Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hell On Wheels Revisited - What Would Pepe Danquart Think?

Well, it's finally happening. Riders and team physicians are breaking a more than decade-long silence and coming totally clean about doping in cycling. Oh, wait…hmmm, I mean…uhhh, kind of. Maybe sort of? Okay...I don't know what's going on.

What I do know is that I have watched "Hell On Wheels" no fewer than four times and it ranks right up there with "PRO" and "Overcoming" as one of the best cycling documentaries available. Even though it has subtitles, the voyage of Team Telekom in the 2003 Tour de France is a heck of a ride. It has exceptional photography, a riveting storyline, a Director named Pepe Danquart and most importantly, an eminently likeable cast of characters. Foremost among the latter group (and the true stars of the film) are Rolf Aldag and Erik Zabel, both of whom recently confessed to having doped at certain times in their careers.

After two-plus hours of some pretty intimate footage, "Hell On Wheels" makes it clear that Aldag and Zabel (A-Z) are both extremely professional guys. They seem honest, friendly and good-natured despite the fact that they are going through hell on the bike every day. Throughout the movie the viewer is exposed to the extreme psychological toll that the Tour de France takes out on its participants. The physical element is obvious to anyone looking at a race map but the psychological beating that these guys take during the Tour is astounding. Especially Erik Zabel, who crashed early on and finished without a single stage victory.

I've always liked Zabel. The flat-top haircut, the Dieter accent, the Green Jerseys, the Milan-Sanremo wins (and losses)...he was always in the mix. Just a tough, tough guy. Quite possibly the most respected rider in the entire professional peloton, it will be fascinating to see how Ete handles this situation. It will also be very interesting to hear the reaction from other riders. I'm guessing he gets a better response than Manzano or Simeoni did.

The only reason I really knew much about Aldag was because he rode well in the San Francisco Grand Prix a few years back. I don't know why I remember that but watching him throw down on Taylor Street was impressive. It wasn't entirely surprising to me that he grabbed the Polka Dot Jersey in the 2003 Tour. He has since done well as a director for T-Mobile and it looks like he will retain his position with the team despite his confession. By all accounts, he's a really good guy and the riders respect him immensely. Once again...a slightly better response than Manzano and Simeoni.

Anyway, after the recent admission that they had doped during their time with Telekom/T-Mobile, I'm not sure that I'll be able to appreciate "Hell On Wheels" in the same fashion I once had. Supposedly, both riders were clean by the time 2003 came around but you can't help but wonder when, why and if they chose to quit. Afterall, not many riders have confessed to long-term use of performance enhancing drugs for a reason.

It seems that there was a lot of "dabbling" in doping products but not a lot of habitual use if we are to believe many of the recent confessions. Unfortunately, many have been somewhat tough to swallow. I'm not sure that a partial confession eases the conscience all that much, but I hope these guys feel better about themselves for having come

It is difficult to predict the final outcome of all of these confession-ettes however, it would seem that they signal the beginning of a very long and dirty history lesson. Even if these guys are telling the truth about their minimal usage, the fact remains that they all felt forced to dope in order to compete and they all had fairly easy, if not completely team-sanctioned access to the necessary products.

Despite past indiscretions, I would guess that Zabel and Aldag are probably pretty good guys. But good people sometimes do bad things. Especially when it means supporting their family through bike racing or going back to East Germany to work in factory or warehouse. We'll have to see about Milram but at least Bob Stapleton seems to agree by announcing that he will keep Aldag on the T-Mobile staff as a director. How the cycling community responds to these confessions and perhaps more importantly, the confessors, will likely be a significant factor in how many riders choose to come

Hey, at least it's not a bold-faced lie anymore for some of these guys. Just a maybe a timid-faced one. Better than nothing I guess.

I think I'm going to go watch "Hell On Wheels" now. It really is a good movie and I think that Pepe Danquart would appreciate it. The way things are progressing for German cycling, I don't know how many more of these DVD's he's going to sell.

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