Showing posts with label bike racing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bike racing. Show all posts

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cycling Customs: Flashing the Biological Passport

("Could you please take us someplace where we can buy more crap?")

Sometimes, the business of simply living your life can be too easy. When we don't have something that, while ultimately meaningless, keeps us lying awake at night, our existence can seem empty and futile. For example, I cannot relax if I've inadvertently mounted a tire "backwards"--even if that tire has no tread whatsoever and the direction is ultimately completely irrelevant. Just the fact that somewhere on the sidewall is the word "rotation" followed by an arrow pointing the wrong way makes me extremely uneasy, and actually riding a wheel set up this way makes me feel like a cat being brushed backwards. Similarly, some people simply cannot sleep knowing that somewhere, somehow, a professional cyclist may be cheating. Take journalist David Walsh, who's been criticizing the UCI's "biological passport."

I'm not a comic book fan, but I would probably read one in which the sport of cycling was personified as a "flambullient" superhero (think Mario Cipollini in one of his novelty skinsuits) and David Walsh was its arch-nemesis and possessed of the superpower to suck the fun and spontaneity out of absolutely anything. Granted, some of Walsh's scientific arguments go over my helmet, but the crux of his argument seems to be that, while ostensibly you're supposed to ride faster than other people in professional cycling, the fact is that actually doing so means you're a cheat. This is too much even for Garmin Slipstream director Jonathan Vaughters, who explained why riders are faster now than they used to be:

Yes, anybody who was following cycling in the mid-90s remembers both those Carnacs and those sweat-retaining clothes. Sure, we now know that Pantani was about as clean as a porta-potty at a summer music festival, but given what passed for team kit back then it's astounding he was able to climb those mountain passes at all:

Furthermore, as Vaughters points out, while the "biological passport" isn't perfect now it's still way more than any other sport is doing. Nonetheless, it's still not enough for Walsh, who is hell-bent on removing that pesky "human element" from sport once and for all and as such advocates abandoning the "biological passport" in favor of the "Bio-Dome:"

The "Bio-Dome" is a fully-enclosed ecological system in which professional cyclists would be forced to live year-round, leaving only for competition. This would enable the UCI to monitor cyclists at all times, and to restrict their access to performance-enhancing or recreational drugs. Moreover, it would allow for all manner of tomfoolery, hijinx, and madcap comedy. In fact, several riders have already volunteered to be part of the pilot program. Here's Ivan Basso and Filippo Pozzato making themselves at home in the prototype:

Of course, amateur racers love to copy the pros. That's why they hire coaches in order to ride around in their local parks on $6,000 bikes while covered in sponsor logos and wired to power meters. I'm no different, and I often fantasize about being so important that people make a big fuss over my urine and require me to carry a "biological passport." This is why I've gone ahead and made one anyway:

As you can see, my "biological passport" includes used cotton swabs, wadded-up tissues (also used), and even clumps of hair, so it's chock-full of DNA. I present this at each and every race I enter. While you'd think the officials would be appreciative of my candor, more often they react with impatience and even disgust. Maybe David Walsh is right and the sport is corrupt. When a USCF official would rather stand around with a clipboard and a whistle than inspect a piece of Kleenex filled with mucus it's clear that we have a long way to go.

But these fussy officials aren't the only threat to cycling's public image. A reader informs me that a cadre of riders recently sought to interfere with the Woodward Dream Cruise:

The Woodward Dream Cruise is a giant classic car rally in Michigan. I have never attended the Woodward Dream Cruise (actually I always thought it was some sort of fantasy boat trip where you pay to sunbathe and play shuffleboard with Bob Woodward of Woodward and Bernstein fame), but I can't help suspecting that this is an event not worth protesting. Sure, I suppose a massive display of fuel-squandering is somewhat gratuitous, but it only happens once a year, and I'd wager most of these cars are only driven a few miles a week to the local auto supply store where the owners hope people will gawk at them in the parking lot while they're inside buying more Turtle Wax. Also, people with highly-polished vintage cars generally take great pains not to hit things that will scratch them, and this includes cyclists. I say let the car nerds have their day. Of all the cars that have tried to hit me over the years, none of them have been collectibles. The real problem is people with late-model sedans, minivans, and SUVs who drive them every day while simultaneously talking on the phone, eating, and being pelted in the head with circus peanuts by the kids in the back seat. And if you do insist on protesting a car rally, you could at least try to make cycling look good. Assembling some kind of hipster "Old Crappy 10 Speed Strike Force" is a disservice to everybody.

Still, some people aren't happy to simply ride their bikes. They have to ride their bikes for a cause. After all, the automobile has turned the landscape and the environment into a ravaged and noxious perdition, while riding a bicycle makes flowers bloom and birds sing and people harmonize together on street corners. Or does it?

This is the new and much talked-about bike lane on Sands Street in Brooklyn. Yes, it's smooth, yes it's protected, and yes it's convenient. At the same time, though, it's also just another paved slab, and that's nothing to be smug about. Does this really make our city and our Earth a more beautiful place? If we're going to shelter our bike lanes from automobile traffic, why not go all the way? I would like to see our bike lanes transformed into lush nature trails, complete with native vegetation, wildlife, and rippling streams. Sure, you might get poison oak on the way to work, and there's always the danger that there will be an increase in the number of Teva sandals you see on a daily basis, but I think it's worth it. After all, nature doesn't distinguish between a street and a bike lane; as far as it's concerned, they both suck. This could be why I keep getting caught up in goose Critical Mass rallies while I'm commuting:

Yes, if we don't listen to the geese it may not just be professional cyclists who are living in a "Bio-Dome"--it could be all of humanity. In fact, I recently encountered evidence that people are already preparing for bio-dome life:

Despite the fact that it was a pleasant summer evening, these people are holding their soirée in a climate-controlled bubble:

Indeed, in the not-too-distant future, those with means will live safely in the bio-dome, while the rest of us will be forced to breathe poison air and ride our bicycles on the cracked bike lanes of our own hubris:

This could be why the people in the bubble didn't react with typical nonplussitude when I photographed them. Instead, they smiled gleefully, probably because they were gloating about the fact that they would survive while I perished:

In times like these, a smile is even worse than a scowl. Fortunately, I can always rely on my fellow cyclists for a reassuring look of disdain. For example, on Friday evening I encountered a group of riders assembled at Prospect Park:

I'm not sure what they were up to, but to my relief they regarded me in the manner to which I am accustomed:

Clearly, I was about as welcome here as I was in the bubble. I can only imagine how they would have reacted if I'd shown them my "biological passport."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fromage for Thought: The Science of Losing

Generally speaking, when it comes to the sport of professional cycling I tend to avoid in-depth race analysis. Not only is it better left to other outlets such as Cyclingnews, VeloNews, and actor Morgan Freeman's Twitter (his coverage of this year's Dauphiné Libéré was as insightful as it was riveting), but I also feel it's far less relevant to the lives of typical cyclists than, say, my ongoing mission to discover and crown the World's Ugliest Fixie. (The current front-runner is this one.) However, I recently noticed this article on Cyclingnews which inspired me to reconsider:

When a champion as great as Laurent Jalabert calls for something, you get it for him. I don't care whether it's a re-evaluation of French cycling, or greater accountability in the sport in general, or simply a croque-monsieur and a cool drink. Jalabert says he finds the state of French cycling "disturbing," which is hardly surprising since in recent years French cyclists have been performing about as well as Greg LeMond at a sporting conference. Many have speculated as to why this is, and some have even gone so far as to suggest that French racers are riding "cleaner" than their non-French counterparts. Now, I don't know about that, but I do know that they're not winning. I also know that in order to understand mediocrity you have to be mediocre, and the truth is Jalabert is just too successful a rider to understand what's wrong with French cycling. I, on the other hand, am mediocrity's domestique when it comes to racing, so I feel I'm uniquely qualified to help Jalabert in particular and French cycling in general. To that end, I made the following chart, which I hope Jalabert will see and take the time to study:

As you can see, the state of French cycling is sorrier than an obsequious waiter who's just spilled red wine on your date. Furthermore, from this chart, we can draw three conclusions:

1) France is a little good at cycling
2) France is a lot bad at cycling
3) Cheese is almost as delicious as France is good at cycling

This data is disturbing. Ideally, if you're a country with cycling aspirations you want to be more good at cycling than you are bad at it. France, however, is experiencing a good/bad inversion, which is highly undesirable. Furthermore, France is in an extremely precarious situation right now. Currently, while they are much worse at cycling than they are good at it, they are still at least a little more good at cycling than cheese is delicious. However, if their cycling performance continues to deteriorate, cheese will essentially become more delicious than they are good at cycling and riders like Silvain Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler will no longer be able to successfully compete for attention with tasty hunks of Camembert or Brie. Essentially, French cycling is now on life support, and if their best riders fail to remain ever so slightly more interesting than warm cheese it will probably just kick up its Carnacs and die. (This is why you'll often hear cycling journalists say that French cycling is "treading fromage.")

Of course, this data is almost meaningless without some historical context, so I've gone ahead and generated a graph which represents the state of French cycling over time:

You'll note that precisely "A long time ago," when people like Jaques Anquetil were riding, French cycling was "Awesome." However, as we move into the present all performance indicators are heading towards "Sucky" like randy deckhands on shore leave in Bangkok. Even worse, while "Awesomeness" has been steadily decreasing, "Sucking" has been steadily increasing:

Indeed, French cycling suckitude is dangerously close to reaching a state of "R-Sys," or total implosion.

If you're Laurent Jalabert, you're probably asking two questions right now. The first question is, "Is it too late?," and the second question is, "Where the hell is my croque-monsieur?" Well, only Voeckler can speak to the second question (he's generally on "sandwich detail"), and as far as the first one goes the short answer is: "It's complicated." Really, to determine what must be done we must first identify when exactly it was that France started sucking more than not sucking, which involves pinpointing the exact moment at which they attained total cycling mediocrity. This period of stasis occurs when someone or something sucks exactly as much as it doesn't suck, and is also known as the "Nexus of Meh." Having analyzed the data, I can say with confidence that, for French Cycling, the "Nexus of Meh" was July 16th, 1997:

The 1997 Tour de France was a critical one when it comes to understanding French suckage. While Frenchman Richard Virenque went on to finish second overall (the best French finish since Laurent Fignon's second place to Greg LeMond in 1989), the French team Big Mat also finished last in the teams classification that very same year. As such, we can deduce from this that the "Nexus of Meh" occurred during the 1997 Tour, and furthermore we can specify July 16th as this marked the Tour's midway point. This conclusion is supported by the fact that, shortly afterward, France became a cycling nation in decline. The following year saw the famous Festina scandal, from which French cycling arguably never recovered, and we haven't seen a French person on the podium since.

So what can be done? Well, after analyzing the data, I've decided that France's best hope is to get rid of the Tour de France altogether. Anybody who's ever organized a big party knows that you never have fun at your own affair. You never get to eat the food, you don't get to talk to the people you want to talk to, and you certainly don't "hook up." So I'm putting forth the notion that as long as France continues to host the biggest affair on the cycling calendar they're never going to "hook up" with victory. Instead, they should just give the Tour de France to some other country--preferably a flatter one, which would also help since they're such lousy climbers. Also, they'd have a lot more energy left over to contest other races as well. Or, if they insist on keeping it, they should at least try to relax. As it is, they spend way too much time looking for drugs. It's hard enough to have fun at your own party, but it's even harder when you're running around making sure nobody's outside sneaking a joint. Sure, too many drugs can ruin a party--but sometimes not enough drugs can be just as bad.

In the meantime, though, French cyclists do need to take responsibility for their own poor performance. Yes, failing to take personal responsibility can have disastrous consequences. Take for instance this "missed connection" from Craigslist:

Asshat cyclist who nearly ran me down - w4m - 30 (Prospect Park)
Date: 2009-08-09, 8:43PM EDT

Dear Spandex-Bedeck'd Douchebag,

Yes, it is true and it is lame that it took me 30 years to learn to ride a bike. I know you probably sailed out of your mother's womb on a Brompton but that does not give you the right to come crashing into me as I learn how to make this two-wheeled-thingee-mabob stay upright. You had plenty of room to pass me on the left but decided to be the piece of excrement you are and zoom by me on the right. Unfortunately, your ego is larger than your skill set and you came within an inch of smashing into me. You, as the experienced cyclist, have the responsibility of riding defensively and avoiding the novices, be they 5 or 30. WHY try to prove your superiority by scaring newbies? I wasn't an obstacle to your progress until you decided to make me one by cutting across lanes to nearly kill us both.


Wishing You Crotch Abrasions and U-Lock Beatings,
Girl in Green

Sure, the "spandex-bedeck'd douchebag" may have been riding reckelessly, but at least he was wearing an asshat.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Old Whine, New Bottle: Embracing Mediocrity

Recently I was thumbing through a cycling magazine during my morning visit to that last bastion of print media when I happened upon the following ad:

"Introducing the racing bottle for the 21st century. The revolutionary Podium(tm) Bottle combines the innovative self-sealing Jet Valve and a high flow rate in a squeezable bike bottle. With the Podium, drinking is effortless; no more "bite to open, hip-slap to shut." The Podium's proprietary TruTaste(tm) material eliminates plastic aftertaste. And embedded anti-microbial technology ensures your bottle will stay clean and fresh. Own a bottle as advanced as the rest of your gear."

I'm a huge fan of both the raise-your-hopes-quickly-then-dash-them approach (as in: "You're pretty smart--for a complete idiot;" or "You're a pretty good bike handler--for a triathlete") as well as the advertisement that insults you and the products you're currently using. I'm also all too aware of the shortcomings of my current bottles. Indeed, the "bite to open, hip-slap to shut" approach has taken its toll on my weary carcass over the years--my incisors now protrude from my mouth like a rodent's and my hip is so brusied and pockmarked that I can barely walk. Yet before I saw this advertisement it had never occurred to me that there might be an alternative. "That's just the way it is," I'd think to myself resignedly as I flossed my unsightly beaver teeth and thumbed through medical supply catalogs looking for artificial hips. (Sure, I could wear a hydration pack, but ever since my tragic beer-funneling incident I've had a terrible fear of drinking from tubes.) So needless to say I was thrilled to discover this product. CamelBak have not only succeeded in reinventing the lowly bidon, but they've also managed to rename various parts of it ("Jet Valve" and "TruTaste(tm)") in tremendously exciting ways. Even more exciting, it's also the official bottle of the Saunier Duval team, who were one of the top teams in professional road racing until yesterday morning. All CamelBak forgot here was a homing device, so that the riders who jettison their bottles pro-style on the last lap in the local Cat 4 races can find them again afterwards. Despite this ommision, I think I may actually be ready to accept their challenge and "Step up to the podium." (That's another good advertising tactic, by the way--dare the buyer to use your product. Much more effective than some creepy copy about the bottle nurturing you like a mother's teat or something and the Jet Valve beckoning your lips like an expectant nipple, which you'd probably get if this were made by an Italian company.)

Speaking of Saunier Duval, I've already gotten over any disappointment I may have felt about their leaving the Tour. Doping in bike racing is simply the gift that keeps on giving, in that you not only get the excitement of watching the finish, but you also get the additional excitement of a revised podium a few days later. How many other sports give you double the number of winners for your money? Also, I'm happy as long as Dmitry Fofonov stays in the race. It's important in any Grand Tour to have at least one rider whose name sounds like a suggestive verb when it's mentioned by Phil Liggett. To me his name sounds like something a parent might accuse an adolescent of doing if he's been in the bathroom too long. "Are you Fofonov in there?" [Sound of zippers and rustling clothing.] "Uh, no. Leave me alone!" Most importantly, I'm one hundred percent convinced that the "biological passport" will eradicate doping from the peloton once and for all. Of course, I'm not sure what a "biological passport" is, but if I understand correctly it's basically just a wadded-up used Kleenex. (The kid Fofonov in the bathroom probably has a bunch of "biological passports" under his bed.)

Despite the fact we're still in the middle of the Tour, the fact is that road racing season's basically over anyway. The astute rider has already written it off and begun focussing his or her attention on cyclocross. The key to a successful racing season is to always live a minimum of four months in the future, mentally-speaking. That way you can dismiss your poor performances as simple preparation. Sure, you may not get anywhere near the front of the pack in a road race this summer, but you're just trying to get some intense mileage in so you'll be ready for cyclocross season. Poor mountain bike racing is even easier to rationalize--you're just doing that to improve your bike-handling. And of course once 'cross season does begin, you're still under no pressure to get results because, really, you're just doing it to maintain your form during the off-season. With the right attitude, you can surf an entire year of racing like a great big wave of mediocrity. Winning is for dopers and sandbaggers.

Of course, as a lousy bike racer and an involuntary New Yorker I've grown accustomed to mediocrity. Forbes Traveler recently announced the top ten most bike-friendly cities in North America, and New York City only managed eighth place. (At least we beat Minneapolis and Chicago.) No prizes for guessing which city came in first, but if you still need a hint here are three: it's wet, it's in the Pacific Northwest, and it's not Seattle. Sure, they may have been a shoe-in (or, more accurately, a sandal-in) for victory, but I still would have liked to see a dark horse nip them at the line. The last thing their bike community needs is more ego-stroking. And perhaps one day, New York will know what it's like to occupy a podium spot. Until that day comes, though, I will expect mediocrity from everything except my water bottles.