, no hair, a superbly ostentatious kit design and ear hoops swaying rhythmically atop one of the greatest climbers of the modern era. Il Pirata was a sight to behold on a bike especially when the road headed north.
The 90’s gave us some truly spectacular performances, the type of achievements that grandchildren will hear of in years to come. It was fast, merciless and damn good entertainment. It reminded me that these guys were PROs for a reason because there wasn’t a jar of Nutella’s chance at fat camp that I could ever big ring my local hard man climbs the way they did. No matter how much I trained I was never going to attack my group ride for 14 minutes straight. And regardless of how dedicated I was to improving my skills my face would always revert to a contorted mess when I knocked on the door of my pain cave. But that didn’t happen to these guys. They were PRO and as I sat watching the Sony Trinitron in my Bugle Boy shorts nursing a Clear Pepsi and throwing a Thigh Master at my younger brother I couldn’t help but smile and revel in the circus that I was privy to.
Oh yeah and Dinosaurs was still on TV then too.