The New York Times's op-ed columnists receive plenty of criticism, so it's only fair to point out that they're not the only witless offenders at the Gray Lady. Their sports columnists suck too. Like Miss Dowd et al they also need the protection of TimesSelect, ensuring their warbling is only available to those few readers foolish enough to pay for the privilege of being subjected to reliably pompous, not to say priggish opinions.
George Vecsey is, I'm afraid, a serial offender. But his most recent column takes a sports hack's already hefty capacity for wounded vanity to new heights while simultaneously ignoring evidence suggesting that, contrary to what you might read in the New York Times, the end of the world is not nigh.
In other words we are talking about professional cycling.
Mr Vecsey begins his column with a lamentation:
"Sure, go ahead, enjoy the Tour de France this year. Stock up on the pate and the baguette and the vin ordinaire, either in a beautiful corner of France or in front of the television. The Tour will still be a compelling sight.
Just don't take it seriously. That's all I'm saying. Don't take the riders into your heart the way I once took the gritty Tyler Hamilton or the loopy Floyd Landis into my sentimental journalist's notebook, my common sense suspended."
Verily, only a toughhearted citizen would not weep with Mr Vecsey as he struggles to survive this grievous wound to his pride and dignity. (Also: what is it with NYT writers and France? Is it actually compulsory to talk about lunch and baguettes and "vin ordinaire"? Apparently, yes.)
The context for Mr Vecsey's self-pity is Bjarn Riis' admission that he took EPO en route to winning the 1996 Tour de France. Mon dieu, quelle horreur! His column is wittily headlined: "A sport can no longer peddle denial" even though, of course, Riis' admission and those of his former team-mates Rolf Aldag and the great German sprinter Erik Zabel that they too took EPO are part of a move to reform cycling, not drag it into the gutter. Where Mr Vecsey complains that "At the rate cycling is going, nothing is believable, anyway" less frothing minds see an admirable attempt to come clean about the past. But no, according to our columnist, "The way this spectacle is going...We could be watching a dying business."
Now there are various oddities here. Mr Vecsey even trots out well-known lines from Jacques Anquetil and Il Campionissimo himself, Fausto Coppi, to testify to the long history of drugs in cycling. It is almost twenty years since Paul Kimmage wrote Rough Ride, documenting the endemic drug-taking inside the peloton. No-one, save deluded journalists it seems, has been in denial at all. The cycling industry just didn't think much of this was terribly important and that cycling should continue to be a law - and more importantly a culture - unto itself.
So what happened to change this? Well, in part the nature of the drugs themselves changed. There's a difference between taking drugs to survive and taking them to thrive. That's one reason why one could be relaxed about drug-taking in cycling but disappointed, even angered, by track and field atheletes taking banned substances. Cycling fans have a complex emotional relationship with their heroes, but one should never forget the role of pity. That's not an emotion associated with many other sports. But it's an important part of the tifosi's relationship with the bike riders. One feels for their suffering. The attitude is simple: you would take drugs if you had to do what they do too. The miracle of bike racing is, pace Dr Johnson, not that it is done well but that it is done at all.
EPO changed that dynamic slightly. Cycling didn't become easy, exactly. But it did become easier as riders were able to operate at full tilt for longer and recover from their exertions more easily than had previously been the case. The road was still rough, but not quite as brutal as it had been. Suddenly you could, once you;d learnt how to do so safely, take drugs to thrive rather than just survive. The distinction may seem bogus to non-cycling fans or to moralising hacks but it is, I believe, real.
Even then I find it hard to blame the riders. They still suffer for their sins after all. And how different, really, is taking EPO to, say, having the advantage of a revolutionary bike design that gives one an advantage over the rest of the field? Neither are exactly a product of your heart or guts or ability; both are means of exploiting those qualities to the fullest.
And yet, perhaps times need to change. The range and sophistication of the chemical enhancements now available are such that the old days of cocaine and amphetamines (poor old Tommy Simpson being th e classic example here) do seem quaint and innocent by comparison. The point is not that cyclists have always sought to take drugs (we know that and are relaxed about it) but that today's drugs are too good. They risk stripping riders' of their essential humanity, transforming them into robots from some futuristic movie: Terminators on Pedals. Consequently, the risk is that the link between the fan who honours the Kings of the Road for their suffering may be weakened.
All this is lost on Vecsey of course who prefers simplistic moralising to, well, anything else. He is, after all, blind to the rather obvious religious symbolism that has been an intrinsic part of cycling since, well, since it first began. At the very least one might expect him to be aware of the Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner stuff. (There are good reasons why, with the exception of the Netherlands, cycling is generally speaking, a sport most popular in catholic countries).
Lost too, amidst all this gnashing of teeth, is any awareness that teams such as CSC (run by Riis) and T-Mobile (Ullrich, Riis, Zabel etc) are much more vigilant about monitoring their riders health and clamping down on illegal (though that line is, of course, drawn arbitrarily) drug use. In other words, the peloton may be "cleaner" now than at any point in the past 20 years. Perhaps not, of course, but before there can be a new beginning (and forgiveness) there must be a full confession. The admissions from Riis and Zabel, therefore, are positive and useful, not reasons for despair and discouragement.
If I have a problem with EPO it is not so much the risk to riders' health as an aesthetic objection. It makes the racing less varied and, consequently, less interesting. If the peloton can go at it hammer and tongs all day it becomes that much more difficult for a breakaway to succeed. That makes for duller racing. Equally, faster average speeds on the flat are tough on the (relatively few remaining) specialist climbers who arrive in the mountains having exerted more energy just to keep up with the pace on the flat and consequently less able to take advantage of their strengths. My suspicion is that modern drugs help non-climbers in the mountains more than they aid climbers on the flat. This too makes for more boring, more predictable racing.
Still, it's not all doom and gloom. This year's Giro d'Italia is a cracking race (Monte Zoncolan tomorrow! Yikes!), even if I fear my boy Damiano Cunego is leaving it too late to overtake Danilo di Luca. Typically, Mr Vecsey doesn't mention the Giro at all in a column padded with irrelevant references to baseball and soccer. I suspect that he's the sort of cycling observer for whom there's only one race a year and the sort of hack who would, absurdly, put Lance Armstrong up there with (or even ahead of!) Eddie Merckx as the greatest bike rider ever.