On Lance Armstrong and Doping

Most fans of professional cycling are aware of the continuing and growing pursuit of Lance Armstrong by the USADA, the American anti-doping agency. Bill Strickland, a journalist who followed Lance for years and became close to him during that time, wrote an article at Bicycling.com in which he implies that someone in the know (Lance? someone else?) has all but admitted that doping happened during his career.

I’ve been chewing over my own thoughts on the matter, hoping to collect them in a blog article. Commenter “BLeitch”, however, left a comment on the above-mentioned article that pretty much summarizes my opinion (except the first paragraph, as I am a particular fan of Lance, and always will be.)

Here’s a reprint of that comment:

I am not a particular fan or defender of Lance. I would rather see an old tape of Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Rolf Sorenson battling Miguel and Claudio. But the situation is not nearly as wrenching or difficult as described in the article or commented upon above. Some simple facts:

  1. Lance did something no one else has ever done in history. He won 7 tours.

  2. Podium finishers have been doping since at least the sixties…probably earlier. All of his competitors on the podium were admitted or convicted dopers.

  3. No competitor has called him a “cheater” in a competition. The concept of “cheating” requires “non-cheating” competing riders who might have won had you not “cheated.” A doper is not a cheater when everyone in the top twenty in GC has doped. The second and third place guys do not think of themselves as losing cheaters—just as less successful than the guy who won.

  4. Either he did something truly and completely unthinkable—won seven tours while all the competition was doping and he wasn’t—or he did something almost as amazing, but more comprehensible—won seven tours in a row preparing in basically the same way everyone else prepares pharmaceutically, but with more focus and diligence in every other area. There is no conceivable argument that what he did in winning seven tours is not amazing, even if one assumes the doping. Nobody else in history could do it or has done it. Hundreds of guys, at least, have doped trying to do it.

  5. The reason he won seven tours in a row is not that he may have been taking performance enhancing drugs—you could give the same drugs to most of the peloton without the same result ( and it is proven that many people did receive the same drugs and didn’t get the same result)—the reason he got the results is that he was extraordinary and his team and preparation were extraordinary.

  6. As extraordinary as Lance was, it is important to keep his success in context. He wasn’t a great Classics winner or a winner of the Giro or the Vuelta. He is very impressive in the Tour, but there is a long list of guys from the past who were more impressive on an all-around basis, when you take into account the other grand tours and the Classics. As an all-around bicycle racer he is not in the same galaxy as Eddie.

  7. Not any of those more impressive guys have begun to do as much as Lance has done outside of cycling. Whatever you think of his cycling accomplishments, his accomplishments in funding cancer research and awareness are truly extraordinary and his likely doping (as opposed to cheating) doesn’t take away from that in any way. (If a guy funded as much cancer research and awareness based on counting cards in Vegas, would that detract from his greatness on matters relating to cancer?)

  8. A true cycling fan will love Lance for what he has done and what he is still doing. What he has done and is doing is not subject to any further investigation or debate.

  9. Celebrate and honor what Lance has done. You can dwell on the other stuff if you want to, or you can get the same feeling by reading the tabloid press about any celebrity (much of which is also true but does not detract from the amazing things done by some of its subjects).

  10. Whether or not Lance ever once took performance enhancing drugs in his life has pretty much no bearing on any of the foregoing.

The 2012 edition of the 101km de Ronda

Last Saturday morning, I headed up to Ronda, to join 7,000 other participants in the 2012 edition of the famous 101km de Ronda — organized by the La Legion Española military organization. (And let me assure you, nobody other than an army could handle the logistics of such an undertaking!) The event involves mountain biking (the sane ones) or running (the insane ones) over 101 kilometers of mountainous trails, through the beautiful Serrania de Ronda.

A bad start.

Last year, I arrived at the Ronda football stadium 15 minutes before the 11am start, and by a sheer stroke of luck was able to move up to the center of the bunch, to meet up with my Marbella cycling buddies. This year, I arrived two hours early, so we could all enter the football stadium together.

Very. Bad. Idea.

Whereas last year it was rainy and cold, this year it was hot. I mean, really hot. Standing with my bike, packed in the middle of 3,500 other cyclist, waiting for the race to start, and already suffering from the heat at 9:30 in the morning, I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be a great day.

A mild winter didn’t prepare us for this heat.

Having had a relatively mild winter this year, all of my training took place in cool temperatures. This was literally the very first hot day of the year, and I was told the temperatures reached over 38 degrees Celcius (100 degrees Fahrenheit)!

Not even 30 kilometers into the ride, and I started getting cramps in my left calf. And it got worse throughout the day. Cramps in both calves. Cramps in my inner thigh. Cramps in my achilles heel area. And, finally, cramps in my triceps. My triceps!

Carnage everywhere.

Every time I passed a shady spot, I’d see three or four cyclists laying on the ground. I saw people at the rest stations with IV drips in their arms. And with only 8 kilometers to go, I saw a military vehicle absolutely full of people quitting and being transported back. Having suffered through 92 km, they couldn’t make the final 8.

Purgatory.

The last 30 kilometers of the race — known affectionately as “Purgatory” — are the worst. After passing the military cuartel checkpoint, you have to climb a brutal trail up to the “Ermita de Montejaque”, including about a kilometer so steep it’s pratically impossible to stay on the bike. Traditionally, from that point, it’s a 20 km rolling ride back to Ronda, where the final “Cuesta del Cachondeo” awaits — a short, but vertical climb up the cliff over which the city of Ronda was built.

This year, however, they had a little surprise for us; they replaced that 20 km rolling section with another climb — an awfully steep section of bumpy, twisty trails that were impossible to bike. Everybody — everybody! — was off their bike walking.

At some point on that climb, I looked down through the sweaty fog at my Garmin GPS, and saw 20 km remaining, and thought, “OMG, there is no way I can finish this race. I just can’t do this for another 20 km!”. But then I heard somebody tell their friend we only had 13 km to go. What!?!

Then it hit me — my GPS was still on “auto-pause” mode, whereby it stops the clock anytime I’m not moving. Obviously, the times during the day when I’d been walking the bike, the GPS had stopped!

OK, 13km to go is much better than 20, so I soldiered on.

Mac! Mac!

When I arrived to the “Cuesta del Cachondeo”, I decided to try to ride up it, as walking immediate triggered more cramping in my legs. But then about halfway up, I hear, “Mac! Mac!” I look up, and see that it’s my buddy Paco Rosado (who calls me Mac), walking his bike about two zig-zags up the rocky path. When I caught up, I decided to walk with him, but it was impossible. Cramps. Cramps. Cramps. So I remounted the bike, and rode the rest of the way up, and waited for him at the top.

We rode into the finish line together, very happy to have finished, and very happy the ordeal was over!

Only after I finished, did I begin to realize how hard the day had generally been on everybody. The straps of my helmet were absolutely caked with sald. One of my other buddies apparently lost consciousness for 15 minutes and had to be attended by ambulance. The medical tent was full of dehydrated bikers and walkers with IVs in their arms. And there was an abundance of stories of cramps and suffering.

But am I looking forward to next year? I can’t wait! That’s the strange thing about the 101 km de Ronda.

El Peseta!

In the good-news column, I was happy to learn that local cyclist Jose “El Peseta” Marquez, having returned to cycling after some years away won the bike race, breaking the course record. (What a year to break the record. Increible!)

The Wife.

Special thanks to the wife, who supported me as always. Normally she’s one of the insane ones who runs the 101km. But this year she skipped the event, getting ready for a 215 km event coming up in June.

Cycling — Yunquera to Ronda

Today, on a beautiful November Sunday morning, we packed up the car and headed out to the town of Yunquera, Spain, about an hour’s drive from Marbella. While the wife and kids did a hike in the Sierra de las Nieves, I took the opportunity to do some road cycling — from Yunquera to Ronda, and back.

The route — which is spectacularly beautiful (and, really, what isn’t around Andalucia?) — leaves Yunquera, almost at the altitude of the Puerto de las Abejas (820m), and then dives right down to the town of El Burgo.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6341322064

http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6341323096

From there, it’s a wonderful, curvy, long mountain climb towards the Puerto del Viento (1190m). The climb passes initially through forests, with a stunning view on the left down to the Fuensanta trail and steep river valley, after which it breaks open into the rocky (and still steep) terrain leading up to the Puerto del Viento.

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From the (very windy!) Puerto del Viento, the freshly paved open road winds down into Ronda. It’s a surprising drop in altitude from the Puerto to Ronda, so take time for a coffee and rest before turning around to head back! All in all, it was a super route — about 70km in total.

Following are some additional photos from the ride:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6340575735

http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6340576451

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http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6340579531

And below is the trip map (and downloadable GPS track) from Garmin Connect:

Cycling through the chestnut valley

It’s October, and that means it’s the season for the chestnut harvest in the nearby Valle del Genal.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6250260653

We left Marbella this morning around 10am, heading up the Carretera de Ronda where we stopped (as usual) at the Venta Navisillo for a late-morning breakfast. It was an absolutely beautiful morning — cool, crisp, sunny and blue. Perfect for a bike ride.

Continue reading Cycling through the chestnut valley

Homenaje de los 101km de Ronda.

Each year in March, “La Sufrida” organize an event in Ronda, Spain, in homage to their annual “101km of Ronda” race (which takes place in May). The March “Homenaje,” just like its big brother in May, offers three modes of participation — a 69 km mountain bike ride, a 44 km run or a 70 km duathlon (run and bike). Last weekend, Pino and I participated in the event — her doing the run (crazy, I know), and me doing the mountain bike ride.

Continue reading Homenaje de los 101km de Ronda.

Lance Armstrong's War

For quite some time now, my primary way to read books has been the Palm device. eBooks, as they are known, can be stored on the Palm’s external memory card, allowing me to carry around practically an entire library. The Palm eReader application lets me take notes, create bookmarks, and remembers my current position in the book.

The only real problem I’ve had with eBooks has been the fact that their publication typically lags the print version by several months. But not anymore. Today I read that a new book on Lance Armstrong, “Lance Armstrong’s War”, was recently released. I checked eReader.com, and there it was! Yahoo! Just what the doctor ordered as I prepare to watch Lance this Saturday afternoon kick-off his final bid to win the world’s greatest bicycle race, the Tour de France. If he does so, it’ll be his seventh consecutive win of the race, something that is likely to be never repeated again.

Equipo Marbellero Bate el Record!

El equipazo de Matt Henderson y Carlos Cortes, trabajando duramente y con mucha colaboracion, ha batido el record mundial de ir en bici desde Marbella hasta Benahavis y volver en el tiempo mas largo. Hoy, Domingo, 4 Enero 2004, han hecho el recorrido (entero!) en un tiempo extrordinario — 2:05.

“Hoy hemos comenzado nuestro programa de entrenamiente de 2004. Como dicen los profesionales, el primer dia hay que salir tranquilamente. (Para no tener agujetas mañana.) A nuestro ritmo, hemos disfrutado la mañana, viendo el paisaje, incluso las lagartijas subiendo la rocas.” comentó Matt Henderson, un top-ciclista de Marbella.

Photo Finish

Months of training finally produced some results today. For the first time since my injury last year, I was able to stay with the pack in the mountains. We rode from Marbella to Ojén, then to Coín, and then to the mountain-top finish at the “Parador de Juanar“. I started off slow, even dropping on the climb to Ojen, but then recovered well, felt strong, and finished just a few meters behind some of the top people in Juanar.

Top cyclist, good friend, and reliable photographer Diego was there to capture the moment — and chop off my head — with a photo finish snapshot celebrating the best day of my season. 🙂

Congratulations Lance Armstrong!

I’ve been an avid cyclist, cycling fan and Lance Armstrong fan, since, well, longer than I prefer to remember or state here. So you can bet that for a good portion of every July you’ll find me glued to the tele watching the Tour de France. (One of the benefits of living in Europe and being the company boss. 🙂

This year was a special Tour, as the American Lance Armstrong went for an amazing fifth consecutive win at the world’s largest and most important bicycle race, to join the mythic likes of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only cyclist in history to win five Tours. When you couple this with the fact that Armstrong was near death just a few years ago suffering from cancer, his story just becomes truly epic.

The 2003 tour turned out to be a nail-biter to say the least, probably the best since 1989!

Stage 1 saw a mass sprint crash that took out American up-and-comer, Levi Leipheimer with a broken tailbone, and resulted in a fractured collarbone for the American favorite Tyler Hamilton. (The crashed was caused by the same inexperienced Team Kelme rider that took out Mario Cipollini in this year’s Giro de Italia. They need to get that guy outta there!) Even Lance himself was caught in the crash (but fortunately not hurt).

Lance appeared far from his best during the stages in the Alps, when it was learned that he came into the Tour with a bit of stomach problems (and, later revealed, a bit of hip tendonitis.) He was attacked left and right by the likes of Iban Mayo and (the surprisingly strong) rival Joseba Beloki. Tracking Beloki seem to be the best Lance could manage. Just seeing his face during the climbs, one could tell he wasn’t the same as in past years.

Then things really got bad when Armstrong, whose dominance has always been in the Individual Time Trail, lost over a minute and a half to the German powerhouse Jan Ullrich! During the stage, Armstrong lost over 6 kg (10 lbs!) due to a mysterious case of dehydration. (Later Armstrong revealed that he himself thought his tour was over at this point.)

The following stages in the Pyrenees mountains saw Armstrong struggling to just keep up with his rivals, while his body slowly recuperated from the dehydration. Smelling blood, his key rivals such as Ullrich and the Russian Vinokourov tried their best to drop the American.

Bad luck came to Joseba Beloki, trying to break a string of second-place Tour finishes, descending a mountain with Lance on his wheel. He entered a hairpin turn too fast, and locked the back wheel. Trying to compensate by braking on the front, he tossed himself over the handlebars and cracked his hip and arm in the fall. His race was over. Armstrong showed the abilities of a champion, when Beloki’s fall left nowhere to go except into a field! Reacting in an instant, Armstrong used his mountain biking skills to navigate the farmland stretch to rejoin the race course about 50 meters below. It was amazing! (The race judges agreed not to penalize him for cutting the course short. 😉

The key stage for Armstrong came during the next-to-last mountain stage, at Luz Ardiden. This mountain-top finish was the make or break section of the race for Armstrong. With only a 15 second lead over Ullrich, he needed to gain serious time on the German if he was to have any chance to win after the final individual time trial. Ullrich made a tactical mistake attacking Armstrong on the day’s penultimate climb, and gave the American the confidence he needed to launch a major attack on the final climb.

But then disaster struck!

Some fan on the side of the road, just a bit too close to the action, hooked Armstrong’s handlebars with his souvenir bag, and brought Lance crashing to the ground. Iban Mayo crashed on top of Lance, slightly cracking his (Armstrong’s) Trek bicycle frame. Both riders got up and took off… Then as Lance tried to change gear, the rear derailleur stuck (from misalignment due to the cracked bicycle frame). Lance’s foot popped out of the pedal (from force!) and he darn near crashed again!

But then one of the highlights of the entire Tour came, as Jan Ullrich and Tyler Hamilton displayed examples of true sportsmanship by waiting for Armstrong to rejoin the group. (It’s an unwritten gentleman’s rule that the racing stops when the leader crashes, until it’s determined whether he’s continue or not.)

The surge of adrenaline from his crash boosted a desperate Armstrong to launch his second, key attack on the Luz Ardiden. Ullrich couldn’t follow. Mayo tried, and failed. Lance was off once again on his way to a stage win, and another spectacular display of superiority that we were used to seeing in past years, and by the top, taking a full minute out of Ullrich. More than the gained time was the regained confidence, and possibly the blow to Ullrich’s.

And so it would all come down to the final time trail. A show-down between Lance and Jan for the rights to the Yellow Jersey the following day in Paris. Who would win? Lance lost 1:36 to Jan in the first time trial. But Lance was dehydrated. Lance was down. Now Lance was back in form, and the German knew it.

The next days leading up to the final time trail produced one of the greatest individual stage finishes in the Tour’s history. Tyler Hamilton, riding with a cracked collarbone and having suffered more than anyone could imagine during the tour, attacked on the last mountain stage, and rode over 100 km in isolation, holding off the charging pelaton, to single-handedly win the biggest stage victory of his life. It was really something to see. To do that under normal conditions would be something, but to do it with a cracked collarbone was simply incredible. Allez Tyler! The Man from Marblehead (or as my friend Niall says, “The Man with a Marble Head”!)

Well, the day of the final time trial arrived. Ullrich need to beat Lance by one minute and five seconds to win the Tour. Difficult, yes, but not impossible for the German known to end his Tours with increasing strength.

Rain and wind made for some of the most treacherous racing conditions ever. Over 40 cyclist had crashed by the time Ullrich and Armstrong left the starting blocks. After the first time check, the two were within a second of each other. By the second time check, the situation hadn’t changed. Ullrich (knowing this) then began to take some risks. At first he gained time on Lance, up to five seconds (but far from the 65 he needed), but then crashed in stunning style in a round-about. He must have slid several meters before finally hitting the hay bells (face first!) Disoriented and possibly panicked, he jumped back on the bike and nearly crashed in the next turn. He went on to finish the stage, in fourth place on the day — even losing a few seconds to Armstrong.

For Lance, he knew that he’d won the Tour. Having heard of Ullrich’s crash in the helmet radio, he slowed down to reduce the risk of crashing, and finished the day’s stage in third place. Ullrich later explained that he took the risks to win the stage, as by the second time check he knew he wasn’t going to take enough time from Lance to win the Tour.

(As a side note, Armstrong averaged about 53 km/hour in that time trial. Yesterday I was descending a mountain on my bike at 50 km/hour, thinking how unbelievable it must be to have the strength to motor oneself on the flats at 53 km/hour!)

The following day’s stage to Paris saw Lance and the US Postal boys celebrating Lance’s victory in one of the most amazing Tours in recent history. For Lance, the win — which places his name on the pages of history in the Club of Five — was especially satisfying, having overcome everything he suffered in the race this year.

As a parting note, Lance has already announced he’ll be back next year gunning for a record-breaking sixth win. It’s kind of a pity that many Americans don’t realize what that would mean, or what it means to have won five Tours! Cycling, much less popular in the United States than throughout the rest of the world, is one of the most difficult and demanding sports that exists, and in this sport Lance Armstrong is (even more than) the Michael Jordan of our generation.

Great job Lance, you did it and good luck next year!

Vaya Paliza!

With three cycling clubs in a small town like Marbella, you can imagine that its a fairly popular sport here. A friend of mine (Diego López Luque) and I even started a small website, MarbellaCycling.com dedicated to local scene. As you can see from the website, there’s a weekly calendar of rides.

Today, May 1st (a holiday here), was probably the hardest of the year –Peñas Blancas. This ride starts from Marbella and heads down the coast to Estepona. In Estepona, we turn right and began the monstrous 16km climb up to Peñas Blancas. When the professional tours come through this area (e.g. the Vuelta Espana), this is considered a “Category 1” climb, one of the hardest.

The first five kilometers of the climb are brutal, and that’s precisely where the attacks started. I’ve still got a long way to go in recovering my form from last year, so I didn’t even attempt to cover the attacks today. I arrived at the top in good condition, and was pleased not to have experienced any hip pain. (I think I’ve finally recovered.) Diego did very well, finishing 3rd. Palmi won the race (no big surprise), and Belga was extremely strong today, finishing 2nd.

This coming Sunday, it’s Estepona and then Istan, another climb, but not nearly as hard.

Tyler Hamilton wins at Liége-Bastogne-Liége!

In the biggest win of his career, Tyler Hamilton becomes the first American to win the Liége-Bastogne-Liége, one of Europe’s most important cycling events! Although all eyes were on fellow American Lance Armstrong to win the famous World Cup race, it was Hamilton who lauched the key solo attack with 3 km remaining for the win.

Former Armstrong teammate, Tyler Hamilton is making quite a name for himself as the leader of the Danish CSC racing team, beginning with his 2nd place finish at the 2002 Giro de Italia. CSC won’t be defending that position this year, however, as all their efforts are focused on denying Armstrong his fifth Tour de Fance victory. With riders like Hamilton, Levi Leipheimer and Jan Ullrich showing strong form, the 2003 Tour de France is shaping up to quite a battle!