Monday, February 28, 2011

Don't cry for me

To say that the Belgian cycling world is disappointed with Opening Weekend is an understatement. "We wait and look out for more and better," read one headline. Another proclaimed, "Crying for the Belgians ? Yes, that is possible."

Belgian Champion Stijn Devolder was even more blunt, saying he was disgusted with Opening Weekend. "It is a weekend to quickly forget." he added. Devolder had problems in both races. He blamed the lack of radios with having to wait 20 km before he could change bikes after his derailleur malfunctioned on Saturday. And on Sunday he crashed on the Oude Kwaremont. Tom Boonen also blamed the absence of radios for bad results. That and plenty of "fresh cowboys in the peloton."

Not a bad weekend for Ivan Basso apparently. The Italian went on to win the GP of Lugano in neighboring Switzerland.

Cadel Evans, meanwhile is taking it easy. The Australian will start his season on Thursday in Fruili, Italy. Evans is aiming for the Tour and he plans to only race 30 or so times before that event. "He could become the oldest winner since Henri Pelissier in 1923," said his manager. That is if he wins! Evans will be 34 by the time the Tour comes along, the same age as Pelissier.

It was pretty cold, but sunny in Northern California. On Saturday I went on a 28 mile bike ride, but yesterday I opted for some indoor training on the treadmill. I have lost some weight since the holiday and that appears to have helped my performance. I managed 325W on my 20 minute test recently and yesterday I ran 8.35 miles on the treadmill in one hour (including warmup). That means I ran over 8.5 for most of the hour.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Getting your goat

The second race of opening weekend saw a further upset. None other than an Australian by the name of Christopher Sutton won the 67th edition of Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. American expatriate Tyler Farrar was fourth. Tom Boonen tried twice to get some action going, including a break 4km from the finish, but in the end he got caught and it was all over.

Christopher who?

Flecha showed his determination in going with Tommeke early on, but his effort too was not good enough. Last year's winner, Bobby Traksel ended up in the (un)lucky thirteenth spot. This is just one of the many upsets we have seen so far this spring. From goats to road pirates, to absent favorites and lack of earphones, the pre-season has been anything but normal.

Speaking of goats disrupting bike races, I just read a herd of goats ran onto Northbound I-5 last night, forcing an hour long highway closure. No, there were no bikers involved, and as you might imagine in the land of oversized pickups and SUV's the goats did not escape unharmed either. About two dozen animals were struck and killed.

This is not the only way America is starting to look like a middle earth empire. According to recent reports on NPR, the income inequality in this country now exceeds anything we find in the First World, by an huge margin. It is also growing at an amazingly fast pace and if we keep this up, pretty soon the situation will not look all that different from that of some countries that have been much in the news recently.

America also exceeds its peers in two other attributes that featured prominently in recent turmoil. One is food insecurity, where 16% of the population said there have been times in the past 12 months when they did not have enough money to buy food. (I agree that this may sound hard to believe in a country where 60% of the population is overweight or obese, but everything is relative of course.)

The other attribute is the prison population per 100,000, which stands at 743, a number that is almost  double that of our nearest wealthy competitor.

Finally there is the issue of net worth. America's net worth now stands at about $182,000 per person, according to the WSJ, although they admit the number is pulled up significantly by a small group of very wealthy individuals. A more realistic and much more bleak report says that half the American population has zero net worth.

If you believe what you read in the popular press you may think these recent revolts were led by people who yearn for freedom and now that they have FaceBook they are empowered to find it. But if you are the more cynical type you might observe that high unemployment, high food prices, and income inequality are rampant in these locales.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Free range ice cream

The big news of the day- well of last night that is- was snow in San Francisco, a phenomenon that hasn't happened for at least 35 years. The weatherman at KTVU was positively giddy. He could barely contain himself. But before you set out with your cross country skis and mittens let me just warn you that that the snow did not stay on the ground. In many places it did not even hit the ground. It was visible as night time flurries from surveillance cameras mounted atop Twin Peaks (at 900ft/275 m) and on the Avenues closest to the ocean. The whole thing looked like the San Francisco version of Paranormal Activity.

And speaking of the paranormal, have you seen the trailer for the new movie Apollo 18? If you've ever wondered why we did not go back to the moon, here is your answer. That is, of course if you believe we went there in the first place.

And while we are on the subject of Blair Witch Projects, I am happy to let you know that a Covent Garden -that is a place in London, England not far from Diagon Alley- ice cream maker Matt O'Connor rolled out a new flavor, called Baby Gaga. Exclaiming, "it's pure, it's natural, it's organic and it's free-range," the ice cream maker revealed that its source was human breast milk collected over the internet. Here you can see it being offered for tasting by appropriately dressed waitresses.

Have some free-range ice cream ladies!
Rumor has it a recovery drink version of Baby Gaga is in the works. It is expected to compete well with Erdinger Alcoholfrei in the adult male masters segment.

Meanwhile, real men braved the rain and cold to compete in the Belgian season opener now known as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. While not as bad as last year's Kuurne Brussel Kuurne, it was definitely an eventful race. First 2007 winner Pozzato found himself on the wrong side of the guard rails and was forced to jump the fence, and later Langeveld and Flecha displayed some bizarre track moves in the outskirts of Gent before starting a sprint that saw the Dutchman win by millimeters.

The lonely rider on the right is Pozzato, who was forced to cross the median and jump the guardrail

Flecha testing out the sidewalk in Gent
Sebastian Langeveld was in a solo breakaway when last year's winner Juan Antonio Flecha took off after him. Langeveld waited -initially there was confusion and some wondered whether the lack of headphones and radios had caused Langeveld to make a crucial mistake- and the two joined forces 15km from the finish.

Then in the last kilometer they started playing a cat and mouse game that ended with Langeveld initiating  the sprint and keeping Flecha behind him to win by millimeters. The move kept Flecha from doing a Van Petegem by winning the race two years in a row.

Flecha tried but could not pass Langeveld

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oudenaarde and the Ronde

The big news on the eve of the Belgian season opener is Oudenaarde' s bid to host the finish of the Ronde in 2012. The city is already host to the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen and the central hub in a network of Ronde-related cycling loops (or lussen).


This once sleepy small city with its beautiful Gothic monuments is quickly becoming a major tourist hub in Belgium. Tourism in Oudenaarde is inevitably linked to cycling and racing.

If Oudenaarde were to win its bid, the course of the Ronde would change rather dramatically. The muur-kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen, the traditional final or decisive climb would then become the opening climb. The Oude Kwaremont, a climb that can certainly match the muur in difficulty, and that is now the opening climb, would most likely become the final challenge before riders head to Oudenaarde along the Schelde river.

For those of you unfamiliar with this classic race, it probably sounds a bit confusing but essentially the race has three parts. The Ronde has always started in the flat country-side of West-Flanders. Bruges is the current start site. In the olden days, the race included a detour along the coast, where crosswinds and resulting echelons made a first selection. That loop was deleted for several years but has been re-introduced recently (but it is absent this year again).

RVV 2007 without the coastal loop

From the coast the race heads inland to the hills around Oudenaarde, better known as the Vlaamse Ardennen (Flemish Ardennes.) Here it twists and turns into every little farm-road and bike path within the Oudenaarde - Ronse - Kluisbergen triangle. The space is surprisingly small, a nearly equilateral triangle that is less than 15 km (9 miles) on the side. Within that triangle and on its outskirts lie all the major climbs and cobbled stretches that have made the Ronde famous.

2010 with the more traditional coastal loop

Here you find the Paterberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Koppenberg, and the Steenbeekdries.

Finally, the race leaves the tight loops and heads towards the capital. Along the way it hits a few more climbs and cobbles then Geraardsbergen and the infamous muur, before finishing in or around Ninove. The new route would essentially invert the sequence putting the last third first and finishing in what is now the middle third.

If this new route is accepted it will make Oudenaarde the place to be in Belgium for cyclists, amateur and professional alike.

You may have noticed that many of the climbs and cobbles in the Ronde also feature prominently in other races, including the season opener, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the semi-classic Gent-Wevelgem.

Stay tuned for opening weekend with the Omloop on Saturday and Kuurne Brussel Kuurne on Sunday.

Tom Boonen says he is ready and that he will definitely be part of tomorrow's race. That in spite of the fact that many of the big names have decided to bail out. Conditions are expected to be rough, but maybe not quite as bad as last year's Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Recovery drink

The issue of recovery drinks came up again yesterday after someone posted an article and ad from Erdinger Alcoholfrei touting its benefits as a recovery drink. Although Erdinger is a beer and the title of the report read Athletes Replacing Sports Drinks with Beer, I need to point out that Alcoholfrei means free of alcohol, so the beer that is being sold here is not a real beer. Certainly not real in the Belgian sense of beer. It is simply a brewed concoction that had the alcohol removed.

The article was news to cyclists but triathletes have long known about this brand through none other than  Faris al-Sultan, the former ironman world champion.

Erdinger sponsors triathlon events

I am not sure why people are so convinced that they need a recovery drink, but in America at least, the consensus seems to be that one cannot perform well without them. It is like stretching prior to running, or massage after an ironman. People simply assume that one cannot recover well or perform well without those rituals and potions. As I have pointed out many times before I do not lend credence to these beliefs. Furthermore I am living proof that one can improve -and improve quite significantly I might add- without all this stuff.

The issue of recovery drinks got a big boost last year when none other than Fabian Cancellara was seen gulping down a protein shake after winning the Tour of Flanders in a rather decisive way. His action had a profound impact on the normally cynical Europeans, and before anyone thought of the infamous cancellara-motor, the protein shake was widely mentioned and credited with magical powers.

Fabian on the kapelmuur

Years ago when I ran Ironman Switzerland, which was not one of my best performances by the way although I had the shortest T1 there, I was treated to Erdinger after the race. It tasted really good and due to its low (or absent) alcohol content I was able to drink quite a bit of it without getting drunk. I must admit though that as soon as my biggest thirst was over, I did top it off with a good bona fide beer, before jumping into the hot tubs that were provided at the finish line by one of the race sponsors.

Beer is a very popular recovery drink for many master athletes and when it is available it appears most prefer it to sodas or other drinks. Nonetheless, these people would not dare call it a recovery drink (other than jokingly) or even admit that they consumed it after the race or ride.

True recovery drinks are protein drinks or protein shakes. In essence they are usually nothing more than chocolate milk, although some like chocolate milk shakes (i.e. with ice cream). The commercial versions sold by PowerBar and other companies are essentially chocolate milk with some added salts and vitamins.

The rationale behind recovery drinks -apart from having more stuff to sell- seems to be the finding that muscle is more eager to take up protein (read amino acids) in the first twenty or thirty minutes after hard exercise. The finding by itself is not surprising and one would expect muscle recovery to involve enhanced amino acid uptake. The real question of course is whether supplying oral protein immediately after exercise will actually lead to better recovery.

I.e. it may well be true that muscle is more receptive to circulating amino acids for a limited time  immediately after exercise. But that does not necessarily mean that supplying oral protein will make a difference. The first issue to consider is whether we can get the amino acids that are being supplied by eating or drinking protein to the muscle in time. Even if you gulp down a protein drink immediately after the race, it will take quite a while for your digestive system to process it. Unlike carbohydrates (sugars) protein digestion is a rather slow process. Add to that the fact that in many individuals the digestive tract is essentially shut down, and you can see that we are faced with more than a theoretical hurdle.

But there is no reason to worry. There is ample time for muscle recovery to take place. Even for those involved in multi-day stage races, the overnight hours are all it takes. And unless activity is at a very high level from day to the next, a few hours recovery is all it takes. Without the need for special food items. Such is the lesson we learn from RAAM. As a matter of fact, the more normal your diet, the better you will do.

It is really only at the end of 2-3 week high intensity stage races that people tend to fall behind and end up in a catabolic state.

And one last thought. Drinking or eating protein during the race is definitely unnecessary. There is no way muscle can build protein during an event so all the protein you ingest gets burned as either carbohydrate or fat (the explanation needs a bit of biochemistry here but suffice it to say that some amino acids get burned as carbs, while others go down the fat pathway). All the protein ingested during an event -to the extent that you can digest it- gets burned as fuel.

Many people however, do like to eat some protein in a long event such as ironman. Although the protein per se won't help muscle recovery, there is also no reason to avoid protein either- as some would advise. The extra nitrogen load is negligible and unless you have advanced kidney disease -in which case you probably would not compete- there is nothing to worry about.

The bottom line: don't spend your money on fancy recovery concoctions. Have a beer or drink some chocolate milk. And don't worry about eating a sandwich during Ironman. You will feel better and hence you will do better too!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Going to El Norte

The focus of cycling is finally shifting away from the troubled regions in the Middle East and Northern Africa to friendlier places such as Andalucia, Sardinia, and the French Riveria. There, the sun is still warm enough for a short sleeve jersey and shorts but there is no need to dodge road pirates, tear gas, tanks and stray bullets. Although an occasional flock of goats and a few badly behaving dogs can add some spice to otherwise mellow pre-season favorites.

Another advantage of moving North is many more spectators.

Oscar Freire took his first win of the season in the Ruta del Sol, while Damiano Cunego scored a double in Sardinia. So far we have not heard anything about the earphone protests that were predicted to paralyze European races. It appears riders are happy to be out and about.

All that sounds good and well but what has Belgian aficionados really riled up this week is the absence of the big names for the upcoming opening weekend. 

Heinrich Haussler, Fabian Cancellara, Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Ballan and Nick Nuyens all bailed out of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Brussel Kuurne Brussel. Blame the weather says Greg Van Avermaet of team BMC, "Not everyone has an appetite for a serving of narrow roads, Flemish hills and rough cobblestones. Certainly not in the pouring rain and icy wind."

Traksel, victory at the end of misery

Many probably remember last year's Kuurne Brussel Kuurne, won by Bobby Traksel of Vacansoleil, a race so miserable only 26 riders finished. At one point a chase group split up and 40 riders called it quits. This type of suffering has lost a lot of its luster and today's favorites prefer Milan San Remo or the Tirreno Adriatico where the sun adds warmth and glamour, over the mud and sleet on the cobbles of Flanders.

Racing Flemish style

The forecast for Saturday is rain with highs hovering in the low 40s (4-9C). Sunday will supposedly be better with some sun and only partly cloudy skies, but in Belgium such forecasts always err on the side of optimism.

Speaking of weather, although Northern California is warmer right now, it is not by much. Plus we are looking at a cold Alaskan storm that will bring rain and snow to the area in the upcoming days. Today is overcast and cold, although yesterday was very nice. I have been riding on rollers pretty much every day of the past week, except for Sunday and yesterday, when I went on 8 mile runs. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oakland bierkroeg

A few days ago we visited the Oakland bierkroeg known as The Trappist. A bierkroeg is a special place where beer connoisseurs sample fancy and hard-to-find beers in exotic settings that -in the olden days at least- included lot of tobacco smoke. Now that the smoke has cleared in all but the most rural kroegen, the eclectic character of the bierkroeg is even more apparent.

The Trappist, while smokeless and extensively decorated with Belgian memorabilia is a different experience altogether. It is a rather crowded, noisy bar similar to the ones you would find near a college campus in Leuven or Gent. Although the public is a bit older than your average student, many appear to have never left those golden days. On many nights it is standing room only at the Trappist.

The beer selection however, is better than anything you can find on this side of the Atlantic and The Trappist does serve beer in its appropriate glass, which is highly unusual in the States. As you might imagine The Trappist sells a lot of trappist beers, but they also have other Belgian and American brews.

Trappist, front bar. Large selection on tap.

The Trappist has a large selection of beers on tap, but all bottled beers are stored in a standard refrigerator, something that would send chills down the spine of any bona fide Belgian bierkroeg owner.

As luck would have it, on the night we visited, The Trappist had a special on real Trappist beers, albeit from the only Trappist Abbey that is not Belgian: La Trappe, located in the Netherlands. The bar had pulled out all the stops for the event and served all varieties made at La Trappe, including some extra special ones, like the Quadrupel oak.

La Trappe, authentic Trappist, from Holland.

True to my Belgian nature I ordered a Tripel Karmeliet, an abbey-style beer that is brewed by Brouwerij Bosteels in Buggenhout, while my companion had a real La Trappe Isid'or.  The La Trappe is on the left in the picture below. The Karmeliet in its specially designed glass, sporting a Fleur de Lys, is on the right. The Karmeliet is a wonderful beer that has won several awards in international competitions.

Although the Karmeliet was very good, it cannot -in my opinion- compare to the Duvel, my all time favorite beer. Brouwerij Moortgat has recently introduced a new Duvel, the Triple Hop in the States. We had one last week and it is every bit as good as I expected, albeit a bit pricey at nearly $20 a bottle.

Tripel Hop
While we are anxiously awaiting the season opener, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, to be held this Saturday, I am happy to inform you that Bjorn Leukemans' bottom is healing fine. The rider was in the news earlier this week because he was struggling with a deep seated boil on his rear end.

I leave you with this dramatic photo of clouds over San Francisco. If all goes as forecast, we may have snow by the weekend. Bay Area peaks such as Mt. Tam, Mt. Hamilton and Mt. Diablo are already covered in the white stuff that is predicted to hit an all time low this coming Saturday. I have yet to experience snow on the ground in the 25 odd years that I have lived here. But as they say, there is a first for everything.

Looking over SF Bay

Monday, February 21, 2011

Another day, another sale

Today is known as President's day. On this day Americans are invited to do their patriotic duty and abscond from work so they can shop until they drop. By now all of the items bought on Black Friday and Cyber-Monday have returned to their eternal resting place in the cosmic landfill, so everyone is reminded that it is high time to restock the shelves. By sheer coincidence or intelligent design, shoppers are about to find out that major retailers just happen to have one-time sales on this very day. Such are the miracles of the consumer society that we inhabit.

In other news, the world woke up to the shocking revelation that the Formula One Grand Prix of Bahrain scheduled for March 13 was canceled. Most American sports fan couldn't care less as they do not fall for this type of Eurotrash event, preferring instead to watch the opening of the Nascar season. Fortunately, the Daytona 500 did not disappoint. With 14 major crashes the event had all the excitement we have come to expect from an average Cat 4 race, but without the doping that is so rampant in cycling.

Speaking of cycling and doping, Alberto Contador was kicked off the podium in the Tour of Algarve, where German Tony Martin won the time trial and the overall classement (classement is Eurochic for classification).  In Oman, Robert Gesink walked away with the victory. As expected Sven Nys won the Gazet van Antwerpen (GvA) trophy in cyclocross, where Pauwels lost his second place spot to team mate Zdenek Stybar who did all he could to help the Belgian win.

But none of that matters in Flanders now where all attention is focused on the upcoming season opener. At this time, the cycling world is down to two riders. One of these is the unbeatable Fabian Cancellara who swept the classics in 2010, and the other is defeated Tom Boonen, who is said to be out for revenge. I have not seen the blood-thirsty Boonen poster that upset Eddy Merckx so much but it is sure to reappear later in the week.

Bring me Cancellara

Belgian networks sent reporters out to Oman last week, not to cover the racing, but instead to find the two favorites and ask them about the upcoming showdown.  Here is Tom, wearing the latest in fashion sun wear.

Tom Boonen in Oman

The reporters pulled out all the stops when they re-broadcast the infamous muur video with the enhanced Cancellara. The video purports to show Fabian activating his mechanic doping device to leave Tom in the dust. Tom was asked about it but he declined to comment other than to say he thought it was funny. For some reason it is hard to picture Mr. Nice Guy Tom as a blood thirsty cannibal eager for revenge; Or soft-spoken Fabian as the great destroyer.

Cancellara on the muur
Cancellara on the other hand called himself a "marked man" and said he feared Boonen and Haussler. He also stressed he was looking beyond the early classics, throwing out names such as Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, that sounded like blasphemy to Flemish ears.

But the reporters were not impressed. They labeled Tom humiliated and out for revenge, and Cancellara thirsty for more.

Stay tuned as the showdown is about to begin.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Land of make believe

Belgium has been without a government for more than eight months, surpassing Iraq as the nation that has been without government the longest. Despite the absence of clear leadership the country is doing well which just goes to show you that elected officials do not contribute all that much to the proper functioning of a democracy.

Belgium is doing so well that the Jupiler beer company decided to finally introduce Force, a soft drink for men. Because, as my faithful readers know, in Belgium men -I should say adults really- don't drink sodas. Sodas are for kids.

Ever since the dawn of civilization Northern European males have imbibed beer. But thanks to a recent health craze that is no longer acceptable to everyone, so what is a man to do? Many in the younger generation follow the example of America and go pop, but the average Belgian male, who is older than a teenager was facing a huge dilemma -until now.

Finally! A refreshment brewed for men.

In the US meanwhile, things are not going so well. Not only is everyone desperately obese and on the verge of -if not outright suffering from- type 2 diabetes, thanks to all that soda pop, but the government is in turmoil too. Clearly something needs to be done and what better thing to do than to cut wasteful government spending? Or dismantling the not-yet universal access to healthcare?

That of course sounds great until you ask people what wasteful government spending they want to cut. The US does not have the generous benefits that European nations have. Besides, what entitlements there are, these are off-limits by definition. Nobody wants to cut social security or medicare, which make up most of the budget. Defense is also off limits, as defense contracts are the key pork elected officials are there to defend. Furthermore, after 9-11, there is no public support for a weak America. Never mind that Ronnie ended the cold war decades ago. The pentagon never received the message.

The real problem facing the nation, of course is not spending but lack of revenue. As in taxes that nobody wants to pay, and certainly not those who can afford to pay taxes. They instead, get a huge break. The top 1% of Americans, who own over 1/3 of the nation's wealth would rather not be taxed, yet a very small increase in their tax rate could solve all our deficit problems -both federal and state- overnight.

One well known bank executive, who was just rewarded with a $12 million bonus, remarked that all of California's deficit problems would disappear with just a 1% across the board tax increase. Most states are in the same boat. But don't say that to the rich.

The mantra is that taxing the rich will cause them to run away. Where exactly they would run to is unclear but everyone is convinced they have their bags packed and are ready to go as soon as someone will ask them to spend an extra dollar.

The other mantra is that taxing corporations will drive away business and make American businesses non-competitive. Never mind that American business profits are at an all time high. That is right, with true unemployment near 20%, American corporations are making record profits. And a key reason why that is so, is because these businesses cut expenses (read workers) or moved operations overseas where wages are lower and benefits non-existent.

In other words, the rich won't run and the jobs are already gone, so why is no one in the land of make-believe catching on?

As we all know tax increases are deadly for elected politicians so maybe America should take a cue from Belgium and go without elected officials for a while??

In other news, Ivan Basso ended up in tenth place in his opening race, the Trofeo Laigueglia. The Italian did show his form on one of the climbs but he could not carry his momentum through to the finish. There Daniele Pietropolli won the sprint before Simone Ponzi and Angel Vicioso.

Robert Gesink won the 18 km time trial in Oman and is now all but assured of victory. Cancellara was fourth. The race ends tomorrow with a flat stage. In Portugal, Alberto Contador remains in second, six seconds off the leader Stephen Cummings. Greipel won the stage there.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Into thin air

The Volta ao Algarve aka the Tour of Algarve went to the mountains today and Alberto Contador showed his face. The Spaniard, who won the two previous editions, ended up in third for the stage and moved into second overall.  Stephen Cummings of Team Sky is in the lead. Americans may note that young Tejay van Garderen ended up in second place and is now fourth in the overall classification.

Meanwhile the drama engulfing the Arab countries continues unabated. Robert Gesink took today's stage and the overall jersey in the Tour of Oman. It is the third Rabobank victory in that race. Quickstep had to settle for third in Dries Devenyns, who thanked Tom Boonen for all his help. LAy-o-par Trek won the team classification.

The LAY-o-par Trek logo

Former Oman champ Fabian Cancellara, of the Trek LAY-o-par team, who is turning 30 this year, told La Gazzetta dello Sport he dreams of only four things. Two are classics, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia, while the other two are wearing pink in the Giro and setting a new world hour record.

Cancellara getting ready.

The miserable weather that brought an untimely end to our subtropical early year continues unabated. The storms are now engulfing all of the West or left coast, from Seattle down to Los Angeles and there is no end in sight. Whether this is due to the omnipotent weather gods, or as some crazy scientists maintain, greenhouse gases and human activity, it is for sure that this time around, the weather is lashing out at those who produce the most hot gases.

Sunday marks the official end to the cross season with the GvA cup race in Oostmalle. The world cup ended on January 23, while the Superprestige series had its final race on February 12. In what seems like ultimate fairness, the three top riders each won one trophy of note.

Niels Albert won the world cup, Sven Nys the Superprestige and Zdenek Stybar the world championship race. Nys leads the UCI points and if all goes well he will take the GvA cup too.

Famous Belgian cartoon character suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome

And in the latest health care news, it appears that exercise and psychotherapy is best for what became known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a controversial affliction that started in the mid-1980's at an upscale Nevada Resort Town. In other words, if you constantly feel tired, it is best to have someone whip your butt and get you exercising. The wonders of modern medicine!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Goats and pirates

Bike racing in the Arab countries may not have many spectators but that does not mean there isn't excitement. Pirates in cars try to mingle with the pack and there is always an infamous goat crossing that can lay waste to any group of riders lacking adequate cyclocross skills. All that meant nothing today to Theo Bos, who won his second stage in the Tour of Oman by outsprinting Daniele Bennati and overall leader Matthew Goss.

Tour of Oman

With Contador on the loose, Lance confirmed again that he is for sure retiring, prompting many ceremonies, tributes, and other press releases honoring the seven time Tour de France winner. Like many others before him, Lance will devote the rest of his existence to doing good works. And speaking of good works, Bill Gates was interviewed on Charlie Rose the other night and explained the reasoning behind his foundation's vaccination program. Gates said that preventing childhood deaths is one of the best ways to insure people have fewer children. "The only proven way," he stated. He then went on to explain how his Foundation's programs will help contain the population explosion that many, including Bill think is the underlying cause of all our ills.

Ivan Basso on the other hand is ready to meet both challenges. First he dared Alberto by training in the Spanish territory of the Canary Islands, and now he is seen on social media, feeding the next generation. Notice him mumbling, "bring it on." Basso will make his Italian debut this coming Saturday in Ligueglia, a town not too far from San Remo.

Basso, not worried about what the future may bring
Meanwhile the horrible weather continues unabated with hail storms stopping traffic on major Bay Area freeways. But as of yesterday and thanks to a Nature article we now learn that it isn't the weather gods who are to blame, but human activity and greenhouse gases. This is the first major study linking greenhouse gases to weather as opposed to climate. The distinction is rather important.

Finally, an IBM supercomputer soundly beat the best human opponents in Jeopardy, showing that the end of human domination is near. But first the computer will have to take a few flights apparently. According to a Cornell University science professor, Watson -that is the computer's maiden name- has one fundamental limitation. He (or she, or it?) has never gotten stuck in weather at Chicago's O'Hare airport.

The attentive reader will quickly point out that thanks to our never ending appetite for SUV's and oil, Watson will soon have ample opportunity to experience weather-related delays, and not just at O'Hare airport.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thunder and hail

Well, it is obvious that Pat McQuaid is not the only one who's upset with the Spanish Federation. No sooner had Alberto Contador set out in the Tour of Algarve or all hell broke loose in Northern California. A surprise hailstorm lashed the blossoming cherry and plum trees and covered the earth with ice for a brief moment. Clearly the weather gods are angry about what is happening to the purity of the sport and to show it they covered the earth with a dusting of pure white.

Hail, I'm sure the plum tree is not happy.
But like McQuaid, who said he may not appeal the Spanish verdict, the gods are confused and soon enough the sun broke through and added luster to the white landscape. The battle between storm clouds and sun is ongoing at this time, and I hope it gets resolved sooner than your average doping case.

Then the sun came out
One thing, McQuaid is not confused about is headphones. Despite protests he is insistent, headphones are out. He said as much in Oman earlier today. Following in the footsteps of the local leaders, McQuaid said, "The riders deserve a voice and we have heard that voice. We made a decision and we will execute that decision." Whether McQuaid will be more successful than said leaders in calming the popular revolt remains to be seen.

We do know that the riders and their teams are sensitive to the large amounts of cash being dispensed in the Gulf so they have agreed not to wreck the party and disappoint the non-existent supporters. But it is anyone's guess what could happen when they return to supporter-rich, but financially-strapped Europe later in the year.

The social media (read facebook and twitter) reactions to the Contador story have been varied. Most people, especially those who earlier expressed their disdain for the Spaniard, kept quiet. Others are furious that a doper is getting away with murder -figuratively that is, only football players get away with real murder in this country. 

But there were some voices of moderation. Some pointed out that cheating is human nature and that it happens in all sports. They stated that most people cheat when given the opportunity, and that Alberto very likely did not cheat any more than the others around him. Some compared doping in riders to tax evasion and politicians, or speeding in California (or red light running in New York). One guy pointed out that removing Alberto from competition would diminish the value of other people's victories in races such as the Tour.

Iljo Keisse said, "I wish Contador much success." Lance on the other hand just stated he was innocent of doping and that he once again decided to leave the cycling world, although he added, "Never say never," and then later "No, no, it is just a joke."

One thing is for sure. The system is badly broken and in need of overhaul. I think UCI should move away from forbidden substances altogether. The approach smacks of magical thinking. It invites workarounds and does not provide the right incentives.

But if they do insist on keeping a list they should at the very least establish a minimum value for each substance. We live in an era of science, not magic. Pharmaceuticals only work if given in adequate doses. It makes no sense to suspend people for ineffective or homeopathic doses, especially when a substance is a known food contaminant.

In the meantime I am happy to see that non other than Philippe Gilbert won the first stage of the Tour of Algarve. That is to say, he won for now. Because we really have to wait for the lab results to see if his victory will stand. As this could take a few years, let's just cherish the moment and call him the winner for now.

And finally, the results of yesterday's 20 minute power test. 325W for 20 minutes, body weight 77 kg, for a value of 4.2 W/kg.

4.2 W/kg, it's in the Cat 2 range

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The sky's the limit

When it comes to dining, you can count on the Belgians to come up with creative solutions. One such solution, now in 32 countries including Las Vegas, is Dinner in the Sky. This is to be taken quite literally as you and your companions, together with a handful of waiters, go up some 50 m (165 ft) in the air to take in the views while eating. Although you are wearing a four point seatbelt -and going to the bathroom is out- you are reminded not to drop your fork or any other item that is particularly dear to you.

There they are suspended by a crane

Don't drop your fork, or your cellphone...
The Dining in the Sky business has since expanded its reach not just to other countries, but also to other events such as meeting in the sky, showbizz (sic) in the sky and of course marriage in the sky. I do note that mafioso events such as firing co-workers in the sky are out- at least as far as I can tell.

Firing in the sky (Scarface)

Speaking of executions, the Spanish Federation is letting Alberto walk. This move is sure to evoke wide-spread condemnations and appeals to the purity of the sport, and a setback in the fight against doping. Expect the UCI and WADA to appeal or to ignore the Spanish or if all else fails, to enforce a ban against him outside Spain. Regardless of what these organizations do, the organizers of the Tour will want to add their 2 cents too. Expect a ban to compete here. It will be Alberto's second ban after ASO snubbed Astana (with Contador) earlier on.

I can't believe it. This can't be happening!

The Contador saga is is a repeat -with two subtle twists- of the Iljo Keisse story that I covered earlier on. The twists being that Keisse was only temporarily rescued and he was rescued by a Belgian court whereas Alberto is declared innocent and that was done by the Spanish Cycling Federation.

Sporza immediately commented that Alberto's guilt remains unproven but so does his innocence. In many ways the verdict is not unexpected and we will probably see many repeats of such scenarios in the future. Now that we have a precedent, expect future accused and their lawyers to respond.

Regardless of how one feels about Alberto and doping, the right course of action is simple: if one cannot prove guilt, the suspect has to walk. Remember OJ? Deviating from this course will only cause more trouble for the sport and the sporting federations. Our entire legal system is based on people presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Although UCI and WADA have the freedom to set rules, they also need to show common sense. Clenbuterol is a known food contaminant. Maybe the doses were off, or maybe its presence here was indicative of a transfusion or other misdeed, but unless they can prove it, they need to stay silent. They also need to show flexibility with respect to "any level." This is simply not good science.

Proclaiming that riders are responsible for what goes into their bodies is no longer feasible in 2011, where extensively prepared food is the rule. Nobody knows what they put into their system and those who claim they do are just plain ignorant. All you need to do is look at the volume of recalls FDA handles. Furthermore you can rest assured that this is just the tip of the iceberg. FDA simply does not have the personnel to investigate all claims of contamination. Innocent people go to McDonalds and Burger King and end up dying of E.Coli. Do we blame them for what they put into their system?

Meanwhile the cycling world is turning its eyes to the Middle East, where more upsets are expected. Just today a Dutch rider, Theo Bos, bested Mark the missile man Cavendish in the first stage of the Tour of Oman. Long term ruler Tom Boonen was unable to sprint. Although he was in an ideal position, half a kilometer out, that changed as the final dash started. Tom also blamed his hip after a crash in Qatar.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hallmark Holiday

Today marks the day known as Saint Valentine's day or Valentine's Day for short. Just exactly which Valentine is Saint-Valentine is a matter of debate, because apparently there were many Valentines in the early days of Christendom.  Be that as it may, the well-known and respected Pope Gelasius who reigned as recently as 496 established the holiday, but then a more recent, lesser-known grinch Pope, Paul IV deleted it in the olden days of 1969.

Fortunately for all involved, the Hallmark Card company thought a holiday between Christmas/New Year's and Easter would be good for sales, so they revived the good saint(s) day and with it a $16 billion business of cards, flowers, and chocolates that is sure to help revive the US economy.

Speaking of chocolates, I recently discovered another Belgian treasure, known as NewTree. The company makes excellent chocolate with exotic flavors, and although I do not like their health-food slant advertising, I can vouch for the taste and that is ultimately what matters. But let's go back to Valentine for a moment.

The pre-printed (Hallmark) cards replace the handwritten notes -nobody knows how to write anymore- or Valentines that were commonly used in the Middle Ages. These cards invariably depict a symbol, known as a heart-shaped outline. The heart-shape of course does not look like a real heart and is only called heart-shaped to conceal its true -and very obvious- X rated meaning.

What shape is this really?

Hint: for those of you who are a little slow on the uptake it sometimes helps to turn things upside down. 

Or you could just invert the following sequence. Falling in love as we all know has been attributed to little creatures shooting arrows through the heart. I won't go into any more detail because that is obviously not safe for work either, but let's just say that real arrows through real hearts are rather deadly, so we have to assume that the arrows and hearts in question really refer to other parts of the human anatomy. If you are still in the dark now, better leave it as is.

Speaking of little creatures, this weekend saw another upset of epic proportions. Just ask any Justin Bieber fan. The insult bestowed upon these good people is worse than deleting Saint Valentine's day from the calendar. The shocking news overshadowed the outrage expressed at Riccardo Ricco's vile deed. Or indeed the opinion of the highest Spanish magistrate that Alberto Contador is innocent and should walk free.

Injustices like these evoke cosmic wrath and it is therefore not surprising that cold storms and wintery weather have returned to lash the Bay Area. The upcoming week-long mayhem is sure to throw a monkey wrench into the carefully designed training plans of many a Bay Area cyclist or triathlete.

It has certainly made me think twice about the upcoming Pony Express ultra endurance run. Ever since inclement weather ditched my first ultra running event , I have been looking for a suitable alternative. It now appears weather is once again attempting to dissuade me. This time around I am more likely to wimp out since I am ill prepared for this type of adventure. With all the great weather in January and early February I have been riding a lot more than I usually do this time of year. More riding also equals less running.

Speaking of riding, the Parlee Z4 is back. The good people at Parlee fixed the bike that Alistair crashed last Thanksgiving. The top tube has been repaired so well it looks like new. The bike has been rebuilt with SRAM force and a black Thomson seat post to replace the aluminum-colored one that was there before. Overall, the esthetics has improved a lot and the bike looks truly gorgeous. It was topped off with a two-color red-white handlebar tape that is sure to impress even the most cynical bicycle blogger.

We also decided to keep the Moots that AC built. Here is a picture of Alistair riding it in Marin. That picture also appeared on the Moots blog under the heading California Dreamin'. (That all happened before the weather turned nasty on us.)

Alistair on the Moots, climbing the Marshall wall
This week also marks the start of the Tour of Oman. The event is sure to turn the attention of the world back to the Arab nations, that are still reeling from the recent upset brought about by Mark Renshaw's shocking victory.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Arabian Spring

There is huge news from the middle East today. I am of course referring to Australian Mark headbutt Renshaw winning the Tour of Qatar. Before this historic event, the Qatar race was virtually owned by Tom Boonen, but an unfortunate malfunction ended Boonen's domination earlier in the week. Unlike some other dominant figures in these regions, Boonen released his iron grip on the arab nation without much ado. He was quoted as saying, "I am adult enough to deal with it."

Renshaw showing how it is done

Speaking of once-dominant figures, Peter Van Petegem admitted he was going to help Garmin-Cervelo, a team he called, "perhaps the best in the world today," in the Spring classics. His short stint will start just after Het Nieuwsblad -where he is race director and would have a conflict- and end after the Flemish Spring, when Eric Van Lancker, another former classics heavyweight will take over to guide the Garmins through the Ardennes. It is instructive to see how the market leaders in advanced GPS technology are relying on old-fashioned boots on the ground to guide them to decisive wins. Perhaps they too learned that relying too much on air power has its limitations.

But coming back to former stars. It appears things can be more difficult than one would think. Asked why Van Petegem will sell his services to the Americans, instead of to a local team, the former rider announced that "this was the first serious offer I have gotten since I left cycling four seasons ago." Van Petegem apparently has to rely on his otherwise well received bed and breakfast, Le Pavé in Horebeke, and a career as insurance salesman to make ends meet.

Le Pave by Van Petegem
Last year that was a whole lot easier because none other than Alberto Contador choose to stay at Le Pave and engage Peter as a tour guide to explore the Paris-Roubaix cobbles with him. But this year both the cobbles and Alberto are out- for unrelated reasons I might add.

Contador and Van Petegem on the cobbles

Van Lancker on the other hand works at the Vlaamse Wielerschool where he guides young teens through the intricacies of bike handling and racing. He did a stint as team manager for Lotto (until 2006) and later for Navigators, but that team folded. Van Lancker says he believes, he can add something to Garmin.

Eric Van Lancker at the Wielerschool

Meanwhile Sven Nys announced he was going to help teach young people who want to do cyclocross. Cyclocross is also where we find Johan Museeuw, who traveled to the Far East to sponsor a team of aspiring crossers. Museeuw also adds his name to the world's most advanced composite bikes featuring MF-XX total integration. (I have no idea what that stands for, but I do know Johan added Flax to Carbon fiber for easier digestion).

The latest in doping

The Ricco matter is still unresolved but I learned that a team doctor was dispatched to Italy to check things out. There he found that Ricco is in dire straits in the hospital. We also heard that Vacansoleil had its doubts about the Italian and was submitting the former doper to a twice-a-month testing regimen -the other riders go once a month. The team doctor reaffirmed what everyone now knows, i.e. that riders are using smaller doses to avoid detection-this is the new theme in doping apparently, the introduction of micro-doses. None other than Alberto Contador with his picogram levels of Clenbuterol is quickly becoming UCI's poster child of the new rage in doping, a trend I call homeopathic doping.

Vacansoleil also announced they suspended Ricco forthwith for "violating internal rules and other indications." Vacansoleil is probably quite unhappy that the Italian's troubles are now overshadowing Romain Felliu's win in the Tour of the Mediterranean.

I wish everyone a good weekend.