Archive | July, 2007

Untangling the Tour de France Dope Stories

31 Jul

So the 2007 Tour is finally finished. Time for me to return to this blog’s normal topics of telecommunications billing, with specific emphasis on reports generation, postpaid offline rating, journaling, and – new for August – general ledgers! (Are the new viewers gone yet?). Yes, the ’07 Tour may only be a memory, but the dope stories will last a lifetime. Seriously.

Latest contestant in the Shame Game is Iban Mayo, who I was really hoping would fade slowly into obscurity after his stellar ’03 TdF, just so I could avoid ever seeing this headline again. The Basque, in case you’d forgotten, was over the testosterone line at the Giro, but is just naturally so manly that it wasn’t a problem. The UCI wasn’t fooled by this excuse, probably because they’d heard it a few times before. Too bad Mayo is a “rider with a high salary” and thus, according to his team director, couldn’t possibly be guilty.

All these positives have the French calling for tougher sanctions. But really, should riders have less incentive to confess? A confessed doper knows how people dope, how people beat dope tests, and what signs dopers show. But a rider faced with a lifetime ban plus a one-year’s-salary fine has an overwhelming incentive to deny, deny, deny. Doping trials cost everyone time and money, hurt the reputation of the sport and further reinforce the “what, me dope?” culture. The entire nation of Kazakhstan is apparently willing to back a story that a hard impact to the knees can somehow introduce foreign blood cells into the body; wouldn’t the whole world be better off if Vino’ had a reason to confess?

Take the Sinkewitz case. Rather than string things dishonestly along for almost a year, like another twenty-something cyclist we could name, Sinkewitz has opted to forego his B-sample, and has explained in relative detail how and why he cheated (apparently, it really is as straightforward as explained by Joe Papp, another doper-turned-witness). Now cyclists and fans can see that the tests work, that a constant state of denial is not the automatic response, and that David Millar isn’t the only who can take a suspension and return clean. Do you think knowing that there might be something in it for him didn’t help Stinky come clean?

Tour de France '07 – And Now We Can Sleep

30 Jul

Yes, after 24 hours of on-and-off 503 errors, I am finally able to make my last post on the 2007 Tour. The finish, despite the cagey “maybe I will, maybe I won’t” attitude of Cadel Evans, and rumors of a mass protest, was a confirmation win for Danielle Bennati. His Lampre team hadn’t been having the best race, but they dug hard on the final circuits to bring back the obligatory escape attempt, and the Italian turned a botched Quick.Step lead out (Sebastien Rosseler going hell for leather at 400m, while Tom Boonen launching his own sprint about 6 wheels back) into victory.

For GC considerations, yesterday was mostly about “what ifs” – what if Levi hadn’t gotten that 10 second penalty? What if Michael Rogers hadn’t crashed out in Stage 8? For me, the biggest question was what if Contador didn’t have Rasmussen to work with on the stages where he put time into Evans? Could the Australian possibly have bled 23 fewer seconds on one of those long, Pyrenian ascents if Contador hadn’t had the questionable performances of The Chicken to assist him?

That’s the tricky thing with cycling – one doped rider can have a myriad of cascading effects on the entire results sheet. Kind of like how when one moronically oversimplified doping story breaks in the mainstream press, dozens more are sure to follow. While I was pleasantly surprised and even entertained by the Versus coverage this year, especially by a very much improved Al Trautwig, the steady burble of uninformed “cyclists are dopers” stories from the nether regions of the popular press – even from allegedly reputable publications – really rubbed me the wrong way. But as Dirk Demol once said, I will have my sporting revenge.

Tour de France '07 – A Hopefully Truthful Race

28 Jul

So that was a pretty good TT. Leipheimer riding like a man possessed, Cadel Evans looking like a wounded beast, and Contador feeding Evans slack the whole way, knowing all along that he had plenty to give. In the end, the Top 3 remained unchanged, but the tight time gaps (:31 between first and third) made for some dramatic finishes.

I thought Levi might just have been on form to slip by both Evans and Contador, but the post-race interviews revealed the same old Leipheimer, with quotes along the lines of “yeah, I was going fast so I could ease up in the corners”; “you know, I really just got to relax and enjoy it”; and “Cadel won’t have to worry. I won’t try to get those last 9 seconds tomorrow”. Now you know why Armstrong choose to ride behind Contador instead.

Anyway, pre-race, there were the usual tech stories, checking out a few of the badass TT bikes, or critiquing chrono positions in the least aerodynamic prose ever (I realize Zinn literally wrote the book on bike tech, but please, someone get him an editor). But I was sad to see that no one wrote anything on the tech topics I want to hear about, like Millar’s sweet disintegrating disc wheel, or how the Tour was able to determine they should slap three seconds onto Contador’s finish time yesterday.

Maybe the journos who were supposed to write those stories up got a little sidetracked yesterday. Can you just see some overly-jovial Danish newspaperman being like “another positive? Police raids? Hell no! Only story here is you jokers got Punk’d!”. You think the Danish press would have learned their lesson after that whole Mohammed thing. Of course, even if those reporters hadn’t been otherwise occupied, they’d probably write it up with some pathtically ambiguous title; was the Tour marred by doping? Or was it the time trial?

Not that the press cares about such matters. They don’t even take the time to correct Dick Pound by pointing out that ineffective drug testing wouldn’t result in any positive tests. Or to mention to Christian Prudhomme that if the UCI really didn’t want a clean Tour, they could have saved themselves time and money by simply not doing any drug tests. Am I the only one out here who’s bothered by the fact that the only organization actually catching cheats is getting a lot of flack for actually catching cheats?

Tour de France '07 – Casar Wins, The Fans' Blind Eye

27 Jul

Say what you will about doping; I think today’s finish was the saddest and most unfair of the entire ’07 Tour. Not that three-time runner up Sandy Casar was an undeserving winner – he bounced back from an early spill, made his turns in the break, and played his speed edge perfectly in the finale. But poor Michael Boogerd; after two weeks of flogging himself to exhaustion, over the most heinous mountains in the world, in his final Tour de France, all for cheatin’ teammate he didn’t much care for, if there were any justice in this world, today’s stage would have been Boogie’s.

Not that anyone else out there thinks that. Ask people who don’t know what they’re talking about and the consensus is clear – all bike riders everywhere are on drugs. It’s kinda funny, really – cops make a drug bust, and it’s great press. Cleaning up the streets, they’d say. Cycling makes a drug bust, and it’s a sport “mired in scandal”. What a bunch of crotchless journo hacks. When Shawne Merriman gets a two year suspension, plus two seasons playing to empty seats in Utah, then you can talk to me about clean sport. Besides, it’s not like the doping bothers cycling fans that much. As The Simpsons so perfectly allegorized (in an episode about drug dependence, no less), fans of a sport will blind themselves to the most heinous of its flaws.

Which brings us to this – what if the Chicken really is telling the truth? Granted, if this is the case, it should be pretty easy to prove (well, prove convcingly) that he was in Mexico, not Italy, for his pre-Tour training. But with lawsuits flying, organizers dis-inviting, governing bodies using the the dope stories for political leverage and calling for summits, maybe Rabobank figured the advertising dollars weren’t worth the cost and cut the Dane free – even while still giving the riders their Tour winning bonus. Certainly, an ejection of an unpopular and probably-dosed-up rider isn’t something fans will think too deeply about.

And then there are those news stories that no one wants to hear. Greg Lemond, for example, turning the spotlight of suspicion onto Alberto Contador. While one would like to think the youngster is clean, for someone with the future of the Tour on his shoulders, he has something of a checkered past. And does it strain credulity that, stage after stage, Disco could put three riders against an isolated Rasmussen and Evans? Should we maybe inquire to see if these guys are on the UCI’s watch list – or would we rather just sit back and watch them sock a few dingers?

Tour de France '07 – The Morning After

26 Jul

So finally, the Chicken has been plucked. But when one asks “Why now? Why not ten days ago?”, that’s when the feathers really fly. Rabobank Manager Theo DeRooy says that the Dane claimed to have been training in Mexico all through June. But yesterday, DeRooy heard from an Italian Journalist that Rasmussen was in Italy during that time. After this, the stories diverge.

DeRooy claims Rasmussen admitted that he was, in fact, in Italy, and thus the team fired him “because you don’t lie to family”. Rasmussen says “I was never in Italy, and I never told you I was”. Great. Another innocent cyclist, just like Vinokourov, Sinkewitz, Landis, Basso, etc. ad nauseam. It gives one a paradoxical respect for Cristian Moreni, (even though he protested against dopers mere hours before being caught doping) because he manned up an admitted he was wrong. If only there were some way to incentivize such honesty…

While Rasmussen had been enveloped in the stench of suspicion for some time, his involuntary departure does set a dangerous sort of precedent. Or rather, it follows the dangerous precedent set before last year’s Tour: if the right people boo loudly enough, your team will collapse to their pressure and give you the ax.

While he tested clean across the board, and went out of his way to keep the UCI informed of his whereabouts, Lance Armstrong was at times as reviled as the Dane had come to be in the past few days. And certainly, there was never a shortage of allegations against him. One gets the feeling that, were he still racing, Disco might feel inclined to yank him, due solely to the number of Frenchmen shouting “dope!” as he rode past.

But for all the mayhem, the race still went on pretty much as normal today, with sprinter Daniele Bennati winning a small break sprint to take his first win. This continued racing is a very good sign; back in 1998, the riders almost refused to ride after the last round of major dope ejections. Today, there was only one apparent protest departure, and by and large, the riders seem determined to root out any remaining dopers.

Additionally, the alphabet soup of organizers seems happy with the ejections, and many companies have announced their intentions to continue sponsorship. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that the biggest threat to cycling wasn’t doping, but the European press. But why would a bunch of European journalists want to destroy the sport that helps feed them? Commentator Bob Roll has a few theories.

Tour de France '07 – Chicken Flies Again

25 Jul

So – who do you believe leastAlexandre Vinokourov or Lindsay Lohan? After all, each claims to suffer from some persecution; and, to Vino’, at least, the official response is “well, duh”. While I still wouldn’t mind seeing B-samples before I see headlines, the results of Stage 15’s test sure don’t look good for Vino, either. Furthermore, there was another positive test announced today, but the 9am EDT deadline for release passed without anyone being named. Since only 8 riders were tested on Stage 11, I’ll go out on a limb and say it was Astana’s Maxime Iglinsky or Lampre’s Patxi Vila; all the other names are still in the Tour, and ASO would never let a positive rider toe the line.

The shock and chaos aside, I think a lot of people are rallying around Vino’s positive for the sake of the sport. Tom Boonen says the positive test is a good thing, and certainly, the press caravan seems to agree. Half the peloton staged a protest at the beginning of today’s race, not for rider’s rights (like the last time around), but against the dopers among them. It’s kinda like an inverted, real-life game of Mafia, as the peloton tries to sway organizers to snuff certain riders out. And if the threat of Olympic exclusion wasn’t enough, the boos of the fans may have been, as Michael Rasmussen finally made his case to the press about why he shouldn’t get kicked off the island.

Anyway, there was indeed a Tour stage today, won by none other than Michael Rasmussen. The Dane dropped a less-than-stellar Alberto Contador 1km from the line, and the young Spaniard was then inexplicably eclipsed by teammate Levi Leipheimer (hello? bonus seconds?). As the Dane took his second stage with a now 3:00+ GC gap, you could hear the boos from Boston. Strangely, while French and Kazakh fans seem upset (for different reasons) with this race status quo, Italians seem to prefer a questionable victor – or at least that’s what a highly informal, open-to-non-Italians, and statistically unsound survey says. Basque fans blew some stuff up, but otherwise, seemed ambivalent about the latest race events.

Tour de France '07 – No Rest Day for Dopers

24 Jul

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, with all the savagery and suddenness of a Great White, word of another positive test. Can I call it, or what? Kinda gives new meaning to Bobby Julich’s nickname for the about-to-be-disgraced Kazakh, doesn’t it? Throughout my outrage at the suspensions last July, I continually used Vino’ as a rallying point, noting how, while most of his team was connected the Fuentes’ doping ring, he’d never been implicated, yet was still compelled not to race. I feel really stupid about that now.

But can you imagine being Andreas Kloden? The poor guy gets signed to a team built by Kazakhs for a Kazakh, outperforms said Kazakh on nearly every occasion, but still can’t get his other Kazakh teammates to ride for him. Finally, after two stage wins, Vino’ says “I am now all for Kloden” but immediate gets ejected from the Tour, and – insult to injury – takes the rest of the team down with him (granted, after Kessler and Mazzoleni, the whole team’s a bit suspect). The German fans must love that. When Kloden was sitting there in front of his contract last August, about sign, I wonder if any of this passed through his head?

And where, exactly, does this leave the sport of cycling? I like to hope that Jon Vaughters is right, and that it’s a small percent of very driven, very unscrupulous riders who dope. This seems to be supported by the fact that only big names seem to get caught (Sinkewitz and Kessler, though not superstars, were certainly upper-tier). There seems to be a consensus feeling that this Tour has been cleaner, and I think the general drop in “amazing”, or even “gutsy” rides (“like a bunch of amateurs”, you might say) supports this – if you’ve spend the last decade dosed up to your eyeballs, you’ll feel like sitting on a lot more once you’re clean.

Yes, in the end, I think Vino’s positive is good for cycling. David Millar’s reaction pretty much summed up my own; shock and dismay, followed by the realization that there’s now one less doper. With every rider that gets caught, and with every case that gets pursued fairly, the viability of doping is eroded. Even Michael Rasmussen, who, as Rabobank’s lawyer is quick to note, hasn’t broken any rules, finds himself increasingly isolated as the evidence against him mounts. While German politicians might make speeches to the contrary, the exposure of new dopers will not kill cycling; in the end, it only makes it stronger.

Tour de France '07 – Back From the Dead Again

23 Jul

Entertaining though it may be, I am highly suspicious of Vino’s roller coaster riding. Granted, I’ve never raced a Grand Tour, so I can’t say firsthand how the body reacts, but this up-again, down-again seems physiologically improbable, at least through natural means. A brief look back at some notably inconsistent rides would seem to support this:

Santiago Botero at the 2002 TdF – wins the first TT, loses 15 minutes, bounces back to win the next day. At the ’05 Giro, it was Ivan Basso who rode strong early, cracked massively with a stomach bug, won two stages, then cracked again the next day. And I think we all remember last year’s Tour. What do these cases all have in common? Yeah, you guessed it.

But strange results are hardly grounds for ejection from a race, right? After all, even with all the negative press on Rasmussen, cycling experts agree that you can’t just kick him out on suspicion, right? The Tour would never allow anything like that to happen. The worst cycling authorities can do is click their tongues and say they’d prefer not to see a Rasmussen victory, same as they would have preferred not to see seven consecutive Lance Armstrong victories. In fact, it’s pretty clear who they’d prefer not to see win – just make a note of whose buses they search.

Anyway, getting back to racing, Contador and Rasmussen further distanced all others today, and with only two major obstacles remaining before Paris, it looks like the winner will be one of these two dudes. Contador took more than a few potshots at The Chicken today, but as the photo shows, he couldn’t do much more than ruffle his feathers. Tomorrow’s a rest day, so it’ll be interesting to see how everyone’s legs react to the resumption of hostilities on Wednesday’s final mountain test.

Tour de France '07 – Contador and The Chicken Fly The Coop

22 Jul

Well, now – Stage 14 (thanks for the typo catch, Chris) was the mountain shakeout I think everyone had wanted to see back in the Alps. Unfortunately, Rasmussen and Contador (chillin’ with Manolo a mere 6 months before that whole Puerto thing…) aren’t exactly poster children for clean cycling, you know? Certainly the French DS’s aren’t psyched that Rabobank hasn’t booted The Chicken from the race, and even his temporary allies on the road seem a bit fed up with him. And is it just me, or is that artificial blood story not getting much press outside of VeloNews?

However, many of those who feel The Chicken is clean see today’s stage as the beginning of a new era, in which climbers dominate all. I am not so sure. Honestly, I thought the best riding in today’s stage was done not by climbers, but by their teammates – first David Millar and Saunier Duval (albeit for nothing), then Thomas Dekker and Michael Boogerd from Rabo, and finally Yaroslav Popovich and Leipheimer, trading attacks for Disco. Once the group was hewn down to 6, it was pretty uninspiring and very spazy. Between the gangly Soler and the elbows out, MTB-esq climbing of Evans, it look at times like the fastest Cat 4 race in the history of the world.

As definitive as today’s stage appeared to be, tomorrow’s is even harder and has far more potential to alter the outcome of the race. As Vino’s example shows, you can be left for dead, back in action, and left for dead, all over the course of three days in this year’s Tour. It makes for exciting viewing, even when spectators muss things up. I’ve been pushing Contador as Disco’s man to ride for from day one, and it will be interesting to see just how closely he can come to taking up Big Mig’s mantle. The hopes of Spain have proven quite heavy for their other race favorite, as Alejandro Valverde’s 10 minute loss over the past two days shows.

Tour de France '07 – Vino's Revival, Valverde's Collapse

21 Jul

You wanna know why I don’t write race previews? I think this little Evans vs. Kloden piece is a good example. Biggest bit of pre-competition vaporware since Dan vs. Dave. Yes, both Evans and Kloden maintained their positions, but the real stories of the day – Vino rebounding and Rasmussen maintaining – had nothing to do with either of them. It may sound strange, but The Chicken’s 3-minutes-back, 11th place finish may go down as one of the great rides in Tour history.

Zero points for you in the office pool if you had three Astana riders in the top four. They’ve stacked the high end of the results sheet in so many TTs this year that I’m not even gonna bother hunting down the links. I might give you a little credit for prognosticating Moreau’s collapse; despite what Carmichael says, you can’t really cite the inconsistency of a rider who hasn’t had chance to be consistent in nearly a decade. For me, Valverde’s utter detonation was the real shocker – yes, his chrono abilities have always been a gynormous question mark, but he was only 19 seconds behind Vino’ at last year’s Vuelta. Today? Over 6 minutes down.

Well, the bright side, for the winners (Vinokourov), losers (Valverde) and fans (allegedly, that’s us) is that lots and lots of people have incentive to attack, and put out or get out time begins tomorrow. I feel like Disco will finally be working for Contador, who, as much as I like Leipheimer, is the squad’s best shot at victory. This is important, because despite his earlier confidence, Johann is hurting for a new sponsor; putting his man in yellow would be a good first step. Although considering that the current yellow jersey shouldn’t have been allowed in the race at all, the allure of that storied garment may be considerably dulled.