I called Allen Lim up to get his assessment of Garmin's Tour de France performance, and we had a pleasant, if not scintillating talk. At one point Lim used the 'You can't turn a donkey into a racehorse' line, and afterwards I kicked myself for not calling him on it. Later that night Lim called back to make a clarification, and I took the opportunity to debate him. We had a long discussion that, for me, got to the essence of the Garmin mission and the mentality of the clean racer. We agreed to scrap the initial interview and have the second debate again, this time with the recorder on.
Andy Shen: So we're going to pick up on this 'You can't turn a donkey into a racehorse' line. That line really bugs me, 'cause it's a doper’s defense (I’m a racehorse, ergo, I’m clean), and I think it's a logical fallacy. You’re not trying to turn a donkey into a racehorse, you're trying to turn a racehorse into a better racehorse.
Allen Lim: Yeah, yeah, exactly. A racehorse into a better racehorse.
AS: We're talking about turning domestiques into winners and winners into dominant winners.
AL: In science, we talk about this idea of falsifiability, that something is only potentially true if you have a way to prove it false. The thing about competitive cycling or any real world environment is that you don't necessarily have those opportunities. You don't have the opportunity to ask yourself, "How much would their performance have improved if a known doper had chosen to use clean and ethical alternatives". Would they have reached the same performance goals? So I think there's a lot of fear and ignorance associated with doping, because people aren't necessarily trying, or ignorant of, or aware of what those alternatives might be.
It ends up being more of a philosophical argument because there's no real way to prove one side of the issue right or wrong in practice, so it becomes what you choose to believe. Ultimately, everyone on our team chooses to believe that by riding clean, riding ethically, you can achieve the same performances. And if anything, more importantly, it's the way we want to live. Certainly, there's a chance - AND we can't necessarily prove it - that we're not winning races that we should or could be winning. But we are sleeping well at night.
AS: I guess I should clarify, you believe that doping simply helps the rider achieve his true potential, and that true potential is also achievable with ethical methods.
AL: That would be a fair point, except I would also say that doping is very destructive in that it can actually harm athletes much more. What people always forget is how many risks are associated with all these pharmacological agents. Those agents can actually impair performance. I also believe that doping deters performance, the culture of doping is quite an ironic one. I'll bring a couple of points to the table.
One is the psychological aspect. If someone is motivated with that kind of fear, ignorance, greed, there's no way they're sleeping well at night. I think the psychological burden of being a cheat takes away from being a true athlete. Some people can handle that pressure, but I think most people can’t. There's enough pressure as there is in the sport and life in general.
Two, let's talk about all the health risks associated. With EPO, there's certainly been instances where athletes have had irregular health problems or even death, that's a clear case of doping having a negative impact on performance! I think that nobody's intelligent enough to understand how all these different medications interact with someone's physiology, with different bottlenecks that might regulate performance, and in the end, it's not like there are certain on/off switches you can turn on in a human body. There are literally hundreds of thousands of different genes, different cells, factors that might impact someone's performance on a daily basis. Thinking that one or two or three types of different illicit substances, drugs with known risk factors, can help, is as ignorant or naive as the initial blanket statement of saying, "You can't win clean."
AS: The counter argument is a pretty simple one. Speeds went up during the EPO era, obviously there are health risks, but speed did go up. Some people believe that you can't win a grand tour clean.
AL: The counter argument would also be that speeds would've gone up anyways, right? Bicycle technology went up, tires got better, frames got better, aerodynamics improved, nutrition improved, all those factors improved. To say that that one factor was responsible for all of that, would be as ignorant and naive. For example, when Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, guess what? Everyone started breaking the 4 minute mile barrier. Was that because everyone found a new drug? Did Bannister take an illicit drug that all of a sudden everyone else found, and everyone else since has been taking? It's an interesting issue. It's not that the speed has subsided since then.
So how's it possible that our team are able to sustain those velocities when someone like LeMond was complaining about the increase in speed at the time? I think there are many other factors that impact velocity, and only one of those being the athlete's ability to produce power.
But yeah, I'm not going to say that these things can't impact human performance, I'm just saying that it's wrong and we don't believe in it as a method for enhancing performance. I guess that's the bigger point, the bigger issue.
AS: I think people have this idea of cheaters as lazy people who take shortcuts, but there are also dopers who do everything else possible, maybe even do more than everybody else, and then get that extra boost.
AL: Sure, that's a perfect reflection of cheaters in mainstream society as well. It's a function of greed, and it's a shame that it exists. There may not be anything we can do to stop that, except to make our own choice about how we decide to interact with the sport, whether or not we can live with ourselves at the end of the day.
AS: I don't completely agree with you, that doping can't make you better than your physiological limit. I do think it can make you better than you're supposed to be. But is your philosophy, the fact that you tell your riders it's possible to compete with dopers, is that a motivational tool?
AL: First, you have to ask yourself what's 'better'? If 'better' is winning races, and I think there are clear examples where we win races, and we have to make the assumption that there was someone cheating in that peloton that we just beat, then our belief system, our techniques work. If we get a higher placing than someone who was thrown out of the race for cheating, that's another proof of concept. So while I do agree with your point that a person can be better than they should be, it depends on what 'better' is. 'Better' isn't always reflected in winning bike races. That's ultimately the end game, winning races, not to generate more power, or to look more ripped, or to have a bigger Vo2max.
AS: So you're saying that every time you have a good result, it builds on the philosophy?
AL: Absolutely. I think that people often think of bike racing too much in this black and white way, you have to have this power to weight ratio, x physiological profile, to be a good racer. One thing we clearly know in terms of physiologies of cyclists, there's a wide variability in the physiologies of cyclists, from sprinters to grand tour riders to classics riders to domestiques to climbing specialists. They all have very unique morphologies and physiologies, so I think it's that diversity that makes cycling interesting. To say that there's a particular recipe that all these athletes have to be, that's hard to justify.
Regarding using our belief system as a motivational tool, absolutely it's a motivational tool, because I think the bottom line is that we've all grown up to be inspired by sport, to want to believe that sport brings out the best of who we are, who we are naturally. So for our guys to win races, to know the work they've put in, to know that they can do it without cheating, it's a very very powerful tool. It inspires us to continue doing what we do.
AS: You also talked about David Millar being a guy who can speak to the riders. He actually thinks he was worse with EPO. He got his big wins clean, but when he actually used EPO it didn't help him that much.
AL: Yeah, we're really lucky to have him to bring that perspective to the table. It's interesting, because I think David is one of these people with a strong sense of self and conscience, and when he was cheating he wasn't really being an athlete, he wasn't being true to himself. That can deter performance as much as anything.
AS: To be an absolute cynic for a moment, or maybe some would say realist, a lot of riders, when they confess to doping, they say, "All my wins were clean. It wasn't 'til I got older or desperate that I used drugs." You hear that quite a bit. Is there any chance that Millar's doing the same thing?
AL: Certainly, yeah, but we all trust him and have a lot of faith in him. We're certainly not cynical about his perspective, but I can't stop people from being cynical about it. What I can do is trust myself and my belief in him. That's what we've all got on this squad. To have that belief system is very very powerful. And ultimately, this whole thing is about quelling cynics and about keeping people from being negative. Ultimately, I think that people who do dope are the ones who are most cynical, the most negative, the ones who can't take that leap of faith, can't trust themselves to do the right thing. That's going to exist no matter what part of the world you live in, no matter what you do. There's certainly plenty of plagiarism in journalism, right? There's cheating in all walks of life.
Millar's someone who has really considered what he's done and what's happened, and the role and the behavior he now wants to bring to the table. I think it's all about behavior, all about what you do at the end of the day, not what you say. So, bottom line, it doesn't matter what I think or what I say or what I believe, the only thing that matters is what I do at the end of the day. As long as I can help to convince every athlete that I work with to do the right thing, the world will be ok regardless of what we're arguing about.
AS: Your riders always talk very positively about the competition. It's something that's puzzled me, 'cause if it was me, I'd be very angry knowing that there's likely someone who's cheating in every single race I'm in. But you say it's important for them to stay positive.
AL: Here's the cut to the chase. We're certainly not going to make or force everyone to drink our Kool-Aid, but that doesn't mean we're going to drink their Hatorade. In the past, you can see how all that negativity about being beaten by cheaters creates a self fulfilling prophecy – you can't win. I believe that the reason why cycling is such a beautiful sport is that there are so many examples where you have mind over body situations. Hopefully your will can allow you to succeed. The past, when athletes got really negative about being beaten by cheaters, a couple of things would occur.
One, is you get this negative cycle where you're defeated every time you get to the start line. The odds of winning are so low anyways, that to have a built in excuse not to win is only going to set you back even more. It creates bitterness, resentment, it's just not a very peaceful way of living. You lose focus on your training, you start doing everything in a way that's driven by anger and negativity rather than by anything positive. In the short term, that might be able to sustain you, but in the long term, a lot of energy ends up being wasted.
The other side of it is that people have often used that as an excuse to cheat themselves, and that can be even more disastrous. I've seen a transition occur with my guys, and it hasn't been something that we've provoked. It's something that they've come to, where they realize that they're proud and happy to be where they are in the sport, to make a salary in the sport, to buy their first home, to support their families, to do things right. That satisfaction allows them to perform at a high level, and one day come to grips with letting go of that anger and resentment and just focus on themselves, rather than the external world. They actually start to improve, not just as athletes, but as people.
We're not going to go out there and slam people because they're cheating, we have to assume that everyone wants the same thing, everyone's driven by the same essential goals. After all, in sport we're privileged to live in our own bubble where certain ideals are held to a higher level. While sport might just be a microcosm of normal society, we all like to believe that sport, just like the church or other institutions, are bigger than that. But in any big institution there's plenty of corruption. I think that's why people get so cynical about this issue, losing your faith in sport is the same as losing your faith in your god, whoever he or she may be, you know?
AS: Well, how do you find the balance between doing it right and getting wins? At the Tour and before, Bob Stapleton was practically rubbing your noses in it, he kept citing the number of wins they had compared to you...
AL: That's fantastic, actually, because we believe their team is clean. So, for us, it just makes us even more motivated to keep working harder. It doesn't make us want to cheat.
AS: I'm not saying you want to cheat, I'm asking where's the tipping point between "As long as we try hard and we do it clean it's ok" versus winning.
AL: I think you misunderstand us, you misunderstand who we are. Certainly the anger motivates us to win more. It's not like we ever say it's ok to lose. We never say it's ok because we're clean, it's never been an excuse, it's never even come up in conversation once within our organization. We speak positively about our competition and believe in our competition. We are motivated to do everything we can to win, we get pretty upset with ourselves when we don't. I think that people don't realize that there's still that same drive and intensity for perfection. When our competitors stick our noses in it, we get mad, we want to do everything we can to come back and kick some butt.
If you look at the distinction between Columbia and our team, they certainly have a lot of guys that are proven race winners, who have been at it for a while, who come from a really strong background starting from their development on T-Mobile through what Bob has done. So hats off to them, they're the winningest team in the sport right now. That's something that we strive to achieve as well.
There's never a situation where we use our clean ethos as an excuse for not winning. If we don't win, it's because we don't win and we suck.
AS: I've heard two things from you. One, 'you can't do something in a race you can't do in training', which is a way of saying the numbers don't lie. You're not going to produce a certain watts/kg in a race just because you're motivated, you can’t ‘give 110%’. But just now you also said that motivation and will is also a component of racing.
AL: It's a component of training as well. The guys have to bring that same desire to training as racing. There are so many times when guys want to give up in training, but the bottom line is when you give up in training you also give up in racing. Giving up in training isn't just about whether or not you do that extra interval on the road, it's also about the whole lifestyle you maintain to garner that performance. And it's a hard lifestyle to maintain, the care you have to take in terms of your sleep, your rest, your nutrition, your equipment... It's an extraordinary amount of work.
AS: My question is, Columbia is a clean team, and they're the winningest team in cycling. But you could say that one day races and sprints, that's where there's more of a lottery. In a sprint, motivation and tactics are more in play. And Columbia isn't winning grand tours, which is where the numbers come to the fore. Is that evidence for saying you can win one day races clean, but if you're doing a series of climbs on a series of days, the doping advantage comes to the fore?
AL: I don't know. I think that it's more of a case of the type of athletes you have, and the style of racing that your team is accustomed to. If you're a team like Columbia, you just haven't hired those GC riders, so I don't think it's a drug issue. It's a cop out to say that it is. It's more about the composition of the team, who you hire. The guys that are winning these one day races, the sprinters, are different types of animals. A Cavendish, a Farrar, is never going to be a GC rider, there's no drug you can give them to make them a GC contender.
AS: Teams like yours and Columbia, when you want to sign someone, you review their blood work. The cynic would say that Columbia reviewed the blood work of GC riders on the market, and there isn't one clean enough to hire. And that is why that team is composed the way they are.
AL: We haven't looked at every GC contender on the market, we don't know IF that's true or not. That's an extremely cynical tone to take. I can't justify or condone the cynicism. I live in an environment where I don't feel that, as true as that may or may not be. It comes back down to 'why worry about things you can't prove or disprove?' These are all assumptions. If there's one way to improve life it's to not make assumptions. All that cynicism involved, it comes down to assumptions, and it all comes down to looking at the illicit means. And once people start to focus on that, they don't focus on the big picture, and there's a lot more to the big picture than cheating.
It also leads back to the whole idea that just because it's illegal it must be better. Why do people always assume that? Just because something is illicit it must work better? There's plenty of drugs on the banned list aren't performance enhancing, they're there because they're dangerous. So maybe the assumption should be made that they're illegal because they're detrimental to one's well being.
Are you really that cynical?
AS: Not really, but there's just too much history of dopers succeeding.
AL: There's also a history of non dopers succeeding, so maybe one outweighs the other.
AS: That's why I'm so interested when you say it's possible to win clean, and that your riders believe it.
AL: I don't think they'd be on our squad if they didn't. And if they didn't, they'd probably be on another team shooting up. Maybe that's the only thing that distinguishes our guys from those who don't, they just believe.
AS: It makes me wonder, because I assume there are riders on your team who have first hand knowledge of riders who have cheated and benefited from it.
AL: Or vice versa. They maybe have known riders who have tried to cheat and totally failed. How much did ___ (Lim mentions a 2nd tier pro busted for doping) actually accomplish in the sport?
AS: Yeah, but that might actually be a case of starting out as a donkey, right? He wasn't that good to begin with... BUT, you have to say, doping has ruined his life.
AL: Yeah, right? It's a sad sad situation. You don't want that to play out for anybody. We're driven driven people, it goes without saying that we work very hard and sacrifice a lot, often to the detriment of our own selves and our relationships, that's the other side that people don't often understand. So our drive to win is definitely there. But what distinguishes our riders is that they really are well balanced people, they have the big picture in mind and they're intelligent people. Jonathan always envisioned this team as a group of guys that have those common traits, so as much as you want to pick a team based on palmares, we also want to assemble a team based on character. I think that's where Jonathan has done a great job.
Being an American team, we're very lucky in that we've always had a very privileged interaction with the sport. Most Americans ride because they choose to ride, not because they have to ride. I think that makes a big difference as well. That's also what makes us more cynical about cheating in the sport. But I'm just as cynical about cheating in other walks of life. When I used to teach at the university, I used to catch kids cheating all the time. It's like, 'What the hell, man? If you could do anything to get a good grade, why not just do the obvious and study?"
Have you seen the Italian placebo morphine study? What the scientists did, they gave morphine to athletes out of competition, and they saw a major increase in performance. Morphine is illegal in competition, but it's not illegal out of competition. So you can take it for an injury out of competition. So after familiarizing these athletes with morphine and its performance gains, I think it was just two bouts of activity, on the day of competition, they did a sham where they told the athletes they were getting morphine, but gave them a placebo instead. Those athletes' performances went up to the same level as when they actually got the morphine.
AS: Yeah, you've said that since you can't go back and run these races again as a control, the EPO era, all those performances could've been from a placebo effect, or it could've had a placebo component.
AL: Absolutely, especially in the short term. This study actually proves that point. If an athlete thinks they're getting something that they have been conditioned to believe improves their performance, it actually does improve their performance. It's a very powerful thing. Think about it this way: why do drugs work? Drugs work because we can synthetically make compounds that fit in receptor sites that activate certain cellular functions. The reason why drugs work is because there is a lock for every one of these sites in our body. But why do those receptor sites exist?
AS: Because there's something naturally in your body that goes in there.
AL: Right. There's something your brain and your body can make. As big as the pharmaceutical industry is, it hasn't even come close to making all the substances in our own body that unlocks those doors. The only reason why those receptors exist is that our bodies are the biggest pharmacies on the planet. Finding the key to open those locks pharmaceutically is a bit of a crapshoot. Adaptation is the name of the game, training is the name of the game. The morphine study is real interesting, and worth looking into as a direct contrast to this doping era. For me, this study is a way for me to be cynical about doping not working, about it all being this one big placebo effect.