Discover more from derailleur
the perils of cycling fandom
on tadej pogačar and ruta del sol
I often keep in mind a conversation I had last year in Ljubljana with a Slovenian friend of mine who’s a big cycling fan. After the conclusion of the 2022 Tour de France, my friend, let’s call him Luka, expressed his great distress over a glass of beer. Tadej Pogačar, of whom Luka is an admirer, had just lost the Tour to Jonas Vingegaard, and Luka’s resulting concerns were many-fold, simultaneous and perhaps contradictory: What if Slovenian cycling is over? What if Slovenian cycling never sees heights like these ever again in its history and everyone stops caring? And then, in a more hushed voice: What if the worst comes true? What if something terrible happens to Tadej Pogačar — he sustains a career-ending injury; or even more devastating, he gets caught doping and voids all that national joy and historical success?
Luka then urged me to tell him what I thought, what I know, as though I knew more than he did. Is it true? Is it all real? What do I think will happen? He beseeched me to confirm either the best or the worst. He wanted any kind of closure, but at the same time, he didn’t really want it, saying over and over, “Maybe it is best not to know.”
After Pogačar took 3 stages and the overall in the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta del Sol this week in typical, dominating fashion — as though everyone else was competing in a sport while Pogačar was merely playing a game — I thought about this conversation again. I found myself struggling with how to write about such a strong performance, especially as the Twitter machine churned, speculating on everything from Pogačar’s cleanness to whether he was early-peaking and would subsequently repeat his Tour loss. Reading all this, I felt as though, were to take the usual longform derailleur approach and simply apply a narrative account of how the race was won, I would be once more called a “Slovene apologist” or the most gullible person in cycling, or, of course, that most gendered of monikers, a fangirl. In the end, I kept dwelling on Luka’s questions, for his questions are at the very heart of fandom in cycling, perhaps one of the most difficult sports of which to be a fan.
I myself am no longer a fan of cycling or of any cyclist. My dedication to the sport is a literary one, and as readers of this newsletter know, I ended up becoming a journalist almost by accident. Of course, there are some stories and riders who show up time and time again in my writing — this is true of any writer. Certain cyclists will always captivate certain journalists to the point where those writers devote more work than usual to understanding their chosen subject. I spent my late-20s writing about Primož Roglič; Andy McGrath chose Frank Vandenbroucke as the topic for his latest book; Daniel Friebe spent many, many years working on Jan Ullrich; David Walsh beleaguered Lance Armstrong for his entire career, and so on.
Journalists struggle with the same questions fans do, but from a different position, one where there is no winning, especially with regard to the doping question. I do not know whether Pogačar, or any cyclist, is doping. There is nothing I can say even as an insider, to confirm or deny any of these fears. Should I uncover some hidden truth, I promise I will do everything in my power to bring it to light. However, I want to point out that it is very silly to believe that an active cyclist would ever confess to a journalist that they are cheating. The purpose of asking doping questions to riders is partly journalistic due diligence (and, truthfully, the public performance of such) and partly in order to have sound bites of denials should anyone get caught later.
On the other side of that coin is the ever-looming practice of being blacklisted by teams for being too confrontational or nosy, a constant tension at the heart of any form of access journalism, attended to by the additional threat of legal action. I cannot say “I think so and so is doping” if I have no evidence just because they rode a good race. I can only reiterate that cycling has a checkered history and that any distrust is rational and understandable. Anyone who gets angry about this does not have my best interest in mind and would rather me be some kind of martyr to their cause by publishing lies — because unsubstantiated claims are just that. They are lies.
Having said that, I am sympathetic to fans. I think fandom is complex and is unfairly derided as mindless. Fandom, at its heart, is a form of love, a hopeful, unrequited, cloying love. This is what I told Luka, especially with regard to the anxiety that no one will care about cycling in Slovenia after Roglič, Pogačar and Mohorič retire. For example, I am a fan of the Chicago Bulls. I love the Chicago Bulls. When I was a little girl, the Bulls were the greatest basketball dynasty of all time. Michael Jordan was a hometown hero in North Carolina, where I grew up. Now, frankly, the Bulls suck. It is so deeply painful to me that they suck. I tune into every game only to be devastated and frustrated.
I know I will spend the rest of my life waiting with my tongue on the ground for the Bulls to return to even a semblence of that prior greatness, one few teams or athletes ever reach or will ever reach. And yet, the people of Chicago still come to see the Bulls play. They still buy Bulls merchandise. They wear Air Jordans. They tune in to hear Stacey King say “Gimme the hot sauce!” on NBC even when the Bulls haven’t been terribly good since, well, Michael Jordan. The fandom has dwindled, yes, but it is still there, and with some loyalty. Sports can simmer but they rarely go cold.
As a Bulls fan, I read The Athletic religiously, trying to understand the vagaries of professional basketball players, combing through every profile, every interview in an attempt to understand them as people — people who feel so real to me, are so beloved to me, it is as though they have a tangible presence in my life even though I have never met DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vučević, or Zach Lavine. I find myself feeling jealous of the journalists who get to talk to them all while understanding that when I myself became a journalist, it came with the realization that athletes only talk to me because it’s their job and not because they like me or are thankful for my coverage of their sport. That’s the price paid for access. When meeting your heroes, it is much better to be a fan.
Unlike being a Chicago Bulls fan which is a sheer, brute exercise in pain tolerance, conflict in cycling fandom often involves the chemically sordid history of the sport, for which there has never been real closure. After the USADA ruling against Lance Armstrong, many called for a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the EPO era of cycling, including Armstrong’s teammate, Tyler Hamilton, who wrote as much in the epilogue to his exposé The Secret Race.
A TRC would have allowed those who cheated to come forward, tell the truth — which, as proven by Hamilton’s book, is often more nuanced than people believe — and be forgiven before exiting the sport. Instead, the cycling world moved on as quickly as possible from the Armstrong verdict in order to avoid even more bad publicity, with many of the old dirty practitioners then assuming management roles in teams that compete to this day. Without that moment of reconciliation, the truth remains buried, skepticism festers and everything seems corrupt. This is a shame.
The old journalistic adage goes, “Trust, but verify.” Perhaps a better one for cycling would be “Distrust, but verify.” As a fan, this is incredibly hard to do simply because we all want to believe what we are seeing is real. We want, so badly, to believe that all is right with the world and that our sport can be enjoyed without having to constantly look over our shoulders at the doping boogeyman. Most of all, we want our love for these athletes to be justified, for our intense emotional investment to not be misplaced. After all, it is impossible to love without trust. It is far easier to be cynical and bitter and be correct than it is to grieve for something you deeply believed in.
derailleur is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
A long time ago, back in the late 90s, my husband was a fan of cycling. He loved Mario Cipollini and Marco Pantani, and then, of course, Lance Armstrong. Despite all that’s happened with each of those practitioners, he still looks back on the period with a kind of detached fondness because those races transpired when he was a child who knew nothing of the world. We spend a lot of time together watching those old races — and a lot of them were good races — exciting, dramatic, awe-inducing, much like cycling is today.
I asked him about this and his response was interesting. He compared watching 90s cycling highlights post-2012 USADA verdict to watching Tom Cruise movies after knowing about the whole Scientology thing. Like Top Gun, 90s cycling is something influential from my husband’s childhood, but he’s not exactly looking to go out of his way to watch Top Gun: Maverick. “There’s no moral urgency with watching those old races,” he said. “It’s already spoiled. But to watch the Tour now? I don’t know.” (Curiously, a different friend of mine also compared cycling to film: “It’s like watching an action flick — you enjoy the spectacle without believing the special effects are real.” )
Indeed, being a cycling fan is an exercise in coping with disbelief. Those of us working in this space rarely publicly acknowledge how difficult that is. I wish I had some answers for those who are in distress, who cannot reconcile in their hearts what their eyes see on television. Personally, I get by in my daily life by believing that someday the truth will prevail, even if I don’t quite know right now what that truth is. A good journalist is open to many different possibilities — they don’t seek to confirm their existing biases, be they toward credulity or cynicism.
Trust (or distrust), but verify. That’s all I can do, that’s all any of us can do. I also understand that it’s the great, black chasm between the trusting and the verifying that swallows us up, that brings us waves of nausea and hope simultaneously. Pogačar’s performance in Ruta del Sol traversed that chasm for many. That’s not on Pogačar himself — he is simply the catalyst for an old sore being reopened: the sport’s failure to acknowledge the past in any meaningful, structural way. Until that happens, the chasm between trust and verify grows deeper and darker.
Fortunately for cycling, its fans, a stalwart bunch, are already well-acquainted with the dark.