Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hell On Wheels Revisited - What Would Pepe Danquart Think?

Well, it's finally happening. Riders and team physicians are breaking a more than decade-long silence and coming totally clean about doping in cycling. Oh, wait…hmmm, I mean…uhhh, kind of. Maybe sort of? Okay...I don't know what's going on.

What I do know is that I have watched "Hell On Wheels" no fewer than four times and it ranks right up there with "PRO" and "Overcoming" as one of the best cycling documentaries available. Even though it has subtitles, the voyage of Team Telekom in the 2003 Tour de France is a heck of a ride. It has exceptional photography, a riveting storyline, a Director named Pepe Danquart and most importantly, an eminently likeable cast of characters. Foremost among the latter group (and the true stars of the film) are Rolf Aldag and Erik Zabel, both of whom recently confessed to having doped at certain times in their careers.

After two-plus hours of some pretty intimate footage, "Hell On Wheels" makes it clear that Aldag and Zabel (A-Z) are both extremely professional guys. They seem honest, friendly and good-natured despite the fact that they are going through hell on the bike every day. Throughout the movie the viewer is exposed to the extreme psychological toll that the Tour de France takes out on its participants. The physical element is obvious to anyone looking at a race map but the psychological beating that these guys take during the Tour is astounding. Especially Erik Zabel, who crashed early on and finished without a single stage victory.

I've always liked Zabel. The flat-top haircut, the Dieter accent, the Green Jerseys, the Milan-Sanremo wins (and losses)...he was always in the mix. Just a tough, tough guy. Quite possibly the most respected rider in the entire professional peloton, it will be fascinating to see how Ete handles this situation. It will also be very interesting to hear the reaction from other riders. I'm guessing he gets a better response than Manzano or Simeoni did.

The only reason I really knew much about Aldag was because he rode well in the San Francisco Grand Prix a few years back. I don't know why I remember that but watching him throw down on Taylor Street was impressive. It wasn't entirely surprising to me that he grabbed the Polka Dot Jersey in the 2003 Tour. He has since done well as a director for T-Mobile and it looks like he will retain his position with the team despite his confession. By all accounts, he's a really good guy and the riders respect him immensely. Once again...a slightly better response than Manzano and Simeoni.

Anyway, after the recent admission that they had doped during their time with Telekom/T-Mobile, I'm not sure that I'll be able to appreciate "Hell On Wheels" in the same fashion I once had. Supposedly, both riders were clean by the time 2003 came around but you can't help but wonder when, why and if they chose to quit. Afterall, not many riders have confessed to long-term use of performance enhancing drugs for a reason.

It seems that there was a lot of "dabbling" in doping products but not a lot of habitual use if we are to believe many of the recent confessions. Unfortunately, many have been somewhat tough to swallow. I'm not sure that a partial confession eases the conscience all that much, but I hope these guys feel better about themselves for having come

It is difficult to predict the final outcome of all of these confession-ettes however, it would seem that they signal the beginning of a very long and dirty history lesson. Even if these guys are telling the truth about their minimal usage, the fact remains that they all felt forced to dope in order to compete and they all had fairly easy, if not completely team-sanctioned access to the necessary products.

Despite past indiscretions, I would guess that Zabel and Aldag are probably pretty good guys. But good people sometimes do bad things. Especially when it means supporting their family through bike racing or going back to East Germany to work in factory or warehouse. We'll have to see about Milram but at least Bob Stapleton seems to agree by announcing that he will keep Aldag on the T-Mobile staff as a director. How the cycling community responds to these confessions and perhaps more importantly, the confessors, will likely be a significant factor in how many riders choose to come

Hey, at least it's not a bold-faced lie anymore for some of these guys. Just a maybe a timid-faced one. Better than nothing I guess.

I think I'm going to go watch "Hell On Wheels" now. It really is a good movie and I think that Pepe Danquart would appreciate it. The way things are progressing for German cycling, I don't know how many more of these DVD's he's going to sell.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hey...It's Enrico Palazzo!

Hey…It’s Enrico Palazzo! And he’s leading the Giro d’Italia! Rumor has it that he will be flying to L.A. on the rest day to sing the National Anthem at an Angels game and save the Queen of England from Reggie Jackson. Oh, wait…what? It’s Gasparotto and not Palazzo? So that’s not Di Luca lying on the table in this photograph below? Sorry, my bad.

Well, all Naked Gun references aside, apparently the Giro started on Saturday. The reason I say “apparently” is because the brain surgeons who organized the event decided to have a ridiculously tricky Team Time Trial as the first stage - thus encouraging large time-gaps and essentially gifting the winning team with the maglia rosa for the entire first week. As a racer and fan, I have to say…this might be the single worst way to start a Grand Tour.

It seems like the Giro organizers don’t really have issues with doing weird things on the opening day though. Remember the night time Prologue a few years ago when a helmet-less Cipollini donned a pink body-suit and rode the course as the final rider? Yeah…I don’t know if that really conformed to standard protocol either. But it was still WAY better than the TTT start.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that much of the interest generated by the early sprinting stages of a Grand Tour (or any stage race for that matter) is the potential for a number of riders to garner not only a stage win but also the leader’s jersey as well. When McEwen won the first “real” stage on Sunday, he should have taken the maglia rosa with it. Or maybe current World and Italian Champion Paolo Bettini would have taken it if a normal prologue had opened the race. That would have been cool too.

But instead, we get a snotty Danilo Di Luca (who still seemed mad at his teammate Enrico Palazzo…er…I mean Gasparotto for riding faster than him in the TTT) begrudgingly accepting the leader’s jersey and looking rude. Plus, we now have to look forward to the joys of seeing lime green and pink for a week.

Speaking of Di Luca…is he just simply too cool to smile? I think he may be. It seems like he’s really annoyed, angry or just kind of indifferent whenever he’s on the podium. Maybe it’s because he’s always shorter than the podium girls. That might get on my nerves too.

Come to think of it…that would be kind of tough. I mean, you win a race or get the lead and you’re all psyched and thinking macho thoughts about yourself. Then you go up to the stage and the podium girls make you look like a 12 year old in a Halloween costume standing next to the baby sitter.

Considering that most professional cyclists are fairly average-to-short in height, you would think that the organizers could get some non-Amazonian women to help dispense the post-race goodies. I mean…I know most models are fairly tall but you’re trying to tell me that they can’t find some attractive, shorter women in Italy? Really? I’m guessing they could probably rustle up a few nice looking petite ladies in those parts.

After all, when the winner of a prestigious bike race goes up to the podium and ends up looking like Long Duk Dong next to Lumberjack in Sixteen Candles…you may lose a little of the grandeur. Then you throw in a Pink Jersey and things start going downhill faster than Il Falco.

Maybe I’m just being petty but I have to think the riders talk about this phenomenon too. I mean…we can’t all be George Hincapie and run off with the podium girl. Cyclists generally do pretty well with the ladies but it can’t be good for the old morale when the podium girls have to bend down to kiss you. Even when you’re standing on the top step.

Anyway…I have to mention one more thing about the Giro that is INSANE. During the coverage of the first road stage on VS, there was a point when the breakaway group passed some dude riding along side of the road. Not on the sidewalk or adjacent to the course…I mean…the guy was actually cruising along the race route and the break had to basically go around him. It was ridiculous. And the worst part was that the guys in the breakaway didn’t even yell out “On your left” as they passed him. I mean…where is the etiquette guys? It’s only the first stage of the second biggest bike race in the world. Come on let’s be courteous to our fellow bike riders, huh?

So, yeah…the Giro started on Sunday. I guess it’s important but there is just so much else going on in the sport that is taking the focus away from the race. Between Operacion Puerto and the Landis Case, the Giro seems to be the least important. Hopefully we will have a clear winner at the end of the race and at least we know that it will conclude in three weeks. Since we can’t say the same thing about an end-date for OP or the Landis Affair…let’s finish with a Naked Gun quote from Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad, one of the leading investigators of both cases.

"I promise you; whatever scum did this, not one man on this force will rest one minute until they are behind bars. Now, let's grab a bite to eat."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Excuses, Justifications and Exculpations - Learn From The Pros

Okay…a lot of people have criticized Floyd Landis for his early attempts to explain his supposedly positive test during the 2006 Tour de France. Sure, the initial press conference was awkward, with the rumors easily gapping the facts in the race for public opinion and I will admit that the possible whiskey defense had me scratching my head a little bit. But the fact is, he never should have been subjected to that whole process to begin with. Floyd was put in a position where he was forced to defend himself against documents, results and allegations that he had not even been formally presented with. Regardless of what you think of the case…that’s just not right.
So anyway…I couldn’t help but laugh when reading a recent public defense that makes Floyd look like Johnny Cochrane, or better yet, Jackie Chiles. I am referring to the ramblings of the ever-entertaining Curt Schilling, All-Star pitcher and self-promoter of the Boston Red Sox. On Tuesday, he of the (allegedly) bloody sock, took issue with San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds on his blog and on a local Boston radio station, making a number of statements that have caused quite a stir.

"Everyone has days and events in life they'd love to push the rewind button on, yesterday was one of those days," Schilling wrote on "Regardless of my opinions, thoughts and beliefs on anything Barry Bonds it was absolutely irresponsible and wrong to say what I did. I don't think it's within anyone's right to say the things I said yesterday and affect other peoples lives in that way."

Here’s what caused the ruckus:

"I mean, he admitted that he used steroids," Schilling said Tuesday. "I mean, there's no gray area. He admitted to cheating on his wife, cheating on his taxes and cheating on the game, so I think the reaction around the league, the game, being what it is, in the case of what people think. Hank Aaron not being there. The commissioner trying to figure out where to be. It's sad.

"And I don't care that he's black, or green, or purple, or yellow, or whatever. It's unfortunate … there's good people and bad people. It's unfortunate that it's happening the way it's happening."
While only bits and pieces of what he said are true, Schilling kind of, sort of took responsibility for his comments, but then just actually suggested that the early time of the interview may have been partly to blame. Wow, it must have pretty early in the morning to make someone say stuff like that. Somebody get this guy some coffee. So, just how early was the interview?

"I'd love to tell you I was ambushed, misquoted, misinterpreted, something other than what it was, but I wasn't," Schilling wrote. "I'm thinking that waking up at 8:30 am to do the weekly interview we do with WEEI is probably not the greatest format and if you heard the interview it's not hard to realize that I'm usually awake about 30-45 seconds before it begins.”

Okay now I understand. I mean…people actually expect you to be able to talk coherently and make defensible comments at 8:30 in the morning? Is the sun even up by then? I mean…come on, there aren’t even any game shows on TV at that hour. Just the boring news with all those…what do you call them…oh yeah…facts.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I respect that Schilling is being so public in his apology and I wish more athletes would be accountable for what they say. I just can’t quite understand how the time of day or how long you have been awake affects the ability to censor one’s true beliefs in a public forum. Curt Schilling isn’t sorry for the comments he made…he’s sorry that people took offense to them. Those weren’t just “off the cuff” remarks by a sleepy guy who doesn’t know what he’s saying. I could be wrong here, but somehow I get the sense that Curt Schilling may have actually developed a stance on the subject of Barry Bonds over the last few years. It just so happens that he has now made that stance public in a rather unflattering manner.

But seriously…8:30 in the morning? The funniest part is that he acts like it’s early and that we should somehow be sympathetic. It would be one thing if he had just pitched a night game prior to the interview but Schilling last threw on Sunday and the Sox didn’t even play on Monday. So basically…that’s a really poor excuse for Tuesday morning. Far worse than anything Floyd said.

In retrospect, I think Floyd’s whiskey defense was actually one of the most telling factors in this whole process. You would think that if someone were doping, they would probably try to formulate some kind of defense in the event of a positive test. Maybe not…but it seems logical to me. Not that logic has anything to do with this, but the fact that Landis was so scattered in his initial attempts to explain the result could be seen as a testament to his confusion, surprise and ultimately, his innocence.

I just have to think that a person with something to hide would find a better way to hide it than by publicly claiming he may have had too much to drink the night before. And it’s not like he would ever be able to use that excuse in another event or context. The only reason he was drinking on the evening of Stage 16 was because of the specific circumstances of that particular day. It’s not like he was out doing shots of JD after he got the yellow jersey in the first place. It was just so random. Usually people blame alcohol for poor performances, not good ones.

It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but sometimes a well-articulated response to an accusation is indicative of a prior assumption that the accused could be required to defend themselves at some point. In Floyd’s case, his poorly formulated response to the initial results from the Tour may have actually reflected the potential of a false positive from a psychological perspective more than say…Ivan Basso’s false declarations of “tranquility” regarding Operacion Puerto, for instance.

In Schilling’s case, his highly polished apology is in stark contrast to his poorly formulated excuse. From a psychological perspective, this is representative of an individual who is accustomed to apologizing publicly due to an unfavorable external reaction but probably has little remorse for the actual content of his statements. But then again…it was 8:30 in the morning. Perhaps Schilling will be more careful to get some caffeine before he discusses cycling on his blog or the radio.

By the way, the Floyd Landis hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Uncertainty Principle

The term Uncertainty is used in a wide range of fields, including finance, psychology, physics, philosophy and most of all…professional cycling. “Uncertainty” in these disciplines is generally used in reference to predictions of future events, to existing physical measurements or to the unknown. This last component, the Unknown, is of particular interest to the cycling world recently. But I’m not really going to talk about that right now. Stay with me.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (uber-condensed version): “The more precisely the Position is determined, the less precisely the Momentum is known.”

Werner Heisenberg was in his mid-twenties when he shot to the forefront of his profession under the tutelage of a highly revered Danish physicist named Niels Bohr. He was always regarded as a talented mind, but his work in Copenhagen, which helped form the foundation of quantum mechanics, distinguished the German from many of his peers. Although he worked with the likes of Max Born and Pascual Jordan, Heisenberg was always the most highly revered. Ultimately, it was Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle” that came to highlight many of the issues pertaining to quantum theory, both mathematically and philosophically.

Ivan Basso was in his mid-twenties when he shot to the forefront of his profession under the tutelage of a highly revered Danish cyclist and team manager named Bjarne Riis. He was always regarded as a talented racer, but his work for Team CSC, which led to multiple podium finishes behind Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France, distinguished the Italian from his teammates. Although he raced with the likes of Jens Voigt and Carlos Sastre, Basso was always the most highly revered. Ultimately, it was Basso’s triumph at the 2006 Giro d’Italia and subsequent fall from grace that has come to highlight many of the issues pertaining to doping in cycling, both in practice and philosophically.

Werner Heisenberg was the head of Germany’s wartime nuclear energy program during World War II. His efforts during this time are somewhat controversial and there are a number of differing opinions regarding his contribution to nuclear research. Supporters argue that he aided only in stalling the Nazi military’s goal of creating an atomic bomb. Others contend that Heisenberg simply miscalculated the feasibility of a deliverable weapon of this type and focused on nuclear energy research instead. Most historians agree that he was not a strong supporter of the Nazi agenda and likely assumed his role out of a sense of self-preservation and a fear of possible repercussions from his employers.

Ivan Basso was the leader of the best cycling team in the world during the immediate Post-Lance Armstrong Era. His efforts during this time are somewhat controversial and there are sure to be a number of differing opinions regarding his contribution to the doping problem in cycling. Supporters will likely argue that he only attempted to cheat and postponed his unused doping practices until after his most significant victories. Others will likely contend that Basso simply got caught and is now trying to defend his actions and the legitimacy of his prior victories. Most observers will likely agree that he was probably not a strong supporter of the doping culture and likely assumed his role out of a sense of self-preservation and a fear of possible repercussions from his employers.

It should be noted that Niels Bohr, Heisenberg’s Danish mentor not twenty years earlier, was part of a team of physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project. Although nuclear fission was discovered in Germany in 1938, it was this group from the United States, not Heisenberg’s team, that developed the first atomic bomb later used on Japan in August of 1945.

It should also be noted that Bjarne Riis, Basso’s Danish mentor not twelve months ago, was the leader of a team that won back-to-back Tour de France titles in 1996 and 1997. Although recent reports claim that the ’96 team used illegal practices during Riis’ victory and ’97 winner Jan Ullrich has shamefully retired in the wake of Operacion Puerto, it is Ivan Basso who has become the biggest doping story in the world of cycling.

The basis of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is that the simultaneous determination of two paired quantities, for example the position and momentum of a particle, has an unavoidable uncertainty. An Unavoidable Uncertainty. That’s the important part here, so you can forget about the wave-particle duality issues. An Unavoidable Uncertainty. Think about that for a second.

I used to think that we would never really know who is guilty until they admit it. But as Basso’s recent admission proves, even a confession leaves room for doubt and uncertainty. Now I’m thinking that maybe this Heisenberg guy was on to something after all.

In a slightly flawed interpretation, if there is an Unavoidable Uncertainty in the behavior of sub-atomic particles (which, by the way, are the building blocks of everything in the known universe), then there is probably a significant element of uncertainty in the world of cycling.

In fact, I’m certain of it.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Dr. J's Tech Talk - Time and Power, Part 1

In the “real” world (read: non-cycling related) I have recently become involved with a scientific organization that uses Femtoseconds as a primary element of time measurement (for reference, a femtosecond is to a second, what a second is to 100,000,000 years). During this period, it was pointed out to me that I hadn’t written anything about cycling in quite some time. TIME. I thought about that for a moment and decided that it was only true depending on how one views “Time,” although I do admit that many femtoseconds have passed since my last entry.

Note to Readers: By the way, the world of Physics can create a plethora of wonderful rationalizations and excuses...seriously. Actually, so can Anthropology…did you know that the Hopi culture had no verbal or written reference for time – past, present or future?

Anyway, I got to thinking about how many cyclists judge themselves and others by a number of (seemingly) concrete orders of magnitude, primarily those relating to elements of “time” and “power.” Speed is another factor that I may get into in the future but I’ll stick with time and power for now. While these units, or measuring systems, are not truly stable in an academic sense (don’t make me go Einstein on you), base values and meanings can be used to differentiate performance on a “human” scale. After all, the theory of relativity is not meaningfully applicable for cyclists travelling at different speeds until Litespeed or Cervelo actually make a bike that can go about 186,282 miles per second. Although, there probably is a psychological equation involved. But that’s another topic for another time…Psychology can be even trickier than Physics.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Time and Power. I’ll start off with the notion of Time because more people probably understand the basic elements of how we typically view time intervals than those of power or output. As such, most people probably think they have a fairly strong concept of time…but unless they have a PhD in Physics, most of those people are wrong. Time can actually be quite difficult to wrap the old melon around when looked at critically. With this in mind (leaving Kant, Leibniz and Existentialism out of the picture), let’s look at the basic framework by which human beings view the concept of “Time.”

Most of us probably know that Greg LeMond won the closest Tour de France of all time by a mere 8 seconds over Frenchman Laurent Fignon. Considering that the race took place over 2,000 miles and three weeks, that 8 second differential seems incredibly small. And when compared to most Tours, it is a tiny margin of victory. But when viewed in the context of a larger timescale, these 8 seconds take on a whole new meaning. First, let’s take a look at what a “second” really is and then we can try to grasp some non-standard units of measurement so that the “second” becomes a much more relative term.

Second [Traditionally understood as the 60th part of the 60th part of the 24th part of the day]


1/60 of a Minute
1/3,600 of an Hour
1/86,400 of a Day
1/31,557,600 of a Year


1s – approximate time of a single heartbeat
1s – the time required for light to travel 186,282 miles
1.26s – approximate time for light to travel between the Earth and the Moon
8s – the time by which Greg LeMond defeated Laurent Fignon in the 1989 Tour de France
9.77s – world record for men’s 100m sprint event

Millisecond [one thousandth of a second]


1ms – cycle time for frequency 1kHz
2ms – single flap of housefly wing
5ms – single flap of honeybee wing
8ms – standard camera shutter speed
100ms – the blink of an eye

Microsecond [one millionth of a second]


1μs – cycle time for a frequency 1MHz radio wavelength at 300m (AM mediumwave band)
1μs – the time required for a sound wave at sea level to travel 1/3 of a millimeter
5.4μs – the time required for light to travel one mile in a vacuum

Nanosecond [one billionth of a second]


1.02ns – the time required for light to travel 1 foot
2-4ns – time for typical pc microprocessor to complete a single instruction

Picosecond [a millionth of a millionth of a second]


1ps – half-life of a bottom quark
3ps – average lifetime of a hydrogen bond between water molecules at room temperature
3.3ps – the time required for light to travel 1 millimeter

Femtosecond [a millionth of a billionth of a second]

Context: A femtosecond is to a second, what a second is to 100,000,000 years. Or…a femtosecond is to a second, what a minute is to the known lifetime of the Universe.


10 to 100fs – single vibration time of an atom in a typical molecule
100fs – the time required for light to travel the distance across a human hair
200fs – the reaction time of eye pigments to light

Other References

32 years – yours truly
75 years – average lifespan of humans in First World countries
231 years – age of United States on July 4, 2007
40,000 years – time since Cro-Magnon colonization of Europe (Upper Paleolithic)
200,000 years – approximate age of Homo sapiens
40 million years – estimated period of time until Australia will collide with Asia
250 million years – Galactic Year – a revolution around the center of the Milky Way of our Sun and the Solar system
100 billion years – estimated total lifetime of the Universe (if the Universe is “closed”…big if)

Hopefully, these examples and definitions help put the concept of time into greater focus. And until someone proves otherwise, I will continue to claim that I have the world “Femtosecond” record for cycling. People can talk about the “Hour” record and discuss the merits of Merckx, Boardman and everyone else but I’m pretty sure that no one has posted the “Femtosecond” record yet. And I didn’t even need a specially made TT bike or a disc wheel. Take that O’Bree.

Coming soon…Part 2: A “Real” analysis of Power. Hint: You don’t have much.