Sportsmanship: Tour de France, 2010

In radio days, each colorful sportscaster had a sign-off tag line.  These were beautifully parodied by Bob and Ray’s “This is Wally Ballou, rounding third and being thrown out at home.”  My favorite real-world sign-off tag was a Boston announcer, Jim Britt I believe, who would say “If you can’t take part in a sport, be one anyway, will ya?”  Being a sport, being fair and ethical in the old Grantland Rice tradition of  “it’s how you played the game” that counts, was the watchword.

Most major sports have been eaten up over the last 50 or 60 years by the “win at all cost” mentality.  From the college basketball point shaving scandals of a few decades back, to the use of performance-enhancing drugs openly or surreptitiously, to the angrily obsessive, interfering team owners (the name Steinbrenner comes to mind), the joy of the game, any game, has diminished.

Professional cycling, despite all the recent drug scandals, has also and paradoxically been a bastion of old-fashioned gallantry.  The riders compete fiercely while they’re on the bike, of course.  But there are unwritten rules about how that fierceness is executed.  You do not attack a rider while he’s stopped for a bathroom break.  You do not cut a rider off or push him into the barriers during a sprint.  You do not take advantage when another rider has a crash or a mechanical problem; you maintain pace until he recovers and the competition can resume on an even footing.

The first law is sometimes violated if the peloton wants to “punish” an extremely unpopular rider, who has probably earned his unpopularity by being a jerk in one way or another.  The second law is actually more official and less unwritten than the other two.  In fact Mark Cavendish’s leadout man, Mark Renshaw, was evicted from the Tour in 2010 after a sprint stage in which he first  cut off a rival sprinter and then drove American sprinter Tyler Farrar against the barriers.  That kind of riding can hurt people seriously and can’t be tolerated.  Cyclists are hitting 60 or more km/hr in a bunch sprint, with just a few centimeters clearance.

But that third law, there’s the rub.  When do you wait for a rival, and when, in the heat of competition, do you have to push on?  Not everybody who crashes, or everybody who has a mechanical, gets waited for.  But in one of his earlier tour victories, Lance Armstrong backed off the pace and waited for arch-rival Jan Ullrich to rejoin after Ullrich overshot a turn and flipped head over heels into a deep ditch.  Luckily he and his bike could continue, he caught up with Lance, and they fought it out on the last climb of the day.  As always, Armstrong prevailed.  A couple of years later, Armstrong and Ullrich were going head to head again on a mountain stage.  Armstrong attacked, and he and (improbably) Iban Mayo had a gap.  Armstrong “shaved the crowd” too closely and went down like a ton of bricks when a spectator’s bag strap caught in his handlebars.  Ullrich went around the downed riders, but held a moderate tempo.  Armstrong soon recovered, rode back to the group of leaders, they started racing again, and Armstrong surged ahead to put 45 seconds into Ullrich at the finish.  Tit for tat, fair and square, best man won.

2010 is less glorious in the annals of Tour sportsmanship.  An episode on Stage 15 cost Andy Schleck the yellow jersey and perhaps the overall Tour victory.  And many fans interpret the behavior of Schleck’s major rival and eventual Tour winner Alberto Contador as very poor sportsmanship.  The stage was a long one with four categorized climbs, the most difficult by far being the last, the Port de Bales.  The race did not end at the peak, however, but ran 21 more kilometers downhill to a finish in the town of Bagneres-du-Luchon.  Halfway up that last, hard climb the group of riders containing the main tour contenders was closing in on a small breakaway group of stage leaders.  Contador was marking Schleck, and had stayed with him the few times Schleck had tried short accelerations.  Just a few kilometers from the top of the climb, Schleck attacked again, with a hard, sustained effort.  This was no feint, but an attempt to leave Contador behind, crest the peak with a lead, and maintain the lead on the downhill run to the line.  Schleck’s move was covered not by Contador but by Contador’s teammate Alexander Vinokourov.   Vino was almost up to Schleck, a good 30 or 40 feet ahead of the group, when suddenly Schleck slowed to a stop; he had dropped his chain!  Contador, seeing this, was on him in a flash.  He and several riders darted around Schleck, who was having trouble getting the chain back on the gears.

It seemed like an eternity, but by the time Schleck recovered he was 10 to 15 seconds behind Contador.  Schleck may have taken back a couple of seconds by the summit, but he surprisingly lost about 30 on the way downhill.  The descent was long and technical, and there were no guard rails on the winding mountain road.  Contador was with a couple of ace descenders whom he could follow; Schleck was not.  At the end of the day Contador had moved from a 31 second deficit to an 8 second lead.  When he put on the yellow jersey at the post-stage ceremonies, the crown roundly booed him.  But Contador was still wearing that jersey after six more stages, at the finish in Paris.

Fair play in the heat of battle, or taking unfair advantage?  In my last few days of indoor exercise (March is going out like a soggy, frigid lamb) I’ve been watching the 2010 Tour DVDs, and have reviewed this episode carefully.  First, the reason for Schleck’s dropping his chain is not obvious.  Perhaps he messed up a shift of gears, though the expensive drive train he was using is pretty supple and forgiving.  Perhaps a mechanic didn’t get the drive train adjustment exactly right.  You can see the rear end of Schleck’s bike “hop” in the air at the moment of catastrophe, as if the gears suddenly seized up.  So it seems that the chain probably got jammed between the gears and the chainstay when it came off.

It is also evident that Contador saw exactly what was going on, though he later claimed he didn’t.  He was pretty far behind Schleck, and seems to have been urged forward at that point by Vino, whom nobody would suspect of playing fair in any given situation.  (This is the guy who attacked his own team on a stage a couple of years earlier, and was just returning from a two-year suspension for blood doping, a charge he kept denying despite clear evidence.)  Contador seems to glance at Schleck as he goes by, by which time Schleck has stopped his bike, has a foot on the ground, and is trying to lift the chain back up over the gears.  Pretty evident what is going on.

Given the tradition reflected in the Armstrong/Ullrich precedents, it seems clear to me Contador should have kept pace until Schleck rejoined him.  You can say that Ullrich, Armstrong, and Schleck were all involved in accidents that were their “own fault.”  Since there were still 25 km to go when the Schleck/Contador incident happened, you can’t claim that the “rush to the finish” prevented waiting.  As to Contador’s motives, I think Phil Liggett, the TV commentator, had it right when he said that Contador was desperate.  Schleck seemed to have him on the ropes, and Contador did not (could not?) respond to the hard attack just before the dropped chain.  So fear of finishing second (not “losing,” because finishing second out of about 160 in the hardest race in the world is no disgrace) motivated Contador.  The “win at all cost” mentality prevailed.  It’s how you play the game these days.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Near Miss

Weekends are always dicey on the W&OD.  I have commented before on the large, random population that flocks there when they’re off work for a couple of days: the well-intentioned but seldom-exercised, the parents with kids just learning how to ride a bike (or use in-like skates), the dog-walkers, the neighbors who meet and decide to have a gabfest while standing in the middle of the trail, the elderly couple strolling slowly, the large walking group who think that both sides of the trail belong to them, the “weekend warriors” whose girth bespeaks sporadic activity.  And, in early March, all of this is compounded on the first warm weekend of the season.  Nobody’s been out for a while, and so everybody who uses the Trail on occasional random weekends flocks there en masse for the first outing of the year.

Consequently on last Sunday afternoon the Trail was nearing SRO.  Cyclists are aware of the implications of the situation, and my objectives in terms of distance, difficulty, and average speed were modest.  Had I been ultra-ambitious I would have found a non-Trail route to take.  But there I was, calmly rolling out to Herndon.  Just this side of Reston Town Center, I had come to the crest of a downhill stretch leading under an overpass, and could see the uphill section beyond the crossing bridge.  The only people in sight were a family group of a walking mother, a girl about 9 on a two-wheeler, and a little boy about Ben’s age in a Big Wheel type of vehicle.  They were coming toward me, starting down the descent on the other side, my “uphill.”  The boy was swooping back and forth from one side to the other.

I noticed from some distance that the mom had placed herself between the boy and the center of the trail and thought “good, she’s warned him and has him under control.”  As I sped down the hill and approached them everything looked calm.  When I started uphill, however, the 9-year-old veered sharply toward the center line.  [Why does this happen so often?  I can be going along, spot a rider, runner, or walker way up ahead, and they’ll also be going along in a perfectly straight line.  All is well until about ten feet away, when they swerve or veer and I have to shout “Look out!”  It’s as if they sense I am coming and want to create a little excitement.]  The mom lunged forward to grab her handlebars.  In doing so, she left the side of her little boy.  He of course immediately sensed an opening and swerved straight across the trail immediately in front of me, at right angles to my path.  I slammed on the brakes and shouted “look out!” followed immediately by “Gee Whiz!” as I came to a halt about two feet in front of him.  [I swear pledge that this is exactly what I said, thank goodness.]  She grabbed him just as he started to sob, from fright I’m sure; I think she shouted at him too.

I just pushed off, stuck my to back in the toe clip, and kept on going, uttering an exasperated “Man!” as I left.  No use having words; it was really nobody’s fault, and I am sure the mom, who was probably just trying to get her kids out for some exercise, was upset and feeling bad too.  Her plight illustrates that when the children outnumber the adults things can never be in complete control.  Parents have to play man defense; kids will always find the seam in the zone sooner or later.  When there’s one mom and two kids one of them is always going to be open.  But my other point is that nobody should be on the Trail who is unable to control their vehicle completely.  No 3- or 4-year-old can be trusted to ride a vehicle in a straight line consistently.  Likewise the Trail is not where you learn how to skateboard/ride a tricycle/ride a bicycle/rollerblade.  That’s what the driveway and sidewalk are for.  Everyone on the Trail needs to be in complete control of themselves at all times, for their safety and that of others.

And that’s why the Trail is not always my first choice on weekends.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

The Horse Knows the Way

A couple of weeks ago I was approaching the W&OD Trail underpass of the Dulles Toll Road.  It has had a semi-permanent detour for over a year, because they have been building a new span on the Toll Road to carry a metro line to Reston and eventually Dulles Airport.  Designed in the 1960s by star architect Eero Saarienen and named from the start after an American Secretary of State (unlike the retro-named Kennedy [nee Idlewild] in NYC and R***** [nee National] in DC), the airport was way out in the sticks, and yet was not connected by mass transportation to the city it served.  Thanks to the American love of the automobile, only a road took folks the twenty miles to the Nation’s Capital.  So, having blown the chance to build on cheap, readily available land the kind of rail connection that practically every other major airport in the world has had for years, the regional transportation authority is belatedly constructing a one billion (yeah, with a “b”) dollar extension from the West Falls Church Metro stop, through business/commercial center Tyson’s Corner out to Dulles.

On my recent ride I approached the underpass knowing full well what to expect.  At the mouth of the underpass the trail squeezes off to the far right.  In the middle, where the trail used to be, is construction equipment–a major work zone.  Over the previous year I had witnessed the building of massive reinforced concrete support posts for the metro line, the installation of long, huge steel girders to carry the rails on top of the  supports, the digging of deep trenches for drainage pipes, the comings and goings of cranes, graders, front loaders, generator trucks for air hammers, and the like.  A three-year-old’s dream of big equipment and loud noise, but a cyclist’s nemesis as the electric board at the downslope intersection advertises each new jog, twist, and delay when the trail is shut down for periods of time or re-re-routed on rough, puncture-inducing new gravel.

Even the “regular” bypass trail makes a rider pay attention.  The jog to the right is sudden, with the new trail surface separated from the work zone by plastic and steel wire nailed to wooden frames.  The lanes are quite narrow, the surface rough and susceptible to wet or icy conditions as a result of chronic dripping from the overhead construction of the rail bed.   The detour is serviceable, and a whole lot better than having the trail cut off, but it demands extra vigilance.

As I pedaled the gentle uphill under the overpass two weeks ago I suddenly felt lost, disoriented.  Where exactly was I?  Something didn’t feel right.  Then it dawned on me: the construction was gone!  No more barriers, no more equipment, no orange plastic fencing.  The trail was straight, unimpeded, empty.  Now I could grind on through without looking out for construction workers or dodging joggers on the narrow bypass.  I could come charging downhill on the way home without braking.  Funny how the mind gets set in its patterns.  Knowing what I expected to see, my consciousness only slowly registered and comprehended the information my eyes were sending to my brain.

By yesterday, though, the old program had reinstalled itself.  What construction?  Oh yeah, they were working here for a while, weren’t they?

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Costa Rica

“Pura vida,” the national slogan of Costa Rica, expresses so many aspects of the vacation traveler’s experience there.  It implies an embrace of the pure essence of life, its intensity, flavor, and energy.  it implies a joy in the moment, life purely as it feels in the here and now, with no thoughts about everyday routines and responsibilities back home.  It implies the ecological and environmental emphasis in this country, that derives all of its electrical energy from renewable resources (!): a third hydroelectric, a third wind, and a third geothermal.

Most of the bicycles I saw in Costa Rica were beat-up, scraped, and scarred.  They were often being pedaled slowly along the roads that run through farm country, past Brahma cows grazing on the parched dry-season grasses, endless cane fields, small roadside cottages in shade-tree groves.  They were ridden by schoolchildren coming and going, adults holding the handlebars and  also their plastic bags of market goods, farmers or workers on their way to their earthy occupations.  I saw one guy riding along with a huge flat pickup truck tire balanced between his chest and the handlebars, heading for a gas station.  In the towns kids had them, scuttling around, converging in groups for games or talk; women had them, riding along insouciantly in skirts and blouses.  They are the poor man’s motor scooter or horse.  They are inexpensive everyday transportation.

Most of them are like mountain bikes of ten years ago: straight bars, damped forks, fat tires.  The paint is rough around the edges; they have been loved to death, or at least enough to show considerable wear.  it’s clear that they are prized possessions.  Somebody must sell a lot of bike tires here, the fat kind that you don’t inflate too high.  On the dirt farm roads lurk sharp pebbles, severe and sudden ruts, broken and fragmented hard-pack mud surfaces, and only drainage ditches for shoulders.  Huge cane trailers rumble along, and heavy, massive dump trucks roll, trailing billows of dry-season dust.  The bikes weave along past hazards, full of faith that the roaring trucks and weaving Turismo vans will not clip them on the way by.   I observed that the space gap allotted a cyclist is often only a few inches; none of the grand swooping “avoidance” gestures made by many American drivers, but not a whiff of the aggressive “you deserve to be run off the road” swerves of other American drivers either.  Pura vida.

Our resort was a beautiful cluster of buildings that clings to a steep hill descending from a high plateau to Papagaya Bay.  Hugging the land, it has steep roads from the vista-rich reception building at the top to the restaurants, bar, and pool that sit at the foot of the slope, between the residence buildings and the bay beach (all beaches in Costa Rica are public; the resort does not control its water frontage).  The bus from the airport took us a short way down the inland valley between the high mountains of Guanacaste Province and the coast, then across to the steep ascent to the coastal plateau, a few miles across the rolling open country atop the plateau, and then abruptly down to the resort.  The day we reluctantly left our deck chairs by the pool to do a boat tour I spotted the only sport cyclists I would see.  It was Saturday, and the local riders seemed to be enjoying the perfect weather.  As the Turismo van began the descent from the plateau toward the inland valley floor I saw two of them coming up to the top of the hill.  They were turning over their lowest gears with obvious effort and little forward velocity.  Their faces were contorted by the effort.  Further down the hill it was apparent that they’d come a long way up a very sharp incline.  Two more riders were about halfway up, where there’s a brief relatively level bit.  Several solitary riders along the flatter paved valley roads were ramping up their  pace, one on a time trial bike.  I can only speculate where he purchased it; the one store I later saw in Liberia (a city, capital of Guanacaste) didn’t look like they carried upper-end bikes or parts.  Mail order is probably a good option for the serious rider in those parts.

The Saturday cyclists all had gear and kit; they had nice bikes; they all wore helmets.  Perhaps I should not call them the “serious” ones, but reserve the term for those who moved slowly, knees akimbo, along the white stripes at the edge of dusty roads, inches from traffic.  Because for them, owning a bike was obviously a serious business; they needed it for the basic purposes of daily life.  For the committed but recreational Saturday cyclists, the bike provided a bit of what my trip provided me, pleasure and escape.  But their Saturday on a 12% grade was making them healthy; the pool and the all-inclusive food and drink I was enjoying were taking me in a different direction.

Pura vida.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Like a Lamb

Given the realities of “March winds,” the month came in as calmly as could be expected this year.  Before the end of February we had one day so warm that I could wear my summer gear, and a couple more that required only long-sleeve jerseys instead of short sleeves.  Of course we’ve also had a couple of days that didn’t make it out of the 30° range.  Somehow even the low 40°s, temperatures that might have made me jump for joy in our record-cold January, don’t seem nearly so tempting to ride in these days.  “Just ride indoors today, and it will warm up tomorrow,” I tell myself.

The winds, though, can still be the deal killer.  I am finding that the extent to which my sinus twitches, causing my eyes to water and my post-nasal drip to begin, is controlled by the intensity of the cold breeze.  Doesn’t bother me otherwise, but my sinus reaction can make a trip difficult.  Two days ago, though, it was dust and winter road debris blowing around that got me.  Some particularly tiny, sharp airborne particle got in my eye.  It felt like salt in a wound, or some angry cat clawing away at the inside of my eyelid.  I finished my ride in semi-agony, and spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening preoccupied with getting this thing out of my eye.  It never budged; I never could see it in my eye, only feel it.  Perhaps it really scratched my eye, because every flick of my upper eyelid traced a new line of flaming pain down and up.  No eyewash, warm water solution, anything alleviated it.  It was still there next morning, but less intense, and sometime around the middle of the day it was almost gone, though the whole socket of my eye remained sore from the efforts of the day before.  I am giving it a couple of days to clear up altogether.  Tomorrow, when I could ride, it’s going to be raining, of course.

I first heard Spring Peepers on February 28 this year.  Their intense high-pitched “peep” was accompanied by what I suppose is another species with more of a midrange “quack” (not quite “croak”).  The noise is very loud where they’re singing, but at 16-18 mph a rider comes on it suddenly and it fades just as fast.  But one walker was so overwhelmed with all the frog sound that the poor guy had his hand to his ear so he could hear his cell phone.  People like that are so clueless; the impulse is to stop, rip the phone out of his hand and hurl it into the marsh, and say “can you hear it now . . . the important sound, I mean.”

One other component to this season of transition: I am temporarily driving a Cadillac, courtesy of Enterprise car rentals.  It has a V8 engine, is a good two feet longer than our 2004 Audi A6, at least 2″ or 3″ higher, several inches wider, and has discernibly larger tires and (I’m guessing) worse gas mileage.  It has every bell and whistle known to Detroit.  I was shocked to learn that American car manufacturers are still turning out luxury barges like this.  Didn’t they learn anything from their loss of market share, the recession, their near-bankruptcy?  Don’t they have any conscience, any commitment to improving the ecology and using less fossil fuel?  How naive I feel to think they might.

The reason I am driving the Caddy, as you may have guessed, is that my ’99 Audi A6 is in the shop.  Parked it on N St. in Georgetown the other day to do an errand.  When I returned, I found that a refrigerated produce delivery truck (Keany Produce of Landover, MD) had backed into it.  Scraped off the left front quarter panel, dislodged and mangled the headlight, grille, and front bumper, destroyed the tire.  To his credit the driver stayed at the scene.  His truck received minor scrapes.  My vehicle sustained $4550 of damage.  Luckily it is not totaled.  Estimated time of repair: 14 days.  I learned that Henry’s Towing is so good they can even extract a wreck from Georgetown and tow it to Tyson’s Corner in evening rush hour, all for a mere $136.  (N St. was blocked for 8 or 9 minutes, though, while he loaded the Audi onto his flatbed.)

So perhaps it would be more correct to say that March has come in like a very annoying lamb.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.