Archive | July, 2009

That's Not What I Call Data.

31 Jul

I don’t want to be a jerk. Both Garmin-Slipstream’s vocal anti-doping stance and Wiggins’ readiness to reveal the intimate details of his oxygen transport system are laudable. But guys, you have to do better than this:

First of all, I have no idea when any of these tests occurred. The specified dates on the x-axis have no correlation to the testing dates, and the time scales on each graph (4 months, 5 months, and one month) make them useless for comparison. Was Wiggins only tested 4 times in all of 2008? If so, why did three of those tests come in what appears to be less than a single month?

Then there’s the inferred line on each chart—on the “Pre 2009 TdF” chart, how can the off-score rise through the month of March even when there are no data points from that time period? Similar time gaps on the other charts reflect no corresponding rise, and data that could suggest a rise do not receive one.

This absence of hard numerical data is aggravated severely by the lack of context. Who ordered these tests? What did they test for? Why were off-score and hemoglobin concentration the only variables measured? Were they taken at altitude? Is this a full set of test data, or selected points?

For all the drama surrounding Lance Armstrong’s testing results—which, by the way, have not been updated since the end of the Giro—the Texan and his handlers have done an excellent job of cataloging the time and purpose of each test. It may not look as pretty, but for the skeptics, it’s the difference between disclosing your VO2 max and “otra pregunta“.

My point here isn’t to suggest, even slightly, that Wiggins is doing anything untoward. My point is that handing in data like this would fail you out of any 10th grade bio course.

The idea behind releasing this information is to reassure fans and sponsors, and set an example for other cyclists. Presenting some charts that anyone could fabricate with 10 minutes and a copy of iWork is a lousy way to do either.

Why The Radio Shack Sponsorship is Brilliant

30 Jul

trs80When Bonnie Ford leaked news of Lance Armstrong’s new sponsor, many an eyebrow was raised. Radio Shack? It would be like Manchester United getting sponsored by Poundstrecher, noted one British commentator; it just doesn’t make sense.

After all, a surprisingly large number of pixels has been scattered on the notion that cycling is the new golf. Rapha Condor, their stylish wardrobe notwithstanding, is largely irrelevant as far as international cycling teams go— yet they’ve just managed to add a bundle of new, higher-end sponsors, including Sharp Electonics and Malmaison hotels.

Cyclists, conventional wisdom seems to be, are well-heeled consumers who are willing, and indeed want to pay for the total package. Years of purchasing things in gruppos has conditioned them to go to Best Buy and get the whole entertainment center. So long as the Geek Squad takes care of all the dirty work, and they’ve got a nice system to show off to the neighbors, who cares if the HDMI cables cost six times as much?

But the cyclists I know—”real cyclists”, to adulterate a notion of the erstwhile Alaska governor—are scrappy Cat 4s, 3s, and 2s with weekly incomes roughly equivalent to their watts at threshold. These are the sort of people who can scarcely afford the buy-it-all approach of a Best Buy—or a Competitive Cyclist, for that matter—and resent the attempts of retailers to force it on them.

Oh, sure, these cyclists love doing business online, but it’s not the full-service, total package variety. It’s three-moths-worth of long-overdue gear crammed onto someone else’s Performance Bike account to save on shipping charges—or would be, if not for the local shops feeding them parts at employee or team purchase prices.

395051705_3760adf1eb And this is where Radio Shack comes in. Who among you—other than Ryan Kelly—can say that your Chipotle intake hasn’t increased dramatically since their association with Slipstream in 2007? Lance’s previous team sponsors were clearly not looking for consumer dollars; for personal mail, USPS has been dominant for years, and in most cases, Discovery Channel is free with your monthly cable payment, whether you choose to watch Shark Week or not.

Radio Shack, on the other hand, has done quite well for itself recently by appealling to the cheap, smart, scrappy DIYer; the sort of person who can’t look at a Best Buy price tag without scoffing, and who’d be more than willing to jack down a limit screw and ride single-speed for a week, if it means undercutting retail cost on a new derailleur.

Sponsoring a cycling team puts Radio Shack—and its store full of thrifty electronic workarounds—front and center in the ever-spinning, cost-saving minds of citizen racers. Sure, they can still get a six-foot stereo cable (to hook their AirPort to the beat-up stereo they just bought off Craigslist) for three dollars less online. But after this sponsorship announcement, buying at Radio Shack—where they don’t have to wait or pay for shipping—just acquired an additional level of appeal.

And once cyclists get in the door, they’re that much closer to buying a power inverter to power/charge laptops on their way to and from races, and maybe even getting an s-video to RCA adaptor to watch the Vuelta in full-screen on their crummy old TVs. Tech-savvy has been a de facto requirement to enjoy cycling in this country for some time; Radio Shack might just be the first company to successfully monetize that.

gramsLastly, the Armstrong/Radio Shack association is mutually beneficial. In case you’ve never read the comments section on this blog, serious American cyclists tend not to be Lance Armstrong’s most fervent supporters.

Seeing the seven-time Tour winner as a billboard for practical, even clever solutions—instead of the inspiration for hairy-legged guys on SRAM Red-equipped Madones that let gaps open on fast group rides—can only improve his standing in the eyes of most cyclists I know.

So surprising? Yes. Radio Shack certainly doesn’t fit the high-gloss legacy left by Thomas Weisel Partners, nor the now-generally-accepted image of cycling in America as a sport of elites. But times have changed dramatically since 1999, and everyone, even Lance Armstrong, has had to adapt.

"I am hard to recognize but it’s me; it’s Jens"

30 Jul

Jens Voigt! Alive and more or less well. There sure isn’t a whole lot that can dampen this guy’s enthusiasm.

Well, other than asking rigged questions about doping, I guess.

Revisiting That Whole Astana Thing

28 Jul

3716165955_1209c799abOn paper, Astana had one of the best Tours in recent memory. First and third is hard to fault, especially when considering that the squad dominated the critical moments of the race, and met every challenge of a resurgent SaxoBank squad. So I should be recanting everything I said about the team back in June…right?

I’m not so sure. It’s rare to have two prima donnas taking catty swipes at each other so soon after a competition. Even “Kobe how my ass taste?” took a full year to bubble up. You think both Lance and AC would be willing to keep their yaps shut; Contador made some pretty compelling arguments with his legs over the past three weeks, and Lance’s Tour palmares speak for themselves as well.

I think it’s safe to infer that there was enough friction between the two to make the 40 seconds Lance stole in headwinds on Stage 3 seem like a slight bump of shoulders. it’s tempting to credit Johan Bruyneel for ushering his young charge to the line, but given the Belgian’s comments after Stage 17—and the fact that Contador seemed to feel compelled to pad his lead against his own teammates—it may be that Contador’s ’09 win will be viewed in spite of Johan’s leadership, not because of it.

It’d be going a bit far to say that Johan wanted the Spaniard to lose—”We Might as Well Win”, right? But I get the sensation that had Levi Leipheimer not made an untimely exit, Johan might have cooked up a little breakaway magic between his three lieutenants to humble Contador, or at least take some of the spotlight off his performances and put it on to the rest of the Astana team. Certiainly, Stage 20’s crawl to the top of Ventoux could have put SaxoBank over a log if Astana could have sent a rider up the road while retaining a numerical advantage behind.

As a final, strange footnote, perhaps the most unexpected outcome of the big freeze between LA and AC for me has been the reaction of the European press. You’d think it would be the French, who’d long nipped at the Texan’s yellow-clad heels, to be the ones to revel in his “demise” (if one can call finishing on the TdF podium a comeuppance).

But instead, the French have warmed to the man they once dubbed “The Iguana”, and it’s been the reporters from Spain, where Armstrong formerly had his European base of operations, that have trumpeted his supposed fall from glory, and fanned the flames between the 7-time Tour winner and the reigning champ.

Riding the Leadout Train

27 Jul

Barry Hoban, who’s spent the past two years losing his legacy as England’s Greatest Sprinter to Mark Cavendish, was never a fan of Mario Cipollini.

Aside from the Italian’s inevitable Grand Tour abandons and grandiose showmanship between stages, I think Hoban also took issue with the fact that Cipollini did so little work coming into the line. The red train simply turned out the watts—to record-setting effect—and Cipo’ took over at 300m to go.

I’m hoping that after yesterday’s Champs Elyssses stage, Hoban, who was always more of a man for the classics will have a little more respect for exactly what it takes to ride that train to the line:

At 0:13 0:22 (video replaced, 9 Aug 2018), Renshaw and Cavendish have to match Hincapie’s by-no-means-soft acceleration across the road, without slamming into the rider in front of them or deviating the slightest bit from their teammates’ slipstream.

Half-wheeling or overlapping simply isn’t an option; other than the crash risk, the places lost by Dean and Farrar as they cross between lines and reintegrate (read: barge and elbow in) behind Cav—though probably into him, at first—illustrate perfectly the high cost of riding in the wind at this speed.

Then there’s the matter of line selection: entering the next-to-last corner, Hincapie had either started to fade, or had eased off, not wanting to pull a Matteo Tosatto. Julian Dean, perhaps sensing a rare gap in the Columbia-Highroad armor, accelerated around the American, and began gunning for the gap between Renshaw and Cav, on what would be a suicidal trajectory around the final bend.

Now let’s look at things from the Briton’s perspective. Renshaw is gunning it hard around the final corner, on a line that practically kisses the barriers. Julian Dean is coming into you with a head of steam on a potential collision course. Plus you’ve already got the bike so far over that you’re “sh**ting yourself”—and this on top of the stress and fatigue from 21 days of all-out racing.

When it all comes out in the wash, and you end up gapping the field with your leadout man, it does indeed make it look like you barely broke a sweat. But a second’s hesitation, loss of nerve, a brush of the brakes, or a shoulder bump you didn’t see coming, and you’re back in the bunch with the rest of the also-rans—or worse—and someone else is saluting the crowd on the backs of your teammates.

Obviously, for riders like Cavendish and Cipollini, the lead-out train is a tremendous tactical advantage. But as riders like Robbie McEwen have shown time and time again, they can be beaten—and regardless of your competition, riding one into the line is seldom ever easy.

The Only Thing Lamer Than Condator's Salute

25 Jul

Dude, you’re wearing a hat that has a stylized image of your own salute on it, at the race in which you used that same salute? Don’t be that guy. hat

Seriously—can you imagine Virenque wearing a baseball cap with a single finger, extended skyward? I’ll tolerate the excessive polka dots; if the race gives you the jersey, you might as well match. But your own trademark salute while still at the race? Simply not done.

Oh, I've Got An Otra Pregunta for you, Buddy…

23 Jul

otra-contadorI’ve know you don’t wanna answer those pesky questions about drugs, Alberto, but in all seriousness—are you high right now?

You’d have to be stoned out of your skinny Spanish gourd to simply stonewall some very reasonable questions a day after word broke that DiLuca turned up positive for CERA twice during his Giro campaign this year.

It’s not like the graphics (point of order: Riis was never “caught” doping) are anywhere near definitive. As much as I appreciate and enjoy the effort of the dudes over at The Science of Sports, there are way too many variables at play to effectively compare times between years, or ascending rates between climbs.

Heck, all you have to do, Alberto, is read their stinking page (en español); they list many “confounders”, like wind, climb length, and race situation. Allow me to add to that strength of field and equipment, since wind-cheating frames and ultralight rims are now de rigeur down the lowliest domestiques at the TdF, and a good portion of Contador’s Verbier ascent happened in the draft of well-above-threshold efforts from Jens Voigt and Chris Anker Sørenson.

But otra pregunta? Like you don’t even care? You don’t have to go all “not worth the chair you’re sitting on” [.mp3], but at least act like it would be bad thing if you were doping. You know why people like riders like Fabian Cancellara? It’s because between his many, many ridiculous moments of Superman accomplishments, he has definite patches of being human. He struggles, and he cares about things.

Cance’s classics season was a flop this year. He dropped out of the Tour of Cali. Recently, he worked himself into a multi-lingual rage when things didn’t go his way, and he needed to have a beer to just chill himself out. And afterwards, Cancellara will almost certainly be able to put it all in perspective with enough class to make us all feel guilty about every training ride we ever cut short.

3749664477_0324554ea6Alberto, 99.5 is a friggin’ high VO2 max—but it’s by no means impossible. Bjørn Daehlie once clocked in at 96, and that was during the off-season. Considering it’s a function of weight, and you’re 20 days into a freakin’ Grand Tour, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that you’re rocking those numbers.

So own it. Say something like, “yeah, it’s hard to compare results from the lab to results on the road, but my past test results have shown I could potentially be in that range”. It doesn’t even have to be true—you’ve always been special and people will at least respect you for being forthcoming.

But this otra pregunta business—jeez, it’s like Gary Hart daring the media to follow him. The Brits are pugnacious about chasing this doping thing, and they write—more or less—in the same language spoken by the millions of Americans buying your Trek and Nike schwag. You could have at least eased off in the time trial—barring an unlikely collapse on Ventoux, you’ve got the jersey wrapped up.

In case you couldn’t tell from the timing of the Team Radio Shack announcement, or the not-so-flattering words of your director, you aren’t the most popular guy around at the moment. So help yourself out a little and warm up to the people and the press. If you are doping, it won’t make you any less guilty, but as Tyler Hamilton can attest, it might make things a little easier when the boom does finally drop.

And So We Enter Endgame

22 Jul

3747094004_bbf8b2dfe9I wouldn’t call it a white flag of surrender, but I feel like today, the road brought something of a resigned armistice between the top two GC squads. Astana sacrificed the potential of a 1-2-3, or even 1-2 podium to all but guarantee a Contador win, and in exchange, SaxoBank got the marketing gold of two affable brothers on the podium beside him.

It’s not like any official accord was reached—though I’m certain Riis and Bruyneel have each other on speed dial—but I couldn’t help feel that, in effect, that’s what happened today. As Contador was seemingly uninterested in waiting for team support, content to sit back for the sprint, and offer a friendly push to his breakaway companions as they came into the line, I don’t really see another logical explanation.

The “Contador is a loose cannon” storyline is garbage, the overripe end of actual tension subverted into a Trek marketing campaign. No maillot jaune can do wrong furthering his GC with two meaningful stages to go, even if it comes at the expense of his teammates. The prize money for an overall win is more than twice that for second place—and according to Bob Roll, Andy Hampsten is the only modern-era cyclist to keep his cut of a Grand Tour prize.

While there may have been some genuine strife inside the Astana team bus before Verbier, Lance has since doffed his cap to Contador, calling the young Spaniard “invincible“, and instead using his overwhelming media pull to focus the eyes of the world on next year’s event.

Sadly, this sudden detente between Astana and SaxoBank has come at the expense of Brad Wiggins. I think, among all the GC contenders, he’s been the most inspirational of this years’ event. Lance, Contador, the Schlecks, Sastre, Evans—they’ve been up and down mountains like these more times than even they care to remember. Wiggins has spent the better part of his career twirling one stinking gear around a 250m ellipse. I’d love to see the scrappy Brit on the podium, but even if it doesn’t work out, he’s got a beer on my tab anytime.

Wiggo’s best-known compatriot, however, is another story. I’ll give Cav due credit for sticking out stages that his watts merchant forbearers (*ahem* Cipo’) couldn’t be dragged over with a team car and two pints of reinfused blood, and I even support him in his dissent against the relegation that likely cost him a shot at the Points title. But in response his attitude toward one Thor Hushovd, I direct him to the words of many-time World Champion cross-country skiier Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset:

“If Hushovd can’t climb, then I must not be able to ride a bike at all.”

The somewhat-oversized Norweigan drove home his class with deafening authority today, smashing various groups that tried to form around him, and plowing a lone furrow over two first category climbs to lock up enough points sprints to secure himself the Green Jersey title.

In the future, you’re almost certain to see pint-sized climbers duking it out with their emaciated rivals for the glory of the yellow jersey. You may even once again see great champions come out of retirement, and muscular trackies starve themselves into GC contention.

But a solo break through the mountains, for little more than pride, from a heavier-than-most rider already securely clad in green may yet prove to be the most unique moment of this year Tour de France.

ESPN's Schaap: Base, Not Age, Is Armstrong's Problem

21 Jul

Because I don’t want to be entirely useless today (see previous post) here’s an audio excerpt from a recent ESPN feature in which Jeremy Schaap claims another year is just what armstrong needs.

[mp3 version]

“…Convetional wisdom among the people who cover the Tour de France and the people who follow Lance Armstrong is that with a full year of training, he would be a contender next year; that the lack of top gear power that he’s shown so far is something that he might be able to recover…”

Topic probably worthy of discussion, especially following his much improved performance today.

Breaking Down the Voigt Crash

21 Jul

It’s sad to see an otherwise exciting stage have an incident like this, especially when it’s a rider like Jens Voigt, who could drastically affect the overall GC outcome (and is just plain awesome—speedy recovery, Jens!). Still, crashes are a part of the sport, and picking apart how they occur can help you learn their causes and avoid them in the future.

(Editor’s note: his hand probably just slipped. Watch his left hand as he first his the bump.)

As far as I can tell, the crash was caused by a bouncing chain getting caught up, probably after being bounced inside the small chainring with the front derailluer set in the “high” position. I think everyone’s first thought seeing the crash was something in the front end—broken rim, fork, tire blowout, loose wheel, etc.

But after re-watching his post-impact slide a few dozen times, and looking at this photo, everything up front appears to be intact. The spot shadow above reveals that Jens’ rear wheel definitely gets airborne when he hits a lump in the pavement, and the saddle definitely gives him a good kick in the butt, but at that speed, there’s a lot of angular momentum keeping you upright and in-line; you can see the other riders handle it fine.

It could be that Jens’ front tire slips—it is right on the painted stripe when he begins his crash—but on sun-baked pavement I find that very unlikely, even given the miserable performance of SaxoBank’s rubber at this years’ Tour. Instead, I think he went to pedal, got an entirely unexpected response from the drivetrain, and as a result, lost his balance and fell.

While the though the direction and length of shadow makes it impossible to rule out that he pedaled with his wheel still in the air, I’m inclined to say that his legs don’t move until the wheel is back on the road based on jolt in the chain that appears to coincide with tire contact. Furthermore, I think that jolt leaves the chain in a different position than a few milliseconds previous.

For me, what seals is the position of his legs and static position of the rear derailleur: after a sunden jerk forward—as if there were no resistance from the chain—his legs stop, and his derailleur remains static when it should still be bouncing around from the impact of the road lump.

I suppose it’s possible the the rear wheel was jarred loose, but I don’t think that would have caused the derailleur to be pinned in such a fashion—there’d be no tension on the chain anywhere but the top section, between the chainring (source of power) and the cogs (location of jam).

The angle at which the derailleur suddenly stops—sharp enough that the chain probably isn’t on the big ring, given the its position in the cogs—also suggests the chain has been at least partially dislodged.