Armstrong won’t go to jail and the public making up their minds is enough

Before it is confined to the annals of history, or until it comes up again in three or four weeks like a your mortgage payment that won’t go away, I thought I’d get a few quick words in on the latest development in the case (or as it is now, non-case) against performance enhancing drug using denier, Lance Armstrong.

This week the US Feds tossed out the investigation into Armstrong for potentially defrauding the US Government by partaking in the use of, and supply of, performance enhancing drugs while riding for the US Postal Service team, the same US Postal Service that is an arm of the US Government. We haven’t heard officially why the case was dropped and nor are federal investigators under any obligation to reveal why; they only told us at all because of the intense media scrutiny on it.

Armstrong fans will see this a vindication of Armstrong’s innocence, whereas the rest of us see it as a wise move for a non-sporting body to stop investigating a former sports star in a case that would cost the US tax payers a small fortune during a time when money isn’t free to burn. Yes some people with a real agenda against the Texan would love to have seen this result in some hard prison time for Armstrong, but I think it’s safe to say that while he may well have doped, he was just part of an era in which it was the done thing. He wasn’t a very nice man, that much is also true, but not being very nice isn’t really a crime in the western world.

The USADA, the American anti-doping agency has said they will continue to investigate, which is all well and good if they have the patience for going after a star who is retired and resigned to a time in the history of the sport which we all know isn’t entirely rosy.

I’ll not lie and say I wouldn’t be interested in knowing the truth, but if I never do, I think I’ll live. It’s 2012 now and there’s the potential for a fascinating cycling season ahead and there are current riders out there, albeit in diminishing numbers, who no doubt are still liable to cheat and who need to be watched more. If all Armstrong receives a trial in the court of public opinion, something he’s had many times, then that’s enough for me. I made up my mind along time ago just as I did with the likes of Richard Virenque, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, Joseba Beloki, Alexandre Vinokourov and Tyler Hamilton, all of whom have been judged by the public (some later admitting guilt or failing future dope tests), but seen no retrospective (or in the case of Pantani, posthumous) investigation.

Seeing Armstrong stripped of Tour titles won against other dope fiends would only leave us scanning a long way down the results sheet in speculation of who might have been the first place clean rider and therefore retrospectively awarded a Tour de France victory some ten years down the road.

Break out the podiums, aging champagne and and now considerably older podium girls for that one…and do it all again in another few years when Mr. We Thought He Was The Clean One reveals in his tell-all book that no, he was in fact, dirty.

My Comeback

The sun was beating down. The kind of sun that you long for all winter but find almost unbearable once you begin to sweat hard underneath it. My heart rate was somewhere around 190 and that was thirty seconds ago. If I had to guess now it was probably pushing 195 and showing no signs of leveling out, just like the climb in front of me. I was but four minutes into my first mountain bike race in anger in the better part of a decade.

I had already slipped off the back of the main field but made no attempt to try and go with them. I knew the distance of the race in front of me and the goal here was seeing the finish line, not the man in front. My carefully constructed plan that I had put together on the ninety minute drive home from the course following open practice the day before had been to pace myself to the conservative degree. To find myself riding at about 80 percent, and then ease off just a little. At least until the final lap.

But the reality was hitting home hard. It didn’t matter that I’d been riding 20-30 miles (and sometimes nearer 50) home from work most days, when it gets down to the nitty gritty of a race, you can never replicate it. I was trying to follow my big plan, but as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry. I had seen the big climb the day before during practice, I had warmed up pretty well, but as I rolled over the top of the first climb of my first race back on my brand spanking new mountain bike I looked behind me to see where about on the climb I had coughed up my right lung.

“What in the hell is going on here?” I asked myself, before telling myself that “you’re a dammed moron for buying that bloody bike and thinking this was ever a good idea.”

I also took a moment to curse the man who decided it was a good idea to stick the climb right at the start of the race. Of course I knew why they put the climb there — and if truth be told, for the well conditioned rider, the climb was far from savage — but suffering clouds rational judgement.

“Two more runs up that, not to mention the tough challenge that the rest of the course brings,” I told myself as I gulped at my water bottle and tried to compose myself for the single track section ahead. Like only ever seems to be the case when you’re on a bike by yourself — in particular on a single track trail in the middle of the woods — with an elevated heart rate, I could hear the thump thump thump of my heart inside my head. I knew I hadn’t gone all out, if I had I might have been lying somewhere about fifty yards short of the top of the hill, but I knew I had pushed a little harder than I knew I needed to, so I backed off a little more and decided that the man ahead would have to be beaten another day and got ready for the wave of riders from the next category that started one minute behind to sweep up on me and start looking to get past.

The thing about mountain biking that is different than racing on the road, is that there is rarely ever a point to properly recover. On the road you can file in behind a group, shelter from the wind over a long flat section, or indeed enjoy a long descent after a tough climb. On the mountain bike the flat sections are normally in the woods and so you are navigating loose rocks, slippery roots, off camber corners, drop-offs, or indeed short sharp little climbs or jumps that force you out of your saddle and to call on your upper body strength to heave the bike up and over. And if truth be told, there is no such thing as a flat section on a bike. The downhill sections are never smoothly paved . . . they’re either single tracks with more loose rocks, slippery roots and off camber corners, or it’s on a gravel path in which a crash can be spectacular if only for those watching it. If the climbs require the heart, lungs and leg muscles, then the descents and rolling single track requires the brain, upper body muscles and a different kind of heart. I’ve raced both road and mountain bikes over the years and while both are challenging and, in a perverse kind of way, fun in their own right, the mountain bike is infinitely harder. You only have to look at the cross over ability in the sport and how many more mountain bikers make a success on the road scene than the other way around. Some of that is down to the fame and riches that come with the road scene — because road races are easier to track with cameras — but many pure roadies you just know would be out of sorts in a mountain bike race.

It was after the first single track section, which involved nothing but lifting the front wheel up and over obstacles or avoiding a fall that my thighs began to really burn and I knew something wasn’t right. They weren’t hurting as they should and I was slowing drastically. The next fire road climb confirmed that something was wrong when suddenly I realised it. My saddle had worked itself loose and had drooped several inches in height and I was putting nowhere near the kind of power through the pedals as I should have.

How long had this been going on? Had that first climb, that seen everyone else ride off on me, made me suffer as much as I did because of the dam saddle problem? How on earth had I not noticed already? On any given casual ride you would notice almost immediately, but with the heart pumping, the lungs stretching and the mind working on keeping me upright, I clearly didn’t notice. I stopped, fixed it, got back on and immediately felt better. Certainly not enough that I would claim this cost me the win, heck not even enough to claim I would have been on the back wheel of the man in front, but I felt stronger.

Until I hit the opening climb again at the end of the start of the second lap.

In the end my pre-race plan came good to a degree. I suffered hard at times in the second lap, stopping for about two minutes at one point to get myself together, and it took that to remind me that I still had to pace myself and that since fixing the saddle I had probably gone on a little too hard in that first lap. By the third lap I was starting to ride into the race and — perhaps with the knowledge that the serious climbing was over — I began to ride stronger. I caught and passed a handful of people that belonged to starting categories from behind me that had caught and passed me earlier in the race and finished if not feeling I could hammer in another couple of faster laps, then that I had listened to my own advice and left enough in the tank to ride the third lap better than the second.

In the end I finished the three laps in 1 hour, 45 minutes and 52 seconds. I navigated the first lap in 32:33, the second a lot slower in 37:05 as fatigue began to set in, but proving I left enough in the tank I completed the final lap in 36:12. Had I thrown all caution to the wind the last part of that second lap, I dread to think the time I’d have put up on the third circuit. I placed 12th of 12 in my race, but as I knew all along, I was out to finish the race and enjoy the fact I was riding in a race again.

The word enjoy only came into it once I was back at my car, had washed the bike, got changed and got my heart rate back to normal. It’s incredible the bodies ability to forget self inflicted pain. If it couldn’t nobody would give birth twice and certainly nobody would ride the Tour de France a second time. Likewise, I was congratulating myself for buying this bike and looking to sign up for the next available event.

* * * * *

That next event came just a few weeks later in a new event called ‘The Tour de King’ in a region just north of Toronto. It was a point to point race over 50 km with about 50 percent on single track and the other 50 on fire roads and paved roads. The race was split into two waves, the first wave was for those out to put in a serious time, the second wave was for those like me looking to race it, but enjoy it as well. In those few weeks since that first race I had spent some time riding the trails near my home and getting used to the mountain bike as opposed to the road bike once again. As a result I felt infinitely stronger than in the Championships race.

I entered myself into the unique ‘Clydesdale 200lbs Plus’ category and finished 8th of 22 in severely contrasting conditions to the first race. The temperature was about 4 degrees Celsius and halfway through the skies opened and it began to pour down. The single track was slippery and challenging in parts, but fast and smooth in others. Those who entered the event on a cross bike however struggled badly.

The event organizers had put on a wonderful barbecue at the finish line with a live band and cold beer, though the weather meant that most of us whose cars were parked back at the start, sat shivering and freezing while munching through the grub. It didn’t stop me, among many, from drinking that cold beer though. Eventually school buses shuttled everyone back to the start to get cars and return to the finish to wash down the bike and head home again.

Still it was a fantastic event, the first point-to-point race I had done and one I’ll enter again next year, though I hope that that the temperatures are more favourable.

* * * * *

The funny thing is, this winter in southern Ontario has been one of the mildest in recent memory. There has been some days in the high negative temperatures, but for the most part the snow has stayed away and a number of days have seen positive temperatures with just yesterday topping out at 12 degrees C at 9.30 p.m. The Tour de King in early October took part in one of the more miserable days of the fall/winter, which in this part of the world given the typical December/January temperatures, is just bizarre.

As a result I was able to get out on the trails a long way into the winter and enjoy that new bike. The Tour de King, however, marked the end of the competitive events until next April, but now that I’ve got the racing bug again, despite what my body might tell me halfway up a tough climb, I cannot wait to race again in 2012.

Eighty weeks after eating a stake, Contador will finally be judged on it

When Francesco Schettino, the captain of the doomed Costa Concordia claimed that he “tripped and fell into a life boat” which took off before he had the chance to get out, his excuse went down in history as the second worst/best (depending on how you look at it) excuse of all time behind only that of Alberto Contador who once claimed his positive test for the banned substance Clenbuterol was the work of a tainted piece of meat he eat during a Tour de France rest day.

That incident involving Contador happened a long time ago. You may or may not remember it, but if you think long and hard and look into your hazy past you might well recall the moment it broke. Yes that really was eighty weeks ago . . . I know, I know, you thought it was much longer than that the way it’s been dragged out, but now after more delays than a New York airport at Christmas, we’re finally about to hear the verdict of the doping case and it’s appeal to end all doping cases and their appeals.

“If I’m ever found guilty then an innocent person will have been condemned,” sobbed Contador last October while this process was still in full flow. “I’ve always encouraged the fight against doping, and now things are turning against me,” he continued.

Did I mention the meat was ingested some eighty weeks ago? Eighty weeks ago the world was a very different place to what it is now. I was an unmarried man without a kid on the way, Australia had never had a Tour de France winner, Liverpool were still under the command of Rafael Benitez and under the control of Gillette and Hicks, Osama Bin Laden was very much running Al Quida, Colonel Gaddafi was the leader of Lybia, and Lance Armstrong was still a free man… err, wait . . . ignore than last bit.

To figure out who is going to win the case, you simply have to call innocent as heads, guilty as tails and then flip the coin to see what comes up. I dare say they’ll take it more seriously at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which is the current level (and last level) at which this long and winding saga has taken us.

Contador obviously professes his innocence. “I am one of the five most tested athletes in the world. Do you think I’d risk doing something wrong?” he asked sounding very much like that impregnable fortress of moral fortitude that is Lance Armstrong. Well, why didn’t you say so sooner Alberto…in that case, throw out the charges and let this man go. For crying out loud, he’s one of the five most tested men in the world.

Ah, but if only it were so simple. We knew deep down in our hearts that this thing was going to drag out as long as it has and innocent or guilty, it no longer really matters. Regardless of the verdict, we just want any verdict so that once we celebrate the guilt of a cheat or the innocence of a free man, we can get on with our lives without ever having to read about it / listen to it / or debate it again. Until the next one, that is.

TCS Broomwagon prediction: *flips coin, comes up heads* — NOT GUILTY, and cleared, with a reputation tarnished but as winner of the 2012 Tour de France.

Update: Alberto was found guilty, stripped of that Tour title and had the majority of his suspension backdated.

Will 2012 be the year of British Cycling?

2012 has the potential to be a huge year for British Cycling. With both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome proving last year they can podium in a grand tour and with the 2012 Tour de France route suited better than ever towards one or both of them competing for the GC, and with Mark Cavendish going for green again, not to mention the Olympic road race, and a stack of track riders looking to aid to Britain’s gold haul, this could be the year Britain becomes the best cycling nation on earth. To have said that not even ten years ago would have brought mocking and ridicule from all angles.

When Team Sky’s boss Dave Brailsford popped up and claimed that he hoped to have a Tour de France winner within five years of setting up a team the mocking begun in earnest. But what nobody knew then that I can only assume Brailsford himself seen was that Brad Wiggins was more than just a man who went very fast for a distance of 1,500 meters around an oval strip of wood. Wiggins hadn’t offered much in his early Tour de France days except to be the next Chris Boardman for Britain in prolgues, but in 2009 that all changed when he blew away all expectations and finished fourth into Paris.

Wiggins didn’t ride for Sky then — there was no Team Sky — but Brailsford knew his man and immediately got him on board. Following Britain’s dominant display on the track at the Beijing Olympics, in which Brailsford was the grand architect, Team Sky became his virtual British road team. Yes there are a handful of imports including the uber-talented Edvald Boisson Hagen, but there’s no doubt who this team is built around…as in what nation the team is built around?

For that matter, the Tour de France route would appear to be built around the team also. There are few super high peaks that would hinder Wiggins and aid Evans, less summit finishes than in recent years to the no doubt disappointment of Contador and there is the return of two long time-trials as well as the opening prologue to really stick a spanner into the works of the pure climbers such as the Schlecks.

As to who the team itself is built around, that is generating much early season debate after the recruitment of Mark Cavendish. The fastest man in the world, Tour de France Green Jersey winner and recently crowned World Road Race Champion, Cavendish has become a house hold name in Britain. He proved that by winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award this past December, something else I’d have mocked you for ten years ago had you suggested that one day a cyclist would win that award, never mind twice in four years. Because of the status of Cavendish and his ability to win any race that gets into the final kilometer with the bunch altogether, the question asked is whether Team Sky can deal with the ambitions of both Wiggins and Cavendish, and throw in Froome for good measure?

Will Brailsford be able to create a scenario whereby Sky can chase down breaks and set up Cavendish for sprints without wearing down the energies of Wiggins and Froome and their support men in the mountains, along the way? Can Cavendish survive on say a five man train, of which he is one, while leaving Wiggins, Froome and perhaps one other to conserve themselves? If Cavendish struggles to win races early and starts to look for more help will Brailsford stick to the game plan, or more interestingly, will Wiggins and Froome be willing to chip in? Cavendish will want the green jersey but make no mistake about it, it shouldn’t come before a shot at yellow.

And what of Froome and Wiggins if both are strong going through the mountains? Will a team leader be assigned or will they be allowed to race? What if the team leader cracks, shall the other press on? We’ve seen how Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador’s relationship went in such a scenario, though it must be pointed out Contador went on to win that Tour regardless. And remember Hinault-LeMond in ’86?

But why not? Why can’t it work? Team Telekom in 1996 won both the sprint crown with Erik Zabel and the GC with Bjarne Riis, albeit as a team doped to the gills. Does it take such a team to manage and handle both competitions? These days when we presume the sport to be as clean as it’s been in many generations, I don’t see why it isn’t possible?

Cavendish has proven before he can win sprints without the train and while his team will be looked to as the team to claw back breaks meaning Cavendish might have to sacrifice a couple of stage wins, he can still do enough to take green. Wiggins and Froome will no doubt sort it out on the higher mountains and will soon figure out who is going strongest and if a designated number one is established, one can certainly rely on the other as a kind of super-domestique that other teams could only dream of.

Which leads us onto the Olympic games just a week after the Tour ends. So long as the above mentioned protagonists can recover and recover fast, Cavendish will look to a group of Brit’s that probably won’t include Wiggins — who will be saving himself for the time trial — to help him to the road race gold, followed by the high expectations of the track team. It’s the track team that Britain is really pinning its hopes on to bring in a slew of medals and these games have been the vocal point of British cycling for over half a decade now. Everything is geared towards a Beijing style encore and any kind of slip up, let down, loss of form, or choke under pressure, doesn’t much bare thinking about.

Which leaves us with only the outlandish possibility that Cavendish wins a couple of stages, the green jersey and later the Olympic road race title; that Wiggins takes the yellow and the Olympic time trial gold; Froome wins a stage of the Tour and takes the King of the Mountains prize; and a weight of gold similar to that in Fort Knox is won by the British men and woman on the track. It’s at this point Britain should announce its withdrawal from the sport having reached the peak and with no desire to come back down again.

2011 season in review: The year of an Australian winning the Tour

I had hoped to get this site up and live around the turn of the new year but unfortunately time, among other things, conspired against me and so we find ourselves into the middle of the first month of the new year, but before the year of twenty-hundred and eleven disappears too far into our rear view, let’s hand out some awards for the year that was…

Awards and Gongs

Cyclist of the Year: PHILIPPE GILBERT
Philippe Gilbert. Was there ever anyone who truly came close? The Belgian dominated the spring classic’s season before taking a stage win in the Tour de France. He even rode high up the overall well into the big mountains before finally succumbing to the little men. There’s a belief that if Gilbert trained for it he could win a Grand Tour and while that would be something to see, it’s still fun to enjoy the aggressive riding style he current entertains us with.

Canadian rider of the year: RYDER HESJEDAL
A fitting name for the title! Not quite at the level of 2010 but still Canada’s biggest hope.

Sprinter: MARK CAVENDISH
Who else?

Climber: DAVID MONCOUTIE
David Moncoutie for winning his forth mountains classification title in the Vuelta a Espana.

Time-trialist: CADEL EVANS
Cadel Evans to overcome the Schleck’s and secure the Tour de France crown.

Classics rider: PHILIPPE GILBERT
He dominated the spring. He appeared unbeatable.

Breakthrough young rider: PIERRE ROLLAND
An award with such past winners (if I’d been doing this in the past) as Richard Virenque, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Alberto Contador and Riccardo Ricco, goes to Pierre Rolland. He won a-top of Alpe d’Huez and scooped the young riders prize at Le Tour. The French are all hoping he’s for real and we’re all hoping that unlikely those I just named when they broke in, that this kid represents a new generation.

Hard-man: JOHNNY HOOGERLAND
It’s an award that should be named the Jens Voigt prize, but not even Jens could win it, and how could anyone else other than Johnny Hoogerland for being knocked off the road by a car and into a barbed wire fence. It was a horrific crash and the injuries only confirmed it. How he got up and continued I will never know.

MOMENT OF THE YEAR

VOECKLER’S ATTEMPT TO DEFEND YELLOW
The grimmace on the face of Thomas Voeckler as he fought tooth and nail to hang onto his Yellow Jersey. When people say ‘the yellow jersey brings that little bit extra out of you and makes you go that little bit further’ I consider it a bit of a cliche, but men like Voeckler put weight behind such cliches.

The WorldTour Down Under: The 2012 pro racing season is upon us

I just so happened to have opened up this site on the eve of the first WorldTour race of the season. It wasn’t planned that way but since the the pro season is about to kick-off, I might as well say a few words about it and indeed give you a prediction to put your hard earned cash on, but with no guarantees it’ll actually make you rich!

The thing about the first race of the season is it’s so hard to call as to what might happen. Cycling isn’t like many other sports; there isn’t a pre-season race schedule (that I’m aware of, unless you classify the pre-Tour Down Under criterium on Sunday as the pre-season in which case winner André Greipel is in fine form) and so unless you are a spy working for one of the teams trying to scout out what the others are up to, a fanatic bordering on the obsessive kind of fan that is probably close to getting some kind of restraining order against him, or someone who happened to be on a cycling holiday in Majorca — the pre-season cycling hot spot of earth — when a group wearing what looked like the Team Sky logo flashed past you up that climb at the sort of speed you came back down the climb, then you’ll have no clue as to the form of anyone.

Most will try and tell you they’re in good form, and one or two will inevitably look to peak early in order to take an early season scalp for their palmares, but make no mistake about it, all of them are aware that this is January and the Tour Down Under, which while good for points in the rankings, is more about finding that race pace form and looking towards the bigger events back in Europe in the spring.

Still because this is the first race of the year and because of the unpredictability of it all there’s a fair chance that this Tour Down Under could be full of entertaining racing. Some breaks may stick because there is still a lack of cohesiveness between teams, and some might find themselves slightly ahead of the fitness curve than others. Likewise, some big names will realise they’ve still work to do.

Expect the all new Australian outfit GreenEdge to be at the fore of almost everything as they look to expose their name. They’ll have someone in every break, they’ll hope to win at least one stage and would love to have a man feature in the general classification. It’ll be interesting to watch this team this coming season. I suspect they’ll be much like Team Sky in their first year, realising it isn’t as easy as it looks and that results don’t come cheap, but should otherwise be a good group despite a failure to entice Tour de France champion and native Australian Cadel Evans away from the mighty BMC team, and likewise with Mark Renshaw who elected to sign with Rabobank instead after Team Highroad folded at the end of 2011.

Talking of the BMC team, 2012 looks set to be the season of the ‘super team’. BMC have loaded up on talent, Quick Step and Omega Pharma have joined forces to create Omega Pharma – QuickStep, while Sky in signing Mark Cavendish and RadioShack with the Schleck’s will make the team classification category more intensely fought over than ever before. There are so many questions to be answered as to how it’ll work out for each of them, such as will Cadel Evans enjoy having the likes of Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd going for individual stage wins? And will the previously tested friendship of Bradley Wiggins and Cavendish be strained again when they share the same strip of road at the Tour in July with one man looking for a lead-out train and the other looking for men capable and fresh enough to aid him in the mountains?

None of these questions will be answered down in Australia of course, but no sooner will the pedals turn in anger than we’ll surely get some riders and their teams trying to lay down a marker for the season to come.

The six stage race itself is confined to South Australia and on the southern edge of that, hugging the coast. It is romantic to think of a race that would circumnavigate the country, but let’s face it, Australia is so big and any realistic tour that would hope to cover all the corners of it would either have to last several months and make the Tour de France look like your Sunday coffee run, or have the teams rack up so many air miles they could fly home for free. Saying that, maybe some year they ought to run a race right across the country — which would be 95 percent desert. A real test of attrition. The winner is the first man to get from the east coast of Australia to the west coast of Australia . . . on your marks, get set, GO! And we’ll even allow race radios.

This Tour though is still 803km over the course of six days. That’s 134km per day on average which is pretty remarkable for the middle of January. It’ll be hot summer weather down there, but for the riders taking part, this is still essentially their winter. The majority of the stages are flat which should lead towards bunch sprints or a medium size breakaway sticking, though stages two and five should make for an interesting finish. Both are uphill slogs to the line with stage five being most challenging and the belief is that if a sprinter wants the glory on the GC they’ll have to carry a good 30-40 seconds into that final climb up Willunga Hill (3km at 7.6 percent).

Look for the usual suspects to make a mark on the second stage, and in particular stage five. The likes of Greipel (two times winner), Edvald Boasson Hagen, Luis León Sánchez (another past winner) or indeed the returning bad-boy of the pro-peloton, and former stage winner at the TDU, Alejandro Valverde. The two stages would be ideally suited to Philippe Gilbert, but sadly he isn’t here so everyone else gets a chance. With no basis on which to back it up, I’ll say Boasson Hagen will win at least one stage and will walk away with the GC though Valverde will certainly run him close in looking to show he’s back with a bang.

TCS Tour Down Under GC pick: Edvald Boasson Hagen

The Cycle Seen: Watching the Wheels

Welcome to the Cycle Seen. A look at the world of cycling through the eyes of someone who rides and races for fun, and who also watches it on the television. Hence The Cycle Seen is my own cycle, or the wider cycling scene, as seen by me.

I became a cyclist somewhere in and around the year 1990. My dad had taken up the sport a few years before but that spring he entered into my first mountain bike race. I won, and so the dream and the love of cycling began there. The following year I went to France and seen two stages of the Tour. Cheering for LeMond, but watching the rise of Indurain, it began a lifetime of love with that race. Continue reading The Cycle Seen: Watching the Wheels