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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I don't know enough about the technology of swimming to know, but I generally think that Phelps probably is just a freak ("Giant Squid Boy" I think the Post called him).

I think the real "scandal" waiting to appear after these olympics will be when the Chinese girls gymnasts come forward in a few years and tell how "I was 12 years old and ...."). Their training system is clearly bordering on or jumping way over the border into child abuse. Likewise, how the Chinese system will hold up if the country continues to "westernize." They were saying that Romanian girls gymnastics has suffered because, essentially, the girls are no longer poverty stricken waifs who would rather suffer daily from the age of 5 rather than live in a toiletless hovel at home. Now, they are text-messaging friends in between their routines. The coach apparently said something along the lines of "we can't treat them the same way we used to"

Speaking of doping, when are you going to reveal your secret training that allowed you to ride with the front group on the Sunday ride?????
Yeah, nothing breeds good athletes like a totalitarian regime. With fewer and fewer of those around, I guess athletes the world over will have to start relying on pure capitalism for their Olympic motivation, instead of a good old fashioned threat of imprisoning your family.

My secret training plan is so secret it's unknown even to me.
While it's interesting to speculate about what the Chinese gymnasts will say, it's nothing compared to what regular old Chinese people will say if the country liberalizes, or if anybody cares to write something akin to Anne Applebaum's excellent work on Soviet abuses. Their athletic program is a reflection of the culture just as ours reflects American society.

Bobby Lea was apparently one of the masked men. I'm inclined to suggest we comp him his entry for the Tacchino on behalf of a grateful nation.
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