Monday, January 15, 2018

Biased Commentary - Could Chris Froome Be Innocent?


I enjoy posting “biased blow-by-blow” reports of World Tour bicycle races. I label them “biased” because I when I think a rider is doped I can’t bear to bite my tongue like real journalists and commentators do. And, being just a blogger, I don’t have to.

Needless to say, I have never given Christopher Froome, nor his Sky team, the benefit of the doubt. And, with Froome returning an “adverse analytical finding” (i.e., a positive test) for twice the allowed amount of salbutamol, I seem to have my perennial accusations validated. Not surprisingly, Froome came right out and said, “Yes, I have been cheating all along—and I’ve let down my team, my sponsors, my fans, and my sport, and I am really sorry.”

No, of course he didn’t say that! Like so many dopers who get caught, he’s professing innocence (in the standard-issue tricky language, “I haven’t broken any rules”).  So I’m going to examine his nascent defense and the possibility that he’s actually innocent. And I’m going to be as fair as possible (with the caveat that of course I’m biased). And for those of you who (quite reasonably) are too jaded and cynical to care about Froome, I’ll examine what all this means to the sport.

In case this sounds boring and like ground that’s been covered before, I promise my analysis will be different. For one thing I’ll be pulling in some experts, like the philosophers William of Ockham, Karl Popper, and Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem).

Petitio principii

Because I’m biased, I need to be careful not to commit a classic logical fallacy, petitio principii, otherwise known as “begging the question” or “circular reasoning.” This fallacy occurs when the argument depends on the truth of a premise that is also the conclusion (usually in a disguised form). It’s an absurdly blatant kind of fallacy, but pops up surprisingly often.

Here’s how this would apply to Froome. We start with the premise that he’s a doping, cheating scumbag. Add to that his positive test. Since the test confirms what we already knew (i.e., that he was a doper), we know we can trust the test. And since a trustworthy test produced a positive, he is by definition guilty of doping.

Like many poor arguments, this one is one-sided. That is, it might stoke the coals of other Froome-bashers, but it’s not likely to win over any converts. So it’s non-useful and I won’t use it.

In Froome’s defense

Some riders have come out against Froome with statements that are lame enough to inspire a backlash. For example, Tim Wellens described his own refusal to use inhalers, even though doctors have told him it would help with his bronchial obstruction. “I could improve my breathing capacity by 7 or 8 per cent... but I'm against inhalers. If the public knew the number of riders who have an inhaler… it's enormous.” Another rider, Mathieu van der Poel, was more blunt: “Maybe asthma patients will understand the case better, but cycling and all sports in general are for healthy people.”

I’m not an “asthma patient,” but I do have bronchospasm, which is what afflicts so many cyclists. It’s not chronic the way true asthma is, but involves asthma-like symptoms during hard exercise (which is why it’s often called “exercise-induced asthma”). It’s more common among athletes than the general population, and it’s more common among cyclists than any other athlete. The reason is that cyclists move huge amounts of air through their respiratory systems, without the benefit of it going through their nasal passages to be warmed up and filtered. We can ride for hours at a time, day after day, and cold, damp, or polluted air, or very hot, dry air, can inflame our bronchial passages. (Mountain bikers have bronchospasm more commonly than roadies because of all the dust and dirt.)

I speak from experience when I say Wellens isn’t grasping the benefit of an inhaler. Without it, I will start wheezing ten minutes into my bike ride, which will hamper my performance (far more than 7 or 8 percent) for the whole ride. It’s unfair for van der Poel to accuse me, or any cyclist with bronchospasm, of being an unhealthy person. I’m totally unafflicted by breathing problems unless I’m riding regularly (which is, of course, my lifestyle).

That said, using an inhaler doesn’t give me special breathing powers; it just neutralizes a possible barrier to my normal respiratory function. It won’t give an edge to any person unafflicted by bronchospasm, any more than Viagra will make a sexual dynamo out of a person unafflicted by erectile dysfunction. As Dr. John Dickinson, an expert on asthma, states in this article, “We know that therapeutic doses of inhalers don’t touch performance, so if you’re a non-asthmatic taking a couple of puffs of salbutamol, it’s not going to do anything for you.”

Wait ... not so fast

The person I just quoted was talking about inhaled salbutamol. In the doses inhalers provide, this drug does a great job at reducing if not eliminating the inflammation that dogs bronchospasm sufferers, without conferring any unfair advantage. But taken in high doses through other means, drugs like salbutamol certainly can. According to this article, “Oral or injected beta 2-agonists can have anabolic effects and are banned in and out of competition.” Greg LeMond told Cyclingnews, “Taken orally or by injection [salbutamol] acts as an anabolic steroid, similar to clenbuterol, the drug that Alberto Contador was positive for.”

It’s not outlandish to assert that a very large dose of a drug can affect you in an entirely different way than a small dose. If you take the normal dose of Latisse, you’ll enjoy longer eyelashes. If you take the normal dose of Lumigan, you’ll effectively treat your glaucoma by lowering intraocular pressure. But guess what? They’re exactly the same drug! Only the dosage is different. So you see, one man’s side effect is another man’s performance-enhancing drug. This is why there’s a legal limit on salbutamol.

How was Froome using salbutamol?

According to this article, “Froome will argue that he took three puffs of his inhaler just before providing his sample to anti-doping after stage 18 of the Vuelta.” I’m not sure exactly where this assertion came from but it’s backed up by this quote from Froome: “I have a clear routine when I use my inhaler and how many times I use it. I've given all that information to the UCI to help get to the bottom of this." (Click here for the context.)

Naturally Froome would like us all to believe he took this drug the normal, therapeutic way, by inhaling it. As Cyclingnews explains, “Inhaled, [beta 2-agonists] are not considered performance enhancing. Inhaled doses are allowed in competition without a TUE at doses up to 1600 micrograms over 24 hours or 800 micrograms every 12 hours.”

Froome’s adverse analytical finding (AAF) is the result of having double the allowed amount of salbutamol in his system. That’s a lot, because the legal limit is very generous. I can say this with some authority because the amount of albuterol I need is just 180 mcg—less than a quarter of the legal limit.

Beyond my personal experience, I’ve been around road and mountain bike racers for decades, and I’ve done some calculations based on the most salbutamol I have ever known a person to take. During a full-blown bronchospasm attack, clearly audible to anybody in a 50-foot radius, this person needed two 90-mcg puffs, having taken the standard 2-puff preventive dose before the exercise. So that's a total of four puffs, which is 360 mcg. (All these inhalers provide the same dose.) Simple math tells us Froome would have had to take 18 puffs on his inhaler to reach twice the legal limit.

Giving Froome the benefit of the doubt, let’s suppose he really did get all his salbutamol via inhaler. What might that look like? Suppose he took two preventive puffs before the race, and then forgot he’d done so, and took two more. And let’s say that for some reason he had some breathing problems anyway, but that nobody heard him wheezing, maybe because of all the cheering fans, and nobody saw him use his inhaler during the race because he’s always surrounded by and thus eclipsed by his Sky teammates. So he was able to take a couple more puffs without being seen. That’s six total. And that’s a lot. The person I witnessed having four puffs total suffered jitters and shakes and was not comfortable and probably would have hesitated, to say the least, to take any more salbutamol.

But let’s say Froome is just tough as nails and shook off these side effects ... we’re still only at six puffs. Remember, the legal limit works out to 18 puffs ... so we’re supposed to believe that he took a dozen more puffs, all without anybody noticing, because the wheezing still wasn’t controlled? This seems pretty damn unlikely. Froome would like everyone to believe that the legal limit is really low, so an accidental overuse of the inhaler (e.g., one puff too many) could put him over ... but the numbers say otherwise.

Drug level detected vs. ingested

The rest of Froome’s defense centers around a possible discrepancy between the amount of salbutamol detected in his urine and what he actually used. As described here, “The threshold of 1000ng/ml was set by a scientific study, but metabolism of the drug varies greatly from person to person. In cases of an AAF exceeding the threshold for inhaled salbutamol, athletes can submit to a pharmacological study of their metabolism of the drug to try to prove exceeding the dose was unintentional.”

The logical explanation for a higher concentration of the drug in a rider’s urine (mentioned in two of these articles) is dehydration. Is it plausible Froome was just really, really dehydrated on stage 18 of the Vuelta, when he returned the AAF? Well, two circumstances suggest otherwise. First, he had a great race, cementing his lead over Vincenzo Nibali. I, for one, do not ride well when I’m so dehydrated as to return double the concentration of any substance I could (hypothetically) be tested for. Second, according to the Cyclingnews blow-by-blow report, the temperature was only 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) that morning, and two other riders commented on it being generally rainy toward the end of that Vuelta. (That’s about all I can glean about the weather.) If Froome has always meticulously followed the same salbutamol dosing regimen—“I have a clear routine when I use my inhaler and how many times I use it,” he told Cyclingnews—then how has he not had an AAF for salbutamol at any time in his decade-long career when he’s surely been tested after very long, hot days on the road that would have left him dedydrated?

But you know what? We could spend an eternity considering the various possible factors that could lead to the test results being so far off, and that’s the wrong approach. If you’re asking, “Who says?” then my answer is, “Philosophers.”

Ockham’s razor

Scientists—including Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein—have long made use of a heuristic principle known as Ockham’s razor, devised by the philosopher William of Ockham. As described by Wikipedia, “His principle states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected or when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.... One justification of Occam’s razor is a direct result of basic probability theory. By definition, all assumptions introduce possibilities for error; if an assumption does not improve the accuracy of a theory, its only effect is to increase the probability that the overall theory is wrong.” 

If we apply this principle retroactively in assessing past doping cases, its reliability is almost comically obvious. What makes more sense: the complicated notion that Tyler Hamilton had a chimera (i.e., a vanishing twin that got lost in the womb) that produced a false positive for foreign blood population—or that he doped? Which seems more probable: that Alberto Contador got clenbuterol from beef brought to him all the way from Spain by a friend—or that he cheated? Which better passes the sanity test: that Floyd Landis drank over 60 bottles of water during a single Tour stage because he was just really, really thirsty, and he returned a positive test because the lab was totally incompetent—or that he doped?

Theories that defy the Occam’s razor principle usually start with some version of, “Wait, there must be some other explanation.” Let’s look beyond cycling history. Consider the song “Guilty Conscience” by Eminem. A scenario is laid out: “Meet Grady, a twenty-nine year old construction worker. After coming home from a hard day’s work, he walks in the door of his trailer park home to find his wife in bed with another man.” Eminem has an interior debate with his conscience, which is voiced by Dr. Dre.

Dr. Dre: “Wait! What if there's an explanation for this shit?”
Eminem: “What? She tripped? Fell? Landed on his dick?!”

Here again, the most likely scenario is also the simplest. Grady’s wife has cuckolded him.

How applicable is Ockham’s razor to Froome’s defense? Well, considering that Froome’s urine level showed twice the limit, and that the limit is so very generous to begin with, and that he hasn’t yet advanced any specific counter-theories for the test being so far off, and that the obvious dehydration explanation doesn’t match the circumstances of the race, doesn’t the idea that he’s somehow innocent seem a lot more complicated than the very simple notion that yet another pro cyclist cheated?

Karl Popper

Karl Popper, a widely esteemed philosopher of science, weighs in on Ockham’s razor in a way that provides more food for thought on the topic of drug testing in sport. Again according to Wikipedia, “Popper argues that a preference for simple theories ... may be justified by its falsifiability criterion: we prefer simpler theories to more complex ones ‘because their empirical content is greater; and because they are better testable’ (Popper 1992).”

Falsifiability” is a key concept to have in mind when we consider doping in sport. Falsifiability is the idea that a proposition is more believable if its veracity can be determined simply and equivocally through a test. For example, the statement “all swans are white” can be proven false by producing a black swan. Popper cites falsifiability as the “demarcation criterion,” such that “what is unfalsifiable is classified as unscientific.”

Team Sky principal David Brailsford made a grand statement that doesn’t begin to meet the falsifiability standard: “I have the utmost confidence that Chris followed the medical guidance in managing his asthma symptoms, staying within the permissible dose for salbutamol.” Brailsford is countering the existing falsifiable evidence with sheer emphasis, without employing any falsifiable evidence of his own, because nobody has even begun the process of creating a convincing alternative explanation to the AAF. His defense, strident though it may be,  is utterly theoretical at this point, so it’s not even as solid as “She tripped, fell, landed on his dick.” Drug testing is built on the principle of falsifiability, but guys like Brailsford get to counter them with vague what-ifs.

Returning to petitio principii

Look, I’ll be honest: I love the idea of Froome being given three puffs of salbutamol, starved of water, and then placed in a sauna—and then having this procedure repeated over and over again until he manages to produce a urine sample with twice the legal limit of salbutamol. I’d rather watch him do that than win another bike race, frankly. But it’s wrong to indulge him.

Why? Well, I started this essay by promising not to engage in a petitio principii argument that conflates the conclusion with a key premise. But that’s exactly Brailsford is doing by assuming that if Froome’s test returned an AAF, the fault must be with the test. The credibility of Brailsford’s whole team suffers when he automatically takes Froome’s side instead of suspending him from competition. Meanwhile, the credibility of cycling suffers when a rider who fails a drug test gets to keep racing because he is on a wealthy team and has a loud, powerful boss. (Whether or not that is exactly what is going on here is immaterial; this is how it looks to the world.)

No rider above the legal limit for salbutamol has ever escaped suspension by successfully establishing, after the fact, that he could produce an AAF after taking a legal dose. And no rider has surpassed this legal limit as egregiously as Froome. I look forward to the day Froome is finally brought down, but the circus we spectators will have to endure in the meantime will be even uglier than his doped-to-the-gills race “victories.”

Oh, and one other thing: doped or not, Froome is a jerk.

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Friday, January 5, 2018

Race Report - San Bruno Mountain Hill Climb 2018


I don’t race very often anymore ... the old guys are just getting too fast for me. Once in a while, I do race the San Bruno Mountain Hill Climb on January 1. This gives me a good excuse to skip all the New Year’s Eve parties I get invited to. (It’s shameless how all the different hosts compete for my attendance ... so I find  it’s easier just to shun them all.)

My bike team has a tradition of food-centric race reports. What follows is my report to them, in small, medium, and large. If you’re looking for a summary of how the cat-and-mouse tactics played out in the Pro/1/2 race, you will have to look somewhere else.

Executive summary

Lunch was amazing. My race ... not so much. During the last month I focused so much on weight loss, I kind of forgot to train. But I dug deep during the race, managed an okay result, and (most importantly) had a glorious post-race meal.

Medium report

Breakfast: nothing. I didn’t want to ruin my South Beach success with a bunch of last-minute ballast. My final pre-race weigh-in was 173, not too shabby, and this was before my multi-session pre-race elimination protocol. I’m pleased to report that in that realm I’ve still got it!

Lunch: At a nice restaurant near the Berkeley marina, we started with some white-flour-centric focaccia. (My spell-checker has flagged “focaccia.” Note to Microsoft: get your head out of the sand! Focaccia exists! It’s probably more popular than Bing!) Then we moved into some mussels in this crazy Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese sauce with bacon bits. There was so much sauce, we decided we’d better get some straws. On second thought we asked for more focaccia to soak it up with.

In other news, I was going to get a beer, because “Brilliant! Booze in the afternoon!” but they wanted $6.75 for a Lagunitas IPA. Celebration be damned, I wasn’t going to pay that, so Erin and I split a Kona Brewing Longboard Lager ($5.95, which is actually a worse deal if you go by ABV). Right after our toast, all hell broke loose (see full report below).

For my entree I had the Hangtown Omelette (buttermilk battered oysters, fresh spinach, root beer glaze, and “county potatoes,” which was a misspelling of “country potatoes”). I also ate a bunch of everybody else’s food (since they were stuffed on foccacia): lobster bisque with puff pastry; salmon; shrimp; cheddar grits; and fried green tomatoes. Of course we finished it off with a rich chocolate dessert ... I’m trying to remember what it was called. Chocolate Intemperance? Chocolate Dissolution? Chocolate Profligacy? Chocolate Debauchery? Chocolate for the One Percent? Chocolate Travesty? Chocolate Depravity? Whatever the name, it was thick and chewy and came with a goat cheese quenelle, raspberry sauce, and fresh berries. (How is it Microsoft’s spell-checker has “quenelle,” which is a word the restaurant probably made up, but not “focaccia”?)  

Note to world: my single New Year’s Resolution is to gain weight! South Beach is so 2017! Onward, to new heights in gluttony! I’m BACK!

Full report

The main reason I decided to do this race was to hang on my daughter’s coattails ... we’d both decided it was time she did her first road race. I feel like I’ve failed to bring much glory to the East Bay Velo Club, and this failure is probably based on poor character, not poor genes, so I might as well let my daughter pick up the slack. And if she’s going to the race, I figured, I might as well bring my bike too ... after all, it’s been more than three years since my last road race.

My other reason for racing San Bruno is that I needed a good excuse to lose weight, after some intensive calorie-therapy related to a lot of serious stress I went through this past fall. Of course there are many normal reasons to lose weight, such as improved health and so forth, but they don’t scare you into action like the prospect of a looming bike race—and a hill climb, of all things. It is widely known in the bike racing community that to be a good climber, you need to be so scrawny you can wrap your thumb and forefinger around your ankle. I’m still pretty far from that, but at least strangers no longer come up to rub my belly and say “Happy Buddha.”

This year I finally got smart and put the bike rack on the car the night before, and packed my race bag in advance. So we got there not long after registration opened and had plenty of time to pin our numbers, suit up, and warm up.

I have it on good authority that even in the WorldTour, the pro racers have to pin their own race numbers. Only a truly privileged racer, like my daughter, gets the number pinned for her.

We parked right next to our EBVC teammate Mike Wachter, just to show the rest of the peloton that we roll deep. Here we are warming up.

I want you to look very closely at this photo. Look in particular at my head. Or, should I say, heads. It’s amazing! I have two heads! And this confirms something I’ve always suspected, and in fact  felt deep in my bones: I have a doppelgänger, an evil double, a chimera (i.e., “vanishing twin”) like Tyler Hamilton had. This trickster has long plagued me: changing the answers on my multiple-choice exams, deciding to eat that second piece of pie, and just generally messing up my life in untold unseen ways. That second head is also that much more weight to haul up the climbs, even after I’ve managed to shrink down my (well, our) belly. And now I have photographic evidence, so if I ever fail a doping test due to “foreign blood population” I’ll have a good defense. (Spoiler alert: I was not tested after this San Bruno Mountain Hill Climb.)

I warmed up good and hard and for a long time, especially because there was some random car accident on or near the course so they delayed the race by half an hour just before staging was supposed to begin. By this point I was super sweaty so if I’d stopped riding, I’d have gotten really cold. So I just kept going, and via my warm-up logged almost five times the distance of the actual race. (In case “good and hard” is too vague a description of my warm-up, here are some numbers from my bike computer.)

On the start line with my group (the Masters 45+ 4/5, mixed with the 45+ 1/2/3) was Chris Phipps, a name-brand racer with 44 career wins. He won San Bruno in 2014 with a time more than 2 minutes faster than my personal best. Why do I care, since obviously I will never challenge him? Because he dragged our field along pretty much from the gun. I don’t know how long he went on dragging everybody because, needless to say, before long I was no longer around to see it.

Really, my race was between me and my younger self. I was looking to shore up my fragile male ego by being faster this go round than I was last time, four years ago, which effort was, in fact, a disgrace. On the positive side, my towering disappointment with that race gave me hope that—the bar being so very low—I could do better this year, despite being four years older.

Well, I hung with the field longer than last time before getting sawed off. Fortunately, when I did, I took a bunch of guys with me off the back. This has always been my forté, ever since I was a junior. My friend and former teammate Peter described it thus: “When you go out the back, it’s like this giant vortex just sucking people along with you. I’ll be like, ‘What the [heck], where is everyone going? Oh, I get it, Dana’s getting dropped!” I derive a strange satisfaction from this—it’s like I have Command Presence or something, in this one tiny realm of my life. (Well, actually, there was also this time when I got lost walking through an airport, with my daughter in tow, and when I got to a total dead end, I turned around and there were like a dozen other people behind me. “Daddy, why did all these people follow you?” my daughter asked, perplexed. Beats me!)

Here’s a photo somebody snapped of me right after I got dropped.

Wait a second, that’s not from this race! That’s from the North Boulder Park Criterium back in 1981! But you know, it’s the right anguished expression. Not much has changed since then ... I just have a better helmet now, and a cooler bike. And shorter socks.

The great thing about bringing people off the back with me is that when they see their mistake and chase back on, I have one more chance—sucking their wheels like an anaerobic remora—to latch back on. Here I am right after two of these suckers re-dropped me:

Look at my damn elbows sticking out! I’m no better than Chris Froome, the rider I most mercilessly mock in my WorldTour race reports! God, I wish I could at least lose with dignity. I had no idea my elbows ever stuck out. I’m going to blame the high school mountain bike team for which I’m an assistant coach. We coaches are taught to accentuate how bent our elbows are, so the riders don’t fail to notice. Now let’s see ... who else could I blame? Well, my parents I guess—for marrying each other, instead of somebody with some damn talent.

Here’s an action shot. I include this for three reasons. First, it may be of zoological interest to some readers that, in order to take in more air, I’ve unlocked my jaw like some snakes can do. Second, it’s a pretty good photo my wife managed to get, notwithstanding how hard it is to photograph bike races. (I did help by going so slowly up the hill.) Third, at least I’ve tucked my elbows back in. Sheesh.

At the halfway point, I’d chased back down the two guys you saw above. (There was a short descent and a flat part, which I used to maximum benefit.) My average speed by that time was 12.47 mph. I’d calculated beforehand that if I averaged 12 mph, I could beat my old PR (set back in 2010). So I was still on track! But then two things happened: I got dropped again, and I started to die.

For the rest of the race my average speed dipped ever downward, slipping toward 12 and then right past it. Meanwhile, these last two guys who’d dropped me dangled out there just ahead of me, taunting me with their lack of actual superiority. Pete had recommended I do some interval training before this race, which surely would have helped me match their accelerations at key moments. Alas, I did not take his advice (intervals being the main reason I quit racing in the first place). I was sure regretting it now. Though I was definitely gaining on these two by the top, I ran out of road. Also, I suck.

Did I get a new PR? No. Did I at least get a better time than four years ago? Let’s not go into that. Instead, let’s look on the bright side: I placed higher, in sixth. Does this mean the field was weaker this year? Of course not. It was windy out there, okay? Plus, the field is cleaner now because of the improved doping controls. (I had a good race, honest I did!)

Here I am hanging out with another racer at the summit.

Huh, that’s weird, I think I pasted the wrong photo. That’s from almost 36 years ago, of me and my friend Aaron Pickett-Heaps. This time around, I actually had a slightly older person to hang around with post-race, with a very impressive radio antenna as a backdrop.

I won’t say anything about my daughter’s race because, like all teenagers everywhere, she’s working on her own race report right now. Mike will probably file his own report as well so I’ll stay mum about his race other than to say that he also, obviously, made the summit.

So, that bit I wrote earlier about all hell breaking loose at lunch? That’s actually a bit of an exaggeration. But right after toasting the new year with my wife, I was setting down my half-glass of beer to get my phone back from my daughter (who had just snapped our photo for a Beck’st), and I knocked over the glass, soaking the nice cloth tablecloth. Four cloth napkins later we’d mostly mopped up the mess, and the waitress arrived and apologized, like it was her fault, and told me she’d bring me another beer. I protested, but largely for form, of course, because if you do the math, I’d be getting a whole beer for free having lost just half a beer. It seemed too good to be true, but sure enough, a bit later another server brought out a whole second beer.

I managed—my poor track record notwithstanding—to pour half of this in my wife’s glass without spilling a drop. We finished those quickly and handily (because beer isn’t like a fine brandy you nurse all day) and presently our original waitress came out with another replacement beer and an extra glass. I told her, “Oh, no, another server already brought us the replacement.” She said, “Oh, really? ‘Cause I just yelled at someone over this! So you’re drinking it, I’m not taking it back!” So just like that, 2½ beers for the price of one! Needless to say, 2018 is off to a great start....

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

From the Archives - UC Santa Barbara Bike Paths


My older daughter, a high school junior, wants a car when she goes off to college. This is comical for two reasons: 1) she doesn’t even know where she’ll be going yet and thus whether a car would b appropriate, and 2) it’s not like you can just ask your parents for a car ... can you? Myself, I hate cars, so why would I give one to anybody?

When I was in college, I naturally rode my bike everywhere. (I didn’t get my first car until I’d been married for three years and my wife needed one.) At Berkeley, commuting by bike was (and is) serious business, with real traffic and real laws that are really enforced. But at UC Santa Barbara, where I spent my first two years of college, biking was just this big joke that everybody was in on. Just now I randomly stumbled across this article about biking at UCSB, which basically said, “Hey, kids, did you know you’re supposed to obey traffic laws?” The fact of this article attests to the lawlessness of the bike paths at UCSB. So does the following post, from my archives.

[You will note in the photo above, and others in this post, that nobody biking to class at UCSB wears a helmet. At least that was true when I was there. Wearing a helmet simply never occurred to us.]

The UCSB Bike Paths - March 6, 1989

Laugh all you want at the shocking tales you hear about the UCSB bike paths. Heck, I do too. But for those who lack eight years of bicycle racing experience, the daily traumas are no laughing matter, and the accident rate gets top billing in our campus newspapers. The other day, I rode along the bike path reading in the UCSB Generic that there were 212 bike accidents in the past year alone that required immediate medical attention. The article, which was incidentally one of the most poorly written I’ve ever read, began to offer a solution: “Lex Murray, bicycling instructor at UCSB, feels that common sense would...” There the article runs off the bottom of the page, and never picks up again. Dang.

I’ve found that one of the biggest hazards is the pedestrian contingent. If they wanted to be safe, they would never dare to use the crosswalks, but since they simply must cross over the bike path, they take their chances. The out-of-towners get it the worst, since in their complete ignorance of the bike situation they wander right into traffic and get hit. During my Freshman Orientation at UCSB, one of my group members was the victim of a high‑speed crash which wasn’t just entertaining, but also artistic, with the rider flying through the air like an acrobat.

Some pedestrians get so flustered at the crosswalks, they actually just close their eyes and walk across, praying to God that they don’t get hit. Perhaps more common are the people that look at an oncoming cyclist, check to see that he is paying attention, and arrogantly walk straight across his path, forcing the cyclist to slow down. (This is really stupid, since few bikes at UCSB have working brakes.) These boneheads are my favorite: whenever I detect that I’m being scanned like this, I accelerate and head straight for the guy, staring into his eyes like a lunatic. I have yet to lose my right‑of‑way (although when I finally do, it’ll be ugly).

I think the most dangerous bicycle commuting factor at UCSB is lack of confidence. Allow me to illustrate just what kind of confidence I’m talking about. While exchanging war stories with friends from the cycling team, I described a crash I had a few years ago. Towards the end of a fast criterium in Denver, there was a big pileup. I thought I could squeak by it, but a guy ahead of me cut over into my path and my brake lever went right into one of his haunches. Flipping over my handlebars, I watched, with a strange sense of peace, almost a calmness, as the ground flew towards my face. I took the impact on my chin, splitting it open. At this point in my rendition of the story, one of my teammates asked me why I didn’t let go of the handlebars to catch myself on my hands. Realizing this guy was obviously a novice, a pal explained, “He still thought he could ride it out!”

Simply, the attitude a rider must take on the UCSB bike path, is this: “Nothing can crash me; I am invincible.” If you firmly believe this, then nobody will mess with you because they will know. To keep the rubber side down, riding defensively isn’t enough—you must ride offensively. And when things get sketchy, you cannot panic. You must absolutely refuse to go down—once you submit to fate, you’re a goner.

Your typical UCSB student tends to be pretty self-assured, even cocky, about his bike safety. Perhaps part of it is that he believes his body is as indestructible as his 40+ pound beach cruiser. It’s just a big game to him—which is good. I’ve had some close calls but my fellow students seldom panic. The other guy might simply ignore that we’ve locked handlebars, or he’ll find amusement in our mutual fight for control. Occasionally, he’ll say something witty like, “Whoa, dude!”

I have identified two things that make the UCSB bike paths particularly tricky. One is that there are these roundabouts that nobody knows how to negotiate. Students here bike between classes pretty much on autopilot, which normally works fine, but then you reach a roundabout and are yanked out of your mental haze because it suddenly seems like bikes are coming at you from every direction.

The other problem is congestion. You don’t see too much of this between classes, or even right before a class starts, because nobody here worries much about getting to class on time. But as soon as a class period ends, everyone is out of that lecture hall like a shot, students pouring out of buildings and mounting their bikes. The next five or ten minutes are total gridlock, but without the reduction in speed or observance of safe distance motorists give one another. After all, we’re all on bikes so nobody can get hurt, right?

Just the other day I found myself in the midst of a bike path nightmare. Somehow, about ten of us got suddenly crammed into the space that only one or two bikes could safely occupy. To make matters worse, I was travelling about ten miles per hour faster than anybody else (and we were all cruising). Tapping into my mountain biking skills, I squeezed my bike handlebars, which are about 28 inches wide, through an opening about 18 inches wide by putting one half of the handlebar through at a time. Had anyone panicked, we all would have been history. Instead, there was a collective burst of laughter.

But not everyone is so sanguine. Some students recognize the danger; panic; and succumb. I will sometimes see two riders on a collision course panic five feet from impact, close their eyes, and scream, and my immediate reaction is, “What a cop‑out! They didn’t even try!” Once things get out of hand, these riders just submit. That probably causes most of their crashes.

Why, just today I was coming out of the Phelps Hall parking lot, and two girls coming in the other direction thought they were going to hit me and panicked. They shrieked and almost crashed into each other. Meanwhile, I calmly held my line and they missed me by a good ten inches. Not half a second later, as I turned onto the bike path, another biker cut the corner to the inside and we really were destined for collision. A natural instinct here would be to throw up your hands to protect your face, which would be carnage. But I resisted the impulse based on my special training. I hit the brakes hard. Mafac cantilevers in the front, coupled with a Shimano U‑brake in the rear, really carried the day and I averted disaster by stopping on dime. The other rider, totally freaked out, flew off in a skew direction. (If I had been cutting the turn to the inside like that, I would have expected near disaster and not lost my cool like that.) As I pulled away, shaking my head, another guy gave me a knowing look, as if to say—what? I don’t know for sure. But something profound.

Now, all this being said, it’s possible to be too confident. And that’s exactly what led to what my friends and I now call “the Gump Incident.” My friend John was the perp/victim. He was riding along no-handed, reading the school paper, not a care in the world, minding his own business, not bothering anybody, when all of a sudden, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, with no provocation whatsoever (this is all a standard preamble when describing a bike accident), this fricking parked car appears out of nowhere! I mean, one second he’s just riding along, and the next second he’s plowing right into the back of this car! And it’s like, what was that car even doing there, other than sitting next to the curb being parked? The audacity!

Now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind about the Gump Incident. First, it didn’t technically happen on the bike path; it was on Pardall Road, an Isla Vista street that the bike path empties onto, so perhaps a slight increase in caution would have been wise. Second, it could have happened to any of us, because sometimes you get engrossed in an article and don’t really realize that you’ve left the bike path and are in the street. So when my friends and I refer to the Gump Incident, it’s affectionately, not pejoratively.

Now I know just what you’re thinking. “That Dana, he’s a cocky one, and he’ll get his, just you wait.” Yeah, yeah, of course you’re right; deep down inside, I know there’s a Huffy or Schwinn out there with my name on it. And when I do go down, it’s gonna be incredible to behold. First there’ll be an ear-splitting squeal as I lock up my rear wheel and my Tioga City‑Slicker lays down a rubber road. Then you’ll hear something like “LOOK OUT, GEORGE!” (even though there’s no specific reason to suspect the other biker will think I’m named George). Then the screams of onlookers will almost drown out the krunking of mangled metal as Deore XT meets Schwinn-Approved in something like a bizarre ad hoc metallurgical experiment. You may hear my jeans or shorts rip as they’re dragged across a spiky bit of bike, but if bare flesh meets metal the carnage might be silent, like a carpenter’s rasp zipping up curls of soft pine. You may hear me yell, “You BASTARD!” just before riders and bikes alike are consumed in a six‑foot fireball that will send shards of molten metal and rubber flying for hundreds of yards. Jaws will drop, beautiful girls will sob, and an early dusk will come over Santa Barbara as the mushroom cloud slowly climbs and grows and smears out the sky.

Until then, I’ll continue to ride like a man possessed. After all, this is a way of life here at UCSB.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Santa, Lance Armstrong, and the Christmas Eve Doldrums


Please don’t read this aloud to a small child. And now that you’ve stopped reading aloud, I can tell you why: I don’t want to spoil anybody’s belief in Santa. In this post I describe the Christmas Eve doldrums, a way I tried to deal with them, and my heart-to-heart with my teenage daughters about the Santa myth.

Christmas Eve doldrums

I mean doldrums in both senses: the general idea of stagnation & depression, and also the equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean with calms, sudden storms, and light unpredictable winds. What I mean is that the holiday season is kind of like monsoon season, or what we might now call hurricane season. Going shopping for presents is, to me, like deliberately heading into a storm. And though I enjoy the slowdown at work that comes with the holidays, I also find myself feeling overwhelmed by the socializing, the music, and (above all else) the retail cyclone we get whirled into.

Of course Christmas Eve night is the hardest of all ... it’s when I have to wrap the rest of the presents, including each and every item that goes into each kid’s stocking. My wife thought I was crazy to do this when we started doing Christmas stockings for our kids. My rationale was that my parents always wrapped each stocking item, so I ought to continue the tradition. I now realize that my wife was right: I am crazy, and so were my parents. But I’m kind of stuck with the tradition.

Perhaps it was in anticipation of this onslaught that one year my mom went off by herself on Christmas Eve and watched Billy the Kid, the 1938 ballet written by Aaron Copeland, on TV. (This was our piece-of-crap black-and-white Panasonic.) To me this seemed an incomprehensible act. I was like, What does Billy the Kid have to do with Christmas? And moreover, what does watching TV have to do with us kids, on the night before Christmas? I interrogated my mom about this and she replied, “Sssh—just watch.” So I watched for like twenty minutes, half-expecting Santa to burst out on the scene, and when it became apparent he wasn’t going to show, I got bored and wandered off. Now I can relate to my mom’s desire to do something normal, non-child-centric, and non-holiday-themed with her Christmas Eve, before all the tumult of Christmas Day.

Our escape

My wife and I are similarly stalling this evening. I’m blogging, obviously, but even before that we were AWOL from holiday activities. My wife sought the sanctuary of our bedroom (which, as a Christmas gift staging area, is off limits to the kids this weekend) to read a P.G. Wodehouse novel. I took to my home office to research a mystery that arrived in my e-mail earlier in the evening. The mystery is: what is the meaning of this painting?

My friend’s e-mail read, “We’re stranded at a holiday inn in silverthorne, co, because i70 is closed. This painting is in the lobby.”

Now, in case you don’t follow cycling, this painting has a very strange characteristic: it features two (possibly three) Tour de France champions in head-to-head competition despite the fact that they raced during different eras. Bernard Hinault, the second rider from the left, raced his last Tour in 1986. The rider in the lead, Lance Armstrong, didn’t wear the yellow leader’s jersey (featured here) until 1999.

Clearly, the artist combined two photos from the Tour de France: one from 1984 or 1985, and the other from 1999. Here they are.

The artist has replaced Fernando Escartin with Hinault, and took that dude in the red jersey and white cap along with him. And he swapped out Laurent Fignon for Miguel Indurain. (At least, I think the rider on the far right in the painting is Indurain. This would still be anachronistic; Indurain did overlap with Hinault by a couple of years, but didn’t finish either of those Tours and certainly wouldn’t have been near the front during a mountain stage. It’s also possible this rider is Alex Zülle, who made the podium with Lance in 1999. The painting isn’t good enough to know for sure.)

Why would the artist juxtapose Lance with Hinault? Was he or she making a statement about these being champions of similar caliber?

It could be. On the other hand, maybe this artist just had a couple (or a pile) of photos to work from, knew and cared little about who else (besides Lance) had raced a bike, and painted whatever he or she felt like. (It’s surprising to me how careless people can be. I saw a bike catalog once where the photographer had accidentally—or based on some aesthetic preference—flipped the photo so it was a mirror image, and the bike’s drivetrain was on the wrong side.)

It dawned on me that the artist might think he or she was being funny. “Wouldn’t that be great if, like, Lance and Bernie had raced at the same time?” This made me think of the silly painting—a takeoff on a more famous one,“Nighthawks”—featuring a similar character substitution.

“Wow, wouldn’t that be awesome for Bogie, Marilyn, Elvis, and James Dean to be, like, hanging out together?” Seems like a pretty thin idea to base a serious artwork on, but there you have it. I wonder: did this artist whose work graces the Holiday Inn in Silverthorne take himself or herself seriously? And did the manager of the Holiday Inn? And are these one and the same person?

Then I remembered this Miyata calendar I had back in like 1981 that featured paintings of riders on the Capri Sonne team, riding Team  Miyata bicycles. Each painting was taken from some cool old photo, with the focal point of the photo (usually somebody like Eddy Merckx) swapped out for a Capri Sonne rider. I started researching this calendar, which led to the kind of pointless time suck the Internet is famous for, and this dragged me ever farther in to the Christmas Eve doldrums. I couldn’t keep with it.

Besides, my kids were still up so I had to set a good example. Watching a classic opera on PBS is one thing, but browsing Internet photos is another entirely. So I decided to do something with my kids. We took a walk through the neighborhood to look at the candle-aria. At least, that’s what I thought it was called. My kids laughed in my face and corrected me: it’s luminaria. You know, the votives inside paper bags that line the sidewalks in some lucky neighborhoods (such as mine):

During the walk I decided, suddenly, it was time to have the uncomfortable conversation with my kids about Santa. “Alexa,” I said, “you do know there’s no Santa ... right?” She gasped in disbelief. “Dad!” she protested, “I’m sixteen years old!”

Ha! Once again my deadpan delivery fooled her. I love doing this with my kid. She falls for my facetiousness—hook, line, and sinker—every time. But I was curious to know: how long had she believed in Santa?

“Well, I guess until I was about eight,” she said. “It just seemed impossible to me that he could make it to every house in the world in so short a time. So I started comparing notes with my friends, and we all kind of concluded at the same time that Santa wasn’t real. Of course we played along to keep getting the presents.”

I asked my younger daughter. “Well, I’m not sure I ever really believed there was a Santa,” she said. “I guess I thought it went from person to person, that anybody could be Santa who wanted to give you gifts.”

I replied, “So when you and your sister left cookies for Santa, who did you think ate them? Me?” She said, “Well, no ... I guess I didn’t really think it through.” This is probably a good thing. It might have been troubling for her to think of some prowler sneaking into our home, eating these cookies, and leaving a bunch of presents.

I’ve written before, in my holiday newsletter and in these pages, about how if you spill the beans about Santa, then the Tooth Fairy myth is suddenly in great jeopardy, and we need that myth in order to keep our kids’ spirits up when it comes to losing a tooth, having blood in their mouths, and this weird tender hollow in their gums (often with a shred or two of loose flesh). I asked Alexa how long she had believed in the Tooth Fairy.

“I believed in the Tooth Fairy for about another year,” she admitted. “It just didn’t seem possible that you could get that tooth out from under my pillow without waking me. In fact, I did some tests where I put the tooth as far from the outer edge of my bed as possible, in a place you’d never be able to find, to see if I could catch you in the act.” I told her I remembered those times very well. It had been a pain in the ass. But I’m glad the seeming impossibility of my efforts extended the myth a bit longer.

(You may be wondering what Santa has to do with Lance Armstrong. Well, a friend of mine did a bike fitting for Robin Williams around the time Lance admitted to all his doping, and my friend asked Williams what he thought about it. Williams—who was a good friend of Lance’s—replied, “I was devastated. It was like when I was a kid and I learned there was no Santa.” This begs a question: did Williams really believe in Lance all that time, or was this a bit like Lindsay’s position on Santa: deciding not to think too hard about it? And how many others among us might have similarly suspended our skepticism?)

After the candle-aria—er, luminaria—walk, I felt the Christmas Eve doldrums lifting somewhat. I’d found this candid conversation with my kids heartening somehow; it’s nice to see that we can honor traditions like Christmas stockings while acknowledging the fiction involved and having a chuckle together. And it gives me hope that there will be a time, perhaps not too far from now, when I can slack off a bit on the stockings without ruining anybody’s childhood. But for now, I better post this little essay and get on with my night ... I have a lot of gift wrapping ahead of me.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

[Quasi-] South Beach Diet - Part II


In this follow-up to my last South Beach[-ish] post, I offer reports from the trenches (my brother’s and mine); some arcana about glycemic index and glycemic load; the good news about the cool food you can still eat with this approach; some responses to a commenter on my last post; and the truth about alcohol. (I know that last bit implies that somebody has been lying about alcohol, and really nobody has, but I had to throw that in to bait you. Along those lines I will now include this phrase—what your doctor doesn’t want you to know about losing weight—because that seems a popular way to draw people in as well. Also, this weird little trick that helps you lose half your body weight in 48 hours!)

The trenches

Gosh, what a totally irresponsible metaphor “the trenches” is. Of course this is nothing like battle or real hardship of any kind. Feeling like you ought to lose weight is a real luxury, when almost 800 million people on this planet are malnourished. “I’m just not as svelte as I was in college!” Oh, boo-hoo!

Do you hate me yet? Good, good. Anybody who is doing well on a diet (or better yet, a new eating approach that is realistic for long-term benefit) ought to be hated at least a little. I love this New Yorker cartoon where two women are at the café at their tennis club and one announces, “I’ve only been gluten-free for a week, but I’m already really annoying.” (No, I’m not going to talk about gluten in this post. That’s a whole topic of its own. Suffice to say I myself never met a glutenous mass I didn’t like.)

So far, in the eighteen days I’ve been on this diet, I’ve lost nine pounds. That’s not so bad, especially because I’ve been cheating a bit. If I did Phase 1 (see my previous post if you haven’t already), I’m sure I’d see more results. My brother, in the same time span, has lost about six pounds. He’s not doing Phase 1 either … and in fact, he’s cheating regularly because one of his kids has discovered baking and is thrusting lemon bars, cream puffs, banana bread, and cobbler at him. Believe me, I had a great time ribbing him about that. At least he’s honest with his food log, and is trying to be good (“1.5 small blueberry cobbler pieces … two small cookies … very thin slice fudge…”). Of course this is the time of year when everybody becomes a glutton, but that’s no excuse for eating whatever junk you’re offered. I e-mailed Bryan, “Do we need to get you a sign that says, ‘Please do not feed the human ... when he is given people food, his nutrition is impaired and he loses interest in hunting’?”

It is almost impossible to have dessert and be on a South Beach(-esque) program at the same time. Not entirely impossible, though:

A plum can be nice and sweet, but still good for you.  I think that’s mascarpone and mint leaves below it.

My wife is doing well on quasi-South-Beach, especially in her main goal of keeping me honest. Here is a sample of our joint food journal, from the first day back on the plan:

The first thing you’ll notice is how messy this journal is. My brother’s journal is neatly typed and available online for me to peek at whenever I want, but I’ll bet it’s not quite as complete. A paper journal that lives in the kitchen doesn’t miss a thing. The second thing you’ll notice in the above snapshot is that my wife is using the “smiley face” technique of reinforcing dietary (and exercise) principles. This is probably healthier than my shame-and-fear-based system.

Another quick note: it can be helpful to monitor body fat if your scale supports it, but such measurements are probably not very accurate. That looks a bit like 16.8% above but it actually says 11.8%. Whatever my body fat percentage really is, I expect that number to go down as I continue my South Beach(-esque) effort.

You’ll find a recipe lurking in my entry, for Mexican(-ish) rice. Here’s what you do: glug some olive oil in a pan, dice a whole onion and simmer it a while, then add some cooked, cut-up meat. I used leftover turkey white-meat from Thanksgiving because a) white meat, aka breast meat, is really good for you, and b) I hate it. (My favorite part of the bird is the skin.) Frying up the meat makes it way tastier—it’s worth the oil, I think. I shake a bunch of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Poultry Magic on there and a bunch of ground cumin, which is like magic. I sear that mixture on high heat, then throw in a can of stewed tomatoes. I simmer that a bit, then throw in cooked rice. I use brown rice because it’s better for you—it has almost six times the fiber of white rice. (White rice is useless. Don’t eat it. I used it with this batch because it was all I could find.)

I have a burrito practically every day made with beans, this rice, cheese (I don’t skimp on this, actually), and really good salsa. Pound for pound I think the salsa I get is more expensive than heroin, but it’s much better for you. These burritos rock. The deal is, when you put rice and beans together, you get a complete protein. (Click here for details.) Also, the fiber in beans, helped out by the cheese and by the bran in the brown rice, help that burrito burn slowly. That’s good because it means you won’t snack.

Also, because a burrito is a modular food, you can control the size and thus your intake. I either use a soft-taco size tortilla or half a regular tortilla. That’s a big enough burrito even for a big guy like me who works out a lot. Of course, the flour tortilla is complete crap, nutritionally. But what good is a diet that makes you want to kill yourself? Whole wheat tortillas should be banned.

Note, in the journal snapshot, my wife’s apple, raisins, and blueberries, and the zucchini, peppers, and cherry tomatoes we both had with dinner. Of course we should have had more vegetables (we were just easing into this South Beach thing). Note also the peanut butter. Sure, it’s pretty caloric (as a commenter on my last post pointed out) but it greatly helps with a feeling of satiety. This is crucial. If you try to cut down on calories without addressing satiety you’re going to be miserable. The point here is to reduce calories while still feeling satisfied. Hard boiled eggs are also good for satiety. I eat one of them then and I’m basically in no mood to eat for many hours.

How can we tell what foods will burn slowly?

Foods burn slowly according to how hard they are to digest. Obviously. Fiber slows down digestion, so it’s great. Meat also burns more slowly. I think cheese does too (and I’m not going to fact-check that because if there’s anything bad about cheese, I don’t want to know). What’s really cool is that slow-burning foods can actually slow down digestion of fast-burning foods consumed in the same meal. So the meat and beans in your burrito make the tortilla burn more slowly. That’s why when you eat a big burrito at a taqueria you don’t need to eat again for like four days. (Damn, I just drooled on my laptop.)

Here is one of my typical burritos. You can see a bit of cilantro creeping out the front. This will keep me going all the way until dinner, even on days that I work out.

There’s a numeric scale that describes how slowly a carbohydrate source will burn. It’s called the glycemic index (click here for details). It goes from 1 to 100. Anything over 50 is bad. Anything over 70 is really bad. You can download charts from the Internet. The digestive process, it turns out, is actually pretty mechanical. Chewy stuff takes longer and delivers its energy more gradually. (This is why I allow myself to eat gristle even when I’m trying to lose weight.)

Interestingly, the glycemic index (GI) of spaghetti is 46 (not very good), but the GI of al dente fettuccine is only 32. This isn’t too bad except that it’s impossible not to overeat with pasta ... a bite or two in, your eyes roll up into the back of your head and you abandon all pretense of self-control. You tell yourself things like “They’re just love handles!” and “Fat people are funnier, like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill!” and “I would look great in a double-breasted suit!” and “I can do this, I’m an athlete!” And that’s just your average joe. Pasta is especially dangerous if you have “baggage” like I do, such as my teenage tradition of eating all-you-can-eat pasta—usually 5 or 6 plates at a sitting—once a week for years.

But consistency isn’t everything. What makes food choices a bit more complicated is that it can be hard to predict how caloric a food is. Soba noodles, for example, are made of buckwheat flour, which is somehow relatively lo-cal. Buckwheat is not really wheat ... it’s a grass. No, wait, I just fact-checked and it’s not a grass. It’s a “pseudocereal,” related to quinoa, sorrel, knotweed, and rhubarb. (What is knotweed? I don’t know, but it’s probably like knothead, and you are what you eat, so be careful!) One great thing about buckwheat soba noodles is that  they have one calorie per gram, which makes it easy to measure your intake, plus that’s 32% fewer calories than semolina noodles.

The other good news is that the Huffington Post calls buckwheat “one of the healthiest foods you’re not eating.” This statement is arch and snotty, and Hufffpost is hip and modern, so you can see buckwheat has all kinds of cred. The bad news is that buckwheat soba noodles have a glycemic index of 59, which is on the not-so-good end of the spectrum. (Still way better than a baked potato at 111.) You know those so-called “glass” noodles? They’re made of sweet potatoes and have a GI of 39-45. And they confer the same groovy Asian-ness that soba do. So they’re a better choice.

So if glycemic index isn’t everything—due to variances in how caloric one substance is over another—what else do we need to consider? Well, for what it’s worth, there’s a separate scale called glycemic load. This scale, based on some formula the food people have devised, factors in the number of calories. These numbers don’t fall in such a nice range as GI, but suffice to say anything over 20 is bad, and single-digit numbers are the best. (Again, you can download charts online.)

For example, watermelon (as you might guess) has a high GI: 72, to be precise. This would be a good food for somebody with no teeth left. But we can have all we want, because it’s practically bereft of calories. Its glycemic load is just 4. Have at it!

Prunes have a nice low GI (29) but they’re also pretty sweet, so their load is 10 (which is still rather good). Carrots have a load of 3.5, which makes them a great “closer”—that food that is still sitting in a bowl on the table after you’ve eaten your little portion of indulgent goodness and are fantasizing about having seconds. After you munch down a few carrot sticks you might decide you’re not actually that hungry, per se ... maybe you were going to eat out of boredom but now you’re bored of the food itself. Congratulations! You’re going to dream about food all night and wake up ready to go toe-to-toe with that bathroom scale!

Glycemic load isn’t everything, but it does help us put certain foods in perspective. For example, the person who commented on my last post needs to be corrected. She said to avoid nuts because “they’re ‘healthy fat’ but a handful of nuts has, like 800 calories.” I think she was exaggerating for comic effect; it’s actually more like 170 calories. Still a lot, but the glycemic load of peanuts is a mere 1. That’s fricking amazing. No wonder they’re so satisfying. Last Saturday I rode my bike 70 miles, with 6,000 feet of climbing, but (after my modest glycogen window snack, a cup of honey-sweetened yogurt and a weird persimmon cookie), I just wasn’t that hungry so my lunch was just two handfuls of peanuts and 4 or 5 prunes. (When your body isn’t all fouled up by lots of sugary calories, it can burn fat like a motherfrockle. This is why distance athletes—whose bodies get especially good at this—are so freaking thin.)

So, if we don’t want to deprive ourselves of the foods we love, we just need to work on portion control, which is doable if for every part starchy, yummy goodness you make yourself plow through two parts bulky, low-glycemic-load vegetables. Cabbage is great for that. Yeah, it’s not the tastiest stuff, but that’s kind of the point. After eating a bunch of it you’re asking, “Could I be full?” rather than “Could I push past the pain and eat even more?” (Raw cabbage, I’ll concede, is almost inedible, except perhaps on a fish taco. Cabbage is better cooked, and the smell of cooking cabbage helps you lose your appetite—a win/win!)

If we’re going to be realistic here, napa cabbage is more charismatic than regular. It doesn’t have much flavor, but bulks foods out nicely (instead of bulking us out not-nicely). A cup of nappa cabbage has just 13 calories. It’s like the perfect thing to stuff yourself with. Best of all, you can spell it with either one “p” or two ... your choice! (I mixed and matched here, just to be more Google-query-friendly.) I have actually put nappa cabbage in a burrito, just to give it that realistic heft you get at taquerias. You wanna know the glycemic load of cabbage? It’s an infinitesimal 0.58! Amazing!

So ... what can I still eat while South-Beaching it?

The good news is, you can still eat anything with this approach, once you’re in phase 3 ... at least, the way I do it (and it’s working pretty well). But you can’t eat everything. That is, you need to figure out a few indulgent, non-South-Beach foods you just can’t live without, and keep eating them—but only occasionally, as a treat, and in small quantities with gobs of vegetables on the side. Other starchy or sweet foods will just have to go—you gotta choose your battles. So as much as I go on about pasta being too irresistible to mess with, I know I can never totally give it up. But if I’m going to occasionally submit to it, I better be pretty strict about desserts, white bread (like sourdough and baguettes, which I adore), and pretty much all baked goods. Oh, and I barely get to have pizza. Maybe this summer I’ll start riding Mount Diablo every weekend like I used to, and can cheat more.

But drinking ... that’s another matter.

What can I drink?

I’ll make this simple: don’t drink anything that isn’t a) water, or b) a drug delivery mechanism. Juice is all the sugar from fruit and none of the fiber so unless you’re actually trying to get fat, just skip it. If you have a reasonably balanced diet (such as South Beach) you’re getting plenty of vitamins without needing any juice. (“Vitamin water,” meanwhile, is sugar-water for morons.) Soda should be banned, but with a special dispensation for endurance athletes.

A commenter on my last post advised that you can “add splenda to all sorts of liquids and you can guzzle diet sodas.” I totally disagree. Diet soda confuses your body and triggers an insulin response, meanwhile dulling our senses to naturally sweet food, leading to the abuse of other sweets, according to this article and others. Splenda (sucralose) has long been thought safe, but recent studies (click here) link it to changes in intestinal microbes, altered glucose and insulin levels, and possibly cancer. Sure, we could debate the veracity of these studies, but why bother? Why defend chemicals designed to fool Mother Nature, just for the sake of justifying unsophisticated pleasures? If you have a constant craving for sweet drinks, you should try to figure out why. Shouldn’t you have cast off that childish fixation long ago?

Coffee (without cream or sugar) is completely fine. Drink up. Caffeine can even be an appetite suppressant, but be careful ... don’t be tempted to skip meals (which confuses your body, fouls up your energy levels, and creates diet-jeopardizing cravings). I don’t consider coffee a food, because it’s practically calorie-free. I think of it as a drug (and a very safe, useful one).

Alcohol is also, to my mind, also more of a drug than a food. But it’s a whole different deal from coffee because alcoholic beverages are highly caloric, in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol they contain (so don’t bother trying to count the carbs in this or that beer). And calories are only part of the problem. Because alcohol is a toxin, when you drink your body shuts down its normal metabolic processes (like burning fat) until it’s dealt with the alcohol. Meanwhile, mixed drinks often involve sugary mixers or Coke, and drinking lowers your inhibitions so you might lose some of the discipline you’ve been trying to have about your eating. (Click here and here for details.)

(You think it was possible to resist that fourth helping of fries after drinking Belgian beer? It was not, nor was it possible to resist dipping the fries in mayo, Euro-style. But that was a special occasion.)

It kills me that there’s a whole website, Get Drunk Not Fat, dedicated to worrying about the number of carbs or other fillers in alcoholic beverages, when moderation alone is the way forward.

Does all this mean you shouldn’t drink at all when trying to lose weight? I don’t think so. Statistically, moderate drinkers are less likely to be overweight than teetotalers. Meanwhile, alcohol can be a great way to hide from your problems. (That was a joke.) The question of whether or not to drink should certainly involve not gaining weight, but weight is only one component of this bigger lifestyle choice. I think that where this South Beach[-esque] dietary approach is concerned, drinking should be treated like one of those carefully selected indulgences you might decide to allow yourself from time to time. But you better not allow too many of these indulgences, and you better indulge sparingly, if you’re serious about losing weight.

The result so far

Today my wife said to me, “You’re starting to get gaunt. You’re starting to look like a bike racer again.” This isn’t really a compliment. In fact, it’s almost a warning. I think the subtext was something like, “Watch yourself ... don’t do too good a job with this South Beach thing.” I’m happy to report that if things continue on this trend, I’ll be around or below 170 pounds for the hill climb bike race I have planned for January 1. Following that, I might just take my eating habits back in a more northerly direction, secure in the knowledge that I’m not at risk of becoming the next Humpty Dumpty.

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