My post on Fausto Coppi last Thursday brought the following comment:
“Coppi was a legend but before making an idol out of him, we have to remember he himself admitted several times that "you don’t win a bike race on mineral water alone"
Interpretations are open but doping was quite rampant.
To read the rich cycling culture from the pages of history is great but it’s not possible to look up to these people anymore, at least for me.”
It was not my intention to bring up the dope issue; I didn’t mention it in any of the pieces I have written about cyclists from the 1940s and 1950s. I felt I covered the topic pretty well in my Historical Perspective on Dope. However, since it was brought up I will touch on the subject again.
European professional cyclists taking amphetamines was an open secret in the 1950s. I knew it as a teenage kid in England, and if I knew, the governing body of cycle racing (the UCI) knew and so did the cycling press. Everyone turned a blind eye, and did or said nothing.
Like your mother always said, “It’s only fun ’til someone gets hurt.” That’s how it was with the doping issue, nobody cared until Tom Simpson died. Then the cycling press who for years had kept quiet, were among the first to cry out for the UCI to do something.
What is, and what is not acceptable in our society changes constantly; smoking is a good example. Fifty or sixty years ago, drunk driving was not the serious issue it is today; people tended to look the other way if someone a little tipsy got behind the wheel. One can hardly go back and criticize a person who did that back then. It doesn’t make it right that society accepted it, but that was then, and this is now.
Think of recreational drug use in the 1960s and 1970s. It was illegal but accepted, not necessarily by all of society, but certainly accepted among pier groups of like-minded people. Dope taking by professional cyclists was much like that; accepted as the norm by the pros and fans of cycling alike.
Street drugs today have become nasty, dangerous stuff; crack cocaine, and methamphetamines; drugs used in the 1960s were mild by comparison. Dope in sport too has escalated. It used to be stimulants only, like amphetamines, now it’s blood doping, steroids, and other body altering chemistry.
A person wouldn’t necessarily denounce their parent or grandparent because they did drugs in the 1960s. It is wrong, in my opinion, to go back and condemn great riders like Fausto Coppi and the others from that era because they took amphetamines. It doesn’t make it right by today’s standards, but it was open and accepted at that time.
If Fausto Coppi on dope rode away from the rest and finished minutes ahead of the others, I can guarantee those chasing him were on the same dope. The playing field was level. Today doping is banned so to do so is cheating; in the 1940s and 1950s the taking of amphetamines was an open secret, so by not taking them a professional rider was cheating himself.
When Fausto Coppi made the statement, “You don’t win a bike race on mineral water alone.” He was being honest, but in doing so, he discredited himself and other riders of that era. They are now judged by today’s standards, and the present anti-doping mindset.
Amphetamines or not, these were tough, hard men. Take a look at the above picture and consider this: These cyclists rode as much as 170 miles a day, on dirt or gravel roads sometimes over three mountain passes. They did this on bikes weighing 25 or 26 lbs, carrying some of their own food, water, tools, and spare tires. I am not advocating the use of stimulants, but it could be argued such a feat was not possible on just mineral water.
I neither condone nor judge the riders of the 1940s and 1950s era, and I don’t pretend that doping didn’t take place. Having said that, they were the heroes of my youth, and they still have my admiration today. Maybe a person has to be of my generation to understand that.