Three years ago I started Twisted Spoke as a entertaining commentary on bike racing. I’d never actually seen a bike race up close, in person or interviewed any pro riders. My vantage point was the TV and the internet. The distance gave me a certain freedom to say pretty much whatever I wanted without worrying about consequences or burning bridges.
Then things changed and I got a lot closer. I went from blogger to cycling journalist and covered the last three Tours of California and first two US Pro Cycling Challenges and several Tours de France.
I’ve worked the team buses at the start and finish of races, I’ve interviewed Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara and Cadel Evans. I’ve chatted with Johan Bruyneel and Jonathan Vaughters and John LeLangue. I’ve done in-depth profiles of Chris Horner and US road champ Timmy Duggan and improv’d a wonderfully boozy interview of Aussie Phil Anderson on a train from Geneva to Paris as Evans was winning the time trial and Tour.
This last week I flew cross-country for Cycle Sport magazine to interview 21 year old Joe Dombrowski just days before he moved to Nice, France to begin his first year with Team Sky. Joe gives you faith that the young kids will transform this sport and make us all sing with joy and naiveté again.
I’ve now driven thousands of miles across France and California and Colorado. I’ve had amazing meals in little French towns, stayed in crappy motels, driven six hours across the Alps or Pyrenees to get to the next place, I’ve slept in the car, nearly run over drunk Basque fans at the top of Hors Category climbs and eaten cheap tacos at a roadside stand in the middle of nowhere in Colorado.
I’ve had the fabulous experience of having a press credential and a rental car with a media sticker and watching as French gendarmes waved me through closed roads. Covering a big bike race is fast-paced, stressful, exhilarating, addictive, exhausting and challenging.
I’m now a lot closer to pro bike racing. But two things haven’t really changed: I’m still a newcomer and I’m still an outsider. That gives me a unique perspective on cycling compared to writers who have covered the sport for ages.
I’ve been reminded of that several times since the USADA Reasoned Decision stripped Lance Armstrong of his seven faux Tour de France victories. First off, I haven’t had to write any apologies for not digging deeper and exposing Armstrong’s lies like many long-time cycling journalists. These writers are angry, chastised and maybe a little embarrassed. Even John Wilcockson had to pen his own explanation of his role in the Armstrong Myth.
Me, I just got to the party too late because I can honestly say I would had been sucked in and fooled, too. I’m not an investigative reporter nor do I have any training for that. But it’s been interesting because I have a different perspective based on the fact that I haven’t had riders lie to my face for years like an Ed Pickering or Daniel Benson or Andy Hood.
Not long ago I wrote a story for Cycle Sport about Hincapie’s retirement. It was tough to find the balance between good and bad, what was fair and unfair. After reading the first version, the editor told me I’d gone too easy on Big George. But then again, I was an American writing about a beloved American cyclist and he hadn’t lied to me about doping for years. I didn’t have the same anger that my editor did. I reworked the piece and I’m proud of it — and yes, I did go harder on Hincapie. (That story is in the 2012 Year in Review Issue.)
It’s a reality check that when we talk about the doping culture during the Armstrong years, that everybody was involved in some way — from riders to team managers to doctors to journalists. Not everybody was David Walsh or Paul Kimmage and again, I pass no judgement. I doubt I would have done a better job. It’s only the differing perspective that interests me.
Two years ago I did a story about Rory Sutherland and his UnitedHealthcare squad at the Tour of California. When I saw it later in the magazine, they’d inserted a mention of Sutherland’s doping positive from 2005. Honestly, I kinda wondered why they did that because it was six years previous. But again, the magazine had a different perspective and they felt it was right to include that. I was the new guy and what a rider did six years ago seemed like old news and perhaps irrelevant.
The other interesting experience I’ve had is interviewing the older riders — guys like Leipheimer, Hincapie and Zabriskie. These guys carried around a doping secret for a long time and distrusted the media. As Tyler Hamilton writes in The Secret Race, cycling journalists were viewed as the enemy. Riders tried to say as little as possible and kept the conversations short.
I felt that vibe on a number of occasions when talking with veteran riders. They didn’t know who I was, what I was fishing for, who I was writing for, what I might ask. I was new and just that new-ness brought a certain suspicion that doesn’t exist when I interview younger riders who didn’t live through that doping culture. The vets would stare at my press badge and I’d swear I could catch a little relief on their faces when I didn’t ask any doping questions. There’s a wariness that is always there just under the surface.
And by the way, that attitude isn’t limited to riders and team personnel. I spotted former HTC-Highroad owner Bob Stapleton at the Aspen or Telluride stage this year in Colorado. I wanted to get a quote from him on Hincapie’s retirement — remember, this was before the USADA report came out. I knew he didn’t want to be grilled, so I flat out promised him I wouldn’t ask him any questions about doping. I got my George quote and then asked him a doping question anyway. Never trust a writer.
One of the cultural changes happening now in pro cycling is a shift in the relationship between riders and the media. The younger generation is happy to talk and open to any questions. There is a less adversarial relationship than before. That doesn’t always mean you’re going to get great insights or revealing information. That’s because just like every other business, there just aren’t that many jobs in cycling. Young riders don’t want to say anything that might get them in trouble with team management or their team captain or a sponsor.
I remember how hard it was to get BMC’s Brent Bookwalter to give me anything that wasn’t a generality when I did a profile on him shortly after Evans won the Tour. I wanted some behind the scenes details about what it was like battling for position in the first week of the Tour and the ups and downs of riding for Evans.
Bookwalter is a super nice guy but I had to work pretty hard to get him to open up. I asked him a dozen questions about Evans, trying to get something personal or surprising or revealing. He was not only protecting his team captain’s privacy but also protecting his own status at BMC. He didn’t care if my story was entertaining or not, his job was to keep his job.
I’m a lot closer to the sport now and so I face the same challenges as other writers. I can’t be too flip or weird or burn bridges because if I do, I lose access. Armstrong worked that deal too perfection. What I write for Cycle Sport is significantly different than what I knock out on Twisted Spoke. I have be more professional, not pass judgment so quickly, dig a little deeper, ask better questions and raise my game. I like that challenge and its taught me new things about myself.
One thing Ed Pickering told me before I wrote my first in-depth rider profile was not to worry about the rider never speaking to me again. Time passes, people forget, that’s bike racing and bike journalism. I’m learning what it takes to be a pro but I also want to keep my perspective. No matter how close I get, I’m better as an outsider.