Don’t get me wrong – save from a few brief moments of clarity when I recoiled in disgust from my participation in systematic doping – I understand that I was willing to follow “the program” if it meant I could keep racing and practicing the sport I loved in an environment that seemed intoxicating to me. Unbeknown to most, I had two significant opportunities to escape the system – one in the aftermath of a terrible crash in 2003 that almost cost me my left leg, and later in early 2006 after it was revealed publicly that a former teammate of mine had tested positive for EPO. And though both times I took baby steps towards the door of mental and physical freedom from cheating, I lacked sufficient willpower, confidence and hope for a future without competitive cycling to break free. Maybe things would have been different if I’d had a stronger outside influence, or a better-calibrated moral compass, but the reality is that I didn’t, and I’m reminded of this each and every day of my life.
I don’t ask for sympathy from those of you who could never understand how a good person can make a fundamentally bad decision – or even a series of major mistakes – but I was amazed by the venomous hostility that characterized so much of the anonymous email sent to me care of my website www.joepapp.com. I never realized that so many people felt so let down or angry with me for my own failings. I do offer my sincerest apologies to those people I directly harmed – my competitors who raced without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. Though I met more dopers than clean professional cyclists during my time with a UCI license, I know you’re out there and I took food from your plate.
Without cataloging the entire collection of woes that have befallen me as a result of doping, there are four that bear mentioning (in addition to almost having died after my last race), and which future professionals tempted by the needle should acknowledge: the poisoning of personal and professional relationships that were incredibly important to me; separation from my family; my inability to secure post-cycling work in the professional field for which I’d trained and my subsequent financial ruin; and the dual physical and mental anguish I’ve endured since being cast out of the sport I loved, which formed such a dominant part of my identity and sense of self.
I started cycling on May 25, 1989 – my 14th birthday, one day after the death of my father. Cycling was an escape from a shattered childhood, but also a means to supercharge my existence – to travel to exotic parts of the world, immerse myself in foreign cultures, represent my country, test myself physically and mentally and generally collect experiences that I thought would form a life tapestry rivaling that of my peers. In the end though, that tapestry is shredded. It hangs in tatters, and I’m left with little more than a few dusty trophies, fading stamps in my passport and vague notions of “what could have been”.
Unlike the authors of more than a few melodramatic letters that appeared in major cycling publications, I would never dissuade a young athlete from following his sporting dreams. I would, however, strongly encourage anyone choosing to pursue sport as a career to relentlessly analyze the long-term costs of his participation against the short-term benefits. Ruin lies in wait for dopers who are caught, but even clean sport can exact a significant toll. There are two questions I wish I’d prepared answers for prior to leaving grad school to return to racing: 1) What would I choose to do if I couldn’t race a bicycle and 2) How would I support myself doing something I loved and construct an enjoyable life if professional cycling couldn’t be a part of it?
I’ve been forced to confront the fact that my answers to both questions are still incomplete, and that I’m running out of time to respond appropriately. I am humbled and contrite, and implore you young athletes to avoid making the same mistakes that have consigned me to my present state.