Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Cycling Commentary - Why I Believe Chris Froome Is a Doper


I have been doing “biased blow-by-blow” bike race reports on this blog for over five years now. My gimmick is that, not being a professional journalist, I don’t have to hold my tongue. If I suspect a rider is doping, I’ll say so. And I don’t couch my aspersions carefully, like “Chris Froome is a rider I’m a bit suspicious of though I hasten to point out he’s never had an adverse analytical finding that was upheld in the final analysis by the UCI.” My blow-by-blow reports are written in real-time as I watch the race ... I don’t have time for lots of qualifications or to make my case as I go.

And who wants to read a lot of mealy-mouthed, timid, caveat-littered prose, anyway? If 90% of my readers think this or that rider is doping, they should have no problem with shorthand like “filthy doping scumbag.” And if they don’t like my flippant style and/or think a rider is clean whom I say is doped, they probably won’t (and shouldn’t) spend much time on my post anyway. This is all according to design. I laid out my overall biased blow-by-blow format at length in my first report and have included the “biased” caveat in every subsequent report. I have never claimed to be fair or responsible.

But as a friend asked recently in an email, what about those who do disagree with me? I’m tempted to dismiss them; after all, a blogger could drive himself crazy trying to please an audience that may be almost entirely hypothetical (and which in any case provides almost zero feedback). So my guiding principle with this blog is “screw the reader.”

All this being said, my recent Tour de France Stage 1 blow-by-blow report seems to have really struck a nerve and offended my friend, and he cautions me against writing stuff on my blog that could adversely affect people’s opinion of me. Meanwhile, I got an email from another friend saying how strange it was reading my Stage 1 post while hanging out at his brother’s house, because his brother still thinks Chris Froome is legit. My first thought was to get these people together to form a support group—maybe they could invite Ross Perot, and after the Tour they could all set out together to find out who really killed Nicole Brown Simpson.

But then I figured, why not write a post carefully laying out my case against Froome in a non-flippant manner, so that at least an inflamed reader might come to understand that my position is not just a wild hunch or totally unfounded character assassination? Sure, I might still get a few stubborn readers experiencing actual indignation at my position, but hopefully the more common reaction among those who still disagree would be more like, “I beg to differ, but I guess I can see how he’d think that.”

(Perhaps even Froome himself would shrug off this indictment; after all, he has been philosophical about this kind of thing before. Cyclingnews reported, “For those who expressed skepticism, Froome says he has empathy. ‘Cycling has its troubled history,’ [he says], ‘and being a multiple Tour winner comes with a level of suspicion and questions that need to be asked.’”)

A two-sided argument

In formal rhetoric, a one-sided argument only puts forth one’s own position, with no regard for opposing views. This can sometimes be a useful approach, such as when your audience already agrees with you and you’re trying to whip them into a lather, like at a political rally. My blow-by-blow reports are obviously one-sided. My goal with them isn’t to convince, but to entertain.

In contrast, this post will present a two-sided argument, which is where you anticipate your opponent’s view. In actuality I don’t have to guess, given the protracted email debate I had with my friend on this topic, running more than 10,000 words. I have attempted to consolidate his argument into four salient challenges to my position:
  • Why suspect Froome just because he’s “too successful”?
  • Doesn’t Froome’s consistency demonstrate legitimacy, as opposed to the erratic performances of, say, Floyd Landis?
  • The Lance era is over – why shouldn’t we trust the UCI’s decision on the salbutamol case, and base our assessment on Froome’s essentially clean slate?
  • How would a positive test for salbutamol suggest a wider doping program anyway?
I will address each point in turn. And because most of the dialogue out there in chat rooms and website reader comments is pure drivel, driven by a lot of emotion and aggression and not much reason, I aim with this post do be as logical and dispassionate as possible. I hope you find that refreshing.

So here I go. Before we dive in, let me be clear: of course I cannot prove that Froome is a doper. If nothing less than a giant body of irrefutable evidence is what you’re after, don’t even bother with this—go read something else. Second, Froome’s positive test for salbutamol is not the cornerstone of my case, though I will address it; as longtime readers know, I have believed Froome to be a doper all along, way before he got popped.

Why suspect Froome just because he’s “too successful”?

Much of the Froome-bashing in the cycling community centers around the notion that when something looks too good to be true, it probably is. The way Froome dominates the sport is, all by itself, somewhat suspect. But is it fair to accuse somebody of doping just because he wins a lot? This “he’s too good” innuendo, my friend contends, “besmirches Kobe [Bryant] and Mohammad [Ali] and Michael J [Fox] and [Michael] Phelps.”

Okay, first off, “[Fox]” above was just a joke. I know my friend meant Michael Jordan. I was just testing you … did you jump up and say, “Aha! Dana is deliberately misconstruing his friend’s argument so he can readily refute it! Classic straw man fallacy!”? Good, then … you passed!

My assessment of Froome is not just based on how much he wins, but on how he wins. Nothing about his grand tour victories looks convincing to me. Why? Simply because Froome, who is built like a climber and out-climbs the entire peloton, also has this uncanny ability to win individual time trials. This does not make sense. I raced for a good many years, and have watched bike races for decades, and most racers I know have always believed that you could be a good climber and a good time trialist, but no single human could be both the best climber and the best time trialist. Climbers thrive in the mountains due to their high power-to-weight ratio. This doesn’t help on the flats where you need more raw power and your mass actually helps you push through the wind. (If you wanted to prove this you could put me and pocket-climber Domenico Pozzovivo atop the Col du Lautaret and watch me roll away from him.)

(Here’s Pozzovivo being sawed off a small group on a flat road during the Tour last week, BTW.)

Then look at your best apparently clean time trialists: Fabian Cancellara, Tony Martin, Tom Dumoulin. Why do I say “apparently clean”? Not just because they haven’t tested positive, but because their performances are realistic. They win some TTs, they lose some, but moreover they’re almost never the best climbers in a race. The grand tour winners who have particularly excelled at time trials—Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, and Greg LeMond among them—usually just held their own in the mountains (or got dropped). So it is with Dumoulin, which is why I have so far given him the benefit of the doubt.

Here’s a tidbit: of the World Championships time trial winners throughout history, only three were of below-average height (i.e., less than 5’10”). All three of these were 5’9”. Two of the three, Serhiy Honchar and Santiago Botero, were subsequently caught doping. The third, Chris Boardman, was no climber—his race weight was 10 pounds higher than Froome’s, even though he’s shorter. Look here at Dumoulin: he’s got the build of a time trialist. And look at Froome: he so doesn’t.

Body type matters, and historically climbers and time trialists have been at opposite ends of the physique spectrum. This can make stage racing exciting. It’s unsurprising when a great climber like Nairo Quintana finishes outside the top 50 in a grand tour ITT. That’s what clean racing looks like. On the flip side, when a twiggy pocket climber like Froome can beat a time trial specialist like Cancellara or Tony Martin in a time trial, and also beat a pure climber like Mikel Landa or Pozzovivo in the mountains, that looks suspicious. What other riders could crush it in both disciplines? Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer, and Tyler Hamilton. Doper, doper, doper, doper, and doper. For Froome to lose the TT in this year’s Tour by only a second just doesn’t look right. It looks like he had some “help.”

Now, both of the friends who commented on my Stage 1 blow-by-blow have brought up Peter Sagan specifically. One wrote, “You built a perfect case for Sagan being, by your criteria, a doper. Too consistent. No one can win the green jersey that many times.” The other wrote, “I still like Sagan. If he ever has an irregular test or a non-standard test or a not-quite-normal-but-we’ll-allow-it test, I’ll be super bummed.” I like Sagan too, and I like to think he’s clean. So let’s look at his case to see how a very successful rider doesn’t automatically trigger my doper-alert response.

Certainly Sagan has won a lot of races. That said, he’s a great sprinter, and sprinters end up with a lot more opportunities and thus a lot more wins than stage racers, for the obvious reason that it takes three weeks to notch a single stage race victory.

But Sagan has also lost a lot, when you are counting the number of races he tried to win vs. the number he actually did. (That is to say, a stage racer might target two or three races a year, whereas a sprinter targets dozens.) I can’t be bothered tabulating Sagan’s win/lose ratio, but he doesn’t completely dominate in his métier, like Froome does. Sagan has failed seven times to win Milan-San Remo. He failed to win a single stage in the 2014 and 2015 Tours. He does appear to be human.

As for the green jersey, not all sprinters prioritize it over getting Tour stage wins. Once a sprinter falls sufficiently far behind in points, he’s probably going to focus on a few key stages he’s really confident he can win, and not worry so much about the green jersey. Meanwhile, a fair number of sprint specialists miss the time cuts on mountain stages and never make it to Paris. So Sagan’s string of six victories in that category is not unbelievable.

Meanwhile, Sagan is a very clever rider, and winning sprints takes a lot of tactical savvy. My best-effort assessment is that doping doesn’t make as much difference in one-day races as in stage races, so I’m less suspicious of sprinters in general. (Okay, I guess you could suspect Sagan of abusing Adderrall.) (Yes, that was a joke.)

Doesn’t Froome’s consistency demonstrate legitimacy, as opposed to the erratic performances of, say, Floyd Landis?

It’s easy to confuse consistency with believability. Yes, a rider whose performances are totally erratic and unpredictable may arouse reasonable suspicion. But unusual dominance should not be confused with consistency.

Any rider who can win a grand tour is consistent—that’s what a GC victory indicates. To get there requires massive preparation and sacrifice. For a rider to win a single grand tour in a single season—indeed, in his whole career—is a remarkable feat. But for a rider to absolutely dominate in the grand tours is incredibly difficult. Since joining Team Sky team in 2010, Froome has finished 12 grand tours. He won half of them, and finished on the podium in 11 of them. Not even Eddy Merckx had such an amazing run. Even if you gave Lance Armstrong back his victories, he wouldn’t have that astounding a track record. Froome’s achievement is all the more incredible when you consider that modern riders often build an entire season around a single grand tour, vs. the era Merckx, Hinault, and LeMond raced in, when riders were expected to get results throughout the season.

And what other riders, besides Froome, have won all three grand tours consecutively? Only Merckx and Hinault. Last year Quintana tried to do the Giro/Tour double (i.e. win both in the same season), but was so tired coming into the Tour he ultimately lost 15 minutes to Froome. In 2011 Contador tried to do the Giro/Tour double and (possibly due to riding clean, though this is only conjecture) managed only 5th at that Tour.

Froome hasn’t managed the Giro/Tour double yet, but last year he handily pulled off the Tour/Vuelta double which is exceedingly rare. (The last rider to do it was Hinault in 1978.) Froome’s unusual ability to recover from one grand tour in time to win the next is indeed suspicious, because recovery is exactly the challenge that EPO and blood bags help with. Again, Froome’s unprecedented consistency, in the absence of any other suspicious factors, doesn’t automatically suggest cheating … but combined with his improbable dominance in both climbing and time trialing, and his positive drug test, it doesn’t look good.

Now let’s look at whom Froome has beaten in some of these grand tours: Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Andres Kloden, and Denis Menchov, all of whom are convicted dopers. Since EPO hit the scene, what ostensibly clean rider (by which I mean a rider who hasn’t tested positive) has won the Tour de France with any regularity? Until Froome, no clean rider since Miguel Indurain (23 years ago) won more than a single Tour. This isn’t because Froome’s competitors are weak, and this isn’t “erratic” performance on their part. In the modern era, to win even one grand tour requires perfect preparation, great health, a solid team, and some luck. I can believe in Cadel Evans’s Tour win because he was so good for so long, and had so many near misses until finally all the planets lined up and he managed to win.

Froome, on the other hand, won last year’s Vuelta despite (by his account) suffering major asthma problems. And he won this year’s Giro with a crazy 80-kilometer solo breakaway that erased over two weeks of relatively poor riding that hadn’t even put him on the virtual podium. So he can be erratic, too.

See my next post for part two of this polemic, when I’ll cover the last two arguments my friend presented:
  • The Lance era is over – why shouldn’t we trust the UCI’s decision on the salbutamol case, and base our assessment on Froome’s essentially clean slate?
  • How would the positive test for salbutamol suggest a wider doping program anyway?
For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2018 Tour de France Stage 16


Of course there are many ways for you to enjoy the Tour de France, or at least try. My blog has the distinction of whimsy: if I feel like casting aspersions on this or that rider, I will. Professional announcers and sportswriters obviously aren’t allowed to do that. I’m sure they bite their tongues a lot because of a certain team that likes to dope. So read on for my biased blow-by-blow of Stage 16, Carcasonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon, which includes two Category 4 climbs, a Cat 2, and two Cat 1s toward the end. It’s not a summit finish, but the last descent is steep and only 10 kilometers. An important stage!

Tour de France 2018 Stage 16, Carcasonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon

As I join the action, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) has just stacked! I missed the actual footage because I am making pour-over coffee. What a bitch that is. Anyway, Gilbert looks like he’s okay—while getting back on his bike he actually gave the camera a thumbs-up. Oh, cool, an instant replay. Check it out!

Now, for you bike racing newbs, it’s not “GIL-bert.” It’s “zhil-BEAR.” So just stop it with the Gilbert Grape jokes. He gets some attention from his team car. Looks like some pretty painful road rash.

So there was some strange action earlier: a bunch of farmers went on strike and blocked the race. I’m not making this up. The police were nailing the protestors with pepper spray, and several riders were accidently sprayed, including the yellow jersey (Geraint Thomas, Team Sky) and current second place overall rider Chris Froome (also Sky). Tom Brailsford, ever vigilant, has cried foul and accused the farmers of conspiring to hamper his Sky team. Yes, I made that up, though Brailsford is just the kind of tool who would do such a thing. Hey Brailsford, you and me, let’s go! I’ll meet you at the flagpole!

The leaders have 53 kilometers to go and are climbing the Cat 1 Col de Menté (which translates Cool Mint). (No it doesn’t.) We’ve got three leaders, including George Hincapie. LOL! Just kidding! I’m not that old … I can still keep the names straight, though my footage is all in French. So the three leaders are Warren Barguil (Team Fortuneo-Samsic), Robert Gesink (Lotto NL-Jumbo), and Damiano Caruso (BMC Racing). They’ve got 17 seconds over current King of the Mountains Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) and some other dudes. There is a breakaway of more than 40 guys a bit behind them. At what point do you call that the peloton, and declare that the GC leaders are off the back?

I think the leaders are pretty tired from the Giro d’Italia. They keep letting these giant breakaways get waaaaay up the road.

Here’s Gesink. I’ve always liked him. He doesn’t win much, but he once broke his femur. That means if we ever met I could say, “Hey, I broke my femur too!” and we’d have something to talk about. We could compare physical therapy stories, etc.

Now, before we get too far into the action, I do want to pause here for a moment and apologize to Team Sky. I  have dealt with them unfairly. In my report of the last stage, I wrote that …

Okay, Barguil is dropped. Gesink and Caruso are just too strong for him.

Anyway, I wrote in my last report, “Team Sky has the weirdest, ugliest costumes ever for this Tour.” Actually, I didn’t write that, I just realized, looking back. I only thought it. But I’ll apologize now for even thinking it. The jerseys are ugly, but it turns out it’s for a good reason: there’s some sea creature depicted on their jerseys as part of some nature conservation species protection thing. I am totally in support of such philanthropy, even if it’s just a way for the filthiest, most dishonest team in the sport (perhaps in all of sports) to try to placate the public and burnish their image.

Gesink and Caruso are 1 kilometer from the submit of this minty penultimate climb. They’ve got only 25 seconds over the chasing group, though, so they’re probably doomed. It’s a long way (over 47 kilometers) from the finish.

Out of nowhere, Alaphillipe catches Caruso and Gesink and takes the KOM points at the summit, and then totally dusts everybody on the descent. Balls like King Kong, that guy! NOOICE!

So, in case you’ve been ignoring this Tour, maybe nursing a World Cup hangover, let me fill you in on the race thus far. Froome enters the rice totally fried from his extraterrestrial performance in the Giro d’Italia, where he rode poorly for the first couple weeks of the race and then did like a 50-kilometer solo breakaway and destroyed everybody. So yeah, he’s super tired now.

Did you catch that, just now? That sophisticated literary technique I employed, that you’ll never get from mainstream sportswriters? Yes, it was irony. I stated that Froome was totally fried, which is of course absurd. He’s never fried, really. He’s far, far too lubed for that. Only bad luck can keep him from winning his fifth Tour.

He’s actually had some bad luck in this year’s race, crashing a couple times and losing time on the flatter stages. He sits 1:39 back from his teammate Thomas, a track pursuit rider who reinvented himself as a stage racer (with a little help from the Sky doctor) and then reinvented himself again as a climber, winning the brutal stage over the Hors-Categorie Col de la Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez climbs. The media is pretending there is a rivalry between Thomas and Froome, a tug-of-war over team leadership, but that’s all nonsense. Froome is slated to win this Tour. It’s practically written into his contract.

Third on GC is Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), eleven seconds behind Froomestrong. On paper it looks like Dumoulin could be a strong contender, because there’s still a time trial coming up and he’s the reigning world champ in that discipline. That being said, Froome—a reedy, willowy, ghastly, gaunt, ungainly climber—has the uncanny ability to beat time trial specialists at their own game when required. Also, Dumoulin—whom I suppose is clean—is probably going to crack at some point. Fate does not jam. Sky and Froome do not lose.

The rest of the GC is in tatters. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) crashed out with a broken vertebra, having stacked four kilometers from the summit of Alpe d’Huez and then having valiantly chased back to limit his losses. Man, that guy has a high pain threshold. Riche Porte (BMC Racing) also crashed out, on Stage 9 (the same stage he crashed out last year). Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First – Drapac), last year’s Tour runner-up, also crashed out. Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) has lost a bunch of time, maybe due to crashes or maybe just being at the wrong end of a split or two. So despite not having the yellow jersey yet, Froome has caught a lot of lucky breaks in this Tour.

The GC group is on the descent. There are still five Sky riders in this group, notwithstanding the four categorized climbs the race has gone over and this being the third week of the Tour. This is simply because Sky management is really good at recruiting, according to one of my online correspondents. It really has nothing to do with doping. This is not US Postal all over again. Don’t worry, we’re all good!

Everybody is doing a really long descent so there’s not that much to report, other than my dismay at some of the French TV ads I’m watching. It appears that, notwithstanding the success of the self-help book French Women Don’t Get Fat, there does now seem to be a market in France for weight-loss products such as ready-made frozen lite dinners and, bizarrely, this vibrating fat-melter:

There are also lots of ads for over-the-counter pharmaceuticals whose purpose I cannot grasp, my French being too poor. And there appear to be purpose-specific shaving creams. One is apparently for shaving your chest. Another ad shows this guy with the Don Johnson stubble admiring his reflection, then squirting the shaving gel into his hand, and then—incongruously—admiring his reflection again with the stubble still intact. So … what did he shave? His palms? Hmmmmm.

So the two leaders have extended their gap to over a minute on the chase group. Very impressive! The GC group is hovering at a little under 12 minutes back, Sky lined out on the front tirelessly. A bunch of dudes who fell off the breakaway are now absorbed like the disgusting fluids that collect in that spongy little pad in a Styrofoam pack of Tyson chicken parts.

Movistar comes to the front, perhaps looking to set up Mikel Landa or Quintana for an attack.

The scenery footage has gotten a lot better in recent years. I think they have multiple helicopters now. Or maybe as I age I’m just more receptive to the sublimity of nature and so forth.

The leaders have 20 kilometers to go. They’re at the base of the Cul du Portillon, a fairly beastly Category 1 climb. The gap to the GC group has dropped to about 10 minutes. At some point Caruso and Gesink were caught by the chasers, probably during one of the commercials. Man, there are a lot of them. Here’s the profile of the climb:

Barguil detonates! He’s going backward now. So is Mathias Frank (AG2R La Mondiale), who has surely done a lot of work today for team leader Romain Bardet, who sits 5th on GC, 3:21 back. When a domestique works hard for a teammate and then blows up and gets dropped, that looks clean to me. Just sayin’.

Man, Gesink is really drilling it on the front!

He’s got a gap now with Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida). Back in the field, Astana and Movistar are moving their guys up into position. Maybe we’ll get some good attacks here.

OMG, my brother, who is visiting, just clocked his head on this jutting-out ceiling bit above the stairs down into the home office! My dad once said, “If this were my house I would put foam rubber there.” I replied, “It’s my house and I just watch where I’m going.” No, I didn’t say that. I wanted to. Anyway, my brother’s head is fine apparently. Still, I’m going to outfit him with a helmet for the rest of his visit. I’m taking the time to explain all this because my Internet race feed has gone away so there’s really nothing else I can report on at the moment. Dang, it’s not coming back! I’m starting to get worried.

There’s some ad that requires the Flash player, which I don’t have, which stops my feed cold. When I re-launch the page I have to watch American commercials, which are even worse than French ones.

My feed is back, and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is off the front solo!

Behind him, Alaphilippe dukes it out with Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo). The giant earlier breakaway has mostly exploded, with maybe six guys left in it.  

Yates is rocking black socks with white shoes. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Actually, I am: I don’t like it. It’s completely backwards. But he’s really haulin’ ass, and I like that!

Now it’s another American commercial, this time for a Star Wars themed Disney Cruise Line cruise. The end of civilization is officially here. The center cannot hold.

So, Yates has only 22 seconds over Alaphilippe as he crosses the summit, but it’s downhill all the way to the finish. It’s gonna be a nail-biter because Alaphilippe is a great descender. If Alaphilippe catches Yates, who’s the better sprinter?

Imagine the pressure on these guys. Alaphilippe cuts a perfect line through a sharp curve, meaning he comes this close to grazing a rock guardrail.

OMG! Yates stacks!

Alaphilippe is in the lead now, tucking in a way that presents maximum risk to his giant testicles.

Yates isn’t that far behind Alaphilippe, considering. I’m amazed he (apparently) wasn’t hurt, crashing at that speed. Presumably he has a massive amount of adrenaline to work with now, anyway. He’s 10 seconds behind, and 16 seconds ahead of the chasers. These guys are flying down this thing, 80 kph (almost 50 mph).

Jon Izagirre Insausti (Bahrain-Merida) has caught Yates. Alaphilippe is only 1.7 kilometers from the finish and is hammering along the flats now.

He flashes the camera a grin. He’s under the 1K banner now and looks to have this in the bag! He hammers toward the line and starts waving to the crowd. Big old grin. Keeps looking over his shoulder like they always do—“Is this for real, do I really have this?” He does! He’s got the win!

A few others come across, and then a bit behind them is Yates. He must be sooooo bummed. I wonder if this is mixed with relief that he wasn’t hurt. Probably not … that’s just me being a parent. I don’t enjoy watching the descents like I used to. I used to watch and think, “I could do that. I could hang with those guys on that downhill.” Now I think, “Oh, be careful you guys!”

A fellow rider congratulates Alaphilippe. I wonder if they mind the armpit stench.

It looks like the GC group is over the summit without any fireworks. There’s a guy whose job it is to decide what footage is worth showing. (I know this because I once had that job, for ESPN covering the Coors Classic.) Evidently nobody in the GC group was doing any attacking, so this person decided to use the footage of the stage leaders on the descent. Good call, since that really was riveting.

So, a cycling fan who hasn’t raced, or a commentator who is going senile, might fault riders like Dumoulin and Bardet for not attacking Team Sky on the final climb. “They’re not taking enough initiative and they’re just letting Sky win,” this untutored rube or age-addled pundit might say. This is completely false. It’s one thing to know what you have to do, but quite another to actually do it. How can you attack Sky when they’re setting such a high pace you’re almost going out the back?

The GC group comes through. It’s down to 14 guys, and four of them are Sky riders. That’s not suspicious or anything, though. I’m sure Team Sky just tries harder, eh? They just have more heart. They care more. They’re not as lazy as the other teams. Uh-huh. Anyhow, needless to say there is no change in the GC from today’s stage.

They’re interviewing Alaphilippe. “I almost didn’t start today,” he explains. “My wife called from home, and it seems our cat was lost this morning. She’s having her folks stay with her while I’m gone, and the cat got a little spooked. She was a stray, you see, and very skittish. So my wife was biking all over the neighborhood yelling ‘Freya, Freya! Neighbors would ask, ‘Did you lose a pet? And she’d reply, ‘No, I’m just talking to myself. Anyway, I was all set to fly home to help in the search, but then the cat turned up. She was hiding under the stairs. I’m so glad I stayed and raced because this is a beautiful victory.”

To be honest, I’m not at all sure I translated that correctly. In fact, I guessed quite a bit. Okay, full disclosure: I couldn’t understand a word he said. As I said before, my French is poor, and Alaphilippe was mumbling a bit and I have the volume turned low because the family is sleeping. That thing with the cat? That actually happened to me. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to riding the Tour.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

From the Archives - How to Be a UCSB Student


It’s not back-to-school time yet, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the younger generation, it’s they they’re organized and plan ahead. So as a service to them, and because it’s a slow news day, here’s a college how-to guide from my archives. Enjoy please enjoy.

(A note on this post: it’s quaint to consider the advice I gave on how to kill time back in 1989, long before the Internet.)

How To Be a UCSB Student - January 9, 1989

Chapter One: Attending Classes

Part One: The Lecture

Don’t leave your apartment until five minutes before the lecture starts. That way, you won’t be the first one to show up. Showing up late has several advantages: 1) you can choose a seat in the back without losing face with the professor, 2) you can choose a seat next to a beautiful girl without looking conspicuous, since it will be one of a handful of seats left, and 3) you waste the minimum amount of time in class, leaving more time for what life’s really about: hanging out.

(A note to this guide: I have arbitrarily assumed the reader is male. If you are female, swap the pronouns and change “beautiful girl” to “gorgeous guy,” etc.)

Pick up a copy of the school paper, the Daily Nexus (which for some reason everybody calls the Daily Necro) on the way to the lecture so you’ll have something to do. Granted, the Nexus is a rag if there ever was one, but still better than the lecture. Hasn’t anybody told these professors it’s pointless to lecture children? That’s like, Parenting 101.

Always bring your notebook. It’s amazing how many notes your neighbor will take if you’re setting a good example by scribbling away like a stenographer on speed. Of course, you don’t have to take actual notes; random doodling will do. If you’re the artistic type, draw; if you’re like me, meaningless scribbles, grids, and designs will do. Or, you can keep a running tabulation of the professor’s tics. Here’s an excerpt from my notebook this morning: 
  • Number of times arm tangled in microphone cord:  3
  • Number of apologies (e.g., for overhead projector being broken):  8
  • Number of times repeated the same thing, broken out by transitional phrase: 
    • “As I’ve said . . .” 6 
    • “Again . . .” 8 
    • “Once again . . .” 4 
    • “To repeat . . .” 2 
    • “If you will…” 3 
    • “As you know . . .” 4 
  • Number of times made the following announcement: “Please, those of you in the front, move in so that the people standing can have a seat. Otherwise the fire marshal will come in and kick them out. So just move in closer. I know this lecture hall is big enough.”: 2
Always remember: if you must sleep, don’t snore. You might wake up your neighbor.

Part 2: The Foreign Language Class

Unlike with the lecture, show up to this class good and early. Those back row seats fill up quick. Don’t worry about the professor getting offended; he’s outside smoking and will arrive late. He’ll never know you chose to sit in the back.

If possible, sit behind a tall person. That way, you minimize your chances of being called on (i.e., looking stupid). Or, employ the “zone defense”: sit next to a loud-mouthed teacher’s pet. Since foreign language teachers call on one region of the classroom at a time, you could escape.

Whenever called on, dodge the complex grammatical construction being tested. For example, if the teacher asks the foreign equivalent of “Have you been to a restaurant yet with your roommates?” you can avoid the tricky past-tense structure by responding, “I don’t have any roommates.” And remember, in a pinch ,“I don’t know” or “I can’t recall,” in the foreign tongue of course, is better than nothing.

During downtime (i.e., whenever you’re not being called on), devise strategies for sitting next to the hottest babe next time. Example: remember what seat she’s in today, and take that seat tomorrow, forcing her take an adjacent seat. (Bonus: she’s bound to notice you!)

Part 3: The Discussion Section

For once, you don’t have to worry about the professor calling on you. There’s only the T.A., who’s as anxious to reduce student/teacher impacts as you are. Still, choose a seat in the back. That way you can check out the ladies without craning your neck and looking conspicuous. As with the lecture, show up late, so that you can choose your seat according to where the best girls have situated.

The discussion section was created so that students with questions about the lecture could ask them freely in the more open atmosphere of the smaller class. However, under no circumstances should you actually ask any questions. First of all, the ill-prepared T.A. will only confuse you, and second, your students will hate you for it since it could mean a full‑length section. If nobody asks anything, the T.A. may run out of things to say and let everybody go early. This is the best-case scenario for all concerned.

Part 4: The English Class

This class is an hour and forty minutes long. No advice I could give you could possibly prepare you for what you are about to undertake. Only supreme mental discipline can prevent you from going completely mad.

Never, never look at the digits on your wristwatch. The seconds will seem to be moving in slow motion, as though the liquid crystal were starting to freeze. Do not strike the watch! This is only an optical illusion. Also, don’t look at the clock on the wall. It will seem to have stopped, which is demoralizing.

Try not to think about your situation, about how much time you have left, or how bored you are. Try to think positively: “When I get out of here, the first thing I’m going to do is run around. I’ll find a big field to roll around in and celebrate my freedom!” or, “If I get through this, the rest of my life will be gravy. Just gravy, man.”

Keep your fingernails long. That way, when you’re on the verge of falling asleep for the fiftieth time, you can press them into your palm for an extra few moments of (albeit excruciating) consciousness.

Chapter Two: Attending Parties

Part One: The Party Goal

With a few exceptions, parties pretty much mean the same thing to everybody: mass consumption of alcoholic beverages, accompanied by half-assed socializing and ear-splitting music. But every true party animal knows that to be successful at partying is just like being successful at anything: you must first have a goal. Some people announce their party goals to friends, while some keep it to themselves. Either way, a basic party goal is something like this: “I’m gonna get so f—ing wasted, they’ll have to haul my ass outta there on a gurney!”

Now, I should probably come clean about something: I don’t actually party myself. I just ride my bike really, really hard. It’s cheaper this way, and I don’t vomit so often.

So how do I know anything about partying? I interview the experts. An interview is very easy to get, because party animals love to brag. I don’t even need to ask any pointed questions. On Monday morning I’ll be like, “Dude, how was yer weekend?” and my classmate will be all, “Dude, I was so wasted! Big kegger on DP [Del Playa, the fashionable street in Isla Vista, the student ghetto]. Cops showed up and I was so blitzed I couldn’t even find my bike. So I’m  haulin’ ass outta there on foot and halfway home I’m like, damn, my pants are on backwards!”

Part Two: Training

Training is important in partying. If your tolerance is low, you won’t stand a chance in most drinking games. Certain games, like “quarters”, actually require skill, so the more parties you attend, the higher level you can achieve. Before a three‑day weekend, you should party on Tuesday and Wednesday and maybe even Thursday, to make sure your throat and liver are properly toned. Tapering is a good idea: take Friday off and do something relaxing, like studying or sleeping. That way, you’ll be fresh for the big event. This is what I’m told, anyway.

Part Three: The big night

You don’t want to be weighed down with a lot of food on the night of a big party, because that’ll make it harder to get drunk. Also, more food in the body increases the likelihood of vomiting and of course your output. So load up on chips and stuff, maybe Steak-ums if you must. Travel light to the party; the more jackets, wallets, and jewelry you bring, the more likely you are to lose them or get them ripped off.

Part Four: Being a “Party Animal”

There is plenty of room for self‑expression here. There’s no “right” way to party—just be yourself, only drunk. But don’t overdo it: having to get your stomach pumped is a real downer, and inconsiderate to whoever has to take you to the ER.

Part Five: The Day After

There is, I’m told, no greater bonding experience than being hung over with your friends and neighbors. Stand in a really long line for a greasy brunch place and recount your high jinks loudly enough to be overheard (but not too loud—remember, everyone’s head is pounding!). If you can’t remember what happened the night before, just make something up. I mean, who’s gonna fact-check you?

Part Six: Trophies

In addition to the immediate gratification of partying, you can have material reminders of your glorious night. Beer bottles, wine bottles, rum bottles, and beer cans can be displayed on the windowsill as a statement: “I party hard, and I party often. Come over any time.” If your beer intake is enough to render a mere beer bottle unexciting, just keep the bottles with fancy labels, like “Smirnoff” or “80 proof.”

I have to admit that, although I’m perfectly fine being sober at night and non-hung-over in the morning, I do kind of envy those trophies. But it would be silly to display beer bottles I snaked from somebody’s recycling. So I collect souvenirs from my long bike rides instead. Botts Dots, knocked loose by trucks or fast cars, make excellent trophies from the road, as they are unique to the highway atmosphere without being as messy to carry as roadkill. I have so many Botts Dots now, I can afford to discriminate and keep only the best specimens. Criteria include completeness (absence of chips or cracks), finish, and rarity. A mint, Ohio‑made Ray‑O‑Lite with white and red reflectors is a prime example of a rare find, as it requires the cyclist to ride the wrong way up a highway exit (as I did the other day). I think it’s pretty cool I had the nerve to do that—while stone sober, no less!

Chapter Three: Blowing Off School

Part One: Getting Bored

This step is really easy. In fact, I’m sure your professor will be glad to help. I know mine are.

Part Two: Getting Distracted

Even in the drabbest of classroom environments, a reasonably intelligent student can find distractions. Take that wall over there. Isn’t that texture interesting? And there’s always graffiti. I have whiled away countless minutes pondering “MARK E. IS HELLA GOOD TO ME.” But be only a consumer of graffiti. Getting Distracted does not include writing on desks or walls. I mean, everything really profound has already been scrawled. What makes you think you could contribute anything to the canon?

There is no better place to lose track of a lecture than UCSB. Why? I can answer that in one word: babes. I don’t leer or stare or stalk, mind you, but who wouldn’t appreciate the ladies at this school? Even if I honestly try to pay attention in class, I absolutely cannot resist gazing upon my classmates. This doesn’t mean rubbernecking, though—not at UCSB. At this blessed school, no matter where you look yet another fabulous babe is showcasing her beauty, as if solely for your benefit. This is true in the Liberal Arts department, anyway.

Part Three: Falling Behind

How can you blow off school without falling behind? After all, if you keep up with your classes, you’re really not blowing off anything. You’re just managing your time well, which is totally lame.

If you’re somehow managing to keep up anyway, it never hurts to skip class and go play Robotron at the pool hall.

There’s more to falling behind than skipping class, but not much more. The other step is to not study. If you can’t resist cracking the spine on a fresh textbook, just don’t buy it in the first place. You can save several hundred dollars per quarter this way.

Do cram for your exams, though. Being fried from Dead Week is a quintessential part of the college experience and you won’t want to miss it.

Part Four: Sleep

Although you can get plenty of sleep in class, being tired should be no problem. If your hobby doesn’t wear you out, its aftermath will (be it a hangover, or sheer fatigue). That’s why you need to take a nap every afternoon. Now, there is a right way and a wrong way to take a nap. Closing the window shades, disrobing, getting in bed, and crawling under the covers is the wrong way to nap. This is just too deliberate. Better to flop down on the nearest article of furniture, fully clothed, and pass out. If you aren’t tired enough for this technique, you need to exercise vigorously or drink heavily beforehand, depending on your particular bent.

Go to bed late. That doesn’t mean staying up studying, either. Use your imagination. Make phone calls. Watch TV. Listen to the stereo. Read something worthless, like the school paper. If you can’t waste the evening hours alone, friends are a great help. No matter how lazy you think you are, you’re bound to have an even lazier friend. If you find yourself wired at two in the morning with none of your homework done, you have achieved the highest college calling: you are hanging out.

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Saturday, July 7, 2018

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2018 Tour de France Stage 1 & GC Preview

NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.


Traditional coverage of bicycle racing refrains from subjective judgments; legit journalists don’t use terms like “travesty,” “mockery,” and “filthy doping douchebag” like I do. They can’t; I can. And do. In that vein, read on for my coverage of the first stage of this year’s Tour de France, a sporting event that promises the same levels of spectacle, and credibility, as professional wrestling.

Tour de France 2018 Stage 1 – Noirmoutier-En-L’Ïle to Fontenay-Le-Comte

As I join the action, there are just 21 kilometers to go. What the hell happened? Last night steephill.tv said the finish would be at about 7:30 a.m. PDT. This morning it’s saying the finish will be at 6:50. I guess the racers are making better time than expected. This is surely due to the new policy of the UCI around doping, which is to not actually police it whatsoever.

A couple of guys are off the front. They have 30 seconds on the field. It’s Jerome Cousin (Direct Energie) and Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Group Gobert). Believe it or not, I didn’t make up the name of that second guy’s team. It’s really called that.

My coverage is in French. Steephill.tv isn’t even bothering to pretend there are free English language feeds anymore. After a bunch of ads in French, the lead is down to 28 seconds with 16.6 km to go.

Favorites for this stage would obviously include Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Peter Sagan (Bora Hansgrohe). Cavendish is chasing Eddy Merck’s record of Tour stage wins which is something like 134. Sagan is chasing the green jersey, and possibly some podium girls later. (It’s a good thing for him he got his butt-grabbing scandal out of the way years ago so his reputation has had a chance to heal.)

Now, if you haven’t been following all the pre-Tour hype, I can’t blame you. The Tour is traditionally the most boring of the grand tours because Team Sky always brings its best team, and its best doctors, to the race. This year, the only challenge to their dominance was the race organizer, ASO, trying to keep Chris Froome from racing. This is because he finally got caught doping, having tested positive (which in bike racing parlance is now “adverse analytical finding,” as though that’s anything but a positive drug test) after “winning” last year’s Vuelta. So the UCI decided to make things smoother for everybody and just let Froome off the hook, at WADA’s behest. “It’s okay, he had twice the legal limit but his team explained everything,” the UCI told the media. “They submitted 1,500 pages of documentation, which we’re not letting anybody see, but it’s all good.” Was it 1,500 pages of banknotes?

So, I may not watch the climbing stages of this Tour because more than ever I can’t bear to look at Froome. This flat stage should favor other riders, though of course anything can happen. Wow, as if to prove my point, there was just a big crash!

Well, maybe not so big. It doesn’t seem to have slowed down the peloton, other than the famous douchebag Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), who was not stripped of his 2017 Milan-San Remo victory despite obviously cheating.

The field is back together with 8 km to go. They’re heading toward the finish because, well, where else would they go? Back to their team vans because this sport is almost too lame to even bother with? I couldn’t blame them.

Pierre Latour is off the back, which is insult to injury since his own name is spelled wrong. Any junior high French student can tell you it’s Letour.

With 6 km to go, Quick-step Floors and Astana are massing on the front, setting up Phillippe Gilbert and … well, I guess Astana has a sprinter. How would I know? I barely watch this sport anymore!

Hmm, here’s a weird caption on the footage: “Christopher Froome Team Sky Chute.” Is this like a live doping tracker, and he’s shooting up at this very moment? Or does it mean he crashed? (Yes, “chute” means “fall.”)

I don’t see any of that footage, which would of course be glorious. Is it wrong to wish that on anybody? Of course not. I don’t want him dead or anything, but an injury would be splendid. It wouldn’t take much to sideline him. He dropped out of the 2014 Tour de France because one of his fingers got scuffed or something, while later in that Tour Alberto Contador kept racing despite having a broken fricking leg. Anyway, yeah, a Froome injury would balance things out a bit and possibly deprive a known doper from stealing another race.

Okay, here’s some Froome footage. It does look like he either crashed or just really doesn’t do a good job of keeping his jersey clean.

With 2 km to go, the peloton is still all together. The footage keeps switching to the riders who are off the back. I can’t really figure that out.

It’s 1 km to go! Quick-step drills it on the front with some guy in a national champ jersey, perhaps , in second.

And Marcel Kittel (Katusha Alpecin) is going for the line! But then again, who isn’t?! He fades, and now it’s between reigning world champion Sagan and some Quick-step guy. Wow, the Quick-step guy is just flat-out blowing Sagan away in the sprint!

It’s Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and he’s got the win! 

Man, he’s kind of funny looking. He’s doing the I-just-woke-up-and-am-yawning victory salute, which is a new one.

Marcel Kittel has to settle for third place.

Wow, this peloton is in tatters. Lots of little groups rolling in one by one, perhaps sorted according to how lubed they are. The clean riders will be through in a few minutes.

Here are a couple of EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale riders. That team, in addition to obviously having the least snappy name in the sport, has the ugliest uniforms. It’s like what the Energizer Bunny would look like if we dropped acid. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but neither do the costumes (I dare not call them “kits”).

So the big news today is that Froome finished in a little group like 50 seconds behind the winner. What matters, of course, is how he finished relative to the other GC favorites. I can tell you he was near Richie Porte (Team BMC).

Wow, the ads here are just endless. I’m waiting for the podium ceremony because I want to see how professional these podium girls are. Bike racers should not wear beards. Beards trap too much sweat and saliva. If these ladies can kiss Gaviria’s beard without wincing, I will be very impressed. Unfortunately we’re back to the coverage now and it’s just some dippy Frenchman giving a needless post-race analysis in his silly, impenetrable language.

Oh no, how did I miss grabbing a snapshot of this? Gaviria just got his podium celebration, and the podium girls didn’t kiss him! They just sort of gave him a little wave! Either that or I missed it. Okay, here’s his yellow jersey presentation:

I think she handled that pretty well. She’s a real pro.

OMG, is that Merckx standing there?

Let’s assume it is. That’s pretty cool, though it would be even cooler if he boycotted the race on principle like Bernard Hinault is. (No, I don’t know that he is, but I don’t see him here so I’ll assume that’s what is going on.) Now Gaviria gets his green jersey.

It’s hard to tell from this photo, but she’s not actually kissing him. She’s whispering in his ear, “You really need to shave. It’s more hygienic and also more aerodynamic.”

So here’s another photo of Froome, this time (obviously) at the finish.

Judging by his elbow, he certainly did crash. My god those are ugly jerseys. Is that some kind of sea creature depicted there? I saw this jersey earlier and couldn’t figure out what team it was. Bizarre.

Now Gaviria is having a little cuddle with his new stuffed lion. You know what? I think I like this guy.

This is Gaviria’s first Tour, and surely this evening some teammate, or perhaps several fellow riders, will say, “Uh, dude, you’re not supposed to hang on to the stuffed lion. It’s bad for your rep. You need to find some kid to give it to, pronto. People are saying—not me, mind you, I’m cool with it—but people are saying you’re kind of a mietje [wuss].”

And now, because my actual coverage was so brief and I’d meant to do this anyway (albeit as a separate blog post), here is my analysis of the upcoming general classification battle.

GC pre-race analysis – the top favorites

Christopher Froome, Team Sky - Froome, the best doper of the modern sport, looks unbeatable coming off his decidedly “not normal” performance in the Giro which was more graphically unrealistic than anything Lance Armstrong ever did. His most powerful secret weapon this year is his ability to test positive without being suspended. No other rider in history has managed this feat so blatantly. Still, Froome is still arguably, putatively human and might actually be tired after winning the Giro, so this could be his year to finally lose. He’s still the odds-on favorite and when the press tries to find reasons to doubt him, they have been settling for mentioning threats to his physical security because the French cycling fans are so angry. Froome has tried to placate them, saying, “I love France. The Tour is the most beautiful race in the world.” He should have left it there, but he added, “Nevertheless, being what I am, there is no other Troy for me to burn.” (Note: I added this last part because I think it was implied even if he’s incapable of being so eloquent.)

Rigoberto Uran, EF Education First - Drapac p/b Cannondale - Uran was 2nd in last year’s Tour by a very slim margin. He is a great time trialist. He has been 2nd twice in the Giro. For some reason everybody underestimates him. Maybe it’s because he’s not Froome.

Romain Bardet, Ag2R La Mondiale – Having finished 2nd and 3rd in past Tours, Bardet was 3rd in this year’s Criterium du Dauphiné, which is promising. But then, the French just don’t seem able to win the Tour anymore. Speaking to the press, Bardet was philosophical about his limited prospects in the GC battle. “Cycling is basically Froome’s bitch,” he said. “I hope he eventually gets bored with it and moves on to something else, like insider trading maybe.” (He may or may not have actually said this. I might have mistranslated him, or perhaps he didn’t actually even open his mouth.)

Richie Porte, Team BMC – Porte is a great doper, who really learned a lot at Sky. He won this year’s Tour de Suisse so it looks like his pharmaceutical program is going pretty well. Still, he seems to have problems holding it all together. His best Tour finish was 5th in 2016, and he dropped out last year. He dropped out of the Giro in 2015. In the 2014 Tour, he took over as leader after Froome crashed and bruised one of his nipples. Porte seemed to buckle under the pressure (of being the team leader, not of having a teammate with a bruised nipple). As team leader he finished a very disappointing 23rd place. Still, he is a strong rider, often eerily, not-normally strong, so he’s got a solid shot here.

Tom Dumoulin, Sunweb – Dumoulin is of course last year’s Giro d’Italia winner, and did great at this year’s Giro as well. He looked poised to win again, but in the end couldn’t handle Froome’s doping prowess. Assuming both riders are tired from the Giro, only Froome will be able to ride well; Dumoulin, who appears to be clean, is probably going to get crushed. Only his youth could save him: he was born in, I shit you not, November 1990. DAMN do I feel old.

Vincenzo Nibali, Bahrain-Merida - Nibali has a good team, has won all three grand tours, won this year’s Milan-San Remo, and maybe didn’t totally kill himself at the Giro (placing 5th).  He’s highly motivated to beat Froome after their very public spat in the 2015 Tour, when Froome whined post-race like a little bitch after Nibali won the stage. (Click here for details.)

Nairo Quintana, Movistar - Quintana has been on the Tour podium three times, and won a stage of this year’s Tour de Suisse. He has won both of the other Grand Tours. He also comes from a poor farming family so he has lots of character. Unfortunately, character is no match for doping products, and Quintana lost more than 15 minutes to Froome in last year’s Tour. I am really rooting for Quintana because he has had the decency to speak out (albeit mildly) against Froome. Asked about Tour fans booing the emaciated cheater, Quintana said, “Sometimes you reap what you sow.” (Since I am often unable to resist putting words in riders’ mouths, I must emphasize that he really said this.

Adam Yates, Mitchelston-Scott – Yates  is quite good, though he might cook in the black jersey he’s required to wear. He took 4th and best young rider at the 2016 Tour. Last year he kind of faded. This year he was 2nd in the Criterium du Dauphiné, which suggests good form. When baited about Froome being booed at the team presentation, he remained diplomatic. “The fans booed and it’s the media’s job to cover that. Hopefully Froome is tired after the Giro. I hope the Giro took its toll, and who knows, maybe during this Tour he’ll get a bad blood bag or something.” No, he didn’t really say anything about a bad blood bag. At least not out loud.

Mikel Landa, Movistar - Landa will have to compete with teammate Quintana. Fortunately, he has plenty of practice beating up his own team members as he did with Sky (which I thought was charming; click here for details).

Ilnur Zakarin, Katusha Alpecin – Zakarin is pretty much a badass. He was third in the Vuelta once, and 5th in the Giro. Also, he uses caffeinated shampoo. Which is legal.

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