Omertá, n. [Italian] a conspiracy of silence

Act One
It’s been strange, to say the least, over the years, to witness the developments in professional cycling and to see how fans have been shocked and/or angered at the stories that have been reported. Now, it’s hardly ever a certainty that that reporting is always very accurate, given the complexity of the sport, the many thousands of people directly involved on the “inside” (riders, directors, medical personnel, chefs, mechanics, soigneurs, etc.) and the cultural intricacies (languages, customs and attitudes) that are involved in any sport that crosses as many international boarders as cycling does. It’s fair to say that a star American rider on a French team in an Italian race often finds himself in a very different place than, say, a French star cyclist on a French team racing on home soil.

Words: John Madruga
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

Beyond the race, which seems like the easy part of the equation, the American rider obviously has much more to juggle being a foreign athlete in a foreign land. Along with this, riders’ roles quickly shift as the parameters of their situation changes, and so being adaptable to a myriad of important non-cycling-related influences becomes almost as important to success in the world of pro cycling as training and diet. This is the reality of the life of a pro cyclist, but what has often been reported about cycling, particularly here in the U.S., where the sport gets little to no play in the day-to-day commentary about football, basketball and baseball (with some peripheral references to hockey, tennis and golf), are the doping stories that have become such a significant part of the sport for so many years. A look at the daily headlines reveals a clear trend in the psychomachy of cycling, and this kind of reporting has created a near-equal balance between stories of great riders winning great races, and stories of other riders (great and otherwise) being involved in and/or admitting to using banned substances. For example, today is March 25, 2013, and here are the cycling news headlines—at least according to one American mainstream online sports source, nbcsports.com: “Sagan Wins Ghent-Wevelgem,” “Danish Cyclist Rolf Sorensen Admits Doping,” Froome Beats Porte to win Criterium International,” “WADA seeks harsh punishment for Puerto Defendants.”(1) The word “psychomachy” is rarely used these days, especially in the context of a sports-minded publication, maybe because at the heart of it’s meaning is a kind of huge-scale relationship between body and soul that most people never really think much about—it’s too big, too complex, with too many implications to fully wrestle with. Nevertheless, the word signifies “a conflict of the soul (as with the body or between good and evil),” and so suggests a kind of inner struggle, one that is always deeply felt but not always seen, pervading over an individual or situation. That nature of that struggle is somewhat vague but still involves large questions about being, belief, purpose, the body, values and morality—the very concepts that bracket the individual lives of many WorldTour riders, the organizing structure of the UCI, and the general, overarching culture of the sport.

Most athletes train for competition and then compete. The process is never easy but it can be that simple. But it’s not that simple for the pro cyclist who, upon signing his first contract, may become part of a distinct system, a code, that is both known (visible) and unknown (hidden)—even to those with the best behind-the-scenes media access or fans interested in the most detailed aspects of the sport. On one hand, the requirements of the system come naturally: put in the long hours in training (on and off the bike) to prepare for the year’s racing schedule ahead, and once there, in the race, ride in the best interests of the team. If that means going to the front to be part of the break, you do that; if it means being the first of three guys in the lead-out for the team’s top sprinter, you do that; if it means attacking on the final climb to be properly positioned for the long run-in to the finish, you do that. Playing the role as rider is not the hard part of being in the system, it comes naturally to those who have ridden for years. There is nothing remotely strange about being asked to be part of the peloton and to utilize one’s skills to ride to one’s strengths. It’s like the painter in the act of painting or the actor in the middle of a monologue: the performative act becomes the fulfillment of the one who performs. This is what we pay to see: the performance—the rider riding, the actor acting, the painter’s painting. But what is important to keep in mind is that the performance we see is always the end result of the performer’s prior history of training, practice or education into what he is doing to the fullest of his given talents, without much additional pressure that would alter their performance in any way. The cyclist, on the other hand, performs within a system that can directly influence his performance, and in a number of ways—to the extent that his success or failure may be determined by how willing he is to conform to what the system asks of him. This makes cycling different. It’s this ever present but hidden pressure to conform to a system of behavior and follow the “conspiracy of silence,” the omertá, that has largely created this difference, and it’s influence reaches well beyond what happens on the bike.

Assuming that riders adhere to the omertá built into the culture of cycling is to assume that those same riders are willing to accept all that comes with it: to lead a kind of double life, on the one hand being a world-class athlete performing on the bike, but also living within a realm of pressured silence about what that experience is actually like, never able to fully reveal how the sport actually operates. It’s this influence of the omertá on the individual lives of cyclists all over the world that, to me, is the most interesting issue at stake. That it puts a veil over the faces and a gag in the mouths of the riders we wish to really see and hear from—that’s no trivial matter, no small cross to bear, because it has to do with one’s identity and the fundamental right of self-expression. To be relegated into silence usually means that there are a whole set of consequences in place to bring down upon those who should break the silence, and so those living within the conspiracy know where they stand in the hierarchy. And in the cycling hierarchy, it’s the riders who are at the lowest level, dispensable cogs in the machine, and they can be easily replaced if they challenge the implicit agreement among those within the system that silence is golden. And, as an additional element to being silenced, these riders also live with the fear of being discovered for any indiscretion, always paying attention to saying and doing the “right” things so as not to appear too suspicious to the media or fans. Seemingly, not a pleasant way to live at all.

Forget the interviews, daily news reports and court documents, and the carefully-crafted position on the matter of performance-enhancing drugs offered by the UCI and USADA. The omertá, to a large degree, dictates the reality of the lives of cyclists who are good enough to be at the top of their profession. But what sounds like a privilege—to be included within a select group of riders—also sounds like a kind of jail sentence. The default conclusion in all of it, according to the implicit rules of cycling, is this: ride within the parameters of the system, keep quiet to maintain the omertá, and automatically deny any and all allegations that might arise having to do with any banned substances that may involve you, your team or anyone associated with the team.