A Fan’s Rider

Thomas Voeckler is a professional bicycle racer.  He rides for the Europcar team; the sponsor is a major European rental car agency.  His salary in 2011 was €420,000 (about $600,000 in cheesy American money), the second most of any French rider.

That salary, mediocre by American sports standards but enough for anybody to live comfortably on, should go up this year.  Voeckler had a brilliant 2011 racing record, including victories in the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Haut Var, as well as two stages in the “icebreaker” spring stage race, the “Ride to the Sun,” Paris-Niece.

And then there was the Tour de France.  Riding with a relatively weak team, Voeckler managed to grab the overall race lead, the Yellow Jersey, a couple of days before the Tour hit the Pyrenees on Bastille Day.  He did it by making it into the winning break on a “bumpy” course, and being strong enough to finish second in the sprint to pull ahead on overall time.  On the French holiday Voeckler hung in there with the group of favorite climbers over the massive Col de Tourmalet, and then lost just a few seconds to those favorites on the final climb up Luz Ardiden (where Lance Armstrong first crashed, then recovered and stormed to a crucial victory in 2003).   The announcers were predicting he couldn’t hold the Jersey after July 14, but as he had in the 2003 Tour he did indeed hold on for days by sheer grit.  He ground out the pace, staying with the race leaders even on the most demanding Alpine climbs until the mountains finally got to him.  But he finished a most impressive 4th overall, just off the Paris podium.

Now Voeckler says that if the fans love him, most of the peloton hates him for his hard-charging, opportunistic style.  He says that esteemed Beligian sprinter Tom Boonen pounded him on the back during the 2006 Tour de France when Voeckler attacked at a time when protocol demanded that he not.  It seems that the “leaders” of the peloton call the shots on such matters.  It’s as if Derek Jeter called time to tell David Ortiz that he couldn’t swing at the upcoming pitch.  Boonen was found to have ingested cocaine a couple of years later.  At least it was a recreational drug, nothing performance enhancing.  Boonen apparently preferred to control challenges to his performance by enforcing the rules he favored about when and how to attack.

Well, Mr. Voeckler, as a fan all I can say is “thanks.”  Thanks for keeping racing exciting.  Thanks for reminding us that the objective in racing is fundamentally to cross the finish line before the other guys.  Thanks for calling out the jerks in the peloton.  And best wishes in all your races this year.  Perhaps you can take that one extra step from 4th to 3rd, and end up on the podium in Paris.

We’ll be rooting for you.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Spring is Peeping

Today is the day I first heard the singing of those small frogs known as spring peepers.  As I ride westward from Vienna along the W&OD, hearing the slightly elevated noise level of spring birds staking out territory (the cardinals, robins, mourning doves, and mocking birds being the most notable {no pun}), I barely notice the distant clamor.

Then as it gets louder a couple of mental reflexes kick in and slip into place: “there must be a big flock of starlings around,” “it’s almost March 1,” “spring peepers!!”  The volume seems to jump up instantly when I get right beside the swampy places where they live.  It embraces me in its intensity; I am riding through air made thick with sound waves.  As I reach the fringe of spring peeper territory the volume drops as abruptly as it rose.  One minute I am in the sound-dense air, the next instant silence descends.  Then I await the next and larger colony in the marshes farther out along Difficult Run, and get a longer sound wave bath.

And now it’s over, until I come back from the ride out to the Trail bridge over Route 28 in Sterling, at the far side of which I turn around.  Then I get the whole thing again, in reverse, with even more volume brought on by air temperature that has risen from about 46° to 53°.

Crocus, Spring 2012

First crocus at Academy Street, spring 2012

This is the earliest I have ever heard these little frogs sing, though not by much.  The mild winter overall, and yesterday’s 64° air, must have sent the right signals.  Just as I have never seen the early-blooming daffodils all out, or the crocuses in full bloom, on this, the last day of “normal February”—we get a leap year day tomorrow before March begins.  But those frogs better enjoy their mud while they’ve got it.  The winter has been warm but also dry, and we’ll be talking about drought soon if we don’t get a real dousing of April showers.

© Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Pumps

I thought I had purchased a beauty of a bike tire pump several months ago.  An Ascent Mega-Force, it has a large barrel for efficient pumping, a pressure gage at the top so I can set and read it easily, and a dual head to fit both Schraeder and Presta valves.  Schraeder valves work like the valves on automobile inner tubes, while Presta valves (also called Sclaverand valves somewhere in the world, apparently) are narrower and work through a cool mechanism that involves a thin threaded post and a small “captive nut” (no, not like John Hinkley) that screws down to pull up a fixed stopper on the other end of the post to block the hole.  The air pressure of the tire itself, rather elegantly, holds the stopper in place.  But when the captive nut is unscrewed to the top of the post and the whole mechanism forcibly depressed, the inner stopper is pushed down, away from the opening.

I don’t know the exact mechanism within a pump head that seals the pump around the open valve.  But this pump was regularly balky and difficult to release from a Presta valve.  It was on so tight, and so difficult to release, that it pulled off the captive nut from four of my Presta valves, thereby ruining beyond repair four perfectly good, new or newish, inner tubes to the tune of something like $32 worth of unusable rubber.  I guess in theory I could have tried riding the bike as long as the air pressure would hold the valve shut, but that seemed a tad risky.

Much as I like the practice of changing tubes (something I am pretty good at now) this situation seemed not only frustrating but also ridiculous.  So a couple of days ago I bought a less impressive pump made by a different maker.  This one works, or seems to so far.  It has a smaller barrel so inflating takes longer, and the gauge is at the bottom where I can’t read it so well.  But it has a better head design and it doesn’t destroy my valves.  The bike shop manager said he’d take the other one back, so that’s my mission tomorrow.

Nothing’s ever easy, even pumping air into bike tires.  My mother called this the “natural perversity of things inanimate.”  Thanks Mom.  That’s such a great phrase!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012

One Loser, Lots of Winners

In the world of bike racing, palmares define the arc of a cyclist’s career.  Each is a recognition for having finished in the top three of a one-day race or a single stage of a multi-day stage race.  The same recognition goes for the top three finishers of an entire stage race, or for a podium finish in several other categories, depending on the race, such as most overall points, top climber, or best young rider.  While some superior support riders seldom if ever win, most accumulate a cluster of these special recognitions over the span of a career.

Yesterday superstar rider Alberto Contador had an astonishing 27 palmares stripped from his record.  He was just found guilty of doping in the 2010 Tour de France, a race in which he was deemed the overall winner for lo these past 19 months.  The phantom of Andy Schleck suddenly ascended the fantasy retrospective Paris podium to accept the silent cheers of a ghostly crowd who had departed to return to their suppers of brie, baguette, and petit chateaux Bordeaux a year ago last July.  Doughty Chris Horner found he had finished 3rd in the 2011 Volta Ciclista a Catalunya GC.  Michele Scarponi not only belatedly won the 2011 Giro d’Italia, but gained or improved in five other awards in that race.

This, dammit, is not the way bike races are supposed to be contested or won.  It was bad enough when it took over a year to strip Floyd Landis of his ill-gotten gains in the 2006 Tour de France.  The result was never in much dispute.  In the Contador case, given the much greater sophistication of both doping and testing, the concentration of the contaminant was very small and the result therefore harder to interpret.  Yet the evidence apparently suggests strongly that Contador did use clenbuterol, and perhaps received a blood transfusion, during the 2010 Tour.

The thing is,we’ll never know for sure.  Sports justice, and/or the European sense of justice itself, seems oddly off-key to American ears.  In European cycling, guilt is proclaimed unless or until the accused party can prove his innocence.  And while we think in terms of guilt as being “beyond the shadow of a doubt,” in sports doping doubt casts a long shadow indeed, and hearsay and circumstantial evidence have a huge impact on the fate of the accused.  A rider may well be suspended when the first journalistic accusation is made.  A rider is generally fired when the second test of the medical sample, the so-called “B test,” confirms the A test, before the rider has a chance to appeal.  No hearing, no check of the accuracy of the lab results, nothing.  And the stakes are high.  Contador’s suspension will probably require that he return his salary as of July 2010.  It is estimated that he made €5 million (that’s 7.5 million in cheesy US dollars) in 2011.  Bet he’s spent some of that; bet he drives a new Ferrari or the equivalent.  And on top of that he may be heavily fined to the tune of over €2M.

Ultimately, Contador could not prove that the clenbuterol in his system was not from doping.  He also couldn’t prove that the traces of plastic compounds in his blood in suspicious quantities, compounds that are used in blood transfusion bags, did not indicate a transfusion.  His first trial was with his national (Spanish) cycling organization.  They ultimately refused to suspend him.  Then the UCI (International Cycling Union) and the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) appealed to the CAS (Court for Arbitration in Sports).  Contador can appeal the verdict to the CAS, but only on procedural grounds.  One must ask what procedure could possibly have been overlooked in a process that took 19 months.  One principle, however, has certainly been violated: justice delayed is justice denied.  The whole fiasco of allowing him to contest the 2011 Tour de France before it was determined that his 2010 Tour performance was legitimate is ample evidence of that.

Andy Schleck, to his great credit, made a most sportsmanlike and dignified statement in response to the suspension.  He said he did not want to win a race by a court decision but on the road in competition.  He said that on those grounds he did not win the 2010 Tour.  That if he wins this year he will regard it as his first Tour victory.  That he has always believed that Contador was clean in 2010.  Schleck did not say this: that he might well have won in 2010 if he had not lost 30 seconds to Contador when the Spaniard attacked him when he (Schleck) dropped his chain on a climb.  That set up the “anticlimax” on the last mountain stage finish atop the foggy Col de Tourmalet, when Contador kept pace all the way up the last climb with Schleck.  No need to attack, because Contador was ahead on time, and Schleck could not shake loose from him.  The same result would have led to a Schleck victory if he had been ahead by those seconds he lost in the earlier incident.  In a sense, then, Schleck’s belated Tour championship is good karma.  What goes around comes around, and the bad sportsmanship of Contador gets its just reward.

And speaking of karma, in other cycling news the US Attorney’s office has announced that the Federal Government is dropping its investigation of Lance Armstrong without bringing any charges.  Despite the USADA’s interest in the government’s evidence Lance appears to be off the hook after years of innuendo and accusation.  And yet he was never proven to have used clenbuterol, testosterone, EPO, transfused blood, or any other illegal substances.   The best Tour rider of his generation, and perhaps the best ever.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.