Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cheaters usually prosper....

Congratulations to Chris Horner on winning the 2011 Tour of California (because all he had to do in Sunday’s final stage was not let anyone get more than 38 seconds ahead of him—well done, Chris, Team RadioShack, and Matt Busche, who looked like a young Chris Horner as he gave 110% to get Chris and Levi where they needed to be in the race on Saturday and Sunday).

And my condolences to Horner as well. His glory will now be tarnished, the wind sucked from the sails of victory, by allegations of doping in professional cycling. Again. In all the years that Chris quietly worked to bring other teammates like Levi Leipheimer to the podium, no one questioned his lifestyle. Now that he’s a champion, people will murmur behind his back. The words sound something like this: “He’s probably doping like the rest of them.”

I have written in the past about Lance Armstrong (6 June 2010), about not being a starry-eyed fan as I followed his career. Last week, several days before Sunday’s “60 Minutes” interview with Tyler Hamilton about his federal grand jury testimony regarding the use of performance enhancing substances in professional cycling, Lance posted a message on Twitter. The gist of it was this: In 20 years of cycling and 500 drug tests, I never tested positive. “Enough said.” Hmm, I thought at the time. Not enough said. Saying you’ve never had a positive result is not the same as making the declaration, ‘I’m not concerned about these allegations because I’ve never used performance enhancing substances.’

Let me interject a brief education here for my non-cycling-enthusiast friends. The term “performance enhancing drugs” is a misnomer. The substances named in the allegations are not “drugs” in the sense that we think of them but rather those chemicals which are already found naturally in the body, such as Human Growth Hormone, Testosterone, and a rider’s own blood (withdrawn pre-race and then secretly transfused back into the exhausted rider’s bloodstream, replacing the depleted blood with fresh and lively red blood cells). These practices are banned, of course, by the authorities who govern professional cycling. Tyler Hamilton mentioned that Lance Armstrong used these aids “in preparation” for the Tour de France, not during, but I think the poor bedeviled man was splitting hairs in order to find some way to not be the world’s most hated whistle-blower. Too late, my friend.

Regarding Tyler Hamilton: Someone, please, keep an eye on him. By his body language alone, it is clear that he is deeply distressed, so awash in emotional pain that he is hurting physically as well. I have no doubt that he is suffering monumental depression. Someone, please, watch over him and keep him safe. I would applaud him for his courage in coming forward… had he done so of his own volition. (He was subpoenaed by the court; he gave his testimony reluctantly and only after assurance of exclusion from prosecution.) Keep teaching those young guys how to ride, Tyler. You’ve a long way to go, but like anyone, you do have the opportunity to redeem yourself if you work hard enough.

Hamilton said that when he was offered performance enhancers, it was with the lure of being able to step up his game, ascend to the next level. He’d worked so hard for so many years to get to that point, and he could see it… just one step over a thin line. In his mind’s eye, he saw glory and adulation, and he reached out to grab it.

And it is my position that we should all be held accountable for his error in judgment. This is what occurs when we raise our children to believe that fame and fortune are the only goals of value in life. If you don’t agree that we teach them that every day, turn on your TV set. Nobody is anybody unless he or she is winning big or earning big.

Do Tyler’s revelations change the way I feel about professional cycling? No, not really. We weathered this storm with baseball, for the most part, and I still find the game fascinating and thrilling. I loved Mark McGwire, too, and despite his eventual admission of guilt (if you can call it that) regarding steroid use, I’m pretty sure we’ll never know the whole story there, either, just as we won’t with Lance Armstrong. Keep in mind, before there was steroid use, there was pine tar. My point is that, wherever athletes strive to be the “best,” you’re going to find those who are willing to cheat. This is no different than the day-to-day world we live in. People cheat every day—on the diets, their taxes, their significant others. I’m no longer horrified by those who make such choices. In fact, I feel a certain amount of compassion for them. As I said, for some folks, the pressure to ‘be somebody’ is overwhelming these days.

My guess is by now Chris Horner has been asked about a hundred times in the last two days what he thinks of the current doping scandal and whether he’s ever used banned substances. He will be asked these same questions again—a thousand or so times—when he competes in the Tour de France in July, and that’s unfortunate. Someone, please, just ask him how it feels to be one of the oldest guys out there still competing on this level… and maybe what he ate for breakfast.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Two Heroes: 2011 Amgen Tour of California Mt Baldy

Photo courtesy of the Amgen Tour of California website

My friend Matt Davis once told me that I was doomed to live single. His contention was that I would never find a man who would sit and watch the Tour de France with me but also go to poetry readings. So far, he’s been right….

Of course when Billy Collins deigned to make a rare California appearance, it had to be on the same date as the most exciting day of the year for me, the day a stage of the Tour of California came to Mt. Baldy. Of course. Murphy’s Law strikes again. When I declined the ticket my daughter bought for me, I felt as if I were choosing between two heroes—Billy Collins or Levi Leipheimer. And yes, I realize how unique that makes me in the world, and no, it does not console me.

I say all this as prelude to my description of sitting yesterday with a group of warm, funny, cheerful Mt. Baldy folk who knew nothing of bicycle stage racing before our adventurous afternoon began, but who tried excitedly to educate themselves as the hours wore on and we watched the race progress online (via live coverage on Radio Shack’s Race Tracker). From time to time during the day, as we shared communal chips, guacamole and apple pie and chatted about water rights on the mountain and how much snow was still up top, my mind would be distracted as I envisioned my daughter—who will begin a Master of Fine Arts program in the fall because she is a fine poet in her own right—standing and chatting with Billy Collins after that evening’s reading. At some point, I wished I’d thrown one of Billy’s books in my bag. Two years ago when the same group of people invited me to join them for a Leonard Cohen concert in L.A., Tamara had brought along a book of Cohen’s musings, reading them aloud to us on the car ride into the city. Yesterday, in quieter moments, I imagined myself reading to my neighbors “Shoveling Snow with Buddha.” These are the fantasies that swirl in the mind of a writer. We learn early in life to keep them to ourselves.

For months prior to yesterday’s stage, on my drives to and from work, I would scan the race route, trying to figure out where the Best Spot would be to watch Stage 7. I finally decided on my buddy Vince’s driveway, as it fronts the highway at nearly the top of The Dreaded Switchbacks, and also because I enjoy Vince’s company. (When I’d asked if I could watch the race from his place, he casually remarked that he’d probably be playing tennis that day, but he’d leave me a key to his cabin in case I needed anything. I had to convince him that this bike race might be kind of a big thing.)

So there we were at Vince’s, seated comfortably in lawn chairs, watching hundreds of spectators and recreational cyclists mill around. Our normally quiet and peaceful mountain was abuzz with commotion. It was a gorgeous spring day with warm sun and clean mountain air. When stage coverage began online, Vince brought out his laptop and began to give us updates. “They’re on Glendora Mountain Road!” There was a break-away of eight riders trying desperately to stay ahead of the peloton, but they only had two minutes on the rest of the pack, and eventually most of them would fall away.

When the riders were on the return route along Glendora Ridge Road, we began to get excited. By now Tamara was holding the laptop, and she gave us updates based on locations we knew. “They’re passing Cow Canyon Saddle!” Since our location was so strategic, we’d amassed a small group of cycling fans and professional photographers who were waiting to make noise or shoot pictures as the cyclists came into view. We kept them apprised of the riders’ progress and in turn they exchanged insider information with us. One of the photographers was on staff for Team HTC and used to ride with Chris Horner. And yes, he replied to my question, he really is as great a guy in “real life” as he seems to be when interviewed on TV.

The riders sailed through Mt. Baldy Village in a matter of seconds, and then we knew they were just minutes away. CHP vehicles rolled up the switchbacks in advance, lights flashing, loudspeakers squawking, warning fans to stay off the road, the riders were coming. I know I asked Tamara to the point of being annoying if she could see (in the glare of the computer screen) if a rider in yellow was near the front of the pack. I wanted to know that Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer would be the first riders we’d see. They weren’t. They were third and fourth, so consequently, I snapped photos of the first two guys (hangers on from the break-away), and just started cheering along with everyone else when Chris and Levi rode by ten feet away. They were together, with Chris drafting off Levi, and they rode the final two miles of the grueling ascent that way, Levi leading his teammate and friend up the last steep incline. The minute they were past us, Tamara continued to call out updates as the crowd—bless their hearts—cheered for every single rider in the same way they’d cheered for the leaders.

By the time they reached the ski lift parking lot, Chris and Levi were alone on the road, the next rider many seconds behind. As they pulled up to the finish, Chris reached out and patted Levi on the back as a gesture of thanks. Levi reached back and they touched hands. This, in cycling, is a universal signal. It meant that Chris would “give” Levi the stage. He would allow him to roll ahead unchallenged to take the win and all the glory that came with it, because they’d ridden together all day, Levi helping Chris to keep his overall standing of race leader. It was a tremendous and heroic ending to an incredible day.

As it turns out, my kid did end up chatting with Billy Collins, just as I'd imagined it. Yep, that's her.  Wow...

Aah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
And leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

From "Shoveling Snow with Buddha," by Billy Collins

Saturday, May 21, 2011

2011 ToC Stage 6: One for the record books

Photo courtesy of the Amgen Tour of California official  website.
It only took me a few minutes this morning to find my journal from 2005 and hunt up the July 4th entry on David Zabriskie. Two days prior, Zabriskie had won a time trial in the prologue stage of the Tour de France, thus having the honor of beginning the Tour wearing the yellow jersey. Back then, he was only the third American to have worn the maillot jaune, after Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong. (George Hincapie would wear it the following year, making him the fourth.) Here’s how my entry for July 4, 2005 reads:

“Today a young man from Utah, David Zabriskie, wears the yellow jersey. He is only 22… and beat Lance by 2 seconds in the prologue time trial… so Lance—bless his heart—gave him a tip for yesterday’s stage: 'Don’t get any further back than 20 guys.' So Zabriskie made that his goal, and kept the yellow jersey, and he wears it again today!”

Of course, it was Lance Armstrong who went on to win the TdF that year—for the 7th time. But for awhile, the soft-spoken man who has now made California his home was proud to wear the yellow jersey for a few days.

I recalled all of this yesterday as I watched David Zabriskie push himself across the line in Stage 6 of the Tour of California. For those unfamiliar with stage particulars, in a time trial, riders compete against the clock, leaving a start house at one-minute intervals, riding as fast as they can to a finishing point (but having no one to ‘help’ in terms of drafting). The man with the fastest time wins. Yesterday, for Stage 6, it was David Zabriskie. Though Levi Leipheimer holds the record for that particular time trial, he could not beat Zabriskie’s time. Neither could Chris Horner. And while Horner still has the fastest time overall, Zabriskie can take away a stage win in the ToC—and a new course record in the time trial.

And now, my friends, the day has come. As I write this, it is 4:30a.m. I can still feel the electricity that was in the air last night on Mt Baldy. Of course, part of that electricity was bristling tension from Baldy cabin owners who lost all water pressure at 7:00 last night. Seems the work crew setting up tents uses water in 55-gallon drums for ballast. They turned off our main water supply so they could use their hoses to fill the drums. So I was happy to speed off on an adventure with neighbor Rob in which I impersonated—not for the first time—a member of the water board up here. Well, I actually was a member of the board up until last fall, so it wasn’t that big of a truth-stretch. And the crew members were cheerfully compliant. Rob turned the big valve and water was restored. Whew. It’s nice to be able to shower and make tea.

Meanwhile, there are crazy people camped in odd spots all over the mountain. Rob and I laughed about some people who had a camper set up and lawn chairs situated inches from the highway and were just sitting there, watching—as if the arrival of the peloton was imminent. And on the way home yesterday, I saw a big pick-up truck dragging a boat up the mountain. Apparently no one told those fans that Baldy doesn’t have a lake.

I’m sure the morning will hold more opportunities for adventure as I wander among those who spent last night down at Snowcrest Inn or over in the campground.

Most exciting, though, is that Chris Horner still holds first place, so he’ll be wearing the golden-colored leader’s jersey—easy to spot if he is the first rider pushing his way up the switchbacks a few hours from now.  I can already hear Phil Liggett saying, "Well, the wildflowers are blooming in Mt Baldy as we prepare for Stage 7 of the Amgen Tour of California!"

Friday, May 20, 2011

2011 Amgen T o C Stage 5: The most sagacious wins!

This photo comes from the official Amgen Tour of California website.

Slovakian Peter Sagan, winner of the Best Young Rider in last year’s T o C at age 20, won yesterday’s stage in an impressive display of rider savvy. While others were expending every bit of energy to try to get across the line, he tucked himself in nicely in the slipstream of the big boys during the final yards, then saw his chance and leaped out to win. Nice.

There’s a story on Sagan’s Wikipedia page (which, by the way, has already been updated to reflect his stage win yesterday) that tells of his winning the Slovak Cup while riding a bicycle he borrowed from his sister. Seems a sponsor had promised to send him a bike, so Peter sold his. But the new bike didn’t arrive in time for the race. So—“Riding the supermarket bike with poor brakes and limited gear, he won the race.”

Yesterday’s stage of the T o C was quite long and unfortunately there was a pretty big bang up along the road with some bloodied riders being taken off to the hospital. This is what happens when the peloton travels for long miles packed together; legs get tired, reaction time is affected, and sooner or later, someone taps someone’s tire or pedal or handlebars. Then the carnage begins.

None of that will happen today. Stage 6 is a time trial in Solvang (and what better place for a time trial than the beautiful rolling hills of Solvang). Just as Wednesday’s mountain stage changed everything, today’s will shake up the kaleidoscope of leading contenders as well. There are at least a dozen riders who will be in contention for the fastest time at the end of the day.

I was pleased to see Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer hanging around at the front of the group as the cyclists finished the stage yesterday. Horner still has the fastest time, with Levi in second place by a minute and 15 seconds behind him.

Having said all that—and good luck to all today—I have begun to see the stirrings of The Great Event here on Mt. Baldy. Signs were posted yesterday by race organizers telling fans not to paint on the roads (sidewalk chalk is OK, right?) and not to park “on the roadway” or on private property. If you’re coming up here, trust me on this—do not—DO NOT—block side roads or driveways along Mt. Baldy Rd. I don’t know who’s more intimidating, the Forest Service or cabin owners, but interlopers do not have a pleasant time of it on snow play days.

As for myself, I will be leaving my truck at the cabin and traversing the trails because I know where the best vantage points are. And I must confess—as I watch the riders ascend the dreaded “switchbacks” tomorrow (think Alp d’Huez), I will be hoping to see the rider with #3 on his back leading the way. Oh, #1 would be great, too.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

2011 Amgen T o C Stage 4: Wind Beneath His Wings

This is an AP photo.  Click on Chris Horner below to reach the original source.

Surprise, surprise, surprise….

One of the many aspects I love about stage racing is that as the course changes, so do the leaders. Some riders, like Levi Leipheimer, are simply built to win time trials. Others, like Mark Cavendish (and the likes of Ben Swift and Greg Henderson) are built for sprinting. But riders who excel at uphill climbs form a very elite group. Because, let’s face it, who really enjoys the lactic acid burn that comes as a result of stomping the pedals against unforgiving resistance for long grueling hours with no relief?

Apparently Team RadioShack had decided that the best strategy for yesterday’s incline stage was to go out fast and hard upon reaching the mountain, then just be ruthlessly relentless until pretty much the rest of the peloton had dropped away. To a large extent, the strategy worked, although there were some hangers-on (like Andy Schleck, who is riding this race with serious determination, despite his goofy, insouciant personality), and a break-away which included Ryder Hesjedal from team Garmin. (Gotta love the name. “Ryder.” That’s awesome.) By the time the RadioShack boys—specifically Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—pulled up to Hesjedal, however, the man was pretty spent, and they passed him as if he’d pulled over into the emergency lane.

Horner kept churning, hell bent for leather, leading Levi up the mountain, with Leipheimer never taking a turn at the front. Finally, Horner dropped him—Oh My Buddha, are you kidding me?—and just kept on going, marching up the mountain like it was a routine Stairmaster workout. At 39, he is the second oldest rider in the race, and he definitely fits the appellation of “old pro.” Hurray for the old guys! Horner rolled across the line with no one on his tail, Andy Schleck a not-so-close second.

Congrats to Chris Horner who has been a rock solid rider in the tradition of George Hincapie, giving his all so others could take the glory. Yesterday, the glory was all his, and he now leads the race in overall time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sky's the limit: Amgen T o C Stage 3

This photo was borrowed from The Telegraph.  To see the original photo and story, click on Greg Henderson's name in the post below.

For the first four years of the Tour of California, the race was conducted in February (as a sort of pre-season, warm-up activity). But with the popularity of the race exploding, and vendors, spectators and participants clamoring for better weather and road conditions, race organizers moved the race to May. Last year, the riders rode under beautiful warm May skies. Not so yesterday.

The temperature was 53 degrees in Auburn when they started out—and rain was falling. For most of the race, they were soggy. And cold. Really, really cold. Cyclists are extremely lean, with almost zero body fat for insulation, so when the weather is cold, they’re cold, no matter how fast they’re pumping those pedals.

Other than an unusual number of flatted front tires, the race was without drama in the first 117 miles. In the last five, all hell broke loose.

As the peloton entered Modesto for the finish, the big boys scooped up the 5 guys that were still on a break-away, then the gears began to spin. As in yesterday’s stage, they did a couple circuits of the town, with fans cheering, screaming and trying to snap photos from behind the barricades. With just under five miles to go, there was a crash and several riders went down, including world-renowned Jens Voight, who managed to pick himself up off the pavement and roll bloodily on to cross the line somewhere at the back of the peloton. More riders went down within a quarter mile of the finish but staggered on, sporting severe road rash.

Team Sky was at it again, trying to get their champion of Stage 2, Ben Swift, close to the front for another stage win. But as the riders neared the line, “Swifty” got caught up in traffic and couldn’t extricate himself, so it was teammate Greg Henderson this time who powered over the line. Henderson’s remark later was: “I was so lactic I was cross-eyed--I couldn't even do a victory salute.”

Today’s race will be an uphill finish, which means the sprinters will be somewhere in the middle of the peloton exchanging war stories at day’s end.

Forgot to mention yesterday that Taylor Phinney finished 8th in Monday’s stage. He was 8th in yesterday’s stage as well, and now he has the 7th overall best time. He is also in 2nd place to Peter Sagan in competition for the Young Riders jersey. Keep going, Taylor; make your mum & dad proud.

Should also say that the best coverage in print media for the T o C has been from the British papers. Oh—and did I mention that Team Sky is a British team?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2011 Amgen Tour of California Stage 2

The above photo was borrowed from the BBC Sports website--a link to the site of origin is below.  (Click on Ben Swift.)

Ya gotta love it. The winner of Stage 2 of the Tour of California was a rider for the Sky Procycling team by the name of Ben Swift—thus affording journalists a plethora of choices for headlines.

And swift he was. Due to cold weather road conditions, the race was shortened to 76 miles. (Cyclists were supposed to ride up over the Donner Pass, but there was snow… and, well, we know how hungry cyclists get since they burn so many calories. Apparently race organizers didn’t want to end up with an episode for the History channel.) The stage began in Nevada City and ended in Sacramento, providing a good leg warm-up over relatively flat roads. Upon reaching the state capitol, the boys rode three laps around the downtown area—along a corridor of sound created by cheering fans—and then the sprinters were set up by their various teams to be sling shot over the line.

Early on, four riders went out on a break-away, but were easily reeled in by the thundering locomotive of the peloton just after it reached the city.

The crew of team RadioShack worked hard to keep Levi safe and sound, as all the other teams did for their valiant warriors, but it seemed team Sky wanted to bring the hammer down with some intimidation in this early stage, so they set themselves up nicely just before the finish, then Mr. Swift took over with some really impressive leg power.

Today’s stage will be similar to yesterday’s, though a bit longer at 122 miles, and the finish will be another crazy mad dash. We’ll see if Ben has the legs to be swift again.

Monday, May 16, 2011

2011 Amgen Tour of California (ToC) Stage 1 (Pre-race)

Last week in the Giro d’Italia, Belgian cyclist Wouter Weylandt crashed on a steep descent and died. The cycling world has been in a somber mood, which no doubt influenced the decision of Amgen Tour of California (ToC) officials yesterday to cancel the first stage of the race around Lake Tahoe due to inclement weather. Although it was snowing intermittently, ice on the road was the deciding factor, and wisely so.

I am pleased to see that George Hincapie will be participating in the ToC this year, as he has suggested this may be his last year of professional cycling. He is one of those great, reliable, steadfast riders who have been ever-present. Can’t imagine a Tour de France without him.

Also happy as always to see 3-time ToC winner and California boy Levi Leipheimer looking fit and ready to take up the challenge again this year. Look for him to do well in the time trial on Friday. (Come on, Levi, win it!)

I’ve been watching David Zabriskie since his first Tour de France and have always liked his courage in jumping on a break-away or hanging on when he just has nothing left to give. Expect to see great things from him in this race as he tunes up for July’s little race in France.

Have to mention Taylor Phinney here, the son of cyclists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter. This boy, from conception, could not have escaped being a professional cyclist. It’s in his frickin’ DNA, for crying out loud. Back in the day—before everyone was worried about everyone doping—Phinney and Carpenter were both forces to be reckoned with in their respective cycling arenas, so I’m wishing all good things for him. And he may just take that time trial in Solvang….

Who will win the race? There’s a good chance Andy Schleck will. As much as I would love to see Levi dragging himself up that last steep section of Mt Baldy road to the finish at the ski lift parking lot—and yes, I’ll be there—I live there!—chances are, if all goes well for him, Schleck will take Saturday’s stage. He has been second in the Tour de France, and Andy is a monster on the mountain stages. Mt. Baldy will be a monster stage, and it takes a monster to conquer a monster, so I think we'll see goofy young Andy hauling himself up those switchbacks ahead of everyone else.

Some things to remember: NBC Sports via Versus will be broadcasting coverage of the race every day, with our good friends Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin (who do the Tour de France every year) giving us stats, info and commentary on the riders. (Paul, if you need a place to stay on Saturday, I have a big beautiful cabin in Mt. Baldy. I’m just sayin’….)

The ToC is a stage race, but times are added collectively, so the winner of the race is the man with the fastest time over the entire week of racing, while there will also be individual stage winners each day.

Most of the riders have Twitter accounts, so if you find yourself favoring one man over another (and who doesn't?), you can read their tweets (usually posted in the morning before the race, then later after the finishes) to get inside information, photos and chuckles.  Lance Armstrong was always good about this--especially photos of the team's antics.  Sigh.  We'll miss you this year, L.A.!

Cycling is a team sport, and there are 18 teams in the ToC this year. Team RadioShack and BMC will be my sentimental favorites, but there are some other very intimidating teams out there, so at this point, it’s anyone’s trophy. Here’s to safe riding for all the courageous legmen!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Belated Mother's Day

I awoke to rain on the mountain this morning. A fire of ancient gray oak branches burns in the fireplace—a gift from the forest.

And speaking of gifts….

Thirty-three years ago, a teenager from a troubled home made the decision to relinquish her unborn baby for adoption. She told the caseworker at Children’s Home Society that she believed abortion was wrong, that she wanted to do the right thing for her baby, even though the circumstances of his conception had been partly due to the dysfunction in her family. The boy that was born and “given up” (though I believe the vast majority of birth mothers never “give up” on their children) in 1977 was my beloved son. And what would I do without him? He is my friend, my confidante, my advisor. (Had he not nagged me into it, I would never have attempted to become a homeowner again after my divorce—but what a wise and fortuitous decision it finally was.) The flowers and gifts he gave me for Mother’s Day last week are still displayed on my kitchen table. I am intensely proud of him….

And I know his first mother—the woman who named him “Kevin”—would be proud as well, proud of the man he is, proud of his accomplishments in life… if she only knew.

So I spent some time on Mother’s Day creating a Facebook page with some of this information, then I asked my friends to re-post a link to the page. I figure somewhere in Southern California, there has to be someone who knows something about this woman. My son is bi-racial. His birth mother is white with red hair (or it once was; she’d be 52 now). We believe her maiden name was Parker….

Here is a link to the page: