Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Doping - Here and Now

Unfortunately, the 2007 Tour de France will be remembered for the relentless reports of positive doping tests. Despite internal team controls, more frequent out of competition testing, and an array of more sophisticated tests, racers still think they can get away with doping.

Confronted with facts, they admit, either in action or in words, that they've doped. The two positive testosterone racers both declined to have their B sample tested. In other words, they say that the second sample will simply confirm the first. They know they doped and they're admitting as much.

The analogous blood doping test (i.e. transfusing someone else's blood) racer denies transfusing blood even after the second test came out positive. Sounds familiar, right? It's not like home where the truth is whatever the people are told - like the president winning by garnering over 90% of the vote. This is the real world, with a certain amount of free press, public announcements not controlled by a sponsoring government, and denying things really doesn't work.

Imagine if someone challenged Kim Jong-II to golf? Meaning in a public arena with cameras and such?

I wonder if he'd shoot a 38.

Back to doping, as opposed to dopes.

The pro peloton consists of literally the best racers in the world. We know this because the racers performed well at an amateur level, usually did a stint as a stagiaire (sort of a pro cycling internship), and, after doing some good work there, finally landed a pro contract.

The key here is the "amateur" part.

Pro cyclists are recruited out of the amateur leagues.

Back in the normal doping days, amateurs had access to minor drugs which didn't significantly increase performance. I don't mean drugs don't work - they do, else there wouldn't be a doping problem. But 20 years ago the drugs used were either extremely obvious (steroids and their masking agents) or not too effective (pseudoephedrine, once banned, is now considered so tame it's totally legal). The "old" drugs would let you buy a short stint of energy but your overall performance, your overall composition as a rider, that didn't change.

In other words you couldn't turn a regular rider into a champion one.

No one appeared out of nowhere, won the Tour or some other insanely prestigious race, and disappeared forever. Well, maybe the odd racer here and there, but back then it was usually a bit of politics, not superb riding.

Then, as EPO and perhaps Human Growth Hormone (HGH) appeared, doping took on a different meaning.

Now, instead of simply extending a racer's ability plateau a little further to the side (i.e. buy another 20 minutes of effort), drugs could actually radically change the shape of the plateau. The new generation of drugs actually changed the shape of the plateau, raising it up as well as over.

Suddenly you had these racers emerge from deep within the rankings as one of those who could time trial and climb with the best of them.

Sprinters, I should note, never got anywhere with stage races except winning more sprints - Sean Kelly and Laurent Jalabert never got higher than fourth in the Tour - but other sprinters like Johan Museeuw, who won the Champs-Elysee stage of the Tour, went on to become great one day racers.

But when a Pantani time trials like an Ullrich... well, something is a bit fishy.

So this new generation of drugs is available to pros and has been for something like the last 15 years.

But with the Internet, economic globalization, and world wide next day shipping, these potent drugs are now available, and appearing at, the races you do.

There are two particularly depressing sites for those who compete for fun, who train to better themselves, and do it all without taking banned substances.

One I'll call the Knife Site. They sell the standard protein and amino acid pills and shakes - nothing more than focused pork chops along with a standard amino acid stack (a combination of different ones) which combines three amino acids not found in diets but which are crucial to building muscle.

Note that these are not illegal for any of us to use, whether from a legal point of view (i.e. using cocaine is illegal, amino acids are not) or from a racing point of view (EPO is illegal both from a legal and racing point of view, amino acids are not).

If you ingest too much amino acid your body flushes out any excess. Your body uses what you can use, you toss the rest. If you ate a lot of steak, well, you'll be flushing some expensive waste down the toilet. Ditto water soluble vitamins and amino acids.

So from that point of view, the Knife Site isn't doing much harm.

However, the Knife Site also sells, for "research purposes", some more interesting substances.

In particular they sell IGF-2, Insulin like Growth Factor. I don't know the exact mechanism but this is basically Human Growth Hormone. The most significant effect is that it can actually cause you to gain more muscle cells. Steroids and testosterone simply help you recover from damage done during exercise and get what muscle cells you have to grow.

IGF-2 gives you more cells.

That's the holy grail of most steroid users.

A hint that maybe this isn't the greatest stuff for you is that it is available only in injectionable form.

Conveniently, the Knife Site also has application kits - syringes and whatnot. That's a different part of the site from the research bit.

All this is yours, tomorrow, if you supply a credit card number and a mailing address.

Another site, I'll call it EPO For Dopes (EFD), publicized itself by posting a pdf scan of a manually translated LA Confidential, the book never released in English. You could read one of the four sections but you had to register to read the others.

I, of course, registered. Devoured the banned book. And started getting emails from the site.

EFD, it appears, sells EPO, HGH, and other banned substances.

From what I understand, there are two ways of taking EPO. One is to take relatively big doses a couple times a week and then monitor your blood thickness and dose accordingly. The problem is that the big doses show up in tests.

The other way is to micro-dose - take a little bit every day. This gets the blood thicker but allegedly avoids hitting the dinger when doing a pee test.

For $900 you can buy 40 microdoses, perhaps a month and a half of EPO. They come prepackaged with syringes and all that. Subcutaneous (under the skin). You barely feel it.

I had two subcutaneous injections at the dermatologist earlier this year. I hate needles, I mean I really, really hate needles. So I cringed and waited and waited and asked when they were going to use the needles.

They were actually done and already cut off the two suspicious moles (the injections were for anesthetics). The "wet wipes" were actually them wiping the blood off my skin, not the iodine preparing the skin for the injection.

Alright so you can buy dope. No biggie right? I mean all the doping articles talk about how easy it was to buy steroids online or whatever.

So who buys this stuff?

Well, that's where EFD and the Knife Site surprised me.

They have forums where customers and curious folk can post questions. They answer some of the questions themselves but they also get responses from other customers. And this is where it gets sort of disheartening.

There are guys you race against that dope. And you could be a Cat 4, a Cat 3, a Masters. Not even 2s or 1s. We're talking the bread and butter of the racing population.

One of the Knife Site posts happily states that Masters Nationals were not tested. They also refer to a track racer site where the Masters did better than the Pros - and then all hell broke loose because of the Masters defending themselves. One poster admitted he was "tackled up" but still didn't win.

Another post describes usage of HGH - debating between 2 and 8 iu HGH per day. Apparently HGH makes your body retain water, making your hands a bit bloated, and making it harder to feel things. One joke was that one racer, known for his "offs" on descents, was crashing because he couldn't feel his handlebars due to the HGH-induced swollen hands. But, as others posted, on a more serious note, they recommend 2-3 iu for road racers and up to 8 iu for track racers.

EFD apparently is the Amazon of EPO. Wide selection, good customer service (they even fought about it on the Knife Site with many long time posters coming out to defend EFD), and guaranteed shipping.

As a "registered user", I can access their full menu of goodies - injectable iron, EPO, HGH, and various other potions and solutions.

These sites, the traffic on them, and the posts themselves all indicate that doping is not a ProTour problem. It's not even a "Pro" problem. It's a problem that's permeated the whole system, from top to bottom.

Alright, I'll give the Cat 5s the benefit of doubt. And I think any Cat 4 that's doping is doping for other reasons - like to be big or whatever. But the 3s and up? Masters? I have to believe it's there.

To get rid of doping, we need to test everywhere. We can't allow a racer to come up the ranks thinking everyone dopes. The evidence shows that a significant minority dope using serious and powerful drugs.

What it comes down to is that these guys who dope should not be racing.

So what can be done to fix this?

Well, first off, make doping a harshly punished offense. A fine perhaps, but that may not be easy to collect. But time... I'd say a 10 or more years ban. If you ban a Masters racer for a couple years it's not a big deal - they'd probably race cross country skis or run or something. And come back a bit more cautious and do it again.

Second, start paying for random tests as outlined in one of my earlier posts. Of course they'd hit all the bigger races. An easy way to figure it out would be if the results are in cyclingnews.com's site without going to "regional results". However the test would also be conducted all various spring training races, some of each region's road races, and at sporadic cyclocross races.

Track racing, it seems, already have some testing in place, but a random test at T-Town's Friday night race might make things interesting.

The tests should make it harder to mask. Posters on the Knife Site openly worry about the 4:1 testosterone ratio test - and others post that now some tests skip that and go straight to the carbon isotope test, the one that detects exogenous testosterone (i.e. external origin testosterone). Run these carbon isotope tests as some of the better covered races, get a lot of racers tested (20 or 30) and I think there'd be some interesting news in a few weeks.

The one concession I'd make is the level of "cheating". Over the counter drugs would be categorized as one type of positive. There's virtually nothing available over the counter which would radically change a racer's ability. Therefore taking, say, cold medicine should be a lessor offense as compared to, say, using EPO or testosterone.

Prescription drugs would be a completely different story. For example clenbuterol, a substance used to treat asthma in Europe, is not sold as an ingredient in any drug in the US. If someone tests positive for it, they had to have made some effort to get it. Ditto EPO or testosterone.

Publicize the results. I've seen "ban" lists from USA Cycling - racers not allowed to race for various reasons. The lists only contain names, license numbers, and hometowns. No reason for the ban.

Reviewing one list, I noticed a racer that I knew had tested positive as a pro and was banned for a couple years. The list didn't say that though. And it's easy to be banned if, say, you lied about having a license or you didn't pay a no-helmet fee. But those, to me, are different offenses than a positive test for steroids. We should differentiate positives from other infractions.

Another disconcerting thing - Joe Papp testing positive. I heard rumors of him having a locked box in the fridge but I figured it was just heresay. But apparently there was some truth to it. However, after his stint as a cyclingnews diarist, he simply dropped out of sight. No one publicized that he'd tested positive. Until he testified at Floyd's trial, I held him in somewhat high esteem. I watched him race, thought he raced hard, seemed like a smart enough guy, and I wished him luck.

Then I find out he was doping all along.

That just sucked.

So these are my proposals:
1. Test nationwide at Cat 1-3, Masters 1-4, Women 1-3. Use harder to beat tests like the carbon isotope test.
2. Ban guilty racers for a long time, perhaps a decade.
3. Publicize the ban to make sure the racer doesn't slip through the cracks.

And maybe, just maybe, we'll have a Tour where the racing makes the headlines, not the doping.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Training - Another Break

The last couple weeks have been good for the bike. I've been riding pretty frequently - I get out for a nice ride the mornings I feel fresh (or it's dry). The tired days I skip riding and play games (BF2 is my rediscovered new favorite game) or write or read or look at house stuff online.

The last bit, the house stuff, will be absorbing a lot of time and energy in the next month. A young couple whose wife visited the house really like it and gave us an offer that we accepted. They got an appraisal done as well as an inspection. The latter went well as the inspector could find virtually nothing wrong with the house - just a couple cracks in the concrete around the top of the chimney. So now they have to do some other stuff - title search, the actual mortgage, I don't know what else - and then we can close on the house at the end of the month.

One problem.

We don't have a place to move to at the end of the month.

With that in mind, we went house hunting Saturday, praying that the third trip up north (fourth if you count an open house we attended) would let us find something. We hope we can make something work out but we're also preparing to rent a small apartment for a short time - 6 months or something - enough to give us some time to look at every house out there. You know, drive our agent nuts.

Fiscally I'd call us conservative. Actually I'd call us aggressively conservative. We're looking for a house that's much lower than what we are supposed to be able to afford. It's more important for us to live in a slightly less extravagant house which would still let us do "fun" things. "Fun" things would include, say, bike racing (!), doing bike stuff (tandem riding, trips, etc.), car stuff, house stuff, and things like buying quirky t-shirts when I see one. The future missus also has her things and we don't want to forgo too much of that.

However this means that any chance of buying an SRM will go flying out the proverbial window. Or a third set of deep carbon wheels. Or that Ultra Torque Record crankset I've been eying. My TT bike will be my spare bike with TT bars on it and TriSpokes under it, if I ever get my TT bars, not some aero tubed TT specific killer frameset. And thoughts of a swoopy custom carbon frame, well, that's on hold until further notice.

But I hope that our move will pay some dividends other than the actual house and the fact that the future missus will commute 22 miles a day, not 170.

First off we'll be moving close to the Tokeneke Road Race course. It has something like a three mile climb on it - maybe not as steep as that one at the base of Palomar Mountain but it's still a three mile climb. I'll have more time to ride. And I'll be in a great riding area. There's a good training race in the area as well as a lot of group rides. They don't have Thursday Night Downtown Sprints but perhaps for the future...

Regardless, I figure though that if I have good miles, the sprinting will follow.

For now though, except for an interruption for helping promote the CT Coast Criterium, I'll be focusing on the whole House Thing.

Right after the house thing will be another Big Thing, the whole Wedding Thing.

All these Things means that in the next two months I'll have less time and energy for riding and related activities. This is okay - it'll be my typical end of summer rest period. Then I'll start training for 2008. Heck, I might even check out a 'cross race.

Oh wait, I don't have a 'cross bike.

Never mind.

And yes, this means the blog might quiet down a bit. I have a lot of ideas simmering and even a few entries virtually done but you won't see too many race reports or an entry on my new set of wheels. More editorials, maybe a how-to or three, and a couple of my favorite stories.

I hope to be able to offer the readers a treat or two so that keeps it fun for me.

Now for a trainer session while the future missus is at class.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Bike Race vs. The Life Race

I sometimes pine for the times where I rode a lot, trained a lot, raced a lot. The times where I could annihilate others instead of getting annihilated.

(Me looking fit, weighing about 105 lbs, and leading a Laurel rider in Middletown, CT)

Driving home from a race this year (where I got shelled) I told the future missus there are two races at the races. One is the "how good a racer am I" race. The results are posted by officials. You can compare how you're doing just by looking at the sheet. It's publicized on the internet, people talk about good results, and if you do really well you'll even get feedback from your peers.

The other race, that one is not as easy to grade. The other race is the "what sort of life am I living" race. There are no results posted. It's not a public thing. No one can see if you're doing well or not. It's not as much a race as an illumination on one's life. It doesn't even have set parameters - there are no solid marks on how good you are. Officially it's either a pass or a fail. Unofficially there are many grades to a "pass".

When I raced a lot I realized some interesting things. I have a picture of my bike on a rack on my car from the late 80's. The car wasn't worth much. The town appraised it as being worth something like $200 (I technically paid $1 for it but someone gave it to me). I paid $2.34 in property taxes on it one year. The roof rack, at wholesale, cost me $520. I was really proud of it but as one ex- told me her first thought when she saw it was, "Who is this geek?". My bike was considerably more than either of the two items under it, perhaps $1200 at that point. And that was wholesale.

(Note the USCF sticker in the window.)

Although perhaps a bit ahead of the time, I also had a 100 watt amp with a pair of 15" subwoofers in an unfinished homemade box in the back seat. It wasn't anchored down or anything so it would slide around when I went around turns. The car wouldn't take more than half a tank of gas (the rest would slowly leak out), it struggled to go 65 mph, and it didn't handle too well.

I'd go to races and see "old" guys pull up in a new Mercedes with some exotic handmade (or imported Italian) frames with full Campy, beautiful stuff, 50th anniversay groups, engraved stems and chainrings. I couldn't believe guys were racing such expensive equipment. I'd comment to my friends that these old guys, they work really hard to make money but they simply can't race. I mean check out the bellies and how fast they get dropped.

You know, I told them, they might as well stay at home.

Little did I know.

Here's a picture of me racing when I wasn't very skinny a few years ago.

Yeah.

Not that skinny.

In fact, I weighed about 80 pounds more than I did in that top picture. But, if you scroll down a bit on that page, I did place, and in an uphill sprint no less!

But hey, I have a much nicer car now (although, to be frank, I pine for that Fairmont). Actually I even have a second car. A house. Things like that. It's true that I spend a lot of time working (or driving to/from work). I don't train as much. My race results reflect this.

But it's okay.

I realized a while back that although it's nice to be a really good bike racer, it's not the end all, not for me. Living the way I did to get to racing fitness, not eating that much because I didn't have the money to buy food, well, that's not really the way I want to live.

There are some things that pop out when I think about my lean years (figuratively and literally).

For a couple years I relied on a local bagel store for handouts - they'd gather all the unsold food for the day, put them in paper shopping bags, and put them on the sidewalk in front of the store. A shelter would pick them up and use it to feed the homeless. When I figured this out, I'd go to the bagel store just before they closed, buy a (by then) day old bagel for 50 cents, and the old lady behind the counter would look around furtively and give me one of the shopping bags full of bagels and muffins. It would sustain me for a week or so.

I'd ride in the late evenings so I wouldn't be as hungry (riding suppresses my appetite). This way I could avoid having to figure out what to eat at night. There were times where I'd scrounge my cabinets for any food I might have overlooked - a can of corn, soup, maybe a treat like Beefaroni. When I had an extra $10, I'd buy such food and stash it away for those empty stomach nights. The standby was the boxes of Ramen, plain spaghetti (sauce cost too much but some salt and pepper worked fine), and maybe a PowerBar.

I stayed lean, true. But it really isn't the ideal way to be fit.

I went to a stage race one year and someone mentioned that this Cat 1 which I've admired from Day One was running a bit late. Apparently his car wouldn't go faster than 50 or 55 mph so it was taking him a bit longer to get up to the race. When he arrived I was both happy and shocked to see the car. Happy because it was an old Dodge Dart. Shocked because it was as old or older than me. He'd bought it for $500 - all he could afford.

The racer, always in his element when pedaling a bike, was less so when off of it. He slept at friends' houses and worked odd jobs.

The kicker? He was 30 years old. Ten years earlier, his single minded dedication to racing seemed admirable.

Now I felt sorry for him.

I can't say I know him at all. A few grunted greetings and a nod of the head really doesn't count as "knowing" someone.

But in a way I felt like I understood him. The aching empty stomach. The training to ward off hunger pangs. Wondering how you'll pay your next entry fee.

It's acceptable when you think your life will improve (or you're supported and your family is there to help out whenever things get tough). It's another thing when you can't see the end of the tunnel, when you don't know what tomorrow has in store for you.

If I had pro aspirations, it would be different. Andy Hampsten at one point has $16 in his bank account and nothing coming in. He was desperate for a break into the pro cycling scene. He had a contract with Levis-Raleigh, got a month advance, and made it to the Coors Classic. There he beat Bernard Hinault in a time trial. Hinault simply could not believe this skinny American with no continental experience could beat him - and his team asked for TV tapes to verify he wasn't motorpacing.

When they realized Hampsten hadn't cheated they promptly signed him.

He'd go on the next year to take fourth in his inaugural Tour, behind his team leader Hinault and his second placed American teammate Greg Lemond.

A guy like him, he actually has potential for great racing. He knew that he could time trial at 28-29 mph. He knew he could outclimb anyone around him, and he was in the cycling mecca of the country, Colorado. So he stayed his course and turned his racing into a successful career.

What of a Cat 3 who does reasonably well in easier crits but gets shelled everywhere else?

It's not reasonable to continue with such a lifestyle.

So I did what I could to look for a job where I actually made money. Found one. Joined the "fat guys who can't race well" club. And I feel all the better for it.

Just don't ask me to verify this right after I get dropped.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Velonews - Prologue Winner

Last week I posted that I won something. Of course, nothing is for certain until it shows up at your house (or in my case, the office). Well, today I received a package from Velonews. It was a bit bigger than what a cyclocomputer ought to be and since the last I knew people weren't trying to make cyclocomputer bigger, I was curious as to what was in it.

Well, it was a lot more than I expected.

Fine, I pulled out a nice Cateye Tour de France Edition Strada Wireless computer. The body is Tour de France yellow, making it stand out a bit more than the normal grey or black.

I saw other things in the box too. Two waterbottles (one Cateye and one Velonews), a Velonews cap, and some paperwork. Bonus! I can always use waterbottles (although my fiancee might disagree) and I recently discovered caps as a head accessory - so now I'll have a cool cap to wear backwards on my head.

And paperwork. Whatever.

It was only after I had returned back to work for a bit that I looked at the "paperwork".

It was in fact a congratulations card written and signed by Andy Pemberton, Publisher, Velonews.

Now I can't profess I would know Andy if I bumped into him at a bike shop. But with all the various things that he must be busy doing (it's peak Velonews season and it's a real humdinger of a Tour so far), he really didn't need to write something out. I actually expected an invoice with zero charges on it, not a nice handwritten note and a business card.

So for all of us that's tired of the doping, tired of the lying, and tired of all the suspicion surrounding cycling, there are still people involved with the sport who do good things. With very little fanfare they're giving away these cool little Cateye computers, they give some schwag as well, and to top it off, they actually write a note saying congrats.

That's cool.

And here's the stuff all laid out with our cat Tiger sitting guard over it all:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Doping - It's My Sandbox

In the doping world there are the dope positives and the dope negatives, i.e. those who do and those who don't. The two don't seem to mix well. There are teams (and this is partially speculation on the my part) where some teams are sort of dirty and some are not.

The riders from the dirty teams seem to subscribe to a certain moral (non-) standard - and when an anti-doping movement hits the team, the "dirty" riders flee like rats off a sinking ship.

For example of this, take a look at T-Mobile. Last year, under its old world leadership, T-Mobile was a doping fiasco. The team leader, the (in)famous Jan Ullrich, retired under a DNA-linked blood bag cloud. Another racer, Oscar Sevilla, also found his way into the unemployment lines.

In response to this flurry of negative publicity the team staff were shuffled and the leadership replaced.

Suddenly their top remaining racer, one that vocalized support for the beleaguered Ullrich, quit his leadership role to move to another team (Astana) as a super-domestique, a non-leader. He was followed by a Tour stage winning German, a revelation from the 2006 Tour.

Two other 2006 revelations chose to stay with the team in the "cleansing" 2007 year. One, a dual stage winner in the 2006 Tour, ended up fired after blood tests revealed "abnormalities". Another tested positive for testosterone during a team training camp (Note: the team didn't test for testosterone or other drugs in their internal tests - just blood volume type tests). He is fighting for his job but it seems like he'll be let go too.

It didn't stop there. A lot of the support staff stayed on between 2006 and 2007 but as former team racers admitted to doping and receiving help from team personnel, the two doctors aligned with the team confessed their past doping activities and were let go from the team.

Even the team director confessed to doping for much of his career. However, in an unusual step, team management kept him, saying that he was so respected by his peers that they couldn't let him go.

It seems that the old school T-Mobile team was indeed strife with dopers. The reborn T-Mobile team is cleaning house, slowly perhaps, but definitely steadily. It's like getting rid of a cold - you get rid of the actual cold but it takes a while to cough up the phlegm.

There really aren't many people in the 2007 T-Mobile team left from the supercharged 2006 team. But then again, it's like sticking a big magnet in the middle of a bunch of magnetized steel. In this case it was a big anti-doping magnet. Some of the team members stuck and stayed. A whole bunch of other metal got pushed away.

Given the perceived level of doping in the peloton, it's actually amazing that not all the racers were kicked off the team. It gives hope to those that are so skeptical of the possibility of any clean riders (or as Jorg Jaske said, "the 3% that don't dope").

So where do those repelled doped riders end up?

There are teams out there that place victory over morality. Cheating, playing with a stacked deck, that's okay for those teams. Their sponsors demand victory at all costs. And they seem to welcome sketchy racers if there is a possibility of a win.

It's like the kid that shows up at the sandbox with a bunch of cool toys - but ignores all the sandbox rules. Kind of interesting when they show up but the game gets really old when you realize they're not playing by the rules.

One such team appears to be the Astana team. Their magnet is perhaps oppositely polarized to the T-Mobile one. Created from the wreckage of the much aligned Liberty Seguros team (which has the dubious distinction of having the first Grand Tour winner disqualified due to EPO), it grew a bit weed-like and chaotically into its current state. Now essentially the Khazakstan national pro team, the team is led by a movie character soldier with piercing blue eyes and shocking blonde hair. He's joined by Ullrich's former lieutenant (and a vocal Ullrich supporter). Others include a teammate at the pink team who won that stage in the 2006 Tour.

That last racer, the 2006 Tour stage winner, tested for testosterone in a surprise out-of-competition test during the spring. No chance for any masking agents, powder for the pee, just do it and pray they mix up the samples. Per official team policy, he was fired. He's German so not a threat to Khazakstan's national pride.

The lieutenant has been dogged by doping allegations from the old world Telekom/T-Mobile team. He's come out clean so far though. And he's German too, so not too much concern there.

The movie star leader? He just tested positive for blood doping - transfusing someone else's blood in order to gain a competitive advantage.

An interesting problem. He's Khazakstan. A soldier for his country. The Prime Minister is among his fans. In a country filled with strife, he's a hero that they look to for inspiration (or perhaps to escape their reality).

He got caught out by a new test, one not regularly used, and it was done after the competition (not the next morning). The kicker was that it was a blood test. This meant that all the normal procedures to mask one's urine's drug traces were useless. The movie star walked into the doping van expecting to pee into a cup and instead looked at a doctor holding a big syringe.

What a shock that must have been.

His teammate was able to escape for a bit (although I don't know what you'd do to escape a blood transfusion test - there's no "masking agents" for flourescent blood markers). But the leader, faced with the needle, he must have known the game was up. The next day he performed poorly, losing almost 30 minutes to the front runners. The following day, perhaps in a show of defiance, he set off in a day-long break and won a spectacular stage.

Too spectacular as it turns out.

Apparently he's pulled out of the Tour. And taken his whole team with him. I guess it's like those sandbox bullies.

If they can't play their way, they're leaving the sandbox. And taking all their friends with them.

Well, good riddance.

It'll be more fun in the sandbox now.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Story - Tour of Michigan - Part 3 - The Rest of the Tour

Our first race done, we decided to take up Alan on his offer for staying for the whole Tour. The racing got a bit better. Now we knew we could line up at the front, we knew that moving up wasn't too much of a problem, and we started focusing on trying to do well.

Abdul and I didn't work together as a team per se but if he went off (he was definitely more a breakaway guy) I'd go to the front to sit on the chasers. And conversely, towards the end of the race, he'd look for me to give me a hand. The big local teams had leadout trains going each race though so I'd end up following the trains and trying to do something off of them.

Problem was that these trains were big and fast enough that it was hard to move up without a counter train. Meaning the leadouts were fast enough that they were actually effective! One team in blue went to the front at 10 miles to go at every race. Incredible determination, incredible strength. Their racer got second overall.

We both tried to help Alan in his hometown race but I think there was a big crash and it didn't work out. A minor hill really put a dent into my reserves and it was all I could do to hang on - and in fact I think I didn't.

The Lansing race was good for me. The race after the first rest day, we felt fresh and ready to rumble. A course with cobbles and a hairpin turn leading to the finish, it allowed smart (or weak) riders to sit in. At the time I had a cutting edge device called a "heart rate monitor". My heart rate dropped to about 120-130 bpm during the race - the same as when I lined up. Unfortunately the narrow finishing straight meant that even though I was perhaps 15th out of the last turn, I couldn't move up very far - there were ten guys spread curb to curb and literally nowhere to pass them. At the line I threw my bike between two guys, my front wheel ending up around their cranks. I managed to take 11th, the first racer in the second row of sprinters.

The next day was Monroe - a night race with the sharpest turn in the Tour. A 170 degree turn made it imperative that you have excellent position coming out of the last turn. And although it was advertised as a "night" race, our race was actually the darkest (the others ran in dusky conditions). The organizers had only two of those construction trailer lights and used one for the start finish and the other for the hairpin. The rest of the course was as dark as Central Park at 10 PM. It seemed the racers were primarily motivated by fear - fear of hitting a wheel or something else in front of you, fear of hitting the curb or a manhole, fear of ending up on the sidewalk in some storefront window. A couple managed to hit stores but no one did any spectacular endos into plate glass or anything. Abdul attacked a few times and picked up some primes but nothing of significance. I counted pedal revolutions till I hit cruising speed on the main stretch - about 4 or 5 revs - and watched as others struggled to hit the same speed 3 or 4 revolutions later. I don't remember how I did but I think I got another 11th or so. The race leader ended up sprawled on the pavement - his chain broke under an all out sprint and dumped the racer on his head at 35-40 mph.

Detroit followed the second rest day - and this was a doozy of a course. You know those food festivals where there are little booths everywhere? Imagine such a place with a one lane access road meandering through the various booths. Now put metal crowd control barriers along both sides of the access road so you have about an eight foot wide path with a 90 degree turn here and there. Now put a Cat 3-4 crit on there. Yep, disaster. The race was single file from the gun, the big teams pushing to keep their guys out of trouble. I couldn't deal with the pace and filtered right off the back. There were crashes but none of the "The guy took out the Root Beer Float cart" like I expected.

The final race was on a short, half mile, EIGHT turn course. And the skies, mostly helpful till then, opened up. Pouring rain, tight course, downtown, lots of crosswalks and manhole covers and oil and man it was a mess.

I was 21st on overall (or thereabouts) and they paid 20 places for GC. So I lined up intent on placing. If I placed, I figured I'd take someone else's place and therefore I'd break into the top 20 (i.e. I'd be 20th). We started off and I nervously made my way up the field. The big teams pushed the pace, it was single file, but I felt a lot better, a lot more motivated. I'd read about how you find extra energy in stage races (like when you wear the yellow jersey) but I never really understood.

Now I did.

I watched racer after racer slide into curbs or others and I simply rode around them. It never occurred to me that I might be next - I was on a mission and nothing was going to stop me from trying.

I was in the top 20 or so with probably 15 or 20 laps to go when the guys in front of me simply fell over. One guy was sliding on his butt, looking like he just sat on one of those Sit N Spins, his bike clattering beside him. I tried to get around him but I basically ran into his back, almost flipped over him, unclipped, and slid into the curb. I tried to clip in and learned at that moment that my shoe was still on the pedal - and that I'd actually pulled my foot out of the wet, stretched shoe. I started to roll when the bike lurched to a stop. My pride and joy rear wheel, my 28 spoke, Zipp hub, Mavic GEL 280 was totally potato chipped. I went to neutral support to get a new wheel. The mechanic pulled out my wheel.

"Holy **** this is a light wheel! Wow what kind of rim is this?"
"Um, could you get me a wheel?"
"Don't worry we have plenty of time."
"GEL280, 28 hole, 15 gauge double butted spokes, Zipp hub, alloy nipples."
"Wow that's the lightest wheel I've seen."
He slapped in a new tank of a wheel, the rim painted with a brush, so many spokes it looked like a stainless steel disk wheel. I looked at my bent wheel wistfully and then at the "new" replacement wheel. My replacement was a clincher even.

The field came roaring around and I got shoved back into the melee. I'd like to say I got 4th and moved up the overall but that wasn't the case. I was dead last of the finishers, got something like 24th, and didn't get any sort of overall prize.

Abdul, a bit of self preservation still in his system, had dropped out with the other hundred or so guys. He was looking pretty chipper when I finally got back to the car. He told me that after 4 or 5 or 6 crashes he decided to pull out - he had nothing to race for and the GC guys were so motivated he figured it'd be difficult to break into the money. Yep.

After I got changed we bade farewell to our new friend Alan, swore we'd come back and do better, and set off back to New England.

My souvenir from that epic race:


We'd return for another year, staying at Alan's the whole time. He was by far the strongest of us three and ended up doing the best of us. The year after that they started incorporating mountain bike races in the mix and we didn't return. Shortly after that the Tour de Michigan disappeared off the schedule.

A pity. Such a race series really made an impression on me - the professional race organization, the race bible, the overall battle, riders from all over, and courses that actually suited me. Well, usually. The organizers made racing a lot more interesting than just showing up for a race and then going home afterwards.

Here's to the Tour of Michigan!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Story - Tour of Michigan - Part 2 - First Race

After a brief sleep in the youth hostel at Muskegon, Abdul and I gathered our stuff and went searching for the race course.

When we got there it became apparent how big of a thing this Tour really was to Muskegon. There was a huge barbecue type thing going on with tents and vendors and an elaborate finishing banner structure - sort of a mini-Tour de France type of thing. And the course was closed for most if not all of the loop, using crowd control barriers, the big heavy metal kind.

I got a bit nervous.

We also saw Coors Light - the pro team, not the beer.

This was pretty serious.

We got ready for our race. Since we didn't know anything about the area, anything about the racers, we simply prepared like we were doing a normal race. There was a slight downhill on one stretch, opposite the slight uphill finish.

I like slight uphill finishes, especially in crits.

So, optimistic, we warmed up.

For the first time I truly felt like a pro. Fine, I was warming up for a race. But there were SEVEN races after this one in the next nine days. And I didn't have to worry about work or anything. Just eating and sleeping and recovering.

For once I was mistaken for a "real" racer. Obvious non-cyclists would yell out "Good luck!" or other nice things. Cops held back cars for me.

I could get used to this.

Now in New York, when you line up for a race, you do the following:
1. Warm up really well. Use heat rub.
2. Go to the start line about 20 minutes before your race.
3. Sit on the curb next to the start line.
4. If you're lucky, you'll be in the third row when they call you (after the pushing, shoving, and all that).

So in Michigan we did steps 1-3 (the third one we had to sit about 50 yards before the start line as that's where the first gaps were in the barriers).

And we got a pretty good spot.


(Abdul, in light blue, me, in red next to him, showing Michiganers how New Yorkers line up)

We learned that in Michigan, people are actually, get this, polite.

I didn't really comprehend this until we started racing.

But before I get to polite, let me tell you about the one thing Michiganers do right - they corner. And they corner so fast it made my mind spin. Guys leaned over so deep they simply fell over. I guess that when you don't have hills to break up the field, you try and string things out in the corners.

It actually took me about 20 miles to get over my rediscovered fear of cornering, especially after watching someone lean over into that downhill turn, lean, lean, then slowly lean a little too much. Then he started sliding across the road, sitting more upright as he slid, and then he slammed into the curb. I don't know what happened to him but his Specialized TriSpoke, a fancy light one, broke into a bazillion pieces and white pieces of stuff (foam?) littered the curb for the next few laps.

I backed off a bit. Explored the limits of cornering. And found that I could do it too. My tubulars were glued fine, the wheels were strong, and I didn't do anything dumb like brake halfway around a turn.

I started moving up but found the accordion effect was working against me - guys would bunch up and then have to jump after the turn. I did what you do in New York. You holler.

"RIGHT!"

Magically, everyone moved to the left. I had a 30 foot aisle open just for me.

I took it.

Man, everyone just moved when I yelled.

I did it again.

And everyone moved.

Wow, people are so polite here.

Eventually Abdul and I found our way to the front of the race, and with a lap to go we were in the hunt but separated. He managed a 12th or so. I got... 21st.

20 places.

First loser.

I licked my wounded pride and Abdul and I went looking for some guy that would house us for the night. When there's a festival, a lot of racing, and hundreds or thousands of people milling around, trying to find some guy (a white guy no less) in middle America seemed to be a losing proposition. Especially since I didn't know what this guy looked like. And remember, this is pre-cellphones and stuff.

Miraculously, Abdul found him, a guy named Alan. And he told us that we'd be staying at his house. And if we liked, we could stay there for the whole Tour.

Michganers are soooo nice!

We took him up on the offer, at least of the first night (we thought we'd be imposing if we stayed for 9 nights). But nevertheless we got our gear stashed and followed Alan across half of Michigan to Midland.

Out somewhere a storm brewed up and for the next two hours we were staring at a storm front on the horizon, black clouds, lightning. In New England you rarely have more than a couple hundred yards of clear space due to trees and hills - so to be able to see literally 50 or more miles was just mind blowing.

I was exhausted (I tire easily when racing) so I got to watch the storm without distractions like driving and following Alan.

There were those moments though.

We were flying along a two lane road, crested a slight hill, and suddenly there were people and vehicles on the shoulder. That barely registered when we flew past a cow pattern.

Actually, it was a cow.

A cow was standing in the middle of the road and we missed it by about a foot at 70 mph.

Abdul sped up. He'd braked and now Alan was pulling away. We caught back up. Eventually we made it to a nice quiet area in Midland where Alan lived with his wife and their dog and cat. I made friends with the cat, we all ate something, Alan showed us our room (or rooms?) and we fell asleep.

Tomorrow would be race #2.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Story - Tour de Michigan - Part 1 - Getting There

Some time during 1991 my friend Abdul asked me what I thought about doing a race out in Michigan named the Tour of Michigan.

As you may know, anything that starts with "Tour of" usually means time trials and road races, two event types which I, well, suck at.

So to have someone ask me about doing any "Tour of", especially halfway across the country, would normally get me all defensive.

"Um, I don't have a time trial bike."

Okay, so I had one. It was even a sort of double disk (wheel covers but hey, I couldn't afford the real thing). It had a cutting edge 24" front wheel, 17mm tubulars... So that excuse didn't cut it.

But my road bike... I'd have to convert my bike from a crit monster to a road racing bike.

Meaning take the 45T off, replace with a then 42T small ring, take the 12-21 and put a 12-23 on. Put my light wheels on. And finally my 43 cm bars (not my 41's) which entails redoing tape and possibly cables.

In other words, a real pain.

I took a breath to start spewing out my standard excuses when Abdul continued.

"I figured you'd like this because it's eight 25 mile crits in ten days. And there are no hills."

Hello?

Did someone create a dream stage race just for moi?

He showed me a flyer - I think it was in Velonews.

Cat 3's.

That would be me.

And 4's.

Oooh. Lots of pack fodder.

25 miles each race. Whatever, it was more than 15 miles.

Night crits. Oooh. Never did a night crit.

20 places a day. Twenty! I could place every day.

But it's in Michigan. And that could be like, you know, half way around the world.

I knew it was otherwise. I'd recently done my trip around the country, one that started during Desert Shield and ended under Desert Storm. During that trip I stayed in youth hostels everywhere. Met lots of people. Had a blast. And saved money, at least from a housing point of view. From that trip I also knew about driving long distances - 7 AM to 2 AM, breaks for gas, food, and bathrooms (not in that order). Michigan, if we had two drivers, was one day away.

Easy cheesy.

We committed and sent in our entry fee - $90 or something like that.

We started planning things. Since I didn't have a reliable car (the hood was bashed up and held in place by a Miami Vice pink toe strap), we decided to take Abdul's. He had a trusty Honda CRX Si. Since we committed to eight races, we decided to bring two bikes each and I think four sets of wheels (i.e. two extra sets each). Fitting four bikes and sixteen wheels in a CRX is a bit tough. But we had to make it work. It would be horrible if we went there, stacked it on the first day, wrecked a frame, and sat around for the next nine days watching the other race.

We collected what roof rack things we could gather and stuck a lot of it on the roof. We each had a gear bag and each had a "regular" bag for normal clothing.

We called the promoter and asked about housing since the flyer said there'd be volunteer families hosting racers. They promised to hook us up with a local racer family at the first race in Muskegon, MI. All we had to do was get there.

So, armed with my trusty AYH directory, we booked a couple beds in the local Muskegon hostel.

And one early morning in August, I drove to Abdul's, we packed our stuff, stuck my radar detector somewhere up on the dash, and set off.

We figured, based on looking at (paper) maps, that we could get there in about 15 hours of driving. Figure Chicago is a little less than that. As a sort of diversion we'd go through Canada. Hopefully, with a smaller population, they also had less traffic.

I think Abdul drove a bit at the beginning and then I drove through a lot of New York. Then he took over as we went into Canada. Unfortunately we didn't realize that the highway didn't connect the Niagara Falls area with the Detroit area of Canada - there was a section where we had to drive on local roads.

We also realized we were falling behind schedule. And when that happens, well, you have to pick up the pace. With Abdul piloting we started really pushing the car, cruising at about 95-100 mph between groups of vehicles. The temp needles were pegged - coolant (or maybe oil or both?) temperature and tach was up there. We drove with the gas pedal literally on the floor of the car.

And this was on a two lane, non-highway road.

(Incidentally I do not recommend doing this - it's extremely dangerous.)

We continued our frenzied pace once we got back onto highways. When we came up to trucks the car would creep up to about 112 mph due to the drafting effect. Then we'd pull around and the car would slow back down to 106 or so.

The bikes on the roof were a real drag but we simply didn't have room inside. So we kept up our insane pace.

Once back into the US by Detroit, the highways got wider and the speed limit stratospheric - I think 70, maybe 75 mph. We maintained our high pace. I know I was driving for a bit and could feel the instant we started entering a truck's slipstream - it was about 100-120 yards away. I'd approach as close as I dared, pick up maximum speed, and swing out to pass. Then the slow let down as the car eased back to its normal cruising speed.

Finally, sometime late in the evening, we approached Muskegon, a smallish town on the edge of Lake Michigan. We found the Youth Hostel and checked in. They had some cute new-born kittens tumbling around and a few adults were already checked in and hanging around. One professed to be a plumber "between jobs" or something to that effect.

I'd told Abdul I needed to get a haircut - the whole "I want more ventilation" thing. I'd brought along a buzzer type cutter specifically for this reason. I also figured that Abdul couldn't mess up my hair too much - just cut a shorter fitting on the sides and a slightly bigger fitting on the top.

We set up in one of the public bathrooms and Abdul started cutting my hair. Big, black clumps of hair started falling everywhere. He kept clicking his tongue - the kind of clicks you make when you make a mistake.

I started rethinking this whole haircut thing. Maybe a Sinead O'Connor look would be acceptable. After all, no one out here knew me.

The plumber walked over to the buzzing and watched. It was apparent that Abdul was out of his element.

"Hey you want me to cut your hair?"
"You? I thought you were a plumber!" I said.
"Well, I was a hairdresser before I was a plumber."

Abdul looked at me. I looked at Abdul. I shrugged.

"Okay."

I steeled myself for some scalp cuts, ear nicks, and other haircutting disasters (I already gave up hope on the actual haircut).

Plumber Man started buzzing away. He actually seemed pretty competent. He even got the scissors and did that thing that hairdressers do - gather hair with one hand (using a comb) and cut with the other.

Abdul ran off and came back with a camera. I guess he simply couldn't resist.

This is what he saw:


When Plumber Man was all done, I had been sheared like a sheep. I asked Abdul how it looked.

He hesitated.

"Not that good."

When you hesitate and then answer a bad answer, it's got to be really, really bad.

I think I was too tired to care. My head felt cooler and I decided it was a good thing.

We sacked out on our respective beds, looking forward to tomorrow's opening day.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bloggus Interruptus

I'm sometimes affected by an affliction bloggus interruptus. This is caused when a blogger, doing a sweeping edit (like changing verb tenses or eradicating a comma infestation) is interrupted by something a little more important.

The blogger leaves with the work only half checked.

And this particular blogger finds it hard to come back to a post to finish it off.

Part of the reason is that my posts tend to drone on and on. So when I am cutting/pasting paragraphs here and there and suddenly a somewhat critical thing demands my attention, well, some of those paragraphs get left or copied (instead of cut) and my final edit sometimes misses these things.

So for all the weird paragraphs you've found, the wrong words, the commas, I apologize.

For a while I decided to leave things as is with all the errors in place. But now I'd like to clear things up. This means that if you have an RSS subscription, you'll be getting some repeat posts (but with a few grammar type things fixed).

Friday, July 20, 2007

Story - Lost in the City

Back in the day of living to race (more specifically, living to sprint), I looked forward to Tuesdays like Uncle Sam looks forward to April 15th. Tuesdays was "my" day. I got the valuable day off from the shop so I could go do sprints at SUNY Purchase.

Of course that meant waiting around till 4:30 PM. I'd just get more and more hyper waiting for the time to go to SUNY. So when a friend (and former teammate) called me up to see if I would do some sprints with him during lunch I jumped at the offer. We met up and did a loop which included some hills.

Hills?!

Yeah, even at my flyweight 130 lbs or so the little buggers wasted me. I think I did one good sprint but the rest were simply time trialing in an anaerobic state.

Whatever, I got an hour in, figured I'd be fine for the afternoon sprints, and I got rid of some nervous energy.

Once I got home I didn't have too much time to get ready so I mucked around, tried to figure out what to wear (I think it was early October), and finally got into my car to make the 40 minute drive to SUNY.

Although the temperatures were hovering around 55 degrees, I went out there in shorts, a short sleeve jersey, and a pair of gloves. My upper body felt a bit cold but it seemed reasonable. I don't remember too much about the sprints except I didn't win that many. My record was 16 wins so I might have won a couple. I was pretty into it and had gotten into the super-fatigued-but-found-a-second-wind stage when a teammate rolled up to the group in his car.

I was hoping the sprints would continue for a few more laps but it was getting late - about 7:00 PM - and I knew that guys would start peeling off like they do when the Tour hits the first big climb of the year.

It was kind of cool when my teammate came up next to the field. I felt like a pro talking to his director who'd just driven up to give some info to his rider. Except I wasn't getting time splits or advice on how to attack the field. The conversation was a bit more mundane.

"Want to go do a night ride in the City?"
"When?"
"Now."
"What do you mean, 'Now'?"
"I'm leaving now. I have to deliver a Velodyne to somebody in the City and I'm meeting him on the Tuesday night ride in the Park."
"I don't know, I'm kind of tired."
"C'mon, it'll be fun."
"How long?"
"30 miles... We'll skip the first lap if you like."
"Is it fast?"
"Well, some Cat 1s and 2s show up. You'll be fine."
"Okay..."

I rolled back to the car, grabbed my wind jacket, and hopped into my teammate's car. We zoomed off to the City.

I should point out that although I was born about 40 miles from the City and spent all my life from 13 years old and up living a town or two away from my birth town, I rarely went into the City. I went in once to take a bus from the "Port Authority". I went in a couple times to "Grand Central". And I went in a bunch of times to race in Central Park. I never drove so I didn't know the streets - I just tagged along (on foot, on the bike, or I got a ride) and managed to get back each time.

So we drove into this huge, chaotic metropolis, this unknown entity which I sometimes touch but never actually explored. He parked somewhere weird - meaning New York City is a grid-like place, but where we parked it was a U-shaped road. Obviously a unique part of the City.

He said we'd ride the ride, return to the car, deliver the Velodyne, and drive back to SUNY where I could get my car.

Since he was wearing a skinsuit and a wind jacket, he gave me the keys to the car. So I was carrying my keys, his keys, and my wallet - which had virtually nothing in it except a driver's license and a $20 bill. I stuffed my jacket in my middle back pocket - feeling every bit like a pro for doing that.

And we rolled off through a maze of identically busy roads filled with cabs, buses, cars, and pedestrians.

Somehow we managed to make it to Central Park and rolled easy on the loop. My teammate pointed out the group had already started so we'd go easy till they lapped us.

By now it was quite dark - I put my blinky light on but with no headlight it was a bit sketchy. The sporadic street lights on the Park circuit didn't help too much as it was really dark between the lights.

Suddenly my teammate gave a short warning.

"They're here!"

A bunch of guys streamed by, a couple with the blinkys going. I jumped hard, got on, and looked around - my teammate was there too. It was hard to pick out jerseys when you couldn't even tell if the guy was black or white - but after passing a few street lights I realized I was in some very elite company. I recognized a few Cat 1s and 2s and the ones I didn't recognize I figured were probably pretty good too.

We flew along at a good pace, punching it up the hill in perhaps a 54x15, sometimes the 14. On the flats I found myself in the 12 a few times - luckily I knew the loop and could push when I knew a rise was about to end. I even responded to attacks and such. It was getting pretty chilly so I kept up my efforts to stay warm, my fingers from going numb, etc.

For over an hour things were great.

But suddenly, on the last lap, on the hill, my legs simply stopped working. I was cold, tired, and with no food for something like 12 hours, simply ran out of gas.

I crawled up the hill.

I debated turning around but realized I'd have to climb the descent so I kept going. I could barely turn the 42x21 - a bad sign.

After something like 20 minutes I rode by some guys at Tavern on the Green - apparently there was a crash or something there. And rode up to the finish at Cat's Paw Hill.

It was deserted.

I thought, well, maybe they're doing a cool down lap. So, exhausted, I just stopped.

And waited.

It was about 10 or 10:30. The era of crack cocaine. Shootings. And of course the bogey man hung out in Central Park and captured and ate lost cyclists.

So when someone whose silhouette resembled Freddy Kreuger (minus the claws) started staggering towards me I quickly got into my pedals and rode about a half mile away. I found myself another light and waited more.

I started getting a bit scared.

There are times when things stop being fun or interesting or "let's see what happens" and start becoming serious. It's happened to me when I got lost in Holland, when I'm driving in really bad conditions sort of far from home, and it happened that night.

I started thinking of surviving till the next day.

I decided to stay under street lights. I'd use my mobility to escape any marauders. And at some point I'd probably have to get home.

First, though, I had to eat. I was literally shaking with hunger, weak, and I had this odd taste in my mouth from being so hungry.

I rode out to the big street next to the park and started riding down it, looking down each side street to see if there were any stores. It was sort of late and most of the streets looked pretty dark and residential, but one street had a food type store, complete with a kid reading a book in front of it.

I rode over and the kid jumped up and asked if he could help me. I couldn't help but notice he was studying Chemistry.

I asked if they had food.

He looked at me like I'd just landed from Mars.

He pointed into the store so I went in. They had a bunch of hot food ready to serve as well as shelves of snacks and stuff. So I bought two bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies (because they're local and they're good) and some fried chicken with steak fries. The total was $10, half my money.

I went outside with my stuff, put the cookies in my pockets, and grabbed one of two drumsticks. I stuck the whole thing in my mouth, pulled the bone out, and practically swallowed everything whole.

I repeated with the other drumstick.

And then stuffed my face with fries.

I looked up to see the kid, wide-eyed, staring at me.

I paused, my mouth full of food. The kid realized he was staring and quickly looked at his book. I swallowed the rest of the fries.

Then, for good measure, I ate a bag of cookies. For the record I got the chessmen - I don't remember my rational for buying them but I did.

I saved the other, I figured it would be good at 5 in the morning, just in case. I tossed the empty container and cookie bag inside and rode away. My eyes took a bit of time to adjust to the darkness and I realized just how dark it was out there.

I got back to Cat's Paw Hill and camped out a bit. I had to move a couple times but I finally saw a cop. I rode up to him and asked him where the car was, which, in retrospect, must have set off "This is a crack addict" alarm bells.

"Excuse me, could you tell me where there's a U-shaped road around here?"
"What?"
"A U-shaped road. See my car is on a U-shaped road but I don't know where it is."
"Well, is it in mid-town? Downtown? Maybe the Bronx?"
"Um... I don't know where those places are."
"Look, I'm sorry but I don't think I can help you."

He walked away. I rode away.

It was getting really late now - I was actually sleepy, even with my "I'm scared" adrenaline coursing through my body. I decided I had to get out of the city.

I figured I'd find the train station ("Grand Central"), find a train that goes to Purchase, and ride to my car. Failing that I'd just sleep in the station.

So I rode around the perimeter of the park, looking for someone, anyone, that I could ask for directions. Lo and behold, a police car with two cops!

I rolled up to them and one rolled down his window.

"Excuse me, I have two questions. Do you know if they let bikes on trains and if they do, could you tell me where Grand Central is?"

The two cops looked at each other. Then the one close to me looked my way.

"See this road here?", he enunciated slowly and carefully, as if I didn't speak English.
"Yeah."
"Okay, so you go down THIS way," he gestured going straight with wide motions with his hands, "and you look up there," now he was pointing up at a lamp post, "and when you see FOUR TWO you go THAT way." Meaning left.
"Okay"

Man, I was just lost. Not deaf or retarded. Jeez.

He repeated the directions a few times till I told him I got it. And I took off.

Man, they must put something in their chicken, that place, because I was flying.

I zoomed down this big road (which I later found out was probably 5th Ave), dodging in and out of traffic, and had an absolute blast. I think the adrenaline and bag of cookies helped but still, it was a lot of fun. All traffic went one direction (i.e. big draft), the lights were synchronized, and they went about 30-something mph. Perfect! I promised myself that if I made it home alive I'd come back and ride here on my own terms.

All too quickly I got to FOUR TWO and took a left as instructed. And there I saw the golden doors to Grand Central. Of course it was an entrance I'd never seen before but that was okay. I found my way down to the ticket booths. I checked out the schedule and saw that a train (probably the last one) was leaving in about 20 minutes. Knowing what I know now, it was probably around 12:30, half past midnight. I saw that a train went to Port Chester. And knowing that Port Chester was sort of close to the border of Connecticut, I decided that would be good.

Luckily one booth was open. I went up to it and a tired looking attendant asked what I needed.

"Ticket to Port Chester please."
"Okay. That'll be $4.55"

Phew. I had $10 to my name. I gave the guy my $10.

"Is that a bike there?"
"Yeah."
"Do you have a bike pass?"
"A bike pass?"
"A bike pass."
"No..."
"Well you need to get one."
"Um, where do I get one?"
"There's a booth at the end, there's a sign above it that says Bike Passes here"
I looked. I could have sworn all the booths were closed. And it was.

"Yeah but it's closed."
"You're going to have to go there and wait then."
"But my train leaves in ..."
He glared at me so I shut up.

I click clacked over to the booth. Still closed. The big clock was moving way too fast.

Suddenly I heard some noise. The little window thing slid up.

It was the same guy.

"Can I help you?"

I looked at him in astonishment.

"Can I help you?", a little more forcefully.
"Yeah. I need a bike pass."
"Okay, fill this out. It'll be $5."

Jeepers. I had less than a dollar left. I filled out the thing and got my bike pass. He duly stamped it and gave it back to me.

"Platform such and such, over there."
"Thanks."

The window slid shut.

The conductor asked where I was going and I told him. He opened a train for me so I could have the area by the doors for myself and my bike.

I ate half the second bag of cookies. These were the round ones with strawberry (or raspberry) stuff in the middle.

The train set off and I looked glumly out the window. I was exhausted but I felt like I was getting out of the danger zone. The warm train lulled me a bit - my skin wasn't numb with cold anymore.

The train stopped at Port Chester, the conductor nice enough to come over to me before the stop to let me know that my stop was coming up.

The platform was really high above street level and I had to walk down a lot of steps. And it was cold. Did I mention it was October?

Then I saw a sign for Route 120.

This was a good sign, so to speak. I took the Route 120 exit off the Merritt to get to SUNY Purchase.

Of course I could go one direction or the other. Which direction?

I looked one way. Lots of lights and stuff. Port Chester. I looked the other way. Pitch black. Not Port Chester. That's what I wanted. I clipped in and headed out.

The road quickly became pitch black. When I say pitch black, I mean there were no lights, no moon, no houses, nothing. I rode slowly until I heard sand or gravel and then adjusted my trajectory. A couple times cars would approach, I could see where I was on the road, I'd veer to the shoulder, and they'd fly by.

On one dark stretch my wheel went off the shoulder into dirt. I put a foot down before I crashed. I walked left to get back on the road - and went into a bush.

I'd just gone off the left side of the road.

I walked right, got to the road, and got on.

And kept riding.

This unnerving riding continued for a few miles. I was going perhaps walking pace and rode slow enough that even if I hit a rock wall I wouldn't get too hurt. Finally, near the Merritt, there were more lights and stuff. I picked up the pace. When I passed the Merritt I knew where I was and started riding faster. I rode to the entrance of the campus and noticed that, for the first time ever, the gate was down.

When you think it's all over...

Luckily there was a guard in the gatehouse. I told him that I was picking up a car and if it was okay to leave now. He mumbled yes.

Phew.

I got to my car, got my shoes on, and drove home. I got there about 4 AM, exhausted, my throat sore. I fell asleep.

I woke to my phone ringing. I answered, bleary eyed. It was 6 AM. Who the heck?

It was my teammate. He started screaming in joy when I answered the phone. It took a while but he told me what happened on his end.

They got to the finish of the ride and I wasn't there. Since they finished at the back they figured I'd gone to the car. Just in case though, they waited for fifteen minutes... at Tavern on the Green (!).

Then, figuring I'd have ridden up by now, they went to the car. Nothing. They rode back. Nothing.

My teammate always kept an extra key in the trunk so they went to the Velodyne guy's apartment, got a screwdriver, and broke into the trunk of the car.

My teammate forgot that he'd just gotten a new car and didn't have a key stashed away.

They brought the Velodyne upstairs (the car was outside the apartment - Tudor City area) and thought of what they could do. The Velodyne guy had a car in long term storage - so they went and got it out. That cost a lot of money but they finally got the car out and drove it around the Park.

Nothing.

I was probably buying food at this point. Or riding to the train station.

They drove to the Central Park Precinct (I didn't know there were such things). They reported a lost person - a short Asian guy with black short, red shirt, and a yellow nylon wind breaker. On a bike. In October.

The cop sort of chuckled and told my teammate that they'd keep an eye out.

As they walked away the cop yelled out, "Hey it's your lucky day!"

They turned around, thinking I'd just walked in.

"What?", they asked.

"Well, no one's gotten killed in the Park so far tonight!", the cop joked.

My teammate wasn't too happy.

"I think we killed Aki", he said.

Finally, after driving around for hours, they, on a lark, decided to try my house. They woke up another teammate to get my number and then called.

Luckily for me, I was there.

Many years later, like I promised myself, I returned to the City to do some genuine downtown night sprints.

And it was a blast.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Doping - How Do Dopers Live With Themselves?

This letter first appeared in cyclingnews.

How do dopers live with themselves?

What do doper's friends and family think of the doping rider? I think it depends on the family and friends. However there are a couple ways of answering and I think that most of these riders receive support from the people who surround them.

1. Denial. Mark Hacking's (pleaded guilty to killing his wife Lori) father came out on TV and said he honestly believes his son had nothing to do with Lori Hacking's disappearance. Only when confronted with overwhelming evidence did the father step back from his strong convictions. It's very easy to convince yourself that your son/daughter/whoever is "right". I'm sure there are dopers out there who believe they did nothing wrong with friends/family that think the same.

2. Acceptance. Unconditional love means just that. There are riders out there who can barely walk due to the amount of performance enhancers they used (in particular I think of a US cyclist who needs a cane to walk due to heavy steroid use). In a situation like that would you abandon your child or spouse? Probably not. You may not agree with what they did but that's in the past. If your parents got lung cancer because they smoked (and maybe quit but still had the undercover smoke here and there) would you abandon them? You might be upset that they smoked but that won't stop you from visiting the hospital.

3. Support. If a rider could make more money by cheating, and I'm talking a serious amount more (say 100 times more - imagine getting your annual salary every three days!), maybe the rider's family/spouse would understand and help support what they do. If said rider could go from making $50,000 a year to $5,000,000 a year, it might be easy to justify cheating. Or in the case of some white collar criminals, maybe they'll make $500 million or more (Enron, WorldCom, etc). I don't think their families complained too much till they got caught ("No, I don't want another $20 million house" or "no, I really don't want you to hand me down your Ferrari, I'm perfectly happy with my Honda."). Rumsa's wife was supporting someone with all the drugs she had in her car, whether it was her mom or her husband.

Or the rider's friends/family may not care if the rider is cheating or not as long as the rider did well. A friend of mine was a teacher at a private school. If a student cheated, she could not say the student cheated. She had to say something positive like "David has creative problem solving skills". The student's parents would typically sue the school if a teacher or staff said something negative about their child. How can you expect such parents to disapprove of doping?

4. Rejection. Unless the doping rider's family/friends are extremely naive, I can't see this happening. Most people have some understanding of the Machiavellian tendencies seen in business. And a pro rider is a business, riding to make money. A measure of success is how much money the rider makes. So maybe the odd rejection occurs but most racers' friends/family would accept "everyone does it and I did it to stay in the game."

Overall I would think that most "cheating" riders would actually have either support during their cheating or support in the aftermath of getting caught (if they get caught). If true there is little to be lost by doping. The hypocrisy of doping in other sports (like baseball - your first positive gets rewarded by education?) isn't helping matters. This makes it all the more difficult to tether and subdue the practice.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Deep Rims All the Time

A very, very long time ago I watched the Coors Light pro cycling team annihilate its opposition in a series of criteriums in the Tour of Michigan. These guys were sort of the "B squad" - no Stephen Swart, no Dave Mann, no Davis Phinney. But when the good pros show up, well, it becomes apparent once the start whistle is blown.

For many of the races these guys would simply power at the front of the field, stretching it thin, tugging hard, and finally snapping the elastic. The field would implode and withdraw to recover. The Coors Light boys would keep driving, time trialing at the front, dragging along anyone who might consider latching on.

What struck me about the Coors Light boys was part of their equipment selection. Their frames were pretty normal, components standard (no CNC machined bits for them, maybe an SRP bolt kit but that would have been it), but when you looked at their hoops....

They all rode Specialized TriSpokes, front and back.

Curious selection I thought.

But man these guys rocked the field. No one, and I mean no one, could stay with them. Everyone else rode box section rims - standard light stuff, great for perhaps a road race, but we're talking crits with hills you need to shift down to at least the 53x14 to climb.

I have to think that the wheels helped their cause immensely. My non-scientific experience indicates that the wheels were probably worth a good 2-3 mph at the 32-35 mph they'd be holding. A great tactic would have been to simply hammer at a very high speed, force all the non-aero-wheel guys to dig deep into their reserves simply to hang on, and after a bunch of laps like that, well, that's when you attack.

And just ride away from the bunch.

I did the Cat 3 Tour de Michigan those years and the first year there was a guy who wore a uniform that looked like the Dutch national jersey - three strips, red, white, blue. He had no teammates, wasn't too big, but he was strong and could sprint forever.

He lost a lot of precious points when his chain broke in the middle of a sprint, causing him to flip over the bars with about a hundred meters to go during one of the "stages". Whatever injuries he sustained couldn't have helped his cause either, but he went on to win the eight race series.

Interestingly enough, he also ran dual TriSpokes, the only one in the race to do so.

If you think about it, such wheels allow you to drag race (meaning race side by side) others to the line while holding a huge advantage. If they hold your speed, they exert more energy - they'll blow up sooner. If you exert the same amount of energy, you'll go faster because your wheels allow you to do so.

When I raced there I selected light wheels over aero ones. As you might expect, the only sprints I placed in were those where a jump counted more than top speed - where the finish lines were close to the last turn. Nevertheless I managed to earn my entry fee back for the whole race. I was reasonably happy with my success.

The next year the Cat 3 Tour de Michigan was won by a very unassuming (i.e. potbellied) Cat 3 from Paris, Kentucky. He rode Zipp 440s front and back - and those aero wheels seemed to give him a little oomph as well. My race was not so good - I didn't make back my entry and I ended up on the deck at least once as well.

After the Michigan experiences I decided that perhaps these aero wheels would be a good thing. I didn't have the light, second generation TriSpokes (the first generation wheels felt like they were made from cast iron). I worked on and managed to get a second generation wheelset and started using them for racing. It was only when I got a clincher front that I trained on a front TriSpoke consistently. This allowed me to acclimate myself to the wheel's handling characteristics, specifically the way you hold a line with it (you have to steer a bit - the wheel acts as a rudder). I also got used to its reaction to crosswinds.

By the mid 90's I'd been experimenting with other wheels - Zipps, a very lightweight disk wheel (some prototype), and assorted aero or light wheels. The TriSpokes remained the fastest wheels although the deep (50+ mm) carbon Zipp 440s were very fast as well.

I raced on these wheels all the time. Guys would question my sanity when I lined up with deep section rims on a day with gusty winds or a fast descent. But I felt comfortable with the wheels, having trained on them consistently. In fact I was squirrelly when I chose to ride non-aero wheels because I got so used to actively steering the bike, a riding technique forced on me by aero wheel characteristics.

I don't think the fact that these wheels were fast was any secret. Pros used them. Amateurs did too.

About a decade later, after various teams used aero wheels, it seems like the last, developmentally stunted Pro teams are finally catching on. It's unusual to see a pro without deep section wheels now. Looking at the specs, there's virtually no penalty in going from the "ultra light" climbing Zipp 202s to the Zipp 404s (+100g per wheel). Why would anyone race the non-aero wheels in anything but a typhoon?

The main reason, I think, for the aero wheels is the UCI rules, specifically the minimum weight rule. It states that bicycles must weigh a minimum of 6.8 kilograms, a hair under 15 pounds. With the sub 1000 gram frames, sub 350 gram forks, and the ever lighter components, a pro team would be hard pressed to build a bike that actually reaches the limit.

The limit then becomes an envelope within which one builds the bike construct.

In other words, you can tweak the bike by using excess lightness and using a part that is a bit heavier but stiffer, stronger, or more aerodynamic. For example, from examining Cancellara's Cervelo, it is apparent that he's chosen to ride a heavier aluminum crank rather than the "nice" carbon one. He also uses Zipp 808s (another 100 grams heavier than the 404s). As a rouleur, the wheels are a natural choice. I'd think a sprinter might select them too, perhaps in the rear for stability, with a slightly lighter, slightly more "twitchable" 404 up front.

I'm sure that a team like CSC is not willing to handicap their riders too much. One can assume that Cancellara's bike is around minimum weight. Instead of adding weights or other gimicky things, the team (and/or the rider) added functionality to the bike.

In 2006, PowerTap's most famous rider, Floyd Landis, opted to use 200 grams of his 6800 gram allotment to carry around a PowerTap hub (200 grams is the typical penalty for the PT hub versus a normal hub). With the bike already extremely lightweight, the PT did not penalize him as far as weight went. Nowadays you'll see SRM cranks all over (but some of them are only +30 grams from the non-SRM version of the crank). The minimum weight has opened doors for some tweaking and adjusting without making the racer feel like they're penalizing themselves.

Once you get your bike down to the minimum weight, there are three, perhaps four areas which offer opportunity for performance enhancement.

1. Efficiency/rigidity - if you can use a bicycle which transfers power more efficiently, you'll use more of power to propel the bike forward. Typically this area is improved by using more rigid frames, bars/stems, cranks, and/or wheelsets. Usually increased rigidity means a bit of extra weight but for those with the luxury of being under 6800 grams, this is one area the ride can improve to bring up the bike's weight.

2. Aerodynamics - if you can make the bicycle more aerodynamic, it requires less power to go the same speed. You can improve this by using an aero frame, aero wheels, aero components, or an aero/TT position. Often these aero components are heavier. If you're starting with a 6000 gram bike, you have 800 grams of "aero" to add.

3. Strength - in a race that goes over rough roads or for skittish racers, using a heavier part may do more for the rider's confidence than having a really light bike. Witness Hincapie's second crash of the 2006 Paris Roubaix when his steerer tube failed. Obviously his first fall, although seemingly harmless, exceeded some kind of limits in crash resistance, resulting in the steerer tube failing spectacularly. I'm sure a slightly stronger steerer tube wouldn't hurt his confidence for the next Paris Roubaix.

4. A semi-category would be fit, ergonomics, and monitoring. The first would include variations in fit (arch cleats, forward seatpost, crank arm length variations, etc). The second, ergonomics, might include things like electric shifters (instead of cable-actuated - doesn't that sound ancient? - shifters), proper gear selection, maybe a more comfortable seat or bar. The third would include devices that allow racers to monitor their engines (i.e. themselves) like power meters, cyclometers, etc.

Any of the categories listed above can help improve overall bicycle/racer performance. However, the easiest, most cost effective, and most versatile improvement will come from slapping on a set of aero wheels.

What it comes down to is that in today's bike racing game, aero wheels are here to stay. Get a pair, train on them.

And level the playing field in your favor just a bit.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Racing - Naugatuck Crit, Sort Of

Emergency Broadcast Service.

Okay, so now it's called the Emergency Alert System.

I don't remember ever hearing it, even when I was in NYC during 9/11, with the walking the streets of Manhattan, waiting for train service to start. Sure you hear tests and stuff. But never the real thing.

Well, someone hit the panic button yesterday.

Our "flashback to the 90's retro music radio" was interrupted by the EBS (and on a side note, when the 90's is retro, well, suddenly we both felt a bit older). Anyway, we heard a warning of damaging penny-sized hail, wind gusts of up to 60 mph, and ground lightning, and all this as we were driving about two miles from the course. I actually parked the car under a big tree so that hail wouldn't hit it as hard. My logic - I figured hail falls everywhere but lightning only strikes here and there.

I registered just because I was there. Plus the D'Aniellos are good people. Got back to the car. Sat in it while they stopped the Pro/1/2/3 race for the lightning to pass. I had my work laptop with me so booted it up and checked out the weather. A red band of rain stuff was passing over us and when it seemed like it was about done I got out and put my bike together. Then, dressed in my kit, I started to warm up in a steady rain.

Now for all my talk about cornering and stuff, I haven't done a race in the rain where I have to actually turn sort of hard since, well, since maybe a Danbury Crit (I crashed) or Tour of Michigan (I crashed). So a crit in a downtown area with crosswalks, manhole covers, and other slippery things wasn't the best way to ease into rainy riding.

I also started a bit gun-shy as I'd actually trained outside in misty rain a few days earlier - and bombing down a descent in my 53x11, I started losing the back tire around a long curve which ended on a bridge over a 20 or 30 foot gorge. After a bit my more cautious teammate caught up to me and asked if I almost lost it. I guess my "stop pedaling, no body English, slow drift until I was inches from the bridge wall" sort of gave him a hint.

Apparently he did a nice, slow rally spin on a wet ramp a short time before (unfortunately hitting things with his rental AWD Subaru) and so, like a smart person, took the descent a bit more cautiously than yours truly.

It didn't help that on my warm-up my bike felt really skitterish - I almost went off on a fast but gradual left curve as the crown of the road forced my bike deep down the right shoulder - only the rougher pavement there got me feeling like I could correct my trajectory.

The last straw was watching the last few laps of the Pro/1/2/3 race - and there were two crashes in the last five laps or so, both in turns.

So I lined up a bit nervous about the road with about 15 or 20 hardy souls. I think most of them were quite fit. When there's a small group with wet roads, the general outcome is a break which wins followed by a field blown to pieces. Fitness counts more than anything else.

And I don't have fitness.

The weather eased up for the race itself. It was raining but nothing major. The wind died down. The skies weren't as dark. But the roads were still wet, the shiny crosswalks still there, and the even shinier manhole covers waited to slip up an overconfident racer.

Me, not the overconfident one. I drive like an old man in snow - I'm rarely above the slowest 25% on the road and I have very aggressive snows on my (winter) car. Okay I accelerate hard, I don't mind driving aggressively when I'm going slow, but get me to a point where the car could go into a nice, lazy spin and I back off and let the others take their chances.

I read in a car thing somewhere that nothing is as scary as feeling your car start to drift on a long, fast, sweeping turn when you're going 100+ mph.

I felt that feeling once and I really never want to feel it again.

Works to keep insurance rates down.

Doesn't work to race bikes.

During the race I jumped hard out of the two harder turns. The first turn leads to a downhill so no real jump necessary, but the second turn leads to a long, slightly uphill straight and the third turn is a hairpin leading to the long finishing straight.

My light PowerTap wheel worked fine, I accelerated reasonably well. But my fitness doesn't allow me a lot of those types of jumps.

Actually, thanks to this race, I now know exactly how many jumps I have for a race.

Four.

I did two laps, i.e. four jumps, fine. The third lap I went around the first turn, down the hill, took the second turn, accelerated... and could not get onto the wheel I let go. I held a reasonable speed to the third turn but blew completely by the time I started the fourth lap.

So I stopped.

My fiancee was watching from the side of the road - and the gap on the third lap meant things weren't going well. So when I rolled in almost lapped on the fourth lap she wasn't surprised.

We packed up and went to get something to eat. Of course some work related thing popped up so I had to work before I could munch on the food in front of me. We talked about things, the race, work, you know, things.

I realized that if I want to race in any kind of competitive manner, I'd have to ride more. I've been faking it well but I simply don't have a lot of fitness. I'm waiting for our move up north as I'll be able to do a lot more riding. But for now I decided that I'll be riding a lot more in the morning. Even if I can't do crazy efforts, at least I'll be on the bike.

Earlier I talked to one of my best friends Mike. He raced with me a while back, worked with me, and he'd been a friend for many years. Strong rider. He hadn't ridden for about 10 years. He'd threaten to buy a bike now and then but work would catch up to him and he'd postpone the bike thing. A couple weeks ago he called me about bikes.

He ended up buying an off the rack bike, shoes, pedals, clothing, helmet, everything you need to ride. So it wasn't like his polish-like-a-jewel Coppi with all Campy, spinning on some handbuilt wheels. But it's a start. And he is riding an hour or two, every day, before he gets to work. And he gets there at 7:30 in the morning.

So he's my inspiration.

If he can do it, so can I.