The cycling world has been in turmoil with the doping admissions (and allegations) these past weeks. Three weeks ago, Jonathan Vaughters wrote an OP/ED for the NY Times where he finally admitted to doping.
Vaughters, retired pro and chief executive of Slipstream Sports, the sports management company behind ProTour team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, Continental under-23 Chipotle-First Solar Development team and Slipstream Junior team also asked how do riders that decided not to dope reconcile the loss of their dream.
American Gregg Germer answers that question.
My name is Gregg Germer and I didn’t dope. My story is one full of no dark secrets, no motorcycles with refrigerated pantiliners (ndlr: paniers), but I feel lends to the story of the plague of doping within cycling
To give you all a quick background I grew up in Houston, Texas and raced mainly on the track until I was 18. I then decided a career on the road would be my best route to being a professional cyclist. I began my European racing in 2002, at the age of 21, when I started racing as an amateur in Belgium. I continued racing as an amateur in 2003 and in 2004 joined the Flanders Pro Cycling Team, a professional team based in Oudenaarde, Belgium. I raced the Flanders team for two years and another professional team, Klaipeda-Splendid in 2007.
The recent admission of Jonathan Vaughters about doping in his career has lead to a stir of thoughts about the subject of doping. Vaughters put this question out there in his NY Times op-ed,
“And think about the talented athletes who did make the right choice and walked away. They were punished for following their moral compass and being left behind. How do they reconcile the loss of their dream?”
This is unfortunately a question he can’t answer, but I can.
I have never once in my life taken an illegal performance enhancing drug. During my career the closest I ever came the dark side of doping was the use of caffeine which was and still is legal. In fact the only time I ever received an injection of any kind was from a regular doctor for iron in my second year in Europe.
I remember the first time I had a discussion of doping on a serious level. My coach/mentor had just talked to me about going to Europe and racing, but then brought up the subject of doping. He in no way told me doping was needed, but gave me fair warning that Europe is much different than in the US and to be prepared for the choice. This wasn’t an approval or disapproval of doping by him, more a warning that I had a choice coming, one I had to make on my own.
But for me, doping was never a choice. I was raised to be honest and to cheat is to dishonor yourself and others. Even the whole “level the playing field” argument wasn’t good enough. In my view even if I did level the playing field against some riders, what about another non-doping rider who had more talent than me and was more deserving. I would be robbing his place in the peloton in the same way a doping rider was/would rob one from me.
At about 19 years old I made a choice … I would not dope … I wanted to see how far I could go in cycling, despite the odds I knew were before me; and enter the world of professional European cycling.
I wasn’t hugely vocal about my anti-doping stance. I knew better back in the early 2000’s to stand up and shout “Look at me, I’m clean!” It wasn’t something any of the old guard would stand for in Europe. Even the ones who professed themselves anti-doping on the outside. People have told me I was being overly paranoid, but I give them the same example of why the Omerta was so easy to keep. Would you as a team director, especially one who is so anti-doping, who like almost every team has sponsors with contracts that disappear with even one positive test, bring on a rider who would at the first sign of doping turn in a team-mate or doctor? Why would you want to risk it? You can’t control every rider, there is a legitimate chance something could be seen, so why bring in someone who would jeopardize the whole situation. There was (and still to some degree) a fine line between being anti-doping and a being ostracized by the cycling community.
My rebellion against doping went on as far as legitimately looking into establishing a program similar in scope to the Bike Pure movement has established, but with the use of actual contracts with real financial penalties against those who violated the trust of the agreement by doping. My teammates thought the idea was crazy and I wasn’t willing to put my name to the idea for fear of being blacklisted. So the idea stayed an idea …
One bit of rebellion I did do was proudly sport a pair of “Dopers Suck” wristbands when racing in Belgium. Even this seemingly simple statement caught the ire of some who said I was crazy to wear them in a race. I would always reply, “Why? I’m not saying that anyone here sucks, just dopers.” To which they would reply, “Yea, but it’s what you are putting out there, it’s going to upset people.” I would say, “Well they shouldn’t have a problem, because it is a valid sentiment we should all share.” Such was the power of speaking out, taking a stand, would leave a rider isolated from his peers.
While I made the choice not to dope, I did make a choice to push my body to the physical limit of what it could do without doping. I read a everything, and by everything I mean just about every training book I could get my hands on, I read the wattage forums, browsed medical journal websites and studies, talked to anyone who would discuss training and nutrition with me and set myself up with the best environment I could manage within the budget I had available. I invested in vitamins, an altitude tent, power meter and coaching. I looked for as many “marginal gains” way before British Cycling and Sky coined the phrase. I wanted to level the gap gained by dopers through any and every legal means I could because I knew that it was going to be needed to close that rather large gap.
I was open about my training. I posted all my training files on my personal website for all to see. I also posted my blood test results for all to see (years before the Bio Passport program was even thought of). I approached every team openly and clearly stated this is me, these are my numbers and results; and I did them clean.
One of my favorite moments in my career was after a particularly good race (I made the main split, had a great day, even attacked the break a few times) when one of my teammates was asked by another teammate, “What’s Gregg was on today? He was flying!”. I was only aware of the this query a few days later, but it was a moment that made me happy and sad at the same time. It was both confirmation of my increasing fitness, but also of a direct association doping had within the peloton: Performance = Doping
That isn’t to say I wasn’t tempted to dope. If I were to say I was a pillar of strength who hadn’t even a thought of doping I would be lying. The idea of doping was always there. It wouldn’t have been that hard either to make the step. I knew people who I could approach, that things were available on the internet and how to go about doping if I were to choose to. I consider myself fairly intelligent and if I choose to dope I would like to think I would have got away with it. I know doping would have made me a better rider.
I empathize with those who made the choice to go to the dark side and dope. I’ve been to points in my career where some extra external pressure might have tipped me over to the dark side (one reason I choose situations with care).
On the final day of the 10-day long 2004 Olympia’s Tour in Holland, my first year as a pro, I was sitting in a cafe before the race. There were only three of us left from an eight person team on the final day of the tour. We had done 1100+ kms and 27.5 hours of racing. I was done, in fact I was physically done two days before but willed myself to keep going and not quit the race. I was a zombie of a professional cyclist who couldn’t even tell you which day it was. The race was more physically demanding than anything I had ever done before and as I sat in the cafe I told my team director how tired I was, how much I hurt and that I just wanted to survive the day. He pulled a couple of pills out of his pocket and said, “Take two of these”. I took the two pills without a second thought or regard as to what they were and downed them with some coffee. Only seconds later it dawned on me that I had no clue what I just took. Thoughts ran through my head of racing my head off on two amphetamine pills or something even crazier! But quickly I realized it was probably nothing and asked what I just took. Two Ibuprofen pills … confirmed by the small package in his pocket, but even then I felt I had stepped into an area I didn’t want to be.
What did the choice of not doping cost me? Probably a real career at being a professional, or at the minimum a couple of more years; but who is to know what it cost. By my best guess I was about two to three years away from being a mid-tier European professional rider. At the time I stopped I was 67kg and had threshold power levels around 340 watts (5.07w/kg). At 5.7 watts per kilogram, about 380 watts, would put me where I could ride competitive in the pro ranks. I estimate at about 5% improvement a year (I had seen 5.26%, then 8.33% and then 4.6% in the previous three years) would mean two years to reach a very respectable level. Even at a lower estimate of threshold power, 335, and slowing rate of improvement (5, 4, then 3.5%) it would put me just at 380 watts after three years. The much touted 10% improvement with doping would have put me at or past the level I needed in a matter of months. Doping for me would have been the easy way to create a career in cycling, but morally I wasn’t able bring myself to take that step.
Which brings me back to Vaughters question of “How does one reconcile the loss of a dream?”. I came to my choice to stop because I knew the two to three years it was going to take me to get to a higher level were a huge risk. I was getting older, I wasn’t willing to dope to accelerate my development. I was having trouble paying my bills and finding a team to pay me a very small salary. I wanted to continue to be a professional, but for me I couldn’t see a situation that would allow me to continue to improve at the rate I knew I needed (good team, good races, little to no real-world work (meaning a small salary or good covering of travel and race costs) to make it the extra two to three years needed to have the performances needed to secure a decent paying contract. I’d spent 5 years in Europe scraping by and the thought of another two to three wasn’t appealing.
I understand fully that doping (or in my case, the choice not to dope) was just one part of a multitude of reasons for my leaving the sport. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t bitter when I made the choice to stop. I spent sleepless nights torn at the choice to stop doing the sport I loved. I layed there in bed … pissed …. saying to myself that if I ever came back I was going to “dope to the gills because it’s what everyone does”. The choice to stop wasn’t one that came easy, it left me a bit depressed for a while, but it’s one I’ve come to accept. Under different circumstances I might have had a chance at continuing my career and watch it flourish, but in the end, I was left with the circumstances I had at hand and that is life.
In a vein similar to Vaughters I am doing my part to help develop the next generation of cyclists with the cycling house I run, The ChainStay. I’m working everyday to help young riders discover the path to becoming a clean professional and giving them the tool-set needed to do more with their careers. Everyone who reads this is welcome to have their opinion on why I didn’t make it in the sport, but I can say not doping did contribute.
Please don’t read that I am bitter about my choice. I write this because I am proud of my choice to ride clean, even at the cost of a career as a professional. I’m happy that today I can tell this story with pride and that I didn’t betray my personal morals. I still love to ride a bike. I still love the sport of cycling. I’m very happy to wake up every day and help riders chase their dream by assisting them in Belgium. If I doped I know personally it would have also meant my walking away from the sport I love so much, because I wouldn’t have been able to stay in something I felt I had tainted and corrupted with deceit.
Stopping a career because I didn’t want to dope was hard, but not as hard as living my life as a lie.
***Since writing this story; news of Tyler Hamilton’s tell all book has come out and this line from his book struck me particularly when I read it in an Outside Online article.
“Secrets are poison. They suck the life out of you, they steal your ability to live in the present, they build walls between you and the people you love. Now that I’d told the truth, I was tuning into life again. I could talk to someone without having to worry or backtrack or figure out their motives, and it felt fantastic.”
I’m even more happy with my choice after reading such vivid description of the long term mental and moral drain caused by doping.