Cycling and journalism. Journalism and cycling. It’s curious to think now that the seemingly unassailable jewel in the sport’s crown, the Tour de France, was created to sell – if not save – the newspaper, L’Auto. Had the recently formed French daily not appointed a keen cyclist, Henri Desgrange, as its editor and charged him with finding a way of boosting flagging sales, the Grand Boucle may never have come into being. Although Desgrange, who became the events first race director, is seen today as its father figure, it was another journalist, Géo Lefèvre, who came up with the idea.
For over a century now, cycling and journalism have been joined at the hip, enjoying an almost symbiotic relationship; the daring-do of bike riders racing against both the elements and each other helped shift increasing bundles of newsprint. This, in turn, transformed who were no more than relatively ordinary men who rode bikes, into heroes and stars, then, in time, supermen and superstars.
While that relationship had its ups and downs along the way, it took the aftermath of a scandal that almost brought the Tour to its knees and the wrong guy at the right place, with just the right heroic story, for that relationship to turn from being mutually beneficial to being parasitical and corrosive.
It would be wrong to place all the blame for this at Lance Edward Armstrong’s door. It’s not as if the world was perfect before the 28 year old came back from cancer to ride the so-called Tour of Renewal in 1999, only a year after Festina Affair doping scandal. But from that point until the Texan’s eventual downfall in late 2012, the interdependence of cycling and journalism morphed into something akin to a fearful, sycophantic underling and his abusive, controlling master. No prizes for guessing which one was which. The cycling press became almost completely subservient to Armstrong who, as the great white hope of New Cycling, dominated the agenda, commanded an unheard of amount of power and was able to make or break any journalist looking to climb aboard the gravy train that was his meteoric rise. Those writing at the time defend their part in perpetuating the lie by saying they could prove nothing and were only aware of rumours, innuendo and gossip. Which is fair. But it’s also fair to say that large swathes of the cycling press went willingly to where the Armstrong machine wanted them to go. Some, like writer Bill Strickland, have publicly apologised for their part in what we know know to be a scandal so big, it utterly dwarfed Festina. No one caught up in the events of 1998 has, as yet, appeared on Oprah.
Christophe Bassons, the former Festina rider who was forced to end his career as a result of writing in L’Equipe that Armstrong’s comeback performance had “shocked” the peloton, was probably one of the first who who suffered at hand of Armstrong. Speaking after the CCN conference in London, Bassons told the journalist Kenny Pryde,
“Part of the problem is that for years and years the journalists have been very friendly with the riders, and the media played a really important role in shaping the image of the rider. The more the media talked about cycling being an inhumanly tough sport, the more the riders accepted and justified the need to dope. The media turns riders into gods and the riders love that, they love it and they love the myth of being super human, that racing the Tour is impossibly difficult. We need to stop talking about inhuman efforts.”
Bassons would not the last to suffer at Armstrong’s hand. And while the likes of Paul Kimmage and David Walsh have emerged from the time as brave, heroic journalists prepared to stand up for the truth, it’s worth noting that both worked for large, mainstream newspapers that, if push came to shove, could rely on lawyers just as bullish as those employed by Lance. In the case of David Walsh, of course, push did come to shove and the Sunday Times was forced to pay £300,000 to the American in 2006. Following a countersuit by the newspaper in the wake of Armstrong’s confession, both parties reached a “mutually agreed resolution” in August this year. Most cycling publications couldn’t afford to get involved in litigation that could have resulted in their bankruptcy and closure. Where that sits with the professional mandate to seek ‘journalistic truth’ or the first principle of being loyal to its citizens, is an interesting question.
Now, in the era of New, New Cycling – or is it New, New, New, New Cycling? I can’t keep up. How about ‘No, It Really Is New, We Really Mean It This Time, New Cycling?’ – Travis Tygart has taught us how to become reasonably reasoned via the Deus Ex Machina that was the USADA Reasoned Decision. It was a big red ‘reset back to factory default’ button and, finally, things could get back to normal. It’s 2013 (baby!) and we are told we are living through cycling’s enlightenment era. Eschewing the faithful following of gods on two wheels, lashings of cold scepticism is the order of the day. This should now mean that the journalists are free to report “without fear nor favour”. Right?
Proof of this must surely have been the set your watch by it post-stage grilling that Chris Froome received while on his way to winning this year’s Tour de France. The Brit had put in a performance which gave the press the chance to show how independent they were by raising a distrustful eyebrow and engaging in that most pointless lines of enquiry; “are you doping?” Does anyone think that professional cyclist, not matter how vapid, dull-witted or downright mental, would ever reply, “Wow, I’m so glad you asked me that. Actually, yes, I am! It’s a fair cop, guv – and such a relief to finally get it off my chest. Cheers!”. But at least the press room wasn’t afraid to ask the question, fatuous as it was. Froome, for his part, eventually got a bit bored of it and produced a kind of polite whimpering sound that we’re led to believe was a complaint. Meanwhile his boss,
Uncle Fester Dave Brailsford, asked the journalists themselves to come up with a way that his team could prove they weren’t doping. Those in the room that day have yet to deliver their findings.
Chris Horner’s victory at the 2013 Vuelta a Espana, however, is once again bringing the role of the cycling press to the attention.
Questions started emerging on Twitter, websites and forums as to why questions weren’t being asked of Chris Horner in the same way they had been asked of Chris Froome. Replying to a tweet of mine, Kenny Pryde (nb: it’s simple coincidence that I link to a tweet and a blog post from Kenny here) replied:
I suspect a Spanish race, Spanish media, smaller international press presence partly explain that. The ‘detente’ wont last.
By the time Horner won the Vuelta, questions were being asked of the nearly 42 year old American. But, in fairness, all the press is actually able to do is thrust a microphone under the rider’s nose and repeat variations on the “are your doping?” theme.
Cycling is still a niche sport and sport itself is still niche in comparison to mainstream news. This means that the press outlets covering cycling don’t operate with anything like the budgets involved in political news, for example, and simply can’t afford to have a journalist take an indeterminate amount of time investigating any nefarious goings-on behind the scenes. And the play nice or don’t play at all compromise where journalists still rely on the patronage of riders and teams in order to get the “my legs felt good today” quotes for their articles or race reports still factors. It’s not the steely grip that Armstrong had back in the day, but it still exists.
On September the 18th, in what can only be explained by a bizarre collision between suspicion, unanswered questions, the need to be seen to be doing something, and the relentless publishing schedule that is a requirement for maintaining page views (because page views = ad revenue), Cyclingnews.com published a piece which asked, “Is Chris Horner a redacted name in USADA’s Reasoned Decision?“. The piece looked at the speculation that Horner was the redacted “Rider 15″ named by Levi Leipheimer in his affidavit in the USADA Reasoned Decision that brought down Armstrong. Seeking to clarify the matter, Dan Benson called Horner twice and was told that he didn’t “know anything about it” and that he was “about to drive”, before saying that he was “busy right now” on the second call.
Benson up until this point hadn’t done anything wrong. He made clear it was “blogs, forums and comment sections” who were speculating and not Cyclingnews.com – the lawyers would’ve been happy with this, but why the musings of the great unwashed on social media were suddenly the sturdy nails required to hang a story on, are still not clear. The approach and demeanour adopted by Dan Benson during the phone calls were, as far as we can tell from the transcript, pleasant, professional and sought to encourage Horner to answer his questions. The point where things went horribly wrong is the point that Dan Benson, as both author and editor, chose to write this up and then press the publish button.
Of course, it could be argued, it would have taken a little more than 3 seconds for Horner to confirm whether he was Rider 15 or not. However, no one is actually required to speak to a journalist simply because he or she calls you up, knocks on your door or bumps into you on the street. People can be encouraged to do so, but if you don’t want to speak to a journalist, there’s no law that actually compels you to comply. It would be an entirely different matter if this had been a pre-arranged interview. Perhaps sarcastically, one of Horner’s final remarks is, “how come you didn’t come to Spain?”. The inference is, ‘I was available for interviews every day for three weeks. Where the hell were you then?’
Only Dan Benson knows why he chose to publish a piece that said nothing and ended with an interview whose subject was unable and/or unwilling to partake in at that time – Horner does suggest that they “try another time”. In the comments section below the piece, some suggested that it was there purely to highlight the speculation that Horner was Rider 15 and encourage readers to believe he was being evasive. Perhaps he was, but ‘door-stepping’ someone over the phone, immediately following the 3 weeks where he was available for interview on a daily basis, was at best lazy. Would it be appropriate for questions to be put to a rider on the road during a race? Clearly not. So if we can conclude that there are some times when a rider should not be answering questions, Horner can claim that on the two occasions he was approached by Benson, his timing was inappropriate or inconvenient.
So the question remains: what did we learn in that article? What new information was brought to the fore? Why was it published at all?
Two days earlier, Velonews published a piece by Andrew Hood titled ‘After Horner’s Vuelta victory, pro cycling remains a faith game‘ in its “Analysis” section. Wikipedia says Analytic Journalism, “seeks to make sense of a complex reality in order to create public understanding.” It goes on:
As analytic journalism attempts to transcend regular news reporting, which is primarily designed to relay facts, analytic journalists must use critical methods that allow them to present information in a way that distinguishes it from hard news. Analytic journalism often applies the scientific method of testing and retesting of hypotheses against the evidence. Assumptions are systematically tested by verifying, affirming and altering hypotheses.
While coming to the conclusion that “cycling remains a faith game“, Hood does very little in the way of testing and retesting hypotheses against evidence. At the centre of the article is an interview with Radioshack team manager, Luca Guercilena, whose views are naturally predisposed to supporting his Vuelta winning rider. Other than some SRM data and a quote gleaned from Antione Vayer’s Twitter feed, who Hood describes as a “pundit”, no other views are included that seek to explain Chris Horner’s incredible win in Spain.
The reason I highlight both these pieces is that I believe they are representative of the failed attempt by the cycling press to convince themselves they are something other than the reporters of the facts and figures. I genuinely do not wish to denigrate that as a profession, or seek to diminish its importance within cycling. But whether it’s a desperate lack of skills in the area, lack of time and money, the pressure of having to continually publish stories, or a desire to be seen to do the right thing caused by some manner of collective guilt in the post-Lance landscape, the majority of writers in cycling are to investigative or analytical journalism what George Bush is to public speaking.
I now find that even when reading the supposedly neutral zone of race reporting, I’m getting worked up at the preponderance of flattering adjectives. And I love an adjective, me! The press continue to paint riders in glowing terms whilst there is a dearth of anything critical. It’s not that criticism should be meted out simply for the sake of it, but it must surely be valid to do so if the writer is also allowed to praise with adjectives such as “stunning”, “powerful” or the worrisome “incredible”. When was the last time you read that a rider was “pathetic”, “atrocious” or “suspicious”? Riders, more often than not, ‘endure difficult periods’, further emphasising the mythic image that Bassons talks about above. Only these brave, courageous supermen can overcome the tribulations that beset them and rise, victorious, once again! Or, in less luxurious prose: he’s been shite all season because of the near constant pain of back trouble that will probably require surgery and he’s worried he’ll never win a race again. So ordinary. So human. So like each of us.
Many will argue that no one would want to read reports shorn of descriptive attributes. But if Bassons is right, and their use over time becomes a kind of Chinese water torture that helps to legitimise the decision to take performance enhancing drugs for the rider, is it not right that the press at least provide some balance by way of fair criticism?
Yet it seems the press are only free to dip their toe into the icy waters of disparagement when it’s completely safe to do so. Where once it was impossible to mention Armstrong’s name in nothing other than highly favourable epithets, the gloves have been off with the tarnished Texan since his career-long doping became known publicly. Out-with those rare exceptions to the uplifting allegory, it’s all very nice and cosy. I often wonder if the articles I’m reading are primarily there to bring me new information or to pass on to the rider, in the hope the feeling will be reciprocated, just how wonderful the author thinks he is.
Don’t get me wrong, there is some great writing to be found on the subject of pro cycling. The features found in magazines like ProCycling and Rouleur, to name just two, are unwaveringly superb. Even here, you’d be hard pushed to find anything that deviates from the Herculean narrative.
I believe there is an audience for fair and reasoned criticism of the sport and those who operate within it. I would like to think it would go some way to counter-balancing the rider as god iconography conjured up by the media, which Christophe Bassons suggests is a contributing factor in the justification of doping. It may very well be for the same, entirely justifiable, reasons that prohibit proper investigative journalism (expense etc. that the cycling press can’t offer fair comment and criticism . But by merely playing at being Woodward & Bernstein or Tom Wolfe – from Dan Benson’s strange decision to publish the transcripts of two phone calls with Chris Horner to Andrew Hood’s analysis-lite of the situation – all that is achieved is yet further damage to a reputation already tarnished by previously exalting a bully who cheated his way to 7 Tour de France titles.
If only for the sake of nomenclature we accept that there is a difference between a reporter and a journalist, I would like to assert that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being just a reporter. It’s a tough, but commendable job that requires direct gathering and communication of public information, usually through primary information sources such as first-person interviews, news conferences and attendance at news events. All this demands a very specific set of skills. And somewhere along the way, it should also demand lot less in the way of flattering adjectives.