Thursday, August 28, 2008


Cycling Indicators

“So where the hell have you been?”

It’s a question I get a good bit, from people who read this sometimes intermittent site and from the guys I (occasionally) ride bicycles with. The answer, for the past few weeks, has been simple – working. I know it’s hard to believe, but the financial rainmaker that is the Service Course doesn’t quite pay the bills, so I do a little work on the side – about 40 to 60 hours a week worth. To be more specific, I work for what some people call a “government contractor,” and some call a “consulting firm,” which in the Washington, DC area is far from a distinguishing personal trait. It makes me, as a character in Saving Private Ryan put it, “a needle in a stack of needles.”

But I’m a needle with a twisted interest in cycling, and sometimes my hobby and my career come together in a more meaningful way than me showing up at the office in lycra. One such intersection occurred with the receipt of last week’s August 25 issue of Time magazine, which has a section about the first week or so of the Olympics, which were held in China, if you haven’t heard. (I should state here that I have no idea why our household receives Time magazine. We have never, to our knowledge, ordered it, nor paid for it. So thanks, Time, for making our postman think we’re informed about world affairs.)

In an little sider entitled, “Pollution’s Effect? It’s Unclear,” Time discusses the notoriously poor Beijing air quality, the topic of great pre-Olympic discussion and speculation. To illustrate how poor air quality was affecting the games, Time states that, “There have been casualties already: more than a third of the cyclists competing in the 152-mile (245 km) men’s road race Aug. 9 dropped out, in part because of conditions so stifling that one rider compared it with racing at 10,000 ft. (about 3,000 m) – on a course that topped out at 1,083 ft. (330 m).” That little bit of data-wrangling, backed up by a single rider’s anecdotal assessment of the conditions, woke up the professional guy in me. He held a quick conversation with my bike dork side, and they subsequently issued this joint statement: what a bunch of bullshit.

Here’s the nut. For lo these past four years, I’ve been working on a government report that uses “environmental indicators” to help define the status of and trends in the U.S. environment. “Indicators” is basically a fancy word for “measurements” that you use to provide insight into something else. For example, the Fed uses measures of new housing starts and durable goods purchases as indicators of the country’s economic health. Those are economic indicators, I work mostly with environmental ones, but the concept is pretty common.

Indicators can be handy for defining the status and trends, but you have to be careful how you use them. In the report I’m working on for the government, there’s been rigorous internal and external peer-review to make sure that indicators aren’t being used improperly – that we’re not saying that a certain set of measurements tells us things it really might not tell us at all. And that’s where the Time article about the Olympic air quality falls short.

Time uses the fact that 1/3 of the men’s Olympic road race field did not finish the race as a defacto indicator that the Beijing air quality was/is poor. I’m not disputing that the air quality was indeed poor on the day the race was held, but the magazine has improperly used the DNF rate of the road race as an indicator of air quality. That they did so isn’t surprising – it’s a simple, if glaring, misunderstanding of the sport.

Man, it took me a lot of words to get to that thesis, didn’t it? Fortunately, the rest of the argument is short and simple. You can’t say that 1/3 of the field not finishing is an indicator of particularly bad Beijing air quality on the day, because, simply put, that’s a pretty normal attrition rate for a major, professional, single-day cycling race, regardless of air quality. If anything, it’s a pretty high starters-to-finishers ratio, likely for the simple fact that many riders holding no victory ambitions came to Beijing with the simple goal of finishing the damn race.

Let’s look at a few examples of long, one-day road races to see what I mean. I haven’t looked at NOx, ozone, and PM2.5 emissions or concentrations (common measures of poor air quality – this is what they’re measuring when the news tells you your city has a “code orange” day for air quality) for any of the areas these races are held in, but I don’t believe they’re notorious poor air-quality hotspots.

The 2008 Tour of Flanders, held in April in Belgium, had 200 starters and 100 classified finishers, giving us a nice, tidy 50 percent attrition rate. I’ve been to that one, though in a different year, and while there’s a healthy tinge of cow manure and beer fumes in the air, springtime in Belgium isn’t exactly an air-quality nightmare, at least in the countryside.

The 2007 Tour of Lombardy, won by Damiano Cunego (Lampre), featured 104 classified finishers from 180 starters, giving it a 43 percent drop-out rate, better than Flanders, but still more than the 1/3 Olympic road race attrition rate Time believes is a marker of poor air quality. I can guarantee you that the air around Lake Como in October is pretty damn fresh. It might actually be the definition of “fresh air.”

Of course, Flanders and Lombardy are beginning and end-of-season races, respectively, and not typically subject to the heat that summertime Beijing has. Late spring and summer are dominated by the Giro and the Tour, which give riders extra incentive to not drop out, because, well, they’re stage races, and that’s the game. So let’s throw a summer one-day race in here to give an even better view into how stilted Time’s view of road race finishing rates is. This year’s Clasica San Sebastian, run in the stinking heat of Spain in August, and won by Alejandro Valverde, featured just 45 finishers out of 152 starters, a 70 percent DNF rate that should, by their methods, have Time magazine publishing a wailing expose about rural Basque air quality in a matter of weeks.

Indeed, then, a 1/3 DNF rate at the Olympic road race tells us absolutely nothing about Beijing air quality, no matter how many times Time tries to apply it in that context. What it does tell us is that Time has a fundamental misunderstanding of how professional road cycling works. Again, that’s not surprising – there’s a reason I don’t head straight to Time to find analysis of Paris-Roubaix. What is surprising is that, for a magazine that covers a broad range of topics, for which they can’t possibly have in-house experts on each, they’ve made no effort to find out that a 1/3 attrition rate is normal if not exceptionally low for a major one-day race. Taking it a step farther, they’ve turned that little piece of perfectly unremarkable data into an air quality indicator.

So, Time, here are a few things you need to know about cycling:

- Cycling is a team sport. The object is to get one guy from your team into winning position, not for everyone to finish like it’s some sort of 10k charity fun run. If your job is to blow yourself up in the first 100k, you do it, and then you put your legs up and think about the next race.

- Cycling is not like other sports. If you’re playing like crap in a game of soccer, which I did many times in my earlier days, at least you’re still on the field where the game is. In road racing, if you’re riding like crap, the game actually leaves you behind. You are no longer on the playing field, and once you’re behind the caravan, you’re not even in the stadium anymore. By sticking around and trying to finish, you’re just making it harder to reopen the roads.

- It’s not really a timed event – results are based on finishing order, and the competition is rooted in tactical dynamics, not raw speed. Nobody’s staying in the race hoping for a “personal best.”

Not that Time was concerned with it, but the Olympics do complicate the usual road-racing formula a bit. The talent pool is a little more, ummm, diverse – ranging from decorated monsters like Bettini, Rebellin, Schumacher, and Cancellara on one end, to guys you’ve never heard of at the other (Ahmed Belgasem of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, I’m looking at you). Then you throw in the pressure of “representing your country” rather than just “earning a paycheck for doing your job,” and things can go a little funky.

If you look at the results, you see many of the ProTour riders among the DNF’s, while many of the lesser knowns are in the results, no matter how far down. I have a few dubious theories about that – for the ProTour guys, it’s still the Olympics, with all the baggage that comes with it, but they have a number of other fish to fry over the course of a season. Not finishing isn’t ideal, but it won’t ruin four years’ worth of work and their only shot at recognition in their home country. For the lesser riders, however, this is the biggest race they’ll ride this year, and possibly in their entire career. There’s no Tour de France, Flanders, or Lombardy in the works for them, so if their contribution to this race is just sitting in and grinding it out, so be it.

But that’s just my theory. I’ll fully admit I’m making it up as I go along. What I’m not doing is trying to use some irrelevant piece of data and the whiney estimations of a single, unnamed cyclist to back it up, knowing my readership probably won’t know better. After all, we can’t all be Time magazine.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Wait, What?

Professional cycling gets a little slow in these lazy days following the Tour de France. Sure, there’s the Clasica San Sebastian, the Spanish one-day race that lets Ardennes classics specialists feel good again after their directors convinced them they’re GC contenders and sent them out to get trounced in the grand tours all summer. But other than that, not a whole lot of high profile shenanigans go on until the Tour of Lombardy and the World Championships. Unless you count the Vuelta, and it's fine with me if you do, but don’t expect me to buy into it.

Anyway, a lack of big events doesn’t mean that absolutely nothing’s going on in cycling. Au contraire. The last few weeks have seen some strange days in the sport, and to make them even stranger, this year we have the forced pleasures of the Olympic games and their dangerously warped worldview to add to the late summer proceedings. Wait, am I allowed to say “Olympic” without paying licensing fees? I am so screwed. Anyway, here’s a roundup of some bizarre crap that’s happened since the Tour ended.

Ricco and Sella Come Clean on Being Dirty

The pair of diminutive climbers were busted for CERA use at the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia respectively, to nobody’s surprise but their own. What is surprising is that both have fessed up, with Ricco at least going so far as to name his supplier. Are they not familiar with the Italian climber’s playbook? They’re supposed to be denying like mad, dreaming up conspiracy theories, becoming recluses, or at least trying to secure bonus-based contracts with more obscure teams.

That they’re not doing the usual dance is a good thing, though, particularly for Ricco. At 23, he still has plenty of time left on the clock, and the Marco Pantani fetish that made many observers nervous before he turned up positive only became more ominous after the bust. Fortunately, it looks like Ricco stands a good shot of not going down the path his idol did after his high hematocrit exclusion at Madonna di Campiglio in the 1999 Giro, which sent Pantani into a self-destructive spiral that culminated with his death by cocaine overdose. That Ricco seems to be going his own way now is certainly good news.

Speaking of Pantani, I’m currently reading Matt Rendell’s excellent Pantani bio, The Death of Marco Pantani. It’s very well researched and written, especially so for a cycling book, and if you want to know the story behind one of the sport’s enigmas and get a feel for the landscape of Italian cycling in the 1990s, it’s a must read. If you know how it turns out, don’t tell me, I’m not done yet…

Evans and his Damn Knee

Ever since the Tour finish on the Champs Elysees, we’ve been forced to follow the saga of Cadel Evan’s knee. I, for one, am sick of that damn joint, no matter how useful it may be to him. I don’t quite get Evans' hangup with this particular injury. Since the day after Silence-Lotto’s apparent humdinger of a post-Tour party, we’ve been hearing distorted reports of Evan’s apparent slip-and-fall, with a number of revisions to the story and associated scheduling changes. Here’s a timeline of how one man’s clumsiness has ravaged the cycling pages for weeks now:

July 28, Champs Elysees + 1: Evans dismisses reports that he’s hurt his knee in a party accident as “unfounded rumour.” Call it the John Edwards defense. Or the Monty Python Black Knight defense.

July 29, Champs Elysees + 2: Evans pulls out of a post-Tour crit (for which promoters pay large appearance fees to riders in order to draw paying crowds) citing, surprise, a knee injury sustained at a post-Tour party. So much for those unfounded rumours the evil press keeps publishing about him. What’s so shameful about hurting yourself that you need to lie about it, except for the fact that you’ve injured yourself in a manner more common to 19-year-old sorority girls than to professional athletes?

July 31, Champs Elysees + 4: Evans withdraws from his Olympic time trial slot, citing his previously non-existent, then minor, now slighly more significant rumoured knee injury. Mick Rogers (Columbia) is slated to fill in. At this point, Evans reports being undecided as to whether he’ll contest the Olympic road race, which is four days earlier, much longer, and requires punchier accelerations. This odd announcement further illuminates the fact that Evans M.O. makes absolutely no sense.

August 5, Champs Elysees + 9: Evans confirms that he will indeed start the Olympic road race, but is still unsure of starting the time trial, which must be pissing Mick Rogers off to no end. However, the UCI helps ease Rogers' mind by somehow managing to award an additional “wild-card” slot for the Olympic TT to Australia and Evans in the event that he decides to grace us with his presence, thus pissing off just about every country that had to play by the selection rules. Cadel – is your damn knee hurt or isn’t it?

August 9, Champs Elysees + 13: Evans finishes 15th in the Olympic road race.

August 10, Champs Elysees + 14: After the Olympic road race, which saw him “on the brink of making the winning selection,” Evans is reportedly recovering from what is again a “minor knee injury” well enough to consider maybe possibly riding the Olympic time trial on Wednesday, August 13. But he'll be sure to let us know.

August 13, Champs Elysees + 17: Evans finishes 5th in the Olympic time trial. On doing so, he reveals that he “spent several days on crutches and had extensive rehabilitation work” after his beer puddle slip. But now he says that the knee and another slew of other post-dated problems will absolutely, positively prevent him from starting the World Championships. Really? Will they? Or are we just waiting to see if the UCI will grant Australia some extra start slots based on your schedule of the day?

Seriously, you banged your knee, to some greater or lesser extent than we may ever know. Why all the cloak-and-dagger crap? People complained for years when certain Tour riders would just hang up their wheels after the Tour rather than riding other races, but if this is what we had to look forward to, it was a blessing in disguise.

A Bitter Pill

Contrary to what Evan’s continual knee updates would indicate, the Aussies aren’t all about pointless deception and whining. They’re also about deep-bowel core sampling. Apparently, in the lead-up to Beijing, Mick Rogers took one for the team and swallowed some sort of capsule designed to monitor his core temperature via the stomach, intestines, and colon and provide downloadable data. By doing so, the Aussie team hoped to see just how much the heat will affect riders and design appropriate “cooling strategies.” There’s no mention of the capsule retrieval method, but let’s just go with “eeewwww.” Really, messing with blood and urine all the time wasn’t enough for professional cycling? We had to start messing with poop, too? And really, that’s a lot of effort, science, discomfort, and scatology at work just to tell you to put a sock full of ice down the back of your neck.

Longo Starts 18th Olympic Games

OK, it’s really only her 8th Olympic games, but once you’ve clocked, say, 20 years worth of these quadrennial feel goods, who’s really counting anymore? The eternal frenchwoman finished a respectable 24th in the road race and an impressive 4th in the time trial. All I can say is thank goodness Nicole Cooke and Kristin Armstrong won the road race and time trial respectively, because if a 49-year-old had beaten the best women cyclists in the world, they’d have had to just shut women’s cycling down.

Levi Leipheimer: One-Day Superstar

Among the strangest pre-Olympic news items were those billing Levi Leipheimer (Astana) as a favorite for the road race. Seriously? Don’t get me wrong, Leipheimer was certainly a threat for the time trial, where he finished a very respectable 3rd for the bronze, but the jagged road race? Not exactly the place to shine for a stage-race specialist who, by his own admission, lacks the punch to make the sharp accelerations on the hills. I’d say I don’t get it, but I do. Nothing brings out nationalism and hype quite like the Olympics, and if you can somehow bill your country’s (and hence, your readers'/viewers') guy as a “favorite” with an almost straight face, you go for it.

Who was that masked man? And why did he apologize?

Of course, we can’t talk about the Olympics and cycling without mentioning the infamous masks, which the U.S. track squad wore on exiting their flight at the Beijing airport. I believe it has to have been the most mainstream coverage given to cycling at an Olympics, ever. Since I’m sure you’ve seen the AP story parroted just about everywhere, we’ll skip the details, except to say that the riders were issued the air filtration masks by their governing body, and later apologized for any trouble they caused by actually wearing them. The apology, we're told, was all their own. Come on, does anyone believe that their apology wasn’t coerced or at least “strongly recommended” by either the USOC or USA Cycling?

Mike “Meatball” Friedman (Garmin-Chipotle), one of the alleged offenders, said it best when he pointed out that athletes have gone to great lengths to address every detail in their preparation, so doing something to try to mitigate the horrible air quality seemed perfectly reasonable. And it is, no matter how silly it looks or how much it might “offend” the host or the IOC. For photographic evidence on just how “offensive” the masks really are, visit the Unholy Rouleur.

Ladies? On Dope? Well, I never!

Spain’s Maria Moreno tested positive for EPO just hours after arriving in Beijing for the women’s road race, which was kind of surprising, and kind of not. The truth is, for all of men’s professional cycling’s doping ills, the women usually have little to report in the way of scandal. Sure, there are a few here and there, like Paola Pezzo’s nandrolone “tainted beef” incident, and that little run-in Amber Neben had with something awhile back, both of which I’m too lazy to find links for. But by and large, the women seem to just go about their business with little scandal. By doing so, the women’s peloton has become a favorite citation for people who like to babble on internet message boards about how the lack of money on the women’s side leads to a purer version of the sport, where everyone’s just out to test their personal limits, play clean, and trade recipes. Which is stupid. Lack of money probably does mean less dope in women’s cycling, but mostly it just means less testing. Hell, the men’s side of the sport can barely afford the tests. That’s why it takes the financial might of the Olympics to actually turn a positive on the women’s side.

Financial and moral analyses aside, Moreno’s story is almost comical at the base level. She arrives in Beijing on July 30, a healthy week plus ahead of the road race, gets tested the very next day, and freaks out and flies home before her urine’s even cold in the jar. Awesome.

Unfortunately, the positive has led to the usual WADA vs. UCI saber rattling, which, as usual, will likely come to absolutely nothing.

Something About Swimming

So the swimming world records are falling like tired similes in Beijing, and I just can’t help but look at the coverage of those performances and think what lucky bastards the chlorine and Speedo set are. Why? Between the new Speedo speed suits and the meter-deeper, turbulence reducing Beijing pool, the sport has created enough technological background noise to keep the doping bugaboo mostly at bay in the media. For a sport that’s been almost blissfully technology free for a long time, it’s a godsend that it’s there now to help explain this year’s performances, which are knocking whole seconds off of previous world record times.

Unfortunately for swimming, that background noise eventually fades away and people start asking the uglier questions, justified or not. Cycling proves that. For years, people looked at phenomenal cycling performances and discussed how training had improved with heart rate monitors and then power meters, and how the bikes had gotten lighter, stiffer, and more aerodynamic. But as we know, despite all that, much of what we’ve seen in the last decades was fuelled by medical technology rather than electronics, wind tunnels, and carbon fiber. Here’s hoping that for swimming, the difference really is just in the suits, the pool, and the lungs and muscles of the athletes.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Welcome Back, Kimmage

A few weeks ago, during the Tour, reader Ken asked what I thought of an article written by Paul Kimmage of the Times of London about Allen Lim, Slipstream-Chipotle’s team doctor/physiotherapist/nutritionist/power guy/guru. I replied that I didn’t think much of it, since it was more about Kimmage’s personal baggage than it was about its alleged subject. In that, it fit the mold of many of his other cycling articles. It’s not that Kimmage is a bad writer, or a bad interviewer, it’s that his first-hand experience as a professional cyclist in the 1980s left him with such a sour taste in his mouth that he’s been unable to create an even remotely objective story about the sport since he hung up his wheels in favor of a typewriter.

Kimmage’s career transition began promisingly, for both the sport and the man, when his book Rough Ride (which I highly recommend) was released in 1990. That book detailed the ills of professional cycling through the telling of Kimmage’s own experiences, and though he never explicitly named others who used drugs, the implications were strong enough to effectively blackball him from the sport. Back then, eighteen years ago, the book told cycling devotees what the rest of the world would learn in 1998 with the Festina scandal – that the sport was rife with doping. But back then, nobody was listening, and Kimmage was dismissed as a disgruntled never-was.

In the years since its publication, Kimmage has parlayed both the success of Rough Ride and the resulting ill-will into a steady career of being, along with compatriot David Walsh, one of the premier doping curmudgeons covering cycling. He reports on a variety of other sports for the Times as well, but he’s always saved most of his venom for cycling. As they say, it’s the ones you love that hurt you the most, and the stark reality he witnessed as an ‘80s pro, together with the sport's subsequent scandals, placed him squarely in the “they’re all doping, it’s a sham of a sport” camp.

Despite his distaste for the sport, he was drawn back to this year’s Tour de France by the “clean” claims of Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Chipotle team - claims that, like many but more than most, he greeted with a healthy share of skepticism. He arranged to be a sort of “embedded reporter” with the squad, getting unrestricted access to the team and its staff, including inner-sanctum locales like the bus and bedrooms at any time he pleased. The articles that resulted were in many ways vintage Kimmage, taking every opportunity to delve into any sort of questionable past members of the team had, putting them through the doping wringer with regularity, and inserting a good bit of his own trademark editorializing.

And that’s what made his final installation so surprising. In it, Kimmage, almost confessional, describes how the Garmin-Chipotle squad, from its manager to its riders to its doctor to its guru, have restored some of his faith in the sport he’d written off long ago, and even made him a fan again. If you’d like to restore a bit of your own faith, you should read it yourself, but this paragraph sums it up well:

“I’ve spent a good portion of my past 20 years enraged by dopers such as Virenque, Riis, Ivan Basso and Hamilton and seized every opportunity to expose them. No apologies. They deserve our contempt . . . but not as much as the guys who are trying to compete clean deserve our support. I’d lost sight of that. To David Millar, Christian Vande Velde, Ryder Hesjedal, Will Frischkorn, Danny Pate, Julian Dean, Martijn Maaskant, Trent Lowe and Magnus Backstedt, thanks for the reminder."

Do I care that Paul Kimmage has had his faith in cycling restored? No, not really. It’s a good thing, of course, because he has a loud voice about the sport in certain circles, but he’s still just one man among many who became disillusioned by all the scandals the sport has put itself through over the last 20 years. There are a lot of people still out in the cold. But that’s what’s important about Kimmage’s piece – it proves that the sport and its image among fans and potential fans is still salvageable. Things can change, the sport can change, and even the most steadfast detractors can change their minds if they’re given a reason.

As Kimmage’s "I'd lost sight of that" epiphany in the quoted paragraph suggests, people can come back to the sport, but it’s going to take some leaps of faith by a lot of different players to do so. Jonathan Vaughters took one by granting unrestricted access to one of the sports biggest and most well-versed detractors, a move that could have easily backfired even if nothing shady were uncovered. Kimmage took one by choosing to believe that, over the course of his three weeks, he’d seen enough of the Garmin-Chipotle squad to publicly declare his trust in them.

Those leaps paid off big for both of them. Kimmage got to experience cycling as a joy again rather than a seedy underworld populated by cheaters and pushers. Vaughters got what might be the most surprising and valuable media endorsement of the last several years for his team - one that could lead many to be less skeptical of its claims. The result of the experiment, you could argue, is indeed the renewed enthusiasm of just one man, but looking more broadly, if more people involved in the sport are willing to take the big risks, as Vaughters and Kimmage have, the sport may yet be able to bring people back, bring people in, and turn the page.

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