MTB world champ duped us all, and paid the price
It’s been more than three weeks since Filip Meirhaeghe awed the Summit County biking community with his presence for the third consecutive summer. It’s been slightly less since Meirhaeghe admitted he’d tested positive for the endurance drug EPO and retired from mountain bike racing with his tail tucked between his legs, a cheater for sure and a bona fide champion only by rumor.Meirhaeghe – who chose Summit County as a training ground because of its high altitude and challenging, second-to-none bike trails – won the 2003 world championship in Switzerland last fall and was the hands-down favorite to win the gold medal at this month’s Summer Olympics in Athens. More, he was an icon in his homeland of Belgium, the country’s shining star athlete who kept the nation on the sports map.Not surprisingly, that icon status carried over to his time here. When Meirhaeghe showed up to this summer’s Gold Run Rush Summit Mountain Challenge race in Breckenridge – and won – locals of all ages went home feeling better about themselves. Because, after all, they’d just ridden in the same race as the reigning world champ! What a shame. Or, more accurately, a sham.Meirhaeghe could be telling the truth – this really could have been the only time he took EPO. How are we to know? And why would we ever believe him?He’d been under doping suspicion since 1997, when he wasn’t allowed to start the world championship race because his hematocrit (red blood cell) levels were too high – the primary effect of EPO.
Remember when Sammy Sosa got caught using a corked bat? Millions of fans still haven’t forgiven him, and you can bet it will be a topic of hot discussion when it comes time to debate whether Sosa belongs in the Hall of Fame. Meirhaeghe’s legacy has been affected in a similar fashion.”What a waste,” said Mike McCormack, who helps run the SMC and became acquaintances with Meirhaeghe over the three years he was here. “There was a champion for once that everyone liked – he was fun to hang out with, he was kooky, he was funny, he was charasmatic. He was getting set to exit the sport with just an enormous legacy.”McCormack’s right. Should Meirhaeghe, 33, have won Olympic gold, combined with his 11 career World Cup victories (second only to legendary Swiss rider Thomas Frischknecht), he would’ve gone down in history as arguably the greatest mountain biker ever.Not anymore.”This would be very similar to Elway testing positive for steroids right after the Broncos won the Super Bowl, and retiring right then,” said Jeff Cospolich, an expert local rider who got to be friends with Meirhaeghe through his job as VP of Great Western Lodging (Meirhaeghe stayed in properties managed by Great Western).Although Cospolich, like McCormack and a number of other local bikers consulted for this story, admits we have no way of relating to the pressure Meirhaeghe had thrust upon him because of his iconic status, he knows that’s not the point.
“You have to put a star next to everything he’s ever done,” Cospolich said, adding that the news of Meirhaeghe’s EPO use hit him hard personally. “I was trying to draw some inspiration from him being here in everything I do, but yeah, as far as locally, a lot of people were let down.”McCormack agreed. “He probably never thought that there were people in Summit County, Colorado, that would be personally saddened by what he did. But there are.”And they’re not just adults hardened to the harsh realities of the world, either. For some local kids, news of Meirhaeghe’s cheating was an unexpected introduction to sport’s sometimes ugly ways.Thirteen-year-old Jeff Metzger raced in the Gold Run Rush and saw Meirhaeghe at the race. On first sight, Metzger said, he wanted to be just like the world champ that he saw before him. Once he found out that Meirhaghe had used EPO, his image of the champ changed.”I thought he was really good, but he’s not really good,” said Metzger. “It’s the drugs. He’s a bad guy, because he’s doing drugs. Now I think all the guys are doing drugs. I’m pretty sure a lot of them do.”Metzger’s mom, Sandy, fought a similar battle, albeit from a different angle.”It was a thrill for Jeff,” she said, describing her son’s reaction the day of the Rush. After the cheating came out, however, it became, “How do you tell your kid to do things the right way when they turn around and see someone breaking all the rules and cheating? I think (Jeff’s) biggest thing was, Why?”
Filip Meirhaeghe took EPO to boost his performance, to take him to the next level. In a way, it has. It’s taken him to a higher place, where human beings exist only as memories.Seemingly without realizing it, many refer to him in the past tense, as if he is dead. “I don’t even like talking about it, really,” said Cospolich. “I like to remember Filip as a good person, as a nice guy.”Unlike a number of top cyclists who actually have died from EPO, Meirhaeghe the person is still alive.As an athlete, in the eyes of those from Summit to Belgium, he’s deceased.Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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