A visit to an American Zero

Today’s post is a tale of two parts.

Last Wednesday night, with MrsAB arriving home late from London and reminding me that I should do more to please myself (code I think for “get off your arse!”), I took myself off to the cinema. I’m lucky, I have a great independent cinema near where I live and like all independents it shows some great and lesser screened films – and you get to take your drinks in with you. With all that going for it there is only one snag: I hate going on my own. It’s quite irrational when you think about it: you go to a cinema to sit in the dark, in silence and watch a film – what other activity is better suited to solitude?  So on Wednesday, for the second time, I pushed through that wall and it felt good.

Andy why? Because, in the second part of this tale, I saw an inspirational and touching story, Searching for Sugar Man. The film tells the story of Rodriguez, a Mexican-American folk musician, born in Detroit and described as being better than Bob Dylan. With these things stacked in his favour you’d be forgiven for wondering how his success had somehow passed you by. That’s the twist: it hasn’t. He released 2 albums, neither did well. In an ironic nod to one of the last song recorded for his second album he was dropped by his record label two weeks before Christmas. The story finishes with his apparent suicide – some say he doused himself in petrol and burnt himself on stage, others that he shot himself after his “final” gig. That seemed to be the end of Rodrigeuz.

I wonder…

That is unless you are South African. Whilst the rest of the world paid scant interest, South Africans started to take an interest in his music. The lyrics spoke for young people growing up in an expressionless society. Under apartheid social control was everywhere, as one person in the film alludes to, it was a military state. A song that includes the line “I wonder how many times you had sex” was taboo for a government which thought television was communist and became an unlikely source of rebellion for South Africa’s youth. His records were censored on radio and were passed around on bootlegged tapes. Rodriguez had become a (seemingly) posthumous anti-apartheid icon.

Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this morn

But that’s not the end of the tale. The film charts the musicological search by two South African’s to find out what happened to Rodrigeuz. Were those stories of a public suicide true? It won’t spoil the film if I tell you that he is alive and well – any internet search will reveal that for you. And whilst the search is interesting but it is the end that moves. Here is a man who for three decades has been living a normal Detroit existence, an American zero, but who for millions of people on another continent is a hero. Ultimately it is these feelings which come through in the film. The awe with which Rodriguez and the two thousand in the crowd in his South African “comeback” is mutual, both surprised yet excited to see each other. Yet there’s a more moving side to this story. Rodriguez remains an unassuming character, living life in a Detroit suburb in an ordinary house. Despite his records sales in South Africa he has never had much money. He has few possessions but he has his family and friends, he has his self spirit and a concern for others and he has his love on music.

The film struck a chord for me. I find it strange the way in which many of us (by which I mean me in particular) search for elusive success and assume that if we don’t see that success then we’ve failed. Here is a moving and inspirational story of someone who tried and failed in those conventional terms. Yet he succeeded in so many other ways and in taking that trip to the cinema, so did I.

And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams

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Living through the dark – a reflection on David Millar’s Autobiography

“The man is greater than his victories and defeats, the man is worth more than the cyclist…In the champion beats the heart of a boy…a heart that needs normality and cannot be sacrificed to exploitation.”

Bishop Antonio Lanfranchi’s eulogy at Marco Pantani’s funeral.

Like Marmite, David Millar splits opinion. Unlike Marmite the categories of opinion don’t split neatly into a neat like/hate split. I know, I’ve got various shades running through the other 3 members of my family. So his biography – Racing Through the Dark – was always bound to please and annoy people to varying degrees. For me, this book made a lasting impact as much for its lessons in life as its revelations about cycling culture. Long awaited by some, bound to be dismissed by others, I was interested to read what was rightly or wrongly billed as the confessions of a poacher turned gamekeeper. What I didn’t expect was the honesty with which the book is written (though I appreciate some of you will immediately question that) and the insight into the life of someone under immense pressure. Nor did I expect any of this to relate to my life in such a strong way.

Millar’s choice of preface for his book is quite apt and shouldn’t be dismissed as trite. It is the euology from Marco Pantani’s funeral, the sentiments of which show that whilst a man is culpable we should not ignore the context in which he makes his mistakes. I can see why some would object to this. For some it smacks of a cop out, the dopers’ club feeling absolved through divine intervention.  But read those lines again and they make a lot of sense. The pressure of modern life in general and in particular a job which shapes them into something they hadn’t necessarily wanted to be is not just the stuff of professional cycling. It is something that touches many of us and is most definitely something that I have strongly felt in recent years. And whilst some will point out that if we feel like this we should go and do something else, this course of action is not so easy to do. And when you feel that what you are doing is in some way your calling, a devotion if you like, breaking the chain might almost be seen as a failure.

Racing through the Dark is not only an open account of the dark side of professional cycling but an honest account of how it affects the athlete psychologically, the pressure placed on the athlete to succeed (by themselves, by team management and sponsors and by team mates to name a few) and their abandonment by those who pushed them into their moment(s) of madness (see previous list). It is an honest account of the frailty of being human and our abilities to act irrationally – even if our action at the time seem to us rational in the context.

The drive for success has been all consuming for many professional cyclists.The physical consequences of a professional career can be seen in many an ex-rider. Yet despite the repeated patterns of depression, drug and alcohol abuse and even suicide amongst ex-pros, the psychological impact is somewhat ignored.  This is true of most professional/elite sport as exemplified recent events in football. And it is equally true in everyday life.  Pushing ourselves to the limit to do “our best” (working long hours, taking work home (literally and mentally), constantly networking) often takes it toll in all to readily unforeseen ways besides the physical symptoms. In this book, Millar makes a a clear recognition of the hitherto unstated link between the two.  Millar was lucky to realise before it was too late, others have not been so lucky. Take the case of Frank Vandenbroucke:

“That experience [taking EPO] had an impact on me. I began to think of myself as two separate entities: mind and body. My body was a tool that was capable of things that I previously hadn’t thought possible. Now I know why Frank Vandenbroucke was always pushing the envelope and seeing how far he could go. It was a game, in which he played God with his own body. And in the process, Frank lost his mind.”

No excuse is offered for what Vandenbroucke did – Millar reflects on the implications of VDBs actions for him as a teammate – but it tries to place what happened to him in an objective context. It is quite easy to see how and why professional athletes cheat and dope. It is part of the drive where the conscious and unconscious become blurred and a fight or flight response develops to the environment.  Many have put this down to selfishness but whilst cyclists are self-driven to succeed many have self-doubts and are surrounded by others who want to assist in this success. Although many of these helpers do so by fair means there are some who adopt the foul.  Millar quotes Matt White (ex-pro and one time Garmin directeur sportif whose employment was terminated after questionable use of a non-team doctor) on his coaching of non-cyclists:

“It’s easy. Athletes are all the same…They’re all insecure. You just gotta make ’em feel good.”

The insecurity is the key. Build up confidence and make the athlete believe in themselves. And if certain products are needed then so be it. So what insecurity do we mean? Insecurity that you are not as good as others think is one, insecurity that you can’t win is another. But what about job insecurity? Professional sport is not reknowned for its stability of employment and to keep your job there is pressure to do what you are told.  For Millar there was pressure to win to keep a sponsor for a team and employer for his teammates, a team within which there was an established culture of doping and in a sport where at that time drug taking was seemingly not only tolerated but expected. When faced with the need to win, with support provided by those who already cheat and with an employer prepared to turn a blind eye until things are found out, the reasons why a rider might dope no longer come down simply to ego. Whilst this is no excuse how many of you can say you have not been put under pressure at work to do things which bend if not break the rules? Recently I was told by someone working as an electrician for a large “solutions provider” that although there are set safety procedures which include turning off the power before doing work, electricians are regularly told to carry on on live circuits to save time and inconvenience. There are few qualms about the safety of the worker in the face of competition. Yes the worker can do the job by the book but what happens when they don’t hit the targets they are set? For me this is a similar situation that faces professional athletes. It is not an excuse for doping per se but begins to explain the pressure leading to that decision. There is a context to every action yet so often we fail to see the whole picture.

For me Millar is a good guy who did a bad thing. To that end he is human. And whilst some will question if Millar is telling the whole truth in this book, Racing Through the Dark goes a long way to providing an insight into the wider context of doping in professional sport and cycling in particular. It exposes the psychology of the athlete, the pressures from those around him and the continued lack of focus by the authorities on the systems which enable this to persist.  Millar doped, he confessed and he did his time. He apologised, returned to the sport and is now working to make a positive difference. There will remain those for whom his past misdemanour is enough for some to write him off for good but hold your hands up if you’ve never made a mistake and been given a second chance. His sometimes messianic words rankle with others but this is equally his passion. And though Bradley Wiggins and other British riders can be upheld as clean and commendable examples for young people, for me Millar is equally a positive example and one we need to learn from. In making a mistake he learnt a lesson and in working hard to make amends he is exposing the realities of why athletes dope and exposing many of the unanswered questions which have to be addressed if cycling is to win it’s battle against drugs.

But Racing Through the Dark is more than a sporting autobiography, it is an enlightening tale of the competing pressures made on us by everyday life. And though it provides few answers, in exposing the wider context in which we make our decisions and our mistakes, it is a useful set of lights when riding through the dark of life.

Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar is published by Orion (ISBN 9781409120384)

On days like this

On days like this I’d rather be outdoors, soaking up the sun and generally feeling better about most things in life. Instead, I’m sat at the desk, finishing a PhD for which I have minimal motivation and only a modicum of devotion. Add to this a dash of feeling physically rotten and we have ourselves a recipe for frustration. As you will have gathered I don’t rest easily on the decisions I’ve made. Therefore turning down a time on the bike in order to recuperate, though the logical decision, leaves me mulling over the what-ifs. One day I will learn. Until then I will sit wondering about the time I could have had in the sun.

In lieu of a blog post this week I thought I’d share this one on Coffeeneuring. Looks like just the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. Anyone joining me?

That’s right, people. Coffeeneuring Challenge time. Another six weeks of rule-based biking and imbibing is here! Yeah!

Some of you may recall that coffeeneuring is based on an idea developed by Joe Platzner, a member of the Seattle Randonneurs, as he discussed life after last year’s Paris-Brest-Paris. He noted:

A bunch of us have trained pretty hard for PBP. After PBP, I’m probably going to lobby RUSA for an official “Coffee Shop Run” medal. To earn it, you need to ride your bike slowly to a nearby coffee shop and enjoy a fine beverage. I think this would be a big seller in September.

I wholeheartedly agreed and the Coffeeneuring Challenge was born!

The Coffeeneuring Challenge is a relaxed weekend cycling endeavor for cyclists everywhere. If you like riding a bike and enjoy drinking coffee or tea (or even hot chocolate), you should consider giving the challenge a go.

In a loving nod to the French, the Coffeeneuring Challenge…

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