So this week the well-respected journal the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study that human growth hormone (HGH) does, in fact, improves athletic performance by helping to build fast-twitch muscle fiber. Specifically, the study found that in men HGH would improve performance by 3.9 percent—shaving .4 of a second from a 10-second sprint time in the 100-meter dash. And while sprinting performance was dramatically improved, HGH did nothing for endurance (unsurprising) or overall strength (somewhat surprising).
In cycling, an improvement of 3.9 percent isn’t the difference between steps on the podium, it is the difference between pack fodder and crushing the competition. Whether you look at the results from a Grand Tour or from one of the Monuments, a single percent range in performance can include the top-20 finishers.
Some of the men in the study also received injections of testosterone. For those men, the performance increase was a whopping 8 percent. Imagine for a second being an 8-percent-improved rider. That’s going from a 1-hour 40k time trial to a 55:12 40k time. Eight percent could turn you from a climber into a time trialist or a nobody into a god.
The study begs several questions. First, is anyone really surprised by this? There has been strong anecdotal evidence that HGH produced results for anyone looking for an illegal edge.
A bigger question is, what is the dosage size that athletes taking HGH normally use? Dr. Ken Ho, who ran the study, gave his subjects modest doses for only eight weeks, as compared to what guys like Mark McGwire were taking, which is alleged to be a much higher dosage for extended periods of time. Obviously, the gains could be more than 4 percent. Much more, perhaps.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) helped fund the study. One wonders why they wanted the results printed in a peer-reviewed journal. This would seem to be information that they wouldn’t want athletes willing to dope (or their doctors or coaches) to find out. One can safely assume that some aspect of this study will aid those who are trying to evade detection of their drug use.
The amateur athletes who participated in the study reported several side effects. The HGH caused fluid retention that resulted in some swelling as well as joint pain. One man reported that his breasts grew.
Maybe drug testing in the future should include looking for pros who are wearing jog bras.
More seriously, the media has reported the publication of this paper with a certain amount of surprise. As I read about it, I’ll admit my jaw went slack, but my expression was more “duh” that “holy cow.”
There have been whispers about who in the peloton has been using HGH, but so far, the most substantive accusation was that the entire T-Mobile team was using the stuff along with EPO. And of course, boatloads of the stuff was in Willy Voet’s Festina team car when he arrived at his fateful border stop in 1998.
I don’t want to accuse you readers of being a cynical bunch, but are any of you surprised by the results of this study, either in general or the more specific aspect of just how much performance can be improved by either HGH alone or in combination with testosterone?
And in other news … there’s this little cycling tour that’s going to take in some great sights in Italy. Disingenuousness aside, most of the cycling media outlets are saying this is the most wide-open Giro in years. That may be right. With no Menchov, no Killer, no Pellizotti and no Contador, Evans would seem to be the heir apparent; he seems to have developed a taste for actually winning instead of just showing.
Does anyone think Garzelli has something like a chance to win? Even Simoni seems to have conceded that he is over the hill and will hope for a stage win in this, his final Grand Tour.
So two questions to you all: Who will take the maglia rosa in the prologue? We’ve got stickers for the first correct answer on that. Also, who do you think will get to go home with the pink jersey once the last kilometer is ridden? Stickers to the first correct prognosticator.
I’ve got my money on Evans.
There is a covenant between us. The pros suffer. We watch. They will not suffer if we do not watch. We will not watch if they do not suffer. Some of us take this a step further. We suffer too. We suffer to understand ourselves, but also to understand their suffering. It puts their exploits in perspective and bonds us to them.
What is this transaction? Is it fan and competitor? Is it sadist and masochist? Entertainer and audience? All of those and more?
To be sure, there is art in cycling. Some riders have the tactical nous to achieve victories without being the strongest in the race. I’m thinking of Sylvain Chavanel, Phillipe Gilbert and perhaps Heinrich Haussler from the current peleton. Other riders find ways to turn their pure strength into spectacle. Now I’ve got Thor Hushovd, Fabian Cancellara and Mark Cavendish in mind. Finally, there are the sufferers, those who push themselves out into the red. These are the riders who win the Grand Tours, Contador, Armstrong, even Cadel Evans, on some level. There is no rider offering a red kite prayer who is not creating something from his or her capacity to suffer.
There is an audacity to suffering. Who dares go beyond the red?
There is a Kafka short story titled, “A Hunger Artist.” The main character is a once popular performer of fasts, a hunger artist, who falls out of favor with the public. Fasting is no longer appreciated. His straw strewn cage moves slowly from the center of proceedings out to the periphery of the circus. Eventually, the crowds walk by without so much as noticing his shrunken form. He pushes on regardless, starving himself to death, only to be buried in a hastily dug grave, along with the straw from his cage. He is replaced in the cage by a sleek panther.
This is, I believe, Kafka’s view of the artist in general, that he is made to suffer to earn his bread, but at some point the bread and the art get separated. The true artist goes on. He suffers to the end of the performance, regardless.
And so, looking back at the peleton, we can understand the popularity of a rider like Jens Voigt or Kurt Asle Arvesen or even Franco Pellizotti. These are riders who put it out on the line, that push at the edges of what’s possible, but do it for the sake of the thing. They aim less at winning races than they do at creating a story about themselves, a story of noble struggle, or purifying suffering.
I read an interview once with Jens Voigt (the King of Suffering), and the interviewer asked, “What sort of conditions are good for you to win a race?” I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the original. And Voigt responded, “When it’s rainy, windy and cold, it’s good for me. Basically, when things are bad for everyone else, they’re good for me.”
On another occasion Voigt described his strategy as basically throwing everyone into a blender of suffering, including himself, and seeing what comes out the other side.
As this winter descends on the colder climes (I’m exempting SoCal from that category, Padraig!), and the suffering ratchets up a notch or ten, I will think of what I’m doing, of what other riders are doing, as art. And as surely as no one hands me a bouquet when I walk through the door of the office, much less kisses me on each cheek, I will be satisfied with what I’ve done and know it’s more than simple hobby or transport.
I’m telling a story with my suffering. I tell it every day with the succinctness of a nickname. Robot. Robots don’t get cold. Robots don’t suffer. I’ve forged an identity from the way I ride, often alone, in the dark, into the wind. This is New England, after all.
Writing those words is much, much easier than riding them. Believe me. In my writing, I share my experiences, and you evaluate the truth of what I write, and you accept my suffering (maybe), and it bonds us (I hope).
We create this thing together.
How many saddle sores do we need to reach this point, and how much lactic acid do we need to be carrying? Is it uphill all the way? Is there a headwind? Will someone pace us? Will the echelons string across road like accordions of mercy and deliver us, just as a hole develops in the heel of our old wool socks?
Will the Earth spin under our wheels, and will all the trees blur into one, tall green spire? Will our chains run dry and our cables stretch thin on our way to this place?
In my mind, I can see it. The sweat soaks all the way out the brim of my cap and the lycra lets hold its grip. The road turns up and disappears, asymptotic in the distance. There’s a rasp in my chest and a creaking in my bars, and I used my last spare tube hours ago. It doesn’t matter, because the side walls of these thins tires are nearly gone. I’ve gone sallow in the cheeks, almost gray. I blend into the winter-bleached asphalt, pebbly and rough. And cars swish by, oblivious, the radio on too loud.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International