DJWriter
The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
 
Baseball & Bicycling
Holy Cow! by Harry Caray with Bob Verdi - Caray is my all-time favorite broadcaster so when I saw this for $2 at Half Price Books, I couldn't pass it up. It's from 1989, a year that would prove memorable yet ultimately -- inevitably -- disappointing for the Chicago Cubs. Many Cubs fans also may have been disappointed with this book since most of it describes Caray's earlier years broadcasting in St. Louis and for the White Sox, but I enjoyed it. Longtime Chicago Tribune sports columnist Verdi stays true to the sportscaster's inimitable voice; I could easily imagine Caray telling these stories from an adjacent bar stool. I only wish there were more tales about the late-night carousing for which he was famous (the Mayor of Rush Street). This book could have been 100 pages longer without wearing out its welcome.

Tour de France/Tour de Force: A Visual History of the World's Greatest Bicycle Race by James Startt - I got the original hardcover edition of this when it came out and read almost half as evidenced by the bookmark, a lunch receipt from January 2001. This summer I saw the paperback "100-Year Anniversary Edition"* in the bargain bin at the local Borders. I was pretty sure I already had the book, but I couldn't remember. After all, I hadn't looked at it in eight years. Since it was only $1.00, I went ahead and bought it. When I got home, I found the hardcover edition and started reading the softcover where I had left off (conveniently, the page numbers match up). When I finished, I went back through the final pages of the hardcover edition just to see how much Startt had updated (very little, it turns out).** Tour de France/Tour de Force combines a photo-packed coffee table book with a fact-filled historical narrative of the Tour. Unfortunately, its ostensibly chronological organization is flawed. The author highlights a famous champion and then describes the Tours of that champion's era. The confused reader gets redundant chapters essentially telling the same story but with different details included. Aside from that, this book is a decent introduction to the history of the Tour de France with lots of quality photographs, many taken by the author.

Current tally: 94 books finished, 86 books acquired



* The Tour de France started in 1903, but it was not held during the World Wars. Although the "100-Year Anniversary" Tour was in 2003, the 100th Tour has not been run yet.

** For the purposes of Book Challenge 2009, the paperback counts as "acquired" this year but the two editions count as only one "finished."

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Monday, July 20, 2009
 
Lance, Lance, Lance
Over the years, my feelings about Lance Armstrong have shifted many times. I started as an admirer and fan -- though never truly fanatic -- around the time he won Tour de France #2 in 2000 (I hadn't followed pro cycling previously). Eventually, I decided he's kind of a jerk (which may be a polite understatement), but I also acknowledge that he has accomplished a lot more on and off the bike (winning seven Tours and assisting cancer survivors through his foundation) than I ever will. Oddly, although I consider Armstrong to be a polarizing figure, I personally feel ambivalent about him.

I think the problem most people have with Armstrong is that he isn't what they expect or want him to be. Many expect winners to be gracious and humble, but he's brash and arrogant. Some want to praise God for his recovery from cancer, but he is not religious. Amazon reviewers even criticize him for using the f-word in his book, as if Lance the Hero isn't allowed to swear. I give him credit for being himself and not trying to meet the expectations of others, but at the same time, I don't think he's particularly likeable.

In the past four years, I have accumulated several books about Armstrong, picking them up at bargain prices (total cost $12). With his return to the Tour this year, I decided that if I don't read them now, I never will. Thus began two weeks of Lance overload.

Chasing Lance: The 2005 Tour de France and Lance Armstrong's Ride of a Lifetime by Martin Dugard - A quick read, this book is the weakest of the bunch. It's part sports reporting and part travelogue but isn't exactly riveting as either. Only the greenest of pro cycling fans will gain much from it. Dugard describes the 2005 Tour as experienced by a sports journalist. He writes about the press tent and the logistics of getting from the start to the finish of each stage. He details the daily phenomena of the Tour, such as the assembly and disassembly of a miniature city in each host town along the route. Actual race coverage is inconsistent. This book could have been a long magazine article. The ideal Chasing Lance reader would probably be someone with little cycling knowledge who has been assigned to write about the next Tour and wants to know what to expect.

Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins - Wow, a book from the 2000s without a lengthy subtitle! I read It's Not About the Bike many years ago. That popular book, the now familiar story of Armstrong's life up to his first Tour victory, is a tough act to follow. Every Second Counts is Armstrong's version of the middle years of his Tour reign. Armstrong fanatics will no doubt enjoy this book (they've probably already read it). It gives a good feel for who he is and also what he has to put up with (such as the drawn-out French doping investigation of his team). He shares many anecdotes from cycling as well as his relationships with cancer survivors. It's a decent book, but knowing how Lance controls his image, one feels like it's only half the story. By the way, a third memoir is coming in December: Comeback 2.0: Up Close and Personal.

Lance Armstrong's War: One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France by Daniel Coyle - This is the best book of the three. Coyle covers all facets of Armstrong's 2004 cycling season: training, racing, equipment, doping allegations, Sheryl Crow, teammates, trainers, business, lawsuits... plus his primary Tour competitors Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, and Iban Mayo. Although I followed pro cycling religously in the mid-2000s, I still found new information in this book. It gives the reader an idea of Armstrong's environment with all its challenges and distractions. I think it's reasonably balanced, tilting in Armstrong's favor. Since bookstores are filled with Lance hagiographies, some Amazon reviewers actually think this book is negative, but it's nothing like David Walsh's accusatory, innuendo-filled volumes. Aside from devout Lance-haters, any cycling fan should enjoy the breadth and depth of Lance Armstrong's War.

Current tally: 57 books finished, 54 books acquired

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008
 
I Called It
For anyone curious how long I will milk a lame joke, here's a news item:

Laws injured in training

British rider Sharon Laws, tipped to join team-mate Nicole Cooke in the Great Britain women's road race team in Beijing, is to see a specialist to assess the implications of an ankle injury sustained this week after a heavy fall while training with her Halfords-Bikehut team near Abergavenny in Wales.

"Breaking Ms. Laws, breaking Ms. Laws..."

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Saturday, June 07, 2008
 
Jerry Springer's Favorite Cyclist
Just about any well-informed "all-time top ten" list of cyclists would have to include Jacques Anquetil. He was the first to win the Tour de France five times, and he was one of only four men to win every three-week Grand Tour (France, Italy, Spain) at least once. He even led the 1961 Tour de France and the 1963 Vuelta a Espana from the first stage to the finish.

Anquetil was controversially frank about doping:
"If you want to accuse me of having doped, it's not difficult. All you have to to do is look at my thighs and buttocks – they're veritable pin cushions. You have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who races 235 days a year in all weather can keep going without stimulants," Anquetil said bluntly.
But the Frenchman's love life is what would interest Jerry Springer. He met his doctor's wife, Jeanine, they had an affair, and she left the doctor to marry Anquetil in 1958. Things became much more interesting after Anquetil's retirement in 1969:

His greatest desire was to father a child. He had two stepchildren, Jeanine's son and daughter from her first marriage, and she could have no more... A surrogate mother was needed, and one was found: his 18 year-old stepdaughter, Annie. The result was daughter Sophie. Anquetil stayed together with his wife, stepdaughter and daughter in one household for some 12 years. There was, as might be expected, much friction in the house, and matters weren't improved in 1977, when his stepson Alain brought his new wife Dominique home. By 1983, things came to a head. Annie moved out, to be followed by Jeanine, when Anquetil and Dominique became lovers. They eventually had a son, Christopher, in April 1986.
Alas, Anquetil died in 1987, four years before Springer made such twisted liaisons seem commonplace.

To learn more about Anquetil's achievements on the road and in the velodrome, plus his colorful personal life, check out Sex, Lies And Handlebar Tape by Paul Howard, due to be released in the United States on November 1, 2008.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008
 
Congratulations to a Great Champion
Alberto Contador's overall victory in the Giro d'Italia, sealed with a good performance in today's final time trial, harks back to the cycling champions of the past.

In the modern peloton, particularly since Lance Armstrong began his seven-year Tour de France winning streak in 1999, cyclists follow complex training schedules designed to peak for certain races. In fact, Armstrong's training was so carefully tailored that he didn't just peak for the Tour de France; his peak coincided specifically with the toughest few days of that three-week tour. On top of that, Armstrong and several teammates rode the hardest mountain stages months in advance so they would know exactly what to expect. Many fans criticized Armstrong for this focused approach, saying that his specialized preparation made him a one-trick pony, especially since he tended to take August and September off while others continued racing. In fact, once he started winning the Tour, Armstrong never rode the Giro or the Vuelta a Espana, the sport's other grand tours.

In contrast, Contador's Astana team wasn't even invited to the Giro d'Italia until a week before the race began.* The grateful team sent its three best stage racers, but none had planned or trained for the race. Contador and American Levi Leipheimer were on vacation when they learned they would be racing three hard weeks in Italy. Andreas Klöden was designated as the team leader on the strength of his victory in the week-long Tour de Romandie, which ended on the same day Astana was invited to the Giro. While his form was good, he was no more prepared for the Giro than the rest of his team.

In the end, Leipheimer finished 18th, about as well as one might expect under his circumstances, and Klöden dropped out after getting sick during the race. But Contador had shockingly good form and became the team's sole leader. Although he didn't brutally crush his opponents like Armstrong did in the Tour de France, he defeated men who trained for the Giro, talented riders (particularly Italians) for whom this was the race of the year. To do it without specific training to peak for the race is an awesome achievement. As far as I'm concerned, this proves without a doubt that Contador is not only the best stage racer in the world, but head and shoulders above the rest. Oh, and I forgot to mention that he fractured his elbow in a crash before the Giro's halfway point and still outclassed the rest of the field. What a champion!


* Despite being the team of Tour de France winner Contador and third-place Leipheimer, Astana was excluded from the Giro and the Tour as part of a political struggle between race organizers and pro cycling's governing body. The Giro organizer decided to drop another team, which opened up a slot for Astana, but Contador most likely won't get to defend his title in France this July.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008
 
Viagra: the New Cycling Performance Drug?
A cyclingnews.com report titled "Riders using Viagra for altitude?" examines medical research about the little blue pill's effect on cycling performance in the mountains.

This reminds me of the controversy surrounding hypoxic tents, which simulate the low-oxygen environment of high altitude. This encourages the body to create more red blood cells, improving aerobic capacity and endurance. Two years ago, the World Anti-Doping Agency considered banning such tents because they achieve results similar to blood doping.

Now there is another way to improve cycling performance by pitching a tent.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008
 
I Always Associated Him With Motorcycles
Here's some pro bicycling news from earlier this week:

Halfords signs Laws

Britain's leading women's team Halfords Bikehut has strengthened its squad with new signing Sharon Laws. The 33-year old, who has returned to the United Kingdom after working in South Africa and Australia, will ride her first major race for the Team at Flèche Wallonne on April 23.

Judas Priest fans are probably wondering if Halfords will break her.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008
 
Bastard of the Day
Pro cyclists are tested regularly for illegal subtances. But sometimes a cyclist truly deserves privacy:
Belgian cyclist Kevin van Impe raised strong objections to being visited by anti-doping controllers while he was making arrangements for the funeral of his infant son this week. The Quick Step rider was at a crematorium in Lochristi, Belgium when a drug tester showed up demanding the rider provide a sample, and warned that he would face a two-year suspension if he refused.
Oh, sure. It's the old "burying my dead baby" excuse that cheating cyclists always use to evade testing! The drug tester was just following orders, so the BotD award goes to whichever heartless, inflexible governing body is responsible for this (the news brief isn't clear). Sheesh.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007
 
2008 Tour de Georgia to Honor DJWriter's Legendary Ride
Why else would the race be starting on Tybee Island if not to commemorate the sixth anniversary of my coast to coast bicycle tour? Of course, the pros are unlikely to begin with a wheel dip in the Atlantic, but by golly, they should! I guess the mechanics wouldn't be too thrilled with the sand -- I sure wasn't.

The racers also won't have to contend with traffic on the series of virtually shoulderless bridges from Tybee to Savannah, although they won't be able to avoid the wind. Alas, by heading up to Statesboro to start Stage 2, they'll never learn that "Everything's Better in Metter!"

As returning champion, will Janez Brajkovic and his Astana team get dibs on Cecil B. Day's first Days Inn?

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Saturday, September 08, 2007
 
Latest Tour De France News
Last week, the Onion announced, "Non-Doping Cyclists Finish Tour De France." Of course, the race ended more than a month ago for most cyclists, but Finland's Piet Kvistik persevered:
"This is a very, very proud day for me," said the 115-pound Kvistik, who lost 45% of his body mass during the event, toppled from his saddle moments after finishing, and had to be administered oxygen, fed intravenously, and injected with adrenaline by attending medical personnel... Kvistik finished a mere 480 hours behind Alberto Contador, the overall winner, making 2007's margin between doping and non-doping riders the closest in history.
As usual, the Onion did their homework, "quoting" pro cycling's legendary announcer, Phil Liggett:
"It's rather a shame that the Tour's 'clean' riders, or 'lanternes naturelles' as the fans call them, receive so little attention, for their monumental achievement," said cycling commentator Phil Liggett... "It's nearly impossible to compete in the full Tour while shot full of human growth hormone, erythropoietin, testosterone, glucocorticosteroids, synthetic testosterone, anabolic steroids, horse testosterone, amphetamines, and one's own pre-packed oxygen-rich red blood cells. To do it on water and bananas is almost heroic, no matter what one's time is."
So what became of cycling's dope-free hero after the race?
Kvistik remains in critical condition at the Hôpital Neuilly-sur-Seine, where he was placed in a medically induced coma to aid his recovery from exhaustion, malnutrition, and loss of bone density. Attending physicians say he is not expected to return to cycling.
Oh well, maybe next year's winner will fare better.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007
 
Bastard of the Day
With all the doping drama in France this week, it's easy to forget there is bike racing all over the world. During yesterday's third stage of the International Tour de 'Toona (named for Altoona, PA), several riders were nearly killed by this impatient bastard truck driver who pulled his tractor-trailer loaded with earthmoving equipment out onto the course in front of them:
Cyclingnews.com has the series of photos by Kirt Jambretz/www.actionimages.cc :
There was really no reason for it. The driver ended up behind the bikes anyway, and he could have pulled out 20-30 seconds later without scaring the bejeezus out of everybody. It's highway terrorism. Where's the Department of Homeland Security when you need them?

Note to anyone who wishes I had used a better photo: since I do not own the rights, I would be uncomfortable using anything bigger than a thumbnail. Please visit the links to cyclingnews.com, and respect copyrighted material on the Internet!

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It All Comes Down to Money
The Predictor-Lotto pro cycling team is planning to sue Alexandre Vinokourov and his Astana team for $10 million for lost publicity. Vino received the lion's share of media attention after winning the Stage 13 time trial while benefiting from an illegal homologous blood transfusion. Cadel Evans of Predictor-Lotto finished second, so if Vino hadn't cheated, Evans would have been the winner and his photo instead of Vino's would have graced the cover of every European newspaper the next day.

Like NASCAR, pro cycling wouldn't exist without sponsors. The reason companies sponsor cycling teams is to get their names on television and in the newspapers. That's why you see riders with little chance of winning take off on long breakaways that are almost inevitably swallowed by the peloton (the main group of riders) before the finish -- because they and their jerseys and the sponsors on those jerseys get a lot of television exposure that way.

Sponsors expect a reasonable return on their investment (title sponsorships for Pro Tour teams cost between $8 and $15 million per year, as I recall). When someone uses fraudulent means to win a race, he is effectively taking that return away from the second place team. I don't recall seeing a suit like this in the six years that I've followed the sport, but it does not surprise me. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

My guess is that the Astana team will not be held responsible if they can prove they were unaware of Vino's illegal activities. Vinokourov, however, could be on the hook for a lot of money, especially for someone who is unemployed and suspended for at least two years (plus all Tour cyclists signed an anti-doping pledge before the race stating they would relinquish an entire year's salary if caught doping). Just fighting to clear one's name is expensive -- look at what Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis paid to lawyers and assorted experts while defending themselves. Lawsuits from negatively impacted competitors on top of that could bankrupt anyone in the peloton.

This could be devastating for Vinokourov, yet the threat of such drastic measures could be the impetus to finally clean up the sport. At this point, however, I'm not holding my breath.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007
 
Chicken's Head Chopped Off
After many days of speculation about Michael "Chicken" Rasmussen's honesty in reporting to anti-doping officials, the Rabobank team has pulled him out of the Tour de France and fired him. Riders are required to report their schedules so that they can be found for out-of-competition testing, and Rasmussen apparently lied about his whereabouts. According to Rabobank, he said he was in Mexico when in fact he was in Italy. Although this reflects poorly on the Tour, I can't say I'm upset about Rasmussen being the guilty rider. I can't put my finger on it, but for some reason I never liked him.

While some are wondering what took Rabobank so long, I applaud them. It isn't easy to fire a guy while he is winning the biggest bike race in the world, so I don't blame them for waiting until they were absolutely certain. This is in sharp contrast to the decision to prevent a bunch of riders from starting last year's race because of doping suspicions (the Operacion Puerto affair). Some of those riders -- including new race leader Alberto Contador -- were later cleared of any involvement, long after they lost their chance to contest the 2006 Tour.

I feel sorry for Rabobank riders like Michael Boogerd and Denis Menchov, who busted their tails to keep Rasmussen in the yellow jersey only to see it come to naught. Also, I hope Contador, the exciting young Spaniard riding for Discovery Channel, is indeed clean. The sport needs young stars to replace the suspected or disgraced old guard. The repercussions from the past few days will be felt in pro cycling for months to come, in the form of sanctioned riders, dropped sponsorships, and even disbanded teams.

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Bastard of the Day
Be careful what you say, lest it come back to haunt you. Today's winner is Cofidis pro cycling team manager Eric Boyer. Reacting to Alexandre Vinokourov's positive test for homologous blood doping at the Tour de France yesterday, Boyer said
I feel sick. I hope that Vinokourov won't be a coward and deny everything. He said that he worked with Ferrari (a doctor with connections to doping) just for training plans. He always told us what a brave guy he is, that he is stronger than the pain, that the French ride behind everyone else because they are lazier. Now we see that he is a big bastard. These practices discredit all of cycling again.
Well, today another cyclist, Cristian Moreni, tested positive for testosterone doping. And guess which team he rides for? Yep, Cofidis. Moreni and the entire team have withdrawn from the Tour. Now who's the "big bastard," Mr. Boyer?

The cynical among us (moi?) will say today's news is more proof that everyone in pro cycling is guilty of doping. If that is indeed true, then Boyer should have known better than to feign piety.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007
 
Oh No, Not Vino!
Today being a rest day, I wasn't paying much attention to the Tour de France. Then an e-mail from VeloNews arrived with shocking news: Alexandre Vinokourov, the man favored to win this year's Tour de France before it began, has tested positive for a homologous blood transfusion (meaning a transfusion from a person with a compatible blood type). Consequently, he and his team -- which included the fifth and eighth-placed riders and led the teams classification -- have withdrawn from the race.

Vino, who won the Vuelta a Espana (another three-week tour) last fall, has always been a fighter, an attacker, the sort of guy who makes a race exciting and unpredictable. I have always admired his determination and panache. His victory in Stage 15 of the Tour yesterday was a prime example.

I suppose it all adds up. Vinokourov suffered injuries to both knees in Stage 5 of the Tour and lost a fair amount of blood. Then he came back to win the Stage 13 time trial as well as yesterday's mountain stage. One cannot win a time trial, which depends on a body running at its best, with a short supply of blood, particularly the red cells that transport oxygen to the muscles. I'm not a doctor, but perhaps Vino's body was unable to naturally replace all the red blood cells he lost in Stage 5 so quickly, particularly since his body was under the extreme stress of racing the Tour. So Vino got an extra boost, and he got caught.

Damn it, there's just no one to believe in anymore. I thought Tyler Hamilton was the kind of guy who just worked hard and would never dope. Then when he got busted, I latched onto Roberto Heras. When he got suspended, I turned to Floyd Landis, and we all know what happened to him. Now Vinokourov, the pride of Kazakhstan, the man who gave that country a chance to be known for something better than Borat, has let me down, too.

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Monday, July 02, 2007
 
Tour de France Boss Has a Lot of Gaul (sic)
The Unibet.com pro cycling team has had a hard time this year. Although the team was accepted into the top level Pro Tour by the UCI (cycling's international governing body), the laws in certain countries along with turf wars between the UCI and race organizers have made their season a bust.

In France, online gambling is illegal, as is advertising for a site like Unibet.com. Early in the season, the team wore special jerseys in France that didn't mention their main sponsor. The second problem is more complicated and without such an easy solution. Race organizers contend that the UCI made the Pro Tour too big. The UCI requires races to allow every Pro Tour team to enter, but race organizers say there are so many Pro Tour teams that they don't get to invite enough wildcards (wildcards are usually inferior but local teams). Consequently, they have chosen to exclude Unibet.com from their races.

All of this amounts to a conspiracy against the Unibet.com team. The sponsor has put up a lot of money for a Pro Tour license and yet has been denied the promised advertising exposure. The riders have been shut out of many of the biggest races, including the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. The team has only been allowed in half of the Pro Tour races, and yet they are ranked 19th, ahead of a team that has done every race. I'd say they have done well considering the circumstances.

Now Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France, says Unibet.com can't race in the Tour because they haven't produced good results. But there's a problem with his reasoning -- he and his organization have been directly responsible for locking Unibet.com out of many Pro Tour races, eliminating their opportunities to get those results.

That's like not inviting someone to your wedding and then trying to blame them for not attending.

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Friday, June 30, 2006
 
"Crazy Shit Going Down" at Tour de France
Operación Puerto, a doping investigation by Spanish authorities, is wreaking havoc on the 2006 Tour de France. Things are coming to a head just as the biggest race of the year is set to start on Saturday. Tour organizers have taken an ever-tougher stance against performance-enhancing drugs since 1998, when a drug scandal nearly shut down the race. With that in mind, they have advised the teams that any rider implicated in Operación Puerto will not start the Tour de France. Note that this does not follow the American system of law -- these riders haven't been found guilty of anything yet. They are being removed from the race to avoid controversy over the results in case they are convicted in the future.

Early this morning, the T-Mobile team announced that Jan Ullrich, a perennial favorite for victory, has been suspended. I went to sleep for a few hours and awoke to learn that Ivan Basso, 2006 Giro di Italia winner and 2005 Tour runner-up to Lance Armstrong, is also out of the race, as is 2005 fourth place finisher Francisco Mancebo. With Armstrong retired, that means the top four riders from last year will be absent in 2006. Although 2005 fifth place finisher Alexandre Vinokourov has not been mentioned in Operación Puerto, his team has the most riders implicated. Tour organizers would like to send his entire team home. At the very least, several riders would be eliminated, putting Vinokourov at a disadvantage (the Tour organizers are not letting teams replace the suspended riders; they must compete shorthanded).

These shocking developments should benefit Americans Levi Leipheimer (sixth last year) and Floyd Landis (ninth last year). Their teams, along with Armstrong's former team, Discovery Channel, do not have any riders involved in the scandal (actually Landis' team has two, but neither were on the Tour's starting list). The entire character of the race will change because the teams of the favorites, especially T-Mobile and Basso's CSC, were expected to do most of the work to control the race. Now that burden will fall on other teams.

When Discovery Channel took over sponsorship of the U.S. Postal Service team, Armstrong promised them he would race one more Tour de France, either in 2005 or 2006. I am sure he is very happy that he chose 2005 and retired because the winner of this year's race will be qualified forever with "but he beat a weakened field." At this point, I can only hope that the evidence against these riders is rock solid. If they turn out to be wrongly accused, no judge can go back and award them a start in the race many have based their entire season around.

So where did the quote in the title of this post come from? That's what I said this morning when I read the headlines about Basso and Mancebo.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006
 
What's in a Name?
Though announcements of last minute line-up changes before the Tour de France generally aren't very interesting, I got a chuckle out of the biblical undertones in this story...
The Rabobank team yesterday announced its Tour squad with one adjustment to its initial plans: Bram de Groot replaces Thomas Dekker in the line-up... "This is our best possible team at this moment," team manager Erik Breukink said. "There were too many doubts concerning the condition of Thomas Dekker to take him to the Tour de France. Thomas had the same doubts."

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Sunday, June 25, 2006
 
Bastard of the Day
According to an interview in the French sports newspaper L'Equipe, Greg LeMond, America's first Tour de France champion, has been "threatened" by Lance Armstrong, America's latest Tour de France champion. The two have been doing this crap for years. First LeMond makes vague accusations about Armstrong being chemically enhanced that sound like sour grapes from a diminished champion (not only has Armstrong won more Tours, but of course he is much more popular than LeMond ever was). Then Armstrong tells him to shut his mouth, sounding more like a pro wrestler than a pro cyclist. This exchange has played out several times over the last five years or so. LeMond is the conspiratorial whisperer, then Lance is the bully, then LeMond is the crybaby.

Enough already! Both were great Tour champions. Both overcame adversity (LeMond was shot in a hunting accident, and everyone knows Armstrong's story). And guess what? Now that Armstrong has retired, both are irrelevant has-beens as far as pro cycling goes. Their rivalry won't improve either of their legacies. For unsportsmanlike conduct and trash talk ad nauseum, Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong are Co-Bastards of the Day.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006
 
Maybe He Shouldn't Have Appealed
Whenever a pro cyclist gets caught with an illegal substance in his blood or urine, he or she inevitably appeals the charge and/or sentence. Fighting it is pretty much the only way a rider can maintain innocence or feign integrity -- if you don't appeal, you may as well brand "doper" on your forehead. The only other strategy I've seen is virginal contrition: "I'm so sorry I did it, this was the first and only time I ever used drugs, why was I so stupid?" Of course, the cynics among us translate that as "I'm so sorry I got caught, this was the first and only time I ever got caught using drugs, why was I so stupid to get caught?"

Sometimes appeals are successful. Anomalies are found in testing procedures, false positives are identified, lapses in protocol occur, etc. As for sentencing, sometimes a cyclist can get his suspension reduced or at least changed to start the day after he stopped racing rather than the day he was found guilty. This was the case with David Millar, who may race the Tour de France this year thanks to his sentence being applied retroactively (he also tried to get his sentence reduced but failed).

Anyway, the appeal strategy backfired terribly this week for Danilo Hondo. He was hoping for an acquittal because although he tested positive for the stimulant Carphedon, there supposedly wasn't enough present to provide any performance gain. Alas, the Court of Arbitration for Sport instead determined that Hondo had been under-sentenced with a one-year suspension when he should have been suspended for two years. In addition to the two-year suspension, Hondo cannot race in the Pro Tour (the top level of pro cycling) for another two years. Oops. Hondo had hoped to return to his Gerolsteiner team in April, but now he may not be back at all.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005
 
A Cycling Championship Of Our Own
For the past two decades, the U.S. national road racing champion has been determined by the USPRO championship race in Philadelphia. But there was always a catch -- the race was open to all nationalities. While talented European riders added some excitement to the race, this has been an awkward arrangement because the first U.S. rider to cross the finish line, whether first or fiftieth, was crowned the champ (this year I was glad to see U.S. riders take the top five spots, but the 2003 and 2004 USPRO champs finished fourth behind foreign riders). This mixed-nationality national championship has also been a sore spot for many American cycling fans -- every other country has its own championship race (generally the weekend before the start of the Tour de France), even places like Luxembourg and Estonia, so why aren't our riders good enough to have their own race?

When the USPRO race started in 1985, there were few U.S. cyclists worthy of the European peloton. It seemed like a good idea to bring in some European riders to liven up the race. Nowadays, Americans riders more than hold their own. In the Tour de France, three Americans finished in the top ten with two more making the top twenty. In the ProTour, a collection of the most competitive cycling events on the planet, the U.S. finished second only to Italy, handily outriding traditional superpowers like Spain, Belgium and France. And it wasn't just because of now-retired Lance Armstrong -- three other U.S. riders were near the top of the individual rankings.

Big news today for American pro cyclists and cycling fans -- in 2006 the USPRO championship road race will be comprised solely of American riders. The race will be moving, too. Not only will it leave Philadelphia, where it has been for 21 years, for Greenville, SC, but also the date will change from the beginning of June to the beginning of September. Aside from conflicting with the Vuelta a Espana, this is a better date in a quieter part of the season when Americans racing in Europe may be able to get back to the U.S. It is positioned a week before the San Francisco Grand Prix, a race for which many riders have returned to the States over the past five years.

The new format gives more opportunities to domestic riders. In 2005, more than 80 starters were foreign; without them, there will be room for more U.S. riders to take a shot at the championship. There also will be a USPRO time trial championship two days before the road race.

UPDATE 11/16/2005 - It figures. As soon as I mention the San Francisco Grand Prix, a story arises putting the event in jeopardy (again).

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005
 
Jan Ullrich: Not Very Sporting
Cyclingnews.com ran a story about Jan Ullrich's preparations for next year's Tour de France. Aside from the usual same-every-off-season fluff, this quote from Ullrich struck me as very telling: "I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that there will be no team time trial."

While CSC would have been the TTT favorite, T-Mobile should have had a good chance as well. They were third last year behind Discovery Channel and CSC, and they just added Michael Rogers and Sergey Gontchar, both World TT champions, to their team (granted, they lost Alexander Vinokourov). For Ullrich to be relieved tells me he doesn't have the guts or confidence to win that event, and with that mindset, he's not going to win the Tour.

A true champion has a "take all comers" attitude and does not fear a challenge. You never would have heard a statement like that from Lance Armstrong. In Ullrich's shoes, Armstrong would have said something like, "It's a shame we won't get another shot at the team time trial this year."

I think it's Ivan Basso's Tour to win or lose next year. Perhaps another rider will emerge to fight him, but I doubt it will be Ullrich.

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Thursday, October 06, 2005
 
A Cycling Record I Never Knew Existed
Cyclingnews.com reports: Dutch rider to attempt hour record...without saddle:

In the Masochistic Cycling Feats Dept., news has filtered through to us that a 50 year-old Dutchman will attempt to break the World Hour Record for riding without a saddle (or a seatpost). Maas van Beek, a former tandem pilot of Jan Mulder, will attempt to better the mark of 45.848 km set by none other than Fausto Coppi on the track in Alkmaar, The Netherlands, on Saturday, October 8. He's doing it for a good cause: to raise money for the Polar van de Donck foundation, which helps children in Africa who have AIDS.
Record-holder Fausto Coppi was an incredible rider, the Lance Armstrong of his day. He won the Tour de France twice and the Giro d'Italia five times. Had his career not been interrupted by World War II, he surely would have won more. I am glad to hear this rider won't be using a seatpost--I knew a kid who rode without a saddle, jumped a dirt hill, slipped off his platform pedals and fell on the seatpost when he landed. Not pretty, though it was a very convincing argument for clipless pedals (except that they did not exist at that time, circa 1982).

As a rather large rider myself, I cannot imagine "dancing on the pedals" as Phil Liggett calls it for an entire hour.

Van Beek has been averaging 43 km/h during training, and says that it's quite possible to hold a position out of the saddle for three hours, provided the muscles are used to it. He'll be using a bike with a massive 68 x 11 gear and 205 mm cranks, but no particular aerodynamic equipment.
There is more information at www.goedkoopsteskelter.nl/recordpoging.htm, and you have to see the photos of this man. He has huge arms for a cyclist (although the photo at the top looks misleadingly stretched). Too bad Google can't translate Dutch. Good luck, Maas!

UPDATE 10/09/2005 - Unfortunately, cyclingnews.com reports that Maas van Beek failed in his record attempt, covering "only" 42.1036 km.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005
 
Pro Cycling: Thoughts On Moreno And The ProTour
Gregorio Moreno recently lost the election for president of the UCI, the international governing body for bicycle racing. I could not believe my eyes when I read what he told the Spanish newspaper AS about the ProTour and particularly its first champion, Danilo Di Luca:

"For example, I would create specialty classifications: the best of the Grand Tours, the best of the classics... That would be better than to mix them all, because the result is that Di Luca, the first winner [of the ProTour] hasn't raced the Tour."
Is Moreno really saying he believes the season-long champion has to ride in one particular race, the Tour de France, to deserve the title? The Tour is already the 800-pound gorilla of the race calendar, and the ProTour points are weighted in its favor over the other Grand Tours. Isn't that enough for Moreno? I find this particularly amusing coming from a Spaniard because it sounds like the sort of thing many Americans--people who know nothing of pro cycling beyond the Tour de France--would say: "Dude, Lance should be the ProTour champ because he won the Tour!" Someone in Europe, especially someone so involved in the sport as to be running for a leadership position, should have a broader view of the sport.

Winning a championship that is decided over the course of eight months requires consistency and stamina. An ideal champion would show strength in both one-day and stage races, which Di Luca has done. In fact, while most riders who excel in the classics (Di Luca won two this year) ride the Grand Tours in search of only stage wins and perhaps the sprinter's jersey, Di Luca took a shot at the general classification of the Giro d'Italia and finished fourth. (My only problem with Danilo Di Luca is the momentary confusion when my wife mentions her Dean & Deluca catalog.) The ProTour may have some problems, but having a winner who did not ride in the Tour de France is not one of them. I am so relieved that Gregorio Moreno lost the election for UCI president!

Of course, the ProTour, which is completing its first season as the top level of bike racing, has some issues that must be debated and resolved over the winter. Some racers have complained that there are too many required races, which stretches the team thin and exhausts the riders before the season is over. Race organizers wish their were fewer teams in the ProTour because they only get to invite one or two wildcard teams to a race, inevitably excluding some teams popular with the local fans. On the other hand, races that are not on the ProTour schedule could have trouble attracting top teams, though that has been less of a problem than I expected (sponsors still want visibility in their target markets, and riders still need racing to prepare for the ProTour events). The people who run the Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana) are threatening to not even participate in the ProTour in 2006. In a worst case scenario, I fear that pro cycling could split the way Indy car racing did years ago when the Indy Racing League began competing with CART.

My complaint about the ProTour is that by setting up an elite league, the UCI has created the sort of environment where the rich teams get richer and the poor stay poor. In the days of Division I, II, and III, it was easier for a team at the top of a lower division to move up the next year. Now most of the ProTour teams have multi-year licenses, making it very hard to break in. Even if there was some upward mobility, any team that isn't in the ProTour has trouble attracting the talented riders that could elevate the team's status because they cannot gain entry into the most important races on the calendar. Signing with a "Continental" team (the level below ProTour) means a rider probably won't get to ride in more than a handful of the 27 biggest races that are mandatory for ProTour teams. Anyone who thinks he can win at the top level would have a hard time giving up that opportunity. It will be interesting to see what happens to the three teams vying for the one ProTour license available. Two of the teams have signed some big names to improve their chances. I wonder if those riders negotiated escape clauses in their contracts in case their team fails to make it into the ProTour. This should be an interesting winter...

UPDATE 10/07/2005 - My letter to cyclingnews.com ("Thank goodness Moreno lost") got published.

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Sunday, July 03, 2005
 
The Tired, Old Lance Armstrong Question
Chicago Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey today addresses the question people have been asking about Lance Armstrong since he won his first Tour de France in 1999: is he using performance-enhancing drugs?

Let me start by saying that I am not the world's biggest Lance Armstrong fan. I admire his talent and particularly his dedication, but I have a feeling that I wouldn't like him in person (the embattled Tyler Hamilton is more my type). This drug question really irritates me, though. As Morrissey acknowledges, Armstrong has taken a lot of drug tests and has never tested positive. In fact, he has been targeted for testing. On Friday, the day after all Tour de France competitors were tested, a "random" drug test was performed on one cyclist: Armstrong. It was his sixth "out-of-competition" drug test this year. Still, people think he must be taking something to be so good. Morrissey admits that his own cynicism about doping in all professional sports is the main reason he can't seem to trust Armstrong, but that doesn't make it fair. It's as stupid as when a jaded woman says, "Well, of course he's going to sleep around. He's a man, and that's what men do."

Here's another thing to consider about Armstrong's alleged doping that Morrissey didn't mention. Armstrong doesn't win all the time, and if you think that's deliberate manipulation on his part, then you don't know his competitive nature. In yesterday's 11-mile time trial, Armstrong finished 51 seconds ahead of everyone else... except Dave Zabriskie, who won the race by two seconds. But does anyone accuse Zabriskie of taking drugs? When Armstrong finished third on Brasstown Bald in the Tour de Georgia, did anyone say that Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer beat him because they had better drugs? When Ivan Basso finished with Armstrong ahead of everyone else on two tough mountain stages at last year's Tour, did anyone question Basso's purity? Naysayers are always attacking Armstrong, but they don't question others (that said, there is a small group of critics who swear that everyone in pro cycling uses drugs, regardless of their race results or test results).

Other people say that Armstrong must be using some kind of incredible new drugs that no one else knows about, drugs that they can't find through testing. While I am skeptical of the pharmaceutical industry, I find it hard to believe that someone would create an undetectable superdrug just for Armstrong. Besides, after what Armstrong has been through, I couldn't imagine why he would put such an untested substance in his body. And even if he did, there would be no point in doing it now. His future was secure financially after a few Tour victories, so if he had been cheating, why would he continue to do so and keep racing? If I had used drugs to achieve what Armstrong did, I would have concocted some sort of accident or medical condition that "made" me retire young, legend intact.

Armstrong's story of cancer recovery and total Tour de France domination does sound "too good to be true," and I suppose that is reason enough for people to try to knock it down and find out "the real story." Several writers have tried to do that, often relying on hearsay or questionable sources (i.e., former employees with an axe to grind). Armstrong has responded with lawsuits that draw criticism from people who think he is trying to keep the "truth" from getting out. I see it for what it is: a man worth millions is simply protecting his "brand." If someone wrote a book claiming Coca-Cola causes brain cancer, I would expect the Coca-Cola Company to react the same way.

Ultimately, idle conjecture by writers like Morrissey is pointless and perhaps even mean-spirited. It adds nothing to the body of evidence on either side of the question. It is a sad reflection on sports and sportswriters that this column appears at the top of the Sports page while an article about something that actually happened (yesterday's time trial) is relegated to page 20. I am not swearing that Armstrong is 100% clean (I wouldn't pretend to know that for anyone but myself), but in the absence of damning evidence, navel-gazing benefits no one.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2004
 
Americans In Spain
American pro cyclists are racing very well at the Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain) this month. It's too bad that most Americans think the Tour de France is the only race worth watching. In fact, OLN dropped daily coverage of the three-week Spanish race this year; they are promising only a one-hour summary a month after the race. Figuring that they will have to fit 20 days of racing into 40-45 minutes of air time (factoring in commercials), coverage will be superficial at best. That's a shame because the Vuelta has earned a reputation as the most exciting and competitive of cycling's grand tours. In recent years, the Vuelta has not been decided until the last few days of the race.

Since today is the first rest day of the Vuelta and we're still riding the patriotic crest of Olympic fervor, let's review what Americans have done. The race started with a team time trial which was won by the best time trialing team in the world, US Postal Service. They won the time trial at the Tour as well, and what's really impressive is that the Vuelta team includes only two of the nine riders from the Tour team. Their victory is a testament to the team's depth. One of the riders who helped Armstrong win the Tour, American Floyd Landis, became the first leader of the Vuelta.

After passing the leader's gold jersey around to a few teammates, Landis got back on top with a strong ride in stage eight, an individual time trial. Landis was third, eighteen seconds behind another American, Olympic time trial champion Tyler Hamilton. Hamilton, my favorite rider, showed that he still has the form that won him the gold in Athens a month ago, riding a steady 31.5 mph over the flat 25-mile course (I could do that, but only if it was downhill!). Taking the victory on September 11, Hamilton dedicated the win to those who died that day in 2001. Landis will be joining Hamilton's Swiss Phonak team next year, as will the second place rider sandwiched between them, US Postal's Victor Hugo Pena.

Landis has held onto the gold jersey through some difficult, mountainous terrain. His lead is shrinking, but he has fought valiantly. Yesterday, however, Landis was overshadowed by the incredible riding of American teammate Dave Zabriskie. Zabriskie attacked just two miles into the race and stayed away for 100 miles to win. Such breakaways rarely succeed, but the US time trial champion managed to win by more than a minute. According to
procycling.com, he had a little help from Axl, Slash, & co.:
When asked what [he] was thinking about [during] the time off the front, he added, "I had a Guns N' Roses song in my head. I'm not sure which one, though. It's the one where he says, 'They can't catch me, I'm innocent.'"
That song is "Out Ta Get Me" from Appetite For Destruction, of course (one of my all-time favorite records). I could imagine Zabriskie quoting Axl as he crossed the finish line: "Take that one to heart!"

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