Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Enjoy Every Sandwich

It was Eddy Merckx who famously remarked: "You don't win the Tour de France by eating sandwiches and drinking mineral water.", June 6, 1997

You can find that remark elsewhere on the Web if you run a Google search; I haven't found it anywhere authoritative enough yet to convince me it's definitely not apocryphal.

Eddy Merckx in 1969 was thrown out of the Giro d'Italia (the Italian equivalent of the Tour de France) after he tested positive for drugs. He cried real tears in front of the press. He said someone must have monkeyed with the samples. He said only a fool would use performance enhancers before such an easy stage.

Eddy Merckx set the gold standard for what it takes to be the best cyclist ever. Without getting into the tussle over whether Lance Armstrong (or anyone else) outdid Eddy Merckx, I'll just say that many people--and not just Belgians--still consider him the best ever.

Eddy Merckx won the Tour de France five times (his first win was the same year he got thrown out of the Giro). Another great rider of the same era, Jacques Anquetil, who also won the Tour de France five times, also was plain about his feelings on performance boosters: He said that just as a geography teacher might use a painkiller if he had a backache, so he could focus better in class, so should professional cyclists be allowed to use medicine to help them perform better. You can look it up; it's in Wikipedia.

Jacques Anquetil was famous for preparing for a race by staying up late and partying the night before. That was back when men were men and cyclists were heroes.

A D.J. down here in Southern California says heroin never did anything worthwhile for a musician, but it sure did a lot for the D.J.'s record collection.

Having said all that, I sure do wish the sport of cycling weren't diluted by so many additives.

More than many sports, cycling is a test of a rider's raw ability to crank out energy. Running and swimming are similar. Basketball, soccer, and hockey also rely on a player's ability to keep performing at high-watt output, all the while engaging in tactics and strategies to move the ball or puck toward the goal. So if you can find something that will boost your sustained performance by even one or two percent, it's tempting to use it. That's why rules have been written to forbid performance boosters.

Floyd Landis, in the 17th stage of this year's Tour de France, turned in a performance everyone agreed was amazing, finishing nearly six minutes ahead of the next guy after five grueling climbs up alps. Six minutes ahead, in a race that took Landis 323 minutes to finish, means he outperformed the next guy by a little under 2%.

This was considered the definitive stage of the race. Any stage might have made the biggest difference, but Landis made this stage his own, and he essentially clinched the victory with his heroic ride.

If you can trust the kind of people who leak information to the press, Floyd's testosterone level was 11 times as high as his epitestosterone level after the 17th stage. A normal ratio would be more like 1:1 or 2:1. The rules of cycling say that anything higher than 4:1 is enough to warrant an investigation. Not only that, but--again, if you can trust the people who spread these remarks--an isotope scan of the testosterone indicates that the carbon atoms in its molecular makeup are a different isotope from what humans usually carry around with them. The carbon isotope in the testosterone from Floyd's test specimen matches plant sterols, which is where synthetic testosterone is usually derived.

It appears Floyd's heroic performance--an exploit, to use a French word that has lost some of its panache as it made its way into English--was very much along the same lines as those of past heroes of the Tour like Mercx and Anquetil.

Appropriately enough, one of the inspirations he credited with his stunning stage win was a conversation he had the night before with none other than the man many hail as the greatest cyclist ever: Eddy Merckx. Eddy's son Axel was racing on Floyd's team, supporting him all the way. One certainly wonders what advice Eddy gave Floyd in that phone call the night before Floyd's historic effort. The official version is that he told Floyd he had no other choice than to attack.

Some argue that steroids and blood doping (essentially transfusing your own blood back into yourself to boost your performance) should be legalized in sports to level the playing field: Make the best equipment available to everyone. I understand the argument but won't wade into the whole tangle here.

I understand the motivation Floyd Landis may have had to take a chance on a testosterone patch the night before Stage 17: If he didn't use the patch, he had certainly lost the race. He was due for a hip replacement after the Tour finished, and he might never get another chance to win the Tour. Floyd knew his options were to lose the race for sure, or to take a chance and--if the chance panned out--maybe win. Or maybe get caught. He chatted with a cycling legend who had been known to say Tours aren't won on mineral water and sandwiches. Floyd had a beer or two and a couple of shots of whiskey, by all accounts. I've given in to temptation plenty of times, even when I knew I shouldn't.

But I will say: From the bottom of my heart, I wish Floyd Landis had won without a testosterone boost.

No matter what anyone did in the good old days, if you do something that breaks today's rules, you're a cheater. No matter why the rule was written or why a person broke it--or whether that player got caught--the one who goes outside the limits spoils the game for the rest of us.

And of course there are all kinds of fine shades of gray and complex rationalizations and situational ethics to consider, but as a rider and as a fan I still deeply wish Floyd Landis could have claimed a clean win.

None of us is without flaws, and all of us have broken rules before and will again, and I'm not passing judgment on the rider to say he's a good guy or a bad guy. Poets break rules all the time and win awards for it. I'm only saying I wish the winning ride had been above reproach.

That would have been an exploit to toast through the ages. With mineral water, or anything else that was around.


Andrew Shields said...

What a great post. I just wish you had commented on the bad parallelism on the label in the first photo. :-)

Are there any performance-enhancing drugs for English teachers? Or poets? :-)


Papa Bradstein said...

I believe that you'll see the performance-enhancing drug for English teachers and poets--and painters and musicians, for that matter--just to the right of the water bottle in Mr. Jumbo's fridge.