Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why you must race in Belgium if you are serious

In earlier posts I have discussed why Americans are often reluctant to go race in Belgium or let their children race in Belgium. I have attempted to show that most perceived obstacles (expenses, long travel, safety, language, etc.) are not serious impediments and that cycling in Belgium is really a bargain compared to anywhere else in the world. I have laid out the many advantages of racing in Belgium (competition, critical mass, etc.) versus other places.

But there is one key reason why juniors must to go Belgium if they are serious about cycling. Anyone with Olympic aspirations or anyone considering a career in cycling needs to go to Belgium as soon as possible. The reason is very simple: cycling is a European sport and it will be that way for the foreseeable future. Much like aspiring baseball players flock to the US, aspiring cyclists flock to Belgium.

While American cycling has made great strides and continues to do so, it is clear that for anyone who is old enough to involved in it now the future lies in Europe. Perhaps the only exception to this is for women's cycling. Although women's cycling has gained in Europe it is nowhere near as popular as men's cycling and this is the one area where the US is highly competitive.

For all others, junior racing in America can serve only one purpose apart from entertainment: to convince USA Cycling coaches and-or local sponsors that one is good enough to go to Europe. To repeat that bluntly: the only reason why juniors compete in big events in the US is so that they can impress the national coaches and be taken to Europe -i.e. Belgium.

However, if one aspires to be on the National Team selection to go to Restricted Events, one should race in Europe as much as possible. USA Cycling's guidelines for selecting members of the National Team makes it clear that placing in a European event is preferred over a similar or better result in a US race. So why follow a circuitous path of traveling all over the country -which is quite expensive by the way- so as to impress people so they take you to Europe, if you can just go to Europe on your own for a whole lot less money. Why not cut to the chase?

Rest assured that whatever you accomplish in Belgium will be visible, whereas your wonderful performances in the US may easily go unnoticed. You may think that going to Europe and disappearing from the radar screen in the US will be bad for your career, but you could not be more mistaken. When you are in Europe you are on everyone's radar. When you are here on the other hand, you are practically invisible, and certainly invisible to most people who matter in terms of cycling careers. Because all those people are in Europe. And they or their talent scouts are attending junior races (and even nieuwelingen races) over there.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cyber Monday

Cyber Monday was coined by the American Retail Association, an organization that exists to promote the relentless consumption that is the main driver of our economy. True to that organization's throw-away frame of mind it now appears the label, which was coined as recently as 2005, is ready for the garbage can. Not too long ago, when high speed internet access, the pre-requisite for online shopping, was the exclusive domain of businesses people had to wait until they returned to work the Monday after Thanksgiving to unleash their online buying sprees. Now that everyone has a smartphone, shopping holidays like the infamous Black Friday, are heading to the landfill faster than the consumer goods they intend to promote.

Meanwhile here in Northern California, we were hit by a number of nasty storms, interspersed with sunny but cold days and borderline freezing night time temperatures. The rapidly changing weather makes training a challenge for those of us accustomed to warmer climes.
The view from the back porch, 11/29 @10AM

That said, anyone who takes a cycling career seriously will not be deterred by this weather. As the foreseeable future of cycling remains in Europe, our climate is downright balmy and tropical by comparison. Apart from a few vicious storms, when driving is next to impossible so let alone riding, we have year-round cycling weather here in Berkeley.

That said, I think I am going to go on a ride right now!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

In the matter of Iljo Keisse

Iljo Keisse and Peter Schep won the zesdaagse in Gent today. The spectacular victory was Keisse's fourth title and came after a suspenseful session in which Keisse and De Ketele switched the lead several times. It is quite obvious that without Iljo the zesdaagse would have been a whole lot less interesting and entertaining. It is also obvious that whomever would have won in that case, would have had a lesser victory.
Iljo Keisse

If you have been reading this blog you will know that Iljo was only able to start after a Belgian High court stepped in to temporarily suspend a ruling TAS made. Keisse got the green light two weeks before the event. In addition he suffered a brief illness and had a fever until just before the racing started.

Keisse is accused of using doping in a complex case that has been dragging on for more than a year now. It is a prime example of all that is wrong with the way doping cases are handled. To add even more irony, the zesdaagse was in turmoil a few days ago, when a group of anti-doping officials showed up and apparently threatened to interrupt the racing so they could take samples. According to the reports, these individuals were not welcomed by the crowd.

I do firmly believe all competitors should play by the rules, whatever those rules are. I therefore believe that riders who take forbidden substances should be punished just like anyone else who cheats.

What I do NOT agree with however is the following:
-that the rules banning particular substances are in any way different from the rules that define a competition legal bicycle. These rules are just conventions and it is up to us to find conventions that are sensible, workable and enforceable. The recent hoopla about mechanical doping proves that this viewpoint is valid.
-that doping is a special kind of cheating -this is just magical thinking that may sit well with primitive societies but has no place in a modern scientific world. There is nothing magical about doping. It is not even proven to be effective and its effects are in any case far less than those of drafting, pushing, or towing riders, and other forms of cheating where the competitors gain a real tangible advantage.
-the punishment and stigmatization associated with drug use is wildly excessive and out of touch with the way other incidents of cheating are treated.
-retroactive punishment should be abolished. Results should be finalized a short time after the race and they should be final and unalterable. Even crimes have a statute of limitations.
-the way doping cases are handled is shameful. Riders are guilty until proven innocent and the damage done to people's livelihood and to the sport of cycling is excessive and vindictive. The modus operandi reminds one of the Spanish Inquisition or that of the Salem witch hunters. Once you are in the system you rarely come out unharmed.

The quest for clean competition is nothing more than a modern form of the age-old quest for virginity. The responses to doping cases are emotional rather than rational and remind on of the practice of stoning women for adultery that is still prevalent in some societies. About the only positive thing we can say is that so far WADA has refrained from using real stones or actually killing the defendant.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wiggins wigs us out

A short interview with Bradley Wiggins regarding the US track team has the US cycling community up in arms. It is of course not the first time that the Brit or his companions have taken swipes at US cycling. Jonathan Vaughters recently ridiculed Armstrong's 2009 Tour de France performance. But the latter went largely unnoticed due to the outrage Americans felt at Contador's behavior. Hence the joy many felt when Contador was caught doping. It only reinforced what they already knew: that Contador was a bad apple who stole Lance's eight Tour. 

USA cycling representatives quickly pointed out their world record performances in women's cycling, and took offense at the notion of Taylor Phinney being labeled "pretty good." Never mind that "pretty good" in British English is roughly equivalent to "awesomely spectacular" in American English. For once, even those who know better choose to ignore their cultural awareness and take "pretty good" at face (that is American) value. Over here "pretty good" means "awfully bad."

In any case, let me just play the devil's advocate and be very blunt. Wiggins is not the only one who thinks American cycling is only so-so. It is an opinion that most European cycling fans share, but won't admit too. To say Europeans treat Americans in a circumspect way is an understatement. Ever since WWII, people in Western Europe do not want to say bad things about America or Americans.

Even when Europeans question the sanity of America, as they did with Reagan and his missiles, the charade known as the Monica Lewinsky affair, and the bible-toting, tough talking Bush Jr. and his Iraq debacle, Europeans are loath to criticize the new world.

It is perhaps fair to say that Europeans and the Brits still feel a certain kinship with their former expatriate and colonial brethren. In any case those left behind feel it more apparently than those who left the continent, or whose forefathers left the continent. They can't seem to ever get enough of showing old Europe how smart their decision to leave really was.

Another factor one should not underestimate is financial incentives. Europeans would love it if American cycling became successful. Not only would it greatly expand size of the market for cycling related items, it would add a rich market composed of big spenders. One thing Europeans particularly like about Americans is that Americans have money - and unlike some other rich countries- Americans love spending. That is why everyone is European cycling is prepared to give America a lot of leeway.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday

For those of you who do not live in the US, you may wonder what Black Friday is all about. Although it sounds menacing, nothing ominous is intended. Black Friday was named by retailers to indicate the start of the Christmas shopping season, a season that will hopefully take them "into the black," i.e. make them profitable after a year of red.

In reality though, Black Friday is truly a dark day. It marks the beginning of a period of massive wasteful spending where people buy trinkets and gadgets that will soon end up in landfills all over the globe. The average life-span of an item bought in an American store is now well below six months. Within six months better 85% of what we buy ends up in the garbage.
Ecstatic consumers carting off stuff that will soon decorate the landfill

I will not be participating in this madness except maybe to sell some bike and computer related items that I no longer need. Christmas season is the best time of the year to do so because it is the time when everyone has to buy presents for their loved ones. So today, I will clean out the garage and find all those stems, handlebars, chainrings and other items I no longer need.

I will also be selling my new Easton EC90 (warranty replacement) crank. I have decided to stick to the tried and true -in this Campagnolo and forgo what may be well be the lightest crank around but is in reality a flawed design- at least for someone my size. I think this crank will work well for a lightweight individual so if you are under 150lbs and interested let me know. I have had issues with the crank before but Easton was kind enough to replace it with a new one after the axle partially detached from the spider. The detachment was not serious and invisible to the naked eye, but a persistent click with a small jerk while pedaling alerted me to its presence.

I will also be picking up the new Moots that Alistair will ride now that the Parlee is on its way back to the manufacturer for repairs.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

We went on a ride with AC this morning in Marin, nothing short of spectacular! Wonderful scenery, sunny, but quite chilly.

I wish everyone a great holiday. Here is a brew you may want to sample. Affligem, an abbey beer brewed under license. The abbey at Affligem was founded in 1074 and was brewing in 1574 according to Wikipedia, but the beer is now brewed under license by the Op-Ale brewery. As a kid we used to drink table-beer from that brewery. These days it is owned by Heineken International and was renamed the Affligem brewery. It is also known as Brouwerij Desmedt in Opwijk.

So what do I think of a dark Abbey beer that isn't brewed near Brussels by a company owned by the Dutch?? Well, it wasn't bad. I am sure the aficionados of dark beer would like it. It got A-'s from some and B+'s from others. Not tops, but not too shabby.

For my taste, not crisp enough, too thick really, but the dryness helped. It worked well with the pizza. And some say it tastes malty with tones of biscuits and candied fruit. Affligem have a blonde and I will try that one if I can find it here in the US.

Affligem Dubbel

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Holiday weekend

As we are going into the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, one of the very few long weekends in the US, the weather has turned nasty. Last weeks started with record high temperatures, often reaching in the low eighties (25-27C), and ended with low fifties (12-13C) and rain. Now the rain is gone but we are suffering from record cold. Last night, San Francisco dipped into the low forties, a phenomenon not seen since 1906 (41F/5C is the record for this day in history).
America's Harvest Festival

The appearances are deceptive. The rains have turned the hills green and since most trees around here are evergreens it looks like spring. Yesterday the sun came out and when you are standing in it, it feels very warm indeed. Yet the air temperature is very low. This morning Berkeley was at 1C/33F and sunny. Looking outside you'd guess it was summertime. The sun is out, the sky is hard blue, but the air is icy cold. So different from last year.

This is very tricky weather for cycling. You need several layers to protect yourself from the cold, but then when you ride uphill in the sun, you sweat buckets unless you remove all of it. As soon as you reach the top of the hill, and especially when you go into a shaded and wind-protected canyon like Redwood, you can't have enough layers to stay warm. It can get so cold at the bottom of Redwood that there is ice on the road at midday. That too has caught many cyclists off guard with disastrous consequences.

Speaking of disasters, two days ago Alistair crashed the new Parlee that I just built, and it suffered a major blow to the top tube. I had to take it into the store to check it out. We tapped on it and it appears the carbon was damaged. Bad news and an expensive repair bill no doubt.

Have a great holiday. A lot to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


A few years ago there was a big uproar because studies had found that users of crack-cocaine faced much stiffer penalties than users of powder cocaine. The discrepancy was large and difficult to explain. It made little sense that one form of the drug resulted in life sentences, while another form most often led to probation or suspended sentencing. It made little sense until you looked at who used what. Then the reasons became very obvious indeed.

We should always wonder when large discrepancies exist that appear to make little or no sense. This is a sure indicator of ulterior motives. Motives that some would rather not reveal.

Take the following example. Drafting when riding a bike can conserve up to 25% of the energy that is normally required to propel a bicycle. The faster you ride the more you save. If you draft in an event where drafting is not allowed you are cheating in a serious way. You are gaining an unfair advantage that is real and immediate. There is no doubt about this whatsoever. You are cheating, big time!!

It is possible that you may gain some undefined advantage from taking a certain chemical. Much depends on the timing, the dose, what you ate with it, your metabolism and a host of other factors. For most chemicals the benefit is unproven and it is hard to estimate how much of an advantage, if any, you gain from taking a particular drug.

It is assumed that you could gain an advantage from certain types of drugs like beta2 adrenergics, and it may even seem logical that you would do so based on what is known about the mechanism of action of the drug. However, as any chemist or drug developer knows, lots of compounds look like they should provide a benefit under certain conditions based on their mechanism of action or what we know about the compound, but the overwhelming majority don't. Despite all the hoopla about toxicity, most compounds fail for lack of efficacy. And these are all compounds that should work based on numerous assays, animal studies, known mechanism of action, etc. etc.

Now ask yourself what is the penalty for cheating under these circumstances?

When you draft in an ironman triathlon, even in a key race such as the Hawaii or Clearwater world championships, you get a 2 minute penalty in that race. That is if you get caught.  Then you have to sit for 2 minutes in a tent and then you can continue. Many athletes have received this punishment and gone on to win the race. Many have been filmed drafting as the above clip explains with no punishment whatsoever.

Not only is the punishment aspect of a 2 minute stop dubious -some benefitted from taking a break-there are no repercussions beyond that. Neither do we have any if it was shown later on that you cheated! Nobody will come back three years later and strip you of your title.

Nobody will label you a cheater or thinks worse of you because of it.

But if you were to race the same race, and have a few picograms of clenbuterol in your blood, what would your punishment be? Never mind that a few picograms could not possibly do anything either beneficial or not. Yet we all know the outcome. We all know what awaits Alberto Contador.

You will be labeled a doper, you will be ostracized by the community, you will be suspended for two years depriving you of income, you will be harassed, and you will lose the support of your team. You may even face criminal penalties.

Does that seem appropriate to you? Do you smell something fishy?

Monday, November 22, 2010

A power meter for Christmas?

If you are like most people, you probably look for new gadgets and when you see one that you like, you go out and buy it regardless of whether you need it or not. You also probably do not worry about whether it is helpful or practical. I suspect many people who end up with heart rate monitors and power meters fall into this category. I can certainly plead guilty in this matter. Perhaps my only redeeming value here is a vaguely scientifically motivated interest in human performance.

I certainly claimed such interest when I bought my first heart rate monitor 20 years ago. I was curious to see what it would reveal about my rides and my conditioning. To wit, I never really thought of it as a training device and hence I never bought any books entitled Racing with a Heart Rate Monitor or  Racing and Training with a Heart Rate Monitor. I simply set out to record my heart rate under various conditions and to interpret the results. I stayed away from Zones, remembering a previous bad experience in photography.

Pretty soon I discovered two things: 1. That I could accurately predict my heart rate in most conditions; and 2. That my heart rate did not contain much new information beyond what I already knew. These may sound similar but are in fact different. The first means I quickly learned to associate a number with a certain feeling of stress or perceived exertion. The second is no different from the statement I heard at the power clinic in San Diego, "Heart rate is always at a max for the entire duration of this workout." I found out that when I worked really hard, my heart rate was at maximum aerobic. When I went above I immediately felt like I wasn't going to be able to hold it, and sure enough, my heart rate went up and up and I had to stop.

More or less the same thing happened when I bought my first power meter. Only this time I was smart enough to wait for a sponsored team discount. I had learned my lesson: gadgets like these are fun, but they aren't much use so get them cheap.

While the gadgets do not have much information, there is a reason why coaches like them: they provide hard data as evidence that you followed the prescriptions. The data shows you worked out and that you worked out as prescribed. Most cyclists don't have enough computer skills to fake a power output file. But most cyclists can easily deceive a coach who relies on perceived exertion and coaches know that.

It is a steep price to pay for a device that does nothing more than provide evidence of acting in good faith, but that is not the coaches' problem. It is not even unique to coaching. The very same problem occurs in medicine and doctors too make you spend a lot of money to prove that you did as prescribed. Many tests have just the same value: they tell the doctor you followed orders.
A plot like this is often shown to demonstrate the superiority of a power meter. It is deceptive.

In that sense the heart rate monitor is no different.  You may ask, why do cycling coaches ignore it? They do, because they can measure power, a more objective data stream. A heart rate monitor tells you how hard you worked, but if you have a power meter and you know how hard a person can work, you don't need the heart rate monitor because you already know how hard they worked by looking at the power file. If you are a running coach however, then heart rate is your only option.

How about power profiles, quadrant analysis, etc? The short answer is, these things are interesting from a research perspective. Furthermore they can show you things that you may not have thought about or that are not immediately obvious -but not things you can't find out otherwise!

However, just like any diagnostic, knowing more does not mean you can do more. You may have heard this joke about doctors: Internists know everything but they can do nothing, surgeons don't know anything but they can do everything, psychiatrists don't known anything and they can't do anything, and finally pathologists know everything and can do everything but they are always 24 hrs late. Although the joke pokes fun at how little medicine can do for you, one thing is a key part: knowing about something does not mean you can fix it.

You may know your power profile, or look at your quadrant analysis and see issues. But there is little evidence you can correct them even with "special exercises." There is not even enough evidence to say you should correct what you perceive as deficits or that doing so is even beneficial. But like medicine, that has not stopped practitioners from trying hard.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A crisp beer for the holiday

Yesterday we tasted a Saison Dupont with dinner. Named the Best Beer in the World by Men's Journal in 2005, this one is highly recommended. I will not go as far as calling it the best in the world, but it is definitely up there. I am also not sure which one Men's Journal choose as the Dupont brewery has several styles including some dark ones and some that are only available locally.

We had the Vieille Provision, a beer described as crisp and well balanced, with a hint of citrus and a slightly bitter finish. It is a blonde ale -Like all gentlemen I prefer blondes.

Saison means season in French and Saison beer was traditionally a low alcohol beer brewed in Walloon farm houses  in Spring to refresh the farm workers during the upcoming harvest season. Traditional Saison is a 3.5% beer but the Vieille Provision we tasted was more at a more typical -for Belgian beer that is- 6.5%. Still the alcohol is not very noticeable and the beer goes down smooth and easy.

Vieille Provision is an unfiltered -hence cloudy- bottle conditioned brew that looks just great in my opinion. This is the ideal refreshment after a long ride through the country side. I also found it a fitting reward for finishing my 2X20 interval workout.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Adventures with power meters

On Thursday the weather turned cooler and I decided to ride my rollers instead. Now that I have taken the official training with power class, I decided it was a good time to start doing things by the book. Not that it is that much different from what I have been doing -mainly the terminology is-, but now at least I can talk the talk and walk the walk.

The goal was to establish my Functional Threshold Power or FTP. FTP is the power a person can put out for an extended period of time. There are several ways to determine FTP but a 20 minute test is one of the more practical and attractive ways to do so. I decided to try to do "a 2X20" interval set, which would not only give me my FTP but also tell me how fit I am.

My 2X20 did not work out as expected. The first interval was fine, but I had to abandon the second one after 10 minutes. Still I was able to read out an FTP of 305W.  Yesterday I took the day off and today the weather is even worse so I decided I would ride my rollers again. Why not try a 2X20 again?

Today I rode a 2X20 at 315W without any problem. It wasn't easy -and it shouldn't be- but I was able to do it. My FTP score today is 320W, which much better and more in line with my expectations of where I am at. In case you wonder about this sudden surge in power, here are three reasons why this result is not an outlier.

The first is that I was better rested. That is also why I was able to complete the set.  The second is that the garage -where my setup is- was a whole lot cooler today than on Thursday. That certainly matters and I could tell from the absence of a puddle on the floor that the temperature made a significant difference compared to Thursday. The third reason is that I sat up a whole lot more today and I do have more power in a more upright position compared to a deep aero.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Rest day

Today I took a day off. Several things came together to make today an ideal rest day. First the weather turned ugly this morning and it started raining. Next, I came off a pretty good week of riding and was in need of some R&R. And finally, I was subpoenaed to make a deposition in a court case and it ended up taking all day. I just got back home at 4:30 after answering questions all day trying to remember events that happened more than 3 years ago.

Yesterday I did a power test on my triathlon bike that is mounted on rollers. I managed to get an FTP (functional threshold power) of 305W, a bit down from where I normally am. But after a week of hard riding that is perhaps not surprising. There was surely some residual tiredness. I tried to ride a 2X20 @315  but had to settle for 300W instead. On top of it I had stop the second interval at 10 minutes because of pain in my legs. I did continue to ride for another 40 minutes, occasionally hitting 310 for a few minutes and then rest a bit. I ended up with a 265W NP for the entire ride (warm-up and cool-down included).

This weekend I hope to finish my power licensing exam and then hopefully before year-end I will get my license. I keep struggling with the WKO+ windows software and boy am I glad I use a Mac! There is just such a huge difference. Windows users must have an exceptional amount of tolerance for poorly written software. I could never imagine a mac application like it.

It is not so much that WKO does not work, or that it does not work properly or accurately. It is more that the user interface is problematic and non-intuitive; that essential information is hidden in the weirdest places; that it is nearly impossible to use without reading manuals or having someone show you; and that the displays may or may not show the stuff you intend to show. It is klutzy at best, frustrating all the time, and downright deceptive at worst. I guess that is what you get when engineers write code.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

More on school and holidays

The school year in Belgium starts on September 1 and runs through June 30th. Universities and other institutions of higher learning follow the "akademisch jaar" (academic year) that starts on October 1 and runs to the end of the first week of July. The academic year is a bit out of synch with all other calendars and it allows young adults to travel during the month of September when the big holiday rush is over and prices are cheaper.

July and August are known as the "grote vakantie" (big holiday) in Belgium. Apart from the grote vakantie there are a number of "kleine vakanties" that last for 2 weeks. Belgium has a strong Catholic heritage and all the holidays in Belgium are linked to religious festivals on the Catholic calendar. Nearly all of Belgian life is synchronized to that calendar and the degree of synchronization is much higher than in the US. Most businesses are also tied to the same calendar and the period known as "congés payés" or paid vacation periods also occurs in July-August.

It is important to know about this because it will affect you when you stay in Belgium for an extended period of time. You will soon find out that there are times to do things and times when nothing can be done because all the shops and businesses are closed.
Closed for vacation

Hotel room prices are higher during the school vacation periods and so are rooms for rent. It is also more difficult to find rooms during those times, especially in tourist spots and near the coast.

Starting at the beginning of the school year, students have a herfstvakantie (fall vacation) at the end of October and de kerstvakantie (Christmas or New Years vacation) during the last week of December and the first week in January (when all the big cyclocross events are).

In Spring there are krokusverlof (Crocus vacation) and paasverlof (Easter) both tied to the Easter holiday. Since the Easter holiday is linked to Jewish Passover and a lunar calendar, it shifts around from year to year. In 2011, krokus will be 3/7 to 3/13 and paasverlof 4/11 to 4/24. It will then gradually shift back into March over the next five years.

In addition to religious holidays there are holidays where everyone takes a second day off (typically called 2nd<holiday name>). So we have 2nd Christmas, 2nd Easter (4/25 in 2011) and 1st and 2nd Ascension (6/2-6/3 in 2011), 2nd Pentecost, etc.

There are also prominent non-religious holidays such as May 1, and November 11. When these fall on a weekend, usually people take Mondays off and when they fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, it is customary to "bridge" to or from the weekend.

A school calendar can be found here.

Promising young Belgian racers often take a week-long team retreat ("een stage") in Italy or Spain two or three weeks before opening weekend. The retreat usually coincides with a school holiday although it tends to run longer so students need a letter from their team. If you plan to see if you can find a team to ride with, you may want to find out about team retreats before you travel to Belgium.

There is one other quirk in the Belgian school system that you need to know about. Belgian schools have week long exam periods twice a year. First, ahead of the Christmas vacation, and second ahead of the grote vakantie. Unlike in the American system, the grading in Belgian schools is totally skewed towards the second exam period. More than 90% of a student's grade is determined here and there is no way a student can move up unless they pass all the tests in the May-June exam period, no matter how well they did earlier in the year. That means the May-June period is one of extreme stress for most students.

The situation only gets worse as one progresses to higher education. Here the entire grade is determined by one final oral exam. Course work at universities usually stops in early May and students spend 2 months studying for their final exams. The period from the end of May until the middle of July is one where university students are focused on one thing only: passing their exams. It is a time when student bars are empty and weekend partying is postponed until summer starts.
Abbey retreat to study for finals

The period is called "blokken" or "den blok," which means to lay bricks or the brick. It is interesting to note that "a brick" in triathlon means a workout with more than one sport back to back (i.e. ride-run, or swim-run). No doubt the analogy is one of putting bricks up to build a wall or achieve something big.

Visiting Belgian families with school aged children in June is NOT a good idea. Unfortunately most American schools end their year in mid May or early June and many young American racers are eager to go to Belgium at that time. End of May and June are also not good times if you want to go to Belgium for parties or festivals or anything else young people are interested in.

One reason the pressure is so high is that students who fail to pass one of their final exams have only one option: to take another set of exams held at the end of summer before the new school year starts. This so-called "second period" is their last chance to avoid having to do their year over again. What that means is no vacation and spending an entire summer studying.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Junior racing in Belgium: schools and holidays

Belgium is one of the few countries where school is mandatory up until age 18. Homeschooling is virtually non-existent in Belgium. That means every youth racer goes to school and youth racing is dependent on school schedules and vacation times. Fortunately there are a lot of holidays and vacation periods.

Although promising young racers can occasionally get time off from school to compete, in general this is not the case, and Belgian kids need to wait for school holidays to race. As the majority of racers in any local race are Belgian, foreigners too have to live by the school schedule.
It reads: on the bike to school

The Belgian school system up until age 18 is divided into six years of elementary school and six years of middle school (middelbaar or secundair onderwijs), starting at age 7. The older distinction of low-middle (laag middelbaar) and high-middle (hoog middelbaar) is no longer apparent and both grade groups are part of the same school. In the early part of the previous century students would sometimes leave school after lower middle (at age 15) to go to work in a factory or farm but that is no longer allowed.

Belgian schools count up in elementary school and down in middle school. So you go to grade 1-6 first and then down from 6 to 1.

Elementary schools tend to be small and local and keep restricted hours. Most close at 3PM. Middle schools are larger and located in cities. Middle school is typically divided into two tiers of difficulty: an upper level (humaniora) and a lower (technical/art) level. The higher level prepares children for further study and is required to enter University while the second tier is either terminal or followed by a few years at a Hoge School (literally High School). At the end of humaniora students take a maturiteitsexamen similar to the French baccalaureate- although it is more of a formality in Belgium. Nevertheless, passing that exam is required for higher education so everyone from a technical/art school is precluded from entering a University.

Belgian schools are more demanding than the US equivalent and students leaving the humaniora at age 18 are nearly on par with US undergraduate B.S. or B.A. degrees. About 1/3 to 1/2 have a classical education and study Latin and Greek. The others follow a "modern" curriculum, which is seen as less demanding. In the 1940's through 80's many students would leave a humaniora at age 18 to get a white collar job. That is no longer the case, and higher education is now the rule for everyone aspiring to make a decent living.

Transfers between tiers are rare in Belgium and nearly always are downgrades. If a student cannot do well in classical studies, they get downgraded to "modern" and if that fails they get sent to a technical, art or trade school.

Middle school hours usually run from 8 in the morning until 6 at night. Classes often stop at 4 but students are required to attend study hall until 5:30 or 6:30. The upper tier nearly always enforces the study time so students do not get out until dinner time. Wednesdays are short days but most schools have a mandatory sports program that lasts until 3:30 or 4:00. Although students manage to come home with their "home" work done during study hall, the long hours leave little time for training. During much of the year students go to school when it is dark out and return home at dusk. Winter day time hours range from 9AM to 4PM.

The majority of middle school students walk or bike to school and middle schools have large bike parking areas. Students typically use cheap commuter bicycles to go to school and get around in general. You rarely see even moderately priced bikes in a school bike rack.
Fietsenstalling at school

Belgium has private, mostly religious, schools and public, agnostic, schools. There is some distinction but it is not nearly as prominent as in the US. All schools are subsidized and although attending a private school is more expensive and more prestigious, no schools charge tuition and the differences are marginal.

Belgian school life, like so much else is dominated by its Catholic heritage, especially in Flanders. Nearly every private school is a catholic school here. Although religious signs are everywhere, the country is largely agnostic and definitely a few orders of magnitude less religious than the US. Although most Belgians are baptized and go through religious ceremonies (first communion, communion, marriage and funeral in church), church attendance is low in Belgium except in small villages, and for holidays and festivities (baptism, marriage, funerals).

Upper tier schools de-emphasize sports (and anything "manual") and so it is not surprising that most aspiring Belgian racers (or other sport practitioners) do not attend an upper tier school. Racing in Belgium has a distinct blue collar connection. Youth racers are typically introduced to the sport through camps. When they are good they flock to sports-oriented middle schools where a lot of time is spent on physical education. They also join a team early on and go on retreats and camps with their team. In Belgium, cycling is a team activity from its very inception. There are no 15 year old independent or unaffiliated racers here.

There are also no school teams and no school team competitions of note. Certainly nothing that comes even close to American high school or college sports. The latter is especially different since higher education in Belgium totally shies away from sports. A high school (middelbaar) may have a soccer team but no college (university in Belgium) has a team of any kind.
Miniemen Team (8-11)

More on schools, holidays, and vacation times tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


There is little doubt that we in the Western world have grown addicted to consuming technology. In 2005, the US alone generated 2.6 million tons of e-waste. It is the fastest growing waste stream in the civilized world. We don't see it because most of it gets shipped to China. In some sense that is befitting since most of the gadgets we buy come from there originally.


Gadgets dominate our lives and not always for the better. Deadly car accidents due to cell phones and texting have already taken up all the gains from enforcing DIU laws and then some. More people are being robbed and attacked because they are distracted by their cellphones than benefit from having a phone handy in an emergency. Gadgets are also a very expensive addiction on par with narcotics or other illegal substances.

I have to admit that I used to be an early adopter of all things electronic. I sold my record collection and switched to CD's before most record stores in Europe started selling CDs. That also coincided with my move to the US and since the US was lagging considerably in this matter, I had the hardest time finding music for many years.

One of the things that attracted me to cycling was technology and I quickly amassed enough gadgets to fill a small research lab. I bought one of the earliest heart rate monitors with a computer interface. At that time, the computer interface was bulky and cost more than the watch, which wasn't cheap either. Every time I rode I faithfully downloaded my data to the computer. It helped that I was working at a defense lab where computers were easy to access because at the time PC's were not common. I also sported one of the first laptops and lugged it around all over the world. I remember that many people looked at me with envy but they did not have to carry the box.

Years later I was one of the first to buy a power meter. And then a GPS. Not too long afterwards however, I started having second thoughts about gadgetry in everyday life. Not only was I getting tired of lugging stuff around, keeping it all charged, and downloading all the data, I quickly found that the data I collected were highly repetitive and devoid of new information.

Although lack of usefulness was not the main reason at the time, it did matter. Whatever the reason, I am happy to say that I am the most gadget-free rider out there. I don't even bother to install a speedometer any more.  As John Cobb once told me: "Why do you need a speedometer? As long as there is someone in front of you, you are not going fast enough."
My hitech Cockpit
More hitech cockpits

While I do not doubt the value of measuring devices such as heart rate monitors, power meters, and wind tunnels for those engaged in the quest for new knowledge, I think that their usefulness for everyday riders, and even pro cyclists, is not there. I would go further and say that in many cases these items become distractions that do at least as much harm as good -the good being next to zero in any case.

When you have a heart rate monitor or a power meter you quickly learn that after a short period of time, it becomes trivial for you to guess your heart rate or power output. These things do not change much and you can quickly develop a good estimate of your output. I used to be able to overlay my heart rate charts from all my Monday rides, all my Tuesday rides, etc. -we rode the same rides every week in my team- and they matched perfectly. 

If anything these items can become very limiting. If you rely on your power meter to tell you what you can do (i.e. to pace yourself) you could be limiting yourself. That too was said more than a few times at that same clinic -all the while showing that one of the uses of the power meter is to pace oneself.

The truth is that if you need a power meter to pace yourself, you probably also need a GPS to drive to the corner grocery store or a cellphone to keep track of your friends. If that is the case you will always lose out to those who can use their brain. It is the perfect low maintenance, low cost, supercomputer and it can run circles around those high tech contraptions. Furthermore, it is always there as long as you are.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Coaches' wisdom and an abbey beer that isn't

While I am struggling with a piece of windows software, that like most pieces of windows software isn't really ready for prime-time, I was reminded of the following tidbits I heard at the coaches' clinic in San Diego. In no particular order, here are some gems:

-A large part of your job as a coach is to come up with interesting workouts so your clients don't get bored.
-Many athletes can accurately estimate their perceived level of intensity, if you say do a workout at this power level, they nail it every time.
-Perceived intensity correlates with blood lactate levels
-You can use a power meter to train yourself to get an accurate perceived intensity
-I never use a heart rate monitor anymore, it adds no value
-I haven't looked at a heart rate monitor in years
-Heart rate is always at a max for the entire duration of this workout, it tells you nothing
-When I look at this power profile, I don't need a muscle biopsy, I can tell what the outcome will be
-Quadrant analysis was developed to prove a point
-Crank length does not matter. 165 to 180, it all works equally well.
-Eat normal food as much as you can during an endurance event
-You can only absorb 3-400 calories per hour. Most people can only do 2-300.
-Most people get stomach issues when they try to eat 3-400 calories an hour in just carbohydrate
-Protein has no use in endurance other than to possibly prevent GI issues

And to digest all that, let me propose an abbey beer that isn't. Maredsous, named after the Benedictine Abbey at Denee, near Namur, is brewed by Moortgat Brouwerij NV, makers of Duvel, the best of all Belgian beers. In some sense it is an exquisitely Belgian product, being conceived in Wallonia and crafted in Flanders. The bottle does not carry the hexagonal official Trappist marker, since the brew is not made at the abbey by monks and furthermore, the Benedictines at Maredsous aren't even Trappists.
Maredsous blond 6
Nevertheless the Blond 6 is a wonderful concoction. Not quite as crisp and clean as Duvel, but softer and equally flavorful. The recipe is said to have been developed at the abbey, hence giving the beer its creds.

Maredsous is also the name of a semi-soft artisanal cheese that goes well with this beer. Five varieties exist and all are made at the abbey.  The Tradition and Mi-vieux can be found in most grocery stores and supermarkets all over Belgium and Europe. Unlike the beer, Maredsous cheese is not imported into the US.
Maredsous cheese, to get this you need to visit Belgium

For you lovers of dark brews, Maredsous also comes as Bruin (brown) 8 and a Tripel 10. As the numbers indicate these contain more alcohol (by %) and hence should be savored more slowly.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Another bike

I finished building my 8th bike yesterday. It's been almost a year since I finished #7: my friend's Orbea Orca. And shortly before that I completed my very own Kuota KOM. This time it is a Parlee Z4 that Alistair will race next year. Although I am re-using a lot of older and somewhat heavier components including a 2006 Campagnolo crank with Chorus BB, the bike weighs in at just under 17 pounds. That is with the older LOOK pedals that are on there now and that I will swap out for new Speedplay Zero's once the season starts. The bike is all Campy Record 10 speed with a Thomson Elite seatpost and Deda Magic handlebars.

Although I have only done a few short test rides, the Parlee feels nice and solid. I also love the way it looks. The tubes are modestly oversized but still slender enough to be elegant. There is none of that squarish boxy look of the Tarmac SL2. The bike has a nice finish and the superficial carbon uniweave creates a beautiful pattern on the top tube. This is one beauty on wheels!

New Parlee

Friday, November 12, 2010

An evening with Chris McCormack

Last night a friend and I attended the Chris McCormack event at the new Clif Bar headquarters in Emeryville. Apart from getting a free Clif shot, Clif Cafe lasagna -which was a tad greasy- and New Belgian Brewing hoptober ale, we were serenaded by the company band with solo performances on the trumpet by Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson. Mr. Erickson also gave a short presentation of his own athletic career covering nearly every sport from rock climbing, dancing, skiing, to surfing and triathlon.

Gary entertaining the crowds
Next, Mark Allen, the six time Hawaii ironman winner made a short intro appearance in which he was full of praise for Chris's most recent victory. Compared to when I last heard Mark Allen talk -at the 2005 CaliforniaMan- he appeared a lot more reserved and less self-centered.

Then Macca came up on stage and settled in for a long interview that was filled with stories from his long career and personal life. A large amount of time was spent on recounting the key events in the 2010 Hawaii race, which was, as Mark Allen had previously remarked, one of the most memorable in Ironman history.

But he did not stop there and Chris went into great detail on nearly every Hawaii ironman race he took part in, highlighting pitfalls and strategy. Whatever one might think about the value of tactics and strategy in what is essentially a solo time trial event, it is clear that Macca and his team have given it much thought and attention. It is also obvious that they think of it as a group event instead of a solo race.

Strategy and tactics really matter to a man who, by his own admission, watches replays of nearly every race and memorizes splits for all his competitors and illustrious predecessors.

In the short question and answer session, Chris remarked that there are no magic formulae, no magic workouts and no magic recipes. He said everyone has to find out for themselves -maybe with help from a coach- what works and what doesn't. He also expressed the opinion that some athletes train too much and overreach. He was not shy in mentioning fellow athletes like Bozzone and others, whom he thought were training too much. I suspect it is this eagerness to name names and openly express his opinions that has gotten Macca in trouble before. He has often been labeled arrogant and the label clearly offended him so he took some time to dispel this notion.

After the event there was time for pictures and signing autographs. Unfortunately my camera malfunctioned and so I did not get my shot with the champ. I did get an autograph on one of my Ironman finisher shirts however. Mark Allen also posed for pictures and signed autographs but on the whole he kept a low profile and left the stage to Chris.
Chris McCormack after the interview
Mark Allen signing autographs
Asked by one person if he had ever run a marathon and what his best marathon time would be, Chris first said, "no, and ouch, painful" but then confidently predicted he would be able run a 2:19. (2:20 is the Olympic qualifier time) He looked over to Mark and Mark said he had once tried to run a marathon -in Berlin- and his goal then was a sub 2:20, but he never made it past mile 18. He and a fellow runner then jumped on the subway for the 8 mile ride back to town. He called it his very fast half marathon.

In other news, the Belgian high court has given Iljo Keisse the green light to start racing in the Gentse Zesdaagse (Ghent six day track event) in two weeks. Keisse tested positive for masking agents (cathine and a diuretic) in the race in 2008 and was fired by his team. The Belgian Federation cleared him of any wrongdoing in November of 2009 and Keisse was able to race for Quickstep in early 2010. But then WADA appealed to Court of Arbitration for Sport (TAS), where Keisse was once again suspended and Quickstep was forced to let him go. Even though the high court overruled that decision today, it has not cleared Keisse yet. That is not expected until a hearing next April.  The whole affair is yet another example of the sorry state of affairs in cycling.

Next week some more on training with power and racing in Belgium. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 11 in Belgium

While Americans celebrate November 11 in a generic way as Veteran's day, and typically do not even bother to take off from work, Europeans see November 11 in a very different light. To begin with, November 11 is a bona fide holiday across most of Western Europe and there are big celebrations in every village and town in Belgium.

To Belgians, November 11 commemorates the armistice in the Great War. The Great War of course is World War 1. November 11 is therefore known to Belgians as Armistice Day, and 11 AM is remembered as the hour when fighting stopped across the Western front. Nearly every village, town and city has a monument honoring their victims of the great war.
Waardamme plaque listing WWI victims, both soldiers and civilians

World War I left a devastating scar all across Europe and England. An entire generation of young men, driven by romantic ideals volunteered and ultimately largely perished in the trenches across France and Belgium. Hence the poem, In Flander's fields the poppies blow.

Flanders has very visible scars of World War I and it is possible to this day to visit (restored) World War 1 trenches in the southwest corner (Westhoek) of the country. There the Belgians -but in reality the Brits- held on to what was probably, in the overall scheme of things, a strategic mistake, but nonetheless a highly emotional bit of territory.
WWI Trenches Diksmuide

It was emotional to the Belgians because it represented a small part of the country that was free of enemy occupation, a well deserved piece too because the Belgian king, Albert I had been one of the few who saw what was coming in 1914. To the Brits it was highly emotional because they, after all, were responsible for the creation of Belgium and the ruling family were relatives of the British monarchy. So too was Wilhelm by the way, but Wilhelm, Der Kaiser, was clearly the bad apple now.

The Belgian organization fietsroute has a 60 km (37 mi) ride called Dwars door het IJzerfront  that visits all the important spots of the WWI battlefield. There is no GPS map yet and all the info is in Dutch but you can buy a gadget, called bikepointer that will guide you through a series of milestones (knooppunt) all along the route. The numbers are listed on the fietsroute website. The website has another 24 km route in Diksmuide, that avoids the battlescars but nonethless gives a great overview of the landscape. There is a Google map here. Just north of that route you will see the dodengangstraat, where the above shown trenches are, and just below and southwest of the southernmost tip of the same route you will find Westvleteren, where the famous Trappist beer brewing abbey is located.

World War I destroyed several of Belgium's great treasures. The library at the University of Leuven, one of the oldest on the continent was burned to the ground by invading Germans. It was an act that was widely condemned across Europe and did much damage to the reputation of Das Deutsche Heer. The Lakenhalle in Ieper (Ypres), a splendid medieval market hall succumbed to repeated bombardments and ultimately had to be completely rebuilt after the war.

The Ypres salient was the site of many famous battles. It is also the place where poison gas was used for the first time in modern warfare.
Lakenhalle Ieper
Ever since Ieper remembers the fallen and every night a bugle plays the Last Post under the Meense Poort (Menin Gate) to remember the missing of World War I.

World War I also left other deeper and lasting scars. Many believe it sowed the seeds for the Nazi movement and World War II. WWI was also the time when Flemish separatism took hold, a movement that aligned itself with the Nazi occupiers in WWII. Many took part in Operation Barbarossa, which the Flemish catholics viewed as the best way to destroy communism. Volunteers were often recruited by parish priests who believe it was their duty to destroy evil.

To remember the roots of the Flemish movement, supporters built the ijzertoren in Diksmuide. The original monument was destroyed after WWII -many Flemish militants were collaborators- and a new tower was built later on the same site. Every year in July the movement holds a pilgrimage (ijzerbedevaart) there that has attracted various extremist groups and is still viewed with suspicion by many Belgians.

The Westhoek is rich in war history -it also has many American and Canadian WWII grave sites. The country is below sea level, totally flat and exposed to a constant sea breeze. It is a favorite among local cyclists and an ideal place to practice waaiers or echelons. It is also a place with many excellent local beers and famous beer-lover's bars. It is a region of hops and a place to savor Poperings hommelbier.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The onslaught of gadgets

Although it is more than 25 years ago, I will always remember my obstetrics classes from medical school. It will always stand out to me as an example of technology gone wild. It all happened in the early years after fetal monitoring leads made their entry into the clinic. From our perspective as students it appeared that everyone in obstetrics was in a drug-induced euphoric state. The professors could not stop telling us about the big changes that were afoot and how these were revolutionizing the field. To them, and to their fellow obstetricians it was as if the dark ages had suddenly ceased to exist. It was the dawn of the new age.

For all of human history up until that day, obstetricians -and no doubt parents- had wondered about what was really going on in the womb in those last hours before the baby was born. That was the time of great mystery. If only they could gain a deeper insight into the fetal condition.
The dawn of a new era

Everyone was holding their collective breath in anticipation of how the baby was going to come out. Was it going to be OK or would it suffer irreparable damage due to ill effects of vigorous contractions or a dangerous passage through the narrow birth canal? There were only very indirect methods to gain any insight. Until the fetal monitor appeared. Now deeper insight was here.

Suddenly overwhelmed by an influx of data -albeit extremely modest by today's standards- obstetricians were quick to gather, analyze, tabulate and catalog the various waveforms, rhythm changes and impulses that were streaming out and providing a continuous real time view of the baby's heart rate. There were early decelerations, late decelerations, rapid decelerations, slow decelerations, and other changes to map, analyze and explain. Soon journals were filled with theories floating around trying to explain what it all meant.

For us as students, it meant pages and pages of tables added to the obstetrics syllabus. Faced with the task of memorizing all this stuff and my inherent laziness-then more pronounced as befitting a true student-, I tried to discover a pattern that would be useful in data reduction -or compression. Fortunately, it did not take me very long to find such a pattern. Regardless of what the various indicators (ECG, blood gases, etc.) said, there was only one solution: get the baby out. Even if the indicators were in doubt, getting the baby out was the solution. You could never go wrong getting the baby out quickly.

Not to be overly cynical but getting the baby out quickly had been the OB's mantra since the start of the profession. So what really changed? Well for one, now we had tons of data and graphs to show why we had to get the baby out quickly.

Fetal monitoring became a big contributor to the popularity of caesarean section. The other big contributor was convenience and maximizing profits. But at the very least, now we had hard data to go hand in hand with convenience and better fees.
Fetal heart rate during pregnancy

Why do I bother telling you this on a cycling blog? Because I have a strong sense of deja-vu. The enthusiasm and hype surrounding power, power meters and training with power is very similar to what happened back then. And it will only get worse once exercise physiologists get a deeper insight into the pedal cycle (the holy grail of cycling). Soon  the new Polar/LOOK power pedal will open another treasure trove of data and potential analyses. Look for quadrant analysis squared!

Twenty five years ago, people did not have the PC's, iPad's and iPhone's that clutter our everyday lives. Although there were many obsessive and meticulous practitioners tabulating and graphing the various cases of rapid and no-so-rapid decelerations in fetal heart rate, it was not something that was accessible to the public at large. There were no fathers-to-be pacing the hallways and monitoring the heart rate of their sons and daughters-to-be on their iPhone, much like we now have amateur power-freaks monitoring the instantaneous Schleck and Contador power fluctuations in the Tour.

Perhaps one other fact needs to be emphasized. What has fetal monitoring done to enhance birth related issues? Was there a big dip in morbidity and mortality associated with births in the latter part of the previous century? Granted, you won't find a single OBGYN who is not convinced of the fantastic and deeply beneficial effects of birthing with monitors, much like you won't find a single coach who isn't convinced of the wonders of training with power.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A sorry state of affairs

Yesterday, UCI asked the Spanish Federation to start disciplinary action against Alberto Contador. That almost certainly means that Contador will lose his 2010 Tour de France title. Sporza went to Aruba to find Andy Schleck and hear his reaction. Schleck neatly hit the nail on the head when he responded to the suggestion that this event increases his chances of winning the 2010 Tour de France. He said: " I don't want that chance. For me, I lost the Tour on the road."

And that is ultimately what it is all about. Are we going to have winners decided on the road, during the race or are we going to hand that over to the guys in the lab who do the testing? It seems that the latter is the wave of the future. On Wednesday, Nov 3, infamous bike blogger BikesnobNYC summarized it this way: "Basically, pro cycling has evolved into a game of waiting for blood test results, and at this point you'd probably get more sporting enjoyment out of hanging around your local Quest Diagnostics lab and gambling on what kind of diseases people have."

No matter how you feel about doping or cheating -and the truth is most fans don't care unless someone beats their favorite rider, in which case the offender "must have cheated."- this is not good for the sport of cycling. Somewhat coincidentally the two recent high profile events have involved riders most American fans love to hate. Floyd Landis fell out of favor for attacking America's all time icon Lance Armstrong, while Contador is despised by many for supposedly taking away Lance's eight Tour de France victory. 

In another damaging but less high profile example, USA cycling recently awarded National titles for 2007. Once the again the reason was a disqualification of a rider for doping offenses. Awarding a title 3 years after the event, or knowing that your title may be taken away from you in the coming decade, clearly means something is not working. Many serious crimes have a statute of limitations. Apparently not so for the drug offenders. 

It is also interesting to note as an aside that the majority of the American prison population consists of minor drug offenders and that much of the prison burden and cost could be alleviated by ignoring minor drug offenses.

Now WADA wants UCI to do night time testing. Here is a case where the measurement itself can influence the results. The riders who are tested at night will pay a price in terms of sleep and recovery. Waking someone in the middle of the night will affect their rest and recovery.

Ironically enough a key driver behind the whole doping hoopla is sponsors. While the fans may not care, the sponsors and their marketing departments clearly do. They do not want to be associated with something that is perceived negatively. I should point out however that perceptions are susceptible to fashion and things that were once acceptable or even encouraged are now seen as cheating. Anquetil, the first five-time Tour de France winner and one who wore the jersey from day one to the finish, had no qualms about publicly admitting to doping.

While the IOC may invoke the "Olympic spirit of fair competition," the Ancient Greeks, inventors of all things Olympic, were ardent believers in special potions and no Greek competitor would have thought of entering the games without some pharmaceutical aid. To counter these facts, the argument is often made that this is immaterial because ancient concoctions did not work, but modern doping does. Laurent Fignon used the same argument recently to justify doping use in the 1980's and 90's.

From a purely pharmaceutical perspective neither argument holds. First, the ancients did discover potent pharmaceuticals and many drugs on the market today are based on such discoveries. Furthermore, there is little scientific evidence that doping works as intended and the issue has not been sufficiently studied. While it is true that steroids, EPO and rHGH have strong physiological effects, it is unclear how much of that translates to victories in competition and victories are what matter here. To give another example, many cancer drugs kill tumor cells, but very few have a life-expectancy benefit- the true measure of success.
Enhances Fitness!

Even more ironic is the fact that most sporting companies that sponsor competitions do claim an unfair advantage from using their products. In essence they are claiming that their products work like doping, i.e. that they will make you stronger, faster, more fatigue resistant, let you recover better, and what have you. If any of these claims really held water, their products would quickly end up on the list of banned products.

I suspect it is the withdrawal of sponsorship that really frightens UCI. Unlike other sports that are held in stadiums with spectators paying for seating, cycling is almost totally dependent on sponsorship and TV. That is one reason why doping is much less of an issue in baseball, football or hockey. The owners of stadiums know the fans care very little and they will keep coming no matter what. Tour de France organizers are much more worried about the media. When German TV stations threatened to pull the plug a couple of years ago because "they were not interested in seeing trials of pharmaceutical products," the Amaury Sports Organization quickly responded.

However the reasoning goes, one thing is for sure. Cycling is in a very sorry state of affairs. Someone better fix this sooner than later. Unfortunately I suspect this is one of those areas where technology will not provide a good solution. Let's hope we find out about that before it does irreparable damage to the sport.