I think this drove a lot of people nuts. I got one letter from a guy pretty far inside the whole doping thing who said, essentially, “thanks for saying that.”

I think it’s great that Ricardo Ricco shot himself so full of the new generation of EPO that he lost all sense and loosed those heartbreakingly ridiculous attacks that won him Stages 6 and 9 of the 2008 Tour de France.

Those of us who witnessed those exploits and didn’t know that Ricco was doping had either never watched a Tour de France before, or had somehow found a way to sustain an admirably willful ignorance (which I guess arises from a kind of hope as sweet and doomed as a puppy love crush, or from the utopian delusion that we can somehow rewind the course of modern life to free ourselves from its scourges).

I mean, Ricco was, literally, unbelievable, the way he was riding those mountains, his hands down in the drops, sprinting away from the best climbers in the world, up out of the saddle and pouncing on the steepness of the grade whenever his pace slacked, and the way he threw his arms in the air at the line each time, as if presenting himself to us rather than celebrating.

The man was stuffed with dope, and at this point in the life of professional bike racing — in the life of our culture — I think we need to stop pretending we’re outraged. Remember when we, as a society, could still be surprised by the antics of the cast of the Real World, or Survivor, or Big Brother, or American Idol (or our government)? We no longer tune in to reality shows to be shocked by alcoholics, or racism, or threesomes or whatever we might consider taboo; we watch, if we do at all, to see how the drama will unfold this time, with this group, with all the past seasons as context for participants as well as spectators.

Look: We all knew, at least those of us who wanted to, that Ricco was so juiced it was running out of his ears. And thanks to the new policy that lets the dope-control program target suspicious riders (which replaced the useless random tests), as well as the willingness of sponsors to break their deals and take back their cash, we’re finally past the point where the cheaters more or less get away with it; the 1990s and the first years of this century made for unsatisfying sport not because people cheated but because the cheaters often won — a fundamental difference that seems to make a lot of difference to us, as if we humans simply aren’t built to tolerate unfair victory, no matter if the arena is a backgammon board or a bike race.

The question wasn’t if Ricco was doping, but how his story would play out — when he would get caught, what he would do then, what kind of havoc he might wreak to the GC before he got busted. . . For me, the dopers have become part of the theater of the Tour de France, another subplot to the drama that — I’m just going to go ahead and say this — adds to my enjoyment.

I like listening to Amy Winehouse more because she actually did go to rehab. I like Jimi Hendrix more because he had so much talent he just couldn’t live with it. A Confederacy of Dunces is better because John Kennedy Toole killed himself, just the way the last pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls are so damn good because Hemingway eventually went to pieces just like Robert Jordan. I’m not saying it’s okay or right or necessary or even worth it that those people, or anyone, suffer and live in pain. I’m just being honest about my belief that, at least sometimes, the creator’s life can enrich the art – or the sport.

Because I felt sure Ricco would get caught, I felt free to enjoy his performance. He was beautiful when he rode, and he was doomed, and he carried around a picture of Marco Pantani. I love the quote he gave, after he won Stage 9: “I was impressive, I went very fast.” It reminded me of a stoner saying, “I’m so high,” as if he, too, had become a spectator to the feats of his own body, as if he were standing outside of himself somehow and couldn’t hold back his own wonder at what was happening.

What part of Ricco knew he was going to get caught? What was it like to live inside that knowledge? How does it feel to win in shame? Or to bury the shame? Is it worth the loss of the thing you do best in life, the thing you were born to do, to know how it feels to ride like an angel just once? And what about Manuel Beltran, at the end of a long career, with what hope, desperation, desire did he stare into the needle?

The dopers are never going to go completely away. Not ever. But now that we can catch them (and now that a clean guy is going to win) they’ve become more interesting to me. I never wanted them to triumph, but I don’t want them to vanish, either. The sport, the Tour, the world is richer thanks to screwed-up people.


Originally published in the July 17, 2008 Sitting In