Monday, July 30, 2007

Five South

Shasta needs no introduction.

A sharp-eyed cousin first pointed these out to me on a previous trip. We looked it up on a map and identified the range as Sutter Buttes. (This is not far north of Sacramento.)

Foggy Side

The fog blows in from the Pacific, over the coastal foothills, in the late afternoons.

The old line was that Sutro Tower was the box the Transamerica Pyramid arrived in.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Different Rules

I live in California. In California we have some kind of rules about not driving with an open container of alcohol in your vehicle. Open containers often spill, and then drivers who are trying to mop up the spills start swerving all over the road. Seems to be a big problem.

I was watching TV this morning, and I saw that in France there apparently is no such rule. In fact, I saw some guy in France driving a car and not only sipping booze from a cup as he drove but also passing another cup out his window to a guy riding a bike, and clinking glasses with him.

Those French, they’re crazy.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Outstanding, Blue Team, Outstanding (II)!

The Tour de France this year has been a gripping contest to watch—even without the circus of disqualifications and withdrawals for rules violations.

Never before in the history of the Tour have three top contenders finished so close to each other.

Particularly as we came to the end of the Tour, we got to enjoy a rare sight: the top overall riders duking it out mano a mano in mountain finishes. First it was the top seven or eight, all climbing hard together toward the summits. Then the top five, then the top four.

Today’s time trial started with three top contenders distinctly leading the rest of the field. They were one or two minutes apart from each other; the next nearest guy was more than three minutes behind.

Coming out of the time trial, the three top contenders are now within about thirty seconds of each other. The nearest guy is now more like six minutes behind. The order hasn’t changed, but once again it was thrilling to watch as three very closely matched—and enormously strong—riders fought it out to see if they could change the order at the top.

Levi Leipheimer, already a good time trialist, rode the trial of his life, finishing with the fourth fastest speed ever in a Tour de France time trial—behind the likes of the legendary Miguel Indurain.

Even without the added noise of the contenders and would-be contenders who are no longer in the race, this year has been a gripping contest right down to the finish.

Traditionally, no matter how close the standings are going into the final stage, the race is not contested on the last day. It’s a day for riders to take it easy and sip champagne as they ride into Paris, exhausted and happy after a draining and exhilarating month in the saddle. Leipheimer has already said that even though he’s only eight seconds behind Evans, Cadel doesn’t need to worry—Leipheimer’s not going to “pull a Vino” and try to steal those seconds back at the end.

To get a sense of how dominant Discovery’s team has been this year, you can look beyond the team results (Discovery is winning) or the final podium results (Discovery has the No. 1 and No. 3 riders—I haven’t heard anyone say yet whether that’s the first time one team has had two guys in the top three): Take a look at today’s top 10 finishers. Discovery had four of the riders in the top 10—Leipheimer, Contador, Popovych, and George Hincapie, who now has carried water for the final winner in eight Tours.

In fact, that’s four of the top seven finishers.

So it’s been a good year for Team Discovery. Me, personally, since I’m from California, I would have loved to see Levi Leipheimer take the top slot in the overall competition. But I’ll settle for what we’ve ended up with: Levi’s had a stage win (his first ever), and he’s on the podium, and with three of the top eight riders in the general classification, the team has ridden hard and strong.

Friday, July 27, 2007


Back in the day, when I worked for a national health magazine, the gold standard for any scientific study that wanted to find its way into our pages was that it had to be a controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed study.

Controlled means that along with testing the therapy in question—a new drug, a medical device, a technique—the test also included a control set: a set of subjects who received no therapy at all. You can’t measure improvement accurately without an accurate baseline.

Double-blind means that the people in the test must not know whether they are receiving the treatment or receiving a placebo, and the people evaluating the data must not know whether they are seeing results of someone who got the placebo or the treatment that’s being tested. This makes some treatments difficult—or impossible—to evaluate. If the treatment is massage or acupuncture, you generally know whether you’ve been rubbed or stuck with needles. If the treatment is a pill, it’s easier to keep the study blind.

Peer-reviewed means that the study has been subjected to the scrutiny of other specialists in the same field, besides the folks who performed the study and wrote the paper.

If a lab is testing blood or urine samples from Barry Bonds, they might well have an agenda—either proving that he’s using steroids or proving that he’s not. So it’s important that the lab should not know whose samples they’re testing.

At the arbitration hearing in Malibu this spring where U.S. cycling arbitrators heard the case of Floyd Landis from last year’s Tour de France, it became clear that the lab technicians probably knew exactly whose samples they were testing, and their significance, as they tested them.

It also became starkly clear that the lab technicians did not use the first set of results they got from the samples. They retested and retested until they got a set of results they liked.

That’s uncomfortable for everyone. The rider being accused can’t be sure whether the lab cooked the results to make him look bad—because he’s an American, because they like some other rider, because a different team paid them to falsify results.

The lab is in an awkward position, because no matter how honest they are and how earnestly they believe in the accuracy of their results, it still smells bad.

The lab technicians claimed that they threw out early results because they were pre-tests used to calibrate the machine. Nobody can tell whether they’re being honest, because they did delete all the early results. Nobody can really tell how many times they ran the test before they got the results they ended up with. Nobody gets to see what results they threw away.

Floyd Landis showed during the arbitration that he’s a poor sport willing to stoop to a pretty scummy level to win. But that doesn’t make his point wrong. A single lab is used for all the Tour de France testing; that’s a weakness in the system. That lab chronically—daily during the Tour—illegally leaks test results to the press. Lab technicians seem to regularly know exactly whose results they’re handling. If the results are called into question, the same lab is used to verify the original results.

If we’re going to hold riders to high standards of credibility—ditching them from a race just because they miss a test or lie about their whereabouts—we owe them the dignity of being tested through a process of unimpeachable integrity. Yes, cycling needs to continue surging ahead of all other sports in eradicating dopers from its ranks. Cycling has done a great job so far. But its testing procedures need a complete overhaul in order to protect the riders who are going to every effort to keep the sport clean:

1) Samples need to be identified with a mark that does not identify what rider—or what sport—the sample comes from.
2) At least a half-dozen labs in several countries need to be used for sample evaluation, in random rotation.
3) Labs need to be certified by independent third parties.
4) No lab should be allowed to test a B sample to verify its original results from the corresponding A sample. A second lab must be used to verify results.
5) Any lab whose results are made public except through the institution governing the event must be given a single warning. The second time results are leaked, that lab must be disqualified for a two-year period. A lab that can’t keep its staff from leaking results certainly can’t keep its staff from falsifying results.

Finally, after the testing is done, a record of results should be kept for riders, in case a baseline is needed to evaluate future samples. When Tyler Hamilton was accused of blood doping, he claimed his blood might have been that way (“chimeric”) all his life. A data bank could support a claim like that or shut it down swiftly. A data bank would help sort out who has naturally high testosterone levels after a tough race and who’s been wearing testosterone patches. Riders’ test results could be measured accurately against their own historic baselines, rather than against baselines drawn from the general population.

The UCI, which governs most cycling events worldwide, has asked its riders to sign a “voluntary” pledge that they will give up a year’s income and let themselves be suspended if a lab accuses them of cheating. It’s fair to ask, if the accusations are credible. But until the lab testing system is completely revised, it’s a nervous rider indeed who signs such a pledge. All it takes today is one lab slip-up—or one round of recalibration—for a clean rider to lose a year’s income.

Considering how much of themselves these riders put into each grueling day on the road, the Dick Pounds and Christian Prudhommes who sit behind desks should be held responsible for writing better rules.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shadow of a Doubt

I can’t think of another sport that would dismiss its leading player based on suspicion of misbehavior, with no actual proof.

Technically Michael Rasmussen was removed for lying to his team about where he spent time training in June. He said he was in Mexico. Other riders saw him training in Italy. Nobody accused him of anything else. His team sponsor shut down his winning ride—and the publicity it was bringing them—for lying to them.

I can’t think of another sport where players are required to report their whereabouts to authoritites 365 days a year, or where they’re subjected to random out-of-competition blood and urine testing for performance enhancers.

I had nothing against Michael Rasmussen as a rider, though of course if his ride was boosted through illegal training practices he needs to be gone. If he got pulled from the best ride of his life strictly because he lied to his team, it’s an unfortunate lesson about the importance of honesty.

Rasmussen outrode Team Discovery yesterday as they threw everything they had at him. No major equipment glitches, no disruptions from crashes or injuries—it was just a head-to-head ride through a grueling stage to see who could ride the best. The five top riders led the charge up the last mountain to the finish, other riders dropping off as the climb got steeper. Cadel Evans gave it a mighty try. Carlos Sastre actually attacked early and led by a decent gap for most of the race, right up until the big fight started on the final slope.

I think it was Cadel Evans who said something after the race about how he’d love to have been in a better position, but he had no regrets because he thought he and his team had turned in the best race performance they had in them. I think the folks on Discovery must feel the same way. The individuals and the team have performed just about flawlessly at the best level they can. Whether they come in 10th or 1st, I don’t think they come away with any complaints that they didn’t do their very best.

With Rasmussen gone, the new top standings are:

1 Alberto Contador (Discovery) 76:18:25
2 Cadel Evans (Predictor - Lotto) 1:53
3 Levi Leipheimer (Discovery) 2:49
4 Carlos Sastre (CSC) 6:02

That leaves Sastre pretty much out of the top three. He’s not going to make up three minutes of gap in the next two days or in the time trial. In the next two days (flat stages where the peloton rides en masse and the cameras spend a lot of time showing us the picturesque countryside), none of the top 10 positions are likely to change at all.

The closest margin is between Leipheimer and Evans—under a minute. Evans beat Leipheimer by 1:25 in the most recent time trial. Levi can ride hard in time trials, but if he wants to move up to second place, his work is cut out for him.

Evans beat Contador in the most recent time trial by 1:04. In the final time trial, they’ll both try to do even better.

A few years ago, Jan Ulrich in the final time trial lost serious time to Lance Armstrong by riding too hard, too fast on a road left slippery by rain. Ulrich fell. Armstrong had been out riding the course before the race began and knew every corner. You never know what you’re going to see in a time trial.

But barring any surprises, this starts to look like the final order we’ll see as the race ends in Paris.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Performance Enhancers

Being a good descendant of the mudflats along the North Sea, my favored energy boost comes from Ostfriesland. I’ve got others in my arsenal: Clif Bars, various high-carb sport drinks, Pop Tarts (my brother turned me onto those), and Fritos and salted soy nuts to restore my sodium balance after a good run.

No blood samples in my fridge, I regret to say.

Although the folks who break the rules are sad and a little comical, it’s also important to remember not to jump too fast to judgment. A single blood test needs to be confirmed by backups. Part of a lab’s credibility lies in its ability to keep test results anonymous and confidential; when we hear about test results so quickly (and the first reports don’t come through Tour management or team spokesmen), it calls a lab’s impartiality into question. It doesn’t mean the test results are wrong, but hard-working riders deserve more reliable and professional testing if the Tour is going to be using provisional results to toss whole teams out of the race. Extreme punishment calls for extreme caution in coming to judgment. The folks who use illegal enhancers are despicable, but even the ones who ride in good faith have to live with a lab’s sloppy test results.

Should be a heck of a ride today in the Pyrenees. On the flat, it’s the same as the distance from Portland to Tacoma. But it includes a couple of rises, each greater than the climb you’d have from the shores of San Francisco Bay to the top of Mount Diablo. Then there are the smaller hills along the way . . .

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sangre de Vino

Yesterday I sent a note to my brother about Alexander Vinokourov’s amazing ride in that day’s stage:

Hmmm, had a really strong day, then choked, then rode out in front of everyone and took an incredible stage victory. Remind you of anyone from last year?

The reference of course was to Floyd Landis, who ran the same pattern in 2006: took the yellow jersey in an incredible day of mountain climbing, then completely fell apart the next day and lost several minutes, then came back the day following to reclaim the yellow in what seemed like an impossible ride, what was hailed at the time as a classic exploit that would go down in history.

Except that then he was accused of using testosterone to help recover after the day he blew up.

I wasn’t suggesting that Vino was doping as much as I was suggesting that Floyd might have been riding clean. Is there a chance that a truly great rider can pull a great ride the day after his legs give way underneath him?

Well, apparently Vino’s time trial was artificially enhanced:;_ylt=AouP1inGUryOWEK88dw4U4x.grcF?slug=ap-tourdefrance&prov=ap&type=lgns

The crying shame of it is that Vino didn’t even cheat to win. He cheated to get back into ninth place. (Robert Bolt: “It little profits a man to sell his soul for the world—but to do it for Wales?”)

It still leaves me wondering about his remarkable ride two days later, after he’d fallen apart completely on the day in between. He wasn’t in contention even then, but it will be interesting to see what that stage’s blood tests show.

I suppose the writing was on the wall: Vinokourov had been associated with an Italian doping doctor in the past, though he swore up and down that he hadn’t been involved with the illegal part of his practice. And, even more telling, he was on the Liberty-Seguros squad that had to pull out of last year’s Tour de France because five of its riders had been tied to the huge Spanish blood-doping scandal that cast a shadow on the start of last year’s race. Vino wasn’t accused at the time, but he couldn’t race on a team that couldn’t field the minimum number of riders.

Liberty-Seguros turned into Astana, the team Vino leads today. Apparently he at least learned from what his former teammates had done, even if he did not partake.

What a putz!

With Astana out, Andreas Klöden is also gone from the Tour scene, leaving Contador, Evans, and Leipheimer as the only real challengers to Rasmussen’s riding, with Carlos Sastre a dim fourth. Leipheimer and Evans have been looking as if it’s enough of a challenge for them to ride along on Rasmussen’s wheel lately, so my hunch is it’ll fall to Contador tomorrow to attack early on and see if he can wear out the big Dane.

It would be nice to have kept Klöden in the running, but even without him, it should be a great stage to watch: Two hors-categorie climbs, two Cat 1 climbs, and a Cat 3 to add insult to injury. Even on the flat it would be no fun, at 135 miles. My bet is that Johan Bruyneel will unleash Contador on an early climb, leaving Rasmussen to decide whether he wants to risk his stamina and try to contain Contador, or let him go and take the chance that Contador will gain a couple of minutes from him and take the overall lead.

Watch for more surprises!





Sunday, July 22, 2007

Outstanding, Blue Team, Outstanding!

Ah, the mountains.

In the Tour de France, as an individual rider, your job is to stay hair-trigger sensitive to exactly how much more you can do. Especially in the mountains, you want to put in every ounce of energy you’ve got. But it’s just as important not to go beyond your limit. Physiologically, most of us have the ability to reach down deep into ourselves and pull out an exceptional performance . . . but the price is that we take time to recover.

Someone who’s fit has an optimum level of highest performance, where the lungs are working as efficiently as they can and the heart rate stays sustainable. Someone less fit has a somewhat lower level, but the same program applies. As you put in months of training, the exercise improves your lung efficiency and increases the amount of oxygen your blood can deliver to your muscles.

What about a burst of energy? Any of us has experienced a time when we outstripped ourselves, when we went beyond that limit. You dig deep in and put in that extra ounce, and it feels good if it helps you get to wherever you were reaching for. (This is also good for training; as long as you don’t overdo it, it has a long-term effect of increasing your body’s ability.)

Then there’s payback. Your heart has to go past its comfort zone to reach this output, and your muscles work harder than what they’ve got oxygen for. The chemical reaction that lets them push a little harder leaves their waste products in the muscle tissue; now the muscles lose some efficiency. The blood has to carry lactic acid away from the muscles; the blood loses some of its capacity to carry oxygen to the muscles.

After you put in that extra push, your body retracts to maybe 80% of what its optimum output was before. A great athlete’s body recovers quickly, and comes back up to 100% fast. Most of us ordinary mortals take longer. There’s an immediate recovery period, where you simply can’t work as hard. And there’s a longer recovery period, over the next few days, where you’re not quite up to what you could do yesterday.

As long as you don’t push into the “red zone,” where your muscles are working harder than your lungs and heart can sustain, you can come back tomorrow and pretty much put in the same amount of effort. Months and years of training let an athlete push their capacity higher and higher. We working stiffs, who are lucky if we get 30 minutes a day to train, tend to stay at around the same level. Someone training for a marathon (or a century ride) puts in both endurance practice and speed bursts, where they try to raise their body’s limits.

You can feel all of this in your body without complicated electronics to tell you what’s going on. Recent research in sport medicine confirms what athletes have known for centuries. Today you can buy a heart monitor to help guide you into the zone of maximum output without going over the limit. But listening to your body’s cues is just as important. The heart monitor doesn’t know how you’re feeling that day. Part of training is learning to recognize the markers your body uses to let you know when you’re pushing too hard or when you’ve got more to give.

In the Tour de France, which lasts three weeks, riders have to be careful not to push into the red zone at the wrong moment. It’s tempting to surge ahead and gain time on your rivals at key moments. But if you do it right before a long climb, you risk losing major headway on the climb, as your body recovers. Push too hard the day before a hard stage, and your performance on the next day’s stage will suffer. It’s unusual for a rider to win two tough stages in a row.

Tactically, though, you can push yourself into the red zone toward the end of a climb, if you know you’ve got a 20-minute downhill ride ahead to recover. (Some of us take longer to return to optimum output.)

And sometimes, obviously, it feels as if you have no choice. If you’re ranked at a high level in the race, and someone passes you, you feel as if you have to give it all you’ve got to preserve your position.

The result, of course, is often that you give it all you’ve got for as long as your body can take it, and then you drop like a rock to the back position, because your body’s performance plummets. If you hold to just under that intangible red line, you might get away with losing only a position or two.

The mountains slam everyone hard.

Today we watched Alexander Vinokourov go into the red zone and drop out on the second climb of the day, the Pailhères, before the third big climb, the one that ended at the finish line. One minute he’s riding with all the other top contenders. The next minute you turn around and he’s dropping off the back of the pack, sweat pouring from his forehead, face red, breathing hard through an open mouth. He’s gone from running on eight cylinders to running on six, and he no longer can keep up. He lost more than 8 minutes on that climb alone. Earlier in the climb, Moreau had also dropped for good.

Vino did outstandingly well in yesterday’s time trial, which he needed to do to get himself back into position for the rest of the Tour. Today he may have paid for that effort.

Then, for the riders who were still at the front, came the final climb, Plateau de Beille, an “hors categorie” climb, which means it’s tougher than the classification system can describe. (Normally Cat 1 is as hard as it gets; Cat 2 and 3 and 4 are easier.) That means longer and steeper and twistier than anyone’s going to like.

The remaining contenders started the climb roughly together. A few riders were off in front of the group, but none of them was in the running for the overall victory. George Hincapie had dropped a bit on the first climb but was leading the group again by the time the second climb started, when he dropped right off.

Evans, Leipheimer, Rasmussen, Klöden, Sastre, Valverde, and Contador all cycled through leadership positions at the foot of the plateau. Another man with them was Mauricio Soler, who’s been impressing everyone with his performance at this Tour, the first for Team Barloworld (from South Africa). Discovery’s Popovych rode back to the team car and brought water forward for Leipheimer and Contador, then set the pace on the early part of the climb before peeling off. (Since he and Hincapie are not expected to win, they can let themselves ride into the red zone if it benefits Discovery’s outcome.) Rasmussen had a bunch of guys from his Rabobank squad to help him up the lower slopes.

As the race sailed into the Pyrenees, to Spain and the Basque homeland, orange became the predominant clothing color along the side of the road. The Basque people love their cyclists. Orange is their home color. (The Euskatel team, which is as close as the Basque country has to a national team, wears orange. Their man Txurruka was one of the handful of riders who were in front of the pack as the final climb began.)

Iban Mayo dropped out of the group with the contenders early on the last climb. Then Klöden, then Valverde. Rasmussen had incentive to gain time on everyone today, and in the next two mountain stages. He kept attacking, leading out from the front of the group, then getting reeled back in as the rest of the group caught up. Contador kept riding up after him. Leipheimer never took part in the attacks; he rode patiently along behind and never got out of sight. Every time, he caught back up to the attackers.

Taking a charge off the front of the group expends precious energy, and it takes energy too to ride out and catch the guy who’s trying to get away. This is where you have to be a careful (but aggressive) judge of how much fuel is in your tank. You could use up your reserves catching a guy who attacks on the lower slopes, then hit the wall and not be able to muscle your way up the rest of the hill with the group. Suddenly you drop and lose minutes from your old position.

Leipheimer has played a steady game through the Tour of watching and waiting, making a science of keeping up without racing ahead. One by one his competitors drop, leaving him with fewer contenders to try to eliminate. He’s never been far from the front of the pack, but he’s never gone out on a limb either.

Contador and Rasmussen (and sometimes Evans and Soler) fought it out up the side of the plateau. Finally Contador and Rasmussen broke away and rode maybe 25 seconds ahead of Leipheimer, Soler, Sastre and Evans—not out of sight, but far enough to make them hard to catch. Since Contador is Leipheimer’s teammate, Levi didn’t have a lot of incentive to ride out and catch them. That left Sastre, Soler and Evans doing a lot of the heavy pulling, with Leipheimer content to ride their wheels.

Mayo was gone. Klöden was gone. Vino was gone. Moreau was gone. Valverde was gone. Next was Evans. You watch a guy suffer, and suffer, and fall back then catch up, then fall back again then really pour it on and catch up—and then, finally, his body cracks, and he falls back rapidly from the rest of the climbers who are still doggedly going at it. Leipheimer was suffering, but he kept steadily going uphill today. Soler was hurting, but he kept charging forward. Evans finally just dropped back, after giving it every drop of effort he had. He’d been in the red zone too long, too many times. He kept riding, and he didn’t drop much further back in the riding order, but with every pedal stroke, he started losing precious seconds, as the gap between him and the other riders stretched. (Klöden too kept riding up the mountain; even after he dropped from the group of contenders, he didn’t crack completely. He finished in the top 10, behind Sastre, before Evans.)

Right near the top, Leipheimer pulled a little ahead of Sastre. Levi may have been saving his moment of courage, or Sastre may have started to fade. Soler attacked all the way to the top, and Leipheimer tailed him, but they never had a chance against Contador and Rasmussen, who mostly worked together until the finish, where Contador ran out to take the stage victory.

With only a handful of contenders left, Rasmussen knows he’s got to keep winning every second he can to keep his advantage over guys who are likely to win minutes back in the next time trial. Whoever wins the stage gets a time bonus as well, with seconds shaved off his overall time. Contador did well to take the time advantage from Rasmussen. Contador beat Rasmussen in the last time trial by only 37 seconds, so he needs to get closer to the great Dane if he wants any chance of passing him in the next time trial.

But Rasmussen should be pretty pleased with the stage results too. Many of his biggest threats aren’t threats anymore. Against them, all Rasmussen has to do is ride a competent race, not an outstanding race, in order to stay ahead for the rest of the game. Guys who are still within grabbing distance will have to work hard, take risks, ride into the red zone, just to come close to Rasmussen’s position. Vino struggled valiantly yesterday to ride himself back into the competition, and it cost him dearly today.

And Leipheimer’s not in the yellow yet, by a decent margin, but he’s got to be pretty happy with today’s stage too. A lot of the contenders who were between him and Rasmussen have dropped out. Levi and Contador are on the same team, and, like Rasmussen, they’re both good mountain riders, so they can play tactics and strategy against him. Popovych finished in the top 10, even after all the errand work he put in on the lower slopes, so Discovery comes out with a strong team still riding for victory.

A mountain stage tomorrow, then a rest day, and then another mountain stage, will test the riders who are left. The top five now:

1. Rasmussen
2. Contador, 2:23 behind
3. Evans, 3:04 behind
4. Leipheimer, 4:25 behind
5. Klöden, 4:38 behind.

Sastre’s the next one back, at 5:50 behind Rasmussen. As long as Rasmussen doesn’t blow out, he’s got a fair shot at winning this race. If he can ride the next time trial the way he rode the last time trial, he’ll stay ahead of Evans: Evans beat Rasmussen by only 1:41 in yesterday’s trial, and all the others had even less of an advantage on the Dane.

It’s hard to tell how much of their energy Rasmussen and Evans were saving in yesterday’s time trial, knowing that this stage came right after it. After the next time trial, there will be no more mountains—only Paris.

So Evans, Leipheimer, Contador, and Klöden have their work cut out for them. The positions aren’t likely to change much in the flat stages after the mountains. None of these guys beat Rasmussen by enough margin in the last time trial to make up for how far behind him they are now. If anyone wants to top Team Rabobank’s leader, they’re going to have to bring it to him in the Pyrenees, and with his history in the mountains, that’s going to be a tough job. It’s not unheard of—exploits in years past have recovered several minutes of time—but Rasmussen has made it clear with today’s ride that he’s not going to give it up easily.

Overall, though, a great day for Team Discovery. If Leipheimer rides as well tomorrow against Cadel Evans as he did today, he’ll pass Evans, and Discovery will be riding with the No. 2 and No. 3 overall race leaders. Popovych is still coming on strong, finishing No. 10 in today’s stage and holding on to the No. 10 position in the overall competition too. Contador is going to keep making sure Rasmussen is working hard to maintain what lead he’s got. Klöden is hanging on to Levi’s wheel for now, only 15 seconds behind him, but that means he’s steadily losing ground, and his team is spent, with all its strong riders struggling just to keep in the race.

So the carefully wrought plan of old Belgian master Bruyneel is starting to pay out. In the words of Robert Duvall, “Get you a case of beer for that one.”

Real Time Trials

Sister #1 is a little loopy. Not her fault, of course—she’s related—but she just sold her house and bought a new one in another state, and she thought in between all the home inspections and moving a family of four and setting up the financing and getting the septic taken care of, she was going to have time to join us for a week to help clear out Mom’s house.

She was wrong, of course, but we went ahead and took advantage of her, and we all got a lot done.

She got up bright and early every morning and sat on the couch with her laptop building a digital catalog of thousands of objects from Mom’s house, so we could figure out what to do with them. Brother #3 got up early every morning and made coffee. I got up and wandered out a while later.

The real dirty trick we played, though, wasn’t getting Sister #1 to do all that work. The lasting loss for her is that between Brother #3 and me we got Sister #1 hooked on the Tour de France. As she sat on the couch working, as Brother #3 got the coffee pot rumbling and joined her on the couch, as I sat back in my room scratching my head and trying to figure out what they were doing with the production schedule back at work, we had the TV on, playing low, to let Brother #3 and me keep up with men in tights clambering over hill and dale on wheels.

So now, even after she went home, even while she drives thousands of miles from state to state moving cars and boxes and clothes, everywhere Sister #1 goes she’s trying to find hotel rooms with cable TV, so she can watch. (Then she went and got her son hooked.)

So to save her a little time, I’m going to kick out a couple of links here. I could have just put them into an e-mail to her, but I thought if she found these links handy, someone else might too.

I didn’t watch the Tour de France today, because I was at work before 6 a.m., but I did know who won the time trial before I got home. That’s because I checked the final results on, which puts up live coverage as each stage progresses.

So you could, for example, as you run around packing and unpacking and trying to figure out how they built a house without an electric socket right there where the lamp should go, you could have your son track the race online and report to you if there are any crashes or exciting position changes. If you read closely, you’ll notice that CyclingNews reports the race in a plummy British accent.

There’s also Yahoo’s cycling page, which features news and video clips. Not as good as live commentary, maybe, but it goes a little deeper with analysis.

And Sister #1 already found the Tour site. Versus (Vs.) is the cable network carrying the race. They post plenty of clips from each stage—key incidents, interviews, background segments, analysis. Frankly, it’s less time-consuming than watching an entire stage, with all those guys just riding for miles and miles, not doing much. In case anyone hasn’t seen it yet, the best clip so far from this year’s Tour broadcast is actually from 20 years ago, when the U.S. team was sponsored by 7-Eleven (known today as Kwik-E-Mart). It’s called the Bob Roll Feature, and it’s posted on the Stage 11 page of videos.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

More Numbers

Anyone who thinks a bike race is just about being the fastest rider should study Alexander Vinokourov’s climb out of the basement over the past few days to learn how much it’s a sport of strategy.

It’s a little like playing chess, except that in chess (where the strategy is much more complex, yes), once you’ve decided where to move your piece, you don’t have to make your move at the end of 5 hours of riding, on an uphill slope at high altitude, against someone else who’s pretty sure he wants to move his piece there instead. In cycling, as in baseball or other sports, you have to know what tactics to deploy, and then you have to have the physical talent to deploy them.

Yesterday Vino and his Tour de France team used their wits to drop Christophe Moreau from the top 10. Today Vino rode a time trial to save his career, in the rain, and muscled his way back into the top 10. He shaved 1:14 off his gap with Cadel Evans, who finished 2nd today, and even more with everyone behind Cadel.

A couple of yesterday’s top contenders weeded themselves out of the top 10. Alejandro Valverde and Iban Mayo struggled in the rain and dropped back considerably. With every day that goes by, there’s one less opportunity to earn that time back later in the race.

With Valverde and Mayo gone, Leipheimer bumps up two places, and he also outrode Carlos Sastre today, leaving Levi in 5th overall.

The surprise today, which was not as big a surprise as it might have been, was Rasmussen’s performance: He’s still the overall leader, by a margin of a minute. It’s no surprise when the race leader puts in an effort larger than expected to keep the yellow jersey. But Rasmussen has shown now that he does not intend to surrender the lead easily. He’s shooting for Paris.

Going into the mountains, then, we have an interesting end game shaping up. Rasmussen is strong in the mountains and will be riding hard to try to stretch his lead before the next time trial, where everyone expects he’ll lose some time again. Evans and Andreas Klöden can both be dangerous in the mountains, and both will be fighting to gain any splinter of time they can against Rasmussen and each other. Leipheimer announced some time ago that he’s planning to try to dominate the Pyrenees, pulling hard up the steep mountain stages to gain precious minutes and seize the lead. Vinokourov not only rides mountains well but has a point to prove—and his knees are starting to heal, as today’s ride showed.

That’s five serious veteran contenders, all within 5 minutes of each other, as the race heads for the Pyrenees—and it’s easy for a rider to blow out in the mountains and lose that amount of time, dropping out of competition. It will be harder for any of these guys to gain that much time against any of the others, unless someone blows out completely. They’re all going to be fighting hard, playing it safe but putting in every ounce of effort to win.

Add newcomer Alberto Contador to the mix—still very much in the top 10, now moved up to No. 3 in fact—and you run into something else that will keep the mountains entertaining: Each of these riders is bringing a strong team with him.

Probably Rasmussen is the most vulnerable here, coming from Rabobank. But he’s more than shown his ability so far, and he’s got several old hands on his squad to support and protect him. Cadel Evans has Chris Horner in his corner, an enthusiastic American who called himself “paid insurance” yesterday for Cadel’s efforts in the mountains to come. Contador and Leipheimer ride together for Discovery, and they’ve got Yaroslav Popovych on the team to help them over the mountains, plus George Hincapie, who rode with Lance Armstrong for seven straight victories. So far Popovych is third in the mountain-climbing competition, so he’s no slouch. (I should also give props to Discovery’s coach, Johan Bruyneel, who has to deserve at least some of the credit for the team’s stellar performance over the past decade.) Klöden and Vinokourov both ride for Astana, whose turquoise jerseys have led more than one stage already, showing the depth and commitment of the riders who are ready to help push their leaders up over the summits.

For most of the last decade, the Tour de France has been dominated by Lance Armstrong and the Discovery team (formerly U.S. Postal). Last year, with Lance retired, the race was in a little disarray, seeing some early surprises (Mayo dropped out, Leipheimer choked) and some wild rides (a 30-minute gap at one point between peloton and leader, Floyd Landis’s outlandish comeback).

This year the competition is shaping up to be more even and stronger than it’s been for a while. Any one of the top several riders is a serious contender; each of them has a strong team; none of them can be said to be dominating the chase. Even if a few of the leaders choke, there are still others ready to step up who are very strong. Astana and Discovery both have not one but two serious contenders in the top 10.

The mountains will give some of these guys a chance to try to put on the gas and move ahead of the others, playing both brute force and team strategy. And then there’s another time trial, another opportunity to win minutes back or lose them forever.

Whoever rides to final victory in Paris this year will have earned it.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Numbers Game

I should have all kinds of exciting things to talk about, but I’ll settle for statistics instead.

Alexander Vinokourov and Team Astana played an interesting game on the roads of southern France this afternoon.

The Tour de France is in the flatlands of the French Mediterranean coast this week, between the excitement of the Alps and the challenges of the Pyrenees. The long, straight stages across the Riviera are called the “transitional” stages, which is a French word for “dull.”

That’s in a typical year. No two years are quite alike.

Vino is just about out of the Tour this year; he’s lost too much time already. But his teammate Andreas Klöden still has a fighting chance. Klöden has been in the top three finishers at the end of the race twice before, though he’s never taken the top position.

Today, in the middle of a long hot afternoon so dull you could hear crickets, Team Astana put the hammer down and suddenly charged forward for no apparent reason, just to see if anyone was paying attention.

Suddenly instead of a single ho-hum peloton, there were two pelotons, one seriously behind the other. Christophe Moreau, who had been among the top 10 riders in the general classification so far, was in the rear peloton, with no way to bridge over to the front peloton in the heavy crosswind. Astana hammered forward, putting an even wider gap between the groups. Vinokourov himself took the lead several times, setting the pace and driving the peloton to ride faster.

Effectively they stole the race from Moreau this afternoon. Nothing is final until the riders hit Paris at the end of the Tour, but it’s nigh on impossible for Moreau to recapture the time he lost today. This won’t help Vinokourov much. It might well help Klöden: He’s got one fewer competitor to worry about. For the fans at home, it made the race worth watching a little longer, even on a “transitional” day.

Let’s take a California-centric look, then, at who’s left. Vino is out. Moreau is probably out. In the top 10, we’ve got several veterans and a couple of newbies:

Michael Rasmussen, a cheerful Dane, is in the lead right now, after pushing hard in the Alps. Everyone says he’s likely to lose the lead in the time trials, of which two remain. He’s raced the Tour before, though, so he knows what’s involved.

Iban Mayo, from Spain, can do fabulously well some years; he chokes in other years. It’s been a few seasons since he had a fabulous year, but in this Tour he’s really been shining. He excels at mountains.

Cadel Evans, from Australia, has been riding long enough to know better; he placed 8th in the Tour in 2005. Anyone who’s been in the top 10 in a Tour de France has proved that they know how to ride mountains, how to ride the flats, how to ride time trials and team time trials, and (probably most important) how to play team strategies to secure an advantage.

Alberto Contador, from Spain, is relatively new and still pretty young. He rides with Team Discovery, and he’s been having a fantastic Tour so far. He’s in fifth place right now, and he showed up well in the mountains. At 24, he’s fairly young to be expected to win a Tour; normally more mature minds come out on top in this grueling physical contest. But he’s doing well.

Carlos Sastre, from Spain, has also shown his stuff in previous tours; Alejandro Valverde, the fourth Spaniard in the top 10, even beat Lance Armstrong in one stage the last year Lance raced. Valverde, though, is also young, and in both 2005 and 2006 he didn’t finish the Tour.

Rounding out the top eight that I care about is Levi Leipheimer, from California; I tend to look at the Tour from his seat, handicapping whether he’s got a chance of winning. Last year he did pretty poorly in the Tour of France, though he started off the season moderately well with a couple of stage wins in the Tour of California. That year’s Tour of California (the inaugural year) was eventually won by Floyd Landis, who’s now best known for leaving the 2006 Tour de France with the longest cliffhanger ending in modern pro sports. We still don’t know who “won.”

This year Levi Leipheimer owned the Tour of California from start to finish.

And then at the end of the top 10, you find Mikel Astarloza, the fifth Spaniard in the top 10, and Kim Kirchen. Astarloza has been in the Tour before; I don’t think Kim Kirchen has.

Since everyone claims Rasmussen will lose his lead in the time trials, it’s interesting to look at how some of these guys have come out of time trials before. Past performance is no guarantee of future behavior, but it’s a guide worth checking.

2006 July 22, Stage 19, 57 km time trial:
Sergei Gonchar came in first, at 1:07:45.
2. Andreas Klöden, 0:00:45 behind Gonchar
8. Cadel Evans, 0:03:41
20. Carlos Sastre, 0:04:42
30. Christophe Moreau, 0:05:33
34. Levi Leipheimer, 0:06:02
85. Michael Rasmussen, 0:08:51
94. Mikel Astarloza, 0:09:11

What if we imposed those results on this year’s race? Well, Rasmussen would lose his lead. Klöden would move up to pass Evans for the top spot. Evans would still be above Rasmussen, as would Sastre. Leipheimer wouldn’t have quite enough to pass Rasmussen, and neither would Astarloza. (That’s just one time trial; we have two left.)

2006 July 8, Stage 7, 52 km time trial:
Sergei Gonchar came in first, at 1:01:43.
8. Andreas Klöden, 0:01:43 behind Gonchar
11. Cadel Evans, 0:01:49
15. Christophe Moreau, 0:02:03
18. Carlos Sastre, 0:02:10
33. Mikel Astarloza, 0:03:18
82. Iban Mayo, 0:05:36
96. Levi Leipheimer, 0:06:05
114. Michael Rasmussen, 0:06:29

Again we see Leipheimer not having enough oomph in the time trial that (with last year’s performance) he could pass Rasmussen. Again we see Klöden and Evans duking it out for top honors, with Sastre right behind them. Also note: Iban Mayo this year is ahead of Klöden and Evans so far. But with a performance like last year’s he’d drop way behind.

It’s really hard to guess how a rider will perform in a particular multi-stage race in a particular year. Even a very solid rider can start failing early in a long road race and not catch up to his form for a week or longer. In the season’s next challenge, he might go home with top honors. Sometimes a slump lasts all season.

So far in this race, Leipheimer’s been playing a conservative hand but a strong one. He’s watched Vinokourov, a top contender, drop out of competition, and today Moreau. Both times Leipheimer was able to conserve his energy. He’s already said he’s saving his fight for the Pyrenees. It’s troubling to see five Spaniards up against him in the top 10 as the race inches closer to the Spanish border. These guys know the Pyrenees the same way Levi knows the hills of California. Strange things will happen in the mountains; they’re where the race can really start breaking apart and taking its final shape. It’s absolutely safe to bet that some of the top 10 contenders will choke in the mountains, though there’s no guess which ones will go down.

But assuming Levi can pull a mountain out of his hat this year and look good, what hope is there in the time trials? Last year’s record makes it look as if Klöden and Evans have it pretty well stitched up, even if they can just hold steady against Leipheimer in the mountains.

Well, compare Levi’s time against Rasmussen’s this year and last year. Last year in the Tour de France, Levi finished within a minute of Rasmussen once and within three minutes of Rasmussen the other time. Let’s assume Rasmussen’s in the same form this year (a big risk, but let’s). How is Levi’s form stacking up? In Stage 5 of this year’s Tour of California, Levi won the time trial; Rasmussen was 4:42 behind him. That’s in a time trial only half as long.

That was back in February. Everybody’s bodies have changed since then.

More recently, in the very short time trial from this year’s Tour de France prologue in London:

1. Fabian Cancellara won in 8:50
2. Klöden, 0:13 behind
14. Astarloza, 0:35
15. Contador, 0:35
17. Evans, 0:36
26. Leipheimer, 0:40
32. Valverde, 0:44
53. Kirchen, 0:49
92. Sastre, 0:57
109. Mayo, 1:01
166. Rasmussen, 1:18

Leipheimer still comes in behind Klöden and Evans, but he’s much more in the same league with them, instead of being way behind. A short time trial like this is different from a one-hour time trial; it’s hard to guess how similar the results from the longer stage will be. But it’s the best data we’ve got.

So to win, Levi has to pull out a couple of stunning time trials, and he’s got to win back a few minutes in at least one stage in the Pyrenees, probably two. Right now he’s only 1:09 behind Cadel Evans, 0:14 behind Carlos Sastre, 0:03 behind Andreas Klöden. Presumably Contador will drop behind if told to do so by the team captain; it’s very sensible to keep him hammering for now, though, in case anything does happen to Leipheimer—Contador could still contend for the final yellow jersey if Levi dropped out.

Of course, Evans and Sastre and Klöden, and Rasmussen, are doing the same math, and they’ll all be fighting hard to win in the next two weeks.

The other interesting thing to watch in today’s ride, beside the field splitting into two groups: Alexander Vinokourov was taking long stints at the front of the field for Team Astana, breaking the wind for the guys riding behind him. Normally a team’s No. 1 guy doesn’t ride in the front; his domestiques are supposed to protect him from the wind so he can save his energy to pour it on right at the finish.

So we’re left with two possibilities: Vino was so annoyed at Christophe Moreau for attacking a few days ago, when Vino was in pain, that he wanted to personally lead the charge that stripped victory from Moreau. Or—and to me more likely—Vino has acknowledged that he’s out of the running for a Paris triumph, and the team is rallying behind Klöden. Klöden riding with Vino as a domestique is just as threatening as the other way around.

We’re roughly at the midpoint of the Tour, and it has proved intriguing as the riders charge up and down hill and dale. A lot of shakeout has already taken place, but there’s no given leader as we come into the Pyrenees. Should be fun to watch and see how the positions evolve from here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

X and Y

It’s fascinating to study family trees and see what traits repeat themselves in siblings and in multiple generations. They can be subtle traits, like a facial tic or the shape of an earlobe. Sometimes the chromosomal traits are more pronounced.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Three More Swifties

Much more progress today. (Compare this to yesterday’s shot.) We have now hauled a fourth load to the recycle center. Also today the city garbage collection came and picked up our tiny small bin of garbage, plus a container and a half of mixed recyclables and a full container of yard trimmings.

I have many more pictures of our progress and discoveries, but I have to run over to the library tonight to drop off a collection of newspaper clippings from the past 40 years of local history, so I’ll save those to post later.

This is not from the bottom of the hill, no. It’s also not from the top of the hill, so there’s more to do tomorrow. The turnaround point (where this was taken) was at a private street called Buena Vista. You can see why. The blimp hangar in the distance on the right is Moffett Field, where Ames Research Center is located.

We’ve been getting up every morning to watch stages of the Tour de France as it winds its way from London through Belgium and into eastern France. In the U.S., this is being shown on a cable channel called Versus, which features outdoors programs and occasional sports.

The Tour is replacing a lot of programs they’d normally be running on buck hunting and boar chases and extreme entrails.

These guys came out to the road to thank me for giving Versus a reason to put something else on the air.

Monday, July 09, 2007


We didn’t get the Seventh Fleet this week, because they were busy somewhere else, but we did bring all the freight capacity we could muster.

It’s not all bad times. At the end of the day, after making tangible progress, there’s time to get out and stretch the legs. It’s a beautiful season for riding. (Click on the picture to enlarge it. Check out the hawk over the crest of Coyote Hill.)

Boxer Rebellion

We live in a country where, tragically, the government allows ordinary citizens to own and use apple boxes without a license—without even a mandatory training program or a three-day waiting period before you decide to save a bunch of stuff. No, in this country anyone who’s got a hankering can just put stuff in a box and save it. And stack it. And store it. Until . . . well, there really is no end to it.

Whoever invented the apple box ought to be thoroughly excommunicated from ordinary civilization.

Growing Season

The yard is abundant with fruit and flower. We go out every morning and pick up more windfall apples than we can eat in a day.

Not sure what species of fruit these are. Found them under a tree. They have a very thick skin.

Much Too Much

Clearing out a house, like eating a sausage, is best done a hunk at a time. Here, then, are a few hunks:

Buried in there somewhere are two cousins having fun playing on one computer.

Every box gets a label with a list of what’s inside, and every label gets initials until the box can be distributed or disposed.

Overflow: Recyclables, empties, Goodwill.

Three happy sisters going through boxes of clothes.

The real news in this shot is that they’re standing in the garage, which until 24 hours ago was stacked 6 feet deep in boxes. (Some of those boxes are what you see in other pictures.) Now there’s room to put a car in there.

This is more like what the garage used to look like—except even this side had been 50% cleared out by the time this picture was taken. (Check out the unicycle hanging upside down in front of the green cabinet.)

When you spend all day clearing out closets, you get to play dress-up.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Three Swift Shots

Note the direction of travel. Note which way the wind is blowing.

Extra points for anyone who can explain why left and right are transposed in mirror images, but up and down remain as they are in real life.

Swooping view from today’s ride

Some rich men came and raped the land
Nobody caught ’em
Put up a bunch of ugly boxes
And Jesus, people bought ’em
—The Eagles, The Last Resort

(Part of my income comes from construction, so I should be happy to see houses being built. I live in a house. I grew up in a house. I have no objection to houses. That doesn’t mean I automatically support construction even when it’s crass and intrusive. Those were some nice hills before people started sticking buildings all over them.)