Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Caffeine and Tobacco in the Peloton/Dealing with the Pain

Bicycle racers freely admit to being caffeine fiends.  Training rides frequently begin at or are interrupted by stops at coffee shops.  When I ride stages of The Tour de France just after the riders, the first couple of miles beyond the feed zone are littered with mini-cans of Coca-Cola.  The same is true in the final miles of a stage.

Ex-doper David Millar mentioned his use of caffeine and its side effects in the September issue of the British magazine "Cycle Sport."  He said that if he takes a caffeine gel too late in a stage, before he can fully work it off, he'll be "gibbering nonsense."

So prevalent and matter-of-fact is caffeine, it was quite startling to read at the other day that Taylor Phinney refuses to take caffeine.  That was so earth-shaking I conducted a google search to learn more.  I discovered the original  interview where Phinney made that comment at  What Phinney said was that he refuses to take caffeine pills that are quite common in the peloton.  He still drinks Coca-Cola and will take caffeine gels, whose wrappers are another common site along the race route.  But he even has qualms about that.

For the past month it seems as if everything written about cycling has been drug-related thanks to the revelations about Armstrong's doping.  Thus it was refreshing to read a book about cycling that largely avoided the subject, when a friend loaned me Robbie McEwen's autobiography "One Way Road."  At last, a current biography that wasn't a confession, such as Tyler Hamilton's "The Secret Race," and David Millar's "Racing Through the Dark."

He doesn't bring up drugs until page 78.  I had been so lost in reading about his successes, first as a kid BMXer and then beginning as a professional in 1996 winning ten races in his first year, that the mention of drugs suddenly brought me back to reality.  I took a quick look at the index to see how much of it I was in for.  There were only five citations listed.  When he did bring up the subject, it was pretty much just in passing.   One of the trials of being a professional, he said, is people always asking if everyone is on drugs.  His response is, "No, apart from a few idiots."

He too has an intimate relationship with caffeine. He owns a coffee bar in Australia.   Towards the end of one Tour stage he was becoming delirious from fatigue and forcibly demanded a can of Coke from his team car even though it was beyond the 20 kilometers to go sign when racers are prohibited from getting food or drink from their team car as the intensity of the race heats up. A faltering Miguel Indurain was once penalized for doing the same on a Tour stage.

Caffeine isn't the only benign drug that McEwen mentions.  He reveals that a Swedish version of snuff, known as "snus," is also popular in the peloton, though he doesn't admit to using it himself. One puts a tea bag of it under one's lip. Tyler Hamilton's ghost writer, Daniel Coyle, mentioned that Hamilton had taken up chewing tobacco.  That was the first time I had come across a mention of present-day professional cyclists indulging in tobacco.  Now this.  What next, I thought?

I soon learned from the same "Cycle Sport" issue that reported on David Millar's caffeine use that Bradley Wiggins can occasionally be seen with a cigarette in his mouth.  Nothing new there.  Gino Bartali was known to indulge in a cigarette before he went to bed.  There is a well circulated photograph, turned into a popular poster, of racers in the '20s on a Tour stage riding side by side passing a cigarette.  Smoking was thought to open the lungs and make breathing easier.

McEwen's and Hamilton's books also shared some very penetrating descriptions of the pain racers endure, not only from pushing one's self to his limits to keep up, but also riding with injuries.  McEwen said that he early learned the "first and foremost lesson of cycling--that everyone suffers."  He says at one point that the suffering is such a daily occurrence that no one day stands out.  But later on he recalls going to such an extreme in a sprint at the 1999 Tour of Holland that he began "to see little pinpricks of light in my increasingly blurred vision...I could feel myself starting to black out."

Hamilton claims he can taste blood in his mouth when he is at his limit.  He says pain comes in different flavors.  He describes feeling flashes of pain all over his body like "so many strings of Christmas lights."  One learns to embrace the pain.  It becomes meaningful.  "It can even feel great," Hamilton says.  All their time on the bike gives racers ample opportunity to ponder their pain and articulate metaphors explaining it.  McEwen referred to a "three-course meal of pain" and being in the "hurtbag."

A racer's prime attribute is his ability to endure pain.  It would be impossible to measure who can suffer the best. Hamilton rode a Tour de France with a cracked collarbone and ground down eleven teeth.  McEwen was in such pain after a Tour crash that it was painful for his chiropractor to touch him.  Still he rode on.

McEwen's was a rare cycling biography without the admission of being brought to tears by a great triumph or extreme emotional moment.  Hamilton's is more typical with several mentions of tears.  Twice he shares a cry with Bjarne Riis, the first after he broke his collarbone on the first stage of the 2003 Tour, when he went into The Race in fine form and a threat to Armstrong.  They both cried again a year later when he told Riis he was leaving the team to go to Phonak.  Twice he brought his parents to tears.

McEwen  does admit to being near tears on the podium after the first of his twelve Tour de France stage wins in 1999 on the Champs Elysees.  In 2002 he won on the Champs again and also won the green jersey.  He said his team manager was crying.  But not him.  He was too "knackered."

The book is thick with Australian and English idioms--blokes, bollocks, blagged, chancers, once the duck has been broken, good on ya, took the piss, bag of spanners, really feel crook...  His favorite adjective is "bloody."  He is light on the f-word compared to Cavendish's book and even Hamilton's.  He claims that Cavendish once called him his idol, but not any more.  In Cavendish's rookie season as a pro he was intent on winning more races that year than McEwen had in his and managed to do it by one.

McEwen makes frequent mention of his "mates" and emphasizes the importance of "mateship" among the Aussies, a quality he hasn't seen among other nationalities.  He is certainly a proud Australian.  "Aussies are battlers and underdogs," he writes.  "We roll up our sleeves, get stuck in and do what we have to do.  Being Australian means being prepared to fight and work hard for the good cause."

He rode for several years with his fellow countryman Cadel Evans on the Belgian Lotto team before Evans went on to win The Tour with BMC.  He thought Evans could have won The Tour one of those years if he had been a more economical rider.  He accused him of wasting vast amounts of energy for not being able to ride tighter in the pack.  He'd be out on the fringes, fearful of crashing, riding into the wind and having to make constant minor accelerations to keep up. If he'd been conserving energy he would have been able to overcome Carlos Sastre's lead in the final time trail, but fell short, finishing second. He was also upset with Evans for once keeping his eight teammates waiting for half an hour on a rest day ride, something he said he would never have done.

McEwen also has criticism for Garmin's David Zabriskie for going out strong from the very start on a Tour stage in the Pyrenees.  He was tired and was dropped 100 meters into the stage, forcing him to struggle and suffer the whole day.  "I had a name for him at that point," he confesses, "And it started with an 'F.'"

The book is full of such juicy tidbits.  He is open and frank about deal-making in the peloton, offering riders as much as $50,000 dollars to let him win a race, knowing that the publicity from the win would earn him much more in appearance fees on the criterium circuit.  He could earn a 100,000 euro bonus from his team for winning five major races a year other than the Grand Tours, and he usually did.  He once was awarded a cow for winning a race.  He didn't know what to do with it so he sold it to Bernard Hinault for 1,000 euros, knowing that Hinault had a farm.

The friend who loaned me the book said she enjoyed it so much she had read it twice.  I could understand why.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Christian Vande Velde Meets With His Fans

Last night for the fifth consecutive year Christian Vande Velde made himself available to his hometown Chicago fans for a chat about his year.  Not once in his previous four appearances did  the subject of the sport's dark underbelly, drugs, come up.  That would surely be different this year, as he  was prominent in the news as one of eleven of Lance Armstrong teammates to indict Lance and admit to   drug use in a 1,000 page report released the day before.  He was also featured in a front page New York  Times story that very day telling how he was forced to take drugs and was threatened with being fired if he didn't.

More than fifty fans turned out to see Christian and his teammate Tyler Farrar at the Garmin store, the lead sponsor of his team, on Michigan Avenue.  Shockingly, his audience was too polite to ask him about the story that was front page news around the world, nor did Christian address the issue in his opening remarks.

It wasn't until after the session, when I had a chance for a private chat, was I able to broach the subject.  I too had been guilty of avoiding the issue, despite having the opportunity, getting in a couple of questions during the Q&A, preferring to focus on sunnier subjects as did everyone else--his great season, which included helping his teammate Ryder Hesjedal win the Giro d'Italia, winning the week-long Pro Challenge in Colorado and also finishing second in a stage at The Tour de France after being part of a six-man sixty-mile breakaway.

I had been eager to ask Christian about that breakaway ever since watching the prolonged French telecast in a bar along The Tour route as it was transpiring.  The motorcycle cameras remained on Christian and his companions with hardly interruption for two hours.  That was one of my highlights this past year of following The Race, wondering what was going on in Christian's head and knowing I'd be able to ask him about it.

Christian acknowledged that being in a breakaway is less stressful than being in the pack, though it takes considerable effort to get into the break.  He said he couldn't have done it without the help of his teammate David Millar, who gave an all out effort to bridge him up to it and then dropped back to the pack, utterly exhausted. "I owe it all to David," the ever humble Christian said.

Thomas Voeckler, the French rider who is a breakaway specialist, was in the break.  Christian said he took charge.  I asked if he was surprised that Voeckler didn't respond to the attack of his fellow Frenchman and former teammate Pierrick Fedrigo with three miles to go.  "Not really," he said.  "You never know what kind of deal they might have arranged."  Christian was the only one in the break to be able to keep up with Fedrigo, finishing second right on his wheel, 12 seconds ahead of Voeckler and another.

Though most of the questions were directed to Christian, Tyler fielded a few as well. Tyler, one of the sport's top sprinters, is one of two Americans to have won a stage in all three of the Grand Tours.  He said the Vuelta is his favorite of the three three-week tours, as The Tour de France is so stressful and the Giro a pain with all the long transfers from one stage to the next, the riders spending almost as much time in their team buses as on their bikes.

Thanks to my fellow Tour follower Skippy, I had recently learned that Farrar had first witnessed The Tour as a six-year old.  His father was an ardent racing fan and made The Tour his family's vacation when Tyler was a youth.  There is a picture on the Internet accompanying a story on Tyler's dad from that vacation of Tyler on the Galibier, one of the highest passes in the Alps.  I asked what memories he had of that occasion and what it was like to ride over the Galibier twenty years later as part of the peloton.  Christian blurted, "You did the Galibier as a six year old?"

"I didn't ride up it," he said.  "My mother drove me up it while my father biked."

Tyler said he had no memory of that experience, but that it had doubtlessly been part of what led him to becoming a racer.

More questions followed, all focused on racing.  No one was brave enough to broach the taboo subject of doping.  I was prepared to if I'd been afforded another question, but the Garmin representative moderating the program cut it off much too prematurely after half an hour.

Among the many things I would have liked to ask Christian related to Tyler Hamilton's recently published book "The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-Ups and Winning At All Costs."  Christian is mentioned six times, all in a positive light.  Hamilton describes him as "easy-going" on one page and on another as "a great guy" and later mentions he has "a sly smile."  Hamilton and Christian were teammates on Lance's first Tour winning team in 1999.   Hamilton said that only he and Kevin Livingston, the team's climbing specialists, and Lance were given EPO during that race. They had their own separate van to make the doping easier, while their six teammates had another.

Hamilton mentioned that Christian once irked Lance when he teased him about a pair of new Nike bicycling shoes he was wearing. I would have liked to have heard Christian's version of that.  Hamilton also brought up a training camp incident where Christian had higher blood values than Lance after a hard ride, a barometer on who was the better rider.  Those in the know conspired to keep it a secret from Lance, as they knew it would upset him.  I wonder what Christian had to say about that as well.  But that will have to wait for another time.

During Christian's autograph session I whispered in his ear.  "Are you presently serving a suspension?"  There had been conflicting reports in the media what sanctions Christian faced for admitting he had taken drugs. Some said he would be suspended for six months starting in September and ending in time for him to compete in the season's first significant race in March--Paris-Nice.  Christian said yes, that was the case.

"I'm surprised no one brought up the doping during up the Q&A."

 "Me, too," he said, "but that was somewhat of a relief."

"How are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm okay. Getting out like this helps."

"When did you give your grand jury testimony?"

"Two years ago."

"Wow, you've been waiting for this report all that time.  It must be a relief to get it over with?"

He sighed a "yes," then turned to Tyler and said, "Remember George? I introduced you to him at the team time trial a year ago."

We shook hands again and I asked, "How did the crowds in London at the Olympic road race compare to The Tour de France?" 

"It was fantastic.  The crowds were ten deep all around the course.  I've never seen anything like it."

There was a gleam in his eye, as there had been when Christian was recounting his proud moments from the past year. It was good to talk racing and not the other stuff.  Hamilton's book brightened, too, on those rare occasions when he departed from the drug-taking and commented on the beauty of the sport--the incomparable camaraderie cyclists have with their teammates, unlike any other sport or endeavor, the beautiful terrain they train and race in, the strategy and the effort they give.

Although it would have been interesting to hear from Christian first-hand the turmoil the drug-taking caused him, it will be thoroughly covered in the media in the months to come.  We'll be reading all too much about it.   In fact, today's New York Times has a full-fledged story on Christian. He also issued a four paragraph apology the day the report was released:

“I love cycling, it is and always has been a huge part of who I am. As the son of a track cycling Olympian I was practically born on the bike and my dream, ever since I can remember, was always to be a professional cyclist. I have failed and I have succeeded in one of the most humbling sports in the world. And today is the most humbling moment of my life.

“As a young pro rider I competed drug free, not winning but holding my own and achieving decent results. Then, one day, I was presented with a choice that to me, at the time, seemed like the only way to continue to follow my dream at the highest level of the sport. I gave in and crossed the line, a decision that I deeply regret. I was wrong to think I didn’t have a choice – the fact is that I did, and I chose wrong. I won races before doping and after doping. Ironically, I never won while doping, I was more or less just treading water. This does not make it okay. I saw the line and I crossed it, myself. I am deeply sorry for the decisions I made in the past -- to my family, my fans, my peers, to the sport that I love and those in and out of it – I’m sorry. I always will be.”

“I decided to change what I was doing and started racing clean again well before Slipstream, but I chose to come to Slipstream because I believed in its unbending mission of clean sport. Today, I am proud of the steps that I and cycling have made to improve the future of the sport that I love so much. I am proud to be a part of an organization that implemented a no-needle policy. I am proud that I published my blood values for all of the world to see after almost reaching the podium at the 2008 Tour de France; showing first and foremost myself that it was possible to and then, confirming it for the rest of the world. I continue to be proud of the strides the sport has taken to clean itself up, and the actions our organization has taken to help shape the sport that I love.”

“I’m very sorry for the mistakes I made in my past and I know that forgiveness is a lot to ask for. I know that I have to earn it and I will try, every day, to deserve it – as I have, every day, since making the choice to compete clean. I will never give up on this sport, and I will never stop fighting for its future.”

I look forward to seeing Christian at The Tour's start in Corsica next July and equally look forward to his appearance at the Garmin store after the season.  All can be assured that he will continue to do himself and his sport proud.