Archive | May, 2011

Why The Haters Hate

29 May

Let’s imagine for a second that 10/2 never happens. Armstrong—the twitchy, track-suited, wannabe frat boy captured in the video below—never gets cancer. The sniffle he has here is just a cold. He goes on to have a good career, wins some classics, buys some cars, and retires, either after catching a dope positive, or getting away scot-free—it’s up to you.

Had that been the case, you wouldn’t be reading this. The bike racing and riding public in America would be a mere shadow of its current self, and millions of cancer sufferers would still view their disease as a crippling, unrecoverable plague. If, through some luck, you did still follow cycling, you’d probably consider yourself an Armstrong fan; he’d be a lone, underachieving American hero in your obscure, European sport.

Objectively speaking, there’s no way to say that the end result of the cancer, the stepped-up “preparation”, the work with Ferrari, the personality cult, and the Livestrong brand were bad things—for the sport or for the world. So why, then, is there such a groundswell in the cycling community to see Armstrong fall? Why do the haters hate?

I don’t claim to have the same motivations as everyone, but the fact is I don’t really care that Armstrong cheated. I don’t have a problem with him being a complex character, at once guilty and an inspiration. On occasion, I even think he did a pretty good job racing the bike.

But what I find a constant source of consternation and embarrassment, is that despite all the Tour wins, and millions of dollars for cancer, and other accomplishments, under it all, Armstrong still comports himself as the gel-haired bro-caricature captured in this video.

The legal battles, the past-prime comeback, nobodies on Twitter, the heckler battling, the Chair You’re Sitting In, the increasingly transparent denials, trying to “win” assembling a legal team the way he tries to “win” collecting art—for a man who should have nothing to prove, Armstrong’s inability to gracefully accept even the tiniest of slights and compulsion to continually pad his legacy is pathetic.

Had Armstrong been a lesser rider, it could be overlooked—we all have flaws. But he isn’t a lesser rider. He is the public face of cycling, and has a far larger pull than the sport itself ever will. By all accounts, Armstrong dominated almost a decade of unsustainable rule-breaking, and as the pre-eminent rider of that era, the onus is on him to simply admit what the rest of the world already knows.

The sad part is that because Lance has so fortified himself in the myth of his performance, the consequences of a confession now will likely be harsh. His legacy will be tarnished. Cancer research may suffer. He might even go to jail. And that’s not entirely fair. But celebrity is a double-edged sword, and for the hundreds of millions he’s raised on his reputation, he owes the world the courtesy of owning up to his transgressions.

So until that moment comes, I’m viewing the Fall of Fortress Armstrong with a certain satisfaction. Not with any particular malice toward the man, or for the heady glee of watching a tyrant hang, but as an audience member at an Elizabethan play. Armstrong is our tragic hero, and his fatal flaw is the monomaniacal focus that had until now served him so well. Unable to account for it, he’ll continue stacking denial upon denial, until the whole house of cards tumbles in a familiar, inescapable denoument.

A Curious List

14 May

Browsing L'Equipe by inkyIs there anything that triggers an “OMG LEAK” response more effectively than a clandestine list? Nixon’s enemies, law firm layoffs, and of course, financial information.

But the UCI’s Index of Suspicion leaked a few days ago is especially curious because all we have is metadata—scores that the UCI has made up ostensibly based on actual measurements. But L’Equipe’s intrepid journalists failed both in nailing down the specific criteria used by the UCI, or the data that were fed into these criteria to arrive at a given doping suspicion index score.

Strangely, we do have a fairly extensive set of data on what an index score of 4 might look like —and we have Lance Armstrong to thank for it. There are some hopeful assumptions in this assessment (namely, that the UCI even has an objective set of criteria, and that Lance’s ’09 data informed his ’10 score), but it’s still the best (only?) set of actual numbers we have.

And to my layman’s eyes, 4 doesn’t seem like such a bad spot to put Armstrong’s numbers. They are not especially high, but do show a stubborn consistency—perhaps even the “too normal” values that prompted the bio passport experts to propose hiding values from riders for a few months. There was also the mid-Tour hematocrit increase, much-trumpeted by amateur Internet hematologists as evidence of a transfusion.

But in many other ways, the list makes the UCI (and some teams and national governing bodies) look bad. There’s the obvious criticisms: how could this list get out in the first place, and why weren’t the highest-rated riders the most heavily tested? But more damning is efficacy of enforcement. If Popovych was the most suspicious rider at the 2010 Tour, and he’s been tied up in at least one investigation since then, how is he still riding?

As someone pointed out on Twitter (my apologies for losing the link), Alessandro Ballan has been suspended twice for investigations, is now pretty solidly linked to several transfusions, but still only rated a 5 on the UCI’s list. As more-successful-than-not Ballan likely had money to burn on medical assistance, I’m inclined the chalk this up to the skills of a good doctor, though it could just as easily be cast as a judgement on the ineffectiveness of the bio passport system.

The riders, who seemed to react the most negatively and immediately to the list, will likely be the least affected in the end. Cycling may indeed be all politics, but for the vast majority of riders—those that block the wind, carry bottles, and mark breaks—the difference between a suspicion level of zero and four, in data over a year old, will have far less impact than a reliable record of performance and a few big names willing to vouch for you .

The higher levels of suspicion—a total of 20 riders ranked 7 and above—are populated almost exclusively by almost-there contenders, and super-domestiques with a few major wins to their credit. While I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the older names had trouble landing a job in the future, the continued re-emergence of convicted dopers is a pretty straightforward indication that suspicion will never trump results.

So as pretty much everyone else has already pointed out, the damage from this list will fall most heavily on its creator, the UCI—just in time for them to decide that nah, one of the most historically effective national anti-doping agencies shouldn’t be allowed to operate independent testing at the Tour of California after all.

A Brief Study of Economics

3 May

Alessandro Ballan by Cindy TrossaertAh, finally—the mail server is down at work, freeing me to check in for a bit.

You’d think taking a pay cut to drive two hours a day at $4.05/gallon would find me doing something more productive than wrestling one of the more infuriating pieces of software I’ve ever used into submission. But the Panglossian infallibility of market economics being what it is, I remain certain my time could not be better spent doing anything else.

Nor could Johan Bruyneel’s, for that matter, as he heads off with to the Giro d’Italia with a fat wad of RadioShack’s money and the strongest team since Disney brought us The Big Green. In all honestly, if they called themselves “rag-tag”, it would rouse righteous indignation in Keystone Cop precincts from Bari to Bergamo—that is, assuming the continued presence of Yaroslav Popovych hasn’t done so already.

One has to wonder if this is what RadioShack executives had in mind when they ponied up for the final inflation of the Armstrong Bubble. Do they gaze enviously toward the Garmin megaplex in Olathe, Kansas, and see a company that can’t get its name out of press no matter what the results sheets say? In implosion, in victory, and above all, in intrigue, drama, and speculation, the mutton chops are ever-present.

Yes, it seems only when handily outfoxed and overpowered by a continental squad at a smaller event—as they were by Team Type 1 at the Tour of Turkey—has Garmin managed to keep out of the headlines. Press that selective makes it seem like having a name on a WorldTour jersey might just be worth $90 million dollars after all.

I suppose it all comes down to how you value the “straight to the headlines” exposure that comes from doping—with BMC’s Alessandro Ballan being the latest example. While they didn’t seem thrilled with it at the time, I can’t imagine Festina is suffering from a lasting affiliation with the events of July 1998; indeed, they still market heavily on their affiliation with the sport.

Perhaps a little criminality is a good thing—could what finally created a sales niche for Delorean return a similar reward for BMC?