Tuesday Notebook

Today’s best journal titles: Thorax and Chest, both encountered in the midst of a writing project.

Today’s top concern: Getting everything packed as I get ready to take my slow-motion, long-distance cycling thing on the road (translation: I’m leaving Berkeley for a cross-country road trip today; we’ll wind up in New York, where I’ll get on a plane for Paris-Brest-Paris).

Today’s related concern: Gas mileage. We’re renting a car to drive across the country. I’m bringing too much bike-related crap to do the smart thing and get a small, relatively fuel-efficient car. So I opted for a Subaru Outback, which is actually OK mileage- and emissions-wise. I booked it last week and showed up at the Hertz counter at the Oakland airport today to pick it up. My reserved car wasn’t ready because it turned out they had no Subaru Outbacks; when I complained — mildly, for me, mentioning that it was “weird” that there was no car since I made the reservation last week — I was told that the outlet was expecting an Outback but the current renter hadn’t returned it. Uh huh. It just so happened that they had a not-so-spanking new Toyota Highlander, non-hybrid version, ready to roll. So that’s what we’ve got. Crude oil just hit an all-time high today. Gas prices in the Bay Area are at about $3.10-$3.20 per gallon of regular, ethanol-doctored fuel. Big surprise — we’re going to get murdered on our gasoline bill.

Tour Arborists

[Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett on Sunday morning as they narrated an aerial view of a French chateau southwest of Paris:]

Paul (informatively): You might not know this but in a very secluded part of the garden there’s a very old tree, a sequoia which was planted around about 1860.

Phil (surprised): The sequoia is not , not a tree of, indigenous to France, it’s Africa, isn’t it, the sequoia tree?

Paul (reassuringly): I believe it is.

Me: Sequoia. Sequoiadendron. Metasequoia.

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Guest Observation: ‘A Provisional Perfect Freedom’

Bicycles in another context:

“The Cycle of Their Lives”

Eamon Grennan

(From “What Light There Is & Other Poems“; Copyright 1989, by Eamon Grennan)

“All day, now that summer’s come, the children

Drift by my window on their bicycles. Hour

After aimless hour a small bright school of them

Circles the block, nonchalant as exotic fish

That barely ruffle the avocado depths

Of a home aquarium. For the most part

Their pace is regular–pedalling the rise,

Cresting the turn, then floating dreamy-eyed

Back down. Without warning one will break

The circle, flash off on his own, on her own,

The way they’ll leave at last the homes

They’ll home to. If they see me staring

Out at them from behind this glass

They wave in passing–one hand jerky in air,

Eyes colliding with mine an instant–then

Steadying a slight wobble they resume their

Instinct’s occupation, drawing order from

The tangle of their lives. Morning to night

They’re at it, while the gold-spoked sun

Rides the blue rim of sky, and light sifts

Through the hushed underwater web

Of leaves, altering the air they swim in–

Silvergreen, oriole, buttercup, verdigris–yellow.

Come mealtimes, their dreaming spell

Is snapped by the cries of mothers; names

Ring around the neighborhood like bells, bringing

Each one headlong home. Indoors, they fret over

Vegetables, their propped bikes glittering

Against the steps and porches, the road

A pool of light and silence, the spangled

Green crosshatch of leaves hangs still. Soon

They are back in their kingdom, lord

Of all its lit dimensions, circling perpetually

The square. Given our condition, they fashion

A provisional perfect freedom, beautifully doing

Nothing, unravelling and ravelling themselves

In time, being only motion alone, savouring

The sweet empty presence of themselves

In sunlight. My own son is among them

Until grey traces of air and muffled light

Cling to his white t-shirt and he glows

Almost chromium or wild white rose. When I

Call him in at last, he glimmers away for one

More turn in watery dusklight, then freewheels

Slowly toward the garage dark, dismounts, lays

His bike aside. Grounded, he trudges through

Ankle-deep grass, talking in low tone

To his friends, who know their own time is

Almost come and cycle on, flickering

The way I’ve seen seagulls flicker, who call out

To one another as they wheel round the infinite

High reaches off the evening sky.”

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Tour Guide

The Tour still has its lighter moments. Phil Liggett during this morning’s stage:

“This is the most beautiful area of France here.

It’s the home of the lavendar and the scent.

And of course it’s very agricultural as well. ”

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Hell of a Race

We got up Wednesday morning with the rest of the cycling fans and Tour de France geeks — we noble, perplexed few — to watch what everyone knew would be the climax of the 2007 race: a fantastically difficult climbing stage in the Pyrenees during which Michael Rasmussen, the Dane wearing the yellow jersey of the overall race leader, would try to fend off a last spate of attacks from the handful of riders who still had a chance to beat him. And putting aside my feelings about Rasmussen, a racer with no charisma who was riding under a cloud of suspicion because he had missed several random doping tests, there’s no other way to describe his day: He rode a hell of a stage.

On the slopes of the day’s final climb, he was left alone to contend with his three closest rivals, Alberto Contador (Spanish) and Levi Leipheimer (a Yank), both of the U.S.-based Discovery Channel team, and Cadel Evans, an Australian riding for Belgium’s Predictor-Lotto squad. The battle came down to Rasmussen, who rides for Rabobank of The Netherlands, and the two Discovery riders as Evans just struggled to hang on. Contador and Leipheimer didn’t spare their foe. They repeatedly tried to break him by charging off the front of the tiny group and challenging him to follow. But time after time, Rasmussen slowly caught them and waited out the next attack. Finally, with 1,000 uphill meters to go, he stood up and accelerated himself and easily outdistanced his opponents. He won the stage and increased his lead. He was a lock to be this year’s Tour champion, and he looked like he’s won it the hard way, by facing down his strongest rivals and outperforming them when it counted.

And then something happened — something not entirely unforeseen in a race and sport that is making a habit of throwing out its top performers over actual or suspected illegal doping: Rasmussen’s team fired him and withdrew him from the race over the issue of the missed tests; he not only failed to tell team and testing officials where he’d be in the month before the Tour, he lied about his actual whereabouts.

There’s no exact parallel I can think of in U.S. sports, though pro basketball and pro football are getting close with their aggressive discipline against lawbreakers and on-court/on-field miscreants. But in the Tour, it’s not just individuals players who are taking the fall. To date,, two full teams have pulled out of the race because individual members have reportedly tested positive for doping. In a few hours, Rasmussen’s team might become the third to quit. Imagine the New York Yankees folding their entire season because it was discovered Jason Giambi and friends had been juicing, and you come close to the enormity of what’s happening.

So what now? This year’s race might remain interesting as a freak show, though maybe the remaining 19 teams and 140-some riders might rise above what’s happened and put on a serious performance for the four remaining stages. But whatever happens between now and Sunday, this Tour is a race without a champion, and a race like that is hardly a contest at all.

Lots more to be said: about how much of what’s happening now is driven by hysteria and overreaction, about whether the notion of due process should be thrown entirely out the window, and about whether the international sports drug cops are really up to the job of keeping games and contests clean in an evenhanded, just, disinterested way.

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‘Only an Idiot’

From “Lance Armstrong’s War,” by Daniel Coyle (p. 109):

“Doping wasn’t illegal in the early days, and cyclists experimented freely with strychine, cocaine, ether and, after World War II, with amphetamines, which had been mass-produced to keep soldiers and pilots awake. … On French television after he retired, Tour champion Fausto Coppii said all riders took drugs, and anyone who claimed differently knew nothing of the sport. The interviewer asked if Coppi had used them. ‘Yes, when it was necessary,’ he replied. And when was it necessary? ‘Almost always.’

‘Jacques Anquetil, who won the Tour five times, was frank on the subject. On a bet, Anquetil once rode the Grand Prix de Forli time trial without amphetamines, just to see what would happen. He won, but rode more slowly and suffered greatly. ‘Never again,’ Anquetil swore as he got off the bike. He later said, ‘Only an idiot thinks that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants.’

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One Clean Rider

This morning, a friend sent me a link to a column in Sunday’s New York Times that compared the physical demand of the Tour de France on cyclists with the stresses that elite marathon runners endure. Which is tougher? There’s no way to tell, the article suggests, because the events are fundamentally different in what they demand of the body; the lone certainty is that both events require extraordinary athletic talent and training. I noted that the picture that accompanied the Times piece was of Alexander Vinokourov, the Kazakh cyclist; you couldn’t see his face, but he was identifiable from his team “kit” — its uniform — and rider number in this year’s Tour — 191.

A little while later, another friend emailed me with a news flash he’d just seen: Vinokourov was out of the Tour, along with the rest of his team, after he had tested positive for receiving an illegal blood transfusion.

Vinokourov has been in the news a lot this Tour: A favorite at the start of the race, he was injured in a crash early on and persevered through severe pain. Last Saturday, he won an individual time trial, which suddenly put him close to the contenders again (as the stage winner, he was required to take the blood test that reportedly turned up evidence of cheating). On Sunday, he suffered a total collapse during a very hard day of racing in the Pyrenees and finished a calamitous half an hour behind the leaders. On Monday, he came back, winning another tough Pyrenees stage (the spectacle of a rout followed immediately by triumph was reminiscent of Floyd Landis’s unprecedented defeat and resurgence in back-to-back stages last year; soon after, a blood test suggested Landis had been doping, too).

Vinokourov was — the past tense is all you can use — no ordinary cyclist. Beyond the talent necessary to make him competitive with the world’s best, he had a frightening willingness to attack at any moment, no matter the apparent odds of success or physical cost to himself. He finished third in the Tour in 2003; his ferocity stage after stage kept the eventual winner, Lance Armstrong, on the defensive most of the race. Another rider, David Millar, reportedly wept when he heard today’s news about Vinokourov and called him “one of the most beautiful riders in the peloton.”

Millar’s got a special perspective. A spectacularly talented rider himself, he won the world time-trial championship before police caught him with EPO, a substance that enhances the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Millar never had a positive doping test in his entire career, but confessed he had used the banned drug after he was confronted with the evidence. He was banned from racing for two years and came back for last year’s Tour; he is now one of the loudest voices against doping in cycling, but he was crushed today.

Velonews reported his reaction:

David Millar was the first rider to react to the news: “Jesus Christ – there you go, that’s my quote,’ he blurted out. ‘What timing, huh? This is just fucking great. … It makes me very sad. Vino is one of my favorite riders. He’s one of the most beautiful riders in the peloton. If a guy of his stature and class has done that, we all might as well pack our bags and go home right now. ‘

“…Millar broke down into tears when he was asked by British journalist Jeremy Whittle if he was all right, saying, ‘I just feel like crying right now.’ ”

After the news broke, the Tour de France organizers held a press conference. They decried the doping, of course. But they said that the race will go on to its conclusion in Paris next Sunday no matter what. Otherwise, the dopers would win. It’s a nice line, but a little hollow. During the same session with reporters, the Tour people also said the current yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen, would not have been allowed to race had they known of his recent violation of dope-testing rules (he failed to apprise anti-doping officials of his whereabouts and missed several random tests).

The problem the Tour and all of bicycle racing has — and it’s one that extends to other sports, too — is that it’s no longer possible to believe the competitors are clean. (Well, with one exception: Seeing what David Millar has gone through in his career, he’s one guy I’d bet is riding the Tour clean. I wouldn’t put my money on anyone else, though.) It’s hard to really engage with what looks like a stirring athletic performance if you’re wondering in the back of your mind whether the fix is in. Too bad — though I’ll still be watching the race tomorrow.

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Nose of a Champion

Key moment from today’s Tour de France stage, as described by Versus announcer Phil Liggett, MBE:

“A bit of a runny nose for the yellow jersey.

Or was it sweat?

But he hasn’t put a wheel wrong yet today.

And I’m sure that he’s going to try to hurt these boys on the climb.”

The yellow jersey, Michael “Cow’s Blood” Rasmussen, did hurt all but one of the boys on the climb. Discovery Channel’s Alberto Contador easily won a short sprint-ette to cross the line ahead of the Dane. But Rasmussen and Contador had long before left the rest of the contenders struggling up the mountain behind them, so Rasmussen’s second-place finish was a huge victory.

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The Running of the Bikes

No big crashes in the Tour’s twelfth stage today, which, if you’re keeping score at home, ended with a sprint finish taken by the points leader, Tom Boonen of Belgium.

No wipeouts: apparently that’s exactly the opposite of what Versus, the network televising the Tour in the United States, wants to see. That’s because Versus, in an effort to position itself as the premier purveyor of knucklehead blood sports, is promoting bicycle racing as part of its package of violent, dangerous, jackass programming. The Versus ad campaign is “Red White Black and Blue Summer” (trailer here), and lumps in bicycling along with cage fighting (scary tattooed guys beating the tar out of each other) and bull riding (nothing crushes your spleen like a half-ton of angry beef on the hoof). Oddly, some versions of the Versus promotion also include yacht racing as one of its “pain is good” offerings. Just to make it clear that Versus is advertising cycling as a NASCAR-like crash fest, its daily Tour coverage now offers a daily recap of the top five crashes in this year’s race.

On a couple levels, “Red White Black and Blue” is dumb and disturbing. Dumb because no matter how you dress it up, and now matter how many big bike pileups you get on camera, you’re not going to suck in the same audience that’s turned on by the intimate orgy of violence exhibited in cage fighting or the stomping mayhem seen in the bull-riding arena. Just not going to do it. There’s no doubt that a crash in a bicycle race can be electrifying; but to really be excited and alarmed by it, you have to be one of the bike geeks who finds it fascinating to watch Men in Lycra for hours and hours on end. Most bike crashes happen fast and with little drama and the cameras are hardly ever in the right place to get a close-up view of the action unfolding. The crashes that are replayed and replayed again and again are the exceptions.

So that’s the dumb part. The disturbing part: What’s going on with us that so much entertainment, especially for younger guys, centers on such stupid and unrestrained violence; that so much of this entertainment tries to find an audience by selling the promise of seeing someone carted off to the intensive care unit?

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Big Continent

Today’s Tour de France stage, the 11th, was a relatively flat, windy one with a sprint finish. The final kilometer included several sharp bends — especially considering the predictable fact the sprinters would be winding up for their charge to the line — and naturally there was a crash. One of those who fell after rounding a curve and veering into the left-hand crowd barrier was Freddie Rodriguez, an accomplished Colombian racer who lives right here in the East Bay rider. He might also be known as Falling Freddie, because he seems to have a penchant for hitting the pavement hard.

So there was a crash, and one of the riders swept out of contention for the stage win was Tom Boonen, the leader of the Tour’s sprint points competition. Among those still upright and rolling fast was Robbie Hunter, a South African and leader of the Team Barloworld, sponsored by a Johannesburg-based industrial conglomerate. Hunter, who just missed taking the fourth stage, launched early and captured a relatively easy win. The victory inspired Versus television’s Phil Liggett (MBE) to note the historic dimensions of the occasion:

“A South African becomes the first African from that big continent to win a stage of the Tour de France.”

Which, among other things, made me think about the continents that have not produced stage winners: Asia and Antarctica. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing an Asian rider in the race (if the Chinese get interested, watch out). And Antarctic natives such as krill and penguins have not yet been admitted to the pro cycling ranks.

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