Joe Papp fell off his bike, a casualty of the doping culture in cycling.
His interview with Myles McCorrym for Pezcycling is probably the best story I’ve read about how and why a rider crosses the line. You get all the angles, the rationales, naiveté, remorse and the painful aftermath wisdom that comes from first hand suffering.
We first discovered Joe Papp a few years ago when he wrote an engaging racing diary for cyclingnews. He wasn’t a famous rider competing in the big monuments of the sport but he was passionate about bike racing. He wrote well and had a skill for taking us inside the races, the personalities, the life of a pro racing gypsy, turning up in Cuba or Turkey or a smaller stage race in Italy or Spain.
So it was a mild shock to read he’s been doping for five years before he was caught and came clean. By the time of his failed drug test, he was doing his best to support the entire pharmacological industry — EPO, human growth hormone, testosterone, insulin, steroid and amphetamines. No doubt he popped a few aspirin, too.
The drug deal reached over 100 products, a program carefully managed by his Italian team — which would later deny any role or knowledge of Papp’s athletic enhancement. It feels like a very old story that never changes — from the Festina Affair to Operacion Puerto.
One of the ironies about Papp is that reading his diary entries, he seemed like such a straightforward, honest guy. The opposite of Alejandro Valverde or Alexandre Vinokourov, the Spaniard loaded down with doping allegations, the Kazak defiant and unrepentant after his two year suspension. But when you hear Papp describe the rocket boost in performance, you understand the intensity of the temptation.
“At first it brought me back up to my previous level of competitiveness, but the more I took that’s when I moved up a level- it felt amazing. 12 or 13% — enough of a difference to block out any ethical or health issues. Enough to win.” When a rider as thoughtful and articulate as Papp decides to dope, you realize how easily a younger athlete is lead to the needle.
It also nearly killed him. While awaiting his B sample test results, Papp crashed hard in the Tour of Turkey. At the hospital they removed “a mass of EPO-damaged sludge” from his left buttock. Doctors back in the states told Papp the blender mix of blood thinners and EPO could have easily killed him. That was certainly the terminal effect on his cycling career.
Once caught, Papp hoped lawyers would somehow locate the Hail Mary loophole but the endgame was not different than Floyd Landis or Tyler Hamilton: destroyed reputation, broken marriage, financial hardship and depression. A UCI ban was the least of his problems. It’s like the old Neil Young song — “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done. A little part of it in everyone. But every junkie’s like a setting sun.”
UCI anti-doping queen Annie Gripper says they’re winning the war on doping. Articulate and visionary team directors like Garmin’s Jonathan Vaughters think the biological passport is a huge step toward clean cycling. It’s a long hard climb, maybe tougher than Alpe d’Huez. “You can change behavior quickly but the deep culture will take a few more years yet,” said Gripper.
In an article about Lance Armstrong in this week’s New York Times, there was a reminder of that pervasive culture. “Five of the eight riders who shared the Tour podium with Armstrong in his winning years served doping bans at some point in their careers. Another two were allegedly tied to doping rings.” Those are not percentages you build a cleaner sport on.
We wish Joe Papp well. Like the NFL players who sell their ligaments, bones and risk life long damage from multiple concussions to make a living, Papp found himself caught in the grinder. He seems like a good guy that loved cycling too much. He wanted to be at the front of the climb and decided there was only one way to do that.