Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fear and Loathing in Paris

And here I was, more or less ready to shut up about cycling for about a year, when ...

I really don't know what to make of this, yet. Right now there's not a whole lot of real data. And what there is doesn't really add up. Except, of course, that the French have their panties in a knot over those despised Americans winning 11 of the last 21 Tours.

The French total over this span may be counted on one hand, after having first inserted that hand in a running wood chipper. Hint: "one" is way too high.

The issue, of course, if Floyd Landis' urine test following his spectacular comeback on Stage 17 of the Tour de France. The "A" sample showed what they claim to be an abnormally high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in his urine, an indication of the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Well...

It's times like these that I really regret not having paid more attention to biology. I skipped it in high school, in favor of an extra year of chemistry. I will quite happily mix dangerous chemicals, breathe harmful fumes, pick glass shards out of my chest and renew my long and intimate relationship with Bactine; but knives and dead frogs are right out. Which is a pity, because I'm having to climb an awfully steep learning curve, here. Because I only have the vaguest notion of what testosterone actually does, and had never even heard of epitestosterone before. So: to Wikipedia! (And other places.)

As it turns out, both testosterone and epitestosterone are synthesized in the body from androstenedione. "Aha," I say to myself, "I've heard of that bugger before. Wasn't that the goop Mark McGwire used to take?" Over the long term, androstenedione use builds bigger muscles, and promotes recovery after exertion. No one's quite figured out what epitestosterone does, yet. It doesn't seem to have any effect one way or the other. But in most people, it's produced in about the same quantity as testosterone, from the same chemical, by more or less the same process. Think of it as a chemical version of donut holes. Normally, you end up with about as many donuts as holes, right?

So: an elevated T/E ratio is taken as an indicator that someone's been fiddling with their body chemistry illicitly. There are a couple of problems here, though.

One: It's a ratio. It's not a measure of the absolute quantities present. The obvious interpretation of an elevated T/E ratio is that someone has boosted the amount of testosterone present in the system. But it can also mean that some process has abnormally depleted the amount of epitestosterone. I don't know that anyone has really looked in detail at the physiology of someone who had such a spectacular "crash" the previous day, and recovered naturally overnight. We don't know yet if we're talking about a normal, natural process, or evidence of cheating.

Two: Testosterone abuse is very much a long-term sort of thing. There's bugger-all that it can do for you overnight. Sure, it can build muscle and all that, but that takes weeks. Not hours.

So, I'm waiting for more results. Not only for the test on the "B" sample, but for a more thorough chromatography test, which will tell us definitively if the hormones in the sample are of natural origin, or are synthetic. If it's all natural, and provably so, the only shame to be had here is for the French, who just need to sack up and be more manly. Not that it's in their national character, but they can at least be seen to have made the attempt.

I may end up eating my words, but so far, I trust what Landis is saying. He seems confident that the evidence will clear him. I think we ought to give him that much of a benefit of the doubt.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I'm Shocked! Stupefied! Stunned!

This just in:

Lance Bass comes out.

More stunning revelations:

Pope Benedict XVI: "Confidentially ... I'm Catholic."

Troy Aikman: "Yeah, I threw a couple of footballs around."

Liz Taylor: "Just between you and me, this isn't my first marriage."

You may remember that Bass tried to raise $20 million for a trip to the International Space Station. Funding fell through when investors realized that they were, in fact, paying for a round trip.

Mind you, I care not a fig for his lifestyle choices. Boy Bands, though, are an abomination. I despise the insipid, overprocessed lyrical war crimes they perpetrate upon the public, masquerading as music. They are nothing but a marketing contrivance that converts good, worthwhile plastic and aluminum into soon-to-be-landfill CDs. For such grievous offenses against humanity, vicious taunting is the least that he deserves.

Not that I really wish him any ill. It's fine if he ends up living happily ever after, so long as I don't have to listen to him sing about it.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been


Last year, we saw the last ride of the man who is arguably this generation's most dominant professional cyclist, Lance Armstrong. And I said about a year ago that I'd be looking forward to this year's Tour, because for the first time in many years, it'd be a wide-open race. I had no idea how right I'd be.

First off, we had no notion of what the outcome of the Operation Puerto investigation would be. I'm assuming, of course, that the investigation was underway a year ago. Things like that don't spring up overnight. But I think everyone was surprised at how widespread it was, and how many major cyclists were caught up in it. This included everyone's favorites for the top two podium spots: Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich. Me, I was kind of hoping it'd be Basso's year. He seemed a likeable chap. Still does, really. I hope the allegations are false, in his case. But that might not be the way to bet.

Still -- nine of the top contenders knocked out, before the first crank of the pedals. And one victim of collateral damage, since Alexandre Vinokourov's team was disqualified for not having enough riders qualified to start.

So it was a weird year, right from the start. Maybe that contributed to the crashes in the first week, which is always dangerous. But no clear leader emerged. This race tied the all-time record for the number of lead changes. Truly, it could have been any of a half-dozen or more men. But in the end, the real surprise was that it ended up being a man who is going in for hip replacement surgery later this fall: Floyd Landis.

Not that you could tell from his riding that he's got hip trouble. He had a really bad day last week that seemed to put him out of contention, but that had nothing to do with his hip. But everyone had written him off. You just don't make up a ten-minute deficit in the mountains. It simply is not done.

Someone must have forgotten to tell Landis. Because that's exactly what he did, the very next day.

Virtually everyone who witnessed that ride called it the most amazing thing they'd ever seen. I would tend to agree. It was an amazing display of diamond-hard will, an uncompromising unwillingness to accept failure. No one could touch him. He broke away from the peloton, even broke away from the riders who tried to follow, and rode the Alps alone. They tried to reel him in. Tried, and failed.

Yesterday's time trial sealed the deal. He didn't win the time trial, but he didn't have to. He just had to hang a few minutes on the two guys still ahead of him as of yesterday morning. Which he did, handily.

So now, the crown that Lance Armstrong left at the finish line a year ago has been picked up by another American, in a ride that people will be talking about for years to come. It was fun to watch, and it'll be fun to watch again next year, as Floyd Landis tries to become the first man to return to professional cycling after undergoing hip replacement surgery. Bionics comes to professional cycling!

Man, you just gotta love it. You absolutely can't make this up.

Mark your calendars: Next year, it starts in London. July 7, 2007. Who's gonna take it all the way home? Will Floyd Landis become another testament to the miracle of modern medicine?

There's only one way to find out ...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Thought for the day...

Hezbollah's epitaph, if one is ever written, ought to be Fatum Iustum Stultorum: "Righteous is the destiny of fools." They've named the game, open war, and it's a game that Arabs have sucked at since, well, just about forever. The last Middle Eastern commander who gave a Western army the right-about was Saladin. And he was a Kurd, not an Arab.

You can argue advantages in technology, if you like. You can even argue training, which I think comes closer to the mark. But I think the real reason Israel is liable to hand Hezbollah a splendid drubbing from one end of the Bekaa Valley to the other is this: Israel has proper sergeants, while Hezbollah does not.

With that, here's a bit of food for thought, from one of my favorite poets:

The 'Eathen, by Rudyard Kipling

THE 'eathen in 'is blindness bows down to wood an' stone;
'E don't obey no orders unless they is ‘is own;
'E keeps 'is side-arms awful: 'e leaves 'em all about,
An' then comes up the Regiment an' pokes the 'eathen out.

All along o' dirtiness, all along o' mess
All along o' doin' things rather-more-or-less
All along of abby-nay, kul an' hazar-ho,
Mind you keep your rifle an' yourself jus' so!

The young recruit is 'aughty - 'e draf's from Gawd knows where;
They bid 'im show 'is stockin's an' lay 'is mattress square;
‘E calls it bloomin' nonsense - 'e doesn't know no more -
An' then up comes 'is Company an kicks 'im round the floor !

The young recruit is 'ammered - 'e takes it very hard;
'E 'angs 'is 'ead an' mutters - 'e sulks about the yard;
'E talks o' "cruel tyrants" which 'e'll swing for by-an-by,
An 'the others 'ears an' mocks 'im, an' the boy goes orf to cry.

The young recruit is silly - 'e thinks o' suicide.
‘Es lost 'is gutter-devil; 'e 'asn't got 'is pride;
But day by day they kicks 'im, which 'elps 'im on a bit,
Till 'e finds 'isself one mornin' with a full an' proper kit.

Gettin' clear o’ dirtiness, gettin' done with mess,
Gettin' shut o' doin' things rather-more-or-less;
Not so fond of abby-nay, kul, nor hazar-ho
Learns to keep 'is rifle 'an 'isself jus' so !

The young recruit is 'appy - 'e throws a chest to suit;
You see 'im grow mustaches; you 'ear 'im slap 'is boot.
'E learns to drop the "bloodies" from every word ‘e slings
An' 'e shows an 'ealthy brisket when 'e strips for bars an' rings.

The cruel-tyrant-sergeants they watch 'im 'arf a year;
They watch 'im with 'is comrades, they watch 'im with 'is beer;
They watch 'im with the women at the regimental dance,
And the cruel-tyrant-sergeants send 'is name along for Lance.

An' now 'e's 'arf o' nothin', an' all a private yet,
‘Is room they up an' rags 'im to see what they will get.
They rags 'im low an' cunnin', each dirty trick they can,
But 'e learns to sweat 'is temper an' 'e learns to sweat 'is man.

An', last, a Colour-Sergeant, as such to be obeyed,
'E schools 'is men at cricket, 'e tells 'em on parade;
They sees 'im quick an' 'andy, uncommon set an' smart,
An' so 'e talks to orficers which 'ave the Core at 'eart.

'E learns to do 'is watchin' without it showin' plain;
'E learns to save a dummy, an' shove 'im straight again;
'E learns to check a ranker that's buyin' leave to shirk;
An' 'e learns to make men like 'im so they'll learn to like their work.

An' when it comes to marchin' he'll see their socks are right,
An' when it comes to action 'e shows 'em how to sight.
'E knows their ways of thinkin' and just what's in their mind.
'E knows when they are takin' on an' when they've fell be'ind.

'E knows each talkin' corp'ral that leads a squad astray;
'E feels 'is innards 'eavin', 'is bowels givin' way;
'E sees the blue-white faces all tryin' 'ard to grin,
An' 'e stands an' waits an' suffers till it's time to cap 'em in.

An' now the hugly bullets come peckin' through the dust,
An' no one wants to face 'em, but every beggar must;
So, like a man in irons, which isn't glad to go,
They moves 'em off by companies uncommon stiff an' slow.

Of all 'is five years' schoolin' they don't remember much
Excep' the not retreatin', the step an' keepin' touch.
It looks like teachin' wasted when they duck an' spread an' 'op -
But if 'e 'adn't learned 'em they'd be all about the shop.

An' now it's 'Oo goes backward? " an' now it's " 'Oo comes on?
An’ now it's Get the doolies," an' now the Captain's gone;
An' now it's bloody murder, but all the while they 'ear
'Is voice, the same as barrick-drill, a-shepherdin' the rear.

E's just as sick as they are, 'is 'eart is like to split,
But 'e works 'em, works 'em, works 'em till he feels 'em take the bit;
The rest is 'oldin' steady till the watchful bugles play,
An' 'e lifts 'em, lifts 'em, lifts 'em through the charge that wins the day!

The 'eathen in 'is blindness bows down to wood an' stone;
'E don't obey no orders unless they is 'is own.
The 'eathen in 'is blindness must end where 'e began,
But the backbone of the Army is the Non-commissioned Man !

Keep away from dirtiness - keep away from mess,
Don't get into doin' things rather-more-or-less
Let's ha' done with abby-nay, kul, and hazar-ho;
Mind you keep your rifle an' yourself jus' so !

Note: abby nay Not Now, kul Tomorrow, hazar-ho Wait a bit.

(The emphasis in the second-to-last verse is the Editor's, not the author's.)