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Cycling's Doping Problem: A Clean Athlete's Persepective

I am proud that I raced clean my entire professional and Olympic cycling career. For years, I dreamed that the top cyclists of my time would "get busted." I told everyone who would listen that my sport was dirty, and for years I heard that I was a jealous, jaded, conspiracy theorist.

Erin Mirabella

I thought that the time for justice had passed, so I was elated that the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) was so bold and aggressive in their pursuit of Lance Armstrong and the other former Postal Service riders.

I hope that this is just the tip of the iceberg for USADA, because no women were implicated in this scandal, and women's cycling is certainly not exempt from widespread doping. I won't feel vindicated until the women who I know had to have been, and in some cases probably still are, doping are added to the list.

Joke was on me 

For years I lined up on the starting line feeling like the joke was on me. I spent years training, sacrificing and busting my butt despite the unfair playing field. I knew that without cheating I'd never realize my childhood dreams of winning a World Championship or an Olympic gold medal, but I kept racing because I wanted to see how far I could go. Regardless of where I finished,  I wanted to have a personal best race at the Olympics; I couldn't ask for anything more. The chance to find out where I really stood was stolen from me by every athlete who chose to dope. They talk about the sport they love breaking their hearts; well, my heart was broken over and over again by athletes just like them.

I was a member of the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams and, at one Games or the other, was teammates with Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Levi Leipheimer, and Christian Vande Velde. I didn't know any of them well, I never even met Lance, but they all seemed like nice enough guys. I knew, however, that nice didn't equal clean, and I guessed at the time that they were probably all guilty of doping. There just wasn't proof.

Erin Mirabella racing on Olympic cycling track

I'm sure most people are thinking that I didn't have to race against these guys directly, so why am I so up in arms; their choices didn't directly effect me, BUT THEY DID! The results they got while they were doping were the results that I was compared too. The year after the 2000 Olympic Games, when a very high member of USA Cycling told me, "You just aren't a world class athlete," it was because my results and times were being compared to those of athletes who were doping. Every time they raised the bar with their superhuman results, it made it harder for clean athletes like me to receive financial support from USA Cycling and the United States Olympic Committee, because all funding is based on results and medals.

In an interview with Pressdemocrat.com, Levi Leipheimer stated, "If you read all the riders' admissions from last week, it's funny; it was like we all had the exact same story ... everyone said we don't want to make excuses, but at the time we felt we really had no choice.  It was so casually discussed in the peloton. No one felt like they were cheating. They didn't feel like they were cheating each other, you know. Obviously, we knew the rules and we were breaking the rules, but it was easy to be in that situation and just realize everybody was doing it. After a while, you justified it to yourself."

They may have justified it to themselves, but they were wrong. Not everyone was doing it. For every one of them, there were hundreds of cyclist who quit because they wouldn't cheat and couldn't compete. I also got to the point where I knew that I couldn't get any further without doping. After years of dealing with suspected dopers internationally, I finally had to deal with it at a national level. I, however, never felt like I didn't have a choice. I knew I wouldn't dope, so I made the tough decision: I quit. Yes, I'm sometimes bitter, but I have never regretted my decision. I can look back at my entire cycling career and know that everything I accomplished was clean, and I'm proud of that. That means more than any title or medal.

Gracie Goat's Big Bike Race

When I read in an article on ESPN.com about Christian Vande Velde's home, "set on a swath of quiet, wooded acreage," I was reminded that I left the sport of cycling in debt. Granted, I'm a woman, so I wouldn't have made nearly as much money regardless of my choices, but had I chosen to dope I would have earned a lot more in prize money, grants and salary. I have to think that the cyclists who chose to cheat did it as much for the money as they did for the wins, prestige and glory, especially those athletes whose job it was to help Lance win. Doping allowed them to make a good living in cycling. I'm glad Nike pulled its sponsorship of Lance Armstrong; all of the sponsors should. I think that all of the guilty riders should have to pay back their sponsors, the race organizers and the United States Olympic Committee. What better way to deter other athletes from cheating?

The stakes still aren't high enough.  A several month or several year suspension is just a slap on the wrist. Unless athletes face jail time or suffer a serious financial blow, I don't think much will change. The benefits of cheating far outweigh the consequences. I'm all about forgiving, but until the public gets outraged and society changes its win-at-all-cost mentality, nothing will change. Athletes will just find new drugs and new ways to get around the tests.

Cheating twice 

Shawn Sheep Soccer Star book cover

I commend the cyclists involved in the Lance Armstrong scandal who have spoken out and now want to help clean up the sport. I hope they do encourage the next generation of athletes to compete clean. However, if they get paid to do it, it feels like they are benefiting from their cheating twice. Every time someone hires one of them to speak or buys their book, they become part of the problem; just as every person who refuses to believe their hero has let them down perpetuates the lie. There are plenty of role models out there who took the high road; most of them just don't have medals.

I'd like to think that cycling will be cleaner now, but I'm not sure. Thanks to the USADA, athletes here in the United States will definitely be looking over their shoulders, but the problem is much bigger. Doping in sport - all sports - is a world wide epidemic and every country needs to get on board and crack down. Hopefully this is just the beginning.When I wrote my two children's books, Gracie Goat's Big Bike Race and Shawn Sheep The Soccer Star, my goal was to reach kids while they were still moldable. USADA's new program, True Sport, has the same concept, and gives me hope for my three children. Maybe with the implementation of a program that focuses on the true sport values during childhood, I will no longer have to hope that my kids pick some other sport.

Erin Mirabella is a two-time Olympic track cyclist, mother of three, and MomsTeam's track cycling expert.  Her books, Shawn Sheep The Soccer Star and Gracie Goat's Big Bike Race are available online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, velogear.com, and at The Olympic TrainingCenters and select stores. For more information visit www.erinmirabella.com.

Posted October 20, 2012