Prosperity or punishment?

The fall of a cycling legend is sending mixed messages to our youth

With the high-profile fall of dopers including Lance Armstrong and Fort Lewis College alumnus Tom Danielson, cycling youth such as Durango DEVO riders have an opportunity to reshape their sport for the better. “Any disclosure of the corruption in cycling means a better landscape for the opportunities for clean athletes,” said Travis Brown, Durangoan and Mountain Bike Hall of Famer. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file photo

With the high-profile fall of dopers including Lance Armstrong and Fort Lewis College alumnus Tom Danielson, cycling youth such as Durango DEVO riders have an opportunity to reshape their sport for the better. “Any disclosure of the corruption in cycling means a better landscape for the opportunities for clean athletes,” said Travis Brown, Durangoan and Mountain Bike Hall of Famer.

Is doping the path to cycling prosperity?

Cycling authorities tell talented young cyclists ‘yes’ every time they let cheaters cheat without harsh consequences, as far as Durango mountain biking legend Ned Overend is concerned.

And that’s also the Mountain Bike and United States Bicycling Hall of Famer’s biggest gripe when it comes to the years-long doping investigation and even longer doping scandal that brought down Lance Armstrong after the doping admissions of 11 teammates whose testimony largely led to Armstrong’s lifetime ban from Olympic sport competitions and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles.

“The riders need to be punished severely, and they need to be made examples of so we can say to the guys racing (Durango) DEVO, the local junior racers, ‘Look what happens if you go down the road of cheating,’” Overend said. “‘You pay for it; there’s a consequence.’”

Because after tonight’s Oprah Winfrey tell-all interview, the first of the two-night, talk-show special, Armstrong still will be worth more than $100 million, and Fort Lewis College alumnus Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde, George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer and Michael Barry will be halfway through their six-month suspensions after their own doping confessions to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency during the investigation.

“How do you say to a kid, a DEVO rider, ‘He’s a cycling hero, he was cheating, and he made hundreds of thousands of dollars doing it.’ Why not cheat? That’s a travesty,” Overend said.

Durango DEVO coach Chad Cheeney said the doping specter always looms over the sport’s young potential, particularly in the high-pressure, big-money realm of professional road racing.

Fellow coach Sarah Tescher said the youth cycling team doesn’t usually address that specter team-wide but does have intimate conversations with riders who reach a certain level – riders who will be going to Europe or riding the world circuit.

“I get worried when one of my kids gets noticed,” said Tescher, who works with DEVO and the Animas and Durango High School cycling programs. “I get worried about that maybe a team manager is going to try to persuade them to dope. I think they need to entirely clean up the sport.”

Although Cheeney has yet to have a chance to discuss the Armstrong admission with his out-of-season riders, he said he doesn’t have to.

“They’re pretty smart,” he said. “They’re online and reading about the pros and cycling, so even before all this scandal came out, I’d say about 50 percent of my kids had heard rumors already and figured Lance was a doper because it seemed so unhuman.”

Perfect, according to Durangoan and former national mountain bike champion Travis Brown. The Mountain Bike Hall of Famer intimately knows the pressures that come with top-level cycling competition and the cheating temptations that exist for up-and-coming talent.

In a sport where it seemed like everybody was a cheat, the doping conundrum couldn’t be avoided.

“It was a bad part of the sport that if you were involved as a pro racer, you knew it was there in some degree or another, and you had to make a decision as to whether you were going to be a part of that problem,” Brown said.

For too long doping was dismissed with a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge,” he said, and without an open narrative, without people who weren’t “patting your back, telling you nothing was wrong, that was a very difficult decision to make.”

Which is why cycling’s scandal is such a positive, Brown said, especially for today’s young cyclists.

The narrative now is wide open.

“Any disclosure of the corruption in cycling means a better landscape for the opportunities for clean athletes,” he said. “Any additional disclosures that happen in the process will be a really good thing for cycling. That’s my ultimate perspective: How does it change things for young, talented athletes that come up and decide to have a clean career?”

For Brown, the Armstrong scandal highlights not so much the risks of getting caught but the damage doping does to a cyclist’s soul. And that’s a message he thinks has the power to reshape cycling in the years to come.

“For me, the fear of getting caught in the 90s was not a big deterrent,” said Brown, who maintains he’s never used performance enhancing drugs. “But the fear of losing your integrity and the fear of losing respect from your friends and family and the idea that you’re probably going to give up a lot of piece of mind and a sense of ownership of your accomplishments was a pretty big deterrent for me.”

As the public fallout continues, that’s a deterrent that should resonate even deeper with cycling’s future pros, he said.

It’s also the message that DEVO’s coaches and the Durango community try to impress upon their kids.

Most of Durango’s youth cyclists are in cycling simply for the sport, Cheeney said, not for fame or fortune. They just want to have fun and see where it takes them.

DEVO advocates for “lifelong cyclists,” as Tescher put it, not necessarily professional cyclists.

DEVO riders don’t need to look to Armstrong or Danielson as role models, Cheeney said. They’ve got better heroes, ones that involve themselves in their daily lives.

In Durango, riders can plant their roots in their coaches, their parents and their peers, Cheeney said, and in the pure heart of cycling.

They know that doping poisons those roots.

“It’s cheating,” Tescher said. “Doping is cheating. It’s not anything other than cheating.

“Do our high school kids know that Tom Danielson and Lance were doping? You can’t really put a lot past kids,” she said. “They know they were in it for the money, and it wasn’t really about the passion of the sport.

“When you make a decision to cheat, it’s not about the sport anymore; it’s about yourself and making money.”

So harsh penalties or not, that’s why Brown thinks the future of his sport never has been brighter.

With the high-profile fall of the big-time cheaters, a new generation of ethical cyclists has an opportunity to commit itself to put in the time, to put in the effort to stay clean – to wash away the doping stains of the past, dodge the sins of an older generation and celebrate new cycling heroes.

“My kids see Tommy D (Danielson), or they don’t see Tommy D,” Cheeney said. “He was never around. He was from Durango, he was right there when we started DEVO ... he kind of flew the coop.

“The kids know that most of those guys at that level are self-centered. And those aren’t their heroes.

“None of my kids want to be Tommy D or Lance Armstrong,” Cheeney said. “They wanted to be (Durango native, U.S. Ski Team athlete and national mountain bike racer) Tad Elliott or (FLC collegiate mountain biking national champion) Howard Grotts, or even me. ... We have community heroes.”

jsojourner@durangoherald.com