Default to Magic

When I was 10 or 12, my mother assembled a synergy of coupons so powerful that our local supermarket paid her nearly a buck to take home two 4-lb. jars of grape jelly. For the next two years every time I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich it was accompanied by grape jelly.

As an adult, I still eat PB&J, but in my refrigerator you’ll find preserves of strawberry, raspberry, blackberry and sometimes, even cherry. I have never purchased grape jelly.

The only thing in the world I’m as sick of as grape jelly is news of doping, so I’m going to try to keep this brief, but I need to address some recent quotes by David Millar.

I think Millar is a stand-up guy. He’s got my respect. When caught, he manned up and took his lumps. He seems to have a much less materialistic and more mature and empathetic life post-suspension. I dig that.

He speaks out about doping issues and particular dopers. I double dig that.

However, he was quoted in the Telegraphe regarding Alberto Contador’s performance at the Giro, saying things that simply don’t make sense. So nonsensical they are that I honestly have been wondering if he has some odd, covert agenda in mind. If true, it’d wreck my opinion of him. For good.

And let me hasten to add, this really has very little to do with Contador. Any rider who delivers a performance such as he did at the Giro and looks that fresh standing on the podium (does anyone recall how wasted LeMond always looked on the podium at the Tour?) shouldn’t expect to escape suspicion.

Here’s what Millar told the Telegraphe:

“Alberto Contador is untouchable as rider, he is a physical freak and we in the peloton have known that for a long time and respect his supreme talent. I would be very surprised if he didn’t end up as the greatest Grand Tour rider in the history of the sport. It’s a tragedy that he has got mixed up in this Clenbuterol thing but I am keeping an open mind on his case.”

“Does anybody out there seriously doubt that Contador was riding clean in the Giro d’Italia that has just finished? You don’t win the biggest races in the world with such clockwork regularity and comparative ease, and in such style, by not being the supreme talent and clean. In my experience the profile of a doper is always much more erratic and unpredictable.”

“The rest of us mere mortals have “magic days” when every so often when we can take on the world. Contador’s default setting is a “Magic day”. His only departure from the norm is when he experiences merely an average day. They are the only two levels he rides at. My strong instinct is to trust that.”

Let’s do this like a geometry problem and lay out our givens:

1)   Oxygen vector drugs speed recovery and all but eliminate bad days.

2)   Anabolic agents such as testosterone also speed recovery. Faster recovery = fewer bad days.

3)   Gianni Bugno led the 1990 Giro start-to-finish. A strong case can be made that this was the first Grand Tour win courtesy of EPO. Pink from start to finish indicates no bad days.

4)   If we assume that the various allegations against Armstrong are true, seven victories at the Tour suggest he had no bad days (except for a couple of bonks).

5)   Before the age of oxygen vector doping we frequently saw riders deliver a spectacular day at a Grand Tour and follow it up with a stunning fold.

Millar has expressed doubts about Ivan Basso’s 2006 Giro d’Italia win, where he finished more than nine minutes ahead of Jose Enrique Gutiérrez. Is he suggesting that nine minutes is superhuman, but six minutes (Contador’s margin of victory) is merely mortal?

Everything we know about human physiology says that even when you’re at peak form you can’t ride around at threshold for six hours a day for three weeks. Everything we know from our own lives tells us we have bad days, even when we’re not on the bike. Bad days are a normal part of life.

It is within human nature to want to be our best on every ride. We often ride like we believe it’s possible. It’s a hell of a statement of hope. I like that. However, if someone tells you that a rider’s default setting is magic, get out your shovel. That’s not mud around your ankles.


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  1. Thomas Fleishman

    David Miller, Please get real. For those of us who have followed pro cycling for 30 + years, your defense of a superhuman seems as lame as my naive believe that Tyler and Lance were the legitimate champions that they posed to be. I still accept however a sinner that has repented, right on Tyler for speaking the truth, finally and David Miller for taking his lumps. I will forgive Lance when he finally gives us the truth that we all know. That will be the bravest act of his life. Viva -Velo

  2. todd k

    Was thinking much the same when I first read those comments, Padraig. Only way I could make his comments sensical is if read them as sarcasm.

    You’ll also never find grape jelly in my fridge for somewhat similar reasons.

  3. sophrosune

    I believe the point Millar is trying to make is about Contador’s consistency in all the races he’s entered, not just in the TdF like some other riders. It seems the argument he’s making goes like this: a rider who dopes will target his doping to be effective for one or two rides a year where he will exccel. However, in the other races during the year he will hardly make an impression. Sounds similiar to some other grand tour winners and hopefuls. But in the case of Contador, he has consistently won or been very high in the GC in nearly every race he’s entered. I believe he’s one something like 17 of the 24 stage races he’s entered.

    I am not sure what dark agenda you suspect from Millar. Could you elucidate what he’s expecting in return for saying something positive about Contador rather than negative?

    1. Author

      Sophrosune: I had considered that possibility as well. Armstrong, at the absolute height of his power was doing well in more than just the Tour. Hell, Landis’ 2006 season was a rampage that began in the spring, and we know he wasn’t fueled by pain et l’eau. Let’s remember, even though Contador rides well anywhere he shows up, he still doesn’t race a schedule as full as, say, Fignon’s was; he’s not winning Paris-Nice anymore, so he’s not on fire from March to July. And that agenda by Millar? I’ve no idea. I’m utterly stymied. Millar’s comments made as little sense to me as the average crap that comes out of Pat McQuaid’s mouth. What possible reason might he have to say something so silly? I simply don’t know, and that makes me wonder. I should also mention that I can’t really envision a quid pro quo for the statement. My concern is that he feels some need to manipulate the media and fans.

      “Magic”? Really? We all know that anyone who makes it to the ranks of a pro has a physical gift that places them at the shallowest end of the bell curve. Given the problems the sport faces, what we need now is to fix our gaze with the aid of a sober eye, not hyperbole.

  4. MCH

    Maybe David’s “magic days” result in eternal optimism rather outstanding days on the bike. In the face of overwelming contradictory evidence, I’m not sure how he does it, but I give him credit for it.

    Seriously, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. To often though, it seems that athlete’s opinions seem to have little thought behind them, or even rarer, facts.

  5. Gal

    I think it is unfortunate that people are so busy hating Contador they stop paying attention to the possibility Millar is bringing up here.
    this possibility might be the real hope of the sport we all love and kind of obssesd over.
    he is talking about pure talent … yes talent, not the ability not to get cought.
    it is almost look and sound like some people even in a perfect world when somehow it could proven beyond a shadow of a doubdt that Contador is clean some people would be disapointed to learn that.

    he is talking about his talent, the talent he see in him.
    I love this sport and see the way Contador ride as the real hope for the sport, a rider who go out and ride with a little less tactic and just want to win.

    i am no expert by no mean but i love the way Millar does not follow the recent trand and point the direction everyone choose for whatever reason not to look at.

  6. cwcushman

    Doping or not, history shows us that every generation or so there a rider will emerge that will dominate.

    Lance Armstrong
    Jacques Anquetil
    Eddy Merckx
    Bernard Hinault
    Miguel Indurain

    This is just Contador’s time.

  7. Tricky Dicky

    I was a bit surprised to read this quote too, particularly since it followed David sinking the boot into Lance’s efforts (in a relatively polite manner of course). However, I think I get the distinction – as mentioned by others above, Contador just wants to win everything he enters. I respect him for that alone. Lance and others (step forward Andrew Schleck) barely raced outside the Tour and when they did they’d just trundle along and would only peak for perhaps one of the Ardennes Classics and/or a part of a warm up one week tour, otherwise just hiding away until July, getting the “preparation” just right outside of the glare of the authorities…..

    I am no fanboy of Contador’s and would prefer a win in the Tour from Cadel, Sammy Sanchez or Wiggo, for example, but Contador really is as close to the “immortals” of the past that I can think of. His palmares when he retires will be truly incredible and goes far beyond Le Tour. Do I think he doped? Possibly, but I just would be amazed if he did for the Giro with the spotlight on him and look what he did to everyone there – I think that is the point that Millar is making: he would need balls of steel to cheat at the Giro in the present circumstances, yet he still destroys the opposition. That must be natural talent?

    Just as lots of Americans eulogise about Lemond, the cycling world in Europe has known about Contador’s abilities since he was a kid – he’s hardly a recent revelation with “surprising good recent results”. If he wasn’t Spanish would you have a different view?

  8. Chris

    As one has been said, not least by Millar, Contador is incredibly consistent. One of my favourite stage finishes from last year was AC trying to drop eventual winner Brajkovic in the Dauphine last year. To me this was a ‘Magic Day’ for Brajkovic, and maybe on off day where AC was not yet as his TdF winning peak. But AC still won the stage. Did he use clenbuterol? I don’t know. Does he use other doping strategies? I don’t know. I hope not. But one thing is clear, he is a mammoth talent and whether he serves a suspension or not, he will still sit near the top of the record books for stages racers.

    It is for this reason, his inevitable domination, that I hope to hell he’s clean.

  9. SinglespeedJarv

    It’s the second or third time Miller has said something that jars with his comeback persona, the other notable was his comments about Landis a year ago

  10. sophrosune

    @Padraig No he wasn’t in Paris Nice this year, he just won the Giro d’Italia instead. The year Landis won the TdF he also won Paris Nice true, anything else? When Armstrong was winning his TdF what other races did he win in those years? Other than stages at the Dauphine not much. So I beg to differ that the examples you cite of Armstrong and Landis showed anything approaching the winning consistency of Contador. Contador wins races in February (Algarve) to September (Vuelta)–he’s won 17 of the 24 stage races he’s entered.

    Millar as an ex-doper has given us insight into how doping is effective in the pro peloton. It is used it would seem for one to remain consistent for a few select weeks in a racing calendar. It seems it is not used to keep a rider consistently winning throughout the year.

    If neither you nor I can imagine a sinister quid pro quo for Millar’s opinion, then perhaps he sincerely believes what he’s saying. Just as perhaps Contador was sincere when he said that he did not dope and was convinced that his positive for clenbuterol was the result of the meat he ate.

  11. Jarvis

    Tricky Dicky: if he hadn’t ridden for Manolo Saiz & been implicated in Puerto. If he hadn’t ridden for Discovery Channel and Astana. If he hadn’t got off the beach and won the Giro in ’08 ahead of many then busted for CERA. If the whole Clenbutador case hadn’t initially tried to be swept under the carpet, then spurious claims of tainted meat to finally the Spanish polticians seemingly getting involved to throw out the year ban he was going to be handed.

    If it hadn’t been for all this, then I might consider him to be whiter than white.

  12. sophrosune

    Wow, I hadn’t realized people were still trotting out those largely discredited Verbier numbers still. My aim was not to defend Contador but explain how and why Millar said this about Contador and not about some other cyclists. I have learned that it is hopeless to change people’s opinions about Contador, especially among English speakers.

  13. Adam

    sophrosune, As well as winning Paris Nice – which he did by simply riding away from the entire peleton, Landis also won the Tour of Georgia and California that year.

  14. Alex

    If I´m not mistaken, Millar released his autobiography a couple of weeks ago. Probably, this and many other matters should be better explained in his book, so we may have a clearer view of what´s on his mind. Or not.

    1. Author

      I hate to have to reiterate this, but I’ll reiterate, Contador was really incidental to the post. Especially his VAM numbers. The problem here is calling anyone’s talent or fitness “magic.” Let’s keep our feet on the ground. There are no “magic” riders. You’re either exceptionally fit or doped. Houdini was not a cyclist. And honestly, if we’re going to deconstruct magic, it’s going to come down on the side of cheating.

      And as Adam spelled out, in ’06 Landis won the Tour of California, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Georgia and the Tour de France. He won from February to July. It’s arguably the winningest season a Grand Tour rider has shown in the last 10 years. It’s certainly a more impressive season than Contador has had this year—but that’s not to denigrate Contador. My point is to show that doping in and of itself doesn’t create troughs in a season. Riders often disappear from competition as they train for their appointed events and occasionally ride their way through other stuff, but doping—as Landis’ season shows—does not prevent one from winning event upon event.

      Millar’s book is out, but as the quotes I called him out for were both recent and extemporaneous, I don’t expect we’re going to see any explanation for his thinking in that book.

  15. sophrosune

    @Padraig Apologies but the Tour of California and Tour of Georgia are one-week stage races that are no more impressive than Contador’s wins last year at Algarave and Castilla y Leon along with his win at Paris-Nice and TdF. Just because the US cycling press hardly knows those races exist doesn’t mean they aren’t important. In fact, the Tour of Georgia doesn’t even exist anymore and hardly lived long enough to factor into any tour pro’s calendar. Landis’ achievement in 2006 was no more impressive than what Contador did last year (and the year before that and the year before that) except through a very specific US-centric lens.

    I did not say, though it is clever for you to suggest that I did, that doping would prevent one from one winning event after event through the year. I imagine that the insight Millar is providing us is that doping is a risky business at this stage of the game and that the rider that doesn’t perform well through most of the year and then suddenly turns out a great performance is a more likely candidate for doping than one that wins every race he enters. The reason for this is the risk of geting caught when you just do it a few times in a racing season rather than through the entire racing season is far less.

    Millar’s point of view is from inside the peloton and how things works from that perspective. He has no axe to grind or quo to get from this quid that we are able to detect. I think it deserves a bit of analysis rather than dismissal

    1. Author

      Sophrosune: My last comment really wasn’t directed at you specifically, so I hope you’ll consider that I’m not writing strictly to rebut your views. Now, to respond to your comment, let me begin by saying that I brought Landis up to show that we had a specific instance of a rider we know was doped and managed to ride well for more than a month. I was not suggesting you said that, though I think we can all agree that idea is one way Millar’s comments can be read.

      Granted, Contador’s 2010 season was most impressive. With a bit more review of both seasons, I might conclude it was a better record than Landis’.

      I don’t agree with Millar’s analysis; I’ve seen too many examples that disagree with his view to accept it. (I’m thinking out loud and not responding specifically to anyone, ‘kay?) While I’m willing to analyze his ideas, I don’t think any of us should accept the language he uses. I mean, if riders can be magic, can they perform miracles? After all, what else would we call a 50-minute 60k individual time trial? And if they are magic and perform miracles does that mean they are divine? If you’re a God, you won’t need to dope, right? Let’s leave hyperbole for prose rather than a element to defend an embattled rider facing some serious charges.

  16. sophrosune

    Fair enough. Millar’s use of the term “magic” seems to have really stuck in your craw. To me it was just a way of saying that Contador was extremely talented. Yes, all the cyclists in the peloton are talented, but they are not all the same and to suggest that they are seems a bit disingenous for the sake of argument. I know in my club there are people who have a combination of qualities that make them better than me and other people in the club but I am fairly confident that we could all drop a first-time cyclist with flat tires.

    It would seem that Millar believes that Contador is more talented than the other riders in the peloton and suggests that this is a view widely accepted within the peloton. It is a view, however, that is widely denigrated in the US cycling press.

  17. Robot

    For my part, I quite like Contador. He races with huevos. I love his aggression. I think the issue, at least in this country, is that we’re deeply skeptical of all the winners now, especially those who seem to win effortlessly, as Contador just has.

    For example, I love Philipe Gilbert. He’s my favorite current rider by a long stretch, but I have a hard time believing in his purity. That’s not his fault. It’s the fault of Lance and Alejandro and Alexandre and Jan and Marco and yes, even Millar, who came before and took what belonged rightfully to others.

  18. Jarvis

    I seem to have a split personality in this thread. Millar is a bit of an harlequin when it comes to doping. For all the good he has done and for all that he is willing to speak out; in my mind he has not spoken out enough and has, what I would term, “lapses of judgement” given his almost self-imposed Fr. David persona. He doesn’t seem willing to judge the powerful and those close to him. In a way he is similar to Vaughters, who admirable for what he done so far, can’t seem to shake the rumour that he has been trying to sign Contador for years. Something that would seem to go against the very core of what he stands for.

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