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I don't know if I could have refused to dope.

I would like to say, conclusively, unequivocally, no, absolutely not. I ain't doping. It's wrong. It's cheating. I'd be a fraud, a joke to integrity. Couldn't look my friends in the eye. I would love to puff out my chest and proclaim to any and all: Ain't me, babe. I got standards, you know.

I wish I could say all that without a hitch. I can't.

Instead, I find myself imagining being 13 years old and it hits me like a ton of bricks. I need to ride a bike. And I dream when I do it. Of riding in the Alps. Of riding in the Tour de France. I dream of being on that seat, crunching up a mountain or skimming my way down one. Just like a million kids in America at 13, I dream of making it big. But instead of playing in the NFL or MLB or the NBA, I fantasize about cycling.

Those NFL kids, those NBA and MLB dreamers — and this is the twist — they find out early on, maybe as early as 15, when they just enter high school, they will never play pro football, baseball or basketball. They may even make it to college before reality hits. Either way, usually no later than 21, they know the answer. Isn't happening.

But for a cyclist, it's different. The cut-off line to elite competition is not so well-defined. Let's say I am 26 years old and I am Levi Leipheimer and I have spent half my life waiting for this moment. But I find, much to my surprise, I have to dope to join this exclusive fraternity. Sure, I can refuse and get dropped faster than hot lava. Either the competition blows me away or my prospective team manager doesn't appreciate my refusal to commit to the program.

The simple thing, the obvious thing, is to say no, go back to America and ride domestically in third-tier races. Make the best of it.

Could you walk away, just like that? Does that make sense? Really? Think about it.

Dedicated cyclists suffer. They like it. Yeah, I know, it's weird, but they like to punish themselves. They do it on a daily basis and they do it, actually, in private. It's not like a baseball player hitting a home run and trotting around the bases to the roar of the crowd. There's not an athlete alive who doesn't like having his or her name called in adulation. But cycling? It's suffering. Alone. Maybe with a teammate or two. Alone. For hours. On a bike that sometimes you drag up a hill with thighs that feel like stone.

You start at 13 and then you're 26 and you've suffered in relative obscurity for half your life and you're OK with that. Try to imagine an NBA player being OK with that. If you're Levi Leipheimer and it's 1999, you get to make the decision. You make the wrong decision. You dope. You wince, you get panic attacks, you get daily reminders you're dirty when you re-infuse blood or take a needle to your skin. You know it's wrong.

In that situation, with those circumstances, I don't know if I could have refused to dope, either.

Sure, from the outside looking in, it's a disgusting view. Blood bags. Injections on team buses. Secretive conversations. Liquids. Pills. These guys are lab rats. I'm surprised there wasn't a piece of cheese waiting for them at the end of the day.

So I wish I could take the high moral ground here. I can't. I just can't.

Call it a curse, a simple mind or a bleeding-heart liberal, but I believe in second chances. I believe most of us do. I am flawed. You are flawed. We all are flawed. What matters is what we do with our flaws.

Do we act like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong? Do we deny and hide behind lawyers? Do we thumb our nose at everyone? Do we walk with entitlement? Do we mock and threaten and dismiss? Do we not care about what people think? Or the legacy we leave? Do we ask for a second chance? Why should we? After all, we've done nothing wrong — wink, wink, wink.

Or do we act like football's Michael Vick and make restitution? Do we face the ugly truth we have created and do something about it? OK, maybe Vick is playing us. Maybe Vick, somewhere, somehow, is still torturing and killing dogs. But until I see that evidence, I see what I see now. I see a man trying very hard to make amends for truly abhorrent behavior.

Levi Leipheimer is asking us now for a second chance. He is not hiding. He will talk willingly at any time. He wants to be a resource for young cyclists. He wants a clean sport. He has been brought to his knees — make no mistake about that — and now he is getting up. He knows he has an opportunity here to be really someone special. And it has nothing to do with winning the Tour of California or that Olympic bronze medal or even his GranFondo.

Leipheimer can be a positive influence in a sport that now cries out for transparency. Enough already of the Armstrong vitriol. Leipheimer can be the ripple for change, and last Sunday he started by speaking to scientists at a symposium in Atlanta.

Will he become that positive influence?

I believe he will. Consider me soft in the head for writing that. I stand accused.

See, the thing is, the older I get, the more gray I see in life, and I'm not talking about my hair.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist

Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.