I spent most of last week in Phoenix, Arizona, at an event organized for members of the media by Skratch Labs. The lectures and Q&A sessions resulted in the closest I’ve come to feeling like someone inserted a memory stick directly into my brain in some years.
I don’t mind admitting that a significant portion of my bedrock assumptions about cycling have changed over the last two years. I won’t rehash everything that’s changed thanks to USADA, but in addition to that, there have been some big changes in tires and wheels, not to mention bicycles. On top of this pile, I now toss what I used to know, or thought I knew, about hydration and on-the-bike fueling.
I’d come to an uneasy detente with hydration, much the way I had with doping. I knew there was more to it than meets the eye, but the numbers didn’t add up. Specifically, drink makers have been marketing drinks that are supposed to be mixed at a 6 to 8-percent solution. Go any higher and you risked gastrointestinal distress, yet these same manufacturers are also marketing bars, chews and gels you’re meant to consume—also while on the bike.
The math didn’t work for me: drink mix + bar = need for extra bottle of water. The alternative was no better: drink mix + bar = GI distress. But I prefer having something with flavor, and because the marketing and sales staffers at some of these companies were clearly more concerned with selling me more product (or at least getting me to use more of their product), getting the truth from them was harder than getting a kiss from a nun.
Here’s where I have to credit Skratch Labs and Osmo Nutrition for taking the time to explain to me just how the body really works. Too often products are created that look great on the blackboard but don’t really work in real life. Here’s an example: Maltodextrin. Sure, I’ve seen some spectacular bonks due to people drinking water but not eating enough, but all the truly flashy fireworks (and I mean that almost literally) occurred when riders focused on drinks laden with maltodextrin. The sales pitch was always that a malto-sweetened drink would deliver huge numbers of calories in an easy-to-digest chain of glucose molecules. Then I crewed for a RAAM rider and watched her firehose a malto-laden drink into a ditch from her bike. What I didn’t understand until last week was that maltodextrin begins breaking down the moment it hits your mouth. It continues breaking down in your stomach, so by the time it reaches your small intestine, what you have is hundreds of calories of glucose and only water enough to help absorb about half of them. The rest goes in one of two directions. She didn’t have enough water to absorb all that sugar so her body ejected the rest. Not pretty.
And that’s just one of the minefields out there that I personally witnessed.
Even though Skratch Labs and Osmo Nutrition are incredibly competitive with each other, they’ve done a lot to give me something I can believe, and I’ve got two good reasons to believe. First, there’s the simple fact that I have found I ride better on both Skratch and Osmo than I do on anything else. Even more significant is that I felt better at the end of a long ride if I’d stuck to Skratch or Osmo. Second is the fact that these two companies are not only singing from the same song book, but they have been followed down this path by Clif, which is reformulating its drink mix to take the same approach to hydration. I’m accustomed to dealing with brands that try to convince me they make the only drink mix that could possibly work, that everyone else has it wrong, that without their mix, I’m destined to fall off my bike in the most epic bonk in the history of hypoglycemia. It gets old.
At root, what Osmo and Skratch Labs offer is a drink mix that keeps the mix of carbohydrate and electrolyte low, in the 2 to 3-percent range. As I’ve heard from both companies, the point is to include just enough sugar and salt to speed up gastric emptying.
Our sessions in Phoenix were led by Allen Lim. Yes, that Allen Lim; he of PowerTap, Floyd Landis, the Garmin team and even Lance Armstrong, he of the Ph.D. in exercise physiology. The guy at the root of the biological passport. Here’s how it was explained (in significant detail) to me: Plain water will move into your bloodstream by passing through the semi-permeable membrane. This process is slow, but it works. Use a sports drink with too strong a solution and water will be pulled into your small intestine in order to dilute the mix. The approach that Skratch Labs and Osmo have taken is based on studies that show that in that 2 to 3-percent solution range a roughly two-to-one mix of salt to sugar will cause something akin to floodgates to open, pulling water into your bloodstream far more quickly than can be accomplished by plain water moving across the semipermeable membrane.
It’s a huge relief to me to be able to write about something I’ve found success with and be able to show that I haven’t just chugged one brand’s Kool Aid.
That said, Skratch Labs will give you a half-dozen reasons why their product is distinctly different—and superior—to Osmo. Likewise, Osmo will swear that they are working from the latest science and that their stuff works even better. As a consumer, you could benefit from trying both, or you could conclude that because Skratch Labs offers a pineapple flavor, that’s your new go-to flavor. Believe me, I’m right there with you on that, though I’m becoming a fan of the raspberry as well.
Over the years, what I’ve learned is that I can drink just about anything and get through a three-hour ride. What Skratch Labs and Osmo help me to do is last longer so that my fifth hour is as strong as my third and as I pointed out earlier, ultimately finish a ride with more in the tank. So even though I’m no longer racing, on a weekend day, I need to get off the bike and be able to function. It’s not really okay for me to stagger from the garage, complain that I’m shredded, eat while bent over the sink, pass out on the couch in my kit and wake up as the sun is going down. Would it be too much to suggest that Skratch Labs improves domestic harmony?
Not at my home.
When I was a boy, I had a thing for Porsche. I thought their cars were sexy in ways almost nothing other than lingerie models can achieve. I loved their engineering, their racing success, their emphasis on driver experience. At some point in high school I was confronted with a documentary that went into genetic detail on how companies like Porsche, BMW and Mercedes enriched themselves through their contracts with the Third Reich.
I found myself struggling with how I could admire a company that had prospered as a supplier to an empire that killed more than 10 million people. It had been my dream to one day buy a Porsche of some variety—a desire that has never left me—but that desire was upended with the moral dilemma that they had (perhaps unwittingly) aided and abetted the Third Reich as they did their best to exterminate all the Jews in Europe. How could I support that?
Fortunately, I’ve never had the cash at hand to force the question. I’ve told myself that more than 50 years have passed, that whatever punishment was theirs has been meted. Still, I’ve contemplated buying a used BMW wagon and the question bumped elbows with my conscience. It wasn’t comfortable.
I offer that as a prelude to the nuclear winter we are now entering following the release of USADA’s “reasoned decision.” The initial casualties were all the riders whose doping activity was detailed in the voluminous files released by USADA. They are tantamount to the initial deaths caused by a nuclear blast. Now, the fallout.
Already I’m seeing people bringing up the issue of boycotts of brands. Nike, because of their ongoing support of Lance Armstrong in the face of the allegations was coming off worst. Then, the news this morning that Nike has dumped Armstrong, at least publicly. Still, there’s the allegation reported by the NY Daily News that Kathy LeMond was told by ex-Postal mechanic Julien Devries that he heard that Nike paid $500,000 to hush up Armstrong’s 1999 positive for corticosteroids, that the money was wired not to the UCI, but to Hein Verbruggen himself.
It is the most damning allegation against Verbruggen ever, a charge that weighs like murder on the long rap sheet of an otherwise petty criminal. However, even though Mrs. LeMond testified to this under oath, she was not an eyewitness to the allegation, the way Tyler Hamilton was an eyewitness to Armstrong receiving transfusions. Put another way, her testimony qualifies as hearsay, something that is routinely stricken from testimony in court rooms. It’s not an allegation that appears to have been investigated by Novitzky or Tygart, at least, not based on the released documents.
The trouble for Nike is that the allegation comes sliding down a pile of so many other proven charges that many are willing to believe almost any bad deed claimed to have been perpetrated by Armstrong or his backers. Led by ex-pro and one-time Armstrong teammate Paul Willerton, people are mobilizing for a boycott of Nike; it remains to be seen if it will still go forward now that they’ve severed ties with the former seven-time Tour victor. Whether or not they’ve tossed Armstrong overboard, this could turn out to be the biggest PR black eye they have suffered in decades.
Also announced this morning, Armstrong has stepped down from Livestrong as its chairman. This is an obvious and understandable effort to save the charity; who knows if it will work?
As it turns out, Armstrong himself is proving to be radioactive. For better or worse, he’s poisoning everything he touched.
But the fallout doesn’t end with Livestrong. It extends to Trek. Riders are contemplating a boycott of Trek as a result of their unwavering support for Armstrong. I doubt that a boycott would be particularly visible, but I can see the possibility that some people simply won’t buy a Trek when they go to buy a bike. It might be enough to allow Specialized to finally retake that spot as the #1-selling bike brand.
The fallout also extends to George Hincapie and his company Hincapie Sportswear. People are wondering how they feel about doing business with his company, a company that wouldn’t be as big or popular without his success riding alongside Armstrong.
Then there’s Allen Lim, who Floyd Landis outed as having aided his and Levi Leipheimer’s doping efforts. Back when Landis was believed to be a lunatic running through the streets complaining that he was being chased by a purple unicorn, he was easy to dismiss, at least for those who wanted to dismiss him. Some of us didn’t dismiss him.
Lim denied Landis’ charges at the time and at that time, the weight of innocence was on his side. But USADA’s report has demonstrated that essentially everything contained in Landis’ confession was true; we have learned there were purple unicorns aplenty. It may not have proven every statement he has made was true, but I’m unaware that any of his assertions has been proven demonstrably false. And that’s the gray netherworld in which Lim’s denial resides. Nothing in the USADA documents addresses this and the affidavits by Landis and Leipheimer make not mention of Lim, so his ongoing denials are not rebutted by sworn testimony.
Conversely, people are asking questions about Chris Carmichael’s coaching company, Carmichael Training Systems, and whether or not they should support a company that was really only a cover for Armstrong. The charge is that Carmichael didn’t actually coach him. The objection here is that CTS’ greatest testimonial is built on a lie, even if it’s a lie of a different sort.
Of course, we need to consider bicycle racing’s retailer: USA Cycling. The sport’s governing body here in the U.S. has had a long and cozy history with Thom Weisel and his Champions’ Club, not to mention Tailwind Sports, the owners of the US Postal team. Indeed, two of Weisel’s cronies continue to sit on the USA Cycling board, David Helfrich and Matt Barger, who are both Development Foundation Representatives. Should they be immune?
It is likely that no company benefitted more from Armstrong’s meteoric rise to the top of the cycling heap than Trek, not Nike, not Oakley, not Powerbar, FRS or (more recently) Honey Stinger. They have the most to lose now. In a world where people vote with their dollars, they may well see a falloff in sales that registers in the fourth quarter of 2012.
But what of companies like Hincapie Sportswear and Skratch Labs? Should they take a hit? Their growth, their popularity, their products have hinged less on endorsement by Armstrong than their founders’ association with him. Should not those companies fair the storm better than Trek?
What each of these companies has in common—other than an association with Armstrong—is a product that is good by any objective measure. From good reviews to races won while using these products, not to mention the voluminous testimonials from Carmichael’s thousands of clients, each of these companies sells something that has been borne out in the market. However, there is a fundamental difference between the culpability of companies like CTS, Hincapie Sportswear and Skratch Labs (which didn’t even exist until well after Armstrong’s comeback began) and that of Nike and Trek.
In helping to build the Armstrong brand and support the US Postal team, Nike and Trek exerted considerable might. Without them, without their support, the Postal machine would have had fewer resources and may not have attained the level of success they did. In a way, what they did was help build a nuclear weapon. The more direct a participant’s knowledge of the situation, the closer they were to the blast. Those who worked for companies that benefited from Armstrong’s success are going to be in for a rough ride. And what of the riders who walked away from US Postal rather than cheat? They simply found the minimum safe distance. There are no winners in nuclear war, only losers.