Monday, September 30, 2013

From the Archives - A New Jacket for Fall!


Maybe you like to shop. Maybe you enjoy retail environments. Well, other than bike shops, I really don’t. When I’m in a clothing store I have this (only somewhat irrational) fear that I’ve drifted into the women’s section without realizing it. At The Gap once I was surveying a dizzying array of jeans, folded on endless shelves, and a salesman came up and said brightly, “Hi there! Would you like to buy some women’s jeans?”

So, when I have a positive retail experience, it’s kind of a big deal. What follows is the story of how, almost eighteen years ago, I bought my beloved “barn jacket,” which I still wear to this day. Of course this post isn’t just about that. I also discuss wool shirts that I wore before anybody else wanted them; the warping of the factory-outlet concept; a wormhole; and the extinction of quality control.

A New Jacket for Fall! – October 29, 1995

Fall is upon us, and you may be considering a new jacket. So, in the event that you’re interested, you can peruse this spellbinding account of my new jacket purchase.

I really needed a new jacket. My old one, the J Crew Barn Jacket, had served me well but was a bit too small, and was really better suited to Berkeley than to San Francisco. It was just a bit too light for the winters here, and a bit too baggy for cycling in (the wind shoots right up the sleeves). So on a cold, blustery day Erin and I went to the San Francisco Center and poked around.  

One of the things I looked at was a large wool Woolrich shirt, just like the ones my brothers and I wore back in high school. I haven’t seen wool shirts like those in a long time.   The only difference between our old wool shirts and these ones was the price. We’d bought them at a Woolrich Factory Outlet in Broomfield, Colorado back when Factory Outlet meant slightly irregular and overstocked stuff stuffed into bins in a giant warehouse, and at really cheap prices (I think we paid like $10 or $12; these were $100 [and now, in 2013, are $295]).  These days, of course, “factory outlet” means nothing more than a company-run store that sells lesser versions of their brand of product, for a price that is supposedly cheaper, but usually not my much. The modern factory outlet store doesn’t seem to have the “seconds” that I like to buy. I could never tell the difference anyway; I’m sure there was something wrong with those Woolrich shirts, but I never could figure out what. I have to wonder: now that factory outlet stores generally sell all first-quality stuff, what do companies do with their seconds? Surely they must have seconds.

After seeing the Woolrich stuff, we went upstairs to J. Crew. For years, J. Crew has considered me a loyal customer. They have faithfully sent me catalogs ever since I moved to the Bay Area (up until our bike tour, when they finally lost my scent). For a time, their catalogs featured extremely attractive models, which I considered an excellent selling point. (Un)fortunately, the women weren’t for sale. The strange thing was, up until very recently, I’d never purchased a J. Crew garment in my life, for reasons of cost. (The aforementioned barn jacket was a gift from my mom.) How I came to start getting their catalog is a mystery to me. I suppose I had walked into their stores a few times; somehow, they must have figured out my address. Maybe they had me followed. I’d been in there a few times with my roommate at the time, Brett, who was in fact a loyal customer. Maybe they heard him say my name, and something in our behavior suggested that we were roommates, and they’ve used postal records to track me from there. Either that, or they bought my name from Banana Republic.

Anyway, during a business trip to Pasadena a few months back, I discovered an amazing J. Crew store. The amazing thing about the store was its wrinkle in the space-time continuum. Or maybe it was a wormhole ... I’m no physicist.  The store, which is quite large to begin with, is in the shape of a giant L, and has the amazing property of instantly transporting you from one part of Pasadena to the other. One moment I’d be out on Colorado Avenue, seemingly miles from the engineering firm where I was doing consulting work, and then I’d walk past the men’s section, through the women’s, and the next thing I knew, I’d be in a little plaza near Il Fornaio, the Italian cafe right across the street from the office. It was like the wardrobe that led to Narnia. Not only was this a handy shortcut, but for weeks I didn’t really know how else to get from one point to the other. (You know: my usual spatial relations problems.) When I did finally figure it out, I still went through J. Crew because it was about 100 degrees outside, and the store was nice and cool.

Well, on one trip through, I happened to notice a pair of cool pants which were on sale. They were about $30, marked down from something like $400 (well, maybe not that much, but something atrocious). From a fiscal standpoint, it would have been folly indeed not to buy them, so I did. Then I looked at the receipt to find out exactly what these pants were: “khaki pant relaxed plain zip.” (The only way to find out the name of a garment is to buy it.) A few days later, again on the way through, I found a really great shirt on sale. This one is called the “tonal plaid shirt.” I don’t know what the name means, but it’s such a subtle plaid, it almost looks like a solid. The color is so dark that the shirt is almost black. The whole effect, in fact, is so low-key that when I wear the shirt, you almost can’t tell who I am. It’s a great shirt for an introvert, and may in fact be the grooviest shirt I own.

Well, my boss was down in Pasadena with me, and when he noticed that I’d made two J. Crew purchases during the course of a week, he made the same mistake that J. Crew had: he assumed that this must be my favorite store. So, one day at lunch, he suggested we go over there. Once there, he presented me with a $100 gift certificate. “Well, I know you love this store,” he said, “so I thought I’d take this opportunity to show my appreciation for your extra work here.” So, to return to my original story (if you haven’t forgotten it by now), I naturally hit upon J. Crew as the obvious place to buy my new jacket: I could buy something overpriced, save $100, and not sweat it.

I found a great jacket right away. It’s huge, and dark, and has a removable wool lining that is fastened to the shell by about 100 buttons, so the jacket doubles as a hobby. It doesn’t have any zippers, just buttons, which is great for me since I have a tendency to jam zippers. What’s more, the shell is a complete garment even without the lining (but not the other way around). It’s the kind of jacket that you don’t put on; you climb into it. Once inside, you can relax your entire upper body and it will support you. You could fall asleep in it without tipping over; it’s the kind of garment you could live in. But the main reason I bought it, besides that I had the $100 gift certificate, is that Erin liked it, and she had been the chief proponent of the new jacket all along.

[In the photo at the top of this post, the jacket’s liner has been removed and is draped over the arm of the couch. And yes, that’s the khaki pant relaxed plain zip, much faded but still in great shape though it’s shrunk less over the years than my butt, mainly due to lack of business travel so they don’t fit so well anymore.  In the photo I’m even wearing the tonal plaid shirt, which is starting to fall apart after hundreds of wearings but is still among my favorite shirts.]

Upon getting home and reviewing the jacket documentation, I finally found out a couple of things that I’d been wondering about for a long time. First of all, I found out the name of my new jacket: the Mule Jacket. So what does that mean? It’s the queerest, most nonsensical name since . . . Barn Jacket. I guess my old jacket made reference to me being a “barn dweller,” while this new one attests to my stubbornness.

The other thing I learned was why factory outlets don’t sell “seconds” anymore. (J. Crew certainly does have factory outlet stores; in fact, upon returning from Pasadena, my boss got on the phone to find out the locations of all of the J. Crew factory outlets in northern California, and prepared a listing for me.) The reason for there being no seconds anymore became obvious when I read the little tagboard card that came with the jacket (and, as I now recall, that came with my khaki pant relaxed plain zip, and even with the tonal plaid shirt):

We’ve put this J. Crew product through a washing process to create a softer, “lived-in” feel and look. This prewashing replicates natural aging without repeated wearings and washings. So this garment is a bit faded, a bit shrunk, and its seams are looser and less uniform (as shrinking is never completely even in all dimensions). There will also be some variations of shading and texture. In fact, some garments will have large bleached patches. Almost invariably, one sleeve will be longer than the other, and the collar may choke you, or else gape wide open and let cold air in. You may find that there are more buttonholes than buttons, and that the fabric may have large runs or tears in it. Some garments will give you years of service, but you shouldn’t be surprised if your garment completely falls apart after just a few short weeks. These factors combine to give this garment its individual look and comfort. Please keep this in mind as you examine your new J. Crew garment: because we don’t want to hear any complaints. Such variations are assets that contribute to the uniqueness and personality of all our prewashed apparel. 
Once I’d read this disclaimer, I finally understood that there’s no such thing as a “second” anymore simply because there’s no such thing as quality control anymore. We’re expected to love and accept our garments, regardless of their idiosyncrasies and faults. It’s a beautiful thing.  And the sooner we can give this same consideration to our fellow human beings, the sooner we’ll achieve a gentler, more humane society.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Doping and the Talent Conundrum


On Thursday I was inexplicably tired and crashed out in the early evening.  My wife woke me up.  “Hey, check out this thing in the new ‘New Yorker,’” she said.  I didn’t want to open my eyes and groaned, “Just read it aloud.”  She replied, “No, I think you should see this.”  So I sat up, irritably, thinking, “This better be good.”  What she showed me was that the magazine had published a letter I’d sent in.  There it was, actually printed on the page, signed “Dana Albert” and below that “Albany, Calif.” 

How about that!  To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised, because I’d already exchanged e-mails with one of the “New Yorker” fact-checkers.  (That’s right, they even fact-check their mail to make sure they don’t give traction to someone’s misconceptions.)  But I hadn’t been very optimistic; I figured fate would somehow interfere, like some really great letter would show up that they needed to make room for. 

Now, you may suppose that the whole point of this blog post is for me to celebrate getting quasi-published in a great magazine.  And it is true that I’m really stoked about this; in fact, I’m thinking of having some sandwich boards made up so I can stand on a street corner and call out to people, “‘The New Yorker’ printed my letter!”  But actually, the truth is almost the opposite.  Writing in had seemed a futile act, so I figured as a consolation prize I could at least share my thoughts on this blog.  When the magazine did print my letter, my delight was slightly eroded by the tiny disappointment of having a great blog topic that I now had no reason to pursue.

So I’ve decided to turn my consolation prize into a greater examination of the original topic, which was doping in sports.  In this post I’ll go more deeply into the matter than the confines of a letter to “The New Yorker” could possibly allow.

Malcolm Gladwell on doping

My letter concerned an article by Malcolm Gladwell.  Let me start of by saying that I have huge respect for this writer, the author of (among other things) The Tipping Point and Blink, both not only bestsellers but books that deserve to be bestsellers.   I’ve eagerly read Gladwell’s “New Yorker” articles the whole way along.  In fact, he’s the kind of writer who is so persuasive that when I read him, I get the sinking feeling that I’m outsourcing my brain and accepting his treatises wholesale instead of merely considering them.  Yeah.  That kind of writer.

Given my adulation of Gladwell, I was excited when, flipping through the  September 9 “New Yorker,” I saw his article “Man and Superman,” about doping in sports.  I mean, this is a topic I know something about.  I’ve been a competitive cyclist for over thirty years, winning a national collegiate title along the way, and have been a loyal fan of the professional sport since I was a kid.  On this blog I’ve written about the doping exploits of Lance Armstrong, Missy Giove, wannabe bike racers who dope in the name of journalism, and Tyler Hamilton. I’ve laid out (albeit satirical) legal strategies for fallen heroes Floyd Landis (here) and Lance Armstrong (here).  Moreover, I’ve done a (perfectly legal) experiment to examine the effect, on my own athletic performance, of the polar opposite of blood doping.  Getting to read a Gladwell article on something I’m so interested in was a tantalizing prospect, especially considering that the best thing I’ve ever read about doping in cycling was also in “The New Yorker,” back in 2000.

You can read Gladwell’s article here but I’ll summarize it briefly.  He starts by describing an ageing Finnish man who won seven Olympic medals over twelve years, and whose hematocrit (i.e, natural red blood cell concentration) is so high his face is almost purple.  He’s a freak of nature, one of those natural-born athletes who, Gladwell puts it, “carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors.”  Gladwell goes on to compare natural ability with that which can be gained through enhancement, both surgical and pharmaceutical.  He ponders the oddity that performance-enhancing surgery is tolerated but doping is not, contrasting baseball player Tommy John’s “bionic arm” with Alex Rodriguez’s suspension for doping.

Gladwell then moves on to Lance Armstrong and his illegal blood transfusions:  “Before we condemn him, though, shouldn’t we have to come up with a good reason that one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not?”  Gladwell describes Tyler Hamilton’s book about doping, and explains Hamilton’s insistence that EPO doesn’t enable a rider to avoid hard work, but to actually work harder, thus using (as Gladwell puts it) “science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.”  Gladwell ends his essay, “Hamilton and Armstrong may simply be athletes who regard this kind of achievement as worthier than the gold medals of a man with the dumb luck to be born with a random genetic mutation.”

Frankly, I was shocked to come to the end of the article with so much of the topic left totally unexplored.  I’d thought that Gladwell’s challenge to “come up with a good reason” not to dope was the baiting of a rhetorical trap, so that we could be surprised later by his deeper insight.  But this never comes.  Instead, his article left me with the impression that he really buys this “level playing field” nonsense that some athletes, and some fans, use to justify or tolerate cheating.

Come up with a good reason not to dope?  How about death?  Oddly, the fact that doping is dangerous is completely missing from the article.  Gladwell seems to suggest that fair play is the sole reason doping is illegal.  This seemed such a glaring oversight that, upon finishing the article, I wrote my letter to “The New Yorker” on the spot.  I asserted (and it feels funny to be quoting myself), 
Gladwell misses an important point:  unlike athletic talent, doping is dangerous.  Athletes have died from using drugs like EPO; and infusing blood—sometimes blood that was previously frozen—in a non-hospital environment is perilous.  Doping is ethically wrong because it incites competitors to similarly endanger themselves.  Banning drugs isn’t just about fairness; it’s about protecting athletes.
My other issue

Okay, so Gladwell left out the part about danger and death.  Big deal, right?  But actually, that isn’t my only issue with his article.  (It was, however, the only issue I could bring up in a very short letter to a magazine.)  My other problem with his article is that it views athletic talent far too simplistically.

It’s tempting to see talent as a binary matter:  you either have it, or you don’t.  And to some degree, this is true.  Last fall, I watched my daughter, who was eleven at the time, running in a cross-country meet.  One of her classmates, also eleven, blew everybody else away—even kids two years older (which can make a huge difference at that age).  This girl ran with incredible fluidity and grace and seemed barely winded at the end, unlike my daughter who arrived among the last third of the runners, red-faced and puffing like a locomotive.  There is no question this classmate is gifted in a way that my daughter is not.

My daughter, of course, found this really discouraging.  It’s natural to think, after such a drubbing, “Why even bother?”  It’s surely why a great many kids dabble in sports but then quit.  It’s also probably a rationale for a whole lot of doping by athletes talented enough to make the big time, but who feel they aren’t quite talented enough to be the very best.

The Gattaca Fallacy

The refusal to accept genetic limitations is at the core of the 1997 movie Gattaca.  In the sci-fi world of this film, most humans are genetically engineered, and those with imperfections are labeled “in-valids” and doomed to a lower-class existence and menial work.  The main character, Vincent, was conceived without scientific intervention; not only is he nearsighted, but has a heart defect.  He refuses to let this prevent him from being an astronaut, and undergoes various black-market surgeries so that he can impersonate another man who has a perfect genetic scorecard but (unbeknownst to society) is a paraplegic.  This movie makes the case that effort and determination make more difference than genetic perfection; after all, its hero does succeed in becoming an elite astronaut once he’s deceived the gatekeepers into thinking he’s perfect.

But there’s a pivotal scene in the movie that really irks me.  Vincent’s brother Anton, a cop, has discovered Vincent’s deception, and is threatening to expose him.  They agree to settle the matter with a swimming competition on the open ocean.  Anton fully expects to prevail because he’s genetically perfect, a “valid.”  So he’s astonished when Vincent beats him.  “How are you doing this, Vincent?” he gasps as they thrash among the waves.  For the scene to work the moviegoer is expected to share this disbelief, so he can be properly moved by Vincent’s response:  “You want to know how I did it?  This is how I did it, Anton.  I never saved anything for the swim back.”

The problem with this scene is that it is, or ought to be, completely unsatisfying to anybody who has worked really hard at sport.  It’s a mere variation of two simplistic ideas:  the initial premise that talent is everything, and the contrarian notion—redolent of ABC After School Specials—that if you dig deep enough, and want it bad enough, you can beat a more talented opponent.  Sometimes this is true, but often it is not, and the movie only glances at the surface of what really happens in athletic competition.

In my head, I rewrite the dialogue:  “You want to know how I did it?  This is how I did it, Anton:  I fricking trained.  I mean, duh!”  For this little parable to be satisfying, the brothers would have to be identically conditioned, which never figures into the plot.  That Gattaca is otherwise a pretty good movie shows that either these scriptwriters don’t fully understand what goes into athletic success, or don’t expect moviegoers to.  I call this shortcoming the Gattaca Fallacy:  the simplistic idea that everything boils down to a simple match between talent and “heart.”  Sure, these are important elements of success, but there are countless others.

What is talent?

In his article, Gladwell targets one specific measure of talent:  hematocrit.  Hematocrit is a great example of a biological trait that can be easily quantified.  It’s a realm where some people are certainly more gifted than others.  (And, it’s something that can be modified through drugs or transfusions.)

But there are other types of inborn athletic ability that don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with a high hematocrit:  for example, VO(2) max (oxygen uptake capacity) and lactate threshold (i.e., how hard you can go before your muscles accumulate too much lactic acid and you have to back off).  Before an athlete decides he can’t compete fairly against somebody with a higher hematocrit, he should consider whether his other gifts can compensate.  It’s short-sighted to measure one trait and decide nature has dealt unfairly with you, and that you deserve to correct this.

An example:  When Jonathan Vaughters, a teammate of Armstrong, left US Postal and joined Credit Agricole, he was shocked to discover that the team leader, Christophe Moreau, had a hematocrit of only 39%, but was apparently riding clean.  And yet Vaughters had a (putatively) natural hematocrit of 52, which is so high had a special dispensation from his doctor—a “hall pass,” as he called it—so that he could pass the doping tests.  Clearly, hematocrit isn’t everything; Moreau was the better rider.

Also, the notion that doping merely neutralizes genetic gifts is problematic because responsiveness to drugs is itself a talent.  From the standpoint of doping, Vaughters lacked a certain talent:  he couldn’t benefit from EPO the way other riders could.  In the doping arms race, Vaughters was outgunned.  He had this trait that helped him be competitive, while other riders had different traits benefiting them.  His main gift, thanks to doping, was now largely irrelevant, while theirs were not.  The fact is, drugs don’t affect everybody equally, so an anything-goes sport—where athletes are free to use “science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference”—still wouldn’t be fair.

Meanwhile, talent isn’t always measurable.  Some athletes have a talent for suffering; some for tenacity; some for drudgery (a more important talent than most fans realize).  Some athletes, though they may have low numbers in the easily measurable categories, are especially efficient (e.g., a cyclist whose pedaling is more fluid).  Some athletes are better in the heat than others; some are less fazed by cold.  In addition to his other gifts, Armstrong had a rock-solid immune system, which is somewhat rare in a sport where everybody is perennially close to being over-trained and has a body fat percentage in the single digits.

Meanwhile, talent isn’t always physical.  Tactical instinct, boldness, and psychological mettle are all talents, and depending on the sport involved, can be just as important as muscular strength and aerobic capacity.  In a perfect, dope-free world, these talents would compensate for physical shortcomings such as a lack of “random genetic mutation.”  Everybody has different gifts, some more than others, and you put them all in the pot and stir.

Success without talent

Let me give you an example of success without talent.  I am not a classically talented athlete.  I washed up as a swimmer, was always picked last in gym class, and achieved nothing in my first year of bike racing.  In fact, I didn’t win a race until my fifth year.  My hematocrit fluctuates between 39 (which is almost anemic) and 42 (the low end of average).  Moreover, I don’t have much in the way of fast-twitch muscles, which are what sprinters have.  But over the years I learned how to really suffer, and I paid attention, and through sheer necessity figured out how to be more efficient than a lot of other riders.  At thirteen, I was the only rider drafting off to the side in a crosswind; the others lined up right behind the rider ahead. 

When I was fifteen I raced in a hilly, multi-lap criterium, and got into a three-man breakaway.  (Truth be told, it was not an impressive field.)  I was pretty sure I could beat one of my rivals, but the other was really strong, especially when accelerating out of the corners.  I wasn’t at all confident I could beat him in the final sprint.  So with a few laps to go, at the bottom of the uphill section, I said to the slower guy, just loudly enough to be overheard, “We need to drop this guy.  He’s slowing us down.”  This whipped the faster guy into a lather, and to assuage his ego (and prove me wrong) he went to the front and took this absolute monster pull, all the way to the top of the climb and for the next half-lap as well.  Once he pulled off so I could take my turn, I attacked him with everything I had.  Stunned, he let a gap open up and couldn’t close it.  Now it was a two-man break, with the strongest guy off the back.  The point of the story?  If I’d been stronger, or had been doped, I wouldn’t have needed to be clever.

The interplay of various gifts and abilities—boldness, cunning, strength, experience, teamwork—is what makes a sport like bicycle racing so fun to watch.  That is, until somebody gets too far ahead in the doping competition and merely bludgeons the peloton to death, like Armstrong did with his über-doped Postal team (and like Christopher Froome is widely believed to be doing with Team Sky).  Gladwell is correct in stating that successful doping requires intelligence, but doping can also nullify intelligence, along with other gifts.  The race is always closer, always better when everybody is clean.  If you try to level the playing field with drugs, you’ll sell short the riders who don’t handle drugs well, the riders whose veins are harder to find, the riders who are afraid of needles, the riders who depend on savvy or tenacity, and the riders who have integrity.

The downside of “talent”

On the face of it, you can never have too much talent … right?  Well, I think that’s almost always true.  But I think there are a couple of exceptions worth pointing out, especially as regards the developing psyche of a young athlete.

First, there’s a trait that is often mistaken for talent, but is really its evil twin:  precociousness.  I’m talking about the kid who, in terms of physical development, gets a head start on the others and so is able to beat them at sports.  A related scenario is the kid (often the one with older siblings) who develops that killer instinct—the sheer will to win—earlier than his peers.  (I’ve seen this in my daughters’ soccer games, where lots of girls are unaccustomed to acts of aggression.)  The problem with precociousness is that it’s a flash in the pan:  sooner or later the various developmental trajectories converge and what had seemed to be talent turns out not to be.  I imagine this can be hard on a kid who is used to success but sees it run dry as his opponents catch up.

(Gladwell points out, in Outliers, that among young hockey players, those with birthdays closest to the age-class cutoff—that is, who started out older than their peers and thus are further along developmentally—have statistically had more success.  Their early promise leads to better coaching, and higher achievement far beyond childhood.  Thus, starting your kid in school later can give him a boost in school sports—but I imagine this advantage will erode as more and more parents adopt this strategy.)

Where I’ve really seen talent fall short is when its value is overestimated by the athlete himself.  He figures, “I didn’t train any more than these other guys, but I beat them anyway.  I’m just special.”  This can lead to a slap in the face when talent alone is no longer enough.  Faced with unexpected failure, this athlete can be forgiven for underestimating his opponents’ work ethic, and merely concluding, “I guess I’m not special anymore.  I had it, and now it’s gone.”  I’ve seen really talented athletes quit early, and it’s a shame.

In The Tipping Point Gladwell describes the tendency to erroneously ascribe behavior to fundamental character traits:  “Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context.”  It’s not a huge leap to extrapolate on this, to the idea that behavior is analogous to performance, and that situation is analogous to conditioning.  That is, those with talent, because of their early success, may overestimate its importance and underestimate the importance of training, effort, and savvy.  Thus, talent can interfere with diligence.


I do not understand why innate intelligence and athletic talent are so often assessed so differently.  Gladwell, in a “New Yorker” article called “The Talent Myth,” examines the talent-obsessed hiring policies of Enron and asks, “But what if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it? What if smart people are overrated?”  It’s a mystery to me why, in his most recent article, Gladwell never seems to ponder whether athletic talent can also be overrated.

If I were Lance Armstrong, seeking to rehabilitate my image after my infamous comeuppance, I couldn’t ask for a better article than Gladwell has written with “Man and Superman.”  But the clean competitors out there, and the fans who value them, deserve more than another Gattaca Fallacy.  If pro sport has any chance of being clean, its practitioners (not just athletes but coaches, managers, and doctors) will need to have a far more nuanced view of talent, potential, and what a level playing field really looks like.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Vuelta a España Stage 20


As I’ve blogged before, there’s a benefit to bike race coverage that doesn’t try to be unbiased or fair.  Sports fans have their favorites and so should commentators.  So read on if you want a blow-by-blow account of today’s final mountain stage in the Vuelta a España, where the American Chris Horner will try to defend his leader’s jersey on the brutal Alto de L’Angliru, the legendary “Esp” (especial?), as in beyond-category, summit finish.

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Vuelta a España Stage 20

“Welcome back, it’s just 46 more km of ... hell, really.”  So says Declan, the Eurosport announcer who should let his co-announcer, Sean Kelly, talk more.  But it’s not hell ... not yet.  They’re just pedaling along the flats, Euskaltel driving the pace on the front for no reason I can see. 

The photographer has chosen to film a hawk.  This must be a nod to my older daughter, an avid birder, but if so it’s in vain because I couldn’t convince her to watch this coverage.  Speaking of children, I’ll be late to my younger daughter’s soccer game for this, a slight that will probably come out twenty years from now on her therapist’s couch.  But come on, Horner’s in the lead!  And today finishes atop the legendary Alto de l’Angliru, which is a beast at 12.5 km (7.8 miles) at an average grade of 10%.  It’s even hard to say!  It’s easy to say “angry Lou,” but that’s unfortunately not how it’s pronounced.  It’s angli-rou, which wouldn’t be so hard except we can’t resist saying “angry Lou.”  It’s kind of like how we say “mars-ca-pone” when it’s “mas-car-pone,” dammit.  So, yeah, a brutal climb.

I guess Euskaltel is working to get Sanchez higher in the GC.  He’s all the way down in ninth, but only four minutes out of fifth.  It’s kind of amazing how tight the GC is so far.  Fourth place Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha, and gesundheit), or Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver if you want to give in to his greed and use all three of his names, is less than two minutes from the race lead.  Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Movistar) is only 1:06 down.  And of course Vincenzo Nibali (Astana, and Italian, thus only two names) is just three seconds back.  The parcours preview for this stage on started out, “After so many tough uphill finishes, it is hard to believe that the battle for the red jersey will still be close by this point.”  True enough, and yet here we are.

I reckon the race is approaching the category 1 Alto del Cordal, which looks pretty brutal.  I can’t imagine much will happen on it as far as the GC riders, since the Angliru is so fricking long.  I mean, why jump the gun?

Okay, I guess this is as good a time as any to have our uncomfortable conversation (or really an uncomfortable monologue since you’ve gone all quiet on me).  Yes, given that this is an unbiased blow-by-blow, ungoverned by normal journalistic standards, determined to call a spade a spade and sometimes calling a club a spade, I should broach the topic of whether Chris Horner is doping.  Certainly the normal debates have been raging on various websites, and the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport has calculated that Horner’s average ascent speed (rate of vertical gain) has broken all the old records.  Not bad for a guy who’s pushing forty-two years old and has only one top-ten grand tour result in his palmares.  On the other hand, he’s been a pro since 1995 and (to my knowledge) has never even been formally accused of doping.  Seemingly alone among his generation, he came through the USADA smackdown completely unscathed, never mentioned by any of the other guys who were singing like canaries about their own doping and everybody else’s.

I guess all I can say on the matter is that I’m able to enjoy this Vuelta without worrying so much about doping.  Maybe it’s because I’m still numb from the travesty that was the Tour de France this year.  Or maybe it’s because having given Nibali the benefit of the doubt during the Giro, I don’t mind extending the same courtesy to Horner.  Maybe it’s because Horner has raced for so fricking long, it doesn’t seem that unlikely that he’d finally be figuring this sport out (vs. a total upstart like Froome who comes out of nowhere to absolutely dominate the Tour).  Maybe it’s because Horner, who has become a true climber over the years, time trialed like a climber in this Vuelta—that is, really poorly—which is at least realistic.  Whatever the case, I’m not thinking too hard about it.  It’s kind of like when I’m at a decent, though not top-end, restaurant in a foreign town, and I’m thinking about getting a burger, and I know I should ask the waiter if it’s grass-fed, but I also kind of don’t want to ask because I really do feel like a burger and if it turns out to be grain-fed I might just get it anyway, so I kind of don’t want to know.  Of course I wouldn’t order a burger at a place like Jack in the Box (slogan:  “E. Coli at no extra charge!”) or Burger King (slogan:  “Razing Brazilian rain forests and passing the savings on to you!”), which would be analogous to cheering on a known doper like Valverde or Di Luca.  But in the case of Horner, as with Nibali, nothing egregious prevents me from being able to believe what I’m seeing.

It’s starting to rain, and according to these Eurosport blokes the Angliru is known for terrible weather.  (The summit is over 5,000 feet.)  Clearly Nibali doesn’t mind bad weather (his performance in the rain- and snow-saturated Giro was downright studly) but Horner prefers the heat.

“Nicholas Roche has unzipped his jersey, showing his bare chest, and he’s a big man as well,” Declan declares.  Hmmm, I think he may have a thing for Roche!  A little subplot in the Eurosport coverage?  Well, nothing I have the time to delve into.  “He’s running hot today,” Declan continues.  Criminy, I need to stop tracking this, because I still haven’t managed even to spot Nibali in the peloton.  It was easy when he was in the red leader’s jersey, at which point I had trouble keeping track of Horner because he was in the blue polka-dot climber’s jersey for awhile and then this white jersey whose meaning I never figured out.  (Normally it’s the best young rider’s jersey, but obviously that’s not the case here unless the race promoters are having a little joke.)

Horner is riding really assertively, reeling in some Euskaltel boys himself.  It’s almost disconcerting how confident he is.  Interviewed after yesterday’s stage, he said, “It’s fantastic to put the red jersey on again, although I wasn’t expecting it until tomorrow...  I feel like I’m in good shape and I expect to win this Vuelta.”  I guess I’ve read too many Greek plays to hear such things without thinking of hubris.  But then, Horner really does look amazingly strong and I like how frank he is.  Lance Armstrong’s false modesty was never convincing to me.  He’d be interviewed with three stages to go in the Tour, and he’d be leading by like eight minutes, and yet he’d go on saying, “The race isn’t over yet.  It’s still a long way to Paris.”  Yeah, right.  But today is different, with four riders within two minutes of the lead.  So much could happen.  Nobody can afford to be too confident.

So it’s a pretty small lead group at this point.  Two riders are up the road, almost five minutes ahead:  Kenny Elissonde (Francais des Jeux) and Paolo Tiralongo (Astana).  Behind them are a few other guys about half a minute back.  If their lead seems to hold, maybe I’ll figure out who the other guys are, but five minutes on a climb like this really isn’t much.

The race is well onto the Angliru now, with the leaders about 10 kilometers from the finish.  Nibali is staying right on Horner.  The pace must be pretty high because Michele Scarponi (Lampre) has just been dropped, and he looked pretty good yesterday.

The GC group is under the 10K banner.  Katusha is pushing the pace at the front, obviously looking to set up Joaquim Rodriguez.  I wonder what bothers him more:  people calling him Joaquin (with an “n”), or people calling him J-Rod?  Maybe this is what fuels his outbursts.

Speaking of names, as I seem to be doing, it’s worth pointing out that Lance and Levi nicknamed Horner “the redneck.”  I’m not exactly sure why they’d call him that; I imagine Bend is sort of like the Austin of Oregon.  Bend has more microbreweries per capita, or perhaps period, than any place I’ve ever been.  It strikes me as less redneck a place than Boulder, actually.  That said, I can easily picture Horner behind the wheel of a big pickup truck, looking out the window and saying, “Are you boys lost?”

Wow, the grade is 17% on the section the leaders are riding.  They—the announcers, not the leaders—are saying most riders are rocking a 34x28 or 36x28 today.  (No, the fact that these pros are riding compacts doesn’t make me feel better about having one.)

Nibali has attacked!  So far, Horner hasn’t responded.  This could be dangerous because Tiralongo (Nibali’s teammate) is up the road and could drop back to help.  No footage of Horner at this point.  Wow, Nibali has some pretty big balls ... figuratively speaking.  I don’t think anybody expected a move like this since he has seemed so vulnerable the last few days.

There’s Horner, dragging Valverde and J-Rod, and maybe not looking so good.  But then, who would on this kind of grade?  It’s about 6 km to go for the leaders ... not sure what that means for this group because I don’t know the gap anymore.

Nibali looks pretty good.  He’s on a 21% grade riding in the saddle.  Horner seems a tiny bit overgeared, riding out of the saddle.  J-Rod goes around Valverde to get Horner’s wheel.  You can tell they’re all dying.

Elissonde is now leading the race.  Presumably Tiralongo is dropping back for Nibali.

Valverde is dropped!  Horner is drilling it.  He’s got Nibali in his sights.  Assuming he closes the gap, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Rodriguez counterattacks as soon as they make contact.  He’d love another stage win, of course; moreover, though he probably couldn’t take enough time to win, he could make it to the podium by taking 51 seconds out of Valverde.

Well, I’m no oracle.  Horner and J-Rod have caught Nibali and Horner, not J-Rod, countered (albeit tentatively) and now Nibali has neutralized it.  And now J-Rod goes!  He didn’t launch himself ballistically like he did yesterday though ... they easily get his wheel.

They’ve caught Tiralongo (at least I think it’s Tiralongo).  Valverde continues to suck wind off the back.  The lone leader, Elissonde, has 4km to go ... gap is under two minutes.

This could come down to the time bonuses.  Horner either needs to drop Nibali or be really sure he can take him in the sprint.  Traditionally, Nibali is the more explosive rider, but this has been a weird Vuelta.

Horner has so much to lose here.  No American has ever won the Vuelta, of course, and according to, Horner doesn’t even have a contract for next year.  I read yesterday:  “Horner may feel like his value will increase if he wins the Vuelta. That’s that always the case.”  No, that extra “that” is not my typo.  It’s cyclingnews’s.  I can’t tell whether they meant “That’s always the case” or “That’s not always the case.”  Anyway, Joop Zoetemelk won the World Championship road race at age 38—it was supposed to be his last race before retirement—and subsequently got the best contract he’d had in many years, possibly ever.

Nibali is attacking again!  Horner is right on him.  Nibali’s shoulders are rocking ... he looks a bit less strong than Horner.

Tiralongo has been dropped.  It’s just Horner, Nibali, and Rodriguez.  Whoah, there goes Nibali!  He’s really drilling it!  Horner is coming right back though.  Now it’s just the two of them.

And now Nibali goes again!  He’s really grimacing.  But he’s getting a pretty decent gap!  This could be the defining moment!  Man, imagine attacking on a grade like that when every fiber of your body is saying “Survive, survive.”

Between this spotty video and all the spectators with their flags and such, I can’t see anything.  It’s really foggy, too.  Screen keeps freezing.  Nibali and Horner are together again.  At least, that’s what Kelly is saying.  The screen is as pixilated as an Atari video game.  They keep showing Valverde, off the back.  Is it because he’s Spanish, or he’s all the camera crew can get footage of?

The camera bike has ground to a halt on the grade!  We’ve lost the footage completely.

New camera; now we’re looking at Elissonde, still in the lead with just under 2k to go.  Oh, man, he’s dying.  It’s “only” 16% here but he’s bent over the bars in agony.  He’s weaving on the road.  My daughter has just offered me a piece of dried seaweed.  She doesn’t care about the Vuelta.

The camera bike is running again and frantically chasing down the GC riders.  He’s passed Valverde.  Threading through the crowd and finally he’s back up to Horner, leading Nibali.  Now a screen-eclipsing ad.  Curses!

Nibali is now dropped!  It’s probably too early to say for sure, but a big gap has opened up.  Horner passes a couple more stragglers!  He’s drilling it!  His cadence is still not so very high and it’s painful to watch.  But he’s really going well, rocking the bike with those crazy-wide bars.  Yesterday Declan said of those handlebars, “Incidentally, just look at how wide his handlebars are. Apparently they were put on by mistake a couple years ago and he liked the feel of them.  Looks like a little man trying to look like a big man.”  Does this aside bother you?  Good!  It’s working!  This is called “building suspense.”

Ellisonde has a minute on Horner ... he’ll probably make it to the finish as the winner.  But man he’s suffering, head down, looking over his shoulder. Fortunately for him there’s a bit of downhill just before the finish.

Now he’s zipping up his jersey.  It’s so foggy, visibility is like 30 feet.  He blows a little kiss to nobody.  And he’s got the win!

Horner is hammering, on the drops now.  He finishes the stage!  Ahead of Nibali!  He’s got this Vuelta in the bag!

Nibali is approaching the line, and Valverde passes him for the third-place time bonus.  Horner is on the ground now.  Man, he really looks old.  My online correspondent writes, “Horner needs a haircut.”

I’d love to stick around and watch the podium festivities, but I’ve got to run and catch my daughter’s soccer game.  Suffice to say, Horner appears to have this Vuelta locked up, despite being old enough to be my brother!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Vuelta a España Stage 14


As I’ve blogged before, there’s a benefit to bike race coverage that doesn’t try to be unbiased or fair. Sports fans have their favorites and so should commentators.  So read on if you want a blow-by-blow account of today's key mountain stage in the Vuelta a España, where the American Chris Horner will try to regain the leader’s jersey that he’s worn twice during this stage race already.

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Vuelta a España Stage 14

6:11 a.m.  I join the live online Vuelta coverage just in time for a bunch of ads.

One of my real-time correspondents (okay, the only one) says, “Well, Horner sure sucks at TTing, huh?” Fo shizzle ma nizzle!  Horner lost the leader’s jersey a few days ago when Nibali took like 90 seconds out of him in the only time trial stage of this Vuelta.

Unfortunately, I’m not seeing any coverage ... just an endless highlights reel of various sports with really cheesy music ... some kind of ad for the WATTS television network.

Okay, I’ve been at it for 20 minutes and still no actual footage.  A banner on the screen says “Due to the weather conditions live signal is delayed.”  So instead they’re showing people milling about at the finish line far ahead of the racers.  It’s just too rainy for the satellite feed.

The announcers are saying that Ivan Basso has been dropped.  Remember Basso’s second place finishes in the Tour behind the King?  It’s just not the same since he’s clean.  That’s the problem with riding clean ... it doesn’t look like much.  It’s like when you pay all that extra money for organic food and you expect it to taste so much better, but you have to settle for feeling like you’re doing the right thing.

It’s just ad after ad to kill time until they can get the video feed going.  I haven’t seen this many ads since the final hour of a James Bond movie on ABC Saturday Night At The Movies.

This is one reason why cycling is such a hard sport to popularize in the U.S.  It’s really difficult to film, with the helicopters and satellite trucks and everything, so the footage is expensive to license, and with so few Americans interested in watching, there are precious few advertising dollars to go around.

So, it appears that until they get the technical problems resolved, they’re going to show tennis instead.  It’s Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the US Open against some player called Mikhail Youzhny.  I have no idea who Youzhny is but I just read a great article about Djokovic so I’m somewhat interested.  At this point, it’s a dead heat in the Weird Name competition.  Djokovic gets points for Incongrous Adjacent Consonants, but Youzhny does well in the Adjacent Consonants That Seem Like They Should Make Sense But Really Don’t category.  Unfortunately I don’t grasp the scoring system in tennis so I can’t really tell who’s ahead.  

It’s noteworthy that neither player is wearing a helmet.  It turns out that tennis is the only sport in the world that involves a ball but has not been linked to concussions.  Unless you count lawn bowling.  (Note:  I don’t have a fact checker, but my hunches are usually pretty good.)

Either Djokovic has a spare tennis ball in his pocket, or he’s highly aroused right now!

The tennis players have physiques that wouldn’t be bad for cycling.  Youzhny’s legs even look shaved.  Why don’t these guys overheat, without wind resistance to cool them?  I wonder if they’ll ever get full-zip jersies like cyclists (a major innovation after around a century of four-inch zippers).

There’s not a whole lot to report with tennis.  “Djokovic has hit the ball!  It’s going really fast!  Youzhny hits it back!  It clears the net!  It’s gone to a part of the court that Djokovic is not at, but he’s run over there and has managed to return it!  It’s a full-blown volley!  Each player is trying to hit the ball to a place that the other can’t reach!  They’re both searching for the anti-G-spot!  And now Youzhny has hit the ball into the net!”

Wow.  There was just this huge rally, and it now appears (to this uneducated observer) that Djokovic can actually return the ball no matter where it goes and no matter how fast it travels. Youzhny’s last shot, one of those amazing overhead slams, was heading straight for Djokovic’s navel at 400 mph.  I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure any other player would have been killed.  Djokovic shape-shifted to a spot four feet over so he could actually reach the ball with his racquet and drill it back. The crowd made this noise like a thousand kittens sighing in unison so I know they were impressed.

Youzhny is now on suicide watch after losing that game, set, match, or whatever you call it when the players get to go sit down afterward.

Okay, the technical problems seem to have been resolved so we’re finally back to cycling.  And they’re actually showing cycling footage!  Man, it’s really raining.  Not the giant drops, but that sheet where tiny drops are so close together they’re almost forming a solid mass of water.

Sammy Sanchez is hammering the front of one of the groups, wearing that odd Orbea helmet that looks like it’s on backward.  The leader is some Cannondale guy.  He’s wearing a blank black jacket that he must have gotten from a fan or purchased at a roadside shop.  His sponsors will not be pleased.

This stage finishes on the first-category Collada de la Gallina.  Right now this Cannondale bloke is on the Alto de Comella, a category 2.  At the summmit of this he’ll have about 20K to go.  Okay, I’ve learned from my friendly sportscasters that this is Daniele Ratto, an Italian rider.  He is a very aggressive rider, which stems from the lifelong affliction of having a girlish name.  If his parents had named him Antonio, he’d probably be selling office supplies for a living.  Actually, “Antonio Ratto” could only be a crime boss.

His jacket does say Cannondale on the side.  But it looks like something you’d buy at Performance.

Whoah!  Ratto, on the descent now, is dragging his foot through a curve like an off-road motorcycle racer! What a complete and total idiot!  I’ve never seen such ridiculous behavior.  I’d say even if he wins the stage, he’ll probably be fired from his team.  Either that or everybody else will start doing that.  I can’t believe it.

“We’re just having a look at a few more dodgy moments,” Declan announces, as a highlights reel of Ratto’s idiocy disgraces the screen.  Oh my god.  This guy just locked up the rear wheel in a gentle curve.  It’s a disgrace.

“Cabeza di Peloton” reads the ticker.  It’s hard for me to see the word “cabeza” without thinking of a really authentic taqueria, so now I’m distracted by hunger.  Just in time for another round of commercials!

It’s about 13K to the finish, but all uphill.  I hope to finally see some really great racing ... so far it’s just been Ratto pretending to know how to ride a bike, and some guy in a red jacket wearing a terrible helmet that looks like the top half of a melon, polished smooth.  No action from the leaders at all.  The peloton has been trimmed down pretty far.  I assume that all the GC players are in there, or we’d have footage of them sucking wind off the back.

Okay, based on the (silly) baby blue shorts I have divined that all the black-jacketed guys on the front are race leader Vincenzo Nibali’s Astana teammates.  

“Ratto, in very ratty conditions, it’s fitting actually...”  Declan, just give it up.  Criminy.  Somebody should give Sean Kelly an extra cup of tea, or dissolve a NoDoz in it, to get him to talk more.

Wow, the GC group is way behind Ratto!  Ratto is about to start the final climb but these guys are still making their way up the Alto de Comella.

It’s hard to tell for sure, but it appears Valverde has gone off the back!  Maybe he left his syringes in the other duffel bag and didn’t get his pre-race prep.  I’m going to use this as a cautionary tale for my older daughter, who left a homework assignment at her friend’s house the other day and will have to turn it in late.

The final climb is 7K with pitches of 15%.  Kelly is rattling off a list of percentages too fast for me to follow ... could somebody have acted on my caffeine tip?

Ivan Basso, who started the day in 7th on the GC, has quit.  I’m picturing his father sighing and saying, “You always were a quitter, son.”  Or I guess he’s saying, “Sei sempre stato uno che molla, figliuolo.”

Ratto looks very calm.  Almost too calm.  He looks kind of torpid, slack.  He looks relaxed in a I-just-took-a-bunch-of-muscle-relaxants kind of way.

Phillipe Gilbert is reportedly not too far behind Ratto, but I have yet to see any footage of him.  Isn’t it interesting that when you read “Gilbert” you think “Zhil-BARE” and thus “cool Euro guy”?  But if it was pronounced with the G of “Gary” and to rhyme with “filbert” (that is, the “GILL-bert” of “Gilbert Grape”) you’d just laugh at him?  That’s the problem with being American.

I’m torn.  I like to see an underdog win, but not an underdog who drags his foot through corners on a bicycle like he’s some kind of BMX star.

They’re saying Basso retired due to hypothermia.  My question is, why did he get hypothermia but nobody else?  It’s not like a single one of them has any body fat.

So, it’s only 4K to go for Ratto, but he’s almost 9 minutes ahead of the GC group.  So the real action will start to heat up soon.  I wish the camera would forget about Ratto and show us what’s going on with Nibali and Horner.  I’ve only seen a glimpse of Nibali, in the leader’s jersey, and nothing of Horner.

For those of you just catching up, the 41-year-old American Chris Horner has won two stages of this Vuelta and worn the leader’s jersey on two occasions.  He had a lousy time trial and slipped to 4th overall, but he’s only 46 seconds behind Nibali.

Valverde is catching some of the pack shrapnel.  That would be a good name for a rock band.  Coming to the Palladium:  Pack Shrapnel with special guest Duck Husband!”

Raindrops on the camera lens.  Either that or I’m crying.

Nibali is right toward the front, and now I see Horner in the blue polka-dot jersey as he’s the KOM leader.  I came to this Vuelta pretty late and am just sorting out who’s who and wearing what.  

Robert Kiserlovski is pacing Horner, his RadioShack teammate.  Nibali is behind them everybody else is dropped!  Now Horner has taken up the lead and only Nibali can follow.  Finally, some real bike racing!  

Oh my God this is steep.  Horner’s cadence isn’t too high but he’s staying on top of his gear.  

Now Ratto is really dying.  But he’s only got 1K to go.

Horner looks comfortable.  His bars, incidentally, are a mile wide.  At least 46cm like I ride, except the modern Horner is a very narrow person.  His arms seem way out to the sides to reach the brake lever hoods.  I’ll bet that opens up his rib cage so his lungs can expand to their full Hindenburg size.

Ratto looks so miserable.  Hes’ on a 13% section and looks like he’ll keel over and die.

Horner and Nibali have caught and dropped Gilbert.

Ratto has 800 meters to go.  It seems like several minutes ago he had 1K to go.  For those of you with poor math skills, it’s seemingly taken him minutes to go 200 meters. This last bit will seem like an eternity to him.

A spectator is running alongside Ratto, having no trouble keeping up.  This despite the barriers, meaning the spectator will be publicly disemboweled later.  The last thing Ratto needs is a rowdy fan in a red anorak.”  Thus spake Declan.  Would some other color be better?  And do we need to be that precise about the type of jacket?

Horner still leads Nibali.  He looks good but the fact that he hasn’t attacked yet means he’s probably hurting real bad.  Horner never shows it, though.  He always wears the grin of a baby who’s just been given a lollipop.

Ratto is barely moving.  It’s a testament to his balance that he doesn’t tip over.  He’s gazing around like a tourist.  Now a little fist-pump.  He tries to wave to the crowd but his arm only comes up to waist-level.  He’s looking all around him, probably absorbing the moment for delectation later.  I don’t get to see him come over the line because of a sudden pop-up ad, per usual.

The ad has finally gone away but I missed the whole finish.  Now the Spanish-centric video crew is back to showing Valverde.  Stop that!  Forget Valverde.  He’s dead to me, the career doper.

Horner his still dragging Nibali up the hill.  Maybe he’s just hoping to stay with him today to move into second overall, and will attack him in a later stage.  But I think there are time bonuses in this race so at least there’ll be a nice sprint for second.

Nibali has taken the lead!  That’s a first.  Probably the first time he’s faced the wind all day.

Valverde is only like 40 seconds behind.  He’s clawing his way back, which is sad for anybody who appreciates fair play.

Nibali has dropped Horner!  They cross the line in second and third.  Horner gave up two seconds plus the time bonus, but he’s gained time on Roche and Valverde.  Speaking of Roche, where is he?  He hasn’t been shown or mentioned all day, despite starting the day in second overall, just 31 seconds behind Nibali.

It appears that Roche hasn’t crossed the line yet, though it’s been almost six minutes since Ratto finished.  I don’t know what the final gap was to Nibali and Horner, but Roche has surely lost serious time today.  Poor guy.  He seems to always fade toward the end of these stage races.

They’re showing a replay of Ratto’s victory.  He tried to pop a wheelie at the end, but the front tire only came like six inches off the ground, like when a dumb kid tries to do it.  Dang, you can’t even tell from my snapshot that the tire left the road.  I have no doubt Ratto could do a sweet wheelie when he’s not completely knackered.

They’re interviewing Ratto.  Declan impressively translates.  Yesterday we worked for Basso but today he sucks so it was a great situation.  It was raining.”  Here Declan apologizes because he can’t hear the translation through his earphone.  I guess he’s never been the wunderkind translator after all.  I felt very good.  I’ve been waiting for this for three years.  It was very important.  But I’m upset for Ivan Basso.”

Valverde lost 1:10 today.  He’s now in third, 1:42 behind Nibali and 52 seconds behind Horner.

Ratto gets his podium time.  The podium girls of this Vuelta are way hotter than the Tour de France ones, though the Tour of Alberta girls could give them a run for their money.  Note that I’m calling them “girls” not because I’m sexist, but because that’s what they’re called.  Nobody says “podium ladies” and I’m not going to get all Berkeley on you and call them “podium persons.”  And you can hate me for commenting on their good looks, but what else could I say?  That they look bad?  Or should I focus on their other qualities? “She has an intelligent look in her eye.”  Look, maybe she does, but it’s a pretty grainy video feed and I’m an honest kind of commentator.

Well, it looks like I may have to try to see more of this Veulta, with the final GC far from resolved.  See how much more exciting this race is than the Tour de France?  Depending on my conference call schedule this week, you may see another bulletin so keep your eyes peeled.  I have to go now ... I’m holding up breakfast!