Sunday, August 30, 2020

Why Don’t the Dutch Wear Covid Masks?


Vlog

This post is available as a vlog. Why? Just trying to serve you better! Perhaps you just got back from the eye doctor and your pupils are dilated, so it’s really hard to read the screen text. In that case, just roll the video, kick back, gaze at the blurry talking head—or not!—and let the audio monologue wash over you, leaving you deeply edified, catatonic, or both! (For the regular text version just scroll down. Obviously.)


Introduction

I was surprised to learn recently that the Dutch government not only doesn’t require face masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but formally opposes masks, telling people that they don’t help and might even hurt. I decided to delve into this and learn more about it—not just by reading up on the subject, but by sending a survey to both Dutch and American citizens, to compare the results. In the process I have, surprisingly enough, hit upon a novel way forward that could really help.

What the Dutch government says about masks

According to this article in the British Daily Mail, Coen Berends,  spokesman for the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, stated, “Face masks in public places are not necessary, based on all the current evidence. There is no benefit and there may even be negative impact.”

(Based on all the current evidence? Like, every study worldwide? Really? This post isn’t primarily focused on the effectiveness of masks, but for more on this question see the appendix.)

The article goes on to say, “Christian Hoebe, a professor of infectious diseases in Maastricht … [and] head of infectious disease control in Zuid-Limburg, the region hit hardest when the pandemic struck Holland, pointed to a Norwegian study showing 200,000 people must wear surgical masks for one week to stop a single Covid-19 case.”

Okay, I’m just going to stop right here and cry bullshit on the Norwegian study. It fails the sanity test. Meanwhile, basing Dutch policy on a Norwegian study seems a bit flimsy now, considering that the government of Norway, two weeks ago, revised their own position on masks. According to this article, “the ministry recommends face masks as an extra precaution when it is difficult to maintain a ‘social distance’ of one meter or more on public transportation.” Granted, this is still a far cry from a nationwide mandate, but if the Norwegian government really believed 200,000 people must mask up for a week to stop one case, they wouldn’t have made this recommendation. The researchers who came up with that 200K figure are, in strict epidemiological terms, whacked out on coke and smack.  (I note that Holland already mandates masks on public transit.)

Setting aside the Norwegian article, let’s dig in to the Dutch government’s assertion that there’s no benefit and there could be possible negative impact. According to this Reuters article, “RIVM chief Jaap van Dissel … argued wearing masks incorrectly, together with worse adherence to social distancing rules, could increase the risk of transmitting the disease. ‘So we think that if you’re going to use masks (in a public setting) ... then you must give good training for it,’ he said.”

Okay, so here’s a novel idea: how about simply providing that training? How hard could it be? After all, the Dutch have done a great job teaching contraception. As described here, they have the lowest abortion rate in Europe. I think van Dissel’s lack of faith here seems unreasonably defeatist.

And how about empirically investigating the relationship between mask wearing and social distancing? Turns out, a study has done just this. As detailed here, “A group of researchers observed people walking the streets of the Dutch capital and found that wearing masks did not give anyone a false sense of security … As part of the research, Lindegaard analysed video footage from June 1 of a shopping street in Amsterdam that was not particularly overcrowded. The footage showed that people wearing a mask violated the 1,5 metre distance rule just as frequently as people not wearing masks. Her research also found that 80 percent of those wearing masks wore them correctly.”

(Note that this fellow here is French, not Dutch.)


How do the Dutch people feel about masks?

Masks are frankly a pain in the ass, so it’s not surprising that crack investigative journalism turned up some decidedly anti-mask attitudes. The Daily Mail article reported that the Dutch government’s policy has brought about “the delight of all the citizens I spoke with in Amsterdam. ‘I hate wearing them,’ said Aicha Meziati, 29, in the hip fashion store Das Werk Haus. ‘They are horrible. People look like they have nappies on their faces.’”

(Since most of my audience is American, I’ll point out here that a) a “nappy” is a diaper, and b) both paper and cloth masks can resemble diapers. Probably few Americans have ever seen a cloth diaper, but trust me, they look a whole lot like white cloth face masks, like the ones my employer mailed me.)

Notwithstanding the retail employee’s pithy statement (which, by the way, showcases a rather naïve attitude toward the seriousness of this pandemic), the Mail goes on to say that “two recent polls claim a majority [of Dutch citizens] back use of face masks for indoor public spaces.” The Mail doesn’t cite either poll, but I found this article that states, “In a weekly poll conducted by political researcher Maurice de Hond, 55 percent of the [Dutch] people surveyed revealed they think face masks should be made compulsory in order to help battle a second wave of the coronavirus.”

I wouldn’t put too much stock in any one survey, but I’ll bet there are more Dutch citizens who support a mask mandate in the abstract than there are Dutch citizens who actually wear masks. It’s human nature to go with the flow and not be that odd person taking a precaution that nobody else is. If I somehow found myself in Holland right now, I’d be more conflicted about going outside with a mask on than I am in the U.S., because I wouldn’t want anyone construing my behavior as a silent judgment against theirs.

Now let’s get to my survey results, and the thoughtful comments from my Dutch respondents, whose direct personal experience can nicely supplement the stuff I’ve read online.

The survey responses

I’ll have to start out by saying my survey was not very broad … only three Dutch citizens responded. I’m only one guy and the research budget for albertnet is zero. Still, I hope you’ll agree three bits of anecdotal evidence are better than nothing. (If you don’t, click here.)

Of the three Dutch respondents to my poll, none wears a mask. Two of these respondents, asked why not, chose the answer, “I’m not sure the Dutch government is right about masks but I don’t wear one because if I did, I would stand out.”

The third respondent chose the answer “I agree with the Dutch government that masks aren’t helpful so I don’t wear one,” with this added comment: “While I answered no, I do think masks would be useful if they: - Are quality masks - Are switched regularly (never worn consecutively) - Are actually worn over the mouth and nose. However as is the case, the quality masks that make a difference are reserved for healthcare workers. This leaves the rest to wear masks that don’t really work.” So this is a bit different than saying masks couldn’t help.

Asked if the Dutch government should require masks, one Dutch respondent answered yes, “Because it makes it more visible that Covid is present. Makes people more aware that they have to keep distance.” The two others could  not decide. One of these two says, “I think it’ll cause too much protest” and the other says “if it was made easier (or cheaper) to get quality masks, and everyone does it correctly, I would make it mandatory.”

Holland vs. U.S.

I’m not going to compare overall Covid rates between the US and Holland, nor compare the efficacy of our governments, other than to say when I mentioned the Dutch government’s position to my daughter, she replied, “I love that we’re not the only idiots!”

What I want to explore is how consensus in a community can be a very comforting thing, especially during such difficult times. I mentioned already that in the absence of a mandate the Dutch people will tend to behave the same—that is, not wear masks.

Happily, I don’t have to worry about offending anyone in my community when I wear a mask. Of the 19 American respondents (all of whom are on my bike club, and are thus local), 17 believe masks help, and two chose “I really don’t know.” Regarding a nationwide mask mandate, 15 support it, three can’t decide, and only one opposes it. My American respondents’ comments tended to be about wide open spaces and the need to address regional differences but with consistent, national thresholds applied.

Suffice to say we’re all on the same page in my neighborhood. Contrast this to other parts of the U.S. where you can be hassled for wearing a mask, or for not wearing one, depending on your neighborhood and/or whom you happen to encounter. At least in California we have a statewide mandate, so wearing a mask doesn’t make much of a statement (other than “I don’t want to get in trouble with the law”). Nobody can differentiate between the “us” who only wear a mask because they’re required to, and the “them” who really believe masks are helpful (or vice-versa if you’re on the other side of the fence). So you have widespread adoption of a behavior that reduces the spread of the coronavirus, without all the social friction. I would love to see this be adopted nationwide, and I think this would help in the Netherlands as well. Anywhere, really.

Can the Dutch government change their tune?

Initially, the CDC in the U.S., along with the World Health Organization, discouraged the use of masks, but as more data have become available, both agencies have changed their position. Is it realistic to assume the Netherlands may eventually fall in line?

Well, it could be tricky politically. This Dutch News article points out, “Last week microbiologist and epidemiologist Amrish Baidjoe wrote an open letter to the cabinet urging ministers to back the wearing of masks indoors. He accused [RIVM Chief] Van Dissel and prime minister Mark Rutte of being worried about the damage to their image if they changed their mind. ‘They have been saying masks do not work for too long, and that makes it difficult to change,’ he said. ‘It is part of a trend of being far too definitive in communication about things which are not so certain.’”

It could be that this accusation is unfair, and/or the supposed fear of political embarrassment is unfounded. My (albeit tiny) survey suggests this. I asked how my Dutch respondents would feel if the government changed their minds and started requiring masks in public. Two chose the reply “I would be relieved because I think we’d be safer with a mask requirement” and the third chose “None of the above” and commented, “I would be annoyed because masks are annoying. However, if they made it mandatory they probably did it based on scientific research. This would make me relieved because that means there is a safer way to go out in public. If they did it without any reason I would pick option 3 [less respect for Dutch government].” Fair enough.

I asked specifically if the Dutch respondents would lose respect for their government simply for abandoning their initial position (i.e., for being wishy-washy). Two responded that “This wouldn’t affect my opinion of the Dutch government” and one added, “I like that the government bases the decisions on science and follows what the RIVM says about it. I realize new studies can show new things and I trust the RIVM in evaluating what studies are trustable.” The third respondent chose the response, “I would have more respect for Dutch government because they can admit when they’re wrong.”

Is there a quick fix?

Unfortunately, to get the Dutch government to change their position would require that new evidence be put in front of them, or that they take another look at existing studies … both of which would take precious time, while the rate of infection is climbing. Is there another, faster way forward?

There is! We don’t actually need to persuade the Dutch government that masks prevent airborne transmission of the coronavirus … we just need to give them other reasons why masks should be worn. I have come up with three very compelling ones.

First, if aligned with a powerful campaign of public service announcements, a mask mandate could increase social distancing behaviors. The key is to focus on a particular side effect of prolonged mask wearing: maskne. This is the problem of mask-induced acne, and as detailed here, it’s a real enough problem that “the Covid-19 task force of the American Academy of Dermatology (A.A.D.) felt compelled to release advice on the subject.” So, if a nation is required to wear masks in public, and masks cause maskne, what is the natural human reaction? To stay home! And that’s exactly what needs to happen. Too many people are going out there on stupid, needless errands just because they’re bored of being housebound. Well, boo hoo hoo … people are dying! If you hired a bold filmmaker like Lars von Trier to create an absolutely grotesque and graphic PSA video of mask-induced acne, with a tagline like “Maskne is not worth it … please just stay home,” the good people of Holland might do just that.

Next, we need to point out to the Dutch government a simple fact that so often goes unappreciated: masks can be very, very sexy. Just look at how beautiful and mysterious this woman looks:


The fact is, even if not all people are beautiful, almost everybody has pretty eyes. Alas, so often the effect of nice eyes is ruined by nose hair, unkempt beards, cigarette-stained teeth, or a weak chin. A mask easily hides these shortcomings. The trick is to furnish the Dutch people with elegant masks that actually enhance their appearance. It would be a pity if somebody spoiled the effect with an ill-advised design like one of these:



Finally, we need to impress upon the Dutch government that the pandemic is not the only global crisis right now: there’s also the economic turmoil that Covid-19 has wrought. It’s time to get businesses back on their feet, and masks can be a big part of that. How? One word: advertising. These pro cycling teams have the right idea:




If the Dutch government suddenly mandated the wearing of masks when in public, for these reasons alone and irrespective of masks’ efficacy in reducing airborne spread of the coronavirus, they could slow the spread of COVID-19 and eventually look like heroes to the Dutch people.

Appendix – Should we believe that masks help?

This study “provides evidence from a natural experiment on the effects of state government mandates for face mask use in public issued by fifteen states plus Washington, D.C., between April 8 and May 15, 2020 … Mandating face mask use in public is associated with a decline in the daily COVID-19 growth rate by 0.9, 1.1, 1.4, 1.7, and 2.0 percentage points in 1–5, 6–10, 11–15, 16–20, and 21 or more days after state face mask orders were signed, respectively. Estimates suggest that as a result of the implementation of these mandates, more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases were averted by May 22, 2020.”

Meanwhile, this publication declares, “In countries with cultural norms or government policies supporting public mask-wearing, per-capita coronavirus mortality increased on average by just 8.0% each week, as compared with 54% each week in remaining countries.”

The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) medical school is very highly respected, and I have all too much firsthand experience with their hospitals and medical centers, all of it positive. They published this very compelling article explaining why masks are helpful, and how the CDC and WHO came to reverse their earlier positions. Among other evidence, the article cites case studies from UC San Francisco epidemiologist George Rutherford, MD and infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong, MD: “In one case, a man flew from China to Toronto and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. He had a dry cough and wore a mask on the flight, and all 25 people closest to him on the flight tested negative for COVID-19. In another case, in late May, two hair stylists in Missouri had close contact with 140 clients while sick with COVID-19. Everyone wore a mask and none of the clients tested positive.”

Of course, you don’t need to believe any of this to support a worldwide mask mandate. The Netherlands should impose one for the indisputable social value of masks: their sex appeal, the advertising space, and the maskne-driven increase in improved shelter-in-place behaviors.

More reading on the pandemic 
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Saturday, August 22, 2020

From the Archives - Portrait of the Young Cyclist: Part 5


Vlog

This post is available as a vlog. Put it on the big screen and gather the whole family! Or, fire it up on your phone, add earbuds, and pretend it’s a podcast! Or go old-school and scroll down for the text version! Or do all of these sequentially! Mix-n-match!


Introduction

This post completes the tale, from my archives, of how I became a bike racer. In Part 1Part 2, and Part 3, I described how my early infatuation with the sport led to actually participating; the disastrous results of that doomed effort; and how even learning how to train failed to vault me to glory, with all my friends easily passing me by. Part 4 recounted significant progress but, alas, more failure. In this post, the series finale, I describe how cycling mediocrity came to undermine my closest friendships.

Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man – Part Five: The Final Insult (written in February 2003)

I took out another USCF license after the 1983 Red Zinger Mini Classic and got thrashed soundly in some more races. One was a stage race in Steamboat Springs, which I did with my mini-Zinger friend Aaron Pickett-Heaps. Aaron, fresh off of his second place overall finish in the Mini Zinger, beat my old friend J— in the Steamboat Springs road race. Aaron was pretty casual about this afterwards, apparently considering his placing to be a natural result of his strength and finesse. Here’s a photo of Aaron and me from that race.


To certain UCSF racers, like my friends N— and J—, who made no effort to hide their contempt for the Mini Zinger, Aaron’s attitude seemed audacious. It apparently didn’t occur to him to fall on his knees and kiss the ring, to plead with the patrons of the USCF Intermediate peloton to accept his result as a complete fluke. J— had a decidedly haughty reaction. He practically chewed me out for my association with this Aaron guy, this impostor, this upstart who thinks he’s fast just because of one top-five finish, this bozo who stubbornly refuses to admit that his result meant nothing. It was like J— was daring me to disagree with him.

I didn’t really know how to respond. After all, they were both my friends. I was tempted to just face the music and stick up for Aaron, and then it dawned on me that probably neither of them actually cared what side I was on. After all, who was I? Just a nobody who hadn’t placed high in the race and barely deserved to weigh in. So I kept my mouth shut, despising myself slightly for my disloyalty and cowardice.

I did a few more races without distinguishing myself, then went bike touring in Canada with my mom and my brother Bryan. Right after getting back—it might have actually been the very next day—I raced Mount Evans and got completely destroyed. It was a bad race even by my own humble standards, and at the time it felt, emotionally, like my poor showing had erased all the progress I’d made since 1981.

I hung out with a group of racers from my category after the finish, with everybody but me telling his war story (because I had no other story than “I went straight out the back as soon as the road tilted uphill”). I felt like an outsider, even though several in the group were my friends. Some guy I didn’t know said, “Hey, I don’t want this energy bar … do any of you?” I enthusiastically said, “Yeah!” He just stared at me with utter disgust, like it should have been obvious that his offer didn’t extend to me. He had said “any of you,” but this didn’t include me because, being totally slow and awkward and obviously uncool, I didn’t actually exist. It apparently pained him that I was blind to this reality.

Fortunately, N— and J— practically tripped over each other going to bat for me, which was really cool since they had such high profiles in the peloton. (I think J— had won the race.) Of course they risked nothing by doing this, since their social status was well assured in this group. Still, it meant a lot to me.

Okay, I had a little fun with that last paragraph. It was pure fiction. In reality, both J— and N— just sat there in the awkward silence as this dickhead stared at me contemptuously and I died of embarrassment. I guess I was such a pariah that even these two thought it best just to hang me out to dry. The least they could have done was accept the energy bar and then share it with me. Who knows, perhaps they kind of enjoyed the spectacle. Maybe this was my punishment for eking out meaningless non-USCF ersatz glory in the detestable little Mini Zinger event.

So my third year of racing failed to provide any real success, only more athletic disappointments and this new phenomenon of my friends becoming too good for me. You might wonder why, given all this, I stuck with this cruel sport. I’ve pondered this at length, and I think it simply had to do with cycling giving me rich experiences that were valuable to me irrespective of my race results. For example, I was learning all kinds of new rides, and completing them faster, and hitting higher speeds than ever before. The range of my training rides was ever-growing; for example, Aaron and I did a 130-mile ride over Trail Ridge Road, the highest pass in North America (details here). Sure, my competitors could humiliate me at the races, but they couldn’t ruin the sport for me.

Meanwhile, I knew I could expect to improve dramatically if I ever managed to hit puberty. “Just wait until your hormones come in,” my mom told me. True enough, most of my competitors already had leg and arm hair, visible musculature, and low voices. I was stick thin; my skin was as smooth as a Barbie doll’s; and my voice was like Mickey Mouse’s. It seemed like a pretty good deal to keep at this, knowing that Mother Nature still had something in store for me, a magic bullet I’d one day get, which my competitors had already used.

As for the social aspect, I had a few good reasons to cut my friends some slack. We were of junior high age, after all, when kids are like desperate free-floating atoms hoping to glom on to the right molecule, lest they get dragged into some distasteful compound. You take a talented, charismatic guy like N—: he was a respectable element like carbon. Diamonds are made out of this stuff! He felt he could be part of something cool, like steel. Perhaps he saw me as a much less substantial and more common element like hydrogen … and if carbon mixes with that, you get stinky methane. So I doubted my friends really begrudged me my athletic shortcomings per se. Rather, because I wasn’t fast and thus lacked the social confidence that would have gone with that, I was a social liability. N— and J— were still fairly new to this USCF cohort and you could never be too careful.

Now, acknowledging this was one thing, but I wasn’t going to suck up to them. Bike racing was supposed to be a rebel’s sport anyway, right? All the ball players shunned us; why mimic their snobbery in our own little pond? Instead of falling in line and subordinating myself to my friends—who had once been my social equals, after all—I went my own way.

I’ll share two recollections that illustrate this. First, in the spring I got a new helmet. My old helmet was destroyed when it was run over by my mom’s car. (How it came to be placed right behind the wheel was never explained; at the time I was sure one of my brothers was involved.) My mom was good and pissed off but, being a mom, dutifully drove me to the bike shop for a replacement. Alas, they were all out of the Bell Biker, which was the old standby, worn by virtually everybody in those days (the outliers being the occasional Skid Lid or Bell Prime). All the shop had was the new Bell Tourlite, which was supposed to be fancy but was actually the nerdiest-looking helmet Bell ever made. It had sharp-edged, narrow, stylized vents and a dopey looking visor that extended about an inch and a half and was made of tinted clear plastic.


Plus its name had “Tour” in it, and everybody knew tourists were major dorks. The helmet cost $55 (which was more than the Biker and a fortune in those days), and I knew even at the time that if I made enough of a fuss and/or argued the financial perspective my mom would take me elsewhere and get a Bell Biker.

But somehow, after pondering the knowledge that this Tourlite would offend my friends’ aesthetic and social sensibilities, I decided to go for it. I got it home, read the package insert, and learned that I could remove the visor, which made it a lot less nerdy looking. My brothers, riding me incessantly about my ugly new helmet, begged me to ditch the visor, for the good of the family name. I thought over how this would be a step in the right direction, socially, and … I left it on! Take that, “cool” friends! I dare you to be seen in public with me! I double-dog dare ya!

The first time I wore that helmet, I was riding down the Broadway bike path and saw J— riding up the other way. He stopped dead, and called out. I stopped, and he asked what was with the new helmet. He was horrified. I might as well have had a cartoon penis tattooed on my forehead. I could have pleaded innocence, and talked about how it was all the shop had and that my parents made me get it, but I simply said it was my new helmet. He asked why I didn’t get another Biker, and I just shrugged.

(I did eventually remove the visor, or maybe it broke. You can see the horrible helmet sans visor in the first photo of this post. Look at the raised ridges at the very front: that was so you could ratchet the visor up and down.)

The other example of my mild rebellion was an incident that occurred during a training ride with J— and N— and a couple other guys, on the Morgul Bismark circuit. We saw a lone rider coming the other way. We recognized him as a random Mini Zinger guy none of us knew very well. When he saw us he turned around and, after sprinting to catch up to us, rode right up to me, and said, “Dana, I just wanted you to know that my sister is totally in love with you.”

I was speechless. This announcement hit me like a 50-foot wave. No girl had shown interest in me in years, not since I’d gone to the shed with L— when I was eight. That said, this guy’s statement actually confirmed something I’d already suspected. (I’d met the sister at a Mini Zinger qualifying race, where I’d done well, so I was in my element, feeling more confident and sociable than usual.) And she was really cute. I pondered this information silently for awhile, while the brother became more and more uncomfortable because nobody else was saying anything to him either. In fact, I think I had just enough of a view outside my adolescent girl-pondering haze to detect a bit of the cold shoulder coming from the others. “Anyhow, I just thought you should know that,” he said, and then turned around again and rode off.

We pedaled on for a bit, and then J— rode up beside me and said, “Uh, Dana, I hate to break it to you, but that isn’t a guy we really associate with.” Again, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Who was “we,” anyway? Since when was there a Board of Admissible Cohorts? J—, thinking maybe I didn’t understand, continued, “So you really shouldn’t hang around him.” This almost sounded like a threat. By this time I’d figured out a pretty good defense: I’d actually never hung out with this kid in my life, didn’t even know him, hadn’t encouraged the interaction, and was minding my own business when he decided all on his own to circle around and come tell me about his sister. I could have said all of this, but I was irked at the implication that I should.

I either said nothing, or the 1983 equivalent of “Whatever, dude.” J— seemed a little cool toward me for the rest of the ride (or at least I perceived that he did). I don’t think he appreciated my apparent lack of interest in playing by the new rules, and accepting his role as social gatekeeper. Maybe he thought I was being insolent, refusing to accept his dominant position in our pecking order. Certainly he saw me as drifting dangerously toward being one of those guys “we” don’t really associate with.

In fact, I was drifting in that direction. How far did my drift take me? Well, it is true that J— and N— associated with me less and less. It was perhaps fortuitous that J— and I went to different junior high schools, so he never had to decide whether to be seen with me there. N— kept me at arm’s length and even explained his position, which was that I was just a bit of a “social outcast.” That was the term he used. It become kind of a joke between us, but I was the butt of it. He was a year ahead of me, so in the fall he was no longer at the same school anyway. (Was he himself a big man on campus? Not that I could see, but then I didn’t fancy myself an expert.)

The next year (fall of ’84), I headed to high school where J— would once again be a classmate. We completely ignored each other there, which was weird since we’d been friends since first grade. We literally never even greeted each other in the hallways. We still rode together occasionally, and on one such occasion I lamented the erosion of our friendship. J— replied, “Hey, we’re still friends … you’re like my confidant!” Fair point, but of course the reason he could confide in me is that he no longer cared what I thought of him. He’d moved on.

None of this would have bothered me—I mean, friends do drift apart—except that as far as I could see, nothing had changed except this pecking order within the cycling realm … a realm that nobody at our high school could have cared less about. It really did feel, at the time, like my place in the sport had cost me these friendships.

Epilogue

What you have read above (and in previous installments) is all I managed to finish back in 2003 when I originally wrote this memoir. After that I kind of ran out of steam and felt like the tale was just getting depressing. Notably, things got much better after my fourth year, but that wasn’t a tale I ever felt compelled to tell.

Now it’s time to give you the rest of the story, lest you come away thinking this sport broke me. That was not the case. In fact, it’s truer to say the sport made me.

I kept racing. The next year (1984) was a disaster. I was a bit distracted by my parents’ divorce and changing schools, but I basically stayed at it, doing my first all-UCSF season. In 1985, miracle of miracles, I finally hit puberty, and suddenly all those miles I’d put in over the years suddenly paid off. It was like I’d spent four years winding up a huge spring, and it suddenly sproinged. Lo and behold, I was pretty fast!

I returned to the Mini Classic circuit (it was now a three-stage-race series) and started making the podium regularly. I befriended the winner of the Mini Zinger, Peter Stubenrauch, and he remains one of my closest friends. (We still get together for epic rides, like this one last summer.) I finally found success in the USCF ranks as well. Collegiate racing went even better, in terms of both results and the friends I made. After graduating and joining the workforce, I’ve continued to race here and there, and I never stopped riding. For the last five years I’ve coached high school mountain bike racers in the NICA program.

I’d never had specific goals for this sport (I’m not a big “goals” guy in general, as detailed here), but setting aside the godawful slow and frustrating start you’ve so patiently read about, cycling has been very, very good to me, surpassing anything I could have hoped to get out of it. And actually, those frustrating first years were probably the most important ones of all. After making it through that much failure, I didn’t have much fear … competitively, socially, or otherwise. For me, cycling is not about winning races or being popular. It’s about showing up, riding, staying fit, and never quitting.

In lieu of describing bike racing years 5 through 39, here are some photos and captions.


Horsetooth Mini Classic, 1985, 2nd in the criterium. That’s Peter on the top step.


Red Zinger Mini Classic, 1985, 3rd in the NCAR hill climb time trial. Pete won again; second was David Anthes, who went on to win the Collegiate National Championship road race in 1989.


Red Zinger Mini Classic, 1985, 2nd in the Old Stage road race. David and Pete again. My purple jersey is for the King of the Mountains competition. (Pete was the real KOM but he already had the leader’s jersey, and the race organizers wanted all the jerseys out on the road.) I ended up second overall (behind Pete) and David was third.


Here are a couple of my teammates in the ’85 Zinger. That’s Andy Caplan on the left and Mark Syrene on the right. Funny story: the race director hated me, so after the preliminary qualifying races, he stacked my team roster with riders who’d barely made the cutoff for Division 1. During the two weeks between the prelims and the actual Mini Zinger I took Andy and Mark out for some rides, to get to know them and help shore up their skills where possible. I’d known Andy from swimming so I knew he was a good athlete. They both rode really well in the Mini Zinger and we ended up winning the overall team competition. The next year, the organizers broke the 15-16 age category in two since there were so many riders. Andy landed in one age group, Mark in the other, and they both won their categories!


Pete didn’t race the 1985 Denver Mini Classic, and I won. (I discovered that it felt much more awkward to be on the top step of the podium … my arms seemed too long.) I always assumed Pete’s parents made him skip this race, to leave some glory for the other riders. But actually, as Pete told me recently, his parents just hadn’t felt like driving him to the race. I owe them one!


I don’t have many photos from my collegiate racing years, but I did get this cool award.


In 1990, I was on the UC Santa Barbara team that won the Collegiate National Championship team time trial. Details here.


This is the penultimate switchback on Alpe d’Huez in the 2006 La Marmotte “cyclosportif.” I raced this twice; details are here and here.


At an early season mountain bike race in 2018, I made the podium. This was pleasantly novel … it had been 27 years since I’d last stood on one. Details are here.


The Albany High Cougars team I coached won the Division 2 title for the 2018-19 season. Coaching these kids was a total blast, and I’m happy to note that everyone got along swimmingly … nothing but support, goodwill, and camaraderie.


It’s funny how well I remember that first season as a wannabe bike racer, after so very many intervening years.

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Friday, August 14, 2020

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné Stage 3


Introduction

Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc in the sporting world, leaving fans worldwide with nothing to look at but their phones and their pets. Lately the sport of cycling has started to get back on its feet, with all the wobble of a newborn deer. The first stage race of the season was not the Tour of Sweden, as reported in these pages, for the simple reason that the race didn’t actually happen (my coverage having been entirely fictional). But today, I return to the armchair to deliver my essentially nonfiction blow-by-blow report of an actual race.


Critérium du Dauphiné 2020 Stage 3 – Corenc - Saint-Martin-de-Belleville

Today’s race, the third of five stages in this year’s Dauphiné, could be pivotal as it ascends the legendary hors-categorie Col de la Madeleine  before tackling a summit finish on the first-category climb at Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, where the heroes of the movie “Les Triplettes de Belleville” hail from. (Note: I do not have a fact-checker.)

As I join the action, the racers are way ahead of schedule, and I see I’ve missed the entire Col de la Madeleine, which was the whole point of tuning in today. Well, I guess that’s not totally true … I’m off work today and haven’t seen a single bike race this year, so I suppose I’d have turned up anyway. So they’re just descending. “Jumbo-Visma are still leading the peloton as they make their way down this descent,” the ever-insightful commentator says. You know what dude? I can see who’s in front. Tell me something interesting, would you?

Not that he hasn’t tried. He has been droning on this morning about some color-coded helmet proposal but I haven’t had any coffee yet and it’s fricking early and I couldn’t follow a word of it. So I’m pretty bitter. It’s just the one commentator and he’s not exactly a master orator. He has that kind of bored and slightly whiny voice that just sucks the excitement out of everything. Plus, his commentary is totally non-insightful and anodyne. “He’s got a punchy style, his whole body moves when he rides out of the saddle,” he declares of one rider. This means nothing. As does, “Wout van Aert continues to turn the pedals on the front.” Well what else is he gonna do? Coast at the front?

So, leading the race we have Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates), who has about a five-minute lead on the peloton. Well, his lead dropped a bit while I made coffee. He’s through with the descent and has 25 km to ride.


The commentator is musing aloud about whether each rider should have the same number throughout the season, and is weaving in a discussion about Michael Jordan’s number that I couldn’t care less about. My irritation is almost absolute here.

Formolo is on the final climb now. He looks pretty bad, but also pretty young.


It’s a mountain-top finish so most of the final 14 km are uphill. Back in the peloton, Jumbo-Visma still leads the chase.


I’ll catch you up on what’s happened in the first couple stages. The first was won by Wout Van Aert of Jumbo-Visma, and was already his third victory of this very short season. The second stage went to Primoz Roglic, also of Jumbo-Visma, who is also having a brilliant season and has to be the favorite not just for the Dauphiné but for the Tour de France, which starts in a couple of weeks. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) took second yesterday, followed by Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrophe), and that’s pretty much your GC going into today’s stage.

This announcer has nobody to talk to. I guess NBC wouldn’t spring for the extra cost. So he sounds kind of lonely. I feel sorry for him. He’s asking fans questions and I think there’s only one other fan watching because it takes about five minutes to get a response, which the commentator duly relates to us, by which time I’ve almost forgotten the question.

Formolo is bogging down on the climb. It’s like a 10% grade.


The pack is still pretty huge. Team Ineos has all their riders except Chris Froome, who has struggled to regain form after missing like a year of riding due to a horrific crash during last year’s Dauphiné.

I’ve seen exactly one fan watching this race, all by his lonesome by the side of the road. Didn’t have a mask. Should he? Well, these racers are breathing pretty hard…

Bob Jungels is … well, not exactly attacking. He’s just social-distancing from the peloton. He’ll be caught soon enough. I failed to get a photo. I don’t mean I neglected to get a photo—I actually failed. I hit PrtSc and I think I needed Fn-PrtSc. I’m a little rusty here.

Wow, Formolo is really suffering.


Formolo is down to only 4:13 over the peloton and looks as tired as I feel. The difference is, I have no real reason to be tired.

“Formolo has a drink, just to prevent dehydration,” the commentator uselessly and haplessly says. Couldn’t this guy just make something up? “Formolo has a drink, due to his oral fixation. He used to suck Life Savers during races until, ironically, he choked on one and almost died.

Here’s Jumbo-Visma at the front again. I think that young dude in the back is the American Sepp Kuss.


Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) is pretty near the front. Meanwhile, his teammate Michal Kwiatkowski is spat out the back. His directeur sportif says to him over the earpiece, “I’m waaaatchin’ you, Kwiatkowski … always watchin.’”


The gap is just under 3 minutes now, with about 8 km to go. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) goes out the back.


The gap is down to 2:30 as Steven Kruijswijk  leads the Jumbo-Visma train. His teammate Tom Dumoulin is also near the front.


Poor Formolo. He’s pretty much underwater. “What the hell was I thinking?” he ponders lugubriously.


Dumoulin takes the lead. Roglic is stoked to have such kickass teammates.


We have an attack! It’s Buchmann, who sits third on GC. He isn't far back so the others will have to take this attack very seriously. 


Daaaamn, Buchmann has a pretty big gap, very quickly! He’s hiding in that shaded box at the lower right of your screen. I’m not sure this actually obscures him from the chasers, but he’s gotta try.


Jumbo-Visma still has a lock on the front of the peloton.


Wow, Thomas is dropped! It doesn’t come through in the still photo, but he really looks like crap.


At some point Buchmann was caught and it’s now his teammate Lennard Kamna a bit off the front of the peloton. You know what? It was Kamna all along. No wonder they gave him some leash.


Now Kruijswijk detonates and goes out the back.


And now Dumoulin is dropped! Pretty remarkable considering his success in grand tours. Of course, due to nagging injury he hasn’t raced since like a year ago June.


Amazingly, Formolo is still off the front, with a gap of almost a minute, with less than one km to go! It looks like he might actually get this! He doesn’t radiate confidence, exactly, but he doesn’t look psychologically shattered, either. He mainly looks like he could use a little more air.


Back in the bunch, only Kuss is still there to help set up Roglic (and shell all his would-be competition). Kuss is a total badass, needless to say. He’s a former mountain bike racer from Durango, Colorado who won a stage of last year’s Vuelta. Oddly, it appears only one Ineos rider is left in this group. I think it’s Pavel Sivakov, who is also a character in a Chekov short story (no he’s not). If you look carefully you can see Roglic tucked snugly in behind Kuss. And the guy two more riders back is picking his nose.


It’s only a couple hundred more meters to the line and Formolo’s lead is still holding up! The chasers are nowhere in sight, but then it’s a twisty run-in so they could be closer than we think.


In the GC group, Roglic finally busts a move! He quickly gets a gap.


Amazing! Formolo pulls off the win! I did not see this coming. He really put the pussy on the chain wax!


A few things worth pointing out here. First, that motorcycle is a damn tricycle. Why on earth is that necessary? Second, look at the crowds! People packed in there like COVID wasn’t a thing! What the hell? What, are they all American tourists or something? And finally, what’s with all the cowboy hats? Is that supposed to stop the virus?

Behind, Roglic utterly crushes the rest of his group and cruises in to pick up the bonus points for second place, padding his GC lead. Only Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) seems able to respond, but it’s not enough.


Weirdly, the crowd is doing this synchronized clapping thing and it’s giving me the willies. It’s as if they want to show off the fact that they’re all gathered together (!) in a big mob, and the coordinated clapping is their way of saying, “We could be a super-spreader event!”

Formolo is being interviewed. “We were in the break from the start, already before the Madeleine, I said to myself maybe I get some space between the bunch, and then I was alone up and down in the valley, and on the last climb I didn’t know if I could make it, and I see there would not possible to make big time in the break, so I thought maybe I do it. My English is normally a bit better than this. I have no oxygen in my brain. Thank you for covering that mic with plastic wrap. I’m sure that will help with the coronavirus.” (Please note that these riders often talk kind of fast and don’t always articulate too well, so my account of their words is best-effort and not necessarily verbatim. Also, I sometimes just make shit up.)


Here is the stage result. Note that Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) somehow never made a move and wasn’t even in the top ten. Buchmann came in just behind Pinot to defend his podium spot on GC.


Here’s Formolo on the podium.


Oh no! His mask slipped! That could get him DQ’d!


Here is Roglic getting his yellow jersey.


And now Formolo gets the KOM jersey.


You may be wondering why Formolo has no mask in the above photo. Actually, if certain very specific rules are followed, the rider can take off his mask when on the podium. The first rule is that he has to be on the top step of the podium and the dignitaries (I call them dignitaries but one was in acid-wash mom-jeans which is hardly dignified) must be at least six feet away. The second rule is that the rider is not allowed to open his mouth when unmasked. (Mona Lisa smiles only, please.) The third rule is that the rider can be unmasked only long enough for a photo to be snapped, which (with this ambient lighting) equates to a shutter speed of about 1/60th of a second. Formolo nailed it!

They’re interviewing Roglic. “It was hard. It was a hard day. It was a hard day of racing. It was the racing that made the day hard. We wanted to defend the jersey and keep the focus and we had to go quite fast at the end. I think we showed that we have strong guys around and we can be confident and focused. I learned this word ‘focused’ just today, earlier today. Did I use it right?” It’s noteworthy that Roglic’s eyes were closed for the entire interview. This is because his interviewer was fewer than six feet away. This isn’t Roglic’s first rodeo, you know … he is well aware that COVID-19 can be spread through aerosol particles entering via your eyes.


Here’s the Froome group rolling in about fifteen minutes down.


God, again with the synchronized clapping. It’s really creeping me out. Fortunately, the coverage abruptly ends, with the closing music totally drowning out the final, mealy-mouthed and unnecessary words of the incompetent commentator (or “incompentator,” as they’re known in the business).

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Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.