Vinokourov wins stage 3 of the recent Tour of Romandie, whilst Mikael Cherel protests that he was impeded during the sprint. Dirty Vino… Photography Graham Watson/Cycling Weekly
“Hey 24, if you switch on me again…”, he didn’t finish with the rest of the threat, but whatever. I needed to extricate myself from the slow moving bunch and latch onto the fast disappearing break that was about to crest the top of the hill. This was the defining moment of the race, and politeness and pleasantries were the first casualties. Part of me flinched at the wrongdoing – but only a little part. I accepted the role of villain, gambling that I would emerge heroic at the finish.
The line between hero and villain is lightly drawn, constantly shifting depending on our biased perspectives. Cycling is a sport with wide expanses of grey, and yet it is often painted in stark black and white. For some we forgive and forget, but not for others. The determination to succeed in some is seen as ruthless, in others it’s admired. Some are exulted for their achievements, for others they are grounds for suspicion. Some performances are regarded as unbelievable, and others deemed to be beyond belief. Why this need for heroes and villains? And who gets to decide which is which?
My heart sank last week when Vinokourov won stage 3 of the 2011 Tour of Romandie, and struggled to extend my benefit of the doubt that he hadn’t deliberately cut across Mikael Cherel in the sprint. In contrast, one of my favourite moments from last year’s racing was the Strade Bianche stage of the Giro d’Italia, mostly because a thrilling race was rounded off by Cadel Evans simply riding Vino off his wheel in the closing meters.
But why take delight in Vino’s defeat and dismay in his successes? Are we just being blinded by his vilification by the cycling press? The pillories by podcasts, the withering innuendos by race commentaries? He cheated, he got caught, he was punished and served his time, but in the cycling world that’s hardly a rarity. Other cheats have returned into far more welcoming arms, and past legends whose doping is now well documented retain their status as icons and legends. Is there something else going on?
Vino is almost like a Bond villain, a throwback from the Cold War era with his cold steely eyes and accented broken English. A product of some shady regime in the Eastern Bloc. He’s so easy to caricature, and his past crimes only vindicate our prejudices. He’s always going to be a tough character to love.
But as just as the media helps create villains, it can also help create the mythology of a hero. For years the cycling press was complicit in the now rapidly unraveling myth of Lance Armstrong. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen fawning over him with such tastelessness that it’s become an embarrassment to every English-speaking cycling fan. It was the story of Captain America conquering Europe, all the lies remained unchallenged and unanswered questions remained unasked. The myth was so pervasive that it has taken several years after the main event for many obvious truths to become exposed, let alone gain credence.
The recent trajectory of Bradley Wiggins is an example of how a rider can one minute be the darling of fans and the media, to finding himself on the end of criticism and dismissive appraisals of his performances, attitude and ability. From a surprise 4th in the 2009 Tour, to the messy transfer from Garmin to Sky with all the criticisms of disloyalty and greed that ensued.
Right now his lack of standout performances is drawing flack from fans and commentators, and even from within Sky itself. Sean Yates’ criticisms of Wiggins during the Tour de Romandie were unusually blunt – they’ve stirred up a whirlwind of speculation over what is really happening behind the tinted windows of the Team Sky bus. But all we have is conjecture and rumour and one side of an argument painted as truth. Wiggins as hero or villain hangs in the balance, and short of winning the Tour de France in July, Wiggins will be judged as much by what is said around him than what he achieves riding his bike.
Are these characterisations of riders as friend or foe simply a result of our need to experience pro cycling as a soap opera – an ongoing drama populated with clean cut heroes and shady bad guys? The start of the Giro at the weekend is sure to herald in plenty of new story lines. Perhaps there’s something about the Grand Tours that lends itself to a certain narrative played out through the media; speculation, gossip, and rivalries are amplified during the weeks when the races themselves fail to hold our full attention. Those flat sprinter’s stages where nothing much happens, enlivened by gossip and speculation. If last year’s Tour was played out over hours rather than weeks it’s unlikely we’d have all got our knickers in a twist over ‘Chaingate’.
The gossip and hearsay, legends and apocrypha are part of the fabric of pro cycling. At the heart of it are characters we choose to love or hate, but hopefully in the knowledge that as fans we’re distant from the realities and only viewing the soap opera through the prism of agendas, commentaries, politics and hearsay. And you never know, one day we might all be cheering on the brave heroics of Vino, that lovable rogue from Kazakhstan.