Monday, 30 July 2012

Transalp 2012 - Day 1, Oberammergau to Imst

Getting to races that start in the south of Germany. It's always all about the super-efficient Bavarian train system, which can get you from Munich airport to seemingly anywhere, as long as you don't mind two changes (bit of a faff with a bike bag) and 2hrs of very nice scenery out of the window. So it was to Oberammergau. Bikes built, and a first not-too-traumatic night in the Transalp camp, and Nick and I were ready for the first day. It was wet. This was an unpleasant surprise. I warned Nick that i may "accidentally" have ticked the box that said "UCI Elite" team, and that we may end up gridded somewhere towards the front as a result. I don't think either of us were quite ready for being called up individually, and by name to the 3rd row of the grid, however. The line of people we were going to get in the way of behind us seemed endless, and included multiple British champ Sally Bigham and her partner Milena Landtwing. Oh dear.

Thankfully, we had the calming influence of Mike Blewitt and Naomi Hansen (or as the organisers would have it, Hansen Naomi) riding for Mike's team before the build up to the Highway to Hell, a track that even now causes my resting HR to jump by 20bpm.The start was an extended road section that headed slightly uphill towards the start of the first offroad section for the race, the Plansee Trail. I got massively carried away with the "not getting in anyone's way", and ended up riding with the front group. Eventually, the sight of so many high-quality elite riders made me remember i shouldn't be there, and that i should also probably be looking out for my poor teamie who'd never experienced the frightening semi-organised chaos that passes for the start of a Euro marathon race.

I stopped for a pee, and to have a bite to eat, waited a bit and saw Mike and Nay come past. I made a mistake that i would make several more times through the week - i saw a guy in a red helmet, assumed it was Nick and got going again. A few km further on, guy in red helmet passed me on the road - Nick had grown quite a lot in the preceding 45mins! I stopped again, and this time waiting until i could definitely see the real Mr. Herlihy! We rode well together, eating up the miles and taking in the views. We reached the top of the Lermoos freeride trail, a steepish, slightly technical but short descent into the town that had apparently people problems in the TransGermany in 2011. I suggested to Nick that we should probably be in front before the descent so as not to form part of the rolling roadblock. It wasn't to be sadly, we just caught the next group on the way down instead!

There was only one significant climb on the whole day's route, the Marienbergjoch. It was a 800m vertical ascent, not too steep and quite tame in the context of the mountains that were waiting for us in the Dolomites. It also had the advantage for me of having been on the route 6 years ago, so i knew that even when slow and crap i could get over it (okay, slower and crapper). We were not ready for it! It was a brute, i was straight into the granny ring, and very soon at the top of the block. The top section was marked on the route profile as "push/carry" (schieben auf Deutsch), but i had confidently predicted that it would be an easy ride, really, it was just the organisers being over-cautious with their gradings for the first day. I kept riding, slower and slower, until it became clear that 3rpm was not the way to go, and got off. I joined the ranks of pushing people, looking across to see Nick looking a little shell shocked. Double oh dear, had this been a really bad idea after all?! We wobbled our way to the top, feeling a little bruised of spirit. The descent to the finish in Imst was a classic Transalp "kitty litter" affair and a good warm-up for things to come. We whizzed along the forest roads in a group of riders, stopping the clock at 4:44 for 82nd place on the stage, comfortably inside the top-100 we decided was a sensible aim in the men's category. I have to admit, the thought of another 7 days, most of them harder, had me more than a little scared!

Transalp 2012 - The routine

It's proving quite difficult to get started on even cataloging the whole 8 days of the TransAlp. It may just be the post-stage race depression talking, but there's just so much that has happened in that time, that it hardly seems possible to commit it to paper and give you a feel of what life is like in an MTB stage race across the alps. But i'll try. If you can't be arsed to read what follows, just imagine it's a fantasy camp where chubbier, less naturally talented people pretend they're Grand Tour riders for a week, and you won't be too far wide of the mark!

The general pattern of each day is pretty similar. You have got to be ready, and have finished digesting in time for the stage start, which is usually 9am. This means you probably set your alarm for 6am, perhaps 6:15 if you're feeling particularly knackered from the day before. Frankly, it's irrelevant, as some very perky northern European will get up at 5 anyway, and either (a) turn the lights on, (b) make an incredibly loud squeaking noise getting off their inflatable mattress (c) fart or (d) subject you, at close quarters, to them applying the first layer of chammy cream pre-breakfast. Welcome to the waking world.

First order of business is to wriggle out of your sleeping bag, pack up your kit, retrieve your phone from wherever it may be charging and head for breakfast. This is usually pretty close to camp, and generally plentiful. Eat. Keep eating. When you reach the uncomfortably full stage, head back for another bowl of muesli. In the words of my partner "It just becomes a matter of posting it in your face". When you're sure you're close to popping, head back to camp, join the unbelievably long line for toilets which will have only one of locks, loo roll and a working flush. You have to embrace the European way!

Finally, put on your kit, drop your bag off with the nice people who more all your crap from stage to stage, remembering to first pack your chammy cream in the bag (i once did a whole stage of the TransGermany with a pot of assos bum cream in my jersey pocket!), and head over to the start for gridding. If you're in the nosebleeds, like we were, the pens open at 8am. Be there at 7:45 if you want a first line spot. If you've got UCI points or are doing particularly well, you get to head up at 8:45. Ditch your bike in the pens, head for  coffee somewhere warm.

Be on the start line at 8:55, just in time for the warm up to "Highway to Hell". Start. Expect that if there's a road section to start with, it'll be carnage and you won't be disappointed. 1100 people all want to be as far forward as possible, and have very good brakes. Be ready for a big climb early on, as there often is, just to make you feel like you might get a second visit from your breakfast. Also be ready for the dash to the finish, the run in is often flat, and people really are racing for 300th place on the stage!

Good job. You made it to the next stage town. Now the housework marathon begins. Eat more, find your bags where you'll be resting your head tonight. Wash yourself first, then your kit, preferably in the same shower. Find a suitable wire fence to hang your kit from - it'll usually be dry by evening, even at 1900m, in July. Lay out your bed. Eat some more. Nap & read until the pasta party starts at 6pm. Try to find a sneaky plug socket to charge your phone/garmin. Curse the people who got there first. Give up.

Go to the pasta party. Meet up with fellow racers, recount the stories of the guy who went over the edge on a fire road trail and had to be hauled back up with a rope, or the girl who got pushed the whole way up a 1000m climb by her partner. Eat more. Get pasta-poisoning, where even the thought of Bolognese is enough to make your stomach do backflips. When your done eating, the entertainment begins - watch the day's winners crowned, see the photos of the day and the video of the day, and then suitably tired, head out for a recovery vino rosso!

When you get back in the evening, try to remember to bring your kit in (i somehow lost a sock in Livigno, although i'm used to sacrificing the odd one to the god of washing machines anyway...), put your stuff ready for the morning, wash out and refill your bottles, and hit the hay, ready for the 5am gas attack. Rinse, repeat. Wax on, wax off.

I've somehow made it sounds like a real trial by tedium doing a stage race, but nothing could be further from the truth. You get to ride some fantastic trails, in this case 620km, most of which i had never seen before through fabulous scenery. There are kind people to fill your bottles and ply you with food at the aid stations, others to take your bags from town to town, mechanics a-plenty, bike washes (free and done for you if you're lucky enough to be able to afford a Scott) and local kids to cheer you every turn through every village if the sun is out. Okay, the routine can be a bit tiresome, but there's something so fantastically indulgent about knowing that your aim is to go, ride, have fun, ride fast and that for those 8 days, nothing else comes close in significance. If you're on the fence about trying it, try it, you might just like it!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Why Armstrong Still Matters

It's an often repeated quotation from one of the legends of the sport, but i'm going to repeat it here because i think it summarises perfectly the points i am going to lay out.

"If Armstrong's clean, it's the greatest comeback. And if he's not, then it's the greatest fraud."

Reading people's reactions on Twitter today to the news that four of Armstrong's former team mates, all of whom are approaching the twilight of their respective careers, have accepted 6-month bans for their admitted doping during their time with him and will testify against him, it is clear that people just want this to go away now. The will to deal with a case so inextricably linked to the development of cycling as a mainstream sport during the late 1990s and early 2000s just isn't there. There are probably a multitude of factors behind this, but i would say there are two central problems:

1) People are bored. The rumours have been rumbling on for years about Armstrong, during his time as the dominant keeper of the maillot jaune, through his first retirement and on into his return to the professional peloton. As individuals in a community, we have all come to our own opinions about his guilt or innocence, and no longer feel the need for further evidence one way or the other. 

2) The industry as a whole is scared that the massive growth in cycling built on Armstrong's popularity throughout the world as a dominant champion will wane if one of these rumours is proven to be true, and he is sanctioned or stripped of one or several of his yellow jerseys.

The reasons why we should still care, in spite of these two problems are clear. Firstly, we should not be content with trial by public opinion, regardless of whether public opinion is divided or unanimous. Take Iban Mayo, for instance. He tested positive for EPO during the 2007 Tour de France. He requested, as is the athlete's right in these cases, that his B-sample also be tested. It was tested at a different lab (the AFLD lab in Chatenay-Malbry that had done the original analysis was on summer vacation), and declared negative according to testing standards. According to the WADA rulebook, he should at this point have been declared free of sanctions, but instead his already-opened B-sample was tested again, this time at the same lab as the A-sample, and declared positive, and he was handed a 2-year ban. In spite of the fact that he was widely accepted to be "dodgy" we should have been furious at the infringement of testing protocol; if we don't apply perfect standards to the testing of riders, how can we possibly expect them to behave with the same rigour and care themselves? Instead, we looked on and thought "oh good, another dubious customer removed from the upper echelons of the pro peloton", and moved on to watching the 2007 Vuelta be won by Denis Menchov (oh the urge to comment further here...).

Secondly, when it comes to the current success of cycling as a recreation and competitive sport being built on a foundation of shady svengali doctors, and dubious medical supplements, i would say we should have more pride in our sport. There are people who came into the sport through the amazing success of the USPS team, and the excitement of the fact that a man who suffered from testicular cancer at a very early age in life managed to compete in one of the hardest sporting arenas in the world and win. They might not otherwise have come to ride a bike, it is true. But these people are already out there, riding their bikes, enjoying the countryside around where they live, and perhaps even competing with other likeminded individuals. To assume that they will stop doing these things tomorrow because the idol who inspired their first shaky steps into the sport is absurd. No offence to Lance, but cycling has so much more to offer than 3 weeks in July, "the look" and a blue and white conga line on every mountain stage.

So you might ask then why i want to see people taking this more seriously, after all, it all happened a long time ago. Well, the answer here is based on the sad truth of anti-doping science. The reality is that for the past 30 years, the testers have been consistently behind the riders, and if anything that gap is likely to grow in the future - there is not the political nor the financial will to fund testing to the degree where it will be able to compete with the investment from groups of athletes willing to break the rules to win (if you don't believe me, just think of the sums involved in the BALCO affair). In fact, history suggests that unscrupulous sports scientists charged with producing a tests for banned products may end up funnelling government funding they receive into doping of athletes (e.g. the Conconi affair). Since there will always be a lag between the testers and the athletes, the only real tool that anti-doping experts have in their armoury to level the playing field is time. We should abolish the 7-year statute of limitations, and allow retroactive testing of properly-stored samples for as long as it takes. If athletes know that they may be stripped of their wins 20 years after the fact should they do something illegal, they would doubtless be more circumspect about their actions. It sucks for the guys who are retroactively given awards and jerseys, like poor old Oscar Pereiro or Andy Schleck, but surely  as athletes realise that governing bodies are serious (and there has still been relatively little evidence of a will to pursue all dopers in cycling, regardless of their prominence) these cases will truly become a thing of the past.

Cycling in my view has yet to have its truth and reconciliation moment, a time when people come forward and speak the truth in an effort to put the past truly behind them and learn the lessons of history. We might just be on the brink of that moment. Let's hope we have the collective will to jump, rather than waiting to be pushed...