“The Sweet and Merry Month of May”

This has been an unusually cool and rainy month in northern Virginia, as recorded in the average air temperature and the rainfall total, which should surpass 8” for the month before the end of the day.  Nights have been cool, many afternoons so chilly that I’ve worn a sweater over long sleeves.  The cats have had little sun to loll in, neither on the screen porch in the early morning or late afternoon, nor by the storm door in the front.

When we got home from recent travels we had long grass, encouraged by the cold and wet, and hard to mow because it was wet.  But we attacked it and got it done.  Not, however, without the mower leaving big clumps all over the lawn like an incontinent cow.

I was working clean-up duty, raking the clumps before they matted and spot-killed the lawn, on a rare sunny afternoon when I realized the other day that May, which Elizabethan composer William Byrd called the “sweet and merry month,” is truly just that.  Hot, and sweaty in the sticky air, I stopped to rest on the porch steps for ten minutes.  First, a tiny butterfly, looking for all the world as if it had commandeered a piece of sky to color its wings, fluttered leisurely across the patio, exploring random small weeds, leaves, clumps of dirt.  It was almost certainly a Spring Azure, though different butterfly sites provide very different structures of classification.  Next, a fox kit trotted nonchalantly into the yard from the back hedge, angled over into the neighbors’ azaleas, and was on his way.  He saw me, but neither paused in surprise nor hurried away in fear.  Then there was the “wild rose tree,” actually an ornamental holly tree that is now full of rose vines and looked simply splendid in the bright sunshine.  This simple wild plant is a free bounty, just eager to express its own beauty with its deep pink blossoms and yellow center, and with its gentle rose scent.

roses in bloom

Our wild roses in full bloom

Finally, sometime after my rest, I found a small bird’s nest in the arbor vitae.  It was a shallow concave thing, woven together with grass and pliable twigs, neatly and securely.  It evidently had served its purpose, but was a symbol of the simplicity of the needs of songbirds, the care with which they use what nature provides, and the procreational urges of the season.  Much to be thankful for in the “sweet and merry” miracles of nature, right in my own back yard.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2017

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Riding to Win in the Tour de France

On Tuesday, July 16, 2013, the Tour de France peloton raced from Vaison-le-Romaine to Gap. It was Stage 16, one I witnessed afresh only yesterday while riding my exercise bike. This familiar Tour route is famed for the Lance Armstrong exploit in 2003 on the last descent, when Josebo Beloki’s rear tire came unglued in the heat approaching a sharp curve, Beloki crashed in front of Lance (sustaining injuries that effectively ended his career), and Armstrong avoided the fallen rider by riding across a hayfield, dismounting and leaping with his bike across a deep ditch cyclocross style, and rejoining the leading group for the last 3 kilometers into town. That was the year Armstrong ended with the yellow jersey on his back but officially didn’t win the race for the fifth time. Here’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gr89ku-K2WU

In 2013 there wasn’t quite so much drama. Going into the stage Chris Froome, coming off a victory at Mont Ventoux, had a 4’14” lead over Bauke Mollema and 4’ 25” over Alberto Contador. With only five stages after this one, the race was already for second place behind Froome.   Contador, a two-time Tour winner (with a third title stripped for doping in 2010), was desperate to solidify his third-place spot on the podium (he finished fourth). He attacked several times on the third and last climb of the day, the category 2 Col de Manse, and though he got a couple of gaps on Froome, the race leader was able to close them down with the help of able teammate Richie Porte. On that last descent, so costly to Beloki a decade earlier, Contador took all kinds of chances to gain a few precious seconds. Froome, with a safe overall lead, nevertheless tried to stay with Contador, mostly to symbolize that he was in control of the race, and that further attempts by Contador to gain time would fail as certainly as the earlier ones had.

Froome and Contador

Froome (yellow jersey) clips in after avoiding Contador (on left).

On a fast, tight turn about halfway down, Contador overcooked it. The video is unclear, but it appears that Contador had to unclip, put a foot down, and come almost completely off his bike. This sudden slowdown from a speed that was probably about 40 mph threw the trailing Froome off. (Remember that in professional bike racing they are only inches away from one another). He veered, had to go off the road onto the narrow gravel shoulder, and put his foot down before re-clipping and recovering his control and direction. As the two were getting back up to speed, side by side, Froome said something to Contador.

They finished the race together in their small group of leaders, 11’08” off the pace, trailing 26 other riders, including a breakaway of several cyclists that in turn trailed the stage winner Rui Costa by 42 seconds. Afterwards Froome complained that Contador “was actually taking a few too many risks there.” He thought Contador “was pushing a little bit too fast” on the downhill curves, putting Froome “in danger.” Froome’s attitude is quite traditional for the yellow jersey holder, especially one who is dominating the race. Others should respect the race leader, and not challenge him except on his own terms.

The skeptical viewer might well see Froome as putting himself at risk. He didn’t need every second the way Contador did; he was shadowing Contador to symbolize his own dominance. That was his choice, and he ended up putting himself in danger. It’s a mentality that I see quite often in bike racing. Froome was essentially accusing Contador of trying too hard to win. In most sports winning, as the late great football coach Vince Lombardi said, “isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But not in the minds of all cyclists. Poor Chris Froome actually had to maneuver his bike suddenly because Alberto Contador was going all out. How disrespectful! Chris, you poor baby.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.

Déjà Vu

Today Chris Froome pretty much wrapped up the 2015 Tour de France.

Realistically speaking, everybody else is now fighting for the second and third spots on the podium. The second place rider is currently Tejay Van Garderen, who started the day only 24 seconds behind Froome’s yellow jersey, but is now a whopping 2:52 back. Froome took similar time out of his other main rivals, Nairo Quintana (now 3:09 in arrears), Alberto Contador (4:04), and Vincenzo Nibali (6:57). Froome got the huge lead by blowing everybody off his wheel on the very tough final uphill climb on the Col du Soudet. It is 15 kilometers long, and the first 10 kilometers have an average gradient of 8.1 %. This is the first serious mountain climb of the Tour, and most riders’ legs need time to adjust from the demands of flat and rolling daily stage routes to the sudden crunch of a long, steep, uphill chase.

Froome crosses the line

Froome Crosses the Line

But Froome had no such problems, thanks in part to his particular skill set, to lots of high altitude experience from training in his native South Africa, and to his very strong team, which has been selected solely on the basis of how effectively each rider can play a specified role in assuring that he is in position to maximize his opportunities to gain time on his rivals.   After today’s stage, in fact, Froome explicitly praised his team, crediting them with making his victory possible.

In some ways Froome is an unlikely hero. He was Sir Bradley Wiggins’ main domestique (support rider) when Wiggo won the Tour three or four years back. And he won the Tour himself two years ago. Still, Froome (now 30 years old) won very few major events until the age of 25. At that point he was diagnosed with bilharzia, a debilitating parasitic disease that he may have had for some time. Once it was treated and cured, his career took off, with numerous major victories in professional stage races.

Big gaps like the one Froome holds now in the Tour are not impossible to overcome. Several tough mountain stages still lie ahead, and he could lose the yellow jersey for good with a bad day, a crash, or an outstanding series of performances by a rival. But history shows that a rider in Froome’s position usually prevails, extends his lead, crushes any tenuous lingering dreams held by rivals. In fact, from 1999 to 2005 the pattern of victory was almost identical to Froome’s. A dominant rider with a strong, disciplined team working for him routinely crushed his opponents on the first day the Tour hit the mountains. His demoralized foes fought for second and third, while the team and its leader hammered on day after day. The rider’s surprising prowess was attributed to his excellent skill set and his strength following the diagnosis and cure of a debilitating disease. That rider is a Phantom today. Despite ample evidence in the form of film, videos, and human memory, he is said never to have won a stage of the Tour, never to have stood on the top step of the podium in Paris. At the time his victories were called “unbelievable” and “incredible.” These same terms are used to describe Froome’s performance today, even by Froome himself. But the Phatom Rider’s legacy was dematerialized by drug use. And that’s the difference, because we know today that no rider, however much his performance resembles the Phantom’s, can possibly be on drugs. Don’t we?

Kerry on the Colombiere (complete version)

John Kerry, U. S. Secretary of State, broke his femur today as he rode out on his bike for a little exercise jaunt.  He was headed for the Col de Colombiere, a mountain pass in the Savoy Alps that ascends more than 5,200 feet above sea level.  Kerry had an entourage of support vehicles, American security and Secret Service (rousted no doubt from the beds where they and their lady friends were “sleeping”), that put to shame even the famous Tour de France motorcade in terms of firepower if not tourist kitsch.

Kerry fell off hitting a curb at low speed.  It’s a surprisingly dangerous maneuver.  The curb does not have any “give,” so essentially what happens is that the bike stops very abruptly.  The rider, who did not see this coming, takes no evasive action.  His body, which was not directly acted upon by an outside force, follows the dictates of that famous law first propounded by Sir Isaac Newton, and keeps on going, propelled by momentum.  Ah, but that other Newtonian force, namely gravity, does come into play, and so the cyclist first catapults and then hits the tarmac.  The Secretary’s femur did not withstand the blow.

Most likely Kerry was preoccupied by thoughts of how he might feel halfway up the climb.  The Colombiere is formidable, offering a climb of about 16 km at an average gradient of about 6.8%, and an ascent of 1100 meters (over 3600 feet).  There is a 10.2% gradient section near the top.  I can avow that for most recreational cyclists, that kind of a gradient requires distinct effort.  The climb has been featured 20 times in the last 65 years of Tour de France racing.  Heroes from Luis Herrera to Richard Virenque to Marco Pantani have led the racers over the top in years past.  But the most infamous leader over the top is the American rider Floyd Landis.  Landis went on a literally incredible escape on the 17th stage of the  2006 Tour.  He had been dropped on the previous day, losing almost 10 minutes to his main competitors on a mountaintop finish, to trail the race leader by 8 minutes and 8 seconds.  But on July 21 he took off on a 130 km solo ride, finishing by going up and over the Col du Colombiere and down into the finishing town of Morzine.  At the end of the day he trailed the overall race leader by only 30 seconds.  He then won the Tour with a powerful Time Trial performance a couple of days later.  But as the Tour ended in Paris, word got out that a high placed finisher had tested positive for Performance Enhancing Drugs.  Landis’ tests revealed that he had an 11:1 T/E ratio (testosterone to epitestosterone) at the end of stage 17.  The normal ratio is 1:1.  The highest permissible in the Tour is 4:1.  Incredible, unbelievable, indeed!  But that’s not the only dark American cycling parable in which Kerry’s ride was caught up.

Kerrybike

John Kerry rounds a corner on his Serotta.

John Kerry was riding a Serotta bike up the Colombiere, if newspaper photos of him reflect yesterday’s outing.  Serotta bikes are of many sorts, but they include high-end titanium/carbon road bikes which sell for over $6800, and it appears Kerry is riding one of these.  Serottas are American made, in a small entrepreneurial operation run by designer Ben Serotta.  Or I should say “were” made, because last year Ben Serotta was bought out by Blue Competition Cycles and Mad Fiber Wheels to form Divine Cycling Group.  The Group withdrew funding and now Ben Serotta is not making Serotta bikes.  He owns neither the company nor the brand that he formed 41 years ago.  His bikes were at the heart of the American move into international bike racing in the late 1970s, used by such  teams as 7-Eleven under the “Huffy” brand name.  Andy Hampsten won his epic Giro d’Italia stage on the Gavia riding a Serotta-made bike, and Davis Phinney won Tour de France stages on them.  But the modern business climate of corporate control has poisoned the well for many an American small business.  Kerry’s patriotic choice to ride a Serotta symbolizes both the achievement of American small business and its precarious health.  Kerry could have ridden a Trek but I’m glad he chose otherwise.  I love Treks, but that’s another story.

So John Kerry’s fractured femur carries the weight of American parables, echoes of triumph and tragedy, appearance and reality, success and failure, all in the same moment. Quite a load for a broken bone.  And it hurts more when you put pressure on it.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2015.

Motors on Bikes? LeMond Thinks So

There’s been much talk of motors on bikes lately.  The motors in question are lightweight and can apparently be concealed in downtubes and pedal spindles.  Suspicions arose during recent stages of the Giro d’Italia when several riders, including race leader Alberto Contador, have changed bikes arbitrarily during the race.

Back in the day, let’s say Greg LeMond’s day, riders occasionally changed bikes at the foot of climbs.   One bike was designed for flat road racing, and the other for climbing.  Still, that tactic was rare.  One ensuing problem was that the new bike was not weighed before the start of the stage, as the old bike might have been.  It could be weighed at the end of the day, of course, but they seldom were.  Bikes must weigh at least a certain amount (about 14.7 pounds) to be legal in racing.

Today, if the bike change were to be from a regulation cycle to one with a concealed motor, that would provide a distinct advantage to the rider.  Even 50 or 100 watts, while small by absolute standards, is massive as an additional fraction of the rider’s natural power output.  Let’s say roughly 10% to 20%.  Even if it only gave a short boost over a few key kilometers, a motor would change the dynamics of the race greatly.

Greg LeMond, an early and outspoken enemy of doping, one who called out Lance Armstrong when everyone else was believing the “miracle,” says he thinks motors are being used in the pro peloton by major riders.  Today’s cyclingnews.com story reports that:

 LeMond is convinced that motors have been used in the peloton and that a heat gun and banning bike changes could be a simple but effective deterrents.

“I know that motors exist, I’ve ridden a bike with one and I’ve met the inventor and talked about it. If people think they don’t exist, they’re fooling themselves, so I think it’s a justified suspicion. I believe it’s also been used in the peloton. It seems too incredible that someone would do it, but I know it’s real,” he said.

“To make sure it doesn’t happen, I don’t think there should be bike changes in races. Period.”

There was a day when I’d have called LeMond, America’s only official Tour de France winner, a paranoid fool.  But not so much any more.  LeMond suggests a heat gun to identify hot spots in bikes as they are being used in races.  Seems like a simple thing to do, but the UCI (International Cycling Union) has a long history of cowardice in confronting cheating effectively and objectively.

The whole thing puts a new coloration on the excited announcer’s phrase “he’s really motoring!”

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016

Marianne Vos: Woman Cycling Champ at La Course

There’s a short cycling video out that really grabs me. It’s taken on a video camera attached to the bicycle of Marianne Vos, a Dutch cyclist, who was competing in a race called La Course, a one-day, 13-circuit around the finishing loop for the Tour de France in Paris. The action happened on July 27, the same day that the Tour finished there. The women raced earlier in the afternoon.

Vos with medal

Marianne Vos with her 2012 Road Champion gold medal

Vos isn’t just any racer. Born and raised in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands (also the home town of that enigmatically powerful Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch), at age 27 she is one of the very best, if not the best, woman racing cyclist. She’s held both the World and Dutch National titles in both cyclo-cross and road racing multiple times, has won three of the last 4 Giro d’Italia Femminile GC titles (along with the points classification all 4 years), and is defending Olympic Gold Medalist in the women’s road race, as well as defending champion of the World Road Race and World Road Cup titles. No wonder they say her nickname is “The Cannibal,” in honor of a dominance similar to that of Belgian Eddie “The Cannibal” Merckx in his heyday.

You can tell that Vos is a confident racer just because she let them put the camera on her bike in an important race. In an age of cycling when every gram is weighed and analyzed, this was no small concession. What the camera shows is the last couple of kilometers of the race. From the viewpoint of the bike’s head tube, where the camera is attached well below eye level, the somewhat fish-eye lens gives a less-than flattering view of the rear end of the rider whom Vos is following most of the time, but it’s interesting to see how close the riders are. You can hear the rumble of the cobble-paved streets, and the sudden hush when they hit the asphalt sections. You can sense very clearly the incredible speeds at which they are traveling, the precise closeness in which they group themselves, the clear reality that one second of hesitation, one wrong “read,” one bad move, and you’re out of it. There’s a pretty big bunch that resolves itself in the last few hundred meters to four. This happens primarily when Vos finds a space right next to the barriers and goes to the front; you could swear she’s going to hit the stanchions a la Dave Zabriskie a few Tours ago.

In the finishing straight there are three bikes ahead of Vos, then as she really starts her sprint the image sways rhythmically from side to side, faster and faster. Then there are only two ahead of her, then one, then none as the finishing line looms up. You hear an off-camera scream of joy, the swaying stops, the shot fades to black, “The Cannibal” wins again. Well worth the two minutes of viewing.

http://velonews.competitor.com/2014/07/news/video-board-marianne-vos-la-course-sprint-finish_338801

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

Tour de France 2014: Parallels

I for one am pleased that Vincenzo Nibali won the 2014 Tour de France. He’s a worthy winner who got himself to the Tour start line in good form, and was able to handle the rain, the cobblestones, the nervous first week, the climbs and mountaintop finishes, and the Individual Time Trial without a significant weakness. Others fell off their bikes—multiple times—or had a single bad day in the mountains or flubbed the time trial. Nibali answered every bell. A climbing specialist, he put at least two minutes into every serious contender on the Stage 5 cobbles, finishing only 19 seconds back himself. Defending champion and favorite Chris Froome dropped out on that stage; Andy “The Wuss” Schleck was already long gone. On the climbs, he won three stages, all decisively, with an especially grand flourish on Stage 18, Hautacam, where all his rivals were at least 1:10 behind at the finish. As for the time trial, Stage 20, he finished fourth, again putting time into every other top GC rider, all of whom by that point were scrambling for the second or third podium spot because Nibali was already over 7 minutes ahead. He bested all but that top trio of time trial specialists at their own discipline. And as Phil Liggett, long-time Tour de France broadcaster asserted, “when you win the time trials and you win the climbs, there’s nothing much to do but win the Tour de France.”

Liggett said that in his broadcast during the 1999 Tour, when another first-time winner was emerging, astounding everybody with his dominance in all aspects of the race. That rider, of course, was Lance Armstrong. You know, the rider who crossed the finish line first in seven straight Tours through 2005, but is now a ghostly absence in the record books, albeit a vivid memory among those who followed the sport then and remember how dominant he was for all those years.

In 1999 Armstrong devastated a field weakened by the absence of, among others, Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani. Nibali, it’s suggested, dominated in the absence of his two top rivals, the aforementioned Froome and Alberto Contador. Then and now, one might well argue you can only race against the others who are there, but the result for each rider may have been an artificially inflated impression of dominance. Armstrong came into Paris with a 7:37 minute margin over second-place finisher Alex Zülle, and Nibali finished with the exact same margin over Jean-Christophe Peraud today. Armstrong’s average speed that year over 3687 km was 40.276 kmh; Greg LeMond insisted then and now that the speeds on the road in the Tour had increased dramatically from the early ‘90s. Indeed LeMond’s speed in 1990, his last victory as the “only American” ever to win the Tour (who was that yellow-clad man all those years??), was 38.621. Interestingly, Nibali’s average speed this year over 3664 km was about 42.29 kmh, a greater increase over Armstrong’s first Tour speed than Armstrong’s was over LeMond’s. In 1999 Armstrong wore the leader’s yellow jersey for a dominant 15 days of 21, while Nibali was an even more in-control 19 of 21.

What are we to make of this? Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, Armstrong’s results look like a result, in part, of his successfully concealed doping regimen. Dominant in all phases, wide victory margin, high speed, in the race lead most of the time. Armstrong passed all the doping controls, but was caught retrospectively years later when tests emerged that detected his methodology of deception. I have no basis for accusing Nibali of anything, nor do I wish to. But when all the “clues” that might have been seen as evidence of doping are present in 2014, just as they were 15 years ago, who’s to say that exactly the same gap could not exist between the current “biological passport” and some unimaginable, undetectable, new doping scheme? Everyone who says “it’s now impossible to cheat” would have said the same thing in 1999.

Come back in 2029 and we’ll see how these results look then.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.