Saturday, August 18, 2007

Doping - Hypocritical Tailwind

So Discovery is pulling the plug.

That's fine. Nothing surprising there, right? They committed to the end of this year, decided not to renew back in February, not a big deal.

Tailwind Sports, the actual organization that races as the Discovery pro cycling team, knew about this plug-pulling, probably before that February announcement. So during the 2007 season they looked for a sponsor.

Sponsors like when their teams win, and from that respect, Tailwind Sports has been quite successful. In 2007 Levi won a bunch of races, their "Best Young Rider" hope blew everyone away in the Tour (except for the skeletal disgrace who can't figure out where the Mexico stamps are in his passport - When repeatedly pressed on the topic, and confronted with a question of having documents such as passports to support his version of events, Rasmussen would only respond: "Well, what I am saying is that now we have to see what the [legal] case brings and we will take it from there."), and they got a lot of press, as usual, in the American magazines.

Yesterday the arguably most successful American team ever announced they were giving up that search for a sponsor.

I figured there were some good reasons for this.

Forget doping for a minute. Or any other pro cycling thing. Something else rules the cycling world. It's what people ultimately work for, whether they're slaving away in the team pits or standing on the podium.

It's called money.

When you sponsor a team, you're using part of your marketing budget to market your company. The idea is that a cycling team might get you a better return on your marketing dollar. For a big company, $15 million is a drop in the bucket. Not a big deal. And it's certainly less than it would cost to get your name plastered all over the sports pages when, for example, your racer wins the Tour. Or even just a stage of the Tour.

TV time too - imagine an hour of coverage where your racer is prominently displayed on the screen. How much does it cost for a 30 second ad? And how many viewers use that ad time to run to the bathroom or refill their electrolyte drink bottle? That's a lot of ad money getting flushed down the toilet. But wait, if you sponsor the team... well, instead of paying a TV station to air your stuff, the station actually goes out looking for you and your logos. More importantly, the viewers run back to the TV to watch your racers.

And then as a bonus they can watch your team in a bazillion other races too. And read about them. And every time they do, your name, the sponsor name, gets pounded into their heads.

With Tailwind Sports and their Discovery team so prominently featured from February till now in every type of cycling publication worldwide, it's not about marketing or the lack thereof.

It might be about available money. Take the subprime mortgage fiasco (don't even get me started on that). That seems to have taken the wind out of everyone's sails. Actually, it seems like the whole financial infrastructure, based somewhat on imaginary money, is teetering on the brink. A couple hundred billion dollars helped stabilize things ($38b in the US, about $200b in Europe) - but doing this every couple days is going to mean, well, I don't know what, but it's not a good thing.

Anyway, there are a lot of reasons why a sponsor might not want to use $15 million to market their name through a pro cycling team.

But Tailwind Sports says that they were 90% there to getting a new sponsor but they, not the potential sponsor, decided not to go ahead. They decided it wasn't worth it. And it was because of the the other teams, the other organizations, which made them make this decision. To quote, "we can't control what goes on in the sport and with other teams."

Wait a minute.

What team signed Basso?

You know, the "I don't have enough guts to confess even after I've confessed" guy? I think my cat Tiger, who's been neutralized (as my mom would have said), has more balls than that guy.

What team signed Contador, the guy who held the lamest press conference ever? I think it takes immense talent to hold a press conference about doping that doesn't say anything at all. Where are his blood records for the last five years? How about pulling some blood, right there, and handing the vials (in an appropriate cooler) to the Minister of Sports (or whatever) of Spain? What happened to actually saying something significant at a press conference?

Who kept Joachim Benoit, the rider who tested positive in 2000, for the next five years? And what team did he go to this year? Astana, the dopiest team after anything Manolo Saiz managed. The one whose two leading GC men in last years Vuelta managed to miss a doping control (and somehow get away with it). And both of whom tested positive for blood doping - Vino and Mr K. And their manager claims he was "naive". I guess those locked coolers all your staff were carrying around were for, what, beer? Yeah, nice palmares.

I've written about the Tailwind Sport's Discovery team before. You know the stuff that Rasmussen allegedly asked someone to carry for him from the US to Italy? Well Discovery had a bunch of similar stuff in 2000 in France (but it comes from Australian calves) called Actovegin. Either way it's great, whether you use Actovegin or that Hemopure stuff. Basically it carries oxygen in something smaller than a red blood cell. Your hematocrit remains unchanged (thereby passing the only test out there for blood doping at the time) but you're supercharging your blood.

Why the big deal with blood doping? Why is it so significant?

There are two limiting factors in bike racing - power and how long you can sustain that power. Testosterone, HGH, and other anabolics help with the power. But power over a mile or two doesn't help a Tour racer. The key is sustaining power. In fact, pretty much all of us can "be a pro" for a few minutes. It's being a pro for 45 minutes up a climb that, well, makes them pros and us just normal working class people.

I'm skipping the anabolics for now, staying with the blood stuff.

Say you have the average of 5 liters of blood. You carry about 0.03 milliliters of oxygen per liter of blood in dissolved gasses. That's about 0.15 ml of oxygen total. Not a lot.

Your hemoglobin carries about 200 milliliters of oxygen per liter of blood - 1000 ml of oxygen. A full liter. Very significant.

Biopure carries twice the oxygen as hemoglobin. And it doesn't affect your hematocrit level. You're supercharging your blood by compressing the amount of oxygen in your blood - possibly literally doubling it.

A racer could use that stuff, fly by any hematocrit test, and still have the benefits of an astronomical hematocrit.

Using compression to get more power is nothing new - that's what supercharging and turbo charging does to an engine. In the late 1980's, BMW built the most amazing Formula One engines.

They used a small engine, an at-most 102 HP 1.6 liter engine sleeved down to 1.5 liters, a size that is literally smaller than most of the car engines out there in the US. But they compressed the air inside many times so that the air's density was high. This enabled them to burn enough fuel that they put out some astonishing power - they were acknowledged to develop something in the range of 1400 HP in qualifying trim (1150 HP for a race).

The ironic part is that the team found that used BMW engine blocks made for an ideal base for the engine. The engines were almost literally junkyard engines with 60,000 miles (100,000 kilometers) on them, taken out of used street cars.

Wouldn't that engine help cut down your morning commute?

Savor that image for a second or two. Merging would take on a whole new meaning. So would rain I guess. And mid-turn bumps. Your BMW 316... Let me digress. The -16 refers to the engine size - 1.6 lieters - have you ever seen a US 316? No. It's too wimpy for the country that wants power and doesn't penalize for engines over 2 liters. For most BMWs the last two digits is the engine size - just put a dot between the two numbers.

Anyway... talk about turning a donkey into a race horse. A pitiful BMW engine so weak it wasn't considered for sale in the US could put out over ten times as much power when you compressed the air/fuel mixture inside of it.

That's what blood doping does for a bike racer. Not ten times perhaps, but with power levels so low compared to cars (one horsepower is about 740 watts), even a 100 watt bump is really significant.

The racer with oxygen-heavy blood can ride at a much higher level before going anaerobic, before running out of breath. Efforts which would have normally put him at the edge become "a light spin around France". It's what lets one dominate the others - a blood doper can wait till everyone is groveling and then smash them to pieces with a vicious attack or four.

As one racer described Basso, it's like he was "an extra-terrestrial". He, of course, only "thought" about doping. Yeah. Like winning the Giro by nine minutes wasn't enough. "I wanted18 minutes." Oh wait, he never said that.

Apparently there are other ways to increase your blood's oxygen carrying capacity without resorting to injecting more blood or by taking EPO. Discovery acutally declared their use of this product for their team riders' "abrasions" and for a mechanic's "diabetic" condition.

The next year it was banned.

Enough is enough.

You reap what you sow. It's reaping time and Tailwind Sports, well, they're getting what they deserve.

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