Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Problems with the Tour de France

As I was writing yesterday about Lance Armstrong, I found myself thinking about the Tour de France and its problems. I couldn't help but think there was a better way organize a race. I realize that, as an outsider, I have as much right to criticize the tour as I do the Catholic church. That said, it hasn't stopped me from telling the Pope what to do (not that he listens). Nor will it keep me from explaining a my ideas on this blog.

The best thing to do is start off with the problems apparent in the race. Many of the issues actually dovetail into one another. The issues with doping are the most notable. With so many top competitors using, it means that something inherent in the way races are run encourages that behavior. Part of the reason for this is that racers have been required to work harder as the years have gone by, but do less. Each cyclist is highly trained, but for just one thing. This makes the actual race fairly boring. Just because something is difficult doesn't make it interesting. This is also the only team sport in the world the crowns an individual winner. In a competition otherwise devoid of exciting action, this leads to a focus on the superstars. A team captain has to be faster than everyone else in the team, or he won't be captain. That pressure seems to push riders to do things they otherwise wouldn't, such as doping. That brings us full circle to the original problem.

There are ways to deal with those issues however. I have come up with a few ideas that should resolve the problems above. Admittedly, I don't have any evidence to support my claims. However, I do think races set up this way would be more interesting to watch. It would bring cycling much more in line with the normal sort of riding that people do every day across the world. I imagine these rules would also reduce the pressure to cheat.
  • Have the team race be a team race. Make the time for the team be  the time that it takes the first five members (of a nine member team) to cross the finish line. Any member who fails to finish a day would be out for the rest of the Tour. That would force teams to select members who are good at various sorts of riding, both flat and mountain stages. Since more than half of a team's members would have to finish quickly, managing the abilities and energy level of the team would be important. 
  • Have the individual race be an individual race. This isn't a contradiction of the previous statement. It is a proposal for a second race just for individuals. Maybe start two hours later, or the next day? These unsupported riders would only compete against other unsupported riders. While we are adding races, why not a couple for the ladies as well? Seeing women racing around France must be at least as fun as seeing men do the same.
  • Eliminate all team cars. The only vehicles on the course should be those there to film and an ambulance or two in case of injury. Any bike race that requires you to use a car is a joke. That would mean the riders would have no spare parts or repair man. They would also not have a manager guiding them along. The teams, and especially the captains, would have to step up and keep themselves on pace, hydrated, fed and in good repair during the day.
  • Each racer can only use one bike for the whole race. Okay, they could change out a worn chain or tires between days. The frame and other components would have to stay, however. This would force riders to make compromises in their bikes that make it the best velocipede for various types of terrain and conditions.
  • Teams (or individuals) must make their own repairs while racing. Flat tire? Carry a few patches or a spare tube. Again this would force the riders to make exciting choices. Like giving your good wheel to a stronger team member with a bent rim.
  • Finally, the penalty for being caught doping should be a ban for the team and all members. Maybe for just the one race, maybe it is for several years. That would put the pressure on teammates to ensure that they all stay clean.
I think these rules would change the Tour into something worth watching again. Each team would have to work together to win. They would have to use their individual strengths and overcome their weaknesses. The team captain wouldn't have to be the best rider, but the most respected leader. Intelligence and management would be important again. The riders may try to specialize in mountains or flats, but they would still have to know how to fix their own equipment. Even the equipment would be much more like regular cyclists ride because it would have to be reliable and good in many different conditions. Better yet, the drama would be back. Riders might have to choose to give their bike a stronger rider, like Rene Vietto did. Or cobble together a broken bike as Eugene Christophe had to. I know that change is scary, but for professional cycling it is time. A few simple changes would revolutionize and revitalize the sport. It would make the Tour de France the epic challenge that it should be.


Monday, August 27, 2012

Lance Armstrong and Doping

Last week Lance Armstrong gave up his fight against the USADA. He said he would no longer fight, or even respond to the charges. Many people have claimed that this is a sad day for cycling. It has divided many people over drug use in the sport. Curiously missing from the announcement was any denial of using performance enhancing drugs. The closest he comes is the statement: 
I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999. 
Not once does he say that the claims are untrue.

True or not, I think he was right in saying there was no unfair advantage. For the seven tours that Lance won, all but two of the top five riders in all of those have been involved in doping in some way. If one thing is clear, it is that doping is something you do to compete in this sport. It isn't something you can blame one person for.

Taking performance enhancing drugs is part of the structure of the races themselves. The way things work, this type of abuse is encouraged. Not openly, but because there is so little "edge" it is becomes necessary to dope if anyone else is. Peeing in a cup doesn't fix the problem either. It just means an arms race between tests and drugs used to mask results. The real issue is that the incentives to use are too great. Not using drugs is worse than the risk of getting caught. That makes doping a systemic problem in the sport of road cycling.

The only sad thing I see is that this would have been a great opportunity for the Lance Armstrong to actually be the hero people look at him to be. Not to fight the charges, but to admit to them. To show the world the hidden side of professional cycling. If he had the courage to overcome cancer, I would hope he has the courage to be honest about the choices he made. This might have had a greater impact on it than even winning seven Tours.


Friday, August 17, 2012

Why I ride

Date: August 16th, 2012
Song of the Day: Holiday in Spain, Counting Crows

If you ever want to know why I ride, this video should sum it up pretty well.

The day was beautiful and the night was even better. Riding with other people in costume. I am the one riding off in the sombrero. How many of you can say you have ridden a bike off a ramp, off a pier, into a lake?

Cycling doesn't have to be about how fast you go, or how quickly you get there. I admit, I do like going fast. I like pushing myself. The problem is people get so serious and uptight about it. Sometimes it is all about what you are doing and who you do it with. The only thing serious here was the fun.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On Running Red Lights

There is an article in the New York Times where the author admits to running red lights on his bicycle. He also explains something the biking world has known for some time. It is what I call the Cyclist's Dictum. That is, a cyclist may treat a traffic signal one level lower than that for a car. So a red light becomes a yellow light. A stop sign becomes a yield sign. The article in question mentions some quasi-philosophy to justify it. I have my own ideas on the matter. These ideas aren't based on philosophy, but more on practical thinking.

First off, let me say that I run red lights every day. I also go through stop signs without stopping completely. In fact, I violate the letter of the law most any time I ride. This doesn't make me unique, most cyclists I see act in a similar fashion. Nor does it make me a menace. My riding is not a danger to others. If I am doing it right, keeps me safe as well. For starters, when I go through a light, I make damn sure no one is coming. This is because my life is at stake when I make the decision. My incentive is to keep me safe above all else. Beyond that, I tend to go through red lights or stop signs slowly. Usually less than 10mph. This gives me lots of time to stop in case of something unexpected. In other words, violating the law doesn't make you or me less safe.

Second, everybody who drives breaks the law. Cars run red lights. They don't stop at stop signs. They speed. They change lanes without signaling. They cross the yellow lines to pass. I know this because I see it each day. You may be a great driver. You may not violate the law much, but there is no such thing as a perfect driver. The next time you drive try and count how many violations of the law you make. How often were you speeding? How often did you cross the yellow lines? How many yellow lights did you go through where you could have stopped? How many stop signs did you just slow down for? I don't want you to be arrested for these actions. I would just like you to be aware of how you drive. Having bikers and drivers each thinking the other is acting illegally is stupid. The truth is nobody gets it right. It is too easy to blame the "other" for things that everyone does.

My third point is that drivers want cyclists to go through red lights. No driver will ever say this, but nobody actually wants cyclists to follow the rules. I have never once been thanked for waiting at a red light with the other cars. On the other hand I can't count the times that I have been honked at for not getting out of the way when the light turns green. Drivers may be jealous that a bicycle is much more nimble in traffic, but trust me nobody wants the traffic mess that comes from cyclists actually obeying the letter of the law. I would wager that for any city the average amount of cyclists who commute to work in a day could grind rush hour to a halt. All while being completely "legal". That doesn't happen because the cyclists who ride every day are generally courteous to drivers. When there is enough space, I move over to let cars pass. When there isn't I generally pick a lane and ride in the middle so you can see me. I signal when changing lanes. I stay off the sidewalks. Not stopping for red lights means that I can save some speed and not keep drivers waiting. I agree, this isn't legal, but it is practical. Everybody wins.

Forth, this logic goes the other way as well. I want drivers to be illegal if it makes me safer. I watch cars every day drive over the yellow lines when passing me as I grind up Avalon. That doesn't make it any more legal than running a red light, but if it puts a few more feet between your car and me I am all for it. I would rather have a driver thinking about my safety (or their insurance rates) rather than what is strictly legal.

My fifth and final point is that if we all break the law and we all prefer doing it that way, then what is the fuss about? There is this perception of cyclists as reckless scofflaws. We are, but in no greater a degree than cars. Part of this comes from the prejudice that cyclists are something else. Again, this is true. People on bikes are not cars and not pedestrians. Cyclists are a third thing. The truth is cyclists break the law no less and no more than cars. It just happens in a different way. That doesn't make bikes more or less safe than cars. It is just what makes our type of transportation practical and efficient. These violations are just as integral to bike riding as passing slower vehicles is to driving. Without it, the system stops working. So until drivers stop passing cyclists illegally, I will continue to run red lights.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dead Baby Downhill 16

Date: Aug. 3rd, 2012
Song of the Day: The Bicycle Song - Red Hot Chili Peppers

In case you missed it, the Dead Baby Downhill was this weekend. It is a crazy ride followed by an outstanding party.

I spent the previous night running around with .83. We rode out to Seward Park and set up a giant slip-n-slide. Even more bizarrely the guys set up an inflatable pool with jello wrestling jello. (It claimed it was non-toxic, non-edible, and only for the purposes of jello wrestling. I love that this is a product you can buy in this country.) I got home late, bruised, and still somehow dotted with blobs of green jello. I often rate my nights highly for doing something I didn't expect to when I woke up. This was a good night.

It didn't matter how tired or sore I was this morning though, I wasn't going to miss the DBDH. The ride was from the top of Queen Anne over to Georgetown. The organizers had asked people not to ride down counterbalance, the steepest section of Queen Anne Ave. Mostly this was out of concern for a couple hundred cyclists slamming into cars at the bottom. I put myself in what I thought was the back of the pack. I figured this way I could casually ride through the pack and look at everyone on the strange contraptions they were riding on. I even brought my camera to film it.

Turns out I was wrong. Just before the race I saw the six guys in front of me were all looking my direction. One of them said "You are facing the wrong way. We are going to run you down." So I turned around, and just a bit later the race started. I set off at a slow pace and someone screamed at me "You are going too slow." Now I am not a very competitive person, but occasionally it happens. This got me going. I began racing across the top of Queen Anne. Then it was down counterbalance. I don't think the cars at the bottom knew what was going on, and fortunately decided not to move a about 100 crazy people on bikes flew by.

Then it was down 1st Ave and across Denny. I took 2nd Ave through downtown, but a lot of other seem to have taken 1st. I think the lights are better timed there. By the domes, 2nd turns into 4th. I passed a group of people and thought I left them behind until I heard my friend Colin say "Don't look now, but you are pulling the whole group." I didn't realize it at the time, but I had about 8 people drafting off me. From there I really put the pedal down hard. I wasn't going to make it easy for people to keep up. By the time we hit the bridge over the tracks I was pooped. Colin passed me and I drafted off him until we got to the finish. I was later thanked by a girl for pulling her and a friend along. They were the first two women to cross the finish line. All of that from a guy who didn't want to go that fast. Whoops.

I had a blast at the whole party afterwards. They had a couple of stages of music. Some pedal powered carnival rides. I finally got to see some tall-bike jousting. Although my friend Scott busted up his knee in the finals. (Heal up quickly!)

I met up with some friends a bit later. We ended up getting Chinese food along 4th Ave at 2:00 in the morning. I was impressed to see the line of red bike lights riding back into the city. Boy, what a night.