A new standard by which to measure infamy

Posted in The sporting life, Tour de France on January 18th, 2013 by bill

A true champion at work

The more I think about this Lance Armstrong business, the more I’ve come to have a sort of perverse admiration for the way he put one over on the world. I mean, the sheer scale of the deception is mind-boggling; the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) says that Lance presided over “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” I think they meant that as criticism, but still — if cheating and lying were an endurance sport, Lance would be the all-time champion. He denied everything with a straight face, often bristling with righteous anger, for a full decade-plus; in its own sick way, that’s just an impressive as winning seven straight Tours de France.

And what elevates this achievement to a whole other level is that he didn’t just cheat, he didn’t just lie — he lied so boldly and so successfully that he actually filed, and won, libel suits against people who were telling the truth. Think about that for a minute. This is a historic achievement in mendacity that ought to be recognized — if not celebrated, exactly.

I find myself wondering about the mechanics of how they did it. Part of the reason I was willing to believe that Lance was clean was that it just seemed too hard to cheat that well for that long while under constant scrutiny by a phalanx of drug testers, not to mention the entire population of France. But somehow he and his teammates pulled it off.

A lot of people are very pissed at Lance right now. I personally can’t summon up much in the way of anger over all this; more than anything I’m just sad. Sad that cynicism won another one. Sad that cancer patients have to learn their hero was a fraud. Sad that people like Lance think winning is worth the cost of their integrity and self-respect. And sad that right now, people all over France are cocking an eyebrow and saying “Je vous l’avais bien dit.

Another One Bites the Dust

Posted in The sporting life, Tour de France on October 29th, 2012 by bill

In light of recent events I’m wondering if I am now supposed to rescind all of my blog entries that mention Lance Armstrong — of which there are quite a few, clustered around my “coverage” of the Tour de France in 2005 and 2010. After starting off as a Lance skeptic I eventually drank the Kool-Aid and started pulling for him, partly because I loved the way he pissed off the French, and partly because I just liked his style. I am only slightly embarrassed now to admit that these words are my own:

[Lance Armstrong] is supremely self-confident without crossing the line into arrogance. He believes in himself more than anyone I’ve ever seen with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan (for those of you keeping score at home, that’s the third Jordan reference in my Tour coverage). But he never talks trash about his opponents, never disparages them, just crushes their will by outperforming them.

So if Lance inspired me to turn a phrase I rather liked, and Lance turns out to be a fraud, does that make my writing fraudulent as well? This now is the central question. If Lance’s accomplishments are tainted, does that make them not accomplishments at all, or just something we need to view in a different light? I would kind of like to say the latter, though I’m hard-pressed to marshal any arguments on that side.

Quite frankly the whole thing just makes me sad and tired. As I said later in that same post,

We have precious few heroes and precious few reasons to celebrate these days.

And now we have one less. Sigh.

Tour de France 2010, Postscript

Posted in The sacred box, Tour de France on July 27th, 2010 by bill
Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen: a very close relationship.

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen: a very close relationship.

Re the Tour de France, Merle Baggard writes:

OK, glad it’s over. Please get back to more important subjects.

Merle likes to push my buttons, but I take his point. I do want to make just one more note before moving on, though.

The one thing that seemed to get people really emotionally involved this year was only tangentially related to the race itself. This was what has become known as the “falling out” incident involving longtime Tour commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.
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Tour de France 2010, Stage 20 (The End of the Tour)

Posted in Tour de France on July 25th, 2010 by bill
Yaroslav Popovych changes jerseys on the fly.

Yaroslav Popovych changes jerseys on the fly.

And just like that, it’s so long to the Tour de France for another year.

So long to having my morning coffee as the broadcasters give the stage profile and make their predictions for the day. Some days I enjoy the contest between these guys as much as I enjoy the actual race. Nice to see Grandpa Phil take the title this year, although he was still griping about the rules even as he draped the final yellow jersey over his shoulders.

So long to idiot Frankie Andreu asking Alberto Contador complicated questions after the stage, oblivious to the fact that Contador doesn’t speak English worth a damn. (Why not give Contador a translator? Maybe there was no budget for it; maybe it was a sinister Yankee conspiracy to make him look bad.)
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Tour de France 2010, Stage 19

Posted in Tour de France on July 24th, 2010 by bill
The agony of defeat.

The agony of defeat.

There were no miracles today. Just for a moment there, it looked like Andy Schleck was going to shock the world by beating Alberto Contador in the time trial; he was up by two seconds at the first time check, but as time went on Contador’s superior speed reasserted itself. In the end Contador bested Schleck’s time by 31 seconds, extending his lead in the Tour to 39 seconds.

Interesting, that, given that 39 seconds was the exact amount Contador gained in the controversial Stage 15. This will give fans something to debate for years to come: Is Contador’s victory tainted by the fact that he transgressed the unwritten rules, taking the yellow jersey due to a mechanical issue? I for one am inclined to say it is. You could say that Contador not only cheated Andy Schleck out of the jersey, he cheated us out of the prospect of the Tour entering its final day with two riders exactly tied, which I don’t believe has ever happened before.

I’m not sure what would have transpired in that case. It’s hard to gain time on the final day, which is always a flat ride into Paris. Someone might have ended up winning the Tour by a fraction of a second. But it would have been a dramatic stage fraught with tension, where any advantage gained would have been decisive. Instead, we will get the usual ceremonial procession with Champagne, and most likely a Mark Cavendish stage win. Oh well. Like the man says: Of all the words of blog and pen, the saddest are “it might have been.”

Tour de France 2010, Stage 18

Posted in Tour de France on July 24th, 2010 by bill
A hot chick and two douchebags.

A hot chick and two douchebags.

They tell me that Mark Cavendish achieves a top speed on his sprints of something like 74 kph, or 46 miles an hour. Some people, especially in my neighborhood, can’t go that fast in a car. This is why Cavendish wins stage after stage after stage; Stage 18 was his 4th this year and the 14th of his career.

To put that in perspective a little, Cavendish’s coach and mentor, Erik Zabel—a cycling legend in his own right—had 12 stage wins in a long and illustrious career. Cavendish is barely 25 years old and already has 14, maybe 15 if he takes the final stage in Paris as he did last year.

The record for most career stage wins is held by Eddy Merckx with 34, and you’d have to view Cavendish as a threat to this record, though Cavendish will never in a million years be the cyclist Merckx was. Merckx was a dominant all-around talent who won five Tours and might have won more if he hadn’t been punched in the kidney by a spectator. Cavendish is a specialist who struggles to get through the mountains without being eliminated; he currently sits 154th in the general classification, 3 hours and 49 minutes behind Alberto Contador. But in the last 200 meters or so that determine who is going to win a bunch sprint, Cavendish makes the other very fast professionals look like toddlers riding trikes. In Stage 18 he was without his leadout team but still shot out of the pack and won going away.

Contador still sits an agonizing 8 seconds in front of Andy Schleck, who was powerless to make any headway on a flat, straight stage. He did get to meet Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise, who presumably were in France to promote that movie they made together. They also stood on the podium with Contador at his behest. Is it worth having to put up with Tom Cruise if you get to hang out with Cameron Diaz? That’s a personal decision, I guess.

Tour de France 2010, Stage 17

Posted in Somebody's birthday, Something about the Beatles, Tour de France on July 22nd, 2010 by bill
Schleck and Contador by Monet

Schleck and Contador by Monet

Today’s writing is dedicated to George Clinton, the Benjamin Franklin of funk, who turns 70 today. For those of you keeping score at home, that means he was born exactly 15 days after Ringo Starr in July 1940. Ringo and George (Clinton) share one essential quality, which is that it’s hard to think of them without feeling just a little bit happier. “With a Little Help from My Friends,” The Mothership Connection, “It Don’t Come Easy,” Maggot Brain…we’re glad these things exist, aren’t we? And its nice to know their creators are still walking the Earth. Love on ya, boys.

And what does this have to do with the Tour de France? Well, you’re reading about them in the same place, aren’t you? So they must have something to do with each other.

Stage 17 was the big showdown on the Col du Tourmalet, and it was a cold, rainy, foggy day. The images on the TV were dreamlike and impressionistic, with the raindrops on the camera lens giving everything a sort of Monet quality. And then, out of the fog, there are two figures, one in white and one in yellow: Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, having left everyone else behind and shooting to the top of the mountain.
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Tour de France 2010, Rest Day 2

Posted in Tour de France on July 21st, 2010 by bill

The Tour is taking the day off and this reporter is quite busy, but I did enjoy reading about an incident that happened the other day between two members of the AG2R team. Nicholas Roche, the team leader, had a flat tire about 6k from the top of the Port de Balés. He asked his nearest teammate, Frenchman John Gadret, for his wheel, which is a fairly routine request. But, says Roche,

I couldn’t believe what happened next. He just shook his head and said “Non.” At first I thought he was joking, but soon realised he wasn’t when he kept riding past me.

This is even more amusing if you picture Gadret giving a classic Gallic shrug of the shoulders before leaving his leader in the lurch. Roche, who is Irish, apparently has a bit of a temper:

If John Gadret is found dead in his hotel room in the morning, I will probably be the primary suspect. But after today’s stage, as he sat beside me on the team bus I had great difficulty in not putting his head through the nearest window…. Although I wanted to smash his head in, and had visions of a baldy French climber exiting through the windscreen, I let Vincent do his job as team manager and said nothing. I got off the bus as quickly as possible and travelled to the hotel in the team car. I couldn’t stand to be near him. I will have to keep my hands in my pockets at the dinner table.

Fantastic, no? There have been some subsequent reports that Roche and Gadret made up – and, for that matter, that Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador have reached some sort of rapprochement – but where’s the fun in that? Hate, bitterness, feuds, rivalry; these are the things I’m looking for. This is what will make tomorrow’s crucial Stage 17 something special. Look in your hearts, boys, and remember everything you have to be angry about.

Tour de France 2010, Stage 16

Posted in Tour de France on July 20th, 2010 by bill
We surrender!

We surrender!

There was lots more fallout from the Incident of the Chain today. Andy Schleck seemed in no mood to accept Alberto Contador’s apology, reiterating that “I would not have attacked in that situation.” Lance Armstrong weighed in, saying that he didn’t blame Contador for attacking, but there was no way Contador didn’t know immediately that Schleck’s problem was mechanical rather than physical. I was trying to give Contador the benefit of the doubt there, but Lance knows a lot more about it than I do.

Announcer Paul Sherwen agreed with Lance, and he got into a surprisingly heated disagreement with his partner Phil Liggett, who defended Contador. Normally those two guys are in complete accord about everything. At one point Sherwen even brought up the fact that Liggett had never ridden in the Tour, which was a low blow if you ask me. Friendships are being tested all around; supposedly Contador and Schleck had been friends up to this point, and even once vacationed together. I don’t think that well be happening again anytime soon.
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Tour de France 2010, Stage 15

Posted in Tour de France on July 19th, 2010 by bill
Andy Schleck looks down at his malfunctioning bike at the moment of truth.

Andy Schleck looks down at his malfunctioning bike at the moment of truth.

After treading water for the better part of a week, today the Tour de France finally delivered one of those moments that reminds those of us who pay attention why we pay attention.

It happened very close to the top of the Port de Balès, a difficult climb that had seen a lot of jockeying for position on the way up. Andy Schleck had just tried an attack, which was clearly not going to succeed. Alexandre Vinokourov had come up right behind Schleck with his teammate Alberto Contador following. Just at that moment, Schleck’s bike slipped a chain and in a flash, Vino passed Schleck and Contador flew by both of them like he had been shot out of a cannon. Schleck struggled to get the problem sorted out, costing him long, excruciating seconds, and this may have been where he missed his brother Frank most of all. Had he still been in the race, Frank might well have been there to give Andy his bike at this crucial moment; but as it happened, the other members of the Saxo Bank team were nowhere to be seen.

For the rest of the race Contador rode like a demon with Schleck chasing frantically. There were some pretty dramatic images as they descended the other side of the mountain – pardon my French – mére putain fast. In the end, Contador preceded Schleck across the line by 39 seconds, putting him 8 seconds in the lead with a total time of 72 hours, 50 minutes, and 42 seconds.

Though this might seem simple and straightforward to you stupid Americans, it is anything but. Cycling fans all over the world are debating intensely whether Contador violated the Code of the Tour by taking advantage of Schleck’s mechanical problem. According to tradition, you’re supposed to wait for another rider who’s had a crash or a bike issue; it’s a question of honor, and there are many relevant examples in Tour history. The question is, did Contador transgress the unwritten rule?
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