10 July, 2009

Did Contador Sit Up and Cause Stage 3's Split?

I find this a bit hard to believe, but a French rider claims that Alberto Contador sat up to help foster the split that occurred near the end of stage three. The result of this move was Contador lost 41 seconds to teammate Armstrong and a few other favorites.

It seems that such a move is a bit early for Contador, or any favorite to be playing. He could have lost more time than just 41 seconds. He allowed two other potential winners to gain that time as well.

Then again, if it was deliberate, maybe that's why Popovych and Zubeldia were helping drive the escape, when most woudl have expected them to sit at the back, thus minimizing the time penalty to Leipheimer, Kloden, and Contador.

Nice soap opera stuff. Which is why the Tour can be so compelling.

Sports Illustrated gets so much right and still gets it wrong

I've been troubled by a story on cycling in Sports Illustrated. Tour de France, cycling a clash of cultures for Americans, Europeans by Alexander Wolff. The guy did his homework. Lots of references to knowledge only the most avid students of bike racing would know.

Despite doing such diligent homework, he failed in his own memory. He writes of visiting the legendary climb of L'Alpe d'Huez in 1987. "Sure enough, Ireland's Stephen Roche clinched the Tour that day, clawing back seconds in the final meters before collapsing from the effort. He had to be revived at the finish." Only the effort he's discussing happened not on the Alpe, but atop La Plagne, as he would have known if he had re-read his own story. And the performance didn't clinch the Tour as much as save it for Roche; he wasn't in yellow (lost on L'Alpe d'Huez), he just minimized his deficit so he could beat Delgado in the time trial.

But his thesis, a variation of Americans are from Mars, Euros are from Venus, specifically the tired trope of naive, idealistic Americans vs. cynical Europeans, doesn't hold up for me. Maybe it was novel in Henry James' time, but I've been reading about it since Catch-22. Wolff opens with an anecdote about how the European press spilled gallons of ink on Contador bonking in the Paris-Nice stage race this year, a mistake which cost Contador the victory, while Armstrong dissed his teammate and the most impressive current stage racer in the world in a sentence.

What Wolff fails to mention or know or understand is that Armstrong's put-down would hardly be out of character for any number of European cycling champions. Bernard Hinault was famously dismissive of competitors, even of his talented teammate Greg LeMond. Wolff also didn't appreciate the irony of reading Armstrong putting down his young teammate for the same mistake that nearly cost Armstrong the 2000 Tour.

To be fair to the European press, I have no idea if Wolff really read all those Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian, Spanish, and German reports so as to accurately compare.

It doesn't matter. Because I don't think Wolff cares. He merely wants to prove his thesis. Wolff discusses that the European peloton is a medieval guild, with rules and customs, and you have to know someone to get in. For Wolff, doping is what the Euros do for their jobs, while for Americans it isn't what they do because in America, cycling is a middle-class sport.

Of course there are differences between regional groupthinks. But both Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis fit in to the Euro mold better than the American mold. Lance had a tough childhood. Floyd had a strict rural childhood where he had to go to school and then go to work before he could get on his bike at night. Both guys treated cycling as if it were the escape plan. Lance's Tour success is very much tied to his relationship with Johan Bruyneel, a Belgian who made most of the management decisions--which reflected a strong Euro bias.

While it's nice to pretend that doping was something Americans didn't do and weren't tempted by until the mid 90s or later, that simply isn't the case. In 1984, some of the the US Cycling team blood-boosted at the Olympics (story in Sports Illustrated), a precursor to today's blood-doping. One of the top American women, Cindy Olivarri, was busted for doping before the Olympics, but it was passed off as mononucleosis. Alexi Grewal, the 1984 Olympic champ recently admitted to dabbling with drugs throughout his career. In the print article that goes with Alexi's online essay, he also names Steve Speaks and Doug Shapiro (third American to ride the Tour) as guys who got busted for doping in the 1980s. Busted in the US.

He also strives to show how the Euro world is corrupt in other ways as well. "The guild also permits sundry corruptions and collusions, which (Joe) Parkin (author of A Dog In A Hat) would discover in Belgian kermis races that were fixed on the fly, and Dutch criteriums that involved more aforethought: 'All the riders would dress in the same room and a list would get passed around,' he recalls. 'At the top was the time the winning breakaway would go. There'd be a check mark next to the names of the riders in the winning break. And the name of the winner would be underlined.'"

What Wolff fails to mention or know or understand is what Parkin wrote in his book, that for pros, Kermis' were seen as unimportant races and they were carnivals, entertainment, for the locals and that when the races were "fixed on the fly" it was because, as Parkin explained, "Think of this as Homecoming for bike racers. As such, the local cafe might offer him a small bonus for winning in front of his people." Pro baseball pitchers have been known to give away home runs in league play. I'm sure there are plenty of basketball games where people let their buddy on the opposing team make a good show for his girlfriend. While I'm not sure about all the Dutch races Parkin refers to, there is a well-established tradition in Europe after the Tour de France where the criteriums aren't really races but exhibitions where the stars of the Tour always win. Everyone knows it's going on, it's just like a dinger-fest or slam-dunk contest or the Pro Bowl; the viewers are in on the score and they're happy to see the Tour champ flash across the line first in his yellow jersey--as any student of racing knows, wearing the yellow jersey from the Tour in another race is a no-no, so there is another tell that the race is a show.

Wolff writes, "And so, like innocents abroad in a Henry James novel, American riders reached a moment of reckoning. You can leave Colorado or California with your water bottles and Clif Bars, but eventually you'll discover, as Mart Smeets of NOS Dutch TV puts it, "If you want to dance, you put on your dancing shoes." Poetic, nice reference to James, but not true. I'm sure back then, some riders went over not knowing, but many did. Pretending otherwise is nice for stories but bad for gaining understanding or truth-telling.

And what of our American Sports? Our beloved Big Three. Do they have guilds? Do they have codes they live by? Are they colluding, are they giving signals to each other, are they living by a code where doping is part of the game? That matters not to Wolff. We're talking bike racing here. European bike racing. I think if Wolff bothered to train the same lens, he'd find variations on the same thing. If he watched Bigger, Stronger, Faster, he'd know that a doctor formerly employed by the US Olympic Committee to take charge of drug controls claimed in the movie that the USOC wanted testing, but testing that wouldn't burn US Athletes. Exum eventually gave documents to Sports Illustrated that showed "some 100 American athletes who failed drug tests and should have been prevented from competing in the Olympics were nevertheless cleared to compete." (wikipedia)

And to help hammer home his thesis, he reminds us of the famed antipathy between Armstrong and the French, "Today the relationship between Armstrong and the French has deteriorated into schoolyard namecalling." From where I sit, it's mostly Armstrong doing the name-calling. The French have been a convenient foil for him, one that he takes full advantage of, though other than some writers at L'Equipe, a leading sports newspaper in France, I see little evidence that the French people or press is anti-Armstrong.

These days, when Americans go abroad for bike racing, they know about the doping because it goes on at home. Not only have top, mid-level, and bottom-level pros in the been caught in the US, but amateurs with jobs have been busted as well. The hypocrisy American racers see isn't in cycling, where people who get caught sometimes pay with their careers, but it's in the rest of sport, a world where Manny Ramirez gets busted with Clomid in his system and serves a 50-day suspension. Cyclists have tested positive for Clomid, and have gotten two year suspensions. These days, American bike racers are the knowing sophisticates giving a crooked grin when people express surprise that our Big Three Superstars dope.

In the end, Wolff writes, "In the States we're not much for shades of gray in our heroes. But in Europe people take their riders as they are: Wan and haggard, "for us." If doctors and drugs can help a fellow human being survive cancer, Europeans dare ask, why shouldn't doctors and drugs help one contest the world's most difficult bike race? As its most dominant rider contests the Tour de France once more, it's worth pondering not just whether we Americans want the truth, but whether we can handle the truth."

Wolff fails to mention or know or understand that several European nations are doing more to combat doping than we are here in the US. They don't appreciate the shades of grey or doping. German state television networks pulled TV coverage of the Tour de France in 2007 after a German cyclist was revealed to have failed a drug test earlier in the year. Can you imagine any American network pulling football coverage after a positive drug test? Operacion Puerto was a Spanish government operation to bust dopers. So far, only cyclists have been named, though allegedly over 200 athletes were fingered, including soccer and tennis players.

Wolff asks if Americans can handle the truth? So far, at least to me, when it comes to our Sports, we're acting very European. We handle it by saying that when our guy does it, it's ok, but its wrong when the other guy does it, particularly other guys in other sports. This is culture clash?

Some Fluff on Team Columbia-High Road

The best racing team in the world and they have trouble getting press. Between the Astana soap opera and Garmin "clean" story, these guys get missed. They've won more than any other team in 2008 and thusfar in 2009, and they do it with a clean program that rivals Garmin.

In honor of them, I share this video fluff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfEJvZlXYZ0

Can the Lance Effect Save the Tour of Missouri?

Lance Armstrong's presence kept the Tour of Georgia alive for many years. Now, the recently-established Tour of Missouri might need a visit from a certain Tour winner,or the promise thereof to keep this race alive. As you can imagine, a state that is facing an economic crunch might see an investment in a bike race as a great way to boost name recognition and then tourism and then see the state's coffers fill up.

Power: Not A Lot

Power Junkies out there: as written earlier, you can find power files of Tour riders online.

Garmin offers up power files of the Garmin-Slipstream riders daily. I just took a look at Dave Zabriskie's power for the Stage four Team Time Trial and there are two things to notice. First, it doesn't look like he used much power. 224w for 1:38. But the TTT was 24 miles. Have to find the right program so I can download his data and then do some data pulling to see how much he really used.