Friday, August 31, 2018

The Food of Norway


My family took a trip to Norway recently, during which we ate like kings, for the most part. Given my readers’ obvious appetite for the topic (The Food of London and The Food of Scotland being popular posts), I will share with you what I discovered in Norway.

But first, a caveat: I’m not going to pretend I could give an overall account of how good Norwegian food is, or try to compare it to what I eat in the Bay Area. I was a clueless tourist over there, and judging Norwegian food by the random restaurants I blindly stumbled into would be no fairer than judging San Francisco food by the humdrum fare you get along Fisherman’s Wharf.

Local specialties

I wouldn’t say Norway is a world leader when it comes to cuisine. I just searched Yelp for the best Norwegian restaurants in San Francisco, and it came back with just ten results: Pläj, a Scandinavian place, at #1; Nordic House (a deli) at #2; and a bunch of false positives. The #3 place is classified as “American (new),” #4 and #5 are German, and #6—a place called Dulce Amore—is “modern European.” On to #7 and #8, more delis, and when I got to #9, Safeway (yes, the grocery store), I had to laugh. (By contrast, searching Yelp for top Italian restaurants in San Francisco produced a list of 363 places.)

Still, we did eat some things on vacation that have got to be authentically Norwegian. For example, these meatballs (which are perhaps more iconically Swedish, but still):

And how were they? Damn good! Part of that was the ambience, though … check this place out.

I don’t know what that thing is sticking out of my kid’s mouth. It doesn’t look like a utensil. I hope she didn’t sneak a cigarette. Anyway, I’d definitely eat those meatballs again, but I wouldn’t necessarily take a trip of any length (even just to Pläj) to eat them again.

The next thing that I would say was typically Norwegian was the salmon. More than half of all the salmon eaten in the world comes from Norway. Alas, I don’t have a photo of the best salmon we had there, because I had the stomach flu during that meal and was devoting 100% of my attention toward not projectile-vomiting all over my family across the table. The idea of whipping out my camera never occurred to me (though I suppose I could have captured some breathtaking footage). Anyway, this was at a high-end buffet at a fancy hotel (dinner for three of us was over $140; the fourth family member also had the flu and skipped the meal). So, how was that salmon? My wife said it was the best she’d ever had. I tasted it and thought it was very good, but not as good as what I’d enjoyed in Mallaig, Scotland. (Full disclosure: I did not have the stomach flu in Mallaig.)

Here’s a photo of a nice salmon sandwich I had at the same groovy place pictured above. 

It was really good. But did it stand out over all the other salmon I’ve ever had? Well, not necessarily. It’s not like my eyes rolled back in my head. I guess it doesn’t help that everything in Norway is grotesquely expensive. That sandwich above was around $20. The going rate for a burger is around $25. For that kind of money, the food ought to make me cry (like a NYC bagel recently did). By the way, I have more to say about Norwegian salmon but have decided make that into a future post so we don’t lose steam here.

So here is a bona fide local classic: Bergen fish soup.

My wife had read about this amenity before we went on our trip. It really was something else. We had to restrain ourselves from fighting over it. That white stuff? Cream—but not over-the-top like with New England clam chowder. The green stuff? Parsley oil. There wasn’t a ton of fish in this soup (not like with these cioppinos you get that could be stretched to feed a small village), but the flavor was off the chain. It’s also noteworthy that this was in the touristy restaurant atop Mount Ulriken that, had it been in the U.S., would necessarily have been awful and overpriced (as opposed to just overpriced).

If you hadn’t heard of Bergen, there’s an even more obscure place that lays claim to its own soup: the tiny island of Fedje (pronounced FAY-yeh). My wife asked, at Kafé Losen, if the “fiskesuppe” on the menu was Bergen fish soup; the proprietor seemed almost offended. “No, it’s local recipe!” she assured us. Here it is:

It was really good, too. (I should have included something in the photo for scale, though … that bowl was small, maybe five inches in diameter, for $12. Fortunately this was near the end of our trip and I was already numb.)

So what else is classically Norwegian? Well, they’re known for their heart-shaped waffles. You’ve probably even heard these mentioned in the Nirvana song:

She eyes me like a fiskesuppe when I am blue
I’ve been cooked inside a heart-shaped iron, too
I’ve been topped with lingonberry and sour cream
I wish I could eat your price tag when you scream

(Note: no, Nirvana did not really sing about waffles. Ever.)

Here is a Norwegian waffle (four conjoined hearts, which should have been separated IMHO):

How was it? The earth did not move for me. It was not griddled (ironed?) to order … just pulled from a big flabby stack. Still, the aforementioned condiments would be an asset to any waffle. (Full disclosure: no waffle can ever please me, after my mom’s amazing sourdough waffles made with her ancient waffle iron that was crafted, it seemed, of sterling silver. This iron did such a great job, my brother’s family continued to use it for years after it began catching fire due to an electrical problem.)

So, fancy restaurant meals aside, what do Norwegians typically eat? Here’s a good cross section of what was on offer daily for breakfast at the hostel we stayed at in Bergen:

What are we looking at? I’ll start with the sandwich and move clockwise. That cheese isn’t exactly Swiss but it isn’t exactly not. We saw it everywhere. Also ubiquitous was a brown cheese called mysost (“whey cheese”) that is more quintessentially Norwegian. It looked kind of gross, though, and my daughter who tried it assured me it was, so I never partook. (Hey man, don’t judge. You try suffering for days with the stomach flu in a foreign land and see how adventurous you are.)

Atop the cheese is a thin, salami-esque slice of sheep sausage, and a squeeze of caviar, sort of. They call it kaviar, and it’s smoked cod roe. I left it un-spread for the photo but would spread it across the bread normally (in increasing quantities as I got used to it). The kaviar was really quite tasty. I was disappointed to learn that the Bergen TSA considers it a liquid … they confiscated the half dozen tubes we purchased to bring home to friends. Bastards.

To build back my strength after that flu, I tended to eat three or four of these sandwiches every morning, in addition to the other stuff. Next to the sandwich is some pâté (animal unknown); mackerel in tomato sauce; potato salad (quite mayonnaise-y but mercifully non-sweet); pickled herring; and curried herring. Sometimes I had a bowl of cereal as well. None of it was delicious but it was serviceable and came free with our lodging.


I’m just going to say it: for those who love to drink, Norway is bound to be a bit disappointing. Wine and spirits must be purchased at a Vinmonopolet (“wine monopoly”), of which there are only 315 in the whole country (as compared to almost 14,000 liquor stores in California, where we can also buy pretty much any booze we want in our grocery stores, even vodka). I never did see a Vinmonopolet during my trip (though I wasn’t exactly scouring the place).

You can buy beer in Norwegian grocery stores, but only a watered-down version with no more than 4.7% ABV. Restaurants occasionally have stronger beer, but mostly they serve the weak beer that’s produced for the Norwegian market (such as the Hansa shown in the restaurant photo above), for around $9 US. A 500 ml bottle will cost you $5 at the grocery store. The logo on this beer can pretty much captures Norway’s attitude toward beer drinkers:

(In the background above is the hotel room art I pondered for hours on end, deliriously, during the worst phase of my stomach flu. Did it seem eerily profound to me that the beer and the art both featured mermaids? Yes ... in my fevered state, it truly did. Did I labor mentally over the incongruity of the art obviously featuring a mermaid, but one with normal feet instead of fins? Yes, that too. Is it a good idea to drink beer when you have the flu? Well, during vacation ... yes again.)

There are microbreweries in Norway, but they also tend to make only the weak beer so they don’t have a hard time selling it due to the usurious taxes applied to stronger stuff. I learned this from a tour guide in Fedje, who mentioned that Norwegians will buy beer in Germany where it’s much cheaper and stronger, but they’re only allowed to bring back a certain amount, and the government will actually spot-check at the border to make sure nobody cheats. Man! What a buzzkill! It’s downright un-American!

Well, imagine my delight when I discovered a boozing loophole: a vending machine at the hostel was selling 500 ml Hansa beers for only 20 NOK (about $2.40 US). Score! I bought a couple cans:

Little did I know, “Lettøl” (which I hadn’t noticed at first) means light beer. Very light. As in, 2.4% ABV. This is how they keep underage kids (which in Norway means under 18) from exploiting the vending machine loophole. If some dumb kid were to consume the 4 or 5 of these it would take to get even slightly drunk, he would be too bloated to escape the authorities. His sprint would be reduced to a frantic waddle, his belly stretched tight as a drum.

I did get a stronger drink at the Magic Ice Bar, a very interesting place where the bar, all the furniture, and even the glasses are made of ice. The drink was some frou-frou cranberry thing, fairly tasty and reasonably strong but not exactly a Super Big Gulp. Note the standard issue parka and gloves in the background … if they’d had any Hansa beer in that place, it would have frozen solid.


In addition to the groovy restaurant with the meatballs, the local fish soup, and the great salmon, we had some other delicious fare during our trip. One of the best restaurants we went to was the place in Fedje, Kafé Losen. This was literally the only restaurant open on the entire island (and would close for the season a week after we ate there). They had us by the balls and could have served us anything at any price, but both the proprietor and her husband seemed to take great pride in their food, checking in with us during each course and beaming at the praise. Check out this burger:

They don’t make their own buns, but a nearby bakery does. That thin meat, which the menu merely called bacon, was actually prosciutto di Parma. Below that you’re looking at a nice slab of brie. The beef was delicious and probably grass-fed (to be honest, I didn’t dare ask because I really felt like a burger and didn’t want to have to change my order on principle if it had been grain-fed).

Speaking of baked goods, we had really good bread at several places in Norway. They know what they are doing.

Kafé Losen also served this goat cheese salad:

Look at that disk of goat cheese. It’s like an inch thick. Also some caramelized onions, nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and the whole thing was perfectly dressed.

It’s time to put on a bib. I am drooling down the front of my shirt. Okay, remember that Bergen fish soup I mentioned, at the Mount Ulriken restaurant? At the same place I had this lamb sausage with associated goodies:

The sausage itself was pretty yum, and all the accouterments were surprisingly tasty (as opposed to the rote garnish & sides you so often get).

The final highlight is this salmon pasta:

I wished that thing in the background had been a big hunk of salmon, but it wasn’t—it was a superfluous piece of focaccia. But the pasta itself was really good—the salmon flavor really came through (and made me wish this was my entrée, but it wasn’t—it was my daughter’s and I had to fight the impulse to appropriate it).

To be continued…

Come back next week for “Food ofNorway Part II,” in which I’ll share Cheap Eats; Fails; Things We Didn’t Eat; Weirdness; and Adventures in Norwegian World Cuisine.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

From the Archives - San Francisco Grand Prix Spectator’s Eye View - Part II


My last post was part one of an old Daily Peloton story from my archives (it is alas, not in their archive anymore). This week I give you part two. I left off describing how a bike race announcer has the difficult job of amping up the crowd and making the complicated sport accessible to non-fans. Here I pick up that thread again.

San Francisco Grand Prix: A Spectator’s Eye View Part II – September 14, 2003

Michael Aisner, together with Jeff Roake, did a splendid job announcing the San Francisco Grand Prix from the finish line along the Embarcadero. It’s not an easy job, but they managed to keep the crowd engaged during the long spells between laps, explaining the tactics of the race as they unfolded, and providing interesting tidbits such as the role of the team car and of the Mavic neutral support. In what seems to be a tradition, they had longtime cycling fan Robin Williams get up on the stage for some impromptu comedy: “Look for me, riding with Team Viagra. You’ll see in the team poster that not many of the bikes have kickstands. There’s a reason for this.”

But the better race commentary gig was at the top of Taylor Street, where another announcer, Dave Towle, had his station set up. Here, the crowd was at least half a dozen deep all the way down the hill, and was curb to curb farther up Taylor beyond the point where the course turns left. The upward block of the street is like a natural set of bleachers, except that these spectators were content to stand for four and a half hours.

Dave and I go way back—we grew up together in Boulder, Colorado, where he still lives—so it was with particular enjoyment that I watched him stoking the coals of the throngs of fans. It sure didn’t hurt that his own enthusiasm was off the charts—I’ve never seen anybody yell into a microphone at a bike race before—but he also knew the right buttons to push. He sensed that the crowd’s awareness of its own power was one such button. “If I yell, ‘Okay, Taylor Street, let’s give it up for these racers, show ‘em what you can do,” he explained, “I can bring their volume from here” (hand held, palm down, at chest level) “to here” (hand above head). “Of course, you can only go to that well so many times.”

Dave doesn’t stop with the spectators: he also works to motivate the racers themselves. Lap after lap he led the crowd in cheering on Jason Lokkesmoe, reminding them that this was a young neo-pro from Oakland on Health Net, a local team. Dave was convinced that for Jason to hear his own name must have motivated him. “Think about it,” he told me. “When you hear your name over the loud speaker, time and time again, you start to believe that the entire crowd, the entire world, is focused on you. And how could you not dig just a little deeper, knowing that?”

Dave explained the need to gradually build a crescendo as the race develops. “If you’re telling them on lap three that you’ve never seen anything so amazing in your life, what are you going to tell them on lap six? There are only so many times in a day you can be the most amazed you’ve ever been in your life. These guys are going to think, man, this guy amazes easy. What, did he just get out of prison?”

The highlight of Dave’s announcing was when he spotted his fellow Boulderite Trent Klasna, who earlier in the race had done major work for his Saturn team, then had dropped out, and now had changed into street clothes and was strolling the course. (To even recognize a cyclist in regular garb is something of a feat; earlier in the day Lance Armstrong rode right through the start/finish area in civvies, having dropped out as well, and just about nobody noticed.) Dave jumped at the opportunity to collar Trent and ask him a few questions, to give the crowd some insight from a cycling expert who’d sized up this field from within less than an hour before.

“Trent, right now Saturn has two riders in the group: Chris Horner and Mark McCormack. Mark is the better sprinter. I predict that if it comes down to a bunch sprint, Chris will lead Mark out. What do you say?” Trent grinned and assured Dave that it wouldn’t come down to a bunch sprint. And indeed on the final lap, Chris Horner crested the Taylor Street climb all alone, on his way to a dramatic victory. Thousands of fans had just witnessed a prophet in action. Even off the bike, Klasna came off as a most impressive cyclist.

Naturally, any race announcer is subject to the limitations of his material. If a race isn’t tight enough, no announcer in the world can inject it with suspense. But when a rider tries something bold, a good announcer can help the crowd enjoy it. Today was an interesting one in that Horner’s victory was far from expected, even though he is by many standards the winning-est rider in the domestic cycling scene. For a time it really looked like Jason Lokkesmoe was going to sew up the race. He had an amazing ride, starting out in a group of five that dwindled until it was just Jason and the huge German Rolf Aldag, both clearly giving it everything they had. But the race was very, very long. Surely there must have been a point when Lokkesmoe’s s effort seemed quixotic even to himself. Maybe he stayed out longer, even when he knew he was doomed, just to put on a good show.

Showmanship is not only a matter of riding fast. I well remember the Killians team in the Coors Classic who (unlike their sponsor) hailed from Ireland. I was a young fan, by no means an expert on the rules of the race, but had been convinced ever since the early 1980s that these guys were cut some slack on the time cuts because they were so popular with the crowds. So today I challenged Aisner on this point. “It might have been,” he said cautiously. “I don’t remember what the circumstances were but it wasn’t just at face value ‘we let them back in  [after missing a time cut].’ But they were crowd pleasers, they did all sorts of stuff. [Killians rider] Alan [McCormack] had a ... squirt gun, he would shoot other racers in the pack. There was one year when Paul [McCormack, Alan’s brother and teammate] was off the back of the criterium in North Boulder Park and he had an umbrella that had ‘Killian’s’ on it. He had it open, he was racing with an open umbrella over his head. But these guys weren’t just for show either. Alan won, he won a ton.”

I asked about Davis Phinney, who had enchanted me as a kid through his pantomime of a clerk punching the “SALE” button on a cash register every time he won a prime. Aisner replied, “Davis was flavorful and he was a double whammy because he also delivered and he had this huge sense of self-confidence, and though many loved it, others liked to see him lose, but either way [these fans] were out there.... A sport thrives on the combination of both of those, those who simply excel and those that can bring more than just cycling to the table.”

Oddly, American cycling may be, from the standpoint of spectacle, a victim of its own maturity. There was an unpolished, youthful exuberance to domestic cycling in the 1980s that at its best was Phinney’s cash register and at its worst was Alexi Grewal tearing his 7-Eleven jersey down the middle as he crossed the finish line in first. Either way, it was a wild show. Since that time the phenomenon of the American cycling professional has steadily developed. Lance is now expected to win the Tour de France, whereas Phinney’s first Tour stage win was a shock to everybody. As they have adapted to the European sport, these American riders seem to have adopted its culture and tradition, which isn’t given to theatrics (beyond the traditional victory salute, of course). This modern professionalism may make it harder for the American spectator to connect with the cyclists.

For example, this morning I watched the women’s field assembled a couple of hundred feet behind the start line. I could sense the tension in that group, especially in the half dozen front-runners waiting about six feet ahead of the rest of the group. Clearly they understood the importance of this race. Handled properly, this excitement can be a huge benefit to a racer, but there’s no benefit to showing your competitors how nervous you are. I know from my own racing days that when my head was right, the pre-race feeling was one I think of as “frothy”—my own coinage, based on the image of a champion racehorse that is literally champing at the bit to start a race, has whipped itself into a lather of sweat, and must be calmed by the jockey or the trainer. To feel frothy, but not to show it, is  admirable—a result of experience and discipline. The problem is, to the untrained eye it just looks like somebody who just isn’t taking the race very seriously.

The women I watched today didn’t just have poker-faces; they were joking around with each other like this was a social event. If you saw this on TV, you wouldn’t have felt the real tension there. But there was an odd moment when the announcer had just run down the impressive bio of Mari Holden, and was about to announce her name to summon her to the line, when his microphone suddenly cut out. For several awkward seconds, all was silent. Then I heard Mari whisper to Jessica Phillips, “He forgot his lines.” Jessica laughed loudly, but it wasn’t the hearty laugh of somebody truly amused; it had the tense quality of somebody laughing to bleed off nervousness, a venting laugh, like that of someone watching the tasteless over-the-top comic violence in “Robocop.” Eventually the crowd got tired of waiting for the announcer and yelled out, “Mari Holden!” and she pedaled to the line.

There are other ways a non-savvy spectator can misread a bike race. For example, a strong performance made as a sacrifice to a teammate can make a good rider look bad. A cycling aficionado knows that when a great rider crosses the line in fiftieth, it’s probably because he led out his teammate and his job ended 200 meters from the line. But to the casual spectator, it just looks like a guy who isn’t that strong. I looked for Tim Larkin in the main bunch at the top of Taylor Street on the last lap today, and while he was still in contact, he was right on the back and looked pretty fried. Afterward, I asked what happened and he explained that a group of eight made it off the front of the main pack before the Taylor Street climb, and because his teammate was climbing better than he was today, Tim gave everything to drag him up to the group. As so often happens, this move galvanized the rest of the pack, and everything came back together, making Tim’s work for naught. But had he not done it, that group may indeed have stayed off. Tim likely changed the outcome of the race, but not in any way that made him look good. How many similar scenarios played themselves out today, unappreciated by the fans? Probably dozens. And when a rider blows up badly enough to lose contact with the group, there is nowhere to hide.

Whether this experience is mortifying to the struggling athlete all depends on the crowd. This sport has the unfortunate characteristic of looking far easier than it is, so the uninitiated onlooker may not sympathize with the rider. But if the energy is right, a bicycle race brings out the best in people: the crowds that turn out cheer on every guy, even the ones who get dropped, because after all they’re out there pedaling their hearts out.

It’s a wonderful thing about cycling: even though it’s very much a team sport, it’s not just two teams, one of which you hope wins. No riot ever broke out at a bike race because CSC beat Telekom. Ages ago, I watched TV coverage of unruly Denver Broncos fans who pelted their own team with snowballs because they were losing so badly. These were not people who stumbled onto a football game in progress—these are people who paid good money for a seat. They’re supposed to be the loyal ones! I can’t imagine such an attitude from bike race spectators, who are watching for the entire spectacle, not out of a tribal instinct to support their home team. This is true of seasoned fans as well; consider all the French people who camp out a full week in advance to watch the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour de France, even though a Frenchman hasn’t won there since Bernard Hinault in 1986.

Granted, such devotion to the sport is far greater in Europe than in the U.S., but in San Francisco today it was easy to imagine that gap quickly decreasing. Today the magnanimity of the spectators was on full display. They didn’t have to be experts on race tactics—not when they were watching on Taylor Street. They recognized extreme depths of human suffering when they saw it. Lokkesmoe ended up struggling over the Taylor climb solo, well off the back, today, but the crowd hadn’t forgotten his earlier glory, and screamed their lungs out for him.

Of course the fans cheer on the superstars like Lance Armstrong, but perhaps no more enthusiastically than they cheer for the poor sods who are way off the back and just trying to keep their bikes going. You can see how the cheering animates the riders, too: about half way up a climb, just as one of these guys is about to grind to a halt, you see a little sheepish grin appear on his face, maybe he shakes his head a little, then gets out of the saddle and shoves a little harder. The crowd responds to this, cheers louder, the process repeats, and like a slow-motion hockey puck the guy is gradually buoyed up the hill, lap after lap. It’s like watching a butterfly smash against your windshield, and then—like a cartoon of some kind—unfold itself, try its wings, and fly off again.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

From the Archives - San Francisco Grand Prix Spectator’s Eye View


Since 2003, I’ve been an occasional contributor to the Daily Peloton. A few years ago, I discovered that most of my stories there are no longer available due to some server problems.  It’s another slow news day at albertnet, so here is one of the lost articles, restored and preserved for prosperity. This isn’t race coverage per se; it covers the sport in general and subtopics that I hope you’ll agree are still relevant.

San Francisco Grand Prix: A Spectator’s Eye View – September 14, 2003

I attended the San Francisco Grand Prix bike race today, and was reminded how different these events are in person. Being a live spectator is much more exciting than just watching on TV.

The SF Grand Prix covers a 10-mile circuit of downtown city streets, largely shutting down all normal traffic flows. Attendance was impressive—as always, the sidewalks were clogged with spectators, estimated today at over half a million. If you showed up early enough—and this year the first-ever women's edition started at 7:30—you got a good position along the scenic waterfront Embarcadero where the Start/Finish line is. I got a great spot, and if I’d stayed put for the next eight hours, I'd have had a great view of the finish of both the races.

But this stretch really isn't where the race is won or lost—that happens on the brutally steep climbs of Fillmore and Taylor streets, roughly on the opposite end of the loop. Last year I watched Charles Dionne win the race on Taylor Street. Of course I didn't know he was winning it at the time; nobody really did, not even the other riders in the lead group, or at least not all of them. That's because Dionne didn't do anything obvious, like drop the rest of the group, on that hill. All he did was manage not to get dropped himself. Dionne is a sprinter, and his superior sprinting ability is like money in the bank, a simple and incontrovertible fact of nature. If he's there to contest the flat finish line sprint among a bunch of climbers, stage racers, or time trialists, he'll beat them. The sprint itself was a formality for Dionne. The climbs are where the action is, so staking out a good spot on Fillmore or Taylor makes a lot of sense.

Still, it's not totally satisfying to see the defining action on the backside of the course only to miss the moment of victory, the winner throwing his arms up as he crosses the line. But since you can’t see the action on the climbs and still make it to the finish line in time, and you’re thus doomed to miss so much of the action, what is the attraction of being there? Any spectator, of any sport, will tell you that these things are just better live. You're not just there to watch the athletes; you're there for the entire spectacle of the thing, for the atmosphere. Just like the smell of popcorn at the movies, or of suntan lotion at the beach, there’s a sensory bonus to being at the race in person: sound. TV coverage gives you great voice-over (if the announcers are good), but you don’t hear the tires on the ground, the panting of the riders, or most importantly the cheering of the spectators.

When I worked as a general purpose gofer for ESPN covering the 1988 Coors International Bicycle Classic, my first assignment was to point this giant phallic microphone at the pack as it went by. After one stage of this, the recording was deemed unusable and I was off the hook. An even stranger request I got was to run up and down a flight of stairs a few times and then let a sound guy record my panting. This would be dubbed over footage of a pro cyclist climbing some grade. I must not have sounded authentic enough, because the recording was never used. But the fact that they tried to get it says something. And yet if you are actually there at the race, the sheer noise factor is almost overwhelming.

This year at the SF Grand Prix, sponsors such as Clif Bar and Saturn gave out cowbells, which created a huge and pleasant din. When I sat at a restaurant bar to have lunch, and watched the race on TV, what I got for sound was less than nothing: the one screen showing the race was muted, and all the other screens were showing a football game, with sound. Between the TV sound and the cheering football fans, it was hard to enjoy the subtle pleasures of cycling coverage. It struck me, when the 49ers scored a touchdown on fourth down with eight to go, that the yelling and cheering in the bar was nothing like what I’d heard outside. These guys weren’t cheering on the players, who after all can’t hear them anyway. Their cheering had a strangely turned-in quality, like they were cheering themselves on for living in San Francisco, the home of the 49ers, and thus basically deserving some of the credit.

Beyond the noise factor, at any sporting event the presence not only of your sports heroes but of the throngs of other spectators creates a certain energy that far surpasses what you get at home, or at a sports bar. I went to a Diamondbacks/Giants game years ago, and managed to miss every big play—I was fighting with the relish dispenser when Barry Bonds made an amazing catch that was on all the evening news highlights—but I still had a good time (better than I’d have had seeing it on TV). And the thrill of actually being there is even more pronounced in cycling than in any stadium sport, because the athletes and the action are so accessible—nobody has to watch through binoculars from the nose-bleeder seats. You're as close as you manage to get, often (ideally) with nothing between you and the racers but your own discretion.

Lance Armstrong commented some months ago on the vulnerability of cyclists in the Tour de France (a comment that many misconstrued as terrorist-attack paranoia). And we all watched in horror as Lance's handlebar hooked a spectator's musette bag on the Luz-Ardiden, crashing him. But I have to agree with Tour director Jean-Marie LeBlanc: it would be wrong to overreact to this incident and place new constraints on the spectators. The absence of ubiquitous crowd control is one of the things that makes bicycle racing special. And you don't see Lance complaining to LeBlanc, either. Doubtless he recognizes that without the spectator-friendly culture of the Tour de France, you won't get as many fans, and if you don't get enough fans, teams don't get the corporate sponsors, and without the sponsors, Lance doesn't get a paycheck.

Beyond their livelihood, the peloton surely appreciates the fans on a more human level. This is what we, as spectators, need to believe to thoroughly enjoy the event: that we are not just watching, but participating, having a connection with the athletes and creating the special energy that defines a big race. But do we? How much do the spectators really matter to the bicycle racer? Are we actually any different from sports fans in a bar congratulating ourselves for what the athletes are doing ten, a hundred, a thousand miles away? There's a simple answer, which would be yes, but it's not actually a simple matter.

First, we have to differentiate between two basic spectator scenarios: teeming masses vs. sorry handfuls. The fact is, there’s a critical mass required before the racers could possibly be inspired. Today certainly measured up. After the race, I talked to Tim Larkin, a professional on the San Francisco-based Ofoto / Lombardi Sports team, who is by any account one of the best bicycle racers in the Berkeley area. Though Tim was clearly fried from the race and couldn’t have been operating on more than 20% of his brain power, he immediately commented on the crowds. “The crowd was phenomenal,” he said. “You don't expect it in cycling over here, and to see that kind of turnout . . . from the first time up the hill they're going nuts, and they keep that intensity up for four and a half hours, just yelling their heads off, it's pretty amazing. Everyone’s ringing the cowbells, so you can't hear anything, just this din. What was new to me were those balloon things, that were big last year in the world series—the Anaheim Angels started that, got everyone in the stadium banging those together—so to see them at a bike race, to see them cross over from a mainstream sport, makes it feel like what you're doing gets more respect than racing in the middle of nowhere with, you know, people's parents there. Even if it's an important race for other reasons, if there aren't many people there, you're like, well, how important can it be?”

I’ve known that feeling myself, and it’s more common the further you get from Tim’s level. Let's face it, it is the reality for the majority of local races in the U.S, and it can be demoralizing. A race can feel an awful lot like a bunch of guys riding fast around a residential street or office park, if there isn’t someone there besides a referee keeping track of the results. It makes a huge difference if a critical mass of spectators manages to assemble itself, and seems to care about the action and the athletes, if not the outcome, regardless of how important the event is to the racing calendar. And this is why U.S. races should be held on city streets in places like Boulder, Colorado where cycling is in the blood of 90% of the residents, or tiny, quiet places like Sterling, Colorado, or Casper the friendly Wyoming, or Nevada City, California—places where the spectacle of a bike race is honest-to-God exciting to the small-town folk who turn up in droves with their Igloos and lawn chairs.

This enthusiasm certainly matters to any racer. Tim races all over the country and finds that good crowds are seldom a given, even when the race draws top talent. “Only a couple of other races in the country that have a really good crowd; Philadelphia has the long tradition there but [the SF Grand Prix] even takes that up a notch. To be fair to other races, criteriums can have a very loud crowd but it's a 1 km course, and this is a 10-mile loop with half a dozen places where it's just packed, so there’s no comparison to road races where you may expect people at the Start/Finish line and that's it. Very rarely do you get to have a race downtown, and this one happens because you have Lance and Thomas Weisel behind it to get the city’s buy-in. If promoters can keep on working to bring races to bigger cities, it can only be good for the sport.”

Cycling in the United States simply doesn’t have the strong tradition and national identity that it does in other countries, and as sports like soccer increase in popularity here, it must continually fight for a place in the national psyche. Certainly Lance’s phenomenal success has helped the sport, but I’m disappointed it hasn’t provided an even bigger boost. The road bike has gone from a standard to a specialty item. Junior fields in big races like the Nevada City classic have dwindled alarmingly. To keep the sport healthy will require that the spectators cease to be small gatherings of already interested people. It needs to bring in curious onlookers and hook them on the action, so they won’t change the channel from OLN once the bronco riders have finished up.

Of course it would be unfair to put the burden solely on the race promoters and the communities that can choose to put on races or not. I talked today with one of the race announcers, Michael Aisner, about what it takes to create excitement among the spectators of a bike race. Michael announces for various top U.S. races, but formerly had a much larger role in U.S. cycling than that. He essentially put the cycling on the map in this country, taking over the fledgling Red Zinger Bicycle Classic (sponsored by Celestial Seasonings, when it was a much smaller company than it is now), landing Coors as its new main sponsor with a much bigger budget, adding many more stages to the race, and drawing a world class international field.

I grew up watching this race, and even at a young age could see the progression each year. There’s nothing I can see that was a revolutionary change in the approach to the race; Michael’s formula seemed to be fairly simple: make each stage exciting to watch, show the crowd a good time, and next year the crowd will be bigger, the TV coverage better, and the race will increase in prominence. This in turn brings a better field every year. But what did this race do to achieve these ends? For one thing, there were plenty of criteriums, always held on downtown streets where crowds can find them. Purists criticized the format, trying to champion the more traditional point-to-point road races popular in Europe, but (as Tim Larkin pointed out) this format isn’t conducive to large crowds. It works in Europe because the sport is already huge there.

But beyond the format, the success of the Coors Classic depended on harnessing the elusive potential of the sport. “Cycling is kind of a rock and roll sport in a way, and its energy level was built on people being able to really exploit it in a big way,” Michael told me. “And I really credit the announcer for having done what he needs to do in order to make a race huge. I think you need to bridge the gap through your announcer, and through music and energy levels … so that cycling can become comparable to other things that people relate to that are exciting.”

This is a core difficulty with popularizing bicycle racing in America: making people relate to it, helping them understand that it’s far more complicated than it appears. Other sports have surpassed this obstacle, of course; a colleague of mine took a foreign client to a baseball game and explained the rules to him. “It’s really quite simple,” he started out, but by the time he’d explained the sacrifice fly, the bunt, the walk, and the strike zone, he realized that it’s really not simple at all: it just seems that way because we take our own knowledge for granted. It should be possible with cycling as well; after all, anybody who’s tried to ride a bike fast knows the challenge and the thrill of this sport. But it takes a good announcer to really amp up the crowd.

Click here for the second and final part of this article.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Cycling Commentary - Why I Believe Chris Froome Is a Doper - Part II


In my last post, I laid out the first half of my case against Chris Froome: that is, why I think (and have long thought) he’s a doper. My aim isn’t to change anybody’s mind on this—I doubt that’s possible, and actually I don’t really care—but rather to explain my position, lest any Froome fans read my biased blow-by-blow race reports and decide I’m a jerk. (I’m not actually out to inflame anybody with this blog.) So in this second and final post on the topic, I finish the effort of humbly explaining my position. I hope you’ll conclude I’m a more or less reasonable person, even if you don’t happen to agree with me about Froome.

In my previous post I countered the following two challenges to my position, taken from a debate I had with a friend: 
  • 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?
In this post, I take on my friend’s other two challenges:
  • The Lance era is over – why shouldn’t we trust the UCI’s decision on the salbutamol case, and use Froome’s essentially clean slate as the basis for our own assessment?
  • How would a positive test for salbutamol suggest a wider doping program anyway?
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.

The Lance era is over – why shouldn’t we trust the UCI’s decision on the salbutamol case, and use Froome’s essentially clean slate as the basis for our own assessment?

First of all, the Lance era wasn’t the result of one guy (and his team) getting away with murder. The rampant doping throughout those years demonstrated a fundamentally flawed system of enforcement. The last Tour title to be stripped (retroactively) was 2010 … not that long ago, and three years after Postal/Discovery released its grip on the Tour. The sport has a deep, deep hole to dig out of.

How deep a hole? To make the math easy, let’s round down and say that 10 dopers were exposed by the USADA investigation without ever having tested positive. Let’s say each rider was tested 10 times a year for 10 years. That’s 1,000 false negative samples. When you consider all the different substances riders were tested for, across these 1,000 samples, and when you factor in the wide variety of PEDs these riders ultimately admitted to having used, the number of false negatives snowballs even further. And yet when’s the last time you heard of a bona-fide false positive?

Clearly, the drug testing system has been woefully ineffective, erring radically on the side of false negative tests. For us to believe Froome’s salbutamol test was a false positive flies in the face of this reality. (Frankly, there isn’t a single rider in the peloton today whom I’d give the benefit of the doubt if he tested positive for anything. I’d say, “What a shame, I’d hoped he was clean.”)

So why should we trust the UCI’s decision regarding Froome? After all, they based their ruling on WADA’s findings, and there are plenty of signs that WADA is still not doing a good job of policing the sport (click here and here). The UCI’s refusal to share WADA’s reasoning in clearing Froome is making things worse. What we need is transparency but what we’re getting is, “We got a lot of documents from Sky … it’s all good, trust us.”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the whole peloton is doped, and I’ll allow that perhaps things have improved a bit, but I reserve the right to be suspicious of this or that rider whose performance looks a little too good to be true. When the rider in question is Froome, the suspicious signs start to pile up, as I discussed in my last post.

Note that even if we decide to accept the veracity of the UCI’s recent decision on Froome’s positive test, this shouldn’t put our every suspicion to rest. If we conclude Froome is a clean rider just because the UCI cleared him for salbutamol, we would be committing the logical fallacy of “denying the antecedent.” The fallacy goes like this: 
  • Premise: If A then B
  • Premise: Not A
  • Conclusion: Not B
It is easier to see how this is a fallacy if we consider a simple example:
  • Premise: If it rains, I will bring an umbrella
  • Premise: It is not raining
  • Conclusion: I am not bringing an umbrella
Of course this conclusion does not necessarily follow. Even if it’s not raining, I could bring an umbrella for another reason, such as rain being forecast. For the second premise to be true is not a necessary condition.

Broken down into its simplest form the “Froome must be clean because the UCI dismissed his case” argument would run like this:
  • Premise: If the UCI finds Froome guilty of doping, he is a doper. 
  • Premise: The UCI did not find Froome guilty of doping. 
  • Conclusion: Therefore, Froome is not a doper. 
Denying the antecedent is a universally recognized fallacy. That is, arguments of this form are automatically classified as invalid. To put it more bluntly, just because Froome found his way out of this salbutamol mess doesn’t mean he never doped. Plenty of riders have cheated and gotten away with it. (In like fashion, we don’t conclude Al Capone wasn’t a murderer just because he was convicted only of tax evasion.)

Lance Armstrong employed this fallacy for years, defending himself on the basis of being “the most tested athlete on the planet.” Arnaud Démare used it as well after hanging on to the side of his team car up a key climb in the 2016 Milan-San Remo race, stating afterward, “‘There are judges in cycling. If I had done something forbidden, I would have been disqualified.’” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that my friend stumbled into this fallacious argumentative form in defending Froome, and perhaps other Froome fans are also falling prey to it as well.

How does the positive test for salbutamol prove anything? How does it suggest a years-long sophisticated doping program? How would salbutamol help Froome win four Tours? Why would he deliberately use more than he needed if it doesn’t enhance performance?

Here I will lay out, in clear logical terms, the reason I think Froome’s positive test suggests a wider doping program. 
  • Premise #1: Willingness to cheat via one substance indicates a willingness to cheat via others
  • Premise #2: You cannot accidently go over the legal limit on salbutamol, because the legal limit is so high; i.e., a positive test indicates abuse, typically through oral or injected dosing
  • Premise #3: In sufficient quantities salbutamol will enhance performance, so a rider can gain an advantage from abusing it
  • Premise #4: Froome went over the legal limit
  • Conclusion #1: Froome didn’t accidentally inhale an amount of salbutamol that exceeded the legal limit (i.e., he lied about how he took it)
  • Conclusion #2: Froome deliberately abused salbutamol to gain an advantage
  • Conclusion #3: By abusing salbutamol, Froome has demonstrated a willingness to abuse other substances; i.e., this positive test gives us valid reason to be suspicious of him generally
The conclusions above proceed naturally from the premises; that is, the argument is logically valid by the prepositional form modus ponens, which goes like this:
  • Premise: If A then B
  • Premise: A
  • Conclusion: Therefore, B
In other words, if we assume that a positive test for salbutamol automatically indicates abuse (Premise #2), and that abusing salbutamol can provide an advantage (Premise #3), and that Froome did test positive (Premise #4), then we can logically conclude that Froome abused salbutamol to gain an advantage (Conclusions #1 and #2). If we assume that abusing one drug indicates a willingness to abuse others (Premise #1), and that Froome abused salbutamol (Conclusion #2), then Froome can be reasonably suspected of abusing other drugs.

Because the reasoning is valid (i.e., follows the standard logical rule modus ponens), you can only attack the argument by showing that it is not sound; i.e., you’d have to declare that one or more premises is/are untrue. So let’s look at each premise in turn.

Premise #1 is something I happen to believe, even if I can’t prove it. A rider may decide to be clean because he’s afraid of being caught, or he’s afraid of side effects, or he is a moral person and/or his ambitions in the sport are noble. If a rider has no moral problem with doping, and isn’t afraid of the drugs, and thinks he can get away with taking them, he’ll generally do it, and will not restrict himself to one substance. I mean, why would he? Look at the all the USADA-snared American dopers who confessed (along with other admitted dopers like Michael Rasmussen, David Millar, Frank Vandenbroucke, and Marco Pantani): none of them stuck to a single PED. They all took a variety.

(It is certainly the case that a rider might eschew a particular PED or practice on the grounds of safety; for example, a rider might use testosterone because it’s common, but avoid blood boosting because hotel-room blood transfusions are dangerous. A drug like salbutamol is probably less scary than a lot of PEDs and I wouldn’t be surprised if taking a variety of more commonplace drugs like clenbuterol, triamsinolone, salbutamol, and/or corticoids in combination is a popular alignment with the “marginal gains” ethos that seems to define the modern sport.)

(By the way, here’s Froome’s therapeutic use exemption for prednisolone, a corticosteroid.)

Premise #2, about it being impossible to go over the legal limit of salbutamol via an inhaler, I believe based on my firsthand experience with salbumatol, and from having discussed the matter with a pulmonary M.D. who also happens to be a former professional road racer. You don’t get any performance benefit by inhaling salbutamol because that doesn’t deliver a high enough dose. For the same reason, you won’t test positive by inhaling the drug—you’d have to take a ridiculous number of puffs (18 to be precise). I have a blog post dedicated to this topic, where I’ve done the math. To get the benefit, and to test positive, require either orally ingesting or injecting the drug.

Premise #3 is widely established: using high quantities of salbutamol can give you a performance advantage (click here and here). The fact that this substance is regulated strongly supports the notion that it can confer performance benefits in sufficient quantities. “We have an upper limit because we have multiple publications showing that systemic use of beta-2 agonists, including salbutamol, can be performance enhancing,” WADA senior director of science Olivier Rabin explains here

Premise #4 (the positive test for salbutamol) is not disputed by anybody.

If you don’t agree with one or more of these premises, that’s fine, but don’t conclude that I’m a knee-jerk blowhard who bases his conclusion on nothing at all. I hope that, whether you agree with these premises or not, you can see why I’d put stock in them. On the other hand, if you agree with these premises but not the conclusions they produce, then you are not a logical thinker and are reading the wrong blog. Please, go somewhere else.

In case you’re thinking of dismissing one or more of my premises out of hand simply because you can’t imagine Froome cheating, consider this: when asthma is poorly controlled, the sufferer cannot perform as an athlete. I know this from experience. (If you have asthma, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, take my word for it because I’m an asthma sufferer and a cycling coach, or go ask an asthmatic athlete or a coach.) To win a grand tour, you have to not only be a top rider, you have to be functioning at close to 100%. An insufficiently mitigated asthma attack takes you way below 100%. By the time I start wheezing, I’m crippled. Any athlete is. And when you get to that point, it’s really too late to try to correct with salbutamol: your race is ruined. My doctor cautioned that for exercise-induced asthma, salbutamol is a prophylactic measure—you take it before the exercise, you don’t wait until you have a problem. Thus you wouldn’t wait until after the grand tour stage, during which you padded your GC lead, to take more of the drug. Froome breathed well enough to put time into his GC rivals on that day at the Vuelta, so he should not have needed extra salbutamol post-race.

It’s also worth noting that a therapeutic use exemption (TUE), such as Froome has for salbutamol (and has had for prednisolone), is not universally acknowledged as an automatically legitimate justification for an ongoing regimen of a prescribed drug. The British House of Commons did a deep investigation into TUEs leveraged by Team Sky, and concluded, “The use of triamcinolone at Team Sky during the period under investigation … does not constitute a violation of the WADA code [because a TUE was in place], but it does cross the ethical line that David Brailsford says he himself drew for Team Sky. In this case, and contrary to the testimony of David Brailsford in front of the Committee, we believe that drugs were being used by Team Sky, within the WADA rules, to enhance the performance of riders, and not just to treat medical need.” Froome himself has acknowledged the slippery nature of TUEs: according to this article, “In 2015 at the Tour de France, Froome explained that during the race he had a medical condition which could have been treated with a TUE. However, he objected to using a TUE, explaining in January 2017 that, ‘I didn’t feel having a TUE in the last week of the Tour was something I was prepared to do. It did not sit well morally with me.’” (Obviously his TUE for sulbutamol during the Veulta did extend through the last week, as his positive test was after stage 18.)

To reiterate, this salbutamol positive is not the cornerstone of my belief that Froome is a doper. What it does do is increase my skepticism that WADA has turned the tide and is now able to enforce their rules.

A final note

Again, this two-part post came about because a reader suggested it’s unfair or at least unbecoming to bag on a rider on my blog just because I think he’s a doper. I’m not too concerned about that ideologically. If I advertise my race coverage as biased, and acknowledge that my aspersions are speculation, and in light of the fact that this guy put himself in the public eye through his choice of career, why should I spare him my public indictment? My blog is a medium that anybody can choose to ignore as he pleases (and most do). I don’t get enough pageviews to make a tiny blip in Froome’s reputation, nor will Froome’s fans be moved to change their minds. Plenty of more mainstream media, along with countless cycling fans, are denouncing him already.

And for the record, I bag on Froome in particular, while going easier on other suspect riders, because he is ungracious even in victory, as I described here and here.

If you don’t agree, at least I’ve explained the rationale behind my bias against Froome. I know I can’t please everybody, but at least I’ve tried…

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