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February 9, 2013

Jonathan wrote a long rant for cyclingnews. And I don’t say this often, but I think you should read it. Unlike his op-ed in the New York Times (“riders are just looking for a level playing field and wouldn’t dope if they didn’t have to”, that sort of stuff) which I didn’t like, this rant is actually clear and quite concise. I really like it and I even agree with most of it:

  • Indeed the problem is all of cycling, not Lance, or a team, or a president. It’s (nearly) everybody and everything. Either by their actions or their lack of action.
  • While I wouldn’t say it applies to every top athlete, I think there is little doubt that the selection process to get to the pro ranks of any sport favor those who want to win at all costs, and although doping is maybe not their favorite “cost” to win, it is more tempting than to the average human being (you know, the one who was weeded out of the selection process for pro sports when he skipped gym class on the second day). It doesn’t make them any better or worse, other people are tempted by other things (tax evasion, shop lifting, infidelity, whatever).
  • It doesn’t mean every athlete would cheat if they had the chance, far from it, but it does mean that relying on everybody respecting a level playing field when doping would “unlevel” it in your favor is naive.
  • Funding is a bottleneck in anti-doping and it needn’t be. Vaughters commented before that asking teams to pay more to the UCI – an organization they have issues with – is a non-starter and that this hampered anti-doping efforts. I thought this issue is easily solved (give the money for anti-doping to somebody else) and Vaughters makes the same point here. In fact where I dreamed of 18 million, he shoots for 40. Fine by me.
  • This may be the best and strongest current in cycling right now, the push to get a completely independent anti-doping process set up. Independent from the federation, and one would hope independent from the national federations which frustrate an expedient and believable resolution of any doping violation.
  • Even better, it’s not really something the teams need to wait on the UCI for. Anti-doping enforcement can be integrated into the employment relationship between team and rider. As long as every team agrees and deals with it uniformly, it can be done in a way that protects the riders too (and doesn’t favor riders of one team over another). It will take some time to implement, as I am not a fan of breaking open existing employment contracts, but we need to have the long view on this problem anyway. There are no quick fixes.

One issue not really resolved in the end is that – whether you like it or not – you have to decide what to do with the people. If everybody is to blame, what do you do? It’s too simple to say “everybody was wrong but we’ll now have independent doping monitoring so it doesn’t matter”. Maybe that works, but it works in the way East-Germany worked. Repression can only survive for so long.

To achieve more permanent change in the mind-set inside the sport, some people will have to leave. You need fresh blood (no pun intended) to tip the balance. A very simplistic bit of logic: If you have 20 teams and 15 want to cheat, the remaining five will lose out. If 15 want to play by the rules, they will be able to pressure the other five. As I’ve said many times, right now cycling claims that “everything has changed”. Everything, except the people. That is not believable or sustainable.

You could achieve this by replacing absolutely everybody. Toss out all bureaucrats, all team management, all riders, sponsors, everybody. Don’t say it can’t be done, that you need the expertise. You don’t, a sport only requires fans. The rest will follow.

Fans are not served by better race tactics or more clever governance, they are served by exciting sports. And the wisdom gathered by those in the sport isn’t necessary to properly entertain fans. Somebody dreamt up boarder-cross on a rainy afternoon and it got into the Olympics in a blink of an eye. Nobody said it couldn’t be done because they lacked experience.

There is a lot of knowledge people have in cycling, so tossing them out would mean the racing would be a lot less sophisticated and probably slower. But no less attractive to those watching, so in the end that knowledge is useless for the survival of the sport. It’s only useful in competition with for example teams run by people with similar knowledge. And that same knowledge is actually what has damaged it mostly in the past.

Now, I am not actually suggesting cycling has to go that far; it’s a solution but not necessary nor desirable. You do however need that shift in the balance, to get 15 out of 20 teams going in the right direction. So some will have to leave and be replaced by people without a history. In-breeding or nepotism are not the solutions.

Note: I speak about teams mostly as an example, the same applies to the other players in the sport.


Ferrari

January 25, 2013

It’s tough to decide which dumb statement to pick apart today – there’s so much choice. But in the end, it’s hard not to pick Ferrari. As cyclingnews points out, Ferrari wrote on his blog:

“Therefore Armstrong would have achieved the same level of performance without resorting to doping, also thanks to his talent which was far superior to the rivals of his era.”

So Ferrari is telling everybody that he’s a hack, that all the stuff he prescribed to Lance doesn’t work. Basically, he charged more than a million bucks for a placebo effect. You can’t make up stuff like this, can you?

Although it isn’t that far-fetched. Some experts say that four out of the five drugs Lance took were useless, only the EPO wasn’t.


WADA vs. UCI

January 18, 2013

A fine mud-slinging contest between these two. Great if you like a pseudo-witty back-and-forth, but unlikely to lead to anything useful. Whichever side first starts to act like a grown-up could really score points here.

It won’t shock anybody to hear I’m not the UCI’s biggest fan, but every time WADA accuses the UCI of not doing anything, I ask myself why WADA didn’t step in (other than publicly protesting that the UCI isn’t doing anything).

I also wonder why WADA thinks that it is possible for cycling to keep all these great doping doctors and doping techniques to itself, without any of those skills ever flowing over into other sports. Since they are the World Anti Doping Agency for all sports, should that not be of great interest to them? And we know from the Vienna investigation that it wasn’t only cyclists, we know from Puerto that it wasn’t only cyclists. WADA is right when it says:

By suggesting a wider truth and reconciliation process (for all endurance sports), the UCI is again attempting to deflect attention from its own responsibilities, which are for those of cycling.

But by the same token, I would say:

By suggesting a focus only on cycling, WADA is again attempting to deflect attention from its own responsibilities, which are for all sports.


Armstrong confession?

January 16, 2013

So reportedly Armstrong confessed to Oprah that he doped throughout his career.

No doubt his PR team has worked countless hours to come up with a rationale that would make his cheating OK in the eyes of a large swath of the public. It will probably work, but only if he succeeds in narrowing the scope to the doping offenses.

Two things to consider:

  1. “Everybody was doing it” will probably be good enough an excuse for mainstream America. It’s of course a new lie to cover up an old lie, but hey, who cares about the details. If you really believe the field was level because everybody was doing the same, then you have to  believe a mediocre time-trialer and climber can become best-in-class through chemotherapy. And you have to believe those US Postal helpers were all more talented than most other teams’ leaders.
  2. Much more importantly, the doping is only a small aspect of Lance’s failings. And apologizing (fake or real) for that shouldn’t let him off-the-hook for the rest. 

Because where Lance was truly one-of-a-kind was not in his training, his focus, his climbing or time-trialing. It was not even in his doping. Where he was truly unique was in the havoc he wreaked on others during his ten-year reign. He didn’t just deny doping like so many of his contemporaries, he actively sought to ruin those who spoke out.

Something tells me Oprah won’t be asking about the countless lives he’s tried to destroy (ironically while protecting himself from scrutiny by wrapping himself in the blanket of ultimate cancer patient protector).

If the confession happens, I am happy for those who have spoken out for so long, that they will finally make the leap from “sad, cynical, jealous bitch/asshole” to “courageous individual” in the eyes of so many who still believe the lie.

But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this is about them; it’s about Mr. Armstrong positioning himself for the rest of his life. Given the willingness of sports fans to forgive and ignore the bigger picture, his odds are good.

Next up, “what would really warrant a ban reduction for Armstrong”. To receive it automatically, you can subscribe here.


Pancake Ride & Durham-Roubaix

January 14, 2013

The first weekend of Hell Week (November 24+25) consisted of two rides East of Toronto, organized by my friend Lorne. With the first snowfall the night before, there was no confusion that winter had arrived.

Unfortunately, nowadays that means the snow mobiles arrive as well, although there wasn’t quite enough snow for that yet. The biggest threat snow mobiles pose is that their owners seem to be able to convince towns everywhere to smoothen out their rail road beds, making once-hard sections of our Hell Week rides easier every year. Such is also the case for the Pancake ride (named for the post-ride breakfast, not the course profile), although I found it plenty hard.

With the wide range of skills and fitness in our group, we splinter off quite quickly but once you settle into a pace, it’s just enjoyable to be out there in this weather. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage on the gravel roads with my mountain bike, but as soon as we hit a long stretch of singletrack I catch up with  stragglers in front of me. Good thing too, as we soon encounter a fenced-off bridge which would have been tough to negotiate alone (short of just chucking your bike across and hoping for the best).

With that in mind, three of us decide to wait for the two guys still further back, and wait, and wait… Now we get worried, retrace our tracks but nobody to be found. Half an hour and a five degree core body temperature drop later, we give up searching and continue on our route. We later find out they were the first back at the breakfast spot, with “a slight” shortcut.

The rest of the ride is magical, I had forgotten how much fun it is to ride in the snow. Of course, by the time we arrive at breakfast, everybody else is done, but that doesn’t make the eggs & bacon any less tasty.

The next day we line up for Durham-Roubaix. Lorne really has put a lot of effort into this one, getting permission from a few private landowners to cross their land, which opens up some fantastic trails.

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A “healthy” breakfast is enough reward

After what happened yesterday, we have decided to stay together with a group of five including Lorne (tough to get lost with the organizer by your side). Fifteen minutes in, we get a flat. This one proves tough to fix, but eventually we get going again. Then I get a slow leak, which in trying to fix turns into a fast leak. Fixing that fails, and with me being the only one with mountain bike tires, I’m screwed. Durham-Roubaix: DNF.

I’m disappointed not to have seen the whole route, as is Lorne, so we decide to try again two weeks later together with Matt (the OPEN webmaster). In fact, it’s a day after I rode the original Hell Ride by myself, but more on that next time.

Conditions are completely different now, as it has been raining for two weeks straight. The mud is incredible, some slopes are ridable only at crawling speeds while finding a balance between giving enough power to propel yourself and not so much that the rear wheel slips.

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At one point, there is so much mud on my bike I can barely lift it off the ground. I know that sounds like an exaggeration and it doesn’t even look like that much mud, but I honestly have trouble lifting it (insert upper strength joke here).

Because of the conditions, the course is so slow today, it takes us roughly an hour and a half more to complete than most people two weeks earlier. Maybe the best indicator of how tough it was is that although we didn’t take any breaks, the Garmin records no less than 45min of stopping time. If your GPS can’t detect your progress, you know you’re in trouble.

But, to me, this is probably my favorite ride of the winter. Partially because I feel strong when I am supposed to feel weak (I rode a hard 6 1/2 hours the day before), but mostly because it’s just great to battle the elements instead of opponents and to get this “we’re in this together” feeling trying to struggle to the finish. On top of that, it’s also a very nice route, with some very unexpected trails in the middle of Oshawa.

One disappointment on these two rides was my GoPro. My charger didn’t work properly, my battery seemed to have problems with the cold, long-story-short it didn’t record very much of these two rides. What it did record, I put in this little clip (the snowy bits are of the Pancake Ride, the rest is Durham-Roubaix).


Hell Week

January 7, 2013

After the Eroica, my “Year of True Cycling” moved to Canada for a few events that collectively are called Hell Week. They embody everything I like about cycling.

Decades ago Mike Barry Sr (yes, the father of) started organizing a winter race for die-hard cyclists in Toronto. Randonneurs, semi-pro riders and other people with more guts than common sense would show up to ride 140km through gravel, mud, snow and ice. It was aptly named To Hell and Back.

Although nominally a race (then again, not really, to avoid insurance issues), I don’t believe first prize was ever much more than the entry fee. Showing up, experiencing the elements and if possible finishing the darn thing seemed to be more important than racing. You can read about my first experience with the race in 2000 here.

Mike has since stopped organizing the race due to a combination of insurance issues and retirement, but my friend Nigel Gray, whom I had convinced to come along that fateful day in 2000, decided to carry on the tradition. It is now a ride among friends, no entry fee, no organized support, only a starting time & place and a course map (we kept using the original Mike Barry maps for a few years, although nowadays it’s all on the Garmin of course).

Enthusiastic about the ride, another friend Lorne Cunliffe decided to scope out unpaved roads and trails around where he lives, which resulted in the Pancake Ride and Durham-Roubaix. Finally, Nigel created the City Loop, 95km of trails, paths and quiet residential streets that you would never expect to find inside a large city like Toronto.

Put together, they form the Hell Week. Most use cyclocross bikes for the rides, but obviously I used the OPEN mountain bike. I did switch the tires to cyclocross for a few of the rides (one more advantage of 29er wheels, the rims fit 28″ road and cross tires perfectly).

So how about you, are there events like this in your area? Do you participate in them or even organize one? Let me know in the comments section below!

Coming up next, a report and some video from Hell Week. You can subscribe here to get notified of that automatically.


Second-tier ethics

December 21, 2012

Apparently the UCI License Commission has denied Katusha WorldTour status for ethical reasons (several doping cases and lack of an internal anti-doping culture).

According to procedure, it can now apply for Pro Continental team status. This makes no sense.  Teams have to meet sporting, financial, organizational and ethical standards. I can understand the sporting, financial and organizational standards will be lower for ProConti teams than for WorldTour teams.

But does cycling really allow lower ethical standards at the lower levels? That’s insane. Some will argue that although Katusha has the right to apply for ProConti status, it isn’t guaranteed success there. That’s true, but there shouldn’t even be a reason to apply, it should be a guaranteed “No” on the ProConti level if it was a “No” on ethical grounds at the WorldTour level.

What message is the sport sending? You can’t dope at the highest level, but knock yourselves out at the lower levels?


Consultation overload

December 13, 2012

The UCI is funding the “UCI Independent Commission” (UCIIC) looking into whether or not it is complicit in the doping problems ransacking the sport. Some expect good things from the UCIIC, others think it’s window-dressing because the man suggesting its members has close ties to McQuaid & Verbruggen. I’m willing to keep an open mind.

Simultaneously, the UCI is starting a “wide-ranging consultation exercise involving all cycling’s stakeholders to build a bright future for cycling and work together to tackle issues of concern within the sport.” Although the focus is very different (looking at the past vs. the future), it feels the two could get in the way of each other.

Furthermore, the written invitation was sent to some, but far from all stakeholders. As I didn’t receive an invite (nor would I have expected one), I’ll offer my free consultation session here.

Probably the oddest part of this consultation is that although some sponsors have received an invite, the concept of “sponsor” is completely absent from the topics of consultation suggested in the letter.

So cycling, the sport with the greatest reliance on sponsors of any major sport (due to its lack of a box office and its relatively low TV contracts) is going to try and build a bright future without discussing how sponsors might feature in it?

Another issue is that the time to respond is excessively short. I received the letter On December 10, not directly from the UCI but via-via-via-via. Several important sponsors I spoke to are unaware of the existence of this letter even today. Yet the final date to respond was on December 10!

Of course the UCI can run any consultation it sees fit, and invite whomever they want. However, if the goal is to truly get input from all stakeholders and really build a bright future, more time, more participants and more topics may be required. Doing so would give the process more credibility.

It may mean that this process ends after the UCIIC reports its findings, which may not be what some intended. But I think that would actually be better; first deal with the past and then with the future. Otherwise, should the UCIIC lay blame with some of people involved in the consultation, it would immediately taint the outcome of said consultation. And that definitely would not help in building a bright future.


What a great month

December 7, 2012

What a great month of cycling it’s been. No doping, no discussions about investigations, barely a douchebag tweet seeping through. For me at least.

Because while the storms seemed to be swirling around the cycling world, I decided to stick my head in the sand – literally on a few occasions – by just spending the month riding my bike on- and off-road. Where I had thought that being in Canada for the whole month would be an impediment, I logged around 1,000km (which is a lot for me) and I still have all my fingers and toes.

And you know what, I feel good about it. In the end, that’s the real cycling, the stuff you do yourself out on the roads and trails. If pro cycling can’t get its act together, there’s no reason we should feel sorry for anybody. If they do get their act together, it’s just a bonus, be it a magnificent bonus of being able to watch the best sport in the world without the constantly nagging doubts. Time will tell.

So does this mean I’ll continue to ignore pro cycling? While I like the adage of “If ignorance is bliss, why be knowledgeable”, there’s little doubt that – as the Dutch say and wonderfully inappropriate as a cycling expression – “the blood creeps where it can’t go”.

I believe that transparency is one of the biggest agents for change, so you can expect this blog to continue to make observations about pro cycling. And if some of those sometimes highlight something some of you missed, then that will be my little contribution to transparency.


Forget backdating

October 31, 2012

Speaking of Lance’s 1999 cortisone positive, the “guilty or not” discussion always focuses on proving the prescription was backdated. What’s usually ignored is that even without backdating, it is undisputed – even by the UCI* – that their rules were broken.

  • Lance was tested at the 1999 Tour and both A and B sample showed cortisone.
  • AT THE TIME OF TESTING, Lance did not reveal he had a medical authorization for cortisone.
  • According to the rules, only medical authorizations revealed AT THE TIME OF TESTING can be considered.
  • So it doesn’t matter if a medical authorization is produced later on, even if it is dated (honestly or otherwise) before the test.
  • The only way a medical authorization is acceptable under the rules is if it is revealed at the time of the test.

So by accepting a medical authorization that was not presented at the time of testing, the UCI broke its own anti-doping rules. If according to your own information you broke your own rules, surely it’s time to go.

* When I say “undisputed even by the UCI”, I mean that I sent this to the UCI more than 2 weeks ago for verification. You may remember they once chastized me for not doing so, although in the same breath they said “the result of UCI’s anti-doping work has been unanimously recognized by international experts”, so I am not entirely sure if their offer for verification was entirely serious. At any rate, they didn’t have any comment on the chain of events that I describe.


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