When Paul Kimmage’s book “Rough Ride” came out in 1991 the story he told was one that not many people wanted to hear. It was a reality of cycling to which many of us were unaware. Indeed, many of us would have preferred to keep it that way. The story he wove was one few were clamoring to hear, one that contained truths many of us had never guessed, truths that were at odds with what we believed cycling was at minimum, what cycling should be at worst.
When Kimmage was ostracized from most of the cycling world, few who had taken the time to read the book could have been surprised. Not only was his story a shocking one, it was bitter and left little room for nuanced responses. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have danced a diplomatic waltz that backed him up while not simultaneously giving the finger to the entire peloton. He was in a no-win situation, one that has sealed his fate as less a journalist than an antagonist because his work so rarely contains anything approaching compassion. Journalists live and die by friends; you may call them contacts or sources, but to those who ply the trade, one always thinks of making friends.
“Rough Ride” could be summed up as the first survey of an iceberg. Like those early Lewis and Clark maps that look familiar but clearly lack the precise reflection of satellite photographs, Kimmage came to us and announced that most of the iceberg was underwater, that there was—incredibly—twice the ice below the waterline as above it. His was as fantastic a tale as we’d heard.
Yet his was a necessary initial step. First into the breach. Without him leading the charge, shattering myths, we’d think of Tyler Hamilton’s and Daniel Coyle’s “The Secret Race” (Bantam, $28) as one elaborate delusion. But Hamilton and Coyle have undertaken as specific a survey of an iceberg as we’ve seen. This is National Geographic: photos, measurements, months spent in sea ice. It’s one thing to claim a two-bit domestique is full of shit; harder to do when it’s someone who reached the top.
That the book is meticulously researched is unsurprising, at least to me. I’ve been reading (and respecting) Coyle’s work since I first read him in Outside Magazine in the 1990s. His work thorough, his storytelling perfectly paced—efficient and brief when necessary, while rich and layered when things get heavy. If Jeff Novitzky and Travis Tygart are storming the bastille, Hamilton has taken Coyle in the back entrance, showed him where everything is kept: sleeping quarters here, provisions here, armory and magazine there.
While the book is as compelling a read as can be found in cycling, one must embark with a taste for tragedy. I was reminded of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News.”
Of course, many readers will find exactly what they seek. People who believe that dopers should be chased from the sport with pitchforks will find the yard-sale of Hamilton’s personal life satisfying rather than heart-rending. Lance’s would-be lynch mob will find even more reason to want him eviscerated as publicly as possible. Those who don’t like Armstrong are unlikely to wince at Hamilton’s most compassionate insights into him, his motivations. Armstrong’s still legions of fans are unlikely to read the book, which will make for an unfortunate miss in potential sales, and even bigger miss in dispensing reality.
Hamilton and Coyle perceptively call out the incident that ultimately leads to the investigation culminating in Armstrong’s downfall. It is, of course, Floyd Landis’ email to USA Cycling, the confession that was called everything short of J.R.R. Tolkein’s greatest fantasy. They point out how the entire investigation would never have taken place had Armstrong possessed the charity to give Landis a spot on his team. Simply mend a fence.
However, I think the more telling event took place a few years before, an event few of us could ever have guessed. The scrutiny that resulted in Hamilton’s positive tests that destroyed his career came as a result of a tip, a tip allegedly given to the UCI by Armstrong. One can infer that no length was too great in Armstrong’s mind, no effort too outlandish, not when defeating an opponent was at stake. For me, that felt like a real turning point for Armstrong, a selling out of the omerta in the most cynical way possible.
This book weighs on me. It has infected my dreams, putting me in rooms with Hamilton and Armstrong, their sponsors, causing bicycles to float through my nights, and resulting in mornings that lack the refreshed satisfaction of a night’s rest. The question on my mind is that after cycling is burned down in the United States, what, if anything, will come in Europe. Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid have been less leaders than shopkeepers. They are the competent employees left to mind the store while the owner runs to the bank. The problem: There’s no owner. No one has taken responsibility for the mess the sport is in and perhaps the one thing everyone can agree upon is that the UCI has done a terrible job of governing. McQuaid can’t be trusted to get the reform accomplished that cycling desperately needs if only for a simple reason—it’s virtually impossible to amputate yourself.
Hamilton cheated and lied about cheating. He sinned against cycling. There’s no getting around that. But in as much as anyone can ever repent a sin, “The Secret Race” makes amends by taking responsibility for his part and giving up everything he knows. He’s done his time, served his sentence. As a culture we profess to stand against cruel and unusual punishment. I can’t say I believe the punishment fit the crime, not when you consider the way we punish violent crimes, white-collar crimes.
Hamilton has done more to expose cycling’s flaws than all the anti-doping crusaders combined. From the way the book closes, it sounds like he wants little to do with cycling other than his coaching business and something in that makes my heart ache for him. He is our Prodigal Son. I’d like to think that he’s got more to contribute to this sport, something positive. If I had an olive branch—a job—I’d extend it; somehow “thanks” and “I’m sorry for your loss” don’t seem enough. This may be the most important book ever written on cycling.
Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.
This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.
Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.
At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”
In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.
In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.
Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.
USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.
Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.
Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.
Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.
Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.
In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.
The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.
One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”
If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
CicLAvia, the cycling event that shuts down a few miles of downtown Los Angeles streets, was held yesterday to an enthusiastic crowd. An estimated 100,000 people attended, most riding bikes, but many rode skateboards, skated (including LA’s roller derby team, the LA Derby Dolls) or just ran. I think of CicLAvia as Critical Mass with manners. CicLAvia gets right all the things that Critical Mass gets wrong: It is an organized event that promotes ridership and receives the full support of the city, right down to police protection. Post-event reports mentioned a few bike thefts (which sucks donkey fur), but not a single injury (which is a bigger miracle than Jesus-in-the-tree). CicLAvia also has a terrific marketing campaign behind it to the point that if there are pissed-off drivers, it’s hard to tell. Better yet, it gets people out on bikes who wouldn’t be caught dead riding in Critical Mass. Where Critical Mass can embarrass even dedicated cyclists, CicLAvia is a PR campaign for cycling that sells the fun of the sport.
That little guy above is my son, Philip, who turned three in July. His Specialized Hot Rock (yes, that’s him in the photo) is far and away his favorite toy, a detail that gives me unnatural pride and pleasure. My wife and I decided to take him downtown and while we knew we’d see less of the nine miles of closed streets than if we stuck him in the trailer, we knew he’d have more fun riding his own bike and this could be an important step in his education as a rider.
CicLAvia isn’t just about people riding dusty bikes that receive, at best, irregular use. The city takes the opportunity to turn a portion of downtown into a festival of sorts. There were bands and DJs playing and a selection of food trucks with diverse enough offerings to satisfy even the fussiest epicure.
The event is reported to cost an estimated $350k to put on. I haven’t really chased the nature of the cost—which is lazy journalism I admit—but I suspect the vast majority of the cost comes from the police tending the intersections. That number concerns me if only because it seems like a lot of money for a five-hour event. I harbor a deep concern that such an budget item could dry up the instant a new mayor is sworn in; I don’t doubt that the money is well-used or that the event is worth it. My issues is that if it cost less, it would be harder to kill if the city’s next mayor wasn’t as partial to cycling. And let’s face facts: Most city mayors in the United States don’t see cycling with our eyes.
Honestly, with so much going on the sidelines, Philip was easily distracted and there were times when we had to work to keep him focused on riding his bike. Thankfully, he’s not that knowledgeable about bikes, so he wasn’t distracted the way I was when this vintage Bottecchia in Greg LeMond’s Team ADR colors passed us.
While CicLAvia is really meant to get people who don’t ride very often out on bikes—heck, it’s even possible for people who don’t own bikes to rent them at the event, so it really is an excuse-free chance to ride—it is a great opportunity for people who have the bike equivalent of the sideshow freak to come out and make people smile.
October in Los Angeles is a time of year where nearly every spot in the whole of the county enjoys pleasant weather. Yesterday was Exhibit 1 in the case, a day when my friends back East would say to me, “Brag, and you die.”
CicLAvia is now a quarterly event; I missed this summer’s ride because of travel, but aim to attend as often as possible. Why? Well, the easy answer is that it takes a colossal effort on the part of an army of volunteers to make the stars align so that this event happens, not just once, but on a recurring basis. The dividends that it pays can hardly be counted. It’s a prime way to remind people who don’t ride very often just how fun cycling is. So there’s that. Then there’s the reminder people get about how handy a bicycle could be in getting around on a practical basis, especially in these days of $4.99 gas (maybe we should cheer for the oil companies reaping record profits?). So there’s that, too. Then consider the way that all these people might just be more accommodating to seeing cyclists on the road by virtue of the fact that they’ve been on one just recently. What about that? Finally, the way the event is promoted on TV and in local papers helps to remind even those who don’t attend that cyclists are around, that it’s an acceptable activity, not just some kid thing.
I’m not even sure what to say about the device above; it and its riders (?) fascinated me. The pedaled dinner party, complete with chandelier (look closely) was one of the most exuberant expressions of the day’s rolling party and the only thing I saw photographed more fervently than my kiddo.
This shot above will be my abiding memory from this edition. Philip’s first group ride. Nearly everyone asked how old he was as they passed. And he got crazy amounts of encouragement, which while he thoroughly enjoyed, was also a distraction to him and often saw him swerve off his line, an ongoing challenge that required no outside input.
Societal changes take place over generations. When my parents were kids, public transportation was something most people used at least occasionally if not nearly daily. Renting out rooms of your home to a complete stranger wasn’t uncommon either, at least not to the social strata of my family. Clearly, that’s not the world I live in. CicLAvia is an event that may help reintroduce my son’s generation to the idea that the bike isn’t just a play thing. Many of the bikes I saw yesterday were commuter types: Flying Pigeons, Linuses and the like. This shot of him riding in that mass of bikes has the most profound effect on me; I get choked up seeing it. I’d really like his world to be one in which the bicycle is better accepted.
Awrighty … I have way more than 140 characters to work with here.
As your question suggests, Landis was ordered by the court to refrain from making any disparaging remarks about the UCI, its current president Pat McQuaid and past president Hein Verbruggen. Catherine Piguet. Est Vaudois District Civil Court chairman entered the default judgment after Landis failed to appear and mount a defense against a complaint the three plaintiffs filed against him in April.
Absent a defense, the court had little choice but to rule in favor of the UCI, McQuaid and Verbruggen. If you don’t show up to defend against the charges, odds are you will lose. (One of Landis’ former teammates recently learned that lesson, but alas, I digress.) In her decision, Piguet issued an order that:
“forbids Floyd Landis to state that the Union Cycliste Internationale, Patrick (Pat) McQuaid and/or Henricus (Hein) Verbruggen have concealed cases of doping, received money for doing so, have accepted money from Lance Armstrong to conceal a doping case, have protected certain racing cyclists, concealed cases of doping, have engaged in manipulation, particularly of tests and races, have hesitated and delayed publishing the results of a positive test on Alberto Contador, have accepted bribes, are corrupt, are terrorists, have no regard for the rules, load the dice, are fools, do not have a genuine desire to restore discipline to cycling, are full of shit, are clowns, their words are worthless, are liars, are no different to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, or to make any similar other allegations of that kind;” (My Emphasis Added)
Think about it. There is actually now a court order in place that specifically forbids Floyd Landis from saying, for example, that “Hein Verbruggen is full of shit.”
But as you ask, where does the Swiss court get the authority to impose such an order? That’s actually a pretty easy question. These days, particularly when it involves an international story, libel and slander can quickly become a world-wide tort. In this case, Landis had a conversation with reporter Paul Kimmage, who then submitted a story to the Sunday Times of London and the entire interview transcript to our friends over at NYVeloCity.Com.
The Sunday Times, of course, is based in Great Britain. NYVeloCity is based in the U.S. There is nothing all that Swiss about either. But the three plaintiffs sought redress in the Swiss courts, specifically the same court in which they have filed a similar suit against Kimmage.
In order to argue for Swiss jurisdiction over the case, plaintiffs merely need to show that they are engaged in business or reside within Swiss borders, that the statement or statements were repeated in Switzerland and that the alleged defamatory statement may have impacted their reputations or business interests within Switzerland.
Okay, so they fare pretty well on all three. The UCI is based in Switzerland and both McQuaid and Verbruggen (although Irish and Dutch nationals) live and work in Switzerland. That their reputations may have been affected in Switzerland is true and it would be up to the court to determine whether that in fact had happened. Finally, pretty much anything anyone posts on the Internet is automatically “repeated” within Swiss borders.
So, the Swiss court correctly asserts jurisdiction over the matter. Landis fails to mount a defense and – Bazinga! – Floyd Landis suddenly has a valid court order barring him from saying, for example, “Hein Verbruggen is full of shit.”
Well, in addition to not being able to say that “Hein Verbruggen is full of shit,” and other disparaging statements, he was ordered to pay 10,000 Swiss francs to both Verbruggen and McQuaid and to publish the “operant provisions” of the order, at his own expense, in several media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, L’Equipe, Switzerland’s Le Temps and websites, including the aforementioned NYVeloCity.com.
Well, the order also imposes a requirement that Landis pay the plaintiffs’ legal costs and adds that the failure to pay the award and costs will result in five percent interest being added to the total each year.
Then comes the enforcement provision, which essentially says that failure to pay or to comply with any of the provisions of the order – say he did something like declaring, for example, that “Hein Verbriggen is full of shit!” – then he could be subject to criminal penalties for being in contempt of court.
Well, there isn’t much the UCI, Verbruggen (who, by court order, is not full of shit), McQuaid or even the court can do. Really, the enforcement of a foreign civil judgment is quite difficult here in the U.S., so unless Landis has assets in Switzerland (which is doubtful), it’s unlikely that the plaintiffs will see any of the money the court awarded them in this matter. It’s doubtful, too, that Landis will be taking out full-page ads in L’Equipe or the Journal.
Eventually, he’s likely to be declared in contempt of court and then he may be subject to criminal penalties under Article 292 of the Swiss Criminal Code.
Well, unless Landis plans on visiting Switzerland, there probably isn’t a lot they can do to him. He’s not going to be extradited from the U.S. to face Swiss justice because he ignored a civil judgment against him. He’s unlikely to face troubles even if he travels to other parts of Europe … well, except for France, where he’s barred because of the hacking allegation. While Switzerland isn’t a European Union country, it may be worth his while to look at Swiss extradition questions as they relate to the EU before traveling there. My bet is that it wouldn’t be much of an issue, even there.
So, basically, Landis can ignore the judgment as long as he avoids Switzerland. Heck, he could even test the waters and declare that “Hein Verbruggen is full of shit!” Not that I suggest he do that, of course.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
On a purely personal note, many of you already knew that I was diagnosed with, of all things, breast cancer last year, just prior to my arrival here at Red Kite Prayer.
Yeah, I know, it’s weird. Guys aren’t supposed to get breast cancer … at least that’s what most people think.
I had three surgeries and finished chemo nine months ago and I got another clean bill of health just this week.
So why start talking about it again? Well, one thing I’ve noticed in the annual parade of pink ribbons, (a.k.a. “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” a.k.a. “October”) is that all of that awareness is generally targeted at women. That’s absolutely appropriate given that nearly 99 percent of all breast cancer cases occur in women. However, it’s also safe to say that most women are also by now keenly aware of the disease and its risks.
Men, on the other hand, not so much.
I was one of about 1800 men diagnosed with breast cancer in this country last year. Some studies suggest that breast cancer can be more severe in men, due in no small part that the diagnosis doesn’t come until the disease has progressed to its latter stages. I was lucky and caught mine at Stage 2b.
Anyway, I made that point to the folks over at The Huffington Post and they asked me to write a small piece on a male’s perspective on what is generally regarded as a woman’s disease. You can read it if you choose to, but more importantly, keep in mind that all people can get this disease. Stay vigilant.
The only reason I am doing this is to encourage anyone – male, female or other – who finds a suspicious lump to go straight to your doctor and have it checked out. If they say it’s nothing, get a second opinion before you relax. It could save your life.
The Explainer is a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
Is it me, or does it seem like forever since Tom Boonen did the Roubaix/Flanders double back in April? At the time, I thought, “No one is going to top that this year.” And yet, as Ryder Hesjedal won the Giro d’Italia and Alberto Contador won the Vuelta, each time I was stunned by the beauty of the performance. Love him or hate him, Contador’s attacks on Stage 17 of his home Grand Tour to turn the GC on its head were the stuff of absolute legend.
In Italy, Hesjedal, the lanky Canadian, hung around and hung around and hung around the top of the standings until the closing time trial, in which he took back the 31 seconds Joaquim Rodriguez, held over him and became the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour. And as awesome as that time trial was for Hesjedal, the climbing he did in the final week, marking his rivals and responding to attacks, made the whole thing just that bit more special.
Some might even argue that Bradley Wiggins’ metronomic destruction of the field at the Tour was the ride of the season. Sure, his Sky team did everything just right, overwhelming the field with tempo riding in all terrains, but Wiggins had to close the deal with big climbs and winning time trials.
For me, Boonen’s April is the clear choice, but I have Classics biases. Roubaix and Flanders are both as much like wrestling matches as bike races, and in my mind, being able to dominate them as Tommeke did shows a strength unparalleled in the sport.
And still there were other big performances. This week’s Group Ride asks, what was the best pro ride of the season? Will anyone dare name Vinokourov’s gold medal? How about Philippe Gilbert’s world championship win? Name your winner and say why.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
There was a moment on Friday night when I had a rather minor, if sheepish epiphany. It came as I watched the premiere of “The Levi Effect” during an interview with Levi and he spoke of how the gran fondo was a way for him to give back to Santa Rosa, a way to say thank you to a community that had welcomed him as a native son.
Before I go any further, I need to back up a second and tell you that last winter my wife and I decided to do whatever was necessary to move our family to Santa Rosa. Our love for the region began with our honeymoon, during which we visited Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. I kid that after two days my wife was ready to cancel the rest of the trip, drive home and start packing. In reality, that’s not far off. The kicker for us has been going back to Santa Rosa on an annual basis for Levi’s Gran Fondo. With each successive visit we fall a bit more in love with the community in specific and the region in general.
Santa Rosa is a place like very few I’ve visited; it hurts to leave.
And so as I sat in the dark theater, it occurred to me that Levi Leipheimer is a big part of why I want to move to Santa Rosa. I need to hasten to add that I’m not a Levi fanboy; I’m not dying to go on his training rides, if only for the simple reason that I’d be embarrassed that I’d be holding them up or in the way. I’ll ad that I had a rather surreal introduction to him during the Tour of California. He was about to leave the Omega Pharma-Quickstep dinner I had attended and as he began to say his goodbyes, as it happened we found ourselves standing together. So he did the thing polite guys do: He turned to me and said, “Hi, I’m Levi.”
In a normal world, I would have responded, “Hi, I’m Patrick Brady.” Actually, that is what I said, which is normal enough, huh? But his response was what threw me off.
“Oh, you’re from Santa Rosa, right?”
I tried to explain in 50 words or less that I wasn’t yet, but I was trying. Honestly, I can’t say which part of that is weirdest to me. As much as I want my work to be known, I don’t actually want to be known. I’d like to have a big readership for RKP, but anonymity for me is how I view the natural order for the universe. It taught me a few things: the cycling community in Santa Rosa is tight-freaking-knit, Levi pays attention, oh, and he’s a genuinely decent guy. I was beyond embarrassed that he took a moment for me when I thought the spotlight should be anywhere other than on me.
So when Levi says several times in the course of the film that he wanted to use his celebrity to bring attention to just how special Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are, please take him at his word. It’s that special a place.
Now, concerning the ride itself for this year, the first thing to mention is just how much more sane the start was this year. Last year we may have had a bit more of the full width of the road and a great many riders were desperate to get to the very front. It was nervous and unpleasant, but for reasons I can’t explain, this year was entirely calmer.
There are more and more events out there calling themselves gran fondos and while I haven’t done most of them, what I keep hearing from readers and friends is just how many don’t have a unified start and don’t control intersections to speed riders’ passage. Well, I’m here to tell you, that unless the organizers provide those two elements, it’s not a gran fondo; it’s just a century and calling the event a gran fondo is an insult to the name.
It’s impossible to overstate the incredible amount of work that goes into putting on Levi’s Gran Fondo; the army of volunteers alone is larger than some events’ total ridership. That work has a tangible bottom line, making the experience of speeding out of Santa Rosa, through Sebastopol and toward Occidental an occasion with all the thrill of the opening miles of a bike race. And better than any race I ever participated in, the road is lined with families and volunteers cheering us on as if each of us—to a rider—actually mattered. Those opening miles are a kind of commerce, with the locals cheering riders because they know what’s in store, and in a way cheering for themselves.
Yes, cheering for themselves. A very big component to the gran fondo is charity work. One scene in “The Levi Effect” shows Carlos Perez handing off a check to one of the small communities the ride passes through. With 7,500 people ponying up a C-note, there’s some wealth to spread around.
The day started cool with a bit of mist; it was my first occasion to wear arm warmers this fall and while those opening climbs were through damp forest, once on King Ridge we rode out of the forest and into 360-degree views of the golden hills of Sonoma County. We shed our arm warmers and looked around with stunned expressions and exclamations of hyperbolic superlatives.
“Does it get better than this?”
I was lucky enough to ride for a while with Scot Nicol of Ibis. Scot’s a favorite son of Santa Rosa and all-around nice guy. I think he was going easy this year because normally he comes roaring by me on the opening pitch of King Ridge and this year we actually rode together for a good chunk of the day. The gent on his wheel is Don Winkle, the general counsel for the gran fondo, and part of Scot’s ongoing ride posse. Must be fun.
The combination of broken forest, golden hills and ordered vineyards gave the panaorama a view that changed with each new bend in the road. For sheer variety of view, there aren’t many places that can match this, though the Alps and Tuscany can hold their own.
Being greeted at a rest stop by a guy handing out sandwiches was an occasion of such sheer surprise it reminded me of the scene at the end of “Pretty in Pink” where the hot girl smiles at Ducky and he mouthes, “Moi?”
At heart, I’m a peasant and such a level of service was nearly more than my feeble brain could process.
Food was plentiful like beer at a frat house. I had to walk around the lunch stop just to make sure that I wasn’t missing out on something special—Nutter Butters? Are you serious?! It was only after I’d made the rounds the first time that I looked up and noticed how there were all these incredibly helpful signs that if you weren’t locked in your own little time zone could direct you to your ultimate refuel. It’s a small touch, but it’s yet another great example of how Bike Monkey goes the extra mile at every turn.
A proper Sonoma County day is one in which you extra clothing to tackle changing conditions. A typical day can see 30-degree temperature swings. At the start we were mere degrees above the need for a vest; I did see plenty of people with wind breakers and vests. I went with a bit of Rapha embro and arm warmers, plus one of my heavier base layers. Following the stellar sun and warmth on top of King Ridge, we could see the blanket of clouds that signaled the drop down Meyer’s Grade to Jenner and the Sonoma Coast, land of amazing Pinot Noir. Be sure to click on the image to see it in a larger size; this tiny display doesn’t do the view justice.
The Northern California coast bears nothing in common with Southern California’s sand beaches. It’s a place of drama, real nature in action and so overloaded with fascinating scenes it’s hard not to soft pedal and take in the beauty.
Shane Bresnyan and Glenn Fant of the Bike Peddler and NorCal Bike Sport. Check a Strava segment anywhere in Sonoma County, off-road or on it and you’ll see their names in the top 10. By the time I rolled into the finish Shane and Glenn were showered, fed and relaxing with friends. Neat trick.
Tom Danielson was a great addition to the gran fondo this year. He was every bit as friendly and gracious as Levi himself and proved to be a huge draw for young riders.
There’s going to come a day when I take my son to Levi’s Gran Fondo. I expect that first edition will be piccolo, but the ride will nearly be beside the point. Pro cycling may be a mess right now, but the ugly story lines are lost, thankfully, on the sport’s youngest practitioners. Meeting a big-time pro has the power to be a transformative experience. I’m looking forward to sharing an amazing day with my little peddler.
The weekend was a whirlwind. Driving, fueling (both me and the car), riding, shooting, writing, more writing and talking. Talking, talking and more talking; after all, that’s what happens, even to an introvert, when he bumps into scores of terrific people. I feel as if much of the weekend went by too quickly to properly record it all on my gray matter memory stick, but I did what I could to let it all soak in.
But wait a sec. I should point out that the weekend of Levi’s Gran Fondo, okay more properly, Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo (a name like some pure-bred dog’s) is the most unlikely of events. Unlikely not because it is a cycling event that takes place in a smaller community (at roughly 170,000 you can’t really call Santa Rosa a small town), but because the town’s population swells by a good six or seven percent—enough to be fill every hotel and motel for 20 miles—cycling takes center stage and it’s a rare occasion when cycling becomes cool. Cool by any measure. It feels like what high school would have been like had I been cool back then. Of course, that’s purely conjecture on my part as I was as far from cool as Boise is from Miami.
Friday night was the premiere of the documentary about Leipheimer called “The Levi Effect.” The event saw a crowd lined up down the street for a good city block. Inside it took over several of the theaters, at least three by my count. Before the movie started Leipheimer spoke for a few moments and told the assembled crowd (and there was a video feed to stream his comments into the other theaters) how the only way he had been willing to agree to a documentary was that if it didn’t focus exclusively on him. Everyone laughed; clearly the notion that you could have a documentary titled “The Levi Effect” and not focus it on Levi Leipheimer seemed funny, but he was serious. He talked about how he wanted the documentary to focus on the way the cycling gave him Santa Rosa and how the gran fondo was his way to say thank you to Santa Rosa.
The documentary itself was a delight. I doubt there’s another film in existence that can sell Santa Rosa or even Sonoma County the was this film does, but I’ll save the review for another occasion. Following the film there was a panel discussion with Leipheimer, Tom Danielson and the filmmakers. Danielson stole the show with some incredibly funny remarks: “What’s it like to race with Levi?”
“He kind of a dick.” Danielson has a great command of irony.
If there’s one thing that Levi’s Gran Fondo lacks, it’s a Jumbotron. They need to position one about 100 yards from the start for the many riders who, once queued up, can’t see the stars being interviewed. Patrick Dempsey, above, was the only genuine A-lister I saw this year, though last year I did bump into Erika Christensen in the VIP tent. Danielson made a stop by Dave Towle, also known as the voice of the Amgen Tour of California, as did Olympic Gold Medalist Kristin Armstrong and, of course, Levi.
The man behind the scenes who never gets enough credit: Carlos Perez. This is Carlos with his wife Cheryce and their daughter Zoie. Carlos is the CEO of Bike Monkey and the man who is really the force behind Levi’s Gran Fondo and a great many other terrific events that happen in and around Santa Rosa. He was also the executive producer of “The Levi Effect.” If you ever want to say thank you to someone, this is the guy.
I met Shane Bresnyan on the Specialized Ride to Vegas last year. On our opening ride I’d gotten concerned about a gap that had opened and decided I should jump across to what I thought were the fast guys. I was half way across a 10 second gap on a false flat when he and NorCal BikeSport owner Glenn Fant came by me as if I was getting dropped.
Oh. Huh? Wow.
Shane is one of Levi’s training buds when he’s home. I think that covers it. Oh, wait, he’s also stunningly nice.
Levi took a lot of time to wander through the VIP area at the start and personally say hi to as many riders as possible. This is Levi with Glenn Fant. Fant has served as Levi’s personal mechanic at the Amgen Tour of California, the Criterium du Dauphiné and even the Tour de France. He’s also, perhaps, the only rider in Sonoma County who speaks even less than Levi does.
Specialized honch Mike Sinyard. Mike loves a good, hard ride.
Elden, Fatty, Nelson with Bike Monkey Brand Ambassador (and scribe) Yuri Hauswald.
So what happens when bloggers meet? Pictures, of course.
I’ve been to a lot of bike events in the last 25 years. Races, rides, charity events, you name it, I’ve gone. I can say that the electricity at the start of Levi’s Gran Fondo was unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere, save last year at … Levi’s Gran Fondo.
This is the Church Marching Band performing the National Anthem. They are a 13-piece street band (though they were only eight or nine on this morning) I bumped into this spring at the opening stage of the Tour of California in Santa Rosa. They do everything from Dixieland to Klezmer and I dare say all points between. I’ll say that their rendition of the National Anthem was played with enough love that I got choked up. Hell of a way to start my favorite ride.
In the time I’ve been penning these personal thoughts about cycling’s problems with doping, starting with the 1960s, I’ve become more conscious of how the cycle of revelations and reactions keeps on repeating itself. And how true breakthroughs in the fight against doping only happen when there’s a combination of scientific advancement and unscripted events.
The death of Danish amateur cyclist Knud Jensen, who was on amphetamines, at the Rome Olympics in 1960 initially woke up the sports world to the need for drug testing. France was the first to enact anti-doping legislation, in 1963, but its implementation was erratic and resulted in a riders’ strike when the gendarmerie descended on a Bordeaux hotel at the 1966 Tour de France and inexpertly took urine samples from a number of athletes, including French star Raymond Poulidor.
But it was only after Professor Arnold Beckett, head of London’s Chelsea School of Pharmacy, finalized a rock-solid test for amphetamines that the UCI became the first sports governing body to introduce testing. The first experimental tests at the 1965 Tour of Britain were so successful that the race leader and two others tested positive and were thrown out of the race. Encouraged, the UCI extended the program, including its own world championships the following year. But, because of those problems with the heavy-handed French government testing, the Tour de France didn’t get any UCI-approved controls until 1968—the year after Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux with amphetamines in his system.
Simpson’s death triggered the International Olympic Committee to set up a medical commission, which Beckett joined, and the first list of banned substances was drawn up before testing began at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As I wrote in a previous column, the early anti-doping controls were not always conducted according to the rules, with pro cyclists finding ways to avoid testing positive (as illustrated by Michel Pollentier at the 1978 Tour). Also, it didn’t help that there was no definitive test for steroids until 1974 (also pioneered by a London laboratory), and even then the riders and their soigneurs learned how to use masking agents, such as diuretics, to beat the system, before they were banned too.
It was widely known in the 1970s and early-’80s that long-distance runners and cross-country skiers from Scandinavia were using blood-boosting methods (by re-infusing their previously stored blood) to improve their performances. In Italy, its Olympic Committee CONI even sponsored sports doctor Professor Francesco Conconi (inventor of the Conconi test for establishing an athlete’s anaerobic threshold) and his biomedical research center at the University of Ferrara to prepare athletes from several sports, including skiing and cycling, using blood-boosting methods. And it’s widely accepted that Conconi and his assistant Michele Ferrari helped Francesco Moser break Eddy Merckx’s world hour record at Mexico City in January 1984.
Blood doping was undetectable and even encouraged until members of the 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team (track and road), under the supervision of the U.S. Cycling Federation coaching staff, blood-boosted in Los Angeles. Some intra-federation memos (this happened before e-mails existed) were leaked to Rolling Stone magazine, which published a salacious article on the affair in its February 1985 issue. The result was several USCF officials being reprimanded. It was regarded as a huge scandal in the United States and resulted in blood doping finally being prohibited, first by the USCF, then the UCI, and eventually by the IOC in 1986.
It was ironic that just as blood doping was being banned a team of scientists at biotech company Amgen in California was researching an artificial, or recombinant, form of human erythropoietin for boosting the red-blood-cell count of anemic cancer patients. FDA approval for the new drug Epogen (EPO) came in 1989, but it was already on the black market in Europe, and EPO eventually became the most widely used doping product in cycling, cross-country skiing and long-distance running.
There was no way EPO could be detected in blood tests because it was a genetic hormone that helped athletes create their own new red blood cells. Scientists in Europe and Australia began research on methods to identify the use of EPO by athletes, but it was a long, difficult (and expensive!) process. In the early-1990s, dozens of athletes, including cyclists, allegedly died because of their hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells) reached levels as high as 60 or even 70 percent. In Italy, CONI again gave money to Professor Conconi, this time to research an EPO test, but this merely led to Italian athletes and Italian cycling teams becoming the leaders in the use of EPO.
That was confirmed when the Gewiss team placed three riders in the first three places at the Flèche Wallonne classic in April 1994, after which their team doctor, Ferrari, told Italian and French journalists in an interview that only the abuse of EPO was dangerous, not the drug itself, and that he wasn’t scandalized by riders using it.
That unscripted incident in 1994 was one that didn’t get the reaction it merited, either from the media or the UCI. It gave Verbruggen an opening to condemn the apparent abuse of EPO in Italy, but he played down Ferrari’s remarks and said that the other teams should work and train harder to challenge the Italians. The press criticized Verbruggen but no real investigative journalism was set in motion, and it should be noted that the publications with the biggest resources, L’Équipe in France and La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, also happened to be the organizers of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia respectively. Conflicts of interest were an obvious factor in the lack of action.
With no detailed investigations by the media or the UCI and no definitive test for EPO on the horizon, the blood-boosting drug became more and more predominant in the European pro peloton. Finally, both the UCI and the international ski federation (FIS) looked at ways of deterring athletes from using EPO. The result was that the UCI, after discussions with sports doctor and the pro teams themselves, implemented a 50-percent hematocrit limit in January 1997. Several medical experts questioned the UCI limit as being too stringent, especially as the FIS limit was much higher (equivalent to some 53 percent before a tested athlete was stopped from competing). UCI president Hein Verbruggen was criticized for saying that the new limit was a “health check” and it did not imply use of EPO, but with no foolproof test yet available he was just stating the facts.
The new blood testing had an immediate effect. In the very first tests before the March 1997 Paris-Nice, three of the 20 riders tested, tested over the 50-percent limit. They were all domestiques: Frenchman Erwan Menthéour (who would write a book detailing his use of EPO and other performance-enhancing products, including so-called Pot-Belge, a mixture of amphetamines, cocaine and heroin that riders, and even some French journalists, got high on at parties); and the Italians Mauro Santaromita (later named on a list of athletes implicated in a police investigation into doping), and Luca Colombo. But the penalties of being excluded from the race, along with a fine and a two-week suspension of their racing licenses, was not a huge deterrent.
It was only after the Festina Affair in July 1998 and the various entities (the IOC, sports federations and federal; governments) came together that the World Anti-Doping Agency was formed in December 1999 and the sports world started to take the modern doping problem far more seriously, with the extra funding needed to institute more testing and to enable more research into definitive drug tests. I’ll conclude this story and comment on other more recent revelations in my column next week.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Stella died finally. It was a mercy. I stood by the door of the chapel in my wool suit with tears and laughter streaming out the door, and wondered how I’d gotten there.
We were sitting at our desks working when she started to get a headache. She went home. She took aspirin. She rested. The headache wouldn’t go away. She didn’t complain until the third day. She was like that.
The headache was a brain tumor, a deep one, in a spot that resisted treatment, though they treated her anyway. She lasted some years after that, mostly through positive attitude and stubborness. She wore a beret to cover the bald spot the treatment gave her and smiled to show that she was unafraid.
Stella was bombastic. She spewed love. She hugged you when you met her, and then every time she saw you after that. She smiled and laughed and raved and ranted. She assaulted life, and life was better for it. If anything, the tumor motivated her to double down on love. She became more, rather than less.
The day of her ‘life celebration,’ the chapel was packed and people flowed down the steps, hung out of the back door, and stood quietly in the driveway. No one wanted to cry because Stella wouldn’t have wanted that, but they cried anyway, because that’s how grief works.
I drove around all day thinking about my friend and trying to make some sense out of the senselessness of her loss. What to do? What to do?
I came to this conclusion: You have to let things like this change you. You have to let the example people like Stella set seep into your bones and change the way you are in the world. We talk about learning the lessons of losses, but it’s not enough to simply learn, to intellectualize, to become aware. You have to change the person you are. You have to let all that love wash through you, and you have to pass it along and become a more decent, a more positive person. It’s the only thing that makes sense.
Stella would come to me and say that she had ridden her bike over the weekend. The traffic terrified her, but she was trying. One day, she thought, she’d be able to ride all the way to work. She wanted to be a cyclist. This was part of what I did, part of who I was, that she was willing to take as part of herself. She was letting me change her, until the tumor derailed the process.
Life can be full of painful losses. I won’t catalog the possibilities, because we are all aware. And when I relate these events back to cycling, which is in my nature, I see both how small a thing riding a bike can be, and how it can also change your life. A loss on a bike, in a race, or in a town line sprint, or in a crash, is a nothing, a false conceit for things like the passing of a friend. At the same time, every ride is a meditation on living. It can be a source of learning and strength and root-level change, if you let it.
When a friend dies, you think about your own mortality, your loved ones. It rocks your sense of the order of the universe. But rather than retreat into anger, which is almost always my first inclination, Stella’s passing reminded me how impotent anger really is, and how powerful love can be.
There is a ghost bike around the corner from the office Stella and I used to share. A cyclist was struck and killed there years ago, and the bike has remained. Now, when I pass it, I will think of Stella, and I will smile, knowing that I am a better person for having known her.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot