Monday, January 31, 2011


I heard it was sunny for the cyclocross world championships in Sankt Wendel, Germany. Not so in Northern California. After a glorious, dry and warm January, we suddenly got hit by a storm and the weather turned cold, wet and overcast. I kept my fingers crossed because we have had this new weather pattern the last four or five years where a record setting January is followed by two or three cold and wet months. Fortunately, it appears we are entering another warm and dry spell today so maybe we can avoid it altogether.

It was a mixed weekend for the Belgians. First in tennis, Kim Clijsters won the Australian open and another Belgian An-Sophie Mestach won the juniors and is currently the world's number one. That was excellent news after the shock announcement that Justine Henin was calling it quits.

Kim's win made everyone hopeful that the men would sweep the cross championships. Expectations (and tensions) were high in a team with seven top riders. Although there had been some words, coach De Bie did what he could to calm the waters and on Saturday, all looked good for the day ahead.

Niels Albert was the clear favorite. The course suited the former world champion and he has been on a winning streak throughout the season. But Niels had a bad day and some bad luck and he was out before the racing started. He ended in 24th, a world away from the winners and appeared to have fallen off the planet as far as the Belgian media was concerned.

Niels' problems left Stybar, who will ride for Quick-step next season and Sven Nys alone to battle it out. Although Nys fought hard, he could not stop Stybar from riding away from him with four laps to go. Behind the leaders Pauwels fought French and German riders for third. The podium was Stybar, Nys and Pauwels. A Belgian victory of sorts, as Stybar lives in Belgium, speaks Dutch, and rides for a Belgian team. He is an adopted (Flandrien) Belgian.

An estimated 1.2 million Belgians watched the event on TV. Pretty good for a sport that is decidedly not tops during soccer season.

Stybar, Nys and Pauwels

This weekend's results and news coverage highlight another Belgian idiosyncrasy: despite being a cycle-crazy country, there is very little interest in women's cycling in Belgium. Although nearly all girls and many women ride bikes in Belgium, cycling is not traditionally seen as a desirable sport for women. Belgians may not want to admit it, but the feeling runs quite deep in some areas and it is only recently that women's cycling has received a little bit of attention. I am willing to bet that most Belgian cyclocross fans could not name one woman on the Belgian team.

Kim Clijsters down under

Women's cycling races have (relatively) few competitors, a very sparse race calendar (by Belgian standards) and hardly any news coverage. That is true for all five cycling disciplines. Somewhat ironically, women's cycling is (relatively) popular in countries such as Britain and the US, where men's cycling is a minor sport.

Tennis on the other hand, is a very popular sport for Belgian women. And that is not just because Belgium had some success there in the past. As a matter of fact, it is precisely because tennis is so desirable and popular among girls that Belgium has these tremendous successes. Women's tennis is one of the few women's sports that gets top billing -on par with men's sports- in Belgium. It is also a sport where Belgium has a deep line-up of top players, which is all the more amazing given how small the country is.

In other news, Spanish rider David Etxebarria has made some waves by lashing out at former team mate Alberto Contador. Etxebarria is accusing Contador of being hypocritical and remaining silent when others were accused of doping. He twittered, "Don't shout out when previously you stayed silent." Etxebarria was a team mate of Contador in 2005 and 2006 at Liberty Seguros. Clearly there is some bad blood here.

And finally, I was able to sleep on left shoulder for the first time since my crash on December 8. I did not follow the advice of my orthopedist (to inject cortisone) but rather opted to leave things alone. The shoulder still hurts a bit from time to time, but overall it is healing well and I am hopeful that it will continue to do so.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Bike racing in Belgium, a check-list

Here is a checklist for those of you who are considering going to Belgium to race their bikes in 2011. I will briefly discuss each topic and link to the earlier blog posts that explain that topic in greater detail. Most of those write-ups were posted from September to December of 2010 so you can also check the archive or use the search option.

Anyone, (racing) age 15 and up can go to Belgium to race their bikes if they so desire. All that is needed is a bike in good working order and some paper work. You also need to find a flight and housing. Finally, it is really helpful if you know how to read the Belgian race calendar so you can find appropriate races.

Going to Belgium to race your bike may sound crazy and horrendously expensive but it is neither. Going to Belgium is cheaper and will get you more races than flying across country. Although anyone can go the people that will benefit most and for whom a trip is really worthwhile are men ages 15-35. Women and masters racers will find plenty of opportunities too, but US riders especially, will find that these categories are well represented over here and the level of competition is often not that different in Belgium. 

There are many reasons to go but the main reason is critical mass. If you are a junior and considering a career in racing, here are the reasons why you should go.

The infamous Koppenberg. Don't worry it looks much better now!!

To go to Belgium you need a passport, a UCI license, a foreign permission letter and if you are under 19, a kalenderkaart from the Belgian Federation. US, Canadian, and most European citizens do not need a visa for stays of less than 90 days. If you think you need a visa, check here.

To get a UCI license, go to USA Cycling (or your national federation) and apply on-line. You can also request a foreign permission letter this way. For younger riders a kalenderkaart can also be ordered online. For information on these documents and how to get them, check here.

To find out more about flights, good airports to fly into, what to bring, and ways to ship your bike, click here.

If you are a "junior" you need to know the special rules that apply to you. There are many restrictions, ranging from how often you can race (hence the kalenderkaart) to what distance you can race and what gear you can use when racing. If your racing age is 15-16, read nieuwelingen (novices). If you are 17-18, read junioren (juniors).  

If you want to know about hotels, rooms, vacation housing and rentals, read housing for bike racers and where to stay. If you want to know how to get around, read how to get around in Flanders.

To find races, here is how to find the on-line calendar and how to read it. Here is some useful information regarding the calendar.

To find out what to expect when you go to your first race, read Belgium, the race layout.

There are many other topics that I covered going from things to know about Belgium, to cuisine, haute cuisine, cartoons, beer and chocolate.  Hopefully these will strike your fancy but they are not required reading. But I do suggest you read the posts on liability issues and medical care before you leave.

Happy reading and please feel free to leave some feedback.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

In re Contador

Yesterday the Spanish Federation announced its verdict in re Contador. Rather than provide closure the decision has already whipped up a storm of controversy in the community. So before I get into the heated discussions let me point you to a soothing Belgian treat that has no equal. Belgian Chocolate from Cachet. Take two squares of one of these and allow 20 minutes before reading on.

Cachet: excellent chocolate and exotic flavors

Yesterday I discovered an image that may shed light on the current status of professional cycling. This statue, appropriately displayed in front of the Kafka museum in Prague, summarizes the Kafka-esque nature of professional cycling. In it we see two figures, which we can think of as representing Schleck and Contador, performing the deciding act of cycle racing as we know it today.

The final sprint
I also want to show another image that represents the stance of many officials when it comes to dopers. These righteous individuals feel that we need to do everything in our power to save the poor cyclist's soul. Their mortal cycling bodies are corrupt and soaked in pharmaceuticals so forget about those and focus on what is truly important and pure. Not surprisingly this form of rescue originated in the Spanish enclave of Toledo.

Saving the soul
The Spanish Federation however, broke with history and tradition in more ways than one, and announced a novel, and some say too lenient sentence. That sentence is likely going to be appealed -possibly by both sides- so stay tuned. But for now it characterizes the ambivalent feeling that many have towards the discovery of minuscule amounts of a drug that is often found as contaminant in food. The Spanish Federation also announced it was suspending another, lesser known Spanish rider to a two year stint. This coincidentally simultaneous act underscores that they are serious and that -despite what some think- they take the Contador issue seriously.

In contrast to Spain's ambivalence, WADA's stance is that any amount of drug is doping. This stance, which in many ways predates the advent of modern pharmacology, where dose was found to be an important attribute for drugs, leaves no room for reasoning. It is clear and pure. Contador is guilty so he should burn.

Belgian cycling star Johan Museeuw, himself the recipient of a two year ban, feels that Contador should either get two years or nothing.  

Famed Belgian sports journalist Hans Vandeweghe disagrees. He thinks doping should not be treated differently from any other offense, thereby displaying some basic understanding of modern legislative thinking and at the same time proving that McQuaid was right when he said lawyers are sinking the sport. Further evidence of distorted thinking includes the statement Vandeweghe made, where he said he thinks Keisse should be free also.

But it is the following twisted statement that will be remembered for sure. Vandeweghe said: for example, if this were handled in a court of law, Lance Armstrong -you probably know that any mention of cycling needs to bring in Lance- would be found guilty on plenty of circumstantial and witness evidence, whereas Contador, based on weak and unconvincing evidence would walk. 

Those are fighting words, especially in the land of OJ Simpson and Barry Bonds and so it is no wonder that some American cyclists think that Belgium is just a wretched, country sized landfill. And if it weren't for cycling, it should just be burned to save everyone's soul. Bye chocolate and beer!

Belgium, as seen from Idaho

Either way, it now appears Shleck will join none other than Spanish star Oscar Pereiro in bringing home the victory in the lab. No word yet on whether the LAY-opar rider will dump his bike and pick up soccer. Presumably not before he takes the Tour de France victory that was just handed to him (and I am not talking 2010).

Contador on the other hand will join the ranks of defrocked winners such as evil Floyd and his current team boss Bjarne Riis.

Added later:
Contador will appeal the verdict. This was fully expected and I want to add that many in the sports community, including journalist Vandeweghe mentioned above believe that if Contador does not appeal, it means he has something to hide. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Quick-step looking for world domination

Quick-step has been in the news a lot lately. After what some would call a season of near-misses in 2010, Quick-step is out to set the record straight. "We have to win again," team manager Patrick Lefevere said. He pointed out that Tom Boonen is now working with a personal coach to make sure we don't see a repeat of what happened in 2010. Surely giving Tom the benefit of a personal trainer, a luxury many stateside Freds enjoy, is going to make all the difference.

Hmm, a personal coach?

You may recall that Quick-step was courting Alberto Contador, but the Tour de France winner decided to find his luck elsewhere. Now that Contador is looking at an almost certain 2 year suspension, Quick-step is probably very happy that things worked out the way they did.

Added at 3PM : Contador confirmed today that the Spanish Federation will impose a one year ban plus a forfeit of his 2010 Tour de France title. There will be a press briefing on Friday.

The Belgian court decision favoring Iljo Keisse in his battle with UCI also brought some joy, although that was subsequently nullified when UCI stepped in to block Keisse in Manchester and Bremen. Still, the team walked away with a decisive win in Gent, before the home crowds, and that must count for something.

Earlier this year Quick-step pulled in big money from Czech investor Zdenek Bakala, who now owns 80% of the team. The influx of capital will ensure the team's survival in what are becoming difficult times for professional cycling.

Bakala, he got a free Merckx bike too!

Even before the investment, Lefevere was contemplating buying the Telenet-Fidea cyclocross team headed by Zdenek Stybar but Stybar decided to make the move to Quick-step on his own.

Maybe the fact that his compatriot Bakala is the majority owner played a key role? Or maybe Stybar did not want to wait to see what would happen to Telenet because Niels Albert's team bosses also expressed interest in acquiring it. Whatever happens there, it won't happen until after the world championships. That is what Telenet manager Hans van Kasteren said yesterday.

Stybar is interested in trying new things. He wants to compete in mountain bike at the London Olympics and he also wants to try and see what he can do on the road. Patrick Lefevre for one would like to see what Stybar can do on the road. Either way, we probably won't see Zdenek ride 40 cyclo-cross races next season. Something will have to give.

Maybe that is good news for Niels Albert. Albert is on an impressive winning streak and if he tops it off with a world championship win this weekend, he will be on top of his game. Rumors are however, that Albert too would like to try the open road.

Meanwhile, Lucien Van Impe's team Veranda's Willems Accent, is getting ready for the Flemish spring classics. The former Tour winner's team will ride as a ProContinental team this season and may enter the Walloon classics as well as Paris-Roubaix if all goes well.

Van Impe, polka dot and yellow

Yesterday the team was presented to the press. They just returned from Spain, where earlier in the month they made some waves by trying their hand at bullfighting. Clearly Veranda's Willems is ready for anything.

She's not part of the team

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The myth of cross training

There is only one thing you have to do when you want to become a great cyclist: you have to ride your bike and you have to ride often. The same is true for anything else you want to do. To get good at something you have to practice it and you have to practice a lot. If you want to become a star swimmer you have to swim a lot; similarly if you want to become a world class guitar player, you need to practice playing the guitar.

Sure you can do other things in your life, but if you think these other things are going to help you get better at what you want to get better at, think again. You won't become a great guitar player by blowing the trumpet or playing ice hockey. Similarly you won't become a great biker by bouldering or learning to cook Thai food. And you won't become a great Thai cook by riding your bike in Thailand either.

Furthermore, if you think you need to practice in a special way or follow a special plan, think again. Although the magazines and books are full of secrets and secret recipes, the truth is there are no secrets. All you do is practice, practice, practice. That's the real secret.

Let me rephrase it a bit. To become good at cycling you need to ride your bike a lot. You need to ride a lot,  ride hard on a regular basis, and ride very hard from time to time. That's it. That is the whole plan. And the same applies to all other sports (except that you have to replace cycling by your favorite sport).

This rule is so simple that many people find it difficult to grasp. They become annoyed or suspicious. Surely, they think, there must be a catch. You can't simply become great by doing something over and over again? There has to be something we are overlooking? Some secret sauce? What do the pros do?

Let me state another obvious truth. Mimicking you favorite pro rider is not always a good thing to do. Pro riders get paid to ride. That is their job. They have plenty of time on their hands and while they ride a lot, there are many hours left during the day. And so, to keep these guys off the street, the coaches have to keep them busy in a non-harmful way.

Coaching, for those of you who don't remember is all about making training entertaining and less boring for athletes.

Non-harmful activities include anything that maintains cardiovascular fitness and does not build unnecessary muscle in other places. Unnecessary muscle is very harmful to endurance athletes because muscle is very heavy. Muscle is heavier than fat in case you did not know. So, no matter how you look at it, fabulous deltoids or pecs are not helpful in cycling. Not unless you ride a hand cycle that is.

What are we doing here?

Non-harmful activities also includes anything that is soothing, relaxing, and rest-inducing. Hence massage, yoga, meditation, etc.

Further beneficial activities include anything that fosters team building and working together. Once again these are good things to entertain people who have excess time. They are not going to make anyone a better practitioner of your favorite sport. Granted you may learn something that proves beneficial -you always do- but that is not the point here.

It does not make sense for amateurs or people who are aspiring to be pros but have limited time, to start mimicking these non-harmful pro activities in order to get better. Sure your favorite star may devote one day a week to yoga, pilates, or core workouts, but you as a time-constrained amateur should not waste your time here. You should ride and you should ride as often as you can. That is the only recipe for success.

Once someone offers you a pro contract, you can (and will have to) indulge in these activities in any case. So don't get impatient and stay focused on what really matters.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cross purposes

The Belgian cyclocross selection for Sankt Wendel is off to a bad start. First Vantornout complained about Sven Nys' behavior last year. Then Nys replied essentially saying he did nothing wrong by going after his teammate and bringing (the eventual champion) Stybar along. Nys added he did not want to give up his chances in lap 2. Now Niels Albert threw some more oil on the fire by saying, "I will ride my own race."

Favorite Niels Albert, there is apparently an I in team after all

Finally national coach Rudy De Bie had to step in to calm the waters. "We will have to sit the team down together this week," he said, "but not to preach, that is pointless." Instead De Bie, who says he understands the realities of sponsorship wants to remind the team members that it is the Belgian public that is ultimately paying their bills. Without the massive public support of Belgian fans, who show up in droves week after week, there would be no cyclocross.

Rudy De Bie: more headaches?

And in more high profile news, Lance made a rather low profile exit this week. He finished the Tour Down Under in the middle of the pack. One day Lance was part of a breakaway but he was outsprinted at the end. Although he clearly tried, he did not manage to capture much headlines, other than the new Sports Illustrated allegations regarding doping. He did woo the Australian public by going on an impromptu "Twitter" ride in Brisbane to benefit the flood victims.

All this bad publicity put Lance in a subdued mood. He refused to address the press after the final stage in Adelaide, where he was sure to be confronted with more doping questions. He did attend the closing ceremony though, where he was given a pair of walking boots.

Armstrong also bailed out of Ironman and the chances of seeing him compete in Kona this year appear slim to nil. In a brief chat with cyclingnews the former Tour de France winner conceded that he does not know what he will do next.

No more wetsuit for me..
Meanwhile the weather here in the San Francisco bay area continues to be spectacular. With temperatures in the mid to high sixties (some areas well into the seventies) and plenty of sunshine there is no better place to be for spring training. While the rest of the country and much of Europe continues to shovel snow, we are enjoying our new weather pattern tremendously-- although it may wreak havoc on our ongoing water supplies. Bike riders and runners are out in force this year. Hopefully the weather will stay good and we will not see a repeat of previous year's Tour of California weather.

The only two deciduous trees close to our house
The trees are as confused with this new pattern as we are. Of the only two deciduous trees near my house, one is full Fall colors while the other is nearing the end of winter and getting ready for Spring.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In Bruges, beer, and ironman

Yesterday we watched the movie "In Bruges." It was entertaining, funny at times, silly at times, but what is best about it is that it offers an impressive sightseeing tour of the city without the crowds. Granted, the characters sometimes teleport from one location to another that is almost a mile away, but unless you are intimately familiar with the city and its layout you will never notice. Ironically enough the characters are not very fond of Bruges and refer to it as a "shit hole" more than once. But that should not detract from the visual beauty that is apparent in every shot. Probably no better way to see it all from the comfort of your home. The tour even includes visits to the museums and shots of the most famous works of art that are there.

Ralph Fiennes in Bruges, more credible than Voldemort, but just as evil

Speaking of Bruges and Belgium, I picked up a six pack of Leffe at Whole Foods the other day. Here is a great blond Abbey beer that can hold its own in any contest, yet is easy to approach and enjoy. The Leffe can be enjoyed straight out of the bottle but like any self-respecting Belgian I use a glass.

Leffe, the glass I got at the Pacific Crest half ironman
The glass, a souvenir from the Pacific Crest endurance weekend, brought on a discussion about triathlon and ironman. I mentioned rather casually that I had participated in several ironman races, which caused one of my guests to look at me as if I was from another planet. It is strange how many people seem to believe that finishing an ironman is a superhuman endeavor, when in reality it is rather easy to do.

When I say easy I don't mean that finishing an ironman is easy, as in taking no effort. The race is most certainly not a walk in the park. On the other hand it does not require superhuman strength or endurance to finish. Six months of training will suffice for anyone who is not terribly overweight or out of shape. The time window is rather generous and allows for a very leisurely pace. Thousands of people finish ironman every year and thousands more ride double centuries or run 50 mi ultra-marathons, which are comparable in effort required.

While finishing an ironman is easy (as in eminently possible) racing an ironman is a different matter. If you start out with the simple goal of finishing, chances are very good that you will indeed finish and live to tell the tale. But if you set out to race or set a personal best, things are very different indeed. Now your chances of finishing are quite a bit smaller and unless you are well prepared, and have a good plan, you can easily end up with a DNF.

Finishing Coeur d'Alene (with Annelise). First time I ran the marathon start to finish

Pacing is the key to success and nowhere is that more true than in ironman. What makes the pacing more difficult however, is that there are two distinct disciplines that come with their own set of rules. It is hard to mess up the swim, but the bike and the run can be challenging for all. The bikers are prone to go too hard on the bike, which can mess up their marathon, while the runners often do not eat enough and bonk on the bike, resulting in the same problem.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The hidden cost of gadgetry

The recent death of South-African Carla Swart at the young age of 23 once again highlights the hidden cost of gadgetry. Carla Swart, who just signed for HTC Highroad was certainly an experienced rider. She has lived in the US for the past eight years and was the first collegiate rider to win titles in all disciplines (road, track, mountain and cyclocross). She was hit by a truck on a training ride in South Africa.

According to eyewitness reports, Carla had just lost her cycle computer and was making an abrupt left hand turn to try to circle back and retrieve it. That put her in the path of an oncoming truck. The driver of the truck apparently did what he could to avoid hitting her but it was too late. Carla died on the spot.

I have personally witnessed several accidents caused by cyclists being distracted by their ever more sophisticated cockpit instruments. Several years ago my son lost is Garmin Edge, seconds before he was passed by a car. The car crushed the device but fortunately Alistair did not react when he saw the Garmin drop. If he had reacted instinctively -as many do- it might have led to a very similar disaster.
More gadgets than a fighter jet

During my last Vineman race, my wife assisted a cyclist who crashed while he was fiddling with his power meter. She was driving along the bike route towards the transition area when it happened just a few yards in front of her car. She saw the man lose balance and go down. She was able to brake and swerve to avoid hitting him. Nonetheless he was hurt pretty badly and had to taken to the hospital.

Here in Berkeley, along Tunnel Road -the preferred start of any Berkeley ride- one often sees cyclists listening to iPods with headphones in both ears, riding side by side. Often these guys can't hear oncoming traffic and although traffic in Berkeley is pretty cycle-savvy and bike-friendly, close encounters do happen.

More frightening, but not that rare are those cyclists talking on cell phones or even texting while riding. Ironically enough nearly everyone is wearing a helmet even while swerving wildly to attend to their gadgetry.
Look ma, no hands, no brakes and no helmet either
I remember reading a report in a cycling magazine where a mountain biker fell on his cellphone and broke his hip. Given how little coverage there is on most mountain bike trails, one wonders why people even bother to bring these devices along.

On a few occasions I broke parts of my bicycle that were hard to fix on the spot, so I was eager to get a ride home. Every time I was helped by fellow cyclists, who invariably carried cell phones for just such emergencies. Unfortunately in all cases except one, the phones had no coverage and I was forced to walk (or if possible coast or ride) to a more populated area. The one exception happened in such a populated area.

Populated areas, of course have excellent coverage, but so what? Once there, you have access to plenty of regular phones, or even buses and light rail to take you home. So much for cell phones.

Even today, most of the popular biking roads in the East Bay that are not in populated areas have spotty to non-existent coverage. Mountain bike trails rarely if ever have signals. So you wonder why all these cyclists are riding around with cell phones in their back pockets? People simply can't live without their gadgets any longer. It is called addiction.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Good old Floyd tried to make more headlines today by declaring that we should just legalize doping. While  that statement is unlikely to gain much support or credibility, and is assured to further malign his name, there are a few interesting observations to be made. First, Floyd said, "It is just like guns, they are there and there is nothing you can do about it."  Second he claimed, "doping controllers lag so far behind developers that they will never catch them." He went on to say that EPO use was virtually  undetectable and that one "had to be an idiot to get caught using it." Finally, he added that the situation "will only be worse 10 years from now."

Drugs, vitamins and supplements

I want to remark that from a psychological perspective the link to guns is fascinating. Both guns and drugs (of which doping is a subset) are highly emotionally charged, and polarizing subjects. We only need to add abortion (which is a stand-in for free sex) to complete the trinity. Not surprisingly all three categories have sexual overtones.

These are not topics people debate in a calm manner or on a rational level. These are issues people have strong feelings about, and if you disagree with those feelings, they are very likely to unfriend you rather quickly. Nevertheless I think it would be worthwhile to try and have a rational discussion.

Merely expressing the fact that there might be some truth to what Floyd said is enough to discredit a person in the eyes of many, so I am walking a fine line here. Yet there is no denying reality and those who do so, will sooner or later pay the price.

Dark side of the moon

In any case, I have already said as much earlier by stating -and this is not my opinion, but rather a conclusion based on facts- that phony wars rarely, if ever, achieve their goals. They are ineffective, costly to society and give rise to other problems. The war on drugs is certainly no exception. The reason why people choose to initiate and fight those wars is often much more complex than it appears.

In many cases, a profound fear lies at the bottom of such wars but this fear is never expressed or mentioned. The drug war for example is very likely based on a fear of losing control (over one's mind). It is a modern version of the war on witchcraft and magic. Many people treat drug addicts as possessed by evil spirits/the devil or even think of them that way.  So it is not surprising that the war on drugs shows similarities with the inquisition.

The war on doping has another overtone: that of purity. Sports is in many ways a modern form of chivalry. It is closely linked to real warfare and so the mention of guns is not entirely gratuitous.

When it comes to understanding the war on doping in sport the first thing one has to do is examine one's motives. While the obvious motive -and the one people always put forth- is cheating, it is highly doubtful that cheating is the key issue. If it were the solution would be rather trivial. And not only that, it would be rather easy to remove doping from sport by providing the right incentives. But cheating is not what bothers people. The idea of doping is linked to the idea of "purity" or "virginity" and the doping battle is a battle for "the purity of the sport." The religious overtones are so obvious that most people fail to see them.

If cheating were the issue, one would have simple rules that are based on advantage gained and the mechanism by which the advantage is gained. All of that is easy to do. Rather than making lists of forbidden fruit or using tests to detect forbidden fruit, one would just measure the physiological parameters that are known to affect performance. One would then calculate the advantage gained and institute a simple penalty (a time penalty) to nullify the effect. The end result would be a serious disincentive to use doping and doping use would be reduced or disappear.

Take the most effective form of doping, i.e. the one that increases the level of red blood cells. (Mind you I am not saying this is proven to be effective, esp. in the long run, but so be it). This form of doping also happens to be the hardest to detect. The list includes high altitude training, oxygen tents, -I know technically these are not considered doping, further evidence of irrational thinking by the way, but they are on par with it- blood doping, EPO, CERA, testosterone, and whatever other compounds or methods people may discover in the future. Rather than going on a wild goose chase to detect these substances or their metabolites, let people use whatever they like as long as (and this is the catch) their red blood cell level, or hematocrit, stays below a certain value.

Hematocrit, you can do it in your kitchen

I am willing to bet this approach would work wonders. First of all it is easy to test hematocrit. It can be done in 5 minutes, and only requires a simple pin prick and a centrifuge. One could test all the riders before the race and before the promenade was over one would know all the results. One could then apply time penalties in proportion to the % excess. The correction factors could be worked into the final results and these would be available within minutes of the finish. There would be no delays, no recalls after months or years and no arguing or lawyering (lawyers we all know destroy the sport).

Furthermore the incentives are right because they address performance issues and cheating on performance is what we want to stop.

Riders who consistently overshoot would know better than to keep doing whatever it is they are doing. They would quickly learn that it does not pay off.

Similar tests could be developed for all commonly used forms of performance enhancement. One could measure muscle mass for example and set limits. We have weight limits on bikes so why not have limits on muscle mass?

In short, these issues are easy to remedy as long as we are clear as to what it is we want to fix.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The cycling world woke up to two revelations today. The first, in re Contador, as the lawyers (who are out to destroy cycling) would say, is the report that a decision will be announced within 10 days. I say announced because, going by the earlier LAY-o-par Schleck report, it appears to have already been made. Watching these doping cases unfold is about as exciting and predictable as following a Chinese court case.

The new frontier

The second revelation is that Sports Illustrated, no doubt one of the best selling sports magazines out there, but one that does not cover real sports such as soccer or cycling, is printing a whole bunch of new allegations in re Armstrong. That case, as some of you may know is winding its way through the courts. It is something most people would rather forget about. Fortunately for them, it is also unlikely to go anywhere.

I have to say though that seeing these former friends and team mates so intimately united in separate newscasts that nonetheless deal with the same issue, it feels like the good old days.

Buddies in arms

And speaking of phony wars, yesterday Robert Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corps, and father of the former California First Lady, died at 95. Mr Shriver was spearheading the war on poverty, an endeavor launched in the 60's that is about as successful as the war on drugs. Or the war on cancer for that matter. To say nothing about the war on terror.

I have no doubt that Mr. Shriver was well-meaning and honorable man who deserves every accolade he is given, but how he let himself be talked into a phony war is beyond me. But then again, according to some bankers at least, the poor are really better off today. There may be more of them now, but they all have a house, an SUV and a flat screen TV, so why worry?

Today is also the day the House will vote to repeal the HealthCare Reform law of 2010. Since that law has only been partly implemented and only for a few months -the main parts of it won't take effect until 2014- we are witnessing a historic event. Let nobody accuse Washington of being out of touch with the people. These law makers are on the ball, always ready to repeal things that don't work before it is too late.

Only one covered track in Flanders

Belgian riders meanwhile learned that there won't be second covered velodrome in Flanders any time soon. That is what the sports minister Phillippe Muyters said yesterday. There are currently seven open air velodromes and one covered track (Wielercentrum Eddy Merckx in Ghent) in an area half the size of Maryland. This obvious shortage has many people up in arms and calling for action. Het Wielercentrum  is now forced to limit the number of riders on the track to about 100 at any given time. That is about the entire northern California track population!

The Sunweb manager is clearly upset with van Kasteren's revelations

The cyclocross world is also reeling. This after Hans van Kasteren, leader of team Telenet-Fidea made some snide comments about Kevin Pauwels. That did not sit well with Jurgen Mettepenningen, manager of Sunweb-Revor and future boss of Pauwels. Next season Pauwels will transfer to Sunweb. Jurgen feels that Hans may be "a liar and a dishonest person," but "he should not trash the character of a rider in the press." There have to be limits somewhere.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


The other day I held a Pegoretti up close. Dario Pegoretti is an Italian frame builder from Trento and one of the best known frame artists. He specializes in traditional metal frames that he decorates in exquisite detail. I must say I was quite impressed with the art work, and although one can question whether bicycle art is a valid form of art, or whether we should bother decorating bicycle frames -as the snob implies- it is true that Pegorettis are unequalled beauties. I myself would be afraid to ride them, but others apparently have no such fears.


Today's cycling headline is a shocker. Floyd Landis is leaving the sport. The 35 yr old, former (and subsequently defrocked) Tour de France winner is calling it quits. Once touted as the successor to Saint Lance, Floyd fell from grace when artificial testosterone metabolites appeared in his urine. If only he had been a baseball player. There the whole event would have gone undetected but if not, at most it might have resulted in a symbolic slap on the cheek or kept him from induction into the Hall of Fame.

Football players are even better off. It is said they can get away with murder. All they need is to discard the old glove and don a new one to play golf. Not for Floyd though. He was never able to shake his stain, and even a new hip could not do the trick.

However what was most upsetting to the fans was Floyd's attempt to come clean. Although public disgrace is a well accepted practice for sinners, implicating others is no longer part of it. That is where many drew the line and called him a snitch.

And speaking of sinners, the Schlecks have already discarded their former friend Alberto Contador. In an interview with Cyclingnews, the LAY-o-par-Trek brothers ranked Ivan Basso as the top contender for the 2011 Tour de France. That comes almost a month before the Spanish cycling federation will do what everyone already knows they will do. Why bother going through the motions?

In related news, we heard Rasmussen returned and formed a team although he won't make the Tour this year (or maybe never). It is ironic that when Rasmussen beat Contador, he was removed, and now that Contador beat Schleck he has to go? Who's next? At that rate, Lance may yet get his eight victory he so strongly believed in. If everyone could just stop cheating for a year or so?

Berkeley, Jan 17, 2011

In other news we note that Spring is in the air. Some trees are apparently unaware of it yet, at least here in California, but others are budding or ready to bloom. The animals too are getting restless and starting to prance and practice their mating displays.

I won!

Cyclists too are digging out the photographs of last year's podiums; Others just use the FaceBook trick of tagging themselves in old pictures. Either way, we get flooded with new posts that show off (last year's) glory and say beware, unlike Floyd, we are coming back.

In America, where everyone is a current or former National Champion in one event or another; or a current or former member of one National Team or another, there is no shortage of starred material for those eager to impress. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Three day weekend

For many of us this is a three day weekend. In typical American fashion, more than half the country does not observe the holiday. This is something Europeans have a hard time understanding. Why do Americans feel the need to go to work all the time? It is not like productivity is that much higher in the US, and studies show that when people take a break every once in a while, they do better, work harder, and are happier.

The other day I was reading some sections in Keith Richards autobiography, Life. The book has been well received, something some attribute to the fact that it supposedly makes fun of Mick Jagger's manhood. I have not read any of these passages but rumor has it Keith is quite explicit and it would not surprise me if these spicy notes contribute to sales. The passage I did read revealed that Keith was probably quite damaged by the whole Anita Pallenberg affair.


Life is interesting for several other reasons. The Economist thinks it can teach business people lessons in management, partnerships and collaboration. How's that for an endorsement? The fact that The Economist even considered looking at it is surprising enough. Second, the book shows that all the hoopla about drugs and drug addiction is overblown. I can still remember the days when Keith Richard topped the lists of "Rock stars most likely to die within a year." He was on top of that list for many years. Well, good old Keith has survived many of his supposedly healthier peers already.

Nothing much happened on the Keisse front after Rotterdam, as Iljo dropped his lawsuit and decided not to go to Bremen. In an interview with Sporza he said he never wanted a war with UCI. Pat McQuaid on the other hand was quoted as saying lawyers are "wrecking the sport." But is it surprising that people go to lawyers, when their livelihood is at stake and their cases drag on forever? The most revealing part of the McQuaid statement was that he stated, "Unlike others, ...UCI cares about doping" and then added "I know nothing about the Keisse issue." Nothing except that he is determined to keep Keisse out because he thinks the man is guilty?

McQuaid, a former racer and team director. Does he know something we don't?

Sporza also reported that Belgian star Philippe Gilbert rode his bicycle at 119 km/h (74 mph) during a retreat in the Spanish resort of Palma de Mallorca. Gilbert did this by drafting his team car. Hopefully he was wearing a helmet and fortunately he did not go through the rear window when the car had to brake. Ullrich, the man who did go through a car window in 2005, was in the news too recently, when he reported to be feeling better and "cured from his burnout." Still he is not considering a comeback, instead preferring to "concentrate on the birth of his child."

Three day weekends means long rides and on Saturday we rode for 3 hours in Marin. Yesterday I took out the mountain bike and went on a two hour ride through Redwood park. It was very muddy and I was dabbling along when a cyclo-crosser zipped by me near the start of the trail. Not wanting to be outdone I powered it up and managed to stay with him until I had to turn off for home. He dropped me on all the technical descents -I am still somewhat freaked after my crash- and on all the muddy sections -he had great technique- but every time I caught him again. Even on the road I managed to stay with him although he did try to drop me. Today looks like an ideal day for a long run.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Core values

This week I received a paper copy of my November 19 deposition. The weighty volume is a transcript of my day-long testimony in a lawsuit that revolves around a patent issue that I know nothing about. One of the lawyers told me afterwards it was a big waste of everyone's time. Not to mention a waste of all the trees that were cut down to produce this hefty volume in thousandfold.

Lots of paper
Now I am supposed to spend another day reading through all of it to make sure my testimony is correct. Not once did we talk about the actual complaint because, as I mentioned before, I knew nothing about the matter. My compensation for all this trouble ? $35 to pay for gas and parking.

Today felt like summer. The temperature was 20C/68F and the sun was out all day. We went on a long ride in Marin county, climbing Mt Tamalpais (affectionately known as Mt Tam) twice. The views coming down into Stinson beach were spectacular. Here is a picture (taken on New Year's eve in the late afternoon) of those views. Only today the sky was bright blue and it was sunny and warm.

Road to Stinson Beach
Meanwhile, most of the country is busy snow shoveling, a cardio workout that is not only very strenuous but also rather dangerous and injury prone. But if you are not snow shoveling, you are probably riding your trainer for hours on end, an activity that is both mind numbing and unpleasantly sweaty. Or maybe you go to gym for your core workouts or to do some yoga and stretching.

Well, I have good news for you. Now there is the ballbike. (You may want to set your computer to mute before you open this link.) In any case, after you do so, it behooves you to take a look at this marvel, that elegantly combines core exercises with pedaling. If you are one of those people who believes it is important to strengthen your core, this contraption may well be a godsend for you.

Forget the Lemond Revolution, here comes the ballbike
According to the website, the marvelous invention is sure to produce that six-pack that all cyclists secretly long for- just in time for summer.

Cyclist six pack

Although it may be exciting to try the ballbike at a trade-show, I for one, would stick with a conventional trainer. Or better still, rollers. Although the sensual wiggling motions of the ballbikers may evoke images of a stronger core, I can assure you that riding rollers will be of much greater benefit to both your fitness and your bike handling skills. As for core, leave that to the dancers and gymnasts.

Core Strength

Friday, January 14, 2011

Scale factors

I am pleased to announce that NPR reported last night that gun and ammunition sales are up this week in the wake of the Tucson shooting. Surely now that our fellow citizens are better armed we will avoid the kind of disaster that befell that Arizona city last weekend.

Meanwhile the world of cycling mourns Peter Post, a Dutch rider who won Paris-Roubaix in 1964,- the fastest edition ever- and 65 six day races on the track (zesdaagsen). Later he became a team manager at Raleigh and helped Zoetemelk, Raas, Kuiper and Kneteman and even later at Panasonic, Planckaert, Anderson and Vanderaerden. I do remember that Peter was not popular as a racer in Belgium even though he occasionally teamed with Belgian riders like Patrick Sercu and Rik Van Looy, on the track. Many people thought he had tricks up his sleeve. I never figured out what these tricks were.

This morning I received an email from the go1 bike shop that read, "Your mountain bike wants to go 10 speed." Now I have a good relationship with my mountain bike so I went up to the garage to see if this was true, but no answer was forthcoming. Surely this will soon change as I read that Samsung has introduced the RF4289 refrigerator that tweets when the milk runs out. How long until my mountain bike will tweet and let me know that it wants to go 10 speed? I just hope it won't throw a tantrum when I say no.

From: Go1 bike shop
Subject: Your mountain bike wants to go 10 speed
Date: January 14, 2011 7:19:00 AM PST

And to stick with the world of gadgetry, no gadget is more beloved by endurance athletes than the bathroom scale. Since weight is the key success parameter and scales keep track of weight, scales occupy a special place in our lives. So it is not surprising that scale manufacturers set out to improve the bathroom scale. And one of the latest fads is the addition of a body composition suite. Tanita is the premier brand here it has aligned itself with Ironman, the symbol of endurance and fitness.

A while ago I had several encounters with Tanita at Ironman Arizona. The story is instructive and characteristic of gadgetry so let me summarize it here. Tanita offered free evaluations for everyone willing to take off their shoes and socks to stand on the scale and fill out a questionnaire afterwards. The evaluations were done on their high end body composition monitor (model BC554) that sells for $129.99. The BC554 spits out a slew of numbers for you to worry about. It is easy to forget that weight is one of only two parameters it measures (the other is impedance).

My first evaluation came in at 177.6 lbs  body weight with 19% body fat. I was not happy and frankly a bit shocked that I harbored that much fat. The scale produced a slew of other values that struck me as wild guesses (how did it measure all that I wondered) but here they are: body water 53.7%, muscle mass 136.6 lbs, physique rating 9 (very muscular); metabolism at 1,879 cals per day and metabolic age 15. Bone mass 7.2 lbs and visceral fat rating at 4. All these were within normal ranges and the sales associated said I was "in good shape."

The next day I decided to try it again. Repetition is the key to good science so why not try to be a bit more scientific about it. Now I suddenly weighed 179.8 lbs, but to my surprise my body fat had dropped to 7.8% overnight and my body water was now at 60.2%. I was happy to learn that I had gained nearly 22lbs in muscle mass by lying around, and happy but puzzled that my physique was now rated 8 or "thin and muscular." Not entirely surprising my basal metabolism had increased to 2,153 cals and my metabolic age dropped to 12. My bone mass was up to 8.2 lbs, but my visceral fat was unchanged.

Finally on the day before my race, day 3, I decided to go see my friends at Tanita again. I was delighted to learn that my weight was now down to 176 lbs, but unfortunately, my body fat had gone back up to 16.6%. With my body water at 55.7%, the sales associate now thought 55.7 was too low and the results might be inaccurate. The first day associate never mentioned any of this.

In any case, this new guy estimates my body fat is more like 12%. Even so, my muscle mass has shrunk back to 140 and I am again "very muscular." My metabolic age is at 12, but my visceral fat rating has dropped to 3 overnight.

Intrigued I went home and bought a body composition scale. Since I was not willing to drop $130 for a Tanita I got a cheap Taylor that was on sale for less than $30 at the local supermarket. If nothing else I could use it to weigh myself and estimate my fluid losses. The Taylor only spits out weight and % body fat. It also does not sport the coveted m-dot logo or an "athlete mode." The lack of these important features explains the $100 price difference.

Not as fancy

My Taylor was more consistent -probably because the environment in my bathroom is more consistent- but it stubbornly insisted my body fat was between 18-20%. The lowest reading I ever got was 16%. That was until I discovered a simple trick. One day I mistyped my age and to my surprise, my body fat dropped by half. It turned out age is the main determinant of the body fat estimate. That tells me the Taylor (and likely the Tanita) use a simple lookup table. For a given impedance measurement -the scale sends a current through the body and measures the complex resistance known as impedance- the scale returns a number based on your age. If I drop my age to 25, my body fat miraculously drops to 10%.

Since then I just use the scale to check my weight.

A little while later, at the Napa marathon, Kaiser Permanente offered a free body fat measurement. This was done by a nurse using an electrical device on the arm. The measurements came out as follows: weight 170lbs, body fat 7.9% and hydration 58. The Kaiser people did two independent measurements (a very good sign) and averaged the results before telling me what they were. They also did not ask for my age until after they gave me results.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Home stretch

We're nearing the end of a busy week in biotechnology. Many investors are already flying back to their strongholds in New York City and the New England region, where they will no doubt have to engage in a rather stressful activity known as snow shoveling.
Investors taking in the rays before going home

Snow shoveling is not something many of us Californians have to worry about. Except for those lucky enough to own a vacation home in Tahoe -the poor are now rumored to have vacation homes too-, snow shoveling is about as foreign to us as curling. And maybe that is a good thing, because according to a recent article published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, shoveling leads to about 11,500 injuries and medical emergencies requiring a hospital visit each year. This year there will probably be many more.

Shoveling puts extreme demands on the cardiovascular system and can raise heart rates to the max in about two minutes. Couple that with freezing temperatures that constrict peripheral blood vessels to further stress the heart and you have a recipe for disaster. More than half the injuries are due to acute muscular exertion, almost 10% result from damage to the heart, including heart attack and another 20% are due to slips and falls.

Ice skating in Union Square, San Francisco
One thing the article also pointed out is that a lot of injuries are due to the non-ergonomical design of the shovel. Unlike the ultra-modern carbon fiber bikes that many people ride in summer, the snow shovel remains an old fashioned, 19th century contraption. It appears there is an unmet need and potentially a large market here.

Carbon Fiber, only $3,000!!