Monday, November 10, 2008

Mea Culpa and Post-Pura Vida Syndrome

Okay, before going over some recent cycling news events, I must apologize to Roberto Gaggioli after mistaking another driver for him a few weeks ago. Apparently, he was not the culprit on I-70. I am very sorry for the misidentification but I swear there is a Dopple-Gaggioli-Ganger in an Audi out there getting speeding tickets. Mea culpa RG.

Anyway, after spending the last few weeks driving through Costa Rica, there will be no complaining about U.S. drivers any time soon. I truly love Costa Rica and the Ticos are overwhelmingly nice and courteous people but…one could argue that the driving conditions often leave a little something to be desired.

First of all, the roads themselves are almost always dangerously twisty and narrow. Adding to the frightening effect are strategically placed potholes as well as numerous pedestrians and dogs who are deceptively good at keeping you nervous by hiding any recognition that there is a huge metal vehicle whipping past them by inches. The fact that we were driving in a Suzuki Jimny (the smaller, wobblier successor to the old Samurai – I don’t even think they are allowed to sell them in the U.S.) which seemed on the verge of rolling over when sticking my arm out the window, let alone when swerving to avoid a group of school children or pothole, did not enhance any sense of safety.

But these things are trivial compared to the awe-inspiring madness of Costa Rican drivers. I say this out of both fear and respect because I have not been able to fully resolve the lingering psychological effects of my experiences on the road with them yet. They were at once and almost universally, life-threateningly aggressive yet oddly aware and polite, while being hyper-impatient and blissfully unconcerned with the future at the same time. Fascinating in retrospect, frightening in the moment. Oh, and it was also quickly determined that traffic laws are not really “rules” so much as mere “suggestions” about how to avoid killing yourself.

For example, it was not unusual to have a huge bus full of tourists, or an old pick-up truck, or a rusted out Datsun, or a cement truck come roaring up behind us at anywhere from 20-70kph over the speed limit and then just go right over the double-yellow lines into the oncoming lane and then back around us without even touching the brakes. Occasionally, the cars in the oncoming lanes would have to slow down or swerve to avoid the passing vehicle but amazingly, I rarely saw anyone get upset about it. In fact, after witnessing about 200 offenses that would likely result in roadside beatings back in the States, I can’t remember more than a few unsavory gestures or honks. And most of those involved me.

Basically, it seems like everyone in Costa Rica is trying to get to a fire. Speed limits and road conditions are evidently not deemed significant if they impede one from passing any and every vehicle in front of them as quickly as possible. But here’s where the Ticos trick you. Because just when you start to think that maybe the guy who darted into oncoming traffic on a blind corner before a one-lane bridge to get around you (when you are already doing 20kph over the posted speed limit) is actually responding to some kind of emergency, then he is just as likely to abruptly pull over to say a polite hello to a friend or kindly give someone a ride somewhere as if time had no significance whatsoever. Truly amazing.

Anyhow, after successfully negotiating a tire-slashing and near-mugging in San Jose, another flat on the drive from Arenal to Tamarindo, far too many unsettling miles on crazy dirt roads without a spare, a few dozen “This can’t possibly be right” utterances and a near-nervous breakdown on the highway/demolition derby outside of Escazu, I have come back to the relative weirdness of life in Boulder and some rather interesting news stories in the cycling world.

Sadly, I have come home to find that both Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl tested positive for CERA during the Tour. I had a sense that there was something Fishy about Kohl and have long been suspicious of Stoolmacher, but it was still depressing to get confirmation of their deviance from the retro-vampires.

I keep getting flashes of them, as well as Ricco and Piepoli, up on the podium, happily accepting flowers and jerseys like they had done nothing wrong. It’s pretty disturbing to imagine what was (or wasn’t) racing through their brains as they reconciled their dope-driven success. They all seemed rather pleased with themselves, although it’s hard to imagine how they could have slept at night out of both guilt and anxiety. Especially after they knew that a test had been developed for CERA. I wonder how many other riders are waiting nervously for more results to be confirmed from the Tour and the Olympics.

There is a dull sense of satisfaction that the cheaters are eventually getting caught, although one can't help but wonder how different the 2008 Tour would have been without Ricco, Piepoli, Schumacher and Kohl in the mix. It’s one thing to remove names from the record books but the reality is that the dynamic of the race is often being dictated by riders who end up getting popped later on. I wonder if there isn’t a subtle subconscious tactic of minimizing reactions to certain “suspicious” riders with the unspoken hope that they will get caught positive at some point later on.

In other news, it seems that Alberto Contador is staying with Astana for 2009. This is pretty surprising on the surface and contradicts what most followers assumed the Spaniard would do upon the confirmation of Lance Armstrong’s return to cycling. Many predicted that Contador would be too insulted to stay on board and jump ship to another team in which he would be the unquestioned leader. It’s bad enough having Levi Leipheimer nipping at your heels from inside the team bus, but can you imagine an alpha-biker battle with Lance while Bruyneel is directing? Kind of a LeMond/Hinault remake?

But as it stands now, there is question as to whether LA will even ride the Tour, perhaps opting to focus on the Giro instead. Regardless, Contador is either confident that he will be the outright leader for the Tour or he realized that he has as good a shot or better to win somehow with Astana (either with or against Armstrong) than he would on any other team anyway. It may be more awkward this way but considering his options, he probably made the right decision.

AC is the real deal athletically and has a lot of subtle psychological similarities to Lance. The whole “recovery from near-death” thing seems like a rather strong unifying force. For the record, I’m still intrigued by the possible effects of Contador’s brain surgeries on his nervous system and pain threshold. If I recall from my numerous Psych classes…brain surgeries are kind of serious (sarcasm) and often carry the potential for emotional and neuro-chemical changes in the patient. I have no idea if this is a factor for Contador in particular, but I think it is a rather interesting consideration regarding performance enhancement in general. Isn’t there a legend that Jens Voigt somehow had his pain receptors removed back in Germany when he was younger? Or was that Chuck Norris?

Anyway, with the possibility of Contador, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Kloden (pending T-Mobile revelations permitting…) and the whole fleet of mercenaries behind them, Astana is going to be rather fearsome in 2009. I am reserving any judgment on the team for the time being and will just simply try to enjoy the show. It should be entertaining at the very least. If there was ever an opportunity for HBO to chronicle a cycling team for a year – this would be it. Come on, jumping from LA to Contador to Levi to Horner to Eki to Bruyneel, it would be reality television GOLD. Gold, I tell ya. Are there any T.V. execs out there reading?

I continue to be somewhat conflicted about the return of Ivan Basso to the pro peloton. While his admission/non-admission of involvement with Fuentes and Operacion Puerto was nearly Clintonian in its boldfaced claims of misguided innocence, one cannot overlook the fact that he has served his time under the current rules and has a right to race again. I can only assume that having to wear that horrendous Liquigas kit is some kind of cosmic retribution for past deeds.

Speaking of unfortunate kits, it seems that Lampre caught fire at the end of the season with victories at the World Championships with Alessandro Ballan and the Tour of Lombardy with Damiano Cunego. Perhaps the thought of being able to wear the rainbow jersey instead of the pink and blue was all the extra motivation Ballan needed to stay away? I also wonder if Cunego had his much-publicized “I Am Doping Free” tattoo covered up with one that says “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” in honor of his Fresh Prince nickname.

Well, there were a lot of other interesting things that happened while I was living la Pura Vida and improving my road rally driving skills, but maybe we’ll save the rest of them for the Year End Review or something. It's cross season now. Te Mucho Gusto.


Jason said...

awesome post!! After traveling to Peru this summer, I can really appreciate your experience in C.R. Completely amiable men would turn into drivers willing to risk life and limb just to get you to the airport five minutes faster. Was there constant honking in C.R.? Also, I agree with you on Basso. I'm pretty uneasy about him coming back. Wasn't he supposed to end up on LPR Brakes? Is that the official italian former doper team? They make rock racing look like choir boys.

CaliRado Cyclist said...

Yeah, the Ticos honk a lot but it's different than in the States. They use the horn as more of a positive safety tool than an angry response mechanism.

Sort of a "Toot toot, here I am" kind of thing versus a nasty "F You" deal.

I think that the cultural components of how people drive are fascinating. From historical travel conditions to personal issues of power and control, there are so many factors that end up determining how societies view cars.

I think we'd all be better off on bikes.

Sebastian said...

and check out who rock racing just signed as ds: rudy pevenage! they really are a rogues' gallery now.

meanwhile, i wish armstrong could return without having that whole usa-vs.-france narrative apparatus return with him. maybe it's my insidious frog sympathies, but that was by far my least favorite aspect of his reign. it just had this icky iraq-war fox-news freedom-fries odor to it, and that's not what i want my favorite sport to smell like. hey, he's tough, he's disciplined, he wins bike races like clockwork -- isn't that compelling enough?