Re-reading Armstrong

You may be familiar with this situation, chatting on a group ride or at the café stop when the subject of Lance Armstrong came up. Everyone had a view, an opinion, or perhaps even a story of seeing him – briefly – at a Tour de France in the past. And, if pushed, everyone would come down, sometimes vehemently, on the question of did he or didn’t he dope.

Now, with the USADA report and Armstrong’s own admission we now know the truth: he did. Everyone will still have an opinion on the minute details (we’re all experts on doping science now, after all) and on his character. But on the big question, the one we thought might never be answered, we know. And it’s a relief. We might still be talking about Armstrong for months or years to come, but it is hard not to feel that there has been some kind of closure, some kind of ending. If we want to move on we can.

There will now be a process underway to remove Armstrong from the record books, and no doubt official websites will be downplaying Armstrong’s Tour victories. But all those books and magazines and newspapers are all still there, with the glory years emblazoned on their pages in vivid colours. What a wild ride it has been! Looking back at those reports now takes on a different character, almost nostalgia for simpler times – we can read them with a kind of world-weariness. We know how the story ends, so we can go back to the beginning and look at those events with our new knowledge.

1.

 Two book are on your author’s desk for writing this post: firstly, ‘Inside the Tour de France’ by David Walsh, published in 1994 but covering the 1993 Tour; secondly, ‘Lance Armstrong’s Comeback from Cancer’ by Samuel Abt, published in 1999 and including Abt’s reporting on Armstrong from 1992 until the end of the 1999 Tour.

By the time of the first book, David Walsh was already an experienced cycling journalist and had also written an excellent and intimate biography of Sean Kelly. He was yet, though, to have hit his stride as a crusader for anti-doping and started his battles with Armstrong. For how could he: Armstrong was in his first Tour de France, his first full professional season, still a neo-pro and the youngest rider in the race.

‘Inside the Tour de France’ is a series of vignettes, a Chaucerian survey of the players and the personalities – The Patron’s Tale, The Sprinter’s Tale, The Champion’s Tale – and so on. Armstrong’s is The Neophyte’s Tale, and Walsh already had him picked for something. “Of all the neophytes, he is the one with a future,” he wrote. Of the Tour, “He… expects to find out things about himself and discover if, one day, he can win this race.”

inside

Walsh finds Armstrong eager to learn and confident to the point of brash. He was determined to make his mark despite his inexperience. He was already showing how driven he would become. “Physically I’m not anymore gifted than anybody else but it’s just this desire, just this rage,” Armstrong tells Walsh. And he indeed makes his mark, winning the stage into Verdun from a six-rider group that got away on the final climb. “I told myself… I didn’t say I’m going to win this sprint. I said there’s no way I’m gonna lose this sprint,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong dropped out of the Tour in 1993 on its 14th day. He was only at the race for a little taste, not trying to do too much too soon in his career. Besides, he was at the time more focused on the one-day classics, the races that suited his powerful build. Indeed, by the end of the season he would win one such race on a tough day in Oslo, Norway and become World Champion, just three weeks before his 22nd birthday.

Before he left the Tour, however, he rode the 59-kilometre time trial at Lake Madine. He finished 27th, six minutes behind the winner, Miguel Indurain, and it weighed heavily on his mind, according to Walsh. “I know I gotta learn how to do it,” said Armstrong of time trialling. “If I can get a minute a year, a minute a year isn’t that much.” With help, he would learn how to do it. But before we get to his time trial dominance at the Tour there is more story to cover.

2.

 Samuel Abt followed Armstrong from the start of his career and Armstrong never seemed to be reluctant to talk about his training, results and general philosophy on cycling. Looking back now, it’s hard not to weigh down everything that Armstrong said with the baggage of what would later unfold. “I want to be happy,” Armstrong told Abt in the early part of the 1994 season. “I want it [cycling] to make my family happy and right now it’s doing that. The day it doesn’t is the day I’m going to stop.”

Abt chronicles Armstrong struggling in the 1994 season while wearing the rainbow jersey. There were results, including 2nd in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Armstrong was one of the top-ranked pro riders, but the wins were not coming as he would have liked. “It seems to be much more difficult this year for some reason,” said Armstrong. “There’s a lot of guys that go much faster this year… my strength within the peloton has sort of gone down.”

Even Abt knew the reason for this at the time, noting that EPO use was becoming widespread and that the Italian teams were believed to have started using it wholesale that year. From isolated use among only some of the riders, those with the access to the best doctors and suppliers, it would soon be sweeping the peloton. As teammate George Hincapie said in his affidavit to the USADA, after Milan-San Remo in 1995 he spoke with Armstrong about how they “got crushed” in the race. “He said, in substance, that he did not wish to get crushed any more and something needed to be done. I understood that he meant the team needed to get on EPO.”

Improvements came for Armstrong in 1995: overall winner at the Tour DuPont; a Tour de France stage win in Limoges after the shocking death of teammate Fabio Casartelli on the road; and a win at the Clasica San Sebastian – his first classics win in Europe and victory in a race that in 1992 he had competed in as the first of his pro career in Europe and finished last. Even ahead of the Tour de France he was confident. “I’m definitely fit, much more fit than I’ve ever been in my life, ever,” said Armstrong. He was not looking to contend the overall but to continue to develop as a rider. His goal, though, was clear. “Certainly if my development curve continues to go in the way that it’s been going, there’s no reason that in five years I can’t contend for this race.”

comebckBut everything was derailed at the end of 1996 with Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis, a story already well known to all readers. Near the end of the year, surgery completed but treatment still ongoing, he spoke to Abt about his future. “I would love to race but nothing is going to make me happier than to live,” said Armstrong. “Life is the number one priority. Professional cycling is number two. No, to create awareness for testicular cancer is number two. Professional cycling is number three.”

The following year, 1997, was all about recovery, but Armstrong was never far away from cycling, including a visit to the Tour de France as a spectator. According to what he told Abt, Armstrong was never entirely certain that he would return to cycling. “I have a lot of options, though, and that’s a nice position to be in.” Racing again was one option, but so was working elsewhere in the cycling industry or even studying business at the University of Texas. But by September he was planning his comeback, and part of his motivation was to send a signal to the cancer community. “I’m very curious about whether I can compete at the highest level again,” Armstrong told Abt. “That’s part of the reason I want to come back, to see if I can do it. It would also be great for the cancer community. The perception is that once you get cancer, you’re never the same afterward. I’d like to prove that wrong.”

Whatever pharmacological assistance he received, Armstrong’s return to the highest level of professional sports was indeed remarkable. His first race in 1998 was the Ruta del Sol, riding for the U.S. Postal Team. But whether he would carry on with a racing career was apparently never a given and he was reluctant to sign a contract for 1999. He was happy with the results of his ‘first’ career and that he had proved to the cancer community that a full recovery was possible. “I set out to do what I wanted to do, and I was a lot closer to packing it in after Ruta del Sol than many people think,” said Armstrong. “Just because I proved it.”

But after winning the four-day Tour of Luxembourg and a fourth overall at the Vuelta Espana later in 1998, everything changed. The new season, 1999, would see Johan Bruyneel taking over as director at U.S. Postal, bringing with him former ONCE doctor Luis Garcia del Moral. The Tour de France became an explicit objective, a year ahead of Armstrong’s stated goal in 1995, if he was indeed still sticking to that schedule. Nothing was left to chance – stages were reconnoitred, and Armstrong built a strong team around him for the mountains with Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingston dubbed the ‘A’ team. “During the 1999 Tour de France,” Hamilton said in his USADA affidavit, “Lance, Kevin and I used EPO every third or fourth day, until the third week of the Tour” when Armstrong had sufficient time over the rest of the field. “Lance, Kevin and I also used a substance known as Actovegin.”

3.

 In his book, Abt recounts the action of the 1999 Tour, covering Armstrong’s win in the prologue, the two time trials, and the infamous mountain stage win on stage 10 to Sestrieres where he crushed the climbers and the rest of the field. He did not know what was apparently going on behind the scenes. The high-cadence, pedal-spinning Armstrong was leaner and meaner and it was a dominating performance. The only other rider to wear the yellow jersey was sprinter Jan Kirsipuu, for just six stages out of the twenty.

Greg LeMond was duly impressed, his own story of a comeback after his hunting accident reminiscent of Armstrong’s own story. But his observations in 1999 are of course prescient, even before his later comments on ‘the greatest comeback’ versus ‘the greatest fraud’. “I figure I had three months that went right for me after the hunting accident,” LeMond tells Abt, the months where he won two Tours and the World Championship. “The rest were just pure suffering, struggling, fatigue, always tired. But Lance, it’s pretty incredible. He’s stronger than he was before his cancer. It’s impressive.”

But there was no shortage of controversy at the Tour in 1999. After the debacle of the Tour in 1998, doping was on the minds of everyone. Extra reporters were covering the race looking for scandal, and they soon found one with Armstrong’s positive test for cortisone. The UCI cleared him, of course, despite the now confirmed backdated prescription. Abt recounts Armstrong’s run-in with a reporter from Le Monde, the French paper that had devoted in-depth coverage to doping at the Tour. Already barred from interviews with the team, Armstrong responded to one question with, “Are you calling me a liar or a doper?”

Armstrong was also defiant about the doping innuendos. “It’s bad for the sport, so I can get worked up,” he said. “It’s disturbing for the sport. I think it’s unfair.” And, “There’s no answer other than hard work. This team [U.S. Postal] has done more work than anybody else.” It is hard to guess, even now, what must have been going through his mind when he made those statements.

And so the stage was set. The beginning of crushing Tour wins, but the lingering questions, rightly so in what was a remarkable return from cancer to Tour winner. In response to the questions, Armstrong was already establishing in 1999 the template for the strident details of doping that would follow. “You have to believe in yourself,” Abt reported him as saying. “You have to fight, you have to hold the line.”

Armstrong held the line until his confession to Oprah Winfrey where he admitted to doping for all of his Tour wins. There are many minor details still to fill in. We have the affidavits from his teammates to the USADA, the inside story from Tyler Hamilton, and the investigative journalism of David Walsh that first revealed Armstrong’s links to Dr Michele Ferrari. Others have filled in the gaps. We may never get all the details from Armstrong himself, but that doesn’t matter. We have the broad outlines of how it went down, a good deal of the specifics, and we know how it began and how it ended.

All of this might not have changed how you feel about Armstrong, or whether you can re-read about his Tour wins or watch those old DVDs or YouTube clips. But it does add a frisson to the experience, even if it is just to make it a touch surreal. As recounted here, every event and quote now seems to foreshadow something else, or prompt many ‘what if’ questions, or even leave the detached fan even more confused about the machinations going on behind the scenes or between the protagonists. In some ways it has been reduced to an intimate human drama, one that we on the outside should not have been privy to. Is what repels us the same thing that draws us in?

Still, some statements become particularly revealing. Talking to Samuel Abt during the 1999 Tour, Armstrong responded to rumours of his own doping: “You… [build] a career and a reputation, and they can tear it down in 15 seconds. It’s scary.” But for Armstrong’s case it ultimately took much longer than 15 seconds. He ducked and dived for nearly 15 more years before the USADA landed the punch that put him on the ropes beyond any reasonable doubt. And it was not his detractors, the UCI or the ASO who did it – but a government legal case built on the testimony of his own former teammates, not something that anyone could have foreseen in 1999.

The magnificent victories and the inspiring cancer charity work, juxtaposed against the fraud, lies, deceit, threats, and bullying. We might see it as overwhelming in its enormity, difficult to describe in a way to capture it all. But David Walsh was certainly right in 1993. Armstrong did indeed have quite the future ahead of him in cycling. It took twenty years to finish the story.

On participation

1. Taking part in local races is a satisfying experience. There is pleasure to be gained in the rituals of preparation – cleaning and maintenance of the bike, preparing drinks and snacks, checking the route and planning (usually imaginary) strategies. There is catching up with old acquaintances, making new ones, and seeing others’ new bikes and equipment and team kit. There is atmosphere to soak up and the small satisfaction of supporting the volunteers from the clubs who put on the races and who do so out of a love of the sport – whose only reward seems to be praise (tempered by inevitable criticism) from us racers.

Racing is also a humbling experience. You can have been carving it up on Strava, but riding in and against a larger group inevitably results in a realization that one’s condition is just not quite good enough. Even if you podium in your category, you know that the next ability level is much, much harder. It is a truism in cycling that you get out of it what you put in. That is, the most difficult ‘talent’ to develop for racing is endurance, simply because it takes time – a commodity we do not always have. Turning up for a 70+ kilometre race at tempo and threshold speed having ridden only shorter rides at such intensities will simply not be good enough.

That said, endurance is a simple talent to develop in theory. You just need to ride. Lots. So, keeping your expectations realistic when sitting on the start line is important. In some way, it is probably less frustrating to be dropped two laps from the finish, having not really been prepared for the race distance, than to have rocked up with a couple of thousand kilometres in your legs from the start of the year only to see things fall apart in the final half lap (for whatever reason).

2. Getting dropped is statistically the overwhelmingly likely outcome from any racing experience. It might happen early, late, or even at the end in the final sprint. But it will happen. One had better get used to it, although there will always be the post-race reflection on the moment of its occurrence (we take our racing seriously after all) and whether one could have just made a final dig to delay it happening.

Getting dropped in the sprint happens quickly, so it is difficult to reflect on it fully. But when it happens at a slower speed, there are those agonizing moments when the wheel you are following starts to slip away, the elastic stretches – as they say – before snapping. And even though just a few metres seems an easy gap to close, it inexorably becomes a chasm that is impossible to bridge. And you’re done.

Those with less experience tend to find getting dropped a frustrating experience, as if all the effort (and financial cost) of turning up and taking part has somehow been invalidated by being left behind. But getting dropped is the norm and investing it with too much emotional energy just leads to unwarranted disappointment. We are racing not for glory (okay, perhaps those upgrade points are important) but because we can and because racing in the bunch and following wheels and making attacks and pulling on the front and passing others on the climbs is, simply, all good fun.

Having been dropped, there is always the option of heading back to the car park and packing up to go home. But better to finish the race and clock your time to see how far down you were. ‘Race to train’ means that next time those extra endurance miles might push the moment of the elastic snapping until later in the race, perhaps even in the final sprint. Then one’s moment of self-reflection will not be on the quiet back straight as the bunch slips away but on the finishing sprint and those agonizing choices of when to go, which wheel to follow, the gear to choose, and whether just a bit more effort might have given one a spot on the podium.

3. Success on the bike cannot be bought or borrowed. It comes from talent and luck, from hard work, time and effort. We delude ourselves if we think our racing is anything more than it actually is. But it feels good to push oneself. And if there is a small slice of modest glory, it feels like a triumph over life’s normal routine.

There is also camaraderie and being part of a larger community gathering. And when, in future years, you see a former young local rider at the Tour de France racing as a professional, you can have some small satisfaction of thinking back to the local scene where they got their start, and how by participating in it and supporting it you played a tiny role in giving that rider the opportunity to progress. And if you are really, really lucky, maybe you will have a cool story to tell your friends about how you once followed their wheel.

It's all about fun, I think...

It’s all about fun, I think…

The spectrums of cycling

1.

Draw a horizontal line, for the sake of argument, and put ‘science’ at one end and ‘art’ at the other. Is pro cycle racing an art or a science? If you think it is more towards the former, then you might be Dave Brailsford of Team Sky, interested in numbers and percentages and VO2 maxes and watts at threshold. You are interested in form peaks and grand tour strategies. You respect riders who are clinical and measured, careful in their tactics and disciplined in the application of their talents. Racing is the serious application of physical talent and mental acumen. And it is all about the racing.

If you veer towards the latter, you might be writer Johnny Green. You see pro cycle racing as more of an art. You like flamboyant riders who put on a show, who are not interested in 450 watts of tempo climbing but want to attack and ignite a race. They are larger-than-life characters, on and off the bike, who are dynamic and engaging. They are not athletes but rock ‘n’ rollers.

Next, draw a vertical axis through the horizontal line and label one end ‘sport’ and the other end ‘business’. On this spectrum, if you favour the former you see pro cycling, and sport in general, as having redemptive moral qualities. It epitomizes dedication, hard work, sacrifice, teamwork, suffering and other character-building qualities. You watch it, and perhaps encourage young acquaintances to do the same, because it contains good life lessons, with ‘heroes’ worth emulating. This is the amateur ideal.

If you see pro cycling more as a business, then you regard pro sports as cut through with money. You understand that for pro riders that cycling is their job and that they need to earn money to support themselves. As such, you are more agnostic about the redemptive value of sport and see its practitioners more as well-paid entertainers than moral figures to be held in high esteem. You do not see suffering on a bike as a form of character enhancement, simply a job condition. You agree with writer Adam Gopnik, who penned: “Sports are about human character inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they show that you can master anything with enough effort.”

Finally, imagine a third axis (a 3-dimensional model) with ‘winning’ at one end and ‘spectacle’ at the other. If you are interested in the results of pro cycling then you favour strategies and tactics that result in winning. You think that winning should be justly rewarded as the ultimate incentive. You are dismayed when cheating – like dodgy deals or doping – skews the results and prevents the ‘real’ winner, the most talented rider, from claiming the race.

If you are more interested in the spectacle, then you are less interested in the race outcome. You want to be entertained. The results matter less than what unfolded on the road, how you were captivated or engrossed by the action, the spirit of the riders. You wonder why winning (see more below) is given such a high priority in terms of money and reward when all the riders are playing their part to put on the entertainment. You wonder what is distorted if someone does a deal on the road for a victory or pops some drugs to gain an advantage.

2.

Where you position yourself in this model of different spectrums of cycling will say much about your views on a number of questions. Take doping, for example. If you are more towards the science-sport-winning quadrant then you see doping as distorting of talent and training, cheating and morally wrong, and a distortion of the fair play outcome of a race. If you are more towards art-business-spectacle then you might see doping as the fuel of creativity, an inevitable by-product of excess money, and the fuel of the spectacle: cheating, sure, but when were rules meant to be followed; hazardous, maybe, but less so than a 100 kph mountain decent on skinny tyres; morally damaging, but everyone is an adult making a free choice.

Or take the racing calendar, for example. If you are more in the science-sport-winning quadrant you might be more of a fan of traditional, old school races (or this may also apply to those on the ‘art’ side). Two-hundred kilometres Belgian classics and brutal grand tours are your fare, where the racing sorts out the ‘hard men’, those of superior strength and character who can win against the odds, building their own characters and enriching our lives by their example.

If you are more art-business-spectacle then you can be sympathetic to new races and new ideas to build the sport. You might be open to the idea of shorter stages, shorter events, or inner-city circuit races that are more audience (and TV and sponsor friendly). You are supportive of the idea of a breakaway league, so long as there’s racing, and have no particular attachment to small Belgian races with names you can’t pronounce. You also wonder why it is necessary for grand tour riders to spend four hours on some stages just riding when it is the last two hours where the racing happens. From a business and spectacle perspective it makes little sense.

Ultimately, though, you are probably not wedded to the hard end of these axis, liking a little bit of a mix. A little bit to the left here, a little to the right there, depending on the issue at hand. In political terms, you are in the centre, where most people tend to cluster. That said, when push comes to shove, you will take a strong position on a specific issue.

3.

Pro cycling is slightly anomalous in pro sports because even though it is a team sport it is more akin to individual sports in that there is less fan identity attached to a team and ultimately to winning. Other team sports – hockey or football, say – have teams with a geographical identity (even if the team’s players are international) and their fans place a high value on their team winning (as opposed to just putting on a good show). It probably helped by there being at least a 50:50 chance of winning purely by chance in a face-off match, rather than the much longer odds of winning a race in cycling, either for a team or individual.

One might argue, therefore, that for many or even most cycling fans, the spectacle of a race is more important than the outcome, even if there are differences of opinion on science v art, or sport v business. As a fan, your allegiance does not necessarily reside with winners. The sport, though, is structured so that – for teams and individuals – winning is of very high importance. Sponsors want wins, team managers want wins, and winning is rewarded by points (necessary for ascendancy in the UCI system) and monetary returns. Officials, organizers and managers are concerned that without the incentive to win then there won’t be sufficient spectacle to entice the punters.

It is curious the attention and respect and reward we lavish on winners in sports. This is particularly curious given the single-mindedness required to excel at the highest level of sports. Not only do you have to be talented and lucky (purely random attributes, hardly worthy of adoration) to be successful, but you probably have to be driven to the point of selfishness, and ruthless and focused to the exclusion of everything else. This is not something we typically strive for in our own personal lives, where we try to strike more of a balance in our time and interests. For most of us, unless we are in competitive positions, our work goals are not winning and beating others but collaboration and cooperation. Our other priorities might more likely be family and community rather than competition and rivalry.

It is worth asking whether the emphasis on winning creates distorting incentives for athletes, particularly when it is attached to monetary reward and fan adulation. Is ‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’ a completely anachronistic and damaging value set to foist on athletes (young ones in particular)? Does this inevitably lead to a reprehensible single-mindedness ‘win at all costs’ mentality and also an incentive to cheat – and to lie and deceive along the way that ultimately does no one any good when it is uncovered (as it always is)?

Whether the emphasis on winning is morally corrosive in the long term is difficult to prove empirically. One might cite examples of ranting parents and miserable children at hyper-charged weekend sporting events in support, and how the early linkage of winning and success in children does not make them well-rounded adults. (For some interesting related comments on young athlete development, see this Science of Sport posting.) Still, one should be nervous about making the argument without some better evidence. Still, if the linkage between remuneration and winning makes you uncomfortable, and you would like to see more emphasis given to participation than placings, and you think that breaking the linkage between winning and money would reduce cheating, you might well ask: how might it done differently?

4.

Your author is currently reading a light-hearted but nonetheless interesting book, the latest from Alain de Botton called ‘Religion for Atheists’. As the blurb says, the books suggests “that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.” A subsequent post to this one will explore this theme further and, somewhat tentatively, argue that cycling has already stolen ideas from religion and may indeed be a ‘religion’ itself. Whether this argument can be encapsulated in the spectrum model outlined above remains to be seen.

Ullrich concedes to the superior climbing of Armstrong

Should camaraderie be more important than competition?

On climbing, numbers, Strava

There were mixed emotions being back in my hometown after only brief visits over the last 10 years. So much had changed but then so much was the same. Local people who I’ve known all my life juxtaposed with newer arrivals who pegged me for an out-of-towner, which I am – I guess. I feel both at home and out of place. The roads I know well. I could draw them from memory for you now, every corner and every bend, every uphill and every downhill. There’s a local scene and some good riders, some of whom I know from year’s past; it’s a small community in a small country.

Strava is changing the way we ride and this new trend of ‘e-fitness’ requires new etiquette on the bike. What were the rules here, I wasn’t sure. Prudence would have suggested a judicious approach, but I went ahead and set a KOM on the most well-known and used short, scenic climb on the old coast rode. I make excuses: it’s southern hemisphere December summer hot and humid; I’m tired from jet lag and sleeping in a strange bed; it’s not my bike. Still…

The ride: 1.7 kilometres, 87-metre gain at 5.2%, 20 kph for a time of 5:05 at 264 watts. This record lasts nearly two months until a visitor (like me) rips it to shreds: 23.9 kph, 4:15, 389 watts. Fifty seconds faster! 389 watts! These numbers make no sense to me, they are beyond my scope of contemplation. In my world, these numbers don’t exist. I am humbled, but not surprised.

3.141592654

Mount Seymour is the 4th toughest bike climb in Canada, according to climbbybike.com: 13.1 kilometres, 6.9% average (maximum 16%), and 904 metres of gain. My best time is 45:44. Four years ago. The Cycleops power page tells me this is 270 watts (at my current weight, maybe more back then). I’m obsessed with breaking 45:00. I need 5 more watts. Why 45:00? I don’t know. It’s a round number, a quartile of an hour. It wouldn’t even get me on the first page of the Strava KOM table. But I want to beat that time. Last year I rode 46:30 (265 watts) and 47:26 (260 watts). One day the 36×23 felt fine, the next day it didn’t. 34×23 is good. 36×23 is too hard and 36×25 not quite right. Maybe my new 36×24 will be the magic gear for the gradient. There must be a perfect combination of gearing, weight, cadence, power, heart rate, jersey colour. I need to find it. I need more tools, more devices, more data.

3.141592654

3.141592654

The Cypress mountain climb holds no mystery. There are three timed distances that have been used in races over the years. I’ve lost track of all the numbers. Last year I was faster than ever before. I chose the number I wanted and I bested it. Cypress is beaten and broken. I dictate the terms now. Mount Seymour won’t be dictated to. It decides my time. In my best climbing shape I still can’t beat my old record. The mountain decides.

3.141592654

We becoming obsessed with our own numbers – times, watts, heart rates, miles. Is this the age of narcissism? As Stephen Marche wrote in a column on the subject in Esquire: “In 2011, Americans spent an estimated $10 billion on plastic surgery… and about $5 billion on NASA space operations. By this logic, having perfect tits is worth twice as much as exploring the universe.” At the same time, recreational drug use is plummeting, Marche says: “Vapid self-indulgence has been replaced by scrupulous self-management.” Care to join me for another set of intervals?

Strava is (mostly) free. Power meters, GPS, smart phones, HR monitors are not. Is there a cost to our obsession; is it just all about ‘me’? Maybe there could be a levy on every device sold that goes towards funding junior cycling, giving back something to others. Do we need to stop gazing at our flickering screens and look up more to see the scenery and to ponder the bigger picture?

Maybe. It’s a feckless pursuit of mediocrity. I can ‘follow’ pro riders on Strava, dare to compare myself to them side-by-side, even though my numbers are pitiful in comparison. Am I part of their world, on line, posting my PR times? Or is this a delusion? Do we need to become an ‘unracers’, as Grant Petersen suggests we should? Too many questions. The only thing I know is that I need 5 more watts.

3.141592654

I revel in my mediocrity. I embrace it. I ride with my buddies for the sake of riding and to drink good coffee and to see the sights and to feel the road beneath my tyres as it unfolds to reveal new vistas. This is my purpose.

But I also like to crunch the numbers. I like to feel faster, lighter, and stronger, if these things are possible. I like to feel that with advancing age I don’t have to give these things away. The results I get from cycling are the satisfaction of having ridden my bike. In itself this is a good thing. But the numbers draw me in, without explanation. This will be the year that I put them aside, forget about KOMs and PRs and segments and climbs and watts and gradients. But I need to do one thing first. I need to go under 45:00 on Mount Seymour. There can be no more excuses. There must be a way…

3.141592654

Dyin' on Mount Seymour in 2012 (thanks to Mario for the pic)

Dyin’ on Mount Seymour in 2012 (thanks to Mario for the pic)

In the deep and distant past, the standard calculator for high school mathematics, at least in your author’s experience, was the Casio fx-82. It calculated pi to 7 decimal places – 3.1415927. My calculator, another Casio that I still have today, the fx-961, calculated it to 9 – 3.141592654. This seemed to open up a whole new range of possibilities, if not infinite then at least beyond the norm.

A manifesto

Pro cycling is in the process of destroying itself. Although we cannot be entirely sure of the minute details of the politics and power struggles behind the scenes, the leadership at the top of the sport – at least by what we see in the media – seems more interested in protecting their individual reputations and fighting petty, tit-for-tat PR battles than engaging in genuine reform. It’s the UCI v WADA v USADA v ASO v IOC et al. Combine this with the steady stream of sordid doping revelations of past transgressions and it is no wonder that sponsors are showing their lack of interest in the sport. You have to be really, really into cycling to put money into it at the global level right now. Some sponsors are, but others are understandably tired of every other cycling headline being about doping and Machiavellian manoeuvrings in the political arena.

What can be done? Does the UCI need a Kickstarter project for anti-doping (or a new levy on race licences), to crowd source its decision making, or at least hire a decent PR agency to manage its external relations? Does the MPCC need to reassess its high-and-mighty principles and actually suggest some realistic policies? Does the bio-passport need to be fundamentally reconstructed and run by an independent organization? Should the ASO just run everything? Do the teams need to organize and drive change themselves? Would any of this actually fix the sport for good?

Unfortunately, no matter what we as fans might want, the decisions made at the top end of pro cycling can only to a limited extent be influenced by what we think (even if we could all agree on a coherent plan). The decisions will be made in pro cycling by those with money, power and influence as they always have (as they are made in other domains, too).

In some ways we should be grateful to Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France and the Giro and all the other riders and races who have grabbed headlines at the pro level over the last 15 years. Without them, road cycling would not have become ‘cool’ again. All the bikes and gear and events and rides that we now enjoy can be, at least in some small part, attributed to the burgeoning global popularity of pro racing. If that popularity has now reached a plateau or is even declining due to its own dirty past and the ineptitude of its leadership, then what – as fans – can we do about it?

Going local

Road cycling now speaks for itself. While we might lament a contraction at the global level, and a loss of opportunity for up-and-coming racers to perform on the world stage, and the fun of learning about obscure races in far away lands, we no longer need the WorldTour to drive our local cycling scene. We can build it ourselves. We can have the road racing and the road cycling that we want in our own communities on our own terms and without the intrusion of global cycling politics (well, at least except for those pesky UCI rules).

Here, then, a manifesto of sorts:

  • Support your local bike shop as best you can. Give them your time and your money and they will support you in your riding endeavours and (hopefully) organize events to connect with other riders and build community relations in support of road cycling.
  • Join a club and support local races and events. Help to create a climate in your community that supports amateur racing, that encourages junior riders into the sport, and which can make regular race events a feature of local roads instead of an anomaly.
  • Be part of the crowd at big race events. If you’re fortunate to have top-class local races in your area, go along and support them – and that includes women’s events. Send a message to sponsors that these events are popular and worth investing in; make the road closures worthwhile and a boon to local businesses rather than a disruption.
  • Support initiatives in your community for bike lanes and pro-cycling policies. The more cyclists on the road the better for improving local riding conditions and getting more people interested in local racing and other events.
  • Build community and camaraderie. Get out there in a group and ride socially. Make groups of cyclists a regular fixture of your local roads. Support and promote local businesses. Show others the positive social aspects of road cycling. Help to create more ‘weekend warriors’ who will support this manifesto.

Pro cycling at the global level will struggle for another five years at least, if not longer, burdened down by negative headlines and its own sordid history. Enormous progress has been made already, but it will take time. As we know, it’s light years ahead of other sports, but that doesn’t make it any easier as there are still fundamental structural problems. And the possibility exists that these might not ever be fixed. Races and teams will continue to struggle and sponsors will look elsewhere.

But this need not be the end of racing and of the sport itself. When power structures are so entrenched and resistant to change by any other route than their own processes, we have to bypass them and build something else. Starting with our own cycling community and by thinking locally we can still grow and promote the sport that we love.

Gastown Grand Prix 2012 - great local racing (Vancouver Sun)

Gastown Grand Prix 2012 – great local racing (Vancouver Sun)

(For an interesting discussion on the history of pro cycling, which informs some of the problems today, see the Issue 36 Rouleur podcast.)

Les prisonniers

For their 1982 album, The Number of the Beast, the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden recorded a song called The Prisoner, inspired by the 1960s TV show of the same name. The song is introduced by dialogue from the actual series (“Who are you? The new number 2. Who is number 1. You are number 6. I am not a number, I am a free man…”). The band’s manager had to call the show’s creator and lead actor, Patrick McGoohan, for permission to use the dialogue. Despite managing such a devilish band, the manager was hesitant to ask the suave and sophisticated McGoohan. According to the story, after a stumbled request, McGoohan replied simply, “Do it!” and hung up.

The Prisoner was a surreal and psychedelic show befitting its time, and its cryptic and confusing premise and story foreshadowed more recent shows like Twin Peaks and Lost. McGoohan was in some ways reprising his secret agent character from Danger Man. But we know little of his character except that he has been kidnapped and is being held prisoner in a seaside village (the show was filmed in Wales in Portmeirion, famous for its Italian-inspired architecture). The show flirts with ideas of totalitarianism, mind control, and indoctrination. McGoohan had complete creative freedom over the show and ran loose. Unfortunately, the show’s producer pulled the plug on the series, forcing a rushed and surreal final episode that left viewers agog.

The Prisoner was a hit in France, released there just before the May 1968 riots. As commentators have pointed out, despite its anti-communitarian message of personal liberation – the antithesis of the spirit of ’68 – it was wildly popular. McGoohan himself suggested that its popularity might have been due to the spirit of revolution in the show, his character’s attempts to throw off the yoke of oppression of the order under which he is held captive.

Prisonniers and forçats

The title of the show in France was, of course, Le Prisonnier, the direct translation. In the history of the Tour de France, we are familiar with the phrase, les forçats de la route. This is often translated as ‘the convicts of the road’ or ‘the prisoners of the road’ and – of which more below – was coined in the 1920s to describe the situation of Tour participants at a time when labour issues were coming to the fore (and would indeed come to a head in France under the Popular Front in the 1930s).

But ‘prisoner’ or even ‘convict’ is not a perfect translation of forçat.
In Le Petit Larousse, forçat is defined as a man condemned to the galleys or the prison work force (a prisonnier is simply someone in prison). So it is much more specific in its meaning than even convict (Matt Rendell uses this term in his translation in Blazing Saddles, for example), unless your impression of a convict is someone in a chain gang rather than a common thief being shipped to Australia. As well, the word convict is also translated in some dictionaries as détenu, or detainee, which is clearly not illustrative enough. In his cultural history of the Tour, which discusses les forçats de la route at some length, Christopher Thompson translates it as ‘convict labourers of the road’. Interestingly, Le Petit Larousse also gives another definition of forçat: a man whose living conditions are particularly distressing.

The issue of working (and living) conditions for Tour riders was under scrutiny in the 1924 edition of the race as part of the ongoing battle between Henri Pélissier – the great French rider and winner of the 1923 edition, the first French winner since 1912 – and Tour boss Henri Desgrange. Pélissier was an outspoken character of mercurial disposition. He had come close to winning the Tour before, but by 1923, late in his career, was considered only an outside chance. His battles over the rules and regulations of the Tour had been ongoing for years.

Desgrange was a despot. He enacted a tyranny over the Tour (and the other races L’Auto organized) that would have made the overlords in The Prisoner proud. (Indeed, Pélissier was like McGoohan’s character, raging against the system.) Desgrange was determined that there would be no advantage gained that would somehow prevent the Tour being a competition of individuals evenly matched to secure a true champion. Hence, derailleurs were banned for years, as were metal rims in favour of wooden ones, and drafting was prohibited for a time. For a period, the Tour supplied the riders with identical bikes.

Desgrange was also convinced that sport – specifically cycling – would be a ‘civilizing’ force for the predominantly working class racers. The rules and regulations for conduct would transform them into presentable bourgeoisie. Just like in The Prisoner, any individual flair would be allowed – good for publicity after all – only if the individual eventually conformed to Desgrange’s vision for the Tour and his civilizing mission. There are echoes of both these ideals today in the myriad of rules that the UCI has for bike specifications and the presentation of the riders.

The outcome of the brouhaha in 1924 was actually a union for the riders. But under Pélissier’s leadership it was short lived. It successfully protested against uniform food amounts for all the riders, apparently, but collapsed soon after. Pélissier himself was simply too confrontational; his politics might have been in the right place (on the left), but his temper was too fiery for reasoned negotiations.

Pélissier’s main confrontation with Desgrange in 1924 was over the issue of jerseys. The Tour supplied all the equipment for the riders, including their jerseys, and everything (bizarrely) had to be returned at the end of the race. Pélissier wanted to begin stage 3 – 405 kilometres from Cherbourg to Brest – wearing two jerseys as it was cold at the early morning start. He planned to abandon one along the way, and after being warned by a commissar, duly tried to do so in Coutances. After falling afoul of Desgrange, Henri Pélissier withdrew, along with his brother Francis and another rider, Maurice Ville.

Henri and Francis riding the Tour.

Henri and Francis riding the Tour.

Albert Londres, and a small clarification

Enter Albert Londres, an investigative journalist who was following the Tour for the newspaper Le Petit Parisien. No lightweight (like Oprah, perhaps), he had established his reputation writing about France’s penal colonies off French Guiana on the Iles de Salut (where we get the term Devil’s Island, the setting for the book and later the movie Papillon) and in Cayenne. He had also reported on Russia just after the October Revolution and went on to report on other social issues like mental asylums.

Talking to the Pélissier brothers in a café in Coutances he had his scoop. The brothers launched into a detailed litany of their complaints and the hardships they were suffering in the Tour. Perhaps overstating their predicament, they even showed Londres their boxes of ‘dope’. As Francis said, even using the English word, “…nous marchons à la dynamite” – we run on dynamite. Londres had an explosive story and it was duly published on the next day, 27 June, on the front page. According to many sources, including Les Woodland, Matt Rendell, and even Wikipedia, he did so under the headline: Les forçats de la route.

Except that he didn’t. Thanks to the digital archive at the BnF, the national library of France, we can view that very edition of Le Petit Parisien online. The actual headline is much less dramatic: ‘The Pélissier brothers and their comrade Ville abandon’. No mention of forçats at all. So why the confusion? Graeme Fife seems to come the closest to the true story, correctly noting that Londres later published a book, in 1925, titled Avec Les Forçats de la RouteThis was later published as Tour de France, Tour de Souffrance, which was actually one the headlines Londres used in his column, again on the front page of Le Petit Parisien on 19 July.

The confusion down the years is understandable, some 90 years ago. As well, it seems like the phrase les forçats de la route was already in usage. Some attribute it to Henri Pélissier some years before, others to Desgrange himself, and one online source even suggests it was coined by Henri Decoin, who wrote for L’Auto and first used it to describe the touristes-routiers, the self-supporting amateur riders who were allowed to enter the Tour alongside the professionals and were not supported by the race organization at all.

Londres’ column and his book sparked interest in the conditions of the Tour riders and provided for a lively debate at a time when workers’ rights were at the forefront of politics in France (as elsewhere). Londres also had a flair for the dramatic, writing, for example: “For a month they have fought with the road. The battles have taken place in the middle of the night, the early hours of the morning, through midday, groping through fog so thick it makes you retch, into headwinds which laid them flat, under the sun which, as in the Crau [the far south of France], spit-roasted them on the handlebars.” Great stuff!

The Village

The Pélissier brothers Francis and Charles continued to feature in the history of French cycling for some time after the 1920s. Henri, however, was shot to death in 1935 by his mistress using the same gun that his wife had used to commit suicide. Ironically, the Popular Front would introduce the long summer holidays in France the following year in 1936, holidays that would prove to be a boon for the popularity of the Tour up to even today. Henri would surely have approved.

One of Henri’s other issues was with the length of the stages in the Tour. By his rationale, doping was the only way to survive. The Tour in 1924 was 5,425 kilometres over 15 stages; the shortest stage was 275 kms, the longest 482 kms! This debate resonated for decades afterwards, with commentators even arguing in recent times that long, arduous stages have encouraged doping.

Ultimately, the Tour riders were not prisoners, or convict labourers. They were not forced to race and subject themselves to the conditions of the Tour.  They were free men. Still, as in the second meaning of forçat, their living – or working – conditions were particularly distressing. Just because they were volunteers didn’t make them exempt from reasonable employment. This discussion in some ways gets to the heart of professional sport. With all the armchair talk of ‘harden the f–k up’ and so on, is it just more and more suffering that makes for a better spectacle?

And so we return to The Prisoner. McGoohan’s character is imprisoned in a seaside resort known only as the Village. His individuality his stifled and he is forced to conform to the rules, regulations and rhythms of his sheltered life. All aspects of his existence are codified and monitored. Transgressions are severely punished. There is of course a danger in taking the analogy too far, and one does so here only tongue in cheek, but surely it is not too much of a coincidence that the start of each Tour stage takes place at the Village Départ.

The Prisoner in the Village

The Prisoner in the Village.

New Year ruminations

Winter can often be a time of contemplation. If, like your author, you’re having an ‘Italian winter’ (waiting for the rain to stop before getting on your bike), you’ll be finding other ways to get your cycling fix. Recently, for example, your author has become somewhat fixated on interrogating his current choice of gear ratios in the quest for the perfect combination of climbing gears. It has also been a time of thinking about pro cycling – basically the question: given that pro cycling is so sordid and tawdry, why bother following it? A short rumination on the virtues of the sport henceforth follows.

Pro cycling is somewhat unique as a sport in that its history is less driven by teams and individuals as it is by events. Races and racers are always on the move, not to separate pitches and fields in fixed locations but to new courses actually in cities and the countryside. And there is no season-long trophy competition of any note, but each race itself has its own history and stories. An analogy might be if professional hockey was played (like it used to be at the dawn of the sport) on frozen ponds around the wintry parts of North America and there was no Stanley Cup, just the trophy for each tournament. The teams came together to play the Minnesota Classic or the Tour de Laurentians, with each of those events having a unique and continuous history. Cycling’s structure means that it has a rich history and detailed traditions that can be tapped into; it means that there is a deep well of fascinating stories for fans to draw on to sustain their interest. And, with its European roots, it also has the touch of the exotic.

Pro cycling’s history is also a sordid one. It can be read as a series of magnificent and uplifting physical exploits, or it can be read more like an ongoing crime family saga, more like The Sopranos and The Wire. Like an onion, the more you peel back the layers the more it seems to make your eyes water. The cast of dubious characters is a large one, and the stories of double-dealing, backroom fixes, and racketeering are endless. Teams – and indeed the whole sport – have been run like old boys’ clubs of Mafia dons as opposed professional sporting organizations. And it has only been in recent years that this seems to be changing. Again, from the perspective of the inquisitive fan, this makes for a fascinating spectacle.

We are now entering into an unprecedented new era where doping will not be part of le metier of pro cycling. This will be a first in the hundred plus years of its history. Which is why, for some, the Armstrong story has not provoked universal outrage – he was doing what many great champions before him did. Doping, bullying, intimidation, absolute team control, crushing victories? All been done before. And there are always new revelations that suggest, even in the pre-EPO era, that doping played a larger role in tilting the balance than many have previously argued (Joop Zoetemelk using blood transfusions in the 1975(!) Tour de France, for example). We thus have more intrigue to keep us titillated, as well as much fodder for ongoing debates about the role of doping in determining race results. We have all become ‘group ride experts’ on the intricacies of pharmacological enhancements and relish the discussions over the controversies surrounding them.

The literary tradition

It is perhaps for the above reasons that cycling has proved such a rich subject for journalistic treatment, a large sub-set of which has transcended simple reportage and had its own literary aspirations. Cycling is not unique as a sport in this sense and many other sports have such a tradition. But cycling has not disappointed. Geoffrey Nicholson, Samuel Abt and Graeme Fife can all be read for the pleasure of the text, as can more recent arrivals Matt Rendell, William Fotheringham, Daniel Friebe, and Richard Moore (to name just four). If you are a reader for the sake of reading, then cycling books will not disappoint. The passion for research and writing that many such authors have brought to their work has produced a treasure trove of writing for fans to enjoy – particularly during their Italian winters.

Perhaps much of this work benefits from the fascinating cast of characters in cycling’s history. Given the rather cut-throat nature of the pro cycling business, those who have excelled have had to have been robust physically and psychologically to survive. Which is perhaps why cycling seems to have a surfeit of larger-than-life personalities in its history – their exploits off the bike as interesting as those on it. Now, one wonders about a new generation. With more support from teams, coaches and managers, and the sport being run more like a legitimate business than a criminal syndicate, and with structures in place so that packing your bike bag and heading to the Continent to try your luck has been replaced by a more forgiving feeder programme, and with better media management to placate sponsor images, will this change the personalities involved? Will cycling continue to have out-sized characters to provide the fodder for fascinating forays into the machinations of the peloton? Will a slick and professional, ready-for-the-big-time global sport hold as much interest as a series of small town European intrigues? One can only hope so.

On the road

Ultimately, there is something about cycle racing itself that grabs one’s attention and interest. The spectacular backdrops, the battle against nature as well as other riders, the speed and the flashes of colour, its simplicity of principle juxtaposed against the complexity of its tactics, the intersection of the individual and the team, the poetic stirring of seeing a racer in full flight. Watching and enjoying bike racing is about surrendering to one’s passions, letting the mask of reason slip for the sake of spectacle.

Pro cycling doesn’t need a complicated back story to be entertaining. New races can be just as thrilling as old, women’s cycling is just as dramatic as men’s racing on the road. We don’t need to be in Belgium or France or Italy to experience the thrill of watching exciting and compelling racing. And with the increasing popularity of bike racing around the world, many top-class races are now coming to those of us not easily able to see the traditional events. We can immerse ourselves in the history of European pro cycling, the myths and their making, the legends and the half-lies, the triumphant and the tawdry, the spectacular and the sordid, the mystical and the Machiavellian, the politics and the personalities. There is a rich vein to be tapped (pardon the pun) and will be – with luck – for many seasons to come.

But it is the action on the road that will continue to thrill us, as we throw aside all reason and seek escapism amidst the whir of the wheels, as we throw ourselves into the spectacle as deeply as those participating in it, as we throw aside all questions as to its purpose and meaning – becoming simply fans of a sport we love (although we know not the reasons why, despite our attempts to provide rational explanations). Perhaps, when we ourselves are out on our bikes, we feel – despite our own mediocrity – some connection to those whose talent and hard work allows them to ride as professionals. In some small way, we are more than just spectators.

A spectator's tradition: standing on the side of a mountain to watch the racing.

A spectator’s tradition: standing on the side of a mountain to watch the racing.