Maniacs and Martyrs

There was an American cyclist Named Bobby Julich.  He struggled during his early career, at times paying his own way to American races because he had no team and no sponsor.  Bobby finally caught on with European race teams for his considerable talent, and had a good run for himself, finishing third overall in the Tour in 1998, winning the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics ITT (upgraded from bronze when Tyler Hamilton confessed to doping), and capturing the tough early spring Paris-Nice stage race (the “Race to the Sun”), the first American to do so.  Bobby won TDF stages, and he was a strong support rider in his career on a range of respectable European teams such as CSC and Deutsche Telekom.  After his career, Bobby continued to work in the sport he loved as a ‘coach,” most currently with the British Team Sky.

Today Bobby confessed that he used performance enhancing drugs from 1996 to 1998.  During that time he rode for Motorola and Cofidis.  He says that when his fiancée (now wife) got wind of his using, during the year of the Festina scandal, he quit.  As a result of this confession, he has just lost his job with Team Sky.

I don’t know whether the atmosphere surrounding professional cycling today reminds me more of Salem from 1692 to 1693 or Paris from 1793 to 1794.  Witch Trials or Reign of Terror, take your pick.  Is Team Sky really saying that their morals are so pure and sacrosanct that they cannot abide have a self-confessed drug user on their staff even when he saw the error of his ways and quit using fifteen years ago?  That’s far past the statute of limitations.  It does a disservice to others contemplating confession, to the impulse to be honest, to pure common sense.  It is rumored that Lance Armstrong may lose his recent marathon results, none of which were in the top 200 finishers of the event.  As somebody else said on Facebook today, what’s next?  Will he lose his high school diploma?

A person like Julich has more at stake than Lance.  He has behaved more honorably twice, by renouncing doping before many of his his major successes, and confessing fully.  But the frenzy sweeping cycling sports these days has no logic, only hysteria.  That mindless, emotionally fragile, morally vacuous but viscerally charged emotion sweeps all before it.  Punish Lance if you must.  But for the sake of all that is decent and fair-minded, do not crush the likes of Bobby Julich, who has worked hard, achieved a decent career through perseverance, grit, and moral growth.  The sport should want to find and hire all the Julich types it can.  Ruining them can only be described as an immoral, insane, miscarriage of justice.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

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The Lance Factor: End of an Era

Today the UCI made it official.  Lance Armstrong will be stripped of his seven Tour de France victories, and apparently his entire race results from 1999 onward.  He finished third in the 2009 Tour, and I don’t recall any discussion of his doping that year, nor of his Astana teammate Alberto Contador’s doing so, though the same “reasoned judgment” that resulted in Lance’s punishment surely would have extended to Alberto if the same logic had been applied.

But clearly this decision is about logic and uniformly applied justice only in the broadest sense.  The Tour de France will now have vacated titles for the overall victory from 1999 through 2005.  This was a very sensible decision of how to handle the situation.  To move up Alex Zülle, the second place finisher in 1999, and award him the victory would be almost as silly and futile as vacating Lance’s results from years that lie beyond the statute of limitations, namely 1999 through 2003.  That is what the USADA did, citing the ongoing nature of the doping that was said to have gone on within the US Postal team.  But Zülle, Escartin, Beloki, Ullrich, Rumsas, Vinokourov, and all the other second- and third-place finishers in the Armstrong era were known dopers even back in the day, when suspension were lighter and forgiveness freer.  Replacing a recently discovered likely cheater with another cheater known to have cheated regularly for a long time makes no sense.

You have to give him credit: Lance cheated well.  Just as he trained harder, studied the routes more intensively (before the last ITT in the tight 2003 Tour, Lance rode the rainy route in the morning while Ullrich studied it on a video cam; Ullrich crashed; Lance won the Tour), made sure he was always in shape, and got the best support riders around him, Lance apparently cheated more systematically, professionally, and successfully than any other rider ever.  Time after time a “trusted lieutenant” would leave the team to become the top rider on another club, and after a year or two would fail a drug test.  Hamilton, Heras, Landis, Leipheimer.  The other teams couldn’t dope without detection; that too takes precise training, unrelenting focus, absolute discipline.

So the UCI, which for a long time defended Lance, probably for some of the same reasons we fans did, has turned its back on him.  Armstrong and his era “should be forgotten,” says Pat McQuaid.  Not gonna happen, any more than the Chicago White Sox of 1919 and Shoeless Joe Jackson will be forgotten.  Armstrong won seven straight Tours.  He was the best rider out there.  He might not have won seven straight in drug-free environment, but he would have dominated his era.  Those years will always be known as the Armstrong Era, not the “Um, what was the name of that American guy who doped?” Era.  Erasing his name from the top of the GC lists only makes him equally conspicuous and memorable by his absence.

The most famous winner now becomes the most infamous doper.  Inevitable but fair by some karmic standard.  But it should not be forgotten that Lance Armstrong, the talented guy driven by a passion to win, did it best.

As a fan, though, I look at professional cycling and feel confused.  In half a century the sport moved from the open acceptance of performance enhancing drugs (Jacques Anquetil’s famous “Of course we take pills.  How else could we perform?”), to casual toleration of drugs as a minor problem (the still-revered Eddie Merckx was busted several times in his career, but the punishment was a small slap on the wrist), to the ongoing adulation of Tom Simpson, who killed himself mid-Tour in 1967 with speed and cognac.  Then in the ‘80s and ‘90s better drugs were found.  Drug use may not have become more rampant, but it changed the nature of racing more.  It is widely acknowledged that the average speeds and levels of endurance rose markedly in the early 1990s, just as Greg Lemond was succumbing to the latent effects of his hunting accident.  But nobody got a handle on it for a while.  Now several past winners, including Bjarne Riis, have admitted to doping.  Miguel Indurain, the 1991-95 winner has not, and nobody has pressed the point.  The world was not sufficiently open to suspicion.  But after the 1998 Festina team scandal the pervasiveness of doping was clear.  Armstrong came along the next year.  It appears now that his testicular cancer, which ironically may have been caused by PEDs, was a perfect smokescreen for his new post-remission performance ability.  Many questioned Armstrong’s results, but he passed the drug tests and pleaded his inspiring recovery.

I’m not going to be writing any more about Lance.  He is probably best forgotten.  I may take one more spin through my DVDs as I ride indoors this winter on snowy days.  His feats can still make your spine tingle, especially if you’re a cyclist and can fully appreciate the things he did.  Those tapes more than anything else can keep my legs moving.  But there are other riders, other things to watch.  And other sports to follow.  This is the end of an era for me, as a pro cycling fan.  I’ll keep an oar in the water, but the cycling I anticipate being by far the most interested in henceforth is my own, where my tire rubber hits the road.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Sitting Pretty

I was discussing things prostatic with my doctor recently, in light of various nerve irritations and pains, perhaps related to gout, that I’ve been dealing with in my left knee and leg.  Naturally the conversation worked around eventually to the tuberosity of the ischium.  The doctor’s a cyclist too, and so he understands the pressures and forces that act upon the pelvic region when you’re seated on a bike.

Trek 2.1 original equipment Bontrager saddle.

I have always held the opinion that the exact shape of a bike saddle is not important, within reason (although the powers of reason are not usually associated with this region of the body, except in derogatory colloquialisms).  I’ve always held the opinion that my butt can and does get used to whatever shape and degree of softness the saddle of a particular bike offers.  Within a week or two everything seems comfy enough.  So while some online comments on the Trek 2.1 recommended a saddle upgrade from the stock model, I decided to see whether I could get used to it.

And indeed I could.  I’ve been using it for three years with a minimal discomfort.  Every now and then I have experienced a kind of numbness in the area of the ischial tuberosity, but five minutes of rest always has cleared it up completely for the rest of the ride.  But that Bontrager saddle is hard and light, with a bit of padding (unlike those tiny rigid carbon platforms that the pros sit on), a V cut out on the back end, and a fairly narrow nose.  My other bikes run the gamut: one has an oval cutout, one a large gel sac and a groove, and two not much of anything special.  One of these last two is leather, an ancient Turbo model that is on the Bianchi Squadra.

New Performance Pro SL installed.

But, and it’s a big ”but,” I never got beyond the occasional stinging-to-numbness experience with that original equipment saddle.  And so when Performance Bicycles had their white Pro SL model on sale recently, and the price was at its lowest ebb, I bought it to replace the Bontrager.  It has an oval cutout, a bit of padding, a slim profile with enough rear end support, and a slightly wider nose.  Field testing has yielded perfect results: no break-in period of discomfort, no ache or numbness, just perfect comfort even on longer rides.  I give it two thumbs up.  Oh, wait, let’s just say that the ol’ ischial tuberosity has never been better.  Though in all honesty the most comfortable of my saddles has always been that ancient Turbo.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Seasonal Cycles: Baseball

And so it’s over one more time.  Major League Baseball has completed its regular season.  There have been many gray, transitional October days like this for me in past years, days when I remember with sorrow that there will be no new box scores in tomorrow’s paper, that my favorite pitcher is not going to get one more shot at a 20-game season, that my favorite hitter is not going to make it to 30 home runs, that there will be no more evenings of watching games evolve, each individual contest new and unique, like a snowflake in a blizzard of baseball action.   Every major league team will have offered and received a total of upwards of 41,000 pitches this season, roughly half of which will have been swung at, for almost 21,000 swings.  All that action, all that strategy—sacrifice bunts, delayed steals, hit-and-runs, intentional walks, pickoffs, balks, arguments, walk-off hits, brushbacks—all of it is packed away until next year, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in mid-February 2013.

Gray October days are often wistful for other reasons.  Bucky F. Dent’s weak home run spoils a great Red Sox season.  Bobby Tomson assures Ralph Branca of a long winter of regrets.   The Phillies blow a 6.5 game lead with 15 remaining in 1964.  The Sox lose two in Yankee Stadium to finish 1 game behind the Bombers in 1949.  And that’s before the World Series even begin.

Trouble is, the World Series is now the “playoffs.”  Back in the old two-league, sixteen-team days, the teams with the best record in each league won the league flag, or “pennant.”  Then they played each other best-of-seven in the World Series.  There was honor, but not postseason play, for those teams finishing in the top half of each league, the “first division.”   This setup gave proper emphasis to the importance of the regular season.  Baseball is unique among professional sports in playing a long schedule.  Then it was 154 games; now it’s 162.  Over such a long stretch, there are not usually great differentials among the teams of professional ballplayers.  Few teams play worse than a .400 won-lost percentage, and few much above .600 (this year it ranged from the Washington nationals at .605 to the sad-sack Houston Astros at .340).  But the small differentials really create contrasts as big as night and day.  Those pennant winners deserved to be the ones to reap all the October glory, and the rest of the league and their fans could look forward to next year, and more sunny days and warm evenings of give and take on the diamond.

Now the best teams get less advantage, and more teams get a cut of the revenues to be had by extending the season.  But baseball is not baseball when it is played in cold weather, especially at night.  And now that we are starting with five teams in each league all kinds of inequities arise.  The Washington Nationals, owners of the best record in baseball (am I dreaming?  Could I imagine typing that last phrase even 5 months ago?), have to begin their postseason with two games on the road at the home of the Wild Card team.  Given the vicissitudes of baseball and the strength at the top of the Atlanta pitching staff, the Nats could be shuffling home next Tuesday on the verge of elimination.  The Braves, on the other hand, have to risk immediate postseason elimination in a single sudden-death game, though they were distinctly a better team this season than St. Louis.  Similar situations exist in the AL.  Even worse are the threats from frosty nights and autumn storms.  As the playoffs go on, the weather gets worse, especially in northern climes.  If the World Series goes seven games this year, Game Seven will be on All Saints’ Day evening.  Yes, that’s right—November!

Ending up with the best regular season record requires more consistency, more resourcefulness, more persistence, more “true grit,” than any post-season achievement.  The only luck involved is the uncontrollable demon of injuries.  In the postseason, with its short series, quirky schedules, sometimes violent and hostile weather, and three/four man rotations, all sorts of twists can ruin the best teams and raise the most lowly ones.  It’s more a matter of drama and chance than consistent quality.

So the Washington Nationals already have something they can be very proud of.  They’ve had a grand year, made grander by its being largely a surprise.  They have risen faster than we thought, and have given us many thrills, whole reels of flashy highlights and small satisfactions.  I think they’ll do well in the playoffs.  But I would argue that their biggest achievement of 2012 will be that .605 record, no matter what happens between now and November 1.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.