The Toll of Doping – was it worth it?

Were the experiences and competitive results I obtained with the help of doping worth the physical and mental anguish I’ve suffered during the past two years? The simple answer is “no”. While this probably seems like a no-brainer to the casual fan or weekend racer, it was not a conclusion I ever foresaw during those long nights spent hooked up to an IV or smarting from an intramuscular injection. Doping can ruin your life – and that’s the message I have for young athletes who might face similar choices.

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 http://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.

11 Responses

  1. very well articuated, Joe. I wish I could pry open some very stubborn doper brains and pour this in. In 10 years this will be a speck in your rearview mirror. Please spend time every day thinking about not this.

  2. Joe, you fell, and you rose. Now, forza, keep on going.

  3. Anon on 15 of May of 2008 23:40, you are douchebag and to a loser in the cover because you comment anonymous. Instead of bad that speaks to envelope which you perceive to be the personality of the messenger, you must see the greatest picture – than Papp he is not isolated in which he did but he participated in the same systemic deceit that Landis and others did. But he is the unique one to speak in detail of it. So you don’ t like him personally that sounds and you take then myopic view from the content of the article in Outside. Poor Sightedness on you.

  4. Joe was one of the best cyclists I ever personally raced against. Who am I to judge the decisions he made? If I was in his position to try to make a living by racing my bike, I may have made the same choices. He messed up and has obviously paid for the mistakes he made. He is doing the right thing now in speaking out about what happened. Give him a break.

  5. You made a choice you now must live by,right or wrong,but i have every faith you will come out the other side a stronger,more positive person.For you to openly admit your mistakes takes a certain kind of individual,people are quick to ridicule,but most never have any clue as to what they are saying.I forgive you for whatever you may have done,i am a friend for life.As you go through life,you learn who your real friends are when you are at your lowest.You are already on the way up Joe,don’t let uneducated people try to knock you down.

  6. Joe,It has been a number of years since you and I have spoken….I hope that this whole experience has brought you some inner peace and clarity. You were one of the most talented racers I ever raced against. Keep preaching the “good message”, take care of yourself, your wife and son, stay on the bike…the bike is life….take care brotherMichael GackiFrisco, Tx

  7. Good point Bret. People that post anonymously are asswipes.Thanks,Burt Hoovis

  8. I hate that you cheated me on the bike at least once, when I needed to pay my rent. But no one can argue with the fact that you didn't pull a "Tyler" and that you did come clean, and named names (Leogrande, for example – that douche). Good luck getting your shit together. I hope you race again though, just so I can fucking crack you since you won't have 53hct.

  9. Thanks, Anon 07 August, 2009 13:31. It probably wasn't 53, though. More like 58. See:Mr. 58%

  10. Congratulations for telling the truth, just like Manzano did. I hope you rebuilding your life.

  11. Joe; I just sent this piece to some young guys I have been working with and it is a good reminder to steer clear of drugs. Hope you are well. Chris Tirone

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